My Life, In Romans

The thing that I know most about in this world is Romans. I love the Romans with the kind of fiery passion that most people reserve for their children, pets and members of One Direction. I started studying Romans by chance, because my Sixth Form College offered trips to Greece and Italy as part of the A-Level course and that seemed like fun (it was), and in the first couple of weeks was introduced to Suetonius, Bob Guccione’s Caligula and the first Triumvirate and I was falling. By the time we went to Italy six months into my A-Levels I had fallen so hard for the Roman world that I could never be saved. Twice since then I have tried to stop studying my beloved Romans. I tried to do a psychology degree, and lasted a mere 8 weeks before I quit to return to Augustus’s sweet embrace. At the end of my BA, I tried to be a librarian. I hadn’t even started the MA course before I realised that I needed the Romans more than libraries would ever need me and did a Masters in Late Antiquity instead.

The Romans have everything I like about humans and the world. They are brutally ruthless, to an extent most people can’t believe; they have an ambition and belief in their own greatness which is awe-inspiring; they have an inventiveness and verve and fizzing, continual activity throughout the empire that – to me – gives them a level of humanity that is exciting and hilarious and frightening. They are nothing like us and everything like us. They complained about the young people, and wrote novels about men becoming donkeys. They crucified dogs and buried men and women alive. They wrote poetry and philosophy and terrible plays. They accused their leaders of everything from incest to forgery to the premeditated murder of houseflys (trufax). They conquered the world in the first century and, in so many ways, they still rule it today. I named my fish after the First Triumvirate (they died in reverse order). I have a cat named after Augustus’s wife. I visit the bust of Augustus in the British Museum as often as possible, sometimes weekly, just for a chat. I like them, is what I’m saying.

Now, I’ve completed a PhD on the end of the Roman empire, written a bunch of articles, given more than enough conference papers, bored anyone who’ll stop to listen to tears talking about my research, read thousands of books and articles, am writing two books and have consumed every piece of Roman themed media I can get my tiny little hands on and I can’t stop. So, I thought, one day at my desk (bed), why not turn this into entertainment. I get a lot of odd questions when people find out that I am a Roman historian and I answer them as best I can while tipsy or eating or on OKCupid. But here, I can do that with references! And who doesn’t love references, right? So bring me your questions, your queries, your huddled misconceptions and I shall apply my years of education and angry devotion to answering them. It won’t be funny, but it will be fun. Fill in the box below to send me your questions. 

News

Two week things to shout about. First, I have set up a week newsletter about Roman finds, and facts and anecdotes and things that cross my path to do with the Romans. You can sign up here http://tinyletter.com/Agrippinilla

Second, for those who haven’t been badgered yet, I am crowdfunding my first book about Agrippina the younger at Unbound.co.uk/books/Agrippina. The book will be great (I think) and the more people who share and pledge, the better!

Why did Roman emperors get assassinated so often?

Today’s question comes from Katherine McDonald, who is a scary smart historical sociolinguist and Greek classicist and blogger herself, and I strongly recommend that you all follow her. And she asks a very good question, because Roman emperors spent an awful lot of time getting killed. Just thinking of the first 12 of them, Caligula, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Domitian are all assassinated or driven to suicide by a coup. That’s a 50% death by violence rate at the START. And that’s before we even make it to the third century crisis, where emperors’ reigns are so short that they managed to get through 26 of them in 50 years, a period which included the laughably named “Caran Dynasty”, which lasted 3 emperors and a full 4 years (and one of them was struck by lightning).

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In this regard, the Romans were extremely weird. I had never really considered how weird they were – having been immersed in Roman history for the past 17 years I’ve lost all perspective on them – until Katherine sent me this excellent lecture by Stanford historian and very smart quantitative man Walter Schreidel which gives a statistical analysis of how the Roman monarchy compares to 31 global dynasties across human history in terms of reign and dynastic lengths and death by violence (which Schreidel pleasingly terms “premature termination”). Now this lecture is really very good, but it’s also 45 mins long and quite methodologically dense and I am aware that most people don’t find academic lectures to be the super-great-fun-time that I do, because they have lives. So I will summarise for you.

 

How weird are the Romans anyway?

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This chart was floating around a bit last year, produced by a redditor and it summarises fairly neatly how good Roman emperors were at getting themselves a bit stabbed or beheaded. But how do they compare to the rest of the world?

 

In short, the Romans are unique. According to Schreidel’s analysis, the Romans are entirely unique in their wildly unstable monarchy. His analysis is pretty dense and he includes a lot of figures, but the most important are as follows: First, the average reign length for the best bits of the Roman Empire (Augustus to Theodosius) was 7 years. That’s half as long as the global average and a third as long as the non-Roman European average. That’s rubbish.

 

Secondly, the longest Roman dynasty is the first, the Julio-Claudians who run for about 100 years from Augustus to Nero and last about 4 generations. Which doesn’t sound bad. Except the global average dynasty length is 300 years and 10 generations. In addition, two are brutally murdered and one is possibly killed by his wife. For five emperors, that is poor. But for the Romans, that is about as good as it gets. If at any stage in Roman history you can get three emperors in a row who don’t get murdered, that’s a winning streak. The absolute record is six in a row from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius and that’s because all those emperors adopted their successor. As soon as Marcus A let his biological son get in on the ruling act, we got Commodus who actually ruled for 15 years but is mainly remembered for being a berk and getting killed.

 

So the Romans ARE odd in terms of how unstable and violent their monarchy was. Which brings us then to Katherine’s question…Why was being Roman emperor so damn dangerous?

Shreidel offers only very brief answers to this question in his lecture – his business is what not why – so this is 90% me from here on in. I’m going to expand on his answers and offer you two good reasons why the the Romans were so stabby.

 

Reason One: The Emperors are Warlords

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There is basically no time in Roman history when the emperor wasn’t in the army, backed by the army, or the winner of a civil war. The best way that an emperor could maintain a good long reign and and be remembered well was to keep the army busy conquering things and violently subjugate a someone.

 

This starts at the very beginning. Julius Caesar and Pompey get to face each other down because they both conquered so much. Augustus gets to be consul at 19 and the father of the country etc because he has JC’s army behind him and then he violently, militarily crushes everyone else and captured Egypt. Claudius conquers Britain, Vespasian and Titus conquer Jerusalem, Trajan conquers basically everything he has ever heard of or can see. After that, virtually every single emperor that lasts is a successful general who leads his regional troops against Rome. Even dear darling Marcus Aurelius, of the Meditations and the Gladiator hagiography and the philosopher-king beard, led a brutal war against Parthia and another against the Germans that was memorialised on his own column in Rome with scenes of slaughter, domination and war. Truly, tip top gory stuff.

 

If we look at the first assassination we can see this very clearly. Caligula is murdered along with all his family and the senate attempt to reinstate the republic. But Claudius is backed by the Praetorian Guard and by extension the armies. And Claudius threatens his way to the throne in the same way that Augustus threatened his way to the consulship. All winks and nudges and hints of a sword.

 

For all our terribly high-minded ideals of the Romans, and our Western, super-racist perceptions that warlords are a thing of African post-colonial states and World of Warcraft (seriously, googling for a picture for this bit was a racist horrorshow, which is why I went with Immortan Joe), that’s exactly what the majority of Roman emperors were. They were a military backed dictatorship from the very beginning that did its damn best to present as a peaceful dynasty a of divinely chosen family. Augustus does everything he can to turn his family into something superhuman. He emphasises again and again their descent from Venus. He has his adopted dad deified and worshiped. He gets himself called Augustus which is basically “most holy one”. He encourages the imperial cult. He gets Virgil to write the Aeneid to really hammer home the special chosen one descended from gods and Trojans idea. And it does not work. It impressively fails to protect them because no matter what he does…

 

Reason Two: Being Emperor is Just a Job

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For all the effort that Augustus pours into trying to differentiate his family from all the other families, it just never sticks. In part I think that this is to do with his own bad luck at not having a son or a surviving grandson that he can coat in semi-divinity through the Julian bloodline. Instead he gets stuck with Tiberius who comes from the Claudian bloodline and can only just about be aligned to Augustus’s goals. Also Tiberius doesn’t come across as the most demi-god-like bloke. He’s the kind of guy that might make you question your faith if someone told you he was divine. And on top of that, Augustus put very little effort into divinely legitimising him, possibly because he hated him and possibly because it was a waste of time. So, already by his second move Augustus’s ambitions for his dynasty were scuppered.

 

The other reason is that the hatred of kings was so deeply embedded in Roman cultural DNA that they basically refused to admit that they had one for 1500 years of having one. They let emperors call themselves Imperator, Augustus, Caesar – literally anything that eventually came to mean king – except the actual word king (rex). They let both JC and Augustus be half-divine, but the second JC looked at a crown that hinted rex, they stabbed him 46 times. Not having kings was their cultural USP and they were not planning on letting that change just because they happened to have kings. No siree bob.

 

And that means that the job of emperor is never allowed to take on a cultural meaning that is more than just the biggest job in the empire. It’s a job that comes with the coolest palaces, the hottest slaves and the best parties but it is still, no matter what, just a job that can be done by anyone. While Chinese and Japanese emperors, Egyptian pharaohs, Incan emperors and basically everyone else got to be living gods, and even English kings until pretty recently got the Divine Right, Roman emperors were always just dudes with swords who were willing to do the paperwork. The imperial cult involved sacrifice to the emperor, but at no point did the idea that emperors were literally divine or special in any way take off. And if the emperor is just a dude, then his job is open to anyone.

 

Once you have a desirable job, and no one thinks that you’re particularly special for having that job, then anyone can have a go at taking it from you. Especially if they have the exact same qualification and number of legions as you do. And that’s exactly how we end up with the third century crisis, where every general in every part of the empire thinks he have have a bash at being emperor. The third century crisis, at the most base level, is the year of the four emperor that follows Nero’s death writ large.

 

So there you have it. The Romans are unique in so many ways. Because they’re violent and nasty and love war more than anything, and because they refuse to accept that you have to be special to rule an empire. But at least so many of them have the kind of personal ambition and go-getting style that a Donald Trump would find admirable: to face down the current emperor and take his place.

David Cameron, A Pig and The Romans

This comes from my blog over on my book site. Head there to pledge for my book.

 

This is me doing clickbait titles. And by using a slightly out of date reference that people will only just remember I’m maintaining the tradition that ancient historians are always a little behind everyone else when it comes to modern events.If David Cameron Fucked A Pig is too 2015 for you, Ted Cruz Is The Zodiac Killer fits this too. Now most people won’t read past probably this bit (so my friends who know about how people read on the internet tell me) so maybe I should answer the question that I know you’re all asking now: what does David Cameron shagging a pig have to do with writing about Romans? Or maybe I should leave it to the end, so you keep reading. I’m not sure. I don’t know about these things. I just know about Romans.

 

The relationship between these two things – the Prime Minister of the UK putting his dick in the mouth of a dead pig and the entire civilisation of the Roman empire – is the importance of rumour and anecdote, and how they make life both really hard and really fun for historians like me.

 

Here’s the thing with the David Cameron Fucked a Pig story: we all know it’s not true. I was awake and on Twitter when the story broke in the middle of the night  and the hysteria flowed through and the left-leaning journos and artists I follow (all brilliant, marvellous, smart, nuanced people) all fell about joking, laughing, retweeting, spreading the story that was too funny, too perfect. It encapsulated everything that educated lefties like me hate about Cameron: it had the exclusive university dining club setting, a dining club where they had a pig’s head – like Henry the Eighth! – the image of the braying, drunk mob of red faced posh boys, the peer pressure, the notion that Cameron will do ANYTHING for power, a literal penis going into a dead pig, and the almost too perfect intertextuality of David Cameron both looking quite a lot like a ham, and that this exact thing was the basis of an episode of a TV show a few years back. David Cameron Fucking A Pig epitomised why a significant subset of people just really hate David Cameron. So we wrote about it, laughed about it, spread it. But we all know it didn’t technically happen.

 

People are smart, they know the story is at absolute best a wild exaggeration of a drunk boy putting a flaccid dick in a pig’s mouth. At best. Most likely it was a half truth woven by a man who we know actively hates Cameron for denying him a job and who sold the story to the highest paying, lowest common denominator tabloid to publicise the book he wrote about Cameron. We KNOW this. We don’t believe that David Cameron fucked a pig. But still, there’s a PigGate wikipedia page, it was in all the papers, it was in Time magazine, the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was forced to publicly deny that he had ever fucked a pig. It’s part of Cameron’s reputation, his legacy, even though it’s just a silly story no one believes. In 1000 years, it’s just possible that this is a thing people know about him. Brexit, phone hacking, and the pig fucking.

 

Which brings me to writing history, and especially history concerning the Julio-Claudian family. Because so much of what we have about Julio-Claudian emperors is stories just like this – stories about sex, about private habits, about things happening on islands that no-one ever visited, behind closed doors and even – when you’re Suetonius – inside emperor’s heads. Take this classic line about Caligula for example, probably one of the best known “facts” about poor old Gaius:

 

“…it is also said that he planned to make Incitatus [his horse] consul.”

 

This is written by Suetonius, about 80 years after Caligula dies and he’s pretty clear that the level of chat we’re talking about is the level that David Cameron Fucked A Pig fits into: a rumour, a story, something no one really believes but everyone thinks is funny because it fits what they think about Caligula: he’s a deranged, uncontrolled lunatic who likes his horse way too much and has no respect for the institution of the senate. But another 50 years after that, 130 years after Caligula had a favourite horse, we get this from Cassius Dio:

 

“he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.”

 

Certainly? Certainly would he? The rumour, the “it is said” has become fact. And by the time you get to now, it’s in Rotten Romans book with FACT! written next to it.

 

That’s an extreme example of course. But it’s indicative. So much of what’s known about Agrippina and her family, her world, everything that happened comes from rumour and is bracketed by “reliable sources say”, “it is said”, “historians report” or a personal favourite “the lecherous passion he felt for his mother was notorious.” But these stories are always GREAT. They’re always dramatic or sex filled or just plain WEIRD. They’re always the best ones to tell, which is how they survive. Except. Except there’s two levels of difficulty with that for a historian trying to write about these people: these are always the best, most entertaining stories, but what obligation do I have to any kind of truth?

 

This is a question that bothers me, and bothers lots of people. I’m a trained historian, trained not to make statements I can’t substantiate and to avoid using the past for my own ends. But is my job to peel back layers of rumour and story and lies and find out what’s underneath, only to see that there is nothing, or is it to pick through those rumours to find kernels that I can – for whatever reason of my own – decide are “The Truth”, or is it to report those rumours and leave you to make your own decisions? What criteria do I use to decide which stories are anecdotes and which stories are “true” and which are “rumour”? I mean some are seemingly obvious, like the Caligula horse one. Others are, in context, obviously bollocks too, like basically any accusation of incest because incest was a bizarrely common accusation in the 1stC and there are numerous examples of people making accusations in order to take out their enemies. So either the Romans were constantly fucking their siblings, or it’s a strange cultural quirk of the period to accuse your enemies of fucking their siblings. But others. Others are hard, and there are just so many of them. Just Suetonius’s Life of Claudius is 11,500 words of mainly weird anecdote, and Agrippina weaves through 5 emperor’s lives, always in the background, always obscured by layers of misogyny, genre tropes, narratives and different, unknown sources. Picking these layers apart, and then working out what is left, is a challenge. Because I don’t want to tell people that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer or David Cameron Fucked A Pig, I want to be able to tell you the reader these stories and what they mean.

 

One of my favourite books of recent years is Laurent Binet’s HHhH, a part fictional, part historical, part memoir account of the assassination of Heinrich Himmler. As much of the book is about Binet’s research, decision making, thought processes and worries when writing his novel. Several pages for example deal with the colour of Himmler’s car and its representation in a number of sources, a car that Binet has both seen and touched. HHhH is incredibly personal (and brilliant, you should read it) but the thing I like most about it is how honest Binet is with his readers about the fudges, the guesses, the assumptions that make up telling history. I’m not writing a novel, I don’t have access to the sources that Binet has (the absolute luxury modern historians have and still they complain), but I still have to make decisions about what to believe and what not to, about hows and whys and wheres. And make this entertaining and not an unbearably tedious academic book which picks apart anecdotes until they just shrivel to boring, boring dust. It’s a careful tightrope to walk, the line between credulous – or knowing – reporting of the ridiculous, and the dissection of it into something meaningless.

 

I guess the point of this is that all history is lies, based on lies told at the exact second events were happening. History is all interpretation and word choice, it’s the difference between “David Cameron Fucked A Pig” and “a hostile source leaked a one sentence description of teenage David Cameron putting a private part of his anatomy into a dead pig’s mouth” and“people would like to believe that David Cameron fucked a pig because it just fits.” And some are lies which tell more truth, and tell it more entertainingly that an honest truth can. And isn’t that what makes history fun.

 

Did the Romans do fundamental math too, & if so, what kind?

This question comes from a philosopher (@PhiLoThough) and a physicist (@ThePhysicsMill). People interested in The Big Questions. Questions about the nature of reality itself. About the universe. About fundamentals. They think about gravitational waves and universal truths and everything in between. And both are (I assume, which I shouldn’t do but it fits where I’m going with this so I hope I’m broadly right) part of massive international academic systems, based on centuries old ideas of curiosity, inquiry, scientific philosophies and the unending desire of man to understand his world. And so, they wonder how the Romans thought about their questions and – perhaps – wondered why there are no Roman Pythagorases or Euclids or Archimedeses (there’s a word that was never meant to be a plural). Because there aren’t. You never learnt a formula in GSCE maths that was named after a Roman, or memorised a rule that was named in classical Latin. And why is that?

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If the Romans had made the Matrix

The short answer to this is very simple. They did no maths that wasn’t basically adding up, and literally did not care one bit beyond that. Indeed, a mathematician once said that if you read world history through contributions to maths, you’d not know that the Romans existed. And it’s true. The Romans had a staggering lack of interest in the fundamentals of mathematics, or of the universe or really of anything. The Romans were so poor at maths – and this is also the reason that we now use an Arabic number system and a Latin alphabet – that they didn’t have a zero. The mathematical concept of zero literally never occurred to them. No use for it. Admittedly the concept of 0 is bloody complicated. I’m certainly not touching it because – as I learnt from dating 2 theoretical physicists – maths scares me and makes me want to lie down under a blanket with a glass of wine and possibly cry a bit. But still, I’m just one woman with self diagnosed dyscalculia (like all the cool kids); an entire civilization and they didn’t even bother with it? That’s poor Romans. Poor.

Which answers that question doesn’t it. NOPE NO MATHS. Next. But there are two interesting things in that short answer. 1. Given that the Greeks were really good at fundamental maths, why were the later, superior (don’t @ me) Romans so bad at it? And 2. If they were so bad at maths, how were they so good at engineering?

So let’s deal with these shall we. Take up some of your afternoon.

Question 1. Given that the Greeks were really good at fundamental maths, why were the later, superior (seriously, don’t @ me), Romans so bad at it?

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The most complicated rule in Roman maths.

The Romans were bad at maths because they absolutely didn’t care about it. The Romans were a staggeringly practical people. Just astonishingly uninterested in Big Questions. As far as the Romans were concerned, there was absolutely no need to question things because God did it. Or more specifically, innumerable gods did it. Infinite numbers of big and little gods and spirits. If gods couldn’t be immediately ascribed something, then it was probably magic.

This is something that is vastly underestimated now about the Romans, now we’ve reconceptualised them as either sex crazed, syphilis ridden knobbers or white toga’d British men with neat hair, paragons (*cough*) of the Glorious Empire (*cough*). In our imaginations, they’re still basically like us, by which I mean academics of western history. They’re white, they’re middle class and they’re pretty secular. They’re completely wrong. The Romans were religious and superstitious as fuck. To a weird degree. You know that woman your mum knows who wears a lot of purple and reads books about crystal healing and says she has an angel on shoulder and that some places have bad energy? She’d be considered to be borderline atheist by the Romans. Religion – by which I mean a true faith in the existence of supernatural, immortal beings, spirits, and powers who interacted with the physical world – permeated every facet of Roman life whether we acknowledge it or not.

Pliny the Elder wrote the greatest scientific work of the entirety of Roman civilisation: the Natural History – considered science simply because it’s got no ACTUAL gods in it(1). It Does however contain 12 entire books on plants and trees, one on magic, one on how great painting is, and chapters titled things like“Remarkable Circumstances Connected with the Menstrual Discharge,” Instances of Striking Resemblance,” and “The Most Chaste Maidens”, and not one mention of numbers.(2) The Roman concept of science was pretty damn different to ours is what I’m saying, and included painting. And grammar. And cool anecdotes that predominantly come from mythology. But if you don’t straight up say God Did It then it’s science. As far as the Romans were concerned everything was already explained. Gods. Or magic. Or both. Probably both. The Roman view of the world is basically the same as that of Battlestar Galactica.  And why bother asking any more questions than that! The Romans mostly thought that the Greek preoccupation with such things that seemed to have no practical application was more than a bit suspect and probably bad for you.

 

Which brings us to question 2:

If they were so bad at maths, how were they so good at engineering?

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The Pantheon outside

For all their embarrassing rubbishness at fundamental maths, Romans were spectacularly good at engineering and this is what I think is very cool and interesting about them. Without ever having the concept of 0 or any access to any maths higher than arithmetic, Roman civilisation invented spectacular feats of civil and military engineering, including aqueducts, dams, watermills, massive paved roads, hydraulic mining, and all kinds of mad shit for killing large amounts of foreigners as quickly as possible. In addition to this, they managed to work out some pretty impressive physics, basically inventing the freestanding arch and dome. The dome of the Pantheon in Rome, first built by Agrippa and rebuilt by Hadrian, is a staggering feat of architecture and engineering. It is a PERFECT 43.3m sphere made out of concrete. In order to reduce the load so it stayed up, the concrete gets progressively lighter as it rises, and hidden chambers throughout the dome support it. The Pantheon impresses civil engineers and physicists today as a work of brilliant engineering. But they did it without mathematically working out anything at all. Because fuck it, this is practical stuff, we can bludgeon our way through.

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And just think of how COOL and impressive aqueducts are. Water is drawn out of a source – possibly many miles away – and run through miles of stone using gravity alone, supplied to homes through piping, then run back out again, put through a sewage system and dumped into a different body of water. The gradient were carefully worked out so that the flow of water didn’t overwhelm the aqueduct and to keep the speed slow and steady. All done with finger arithmetic and a dodgy looking spirit level. Could you do that? I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that if you gave me a youtube tutorial and a scientific calculator. And not just because I’m afraid of all the buttons on scientific calculators.

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Engineering is the kind of problem solving the Romans liked. Theory and abstract concepts and intangible things were fancy-pants things that only rubbishers got involved in. Engineering a way to move water or make something cool or fire flaming balls of stone at a disobedient city was failing to recognise how much better it would be for them to be ruled by the Romans was the kind of thing REAL MEN did. In a way, Romans are like the people who write tabloid headlines that say BOFFINS or a deeply stereotypical “working man” who doesn’t see the point of university, deeply distrusts the concept of education or theory but by god can he put up a shelf. Basically, they’re a certain type of reddit commenter who thinks that certain types of education are just a waste of everyone’s time.  Not painting though, that’s important.

So the Romans broadly ignored the underlying principles that allowed them to build arches and calibrate aqueducts and fling big flaming stones and small flaming clay thingys really far, they just worked out how to do them with knowledge of tools and materials and spaces and assumed it was magic if something confusing happened.

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

  1. The other that is often mentioned is Lucretius’s Poem On the Nature of Things  because it seems to have physics in it. Lucretius is an Epicurean and his aim was thus to demonstrate that the gods had no impact on human life or natural events (in contradiction with deterministic philosophies like Stoicism which denied free will). He does not argue against the existence of deities, merely that they don’t impact humanity on the observable world. He is a naturalist and his science is broadly at the level of a 6 year old or an internet fan of Richard Dawkins.
  2. These are most of books 12-27, excluding the 5 about remedies; book 35; book 30. The chapters are 7.13; 7.10 and 7.35. It’s worth noting the Pliny himself was very sceptical of magic and astrology and considered it hokum, but the fact that he felt the need to include a discussion of it – and the striking similarities between the magic and medicine described – show how very pervasive it was amongst the Romans. The menstruation chapter is a great read for the ladies including insights about womb moles and the effects that menstruation have on women:

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Who Was the First Emperor?

Today’s question comes from Conor in Belfast, who is too shy to be on Twitter but likes to ask a lot of questions about the Romans anyway. Just follows me about asking questions. I’ve had to let him move in so he stops sitting outside my door. He asked this question because he knows that I have a willfully annoying, pedantic personal answer to it and because it lets me talk about two of my absolute favourite Romans. And Julius Caesar.

 

So let’s crack on. Who WAS the first Roman emperor? And why is this even a difficult question. I suspect that half of you have immediately scoffed at the premise and said Augustus, some have said Julius Caesar, some have got no idea at all and a few have seen that I’ve got someone else on this page already and are baffled. Which is good. That means you’ll read on. But the first issue that needs to be addressed is why is this even a question. It’s because the concept of the principate is considerably more complicated that perhaps you think. For a long time, there is not really such a thing as the throne as a singular thing that is inherited, because the principate isn’t one thing like a royal throne, it’s an enormous and complex collection of honours, topped by two invented specifically for Augustus, that set the holder of them all above everyone else. The honours themselves are not special, it is the simultaneous holding of them all that makes the emperor the emperor. This is where the term principate originates from, from the idea that the emperor is not REALLY a despotic tyrant with total autocratic power, but is in fact just agreed by everyone to be the Best and Most Trusted Senator. Principate derives from princeps senatus first used by Augustus, which broadly translates to first senator. Which is clearly hilarious, because there was no point in Imperial history that an emperor didn’t have a massive army at his back. But ho hum. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s consider our options.

 

Julius Caesar

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Good old JC. Arrogant and pompous, incapable of writing about himself in the first person (like a berk), wearer of loose belts and red boots. JC is occasionally called the first emperor, partly out of misunderstanding and partly because Suetonius has him at the start of the Twelve Caesars. And in fairness, Caesar becomes a synonym for emperor so no one can be blamed for thinking that the one guy we still regularly call Caesar was an emperor. It’s yet another way that the Romans are unnecessarily complicated. But JC was never anything that could be considered an emperor in the Roman fashion. He was many thing, including perpetual dictator, and he was absolutely integral to the construction of the principate, but he was not himself an emperor.

 

The principate could not have existed without JC’s astonishing gall and arrogance, and his mistakes. JC constructed around himself massive amounts of military power, political power and (often overlooked) religious power. He set himself up as the descendent of a god (Venus), as an exceptional military genius and as a political powerhouse. It was his combination of these things that allowed him to eventually crush all his rivals for power, including poor old Pompey who was rather lacking in the terrifying, single-minded ruthlessness department. JC crossed the Rubicon and declared war on Rome which is a really quite astonishing thing to do. There’s no real modern day equivalent to this. Unless Prince Harry decided to attack Buckingham Palace with a load of his army mates. But this underlines both what was special and important about JC, but also what his massive problem was: a total lack of subtlety and tact. Marching into Rome with your army because the senate won’t do what you tell them (or because they’re threatening to prosecute you for all the illegal things you did) is a very unsubtle move. It screams that JC thought he was above the senate and above the law and a lot of people HATED that. Fairly reasonably.

JC exacerbated this anger and hostility after the whole “marching into Rome” thing had died down in two ways: firstly by giving himself a preposterous and dubiously legal title of Perpetual Dictator, a title that even Sulla (whose purge Caesar himself had fled from) hadn’t been daft enough to try.(1) Perpetual Dictator meant that JC had the power to do basically whatever he liked, and everyone openly knew it because it was his job title. It was, as I said, unsubtle. His second act of headdesk levels of tactlessness came with the infamous moment where Mark Anthony, in front of everyone at a religious festival, offered JC a crown. Again, this is an appalling and horrifying moment. the fact that the Romans revolted against kings and set up a republic was absolutely fundamental to their self image. The IDEA that JC could even be OFFERED a crown absolutely revolted the Roman people. And that’s what got him totally stabbed.

 

So Julius can’t be our first emperor, because any time he tried to exert a little imperial power, he did it awkwardly and got himself killed. He also wasn’t technically able to install a successor. Augustus had to take that for himself.

 

Augustus

Augustus_Caesar_(Civ5)

Augustus is a much better answer and it is definitely much easier to argue that Augustus was the first emperor. Augustus saw what his adoptive (posthumously)father did wrong and learnt from it. And he made sure that every drop of power he gained for himself was legal, had long precedent and was normal. Until Augustus took the name Augustus, every other office and power he held was technically granted by the senate (albeit sometimes with menaces) and he turned down a lot of powers that were allegedly offered to him, including perpetual dictator. That’s why he could say, with an apparently straight face, despite it being laughably and blatantly untrue that he “refused to accept any power offered me which was contrary to the traditions of our ancestors.” Notably, Augustus would deny vehemently and to his death that he was an emperor or that he was an autocrat of any kind. As far as Augustus was concerned, he had just HAPPENED to be the best Roman and everyone just kept INSISTING that he have all the power and doing whatever he said just because they RESPECTED him so much, and no don’t look at the army back there behind him, everything is fine and normal and the republic has been restored. And gosh does he put a lot of effort into reminding everyone that he’s not in charge unless they want him to be.

 

Augustus’s public autobiography is the centre of his reimagination of himself (which I’ve talked about with awe before) and he carved it on stone and bronze in two languages and put it on temples. Because you know, he was just an ordinary bloke. Doing things ordinary blokes do. It’s called the Res Gestae (broadly, Things Done) and is a cracking read if you enjoy spin.(2)

 

Now, a lot of the things that make Augustus the first emperor are the things he doesn’t quite say, in the Res Gestae, but the things he sort of implies. He collects a huge amount of honours, official positions and powers over a long period of time. He is consul, imperator, tribune, censor, pontifex maximus, oversees the morals of the Roman people, oversees the corn supply, holds a long list of priesthoods and religious offices. All this he admits. But more importantly, he starts handing out these powers to members of his family, like his wife. And anyone he thinks he could make his successor, so his right hand man, his grandsons, literally any male that is in the same room as him, and then right at the very bottom of that list, written in pencil and deeply grudgingly, Tiberius. It’s this process of picking a successor to his position as Princeps Senatus that sets him apart from any of his autocratic predecessors and marks his power out as different and as the beginning of an imperial family.

 

So Augustus was the first emperor in a lot of ways: he created role of the principate as something that – in name – was entirely constitutional and legal with the Republic, but at the same time was entirely new and concentrated power in his hands. Equally, he constructed his powers in such a way that they were something that could be – gradually – handed over to a successor. Augustus starts planning Tiberius’s (again, his absolute last choice as an heir) succession a full decade before he died so that Tiberius will have many of the necessary powers before Augustus dies. But, all this happens because Augustus has to constantly pretend that he was not an emperor or monarch of any kind. He pretends, as hard as it is possible for a man to pretend, that he is an equal citizen. And for that reason, I have a deliberately contentious argument for the REAL first emperor…

 

Caligula

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Now I can immediately feel at least five people wrinkle their foreheads and scoff, maybe because I’ve skipped Tiberius and maybe because they know of my near obsessive love for Caligula and think I’m grasping at straws to include him in literally everything I write regardless of appropriateness. Well I fi on your doubts, because I have good(ish) reasons for this.

 

My first reason is that Caligula is the first emperor who is given all his powers in one lump at the start of his reign. While Augustus and Tiberius had to work for years to gradually build up their stock of offices and powers so as not to tip anyone off that they were in charge, Caligula overnight goes from living on an island with no power, no access to the senate and nothing but a name to holding all the powers that Augustus held. For the first time, the Princeps stops being a name for someone who holds a lot of positions, but a position in its own right, that has its own powers. Caligula earns nothing, and does not get to be princeps by doing anything (even Tiberius was an exceptional general). He is just an heir, who inherits his throne because of his great-uncle.

 

My second reason is that Caligula is the first emperor who has absolutely no experience of the Republic or of working with the senate, and so he is the first emperor who ACTS like an emperor. Caligula was born in 12AD, two years before Augustus died, and grew up in a world that was already getting used to the idea of a monarchy in practice if not in name. Caligula only experienced a world where his family ruled the world and everyone bowed to them. By the time Caligula becomes princeps in AD37, the monarchical system had been going for over 60 years, the throne could be properly inherited without too many lies, and he saw no reason for pretense anymore.  

 

In addition, Caligula had no experience of the pretense that Augustus lived for 40 years and that Tiberius got so bored of that he ran away to an island. Caligula was kept as a legal minor until he was 19 and was given his toga virialis after he was called to Capri (more on that and Caligula in general here).He then spent years pottering about a tiny rocky island doing essentially nothing and definitely not being involved in the politics of Rome or the running of an empire. And he’s with Tibby, whose opinion of the senators is roughly the same as my opinion of the slug that hangs out in my living room when I’m asleep. So Caligula doesn’t even know how to do the pretense that he’s not an emperor. He’s never seen anyone do it. Which is why Caligula goes a bit overboard with the tyranny thing. Caligula has no time or patience for senatorial bullshit or letting them pretend that they still have any real power or really listening to them whinge on at all (with which I empathise. Just stuck in a room with 500 very rich dude banging on for hours. I’d have them all killed too).

 

So, Caligula is the first person to inherit all the imperial powers in one go, he’s the first person to have never experienced the world before the principate, and he’s the first to act like a proper emperor without any of the performance of a republic. This is what makes him, in a way, the first real emperor. It’s also what gets him killed, but hey. There’s always risks.

Footnotes

  1. Sulla was a precursor to JC and Augustus. He was a military man, fought in the East and then marched on Rome twice, terrorised everyone into letting him rule as a dictator, made a lot of constitutional changes and then – crucially – retired to a comfortable private life in the countryside, allegedly living a happy wee three-way with his wife and his boyfriend until his natural death in his own bed. Two further good facts about Sulla: his epitaph read “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full”. Which is #goals tbh. And he was kinda banging hot: 8051797

2. The Res Gestae is a very boring read if you think it’s honest and absolutely hilarious when you know what he’s referring to. Like when he says he restored liberty to the Republic. Or the bit where he claims that he was happily given the consulship at the age of 19 as if he hadn’t terrorised the senate into doing that. Also he had it carved on bronze and nailed to temples across the empire which is really quite BREATHTAKING as a move. You can read it in Latin, Greek or English here.

 

Julius Caesar

> Why is Julius Caesar better known to “us non Roman studies PhD people” than other emperors? – @Daveycam89

Right, first things first: Julius Caesar was not an emperor. I know this contradicts everything you were taught in school, and I know his name is LITERALLY Caesar and we’ve all been told that Caesar is Kaiser is Tsar is Czar and that means emperor all the time, but trust me on this one. Julius (or JC as I like to call him, because I’m fun) was at various times pontifex maximus, consul, proconsular provincial governor, general and dictator for life (and was impressively, relentlessly corrupt in all these roles) but never emperor in the Roman sense. Got that? Good. I’ll do a post on how to become, and what defines, an emperor (it’s more complicated than you think) and then you’ll all agree with me.

But JC is still the most famous of the Romans. From over 1000 years of history, counting from the founding of Rome by Romulus in 753BC to the fall of Rome as a significant power in 476AD(1), and all the consuls, emperors, generals, men and women and children who lived during that time are remembered only in the shadow of Julius Caesar. And @daveycam89 wants to know WHY. And my answer is, lots of reasons, complicated reasons. But here are the main ones:

  1. JC is the winner of a war fought during the one of the most significant periods of Roman history;(2)
  2. There are lots of helpful, detailed narrative sources about Julius Caesar;
  3. He wrote about himself, which was rare;
  4. His great – nephew and adopted son Octavian, later Augustus, made a big deal out of his relationship with JC in order to create the illusion of legitimacy for his own power.

1. Significant period

JC is alive from 100BC – 44BC. His active period is 69-44BC. During that time he, and a few others, destroyed Roman Democracy through a combination of astonishing corruption, deeply selfish civil wars (JC pretty much invaded Rome because he was scared of being prosecuted for crimes he had committed while Consul a decade earlier and had a lot of debt. Wuss), pigheadedness and ego. This period therefore has it ALL. It has sex (3), it has wars, it has intrigue, stabbings, beheading, incest, gayness, bitchiness and pithy one liners (‘the die is cast’), and on top of all that, it has widespread, tangible, lasting effects. What all these things mean is that contemporary and successive writers love to write about it when examining how they got from the idealised Republic to the state of total imperial control. Which is an issue they really really like to write about.

2. Lots of sources

Which brings us to the second point. Not only did later Romans (& Greeks) like to write about JC and the crew with awe, so did his contemporaries. Mostly because they were horrified by JC’s behaviour. Even more importantly, people wrote lots of nice narrative histories of Caesar’s time, with a chronology and specifics. This is a significant issue with a lot of the rest of Roman history: the only detailed sources we really have are biographies by men like Suetonius and Plutarch. And while these biographies are illuminating in a lot of ways, the Roman approach to biography was neither chronological or honest but “thematic”. This means that piecing together whether things happened, when they happened or in what order or why is difficult and sometimes impossible. But not for Caesar, partly because…

3. Caesar’s Writing

Caesar wrote about himself. In the third person, like the egotistical nut he was, but nonetheless. This means we know what Caesar did, why Caesar says he did it, how Caesar wanted to present himself and be remembered (as a badass general mainly), all of which gives us an intimate insight into Caesar’s personality and mind that we don’t have for any other leaders of the Roman empire. We know first hand his side of the story,(4) and that is – when we think about it – facemeltingly exciting for Roman historians. Certainly it was great for historians in the olden days, before postmodernism happened, when a large part of academic history was rewriting ancient sources in English and making some statements with an authoritative tone. But even more significantly for this question it is IRRESISTIBLE for popular historians, for the kind of authors you find on the non-fiction tables in Waterstone’s who write history like novels, and indeed for the novelists themselves. The first hand account of a vitally important war? Why, I can rewrite this in my own words and call it historically accurate and let it sell itself!

On top of JC’s own writing, there are an enormous number of contemporary poems, stories, histories, speeches, letters and plays by people like Cicero, Lucretius, Pliny the Elder, Catullus, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Sallust that give the first century BC a colour and life and detail that is sometimes missing from other periods of the Roman world. All of this adds up to make JC and the gang a very alluring prospect for writers, film makers and historians alike in the modern world.

So Caesar wrote himself to fame. But he also had help…

4. Use of Caesar by Augustus.

Mainly, his help came from his great-nephew Gaius Octavius, aka Octavian aka Gaius Julius Divi Filius Caesar Octavianus Augustus. Those of you who know a little Latin will spot the important bit here: Julius Divi Filius Caesar. Julius Son of God Caesar. This is central to Octavian’s rise from skinny 19 year old with sticky out ears to emperor of the world (along with a powerful ego, a relentless dedication to himself and a big army): he had Julius deified. Which, given that JC had been murdered by several state actors was pretty damn impressive for a kid. He also declared that he was JC’s adopted son (illegally as he was adopted posthumously in JC’s will), thus making himself a son of a God, and who can compete with the son of a God? May as well try to fight Aeneas himself. Damn Octavian was good. This use of Caesar’s dictatorial and military power as the legitimising mechanism for Octavian’s power, which then becomes Augustus’s Imperial power, places JC at the idealogical centre of Imperial power for the rest of the empire’s lifetime. In the 4th Century, when Diocletian decided to institute radical reforms by splitting the empire between two co-Emperors, each with a sub-emperor, the emperors were given the title Augustus, and the sub-emperors were titled Caesars. So, this bold (and, had it gone wrong, completely mad) decision by Octavian to use JC’s name so overtly in his bid for ultimate power is what makes Caesar the modern byword for imperial power in three languages and most modern fiction.

Footnotes

(1) The date is of course open to interpretation and there are at least three other dates which could be used (312, 410, 526AD). This marks the date that Odoacer, king of the Ostrogoths, quietly and politely stripped the Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus of his power and sent him out of Rome thus marking the official administrative end of the Roman empire in Rome.

(2)I know that Romanists are going to argue with me on this one and talk about Tarquin and the end of the kings (maybe mythical), and Late Antiquiarians are going to splutter about either Diocletian or Constantine and you’re both right, ok.

(3) Caesar and Cleopatra mainly, but Pompey also caused a scandal by falling too heavily in love with his wife, JC’s daughter and embarrassing himself. The Romans weren’t a particularly romantic people, ironically.

(4) We also know that he was killer tedious: all together now Latin students “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”