Greetings to all,
I am a believer in the revealing power of architecture in a civilization. There are many ways to get insight into the past, but I think that architecture is one of the best, for it puts a civilization’s creative power on display, and it involves much more than the work of one individual. One of themes I wanted to stress with this was a shift in emphasis in how Rome built its buildings, and what this revealed about them as a civilization. Arches, for example, were a great innovation used in aqueducts to bring water into cities.
The design of cities pushed people toward the center, which was in keeping with Rome’s Republic (literally a ‘public thing’).
But as time went by, arches are used to build monuments to emperors, and whatever talent they possessed went to make things like the Emperor Hadrian’s villa:
Here below is the general outline of the whole of Hadrian’s villa:
And again, another so-called “good emperor” of Rome (Marcus Aurelius) put his focus on the building of private monuments, like this personal “arch” monument below (contrasted with the public use of the arch for water above)
And another personal monument column to add to that. . .
If Rome was committed to understanding the changes in their culture, perhaps they may have been used for good, but Rome would not do this, and preferred to live in the past. Their innovations (never a strong point) dried up, and whatever was new in Rome was simply borrowed from the Greeks (as the statue in Hadrian’s villa indicates). Rome had grown stale and petrified, but would they see this? As we noted, this would not be likely, for another thing the architecture reveals is whereas in the past their energies were directed to the public sphere, now most of what they did centered around the emperor.
A bored and uncreative people will tend to think bigger is better all the time. The Romans were no exception. Like an addict, it takes more and more over time to get the same response. As the activity’s reward decreases, more effort only gives diminishing returns. As we began our discussion of the games, we saw how an old Etruscan funeral rite grew into an unregulated black market trade, to ‘opening act’ for the chariot races, eventually growing to a hideous and repulsive spectacle on a grand scale before tens of thousands. How did this happen, and what does it say about Rome?
We need to see not only the moral dimension of this problem, but the political one as well. The Games served to enhance the prestige of the emperor and keep people amused and distracted, in a sense, from the reality around them. One may recall the Wizard of Oz’s line not to look behind the curtain. The whole system of Empire had degenerated essentially into a military dictatorship by Vespasian’s time. No emperor could ill afford a populace too rowdy or too thoughtful. The Games helped buy them off.
Casinos, for example, want you to lose money, but not all of your money. After all, they want you to leave happy so you will come back. When you start to lose too much, often times an employee will appear suddenly, encourage you to stop, and offer you a coupon for a free steak dinner at their award winning restaurant. Their goal of course, is that you think, “Hey, that casino is really great for giving me this free dinner,” instead of, “I just lost X amount of money at that casino.” I think the Games worked much in the same way.
Certain emperors, of course, may have felt more of a need to establish their legitimacy than others. Claudius, for example, was a big proponent of the games, and he was the ‘runt’ of the Julio-Claudian line, and Caligula’s uncle. Vespasian built the Colosseum specifically for the games, and he came to power after a year of civil war.
There are other means of cementing your power, notably, buying your friends. This dynamic was not, I think, the main reason for the debasement of Roman currency, but it surely did not help. I passed this chart out to the students showing the general decline of currency value, with some being more responsible than others. Those emperors that rose to power after a change in dynasty often did so after civil war (marked with an *), and would have extra need to buy the loyalty of key people, and especially, key army legions (though to be fair, Nerva does not fit this pattern).
Debasement of Roman Currency
Emperor Year % of Silver in Coins
Nero 54-68 91.8
Galba 68 92.6
Otho 69 98.2
Vitellius 69 86.1
*Vespasian 69-79 84.9
Titus 79-81 80.3
Domitian 81-96 90.8
*Nerva 96-98 90.7
Trajan 98-117 85.4
Hadrian 117-38 84.1
Antonius Pius 138-61 80.1
Marcus Aurelius 161-80 76.2
Commodus 180-92 72.2
Pertinax 193 76.0
Didius Julianus 193 81.0
*Sept. Severus 193-211 58.3
This shaky basis of legitimacy eventually invited plenty of attack. Sure enough, Rome suffered through many attempts and near attempts to usurp the power of the current emperor, as Rome experienced almost yearly leadership crisis and low-level civil war during much of the 3rd century A.D.