8 Days That Made Rome
I have been watching a documentary series called “Eight Days That Made Rome” hosted by historian Bettany Hughes. Being a self-described Romaphile, I find it engrossing.
The series focuses on 8eight events that, in the host’s opinion, were pivotal to the rise and fall of the what is arguably the greatest empire of the ancient world. But what are the most captivating parts of the series (at least in my opinion) are the parallels that can be drawn from that ancient history to today.
During its thousand year span, Rome morphed from a small village of farmers into a powerful Republic, and then, finally, the undisputed master of a vast empire that encompassed most of Europe and large swaths of the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Its politics were complex, but among the most important aspects of those politics was the need for adherence to a strict moral code. Now, don’t be confused by the phrase ‘moral code.. The mores of ancient Rome were far different than our mores today. What we consider immoral was quite commonplace in that society; just as things we don’t give two thoughts to were considered horrendous. For example, to be an actor/entertainer was considered on par with being a prostitute (maybe we should consider bringing that one back) while murder was a political tool, and a patriarch had absolute power of life and death over members of his household.
But the insistence from Roman society that its leaders adhere to Roman “moral” principles was deeply ingrained into that society. Politicians learned that the most effective way to destroy their political rivals was to destroy their rival’s reputation through whisper campaigns and rumors about their rival’s lack of moral fitness. Often, the rumors were true, but just as often, they were not.
We have all heard the expression, “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”, an expression that basically meant that Caesar’s allies had to keep their noses clean from any potential scandals that might harm their political fortunes. Failure to comply was met with severe consequences.
Marc Antony lost political favor when Octavian revealed the contents of Antony’s will — the contents that placed his esteem for Cleopatra above his love of Rome. This was unthinkable to the people of that empire. Loss of favor ultimately lead to Antony’s death and paved the way for the young Octavian to become Rome’s first emperor - Augustus.
Similarly, the Emperor Nero once was adored by the people that is until he did some unthinkable things - her performed as an actor in a play and sang to an audience. These things were unforgivable for a politician in the Roman world and the political elites turned on him. When Rome burned, Nero was some thirty miles away. But the elites started a whisper campaign meant to assign blame for the fire on the Emperor. They even flamed rumors that Nero played his lyre as he watched the city burn. (This was not true, but the rumors persisted. Like many rumors, fact or fiction become lost.) Thereafter, the people turned on him. Without the support of the people and with no allies in the Senate, Nero was deposed by an upstart governor of the Romes Spanish province. He was deposed and the Senate proclaimed him the new emperor.
This happened often in the halls of Curia, eventually any leader would be turned out. More often than not, loss of political office and power also meant the loss of one’s head.
Fast forward 2,000 years: The politicians in the new Roman Empire, ruled by men and women from a swampy burg on the eastern shores of a grand new continent are just as debauched as the rulers of that ancient empire. And like the ones who came before them, they too, know that the quickest way to destroy their political rivals is through whisper campaigns and rumors that call into question that rival’s “moral fitness” to govern.
Of course the mores in these times are different, but the consequences of failing to adhere to them are almost (if not quite as) severe.