Who was the best Roman? @higginsmark
Naturally, this is a much more complicated question than it seems. How are we defining ‘best’ for a start? Most famous? Most revered? Most influential? Or my favourite? So I’ve decided to break this into categories: the person the Romans thought epitomised Roman-ness the best; the person I think was the most brilliant Roman.(1) It’s basically a super niche awards ceremony. With only two awards. And they’re both the award for Best Roman. Let’s begin!
Best Roman One: The Most Roman Roman.
Aeneas, Aeneas. Trojan prince, son of Venus, rescuer of fathers, loser of wives, abandoner of Carthaginian queens, founder of Lavinium and star of his own epic poem. That overachiever. And on top of all that, he got to epitomise everything the Romans thought was good about themselves. Aeneas was a Trojan hero in The Iliad, who escaped the sack of Troy with his father on his back and his household gods in his pocket (his wife gets lost in the smoke and dies, but that’s ok because she would have held him back). Then he travels about, knobs Dido, leaves Dido, nips to the underworld, does some dueling over a lady and founds Lavinium in Italy. And each of these deeds underpins an aspect of Roman identity. Convenient! So, his descent from Venus makes the Romans the descendants of Gods, and his Trojan identity gives the Romans an ancient heritage which is very important to them. Newness and innovation are not cultural ideas that the Romans are into.
In his saving of his father, carrying the old man on his shoulder away from burning Troy, and bringing the Lares and Penates (household gods) he embodies the concept of pietas. Pietas is a virtue which is CRAZY important to Roman self definition. Cicero (super helpfully) defined it as “the virtue which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations.”(2) Aeneas is the walking personification of this virtue from the earliest presentation of his story. Aeneas also upsets the Carthaginians by banging the queen and breaking her heart, causing her to cast a curse of perpetual enmity between Carthage and Rome. Therefore, Aeneas’s actions explain the Punic Wars, which were long, painful and scarring for the Romans. And finally, he founded Lavinium, from where Romulus and Remus came, thus is a father of Rome.
Aeneas is a centre of Roman self identity and idealised Roman-ness from around the 3rdC BC. But, to make this all the more convenient, Julius Caesar also claimed him as an ancestor and therefore got to claim, loudly and frequently, to be a descendent of Venus.(3) Which meant that Augustus got to claim him as an ancestor, which is very, very useful to him. And when Virgil produces the Aeneid, it fits so perfectly into Augustus’s construction of himself and his Rome – and is such a gorgeous piece of literature – (4) that it cements Aeneas as the first true Roman and most Roman of Romans for the rest of time.
Best Roman Two: Most Brilliant Roman
I talked a bit about Augustus before, and I will talk about him again because the man was frankly amazing. It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that there was barely an aspect of public life where Augustus didn’t excel to an awe inspiring degree.(5) In fact, if you’re over 19 and feeling a bit bad about yourself today, maybe don’t keep reading. Now dear Augustus, nee Octavian, leads a fairly unexciting life until he is 19. He lives with his grandmother, Julia Caesaris (this is what I’m saying about the Romans not being very innovative), until she dies, pootled about for a while until he crosses some enemy territory in Gaul, blows JC’s mind in the process and gets made Caesar’s primary heir. And shortly after that, JC gets accidentally brutally stabbed to death by all his friends, Octavian inherits lots of money and a dangerous name and all is well for Octy. Now a normal 19 year would perhaps mourn their beloved great-uncle, take the cash and maybe spend some time frolicking in one of their nice new houses hoping not be the next to fall onto 23 knives, but not Octavian. Octavian sees an opportunity.
Octavian travels to see JC’s troops, thieves some money from the state and starts building himself a loyal personal army, at 19. Which is obviously nuts. Especially as Romans have no respect for youth and energy. At the same time, he starts schmoozing senators and worthies at Rome, both the Caeserites and the anti-Caesars (6) because that’s how good at diplomacy Octy was – he managed to get JC acknowledged as a God AND befriend the men who had murdered JC. Except Brutus of course, who he sicked his army on. And won. And then having won, he marched into the senate, aged 20, and told them he was consul now. So, 20 years younger than the legal age, he took the highest office in the empire with an army at his back and a successful foreign campaign (*cough civil war cough*) under his belt. And if any of that had occurred to any of you as a viable option after the death of JC, I’m scared of you.
Once settled, he set up what is called the Second Triumvirate, splitting the empire in three between himself, Marc Antony and dude no-one remembers called Lepidus and to seal that deal executed up to 300 Roman senators and 2,000 equestrians (7) in a series of proscriptions against “traitors” but which also conveniently meant that the triumvirs got a huge amount of money from the proscribed’s estates. Which was quite spectacularly brutal and cold blooded way of funding your own personal bid for power. It make JC crossing the Rubicon look measured.
Having done all this, Octy sets himself up in Rome, and starts a campaign of diplomacy and propaganda against Antony, who has control of the east and is living in Egypt, so subtle and beautiful and effective that we still believe it unhesitatingly today. Octavian was such an extraordinary strategist and PR guy that he makes Don Draper look like an embarrassing rube in a stupid suit. Charles Saachi would cut off his own arm to have a thousandth of the skill that Octavian deployed to swiftly and effectively turn Antony from beloved son of Rome, general and statesman to wicked Eastern king who must be crushed in battle. Then he deploys his trusty sidekick, and genius military commander in his own right, Agrippa to squish them. And squish them he does.
Now, in just a decade or so, Octavian has raised an army at 19, insisted on ratifying an illegal adoption, taken over command of several Roman legions, led several civil wars across the empire, defied the will of the senate repeatedly, illegally taken the highest available office twenty years too early, carved up the empire openly and illegally between his allies, murdered innumerable Roman citizens for their money, broken into the temple of Vesta to undermine Antony (an appalling act of impiety), stolen the pregnant wife of a leading senator, (8) consolidated all the power of the Roman state and empire into his hands, and basically been a talented, single minded, terrifying upstart war-lord. And now he’s won, at 32 he has no-one left to fight. But this is Octavian, and he’s awe-inspiring and he;s been planning for this so he keeps promoting the idea that he is a man of peace (!) and conciliation and benevolence and sweetness and lollipops. And he succeeds. The teenage warlord becomes the elder statesmen (at 32), he’s given so many honours he can barely remember them. The senate love him so much they make up two new titles for him to emphasise how great he is: Princeps meaning first citizen, and Augustus meaning the illustrious, or most pious one. And in this way Octavian bested Julius Caesar by getting as close to being deified while still alive as it’s possible to get in Rome.
And this is how Octy stayed, as Augustus, leader of Rome and first emperor, until he died naturally in his bed in his 80s. The man who changed the world, invented the Principate, controlled the empire with an iron fist, while gently whispering to everyone that it was ok, they were in charge, he was just the kindly grandfather pottering about with his honours not doing anything. Augustus is the teenage warlord who crushed everyone using every tool he could, being brilliant at all of it, and then convinced everyone he was a teddybear. Augustus is the best Roman.
(1) I will do another post later about Romans I think are the most entertaining, and therefore best. This was originally included here, but I got over excited talking about Augustus and had no more room for my beloved Publius Clodius Pulcher.
(2) De inventione 2.22.66 This is the kind of incredibly useful thing that Romans loved to do because they were constantly trying to define what Roman-ness was and what the virtues which defined Roman-ness really were. This is because, for all our belief that the Roman world was some kind of static unchanging culturally hegemonic empire, it was actually in perpetual flux and therefore “Roman-ness” needed to be constantly reaffirmed.
(3) The Julian family claimed connection to Aeneas through his son, Ascanius aka Julus aaka Ascanius Julius. See where they’re going…
(4) Not the story, which is honestly a bit tedious. It’s very tedious. And I’ve yet to find a translation that allows me to enjoy it in English. But the construction of the Latin, the poetry and the beauty of the language are almost supernaturally perfect.
(5) He left a fair amount to be desired in his fathering though. I don’t think any of his natural or adopted children would buy him a Number 1 Dad t-shirt.
(6) They called themselves the optimates which basically means the best men, because they were the worst kind of boring bastards. Imagine calling yourself the best men.
(7) A sort of upper middle class. Today would be businessmen’s kids who go to Harrow, while the senate would the old money guys who become prime minister. Basically the senate: David Cameron; Equestrians: Alan Sugar’s kids.
(8) Livia. It is said that she went with him willingly, having fallen for each other at a party, and certainly they stayed together til he died. Because apparently Augustus was great with ladies too.