Wonder Of Rome
In my head, I found myself strolling through the list of Rome’s Emperors (I can recite as far as the year of the 6 emperors by rote) and wondering whether they would make an interesting blog entry. That, in my middle-of-the-night blurry mind became something of a challenge to myself. I would take the list of Emperors and try and find something positive – an achievement – that came from the reign of each one, even the ones traditionally hailed as monsters. An intriguing proposition, eh?
I realised afterwards that I was going to have to limit myself to the emperors who managed at least most of a year in power and therefore had time to achieve something! You’d be surprised how many that knocks out of the list. I also decided to quit around the time of the introduction of the Tetrarchy, given the fact that we then have four rulers on the go at any given time, just to complicate the issue. Just a note ahead of time: this blog is light-hearted in its approach. If you are seeking Oxford monographs, look elsewhere folks. Otherwise, prepare to learn a few new facts and perhaps treat yourself to a little giggle now and then, and look out for the competition and links at the end.
So without further ado, here we go.
Augustus (27 BC-14) – How easy is Augustus? (as the actress said to the bishop). The man who ‘found Rome brick, but left it marble’? Well from my personal point of view, given what I write, I would credit him mostly with the creation of Rome’s legendary standing army in the form that persisted for centuries.
Tiberius (14-37) – May have been a depressive fruitcake, but he built a lovely set of palaces, including one on the Palatine, one at Sperlonga, and the vertiginous Villa Jovis on Capri (from which he supposedly hurled people to their deaths, but we’ll overlook that for comfort. After all, he did!)
Caligula (37-41) – Perhaps the most maligned of Rome’s rulers. An early incarnation of Joffey Baratheon. And yet after the autocratic rule of Tiberius, he found time to reinstate a proper democratic process for public officials. Now if only he’d left his sisters alone…
Claudius (41-54) – Clubfooted and stammering fool? I think not. There are many achievements of Claudius to choose from, not least the fact that this land I sit upon became Roman because of his expansion of the Empire. But I think I’d have to go for the Tiber canal works and the expansion of Ostia and Portus for trade as his greatest achievement.
Nero (54-68) – Nero (Christopher Biggins) is a toughie. And yet despite being hailed as the Antichrist by the Catholic church and having been almost universally hated throughout history, bear in mind that this evil man set a cap on the fees charged by lawyers. And who’s the greater evil: he or they?
Vespasian (69-79) – It’s hard to dislike the fat jolly genius general Vespasian. It’s easy to find positives, too. Think I’ll go with the construction of the Colosseum (not completed until after he died, but his project nonetheless.)
Titus (79-81) – Beloved of the people. In his short but eventful reign, Titus managed more than some Emperors did in a decade. But probably the thing he SHOULD be remembered for is his efforts to alleviate the suffering in the aftermath of Vesuvius’ eruption.
Domitian (81-96) – despite an unsavoury reputation in history, Domitian left Rome with some of its greatest structures. Remember him for a building program that produced the great palace on the Palatine, the Odeon and Stadium in the Campus Martius, and several temples in the forum.
Nerva (96-98) – Hard to dispute the positive value of Nerva’s new policy of adoptive heirs, selecting the best man for the succession rather than attempting to breed him (a system that had turned the Julio-Claudian dynasty into inbred 3-toothed hillbillies.)
Trajan (98-117) – One of the greats. If Domitian is to be remembered for the great buildings he left behind, then he will be eclipsed by Trajan. The Market? The Forum? The Column? I think I’m going to go with the fact that Trajan left Rome at the end of his reign at its greatest extent, never to be achieved again. Some feat.
Hadrian (117-138) – No. I refuse to use the wall. Too easy. In fact his building program empire-wide is a little easy really. But that itself was part of a massive reorganisation and repair of the infrastructure for the entire empire. Would that he could tour Britain now, eh? Our local roads are apparently corrugated.
Antoninus Pius (138-161) – Well I think we’ll have to go with Tony P’s wall across Scotland, expanding the border in Britannia to its northernmost permanent frontier in history. Probably the first man to have an erection in Glasgow.
Marcus Aurelius (161-180) – Again, only a difficult one because of too many options to choose from. I would settle for his Meditations – a philosophical tome that rivals the great Greek thinkers and showing unusual depth for a politician!
Commodus (176-192) – Good old megalomaniac Commodus is a toughie. Might be an achievement to say he left us at least 2 Imperial villas, or allowed the army to wield axes. But I’d go for – whatever you say about the effects of his conciliatory policies – the fact that the Empire had peacetime enough to breathe for the first time in decades.
Septimius Severus (193-211) Our first in many ways. The first of a far-reaching dynasty. The first African Emperor. But despite his vaunted military facets, and even his forked beard (sign of a classic movie villain), I’d remember him for embellishing the provincial city of Leptis Magna and turning it into one of the grandest atchitectural gems in the Roman world – a fact still visible in its remains.
Caracalla (198-217) His memory may be damnatio, and he may be a fratricide, but old gloomy-pants Caracalla made every freedman across the Empire a citizen. Might have had selfish reasons, of course, both financial and military, but it was still nice for the freedmen, I’m sure.
Macrinus (217-218) – Despite a short and generally unpopular reign, Macrinus managed to positively revalue Rome’s currency. And the policy outlasted him, unlike previous attempts such as that of old hairy Pertinax (not listed here due to the brevity of his rule.)
Elagabalus (218-222) – Oh now HERE’s a fruitcake supreme. But did everyone’s favourite Syrian weirdie leave anything of lasting benefit? The simple answer is no. Sadly, he is my real stumbling block in the list. In four years he is remembered as having done nothing that was not in some way destructive. The best I can do is note how his attempt to make Sol Invictus the prime God of Rome brought that cult to a formerly unthought of prominence for good and therefore likely influenced later Roman Christianity.
Severus Alexander (222-235) – As a personal choice, I remember him for the enormous fountainhead of the new Aqua Alexandrina, standing tall and imposing still in the Park in Plaza Vittorio Emmanuel II in Rome. The first time I saw it it lodged in my mind and stayed there.
Maximinus Thrax (235-238) – Not much positive to say about the Thracian giant. The best I can manage is that at a time when the security of the northern frontier was beginning to crumble he campaigned, won battles, and managed to secure the border for a while. That and you wouldn’t mess with him in a bar fight!
I’m going to skip the brief reigns of Gordian I & II, Pupienus, & Balbinus, but I had to mention them, just so that I could pronounce ‘poopy-anus’ aloud while reading this back and then laugh like Beavis and Butthead. Bet you’re re-reading it and guffawing right now.
Gordian III (238-244) – Despite a reign spanning six years, young Gordianus Pius managed to achieve remarkably little, due to his youth and the fact that other men governed for him throughout the period. One thing we can ascribe to him worth noting, is the ‘palace’ of Gordian at Volubilis in Morocco.
Philipus Arabs (244-249) – Despite a reign that left little of value, Philip had the honour of holding the most important (and last ever) of the Ludi Saeculares in Rome. A huge pageant involving games, races, fights, plays and more to celebrate another century in Rome, Philip’s celebrated the city’s thousandth anniversary.
Decius (249-251) – It would be nice to laud the political and religious reforms of the miserable-looking old sod Decius here, but sadly his reign was cut rather short (much like his body), and the planned reforms were never instituted. So we will have to go with the baths of Decius on the Aventine, the only great show of public works within a period of several decades of strife.
Trebonianus Gallus (251-253) – Remembered chiefly for one act of charity, when plague ravaged Rome and the Emperor paid for the decent burial of its victims, even the impoverished. In my own mind, he’s chiefly remembered for that heroic nude statue of him that makes him a pretty peculiar shape.
Valerian (253-260) – (Trying not to tut at the stupid ends some Emperors meet). Caesar Publius Licinius Valerianus Footstoolius Augustus! The most positive thing I can say on Footstool’s reign is that he reconquered the lost land of Syria. And he was probably nice and comfy.
Gallienus (253-268) – Really, in the mid 3rd century, it could be said that Gallienus’ greatest achievement is having reigned continuously for 15 year without a knife in the back. In lasting terms, Gallienus seemed to anticipate the changing nature of warfare and shifted the focus of the army towards cavalry for the first time. It might be said this was the first major step to the new field armies of the late Empire.
Claudius Gothicus (268-270) – In a time faced with breakaway states and numerous invasions and incursions, Claudius II can be remembered with pride for having begun the course of putting the Empire back together. He fought the Goths back over the Danube and restored Hispania to the Empire, weakening the breakaway Gallic Empire.
Aurelian (270-275) – Bulgarian provincial, able cavalry commander and wearer of the pointy crown, it would be nice to laud him for the reunification of the empire, conquering the breakaway states of Gaul and Palmyra. But a chunk of the acclaim for that has to go (and has gone) to Claudius II. And anyway, there is a more physical reminder of Aurelian’s reign in the form of the great impressive brick walls and gates that surround Rome to this day. The Aurelian walls rightly hold a place in the great fortifications of history.
Probus (276-282) – You may not think it, but this obscure gruff soldier emperor from the backwaters of the Balkans gave us one great gift perhaps above that of all other emperors. In order to keep his armies busy between wars, he had them plant vineyards in Gaul. By extension, he is directly responsible for seventeen centuries of French viniculture. Probus is the father of the French wine. Bet you’ll remember him now!
Carus (282-283) – Carus holds two distinctions in my eyes. Firstly, despite a short reign, he is one of very few Emperors who achieved a solid victory in Persia, holding the Sassanids at bay and avenging many years of humiliation at their hands. Secondly, he was the first Emperor to be served flambé courtesy of a lightning strike!
Carinus (283-285) – Apparently the only positive thing that can be said to have come from Carinus’ short, brutal and somewhat unpopular reign is the grandest Ludi Romani (annual games) for half a century. The fact that he held a huge party and that was his great achievement somewhat condemns the man.
Diocletian (284-305) – Diocletian’s achievements are so numerous and so far-reaching that it would be difficult to even attempt to list them. We will therefore, in order to bring proceedings to a close, go with the foundation of that most complex and bureaucratic system of rule: the Tetrarchy. While it may have inevitably collapsed through the power-hunger of men like Constantine, the changes instituted by Diocletian took a failing nation and revitalised it, giving it an edge that would keep it going another century and birth the Byzantine Empire. And… of course… he retired to grow cabbages!
So there you go. Not a comprehensive list, but it goes to show that no reign should ever be viewed in monochrome.
If you enjoy the world of Rome, you may wish to take a look at my books (top right of the blog) and perhaps visit my main website and have a read of a sample. And as a special treat, here’s a giveaway for you. Comment on this blog and tell me the most interesting achievement you can think of that came from the daddy of the entire Imperial system – Julius Caesar – and the most interesting (true) answer will receive either a signed paperback copy of my latest release (Marius’ Mules V) or the full set of 5 books in E-format, your choice. Get commenting!
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