Emperor of Rome

From The Wall Street Journal:

In June of the year 68, the emperor Nero, on learning that the Roman Senate had declared him a public enemy, plunged a dagger into his throat (with the loyal assistance of his private secretary). A generation later, the emperor Domitian was hacked to death by a handful of palace aides in what was a rather messy job. A century on, Commodus was strangled in the bath by his personal trainer (Plan B for the conspirators, following a botched poisoning). In 235, in a more conventional military coup staged on the Rhine frontier, the emperor Severus Alexander was cut down (“clinging to his mother,” according to a contemporary historian) by soldiers ready for a change of boss.

Assassination was the main occupational hazard of ruling the Roman Empire: More than a dozen Roman rulers met violent ends between Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. and Severus Alexander. What makes the above list notable is that each of these deaths also spelled the end of a family’s tenure in power. Roman imperial dynasties were evanescent, too.

“The corridors of power” in ancient Rome “were always bloodstained,” observes Mary Beard in the opening pages of “Emperor of Rome,” her study of the emperors who ruled antiquity’s most famous empire. The rotating door to the empire’s halls of power forms a contrast with the durability of the imperium as a political formation.

Ms. Beard, a retired professor of classics at Cambridge, has become the most visible face of classics worldwide. On this side of the pond, she is a public intellectual. On the other side, she is that and more: a celebrity. Her gifts for putting serious scholarship into accessible terms, for bringing a critical eye to the study of classics without being a scold (while still making the study of the ancient world seem entertaining) has translated well to TV and a spate of books admired by specialists and the wider public alike.

“Emperor of Rome” is billed as a sequel to her blockbuster, “SPQR,” which also treated the Roman Empire in its later chapters. Unlike its predecessor, “Emperor of Rome” has no chronological narrative. It looks at the rulers of Rome through the prism of 10 separate themes, from “power dining” to imperial travel, as Ms. Beard returns to subjects she has treated throughout her career (imperial portraiture, Roman triumphs, deification). Each of the themes offers a vivid way to re-examine what we know, and don’t, about life at the top.

For all its detail and diverse interests, the book’s unifying argument might be that it is very hard to grasp the truth of what the emperors were actually like. Instead, we have a tissue of propaganda and gossip, sycophancy and slander. “The image of Roman emperors that has come down to us,” Ms. Beard writes, “is a complicated and multilayered construction: a glorious combination of hard historical evidence, spin, political invention and reinvention, fantasies of power, and the projection of Roman (and some modern) anxieties.”

As Ms. Beard points out, despite the proliferation of the emperor’s image that began in the reign of Augustus (died A.D. 14), it is hard to know what the emperors even looked like. Domitian, for instance, had a “pot belly, thin legs, and hardly any hair,” Ms. Beard writes. His baldness was a touchy issue, and he wrote a manual on hair care. None of this is reflected in the generously coiffed busts that survive. The deeper point is that image should not be mistaken for reality.

The reputation of a Roman emperor depended inordinately on whether the next emperor needed his predecessor to have been remembered as “good” or “bad.” An emperor was judged by how he balanced the delicate, ambiguous expectations laid upon those who wielded absolute power. He was to be generous but not profligate, sympathetic but not soft. His comportment at table, in the circus, even in bed was a reflection of the anxieties and fantasies of the ruling class. In his role as commander in chief, the emperor’s obligations were clearer: to win in battle and to share in the toughness of the common soldier.

In other words, the emperors of Rome were the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, tightly constricted by the protocols that governed the proper exercise of authority. The emperors were never outright monarchs—as they were at pains to emphasize, distancing themselves emphatically from titles that implied kingship. They continued to share power with the Senate and the army; in fact, their power depended on how well they could orchestrate these institutions. The emperors, descendants of the warring oligarchs of the late republic, inherited a militaristic culture and a sprawling empire stretched tautly to its limits. They governed all this with a skeleton crew of administrators, many of them enslaved or free members of their household staffs, often via letters that moved at the speed of horse.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)