In the Shadow of the Gods

From The Wall Street Journal:

The talent that creates an empire is often in conflict with the skills that preserve it. The “recklessly heroic style” of Alexander the Great, Dominic Lieven notes in his new book, was a political dead end. Even in durable empires, a tension remains between the emperor, whose authority is supreme and superhuman, and the empire, in which power is managed by bureaucrats, soldiers, viceroys and local elites. Empires are founded by war and personal charisma, but they are sustained by paperwork and compromise.

Mr. Lieven, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, compares the Chinese emperor who bore the Mandate of Heaven to the helmsman of “a great modern family firm.” Most heirs and emperors are not up to the job, but the system sustains them regardless. The emperor is always a “captive of his officials.” Valentinian I of Rome, who seems to have found this arrangement frustrating, kept Goldflake and Innocence, “two savage and underfed man-eating bears, outside his bedroom as a warning to his entourage.”

In the Shadow of the Gods” is an instructive epic, deficient only in that the author does not pursue his subject to the present day. Mr. Lieven defines emperors as “hereditary holders of supreme authority,” ruling disparate populations over long distances. They are usually male, notwithstanding Catherine the Great of Russia, Victoria of Great Britain, and Cixi, the dowager empress of China. The modern age, Mr. Lieven argues, is a “radically new era” in which hereditary and sacred monarchy are “no longer viable.”

Imperial authority always was symbolic as well as actual. From his invention, the emperor was, if not divine, then the next best thing, tricked out in the ancient robes of “sacred monarchy.” The first emperor was Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BCE), a Near Eastern priest-king who found his city-state too small and conquered modern Iraq and Syria. As Elizabeth II, the daughter of the last emperor of India, heads the Church of England, so Sargon’s daughter became high-priestess of the moon god in the temple at Ur.

One of the things the Romans did for us was to define empire. Under the Roman republic, an imperator was a victorious general, and later one of two consuls. The empire began in 27 BCE under Augustus, the victor of Rome’s civil wars. A “ruthless and skilful politician,” Augustus mollified the senatorial aristocracy with a small share of his power and a “much greater helping of top jobs and patronage.” He learned from his uncle Julius Caesar’s mistakes, refusing to be “officially proclaimed a living god” in Rome, and calling himself primus inter pares, “first among equals.” But he accepted the divine status bestowed by local elites in his eastern empire. The geography of empire always includes a gulf of hypocrisy between the metropolis and the provinces.

The western Roman Empire lasted five centuries and became the template for the modern European empires. Its eastern, Byzantine heir endured for another millennium, until Constantinople fell in 1453. Yet Rome’s emperors, Mr. Lieven suggests, struggled at the basic task of succession. When Diocletian (284-305 CE) upgraded the emperor from first citizen to divine autocrat, living up to the image “put an extra strain” on an emperor. Add the intriguing of the Praetorian Guard, and the Romans got through 53 emperors in 311 years: not much different to the election cycles of the American republic, with their “never-ending” factional struggles. The Sassanids of Persia, founded in 224 CE, had 30 emperors in three centuries, and the British have had only a dozen monarchs since 1707. No wonder that the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius, the most personal testimony left by a Roman emperor, advises Stoic endurance.

Russia’s Romanovs lasted three centuries, the Habsburgs nearly a millennium in various forms, but the Chinese are the long-distance champions: their first imperial dynasty, the Qin, was founded in 221 BCE. The unification of China under the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) led to “great economic advances and a superb flowering of Chinese literary and artistic high culture.” The second Tang emperor, Taizong, was “beyond question one of history’s greatest emperors,” combining military and administrative skills with a “flair for the dramatic, flamboyant gesture.” Like Marcus Aurelius, he bequeathed advice to his heirs.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal