A poem from the Summer 2021 issue of Modern Age
Lessons of the Caesars
“The Roman Empire is like a mirror in which we see reflected the brutal, vulgar, powerful yet despairing image of our technological civilization,” wrote W. H. Auden in 1952. “What fascinates and terrifies us about the Roman Empire is not that it finally went smash but that . . . it managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth or hope.” Somehow, this stagnant regime managed to endure and prosper. Cornell historian Barry Strauss shows how, and hints at why. Even the “mad” emperors had a method: formally paper over regime changes and informally imbibe new customs, gods, and elites.
Critics of empire from Cato to Rousseau disparage the Romans for assimilating foreign mores, yet historians from Polybius to Plutarch note that Rome grew by emulation. “The Romans” became “masters of the world,” Montesquieu writes, because “having fought successfully against all peoples, they always gave up their own practices as soon as they found better ones.”
Continuing this republican tradition were ten Caesars of Strauss’s title, the pivotal figures of Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, and Trajan, as well as Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine. The Caesars knew, Strauss shows, that imperial success meant enlarging what it meant to be Roman. When Octavian, the future Augustus, defeated Mark Anthony in the dying days of the Republic, Strauss writes, “Apollo, the god of reason,” slew “Hercules, the symbol of might.” Rational empire had usurped rivalrous valor.
Modifying republican traditions was the price paid for easier ways of life. Augustus conserved institutions but altered their ends, refreshing outward forms with new matter. In time, lowly bureaucrats upstaged proud nobles, provincials became citizens, while new capitals and deities arose.
The Pax Romana, holding sway over millions, eventually reaching from today’s Britain to Iraq, needed maintenance. Tiberius supplied that. Hated, dull, yet effective, this tyrannical administrator secured the throne, debilitated patricians, and halted territorial expansion. As the empire settled for retrenchment, his efficient bureaucracy replaced turbulent republican politics. With borders preserved but not enlarged, traditional desires for glory in the hearts of now tamed citizens were sublimated.
Autocratic populist Nero tried entertaining this ennui away. Notorious for his cruelty, incontinence, and pride, he nonetheless built, patronized, and amused. But pomp and circumstance left opulent subjects unconsoled. Amid bacchanalian spectacles, Nero underrated the latent swagger in his subjects: revolts ended the reign of this last patrician Julio-Claudian ruler, who ended his own life. Elites hated, yet successors emulated, this fiendish showman.
After the “Year of the Four Emperors” in AD 69, Vespasian ascended to supreme power by unearthing, per Tacitus, “the secret of empire”: namely, that “an emperor can be made elsewhere than in Rome.” In Rome he steadied treasuries, disciplined armies, and sponsored construction of the Colosseum. A popular soldier improved by power, Vespasian showed that being Caesar took more than bloodlines. Meanwhile, Rome elevated provincials in growing numbers to greater ranks.
The empire’s Golden Age under the “five good emperors” began when Nerva adopted Trajan. This Spanish general became the first provincial emperor. With half his reign spent on campaigns, he conquered Dacia, then Parthia. The greatest Roman conqueror since Julius Caesar, Trajan maximized Rome’s geographical reach. Like Alexander the Great, he desired India, sighing: “I should certainly have crossed over to the Indi, too, if I were still young.” But India was a bridge too far, as was Parthia. Dacia proved to be the empire’s last major acquisition.
Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, was said to be “always in all things changeable,” by turns excellent prince, ridiculous sophist, or jealous tyrant. He saw a commonwealth where Trajan saw a superpower. He journeyed to acculturate territories, not expand them. This wanderer remade his empire without locality. Endlessly visiting army posts, he built three thousand miles of frontier fences, showing that Rome no longer wanted to, nor could, conquer.
Fragility and Refounding
So Romans ventured in philosophy. The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius held that Logos governs nature, so moral men may live as brothers. Yet he faced the drawbacks of cosmopolitanism in the forms of frontier wars, plague spread by trade, foreign invasion, as well as internal dissension and revolt. Imperial fragilities called for stoicism.
Safe emperors and firm frontiers, likewise, called for ready, loyal, and foreign armies. After bureaucracy had gentrified Italians, military crises ultimately ended civilian rule. So the African emperor-to-be Severus entered Rome with many legions and few Italian ties. Ending a civil war, this lifelong politician fattened his army until he begot runaway inflation. Dying, the proto-caudillo told his sons, “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.”
They ignored the first part, for Rome needed brutal soldiers for renewal. Consider Diocletian, a rugged Balkan warrior. Knowing little of Rome, Diocletian was still thoroughly Roman, for his home, the army, was “Rome.” As that name no longer simply signified a geographic place, Diocletian split the Roman government, East and West, under a tetrarchy of fellow Balkan generals. He disempowered Rome the city before freely retiring. Finished as imperial capital, Rome still signified metaphysical horizons.
A warlord, like Severus and Diocletian, Constantine refounded Rome—the empire, not the city—as a second Augustus. Leading his soldiers, he interpreted a solar halo as a sign of Christ and later dreamed that Jesus presented the labarum to be painted on his men’s shields ahead of the Battle at Milvian Bridge. After victories in Asia Minor, he openly favored Christianity. A Caesar of faith, Constantine established the formerly persecuted. Having united the empire, he tried uniting the Church through the Council of Nicaea.
His new namesake capital upstaged both Rome and Jerusalem. A ruler stuck between antiquity and Christendom, this administrative and military reformer, and dynastic founder, also made Sunday the Sabbath, Christ lord of Rome, and Constantinople a city that would soon become Europe’s largest. Constantine refounded Rome by its old playbook: adapt old veneers to new things.
When the Ostrogoth chieftain Odoacer seized Italy and Rome, senators sent the imperial symbols to Constantinople. Later, Justinian ascended to the purple in the East and reconquered the Mediterranean. Administrator, legislator, general, and builder, he bravely led church and state against great crises. The empire lived on in Justinian, his court the last to speak in Latin. As Constantinople stood another nine hundred years, Rome did not fall. It had moved east.
The Caesars, Strauss shows, turned a waning republic into an empire for them to sustain, reform, and refound. His colorful depictions in relaxed prose hit the right themes: adaptable institutions, pragmatic emperors, Roman globalization, and eastward trends. “The real Rome,” Strauss argues, is found less in Cicero’s speeches or Tacitus’s writings than in savvy emperors adopting “new blood and new gods” and making “tough choices and strategic retreats,” for “to survive as an empire, the Romans were willing to do whatever it took.”
Yet that is not the whole story. Gibbon erred in blaming Christianity, but he was right to emphasize moral causes of Roman decline. “Perishing of its own greatness,” the twentieth-century historian Ronald Syme wrote, “the Empire gave no scope for the display of civic virtue”: in order “to abolish war and politics,” the price was that “there could be no great men anymore.” The empire persisted through practices of cultural adoption and institutional adaptation that secured survival without nobility.
Despite their earthly greatness, the Caesars hungered for spiritual achievements that merely institutional accomplishments could not satisfy. Yet by universal laws, the Roman Empire prepared the ancient spirit to receive Christianity. Cultural variety endured beneath legal uniformity, and after the western empire fell, converted nations blended local traditions with what was learned from Rome. In this way, western nations benefited from the collapse of imperial rule. While Chinese rule in East Asia built a legacy of hegemonic power, the failure of Rome in western Europe generated a balance of free states sharing a common civilization but administering their own affairs. This is what the Romans did for us.
Unlike monolithic regimes, Rome had what Rémi Brague terms an eccentric culture. “To be Roman is to experience the ancient as new,” Brague writes, “as something renewed by its transplantation in new soil” that “makes the old a principle of new developments.” This eccentricity is our inheritance—creative, warm, and hopeful.
Ryan Shinkel is an associate editor for Athwart.org.
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