This week we looked at the aftermath of Nero’s suicide in 68 A.D. Having no heirs, Nero did not establish any process for a succession. Three generals, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius ended up holding power alternately before the last, Vespasian, remained standing and took up Imperium himself and stability returned.
The Civil Wars did not last long and probably did not impact the common people very much, but this “Year of 3 Emperors,” portended ill for Rome.
- It showed that in the absence of any family successor, power could simply go to the strongest
- The system Augustus established at least maintained a fictional role for the Senate. Some emperors (like Claudius) used the Senate to a moderate degree. Now however, the Senate lost all role in who governed Rome. The mask was off the pig. Power belonged to the army, not to any of the pre-existing public institutions.
Vespasian looks like a solid sort, and he ruled well by most standards. He eliminated a massive debt (largely through raising taxes). He had no obvious vices to bring himself or Rome down. He began the project that turned the land that housed Nero’s ridiculous private palace into a large public building for all people, known then as the Flavian Amphitheater (after his family name), known to us as the Colosseum.
One of the main functions of this intricately engineered building was to house the gladiator contests, that by Vespasian’s time, became more and central to Rome’s way of life. What began as a holdover from old Etruscan funeral rite ca. 600 B.C. then became ad hoc neighborhood entertainment by 50 B.C., and finally turned into a horrendous spectacle where criminals (and Christians) were tortured and killed for amusement by 100 A.D. When we realize that Rome financed much of the construction from looting the Temple in Jerusalem, and that thousands of Jewish slaves built it, we see that even when Rome tried to go “good” it brought about a terrible evil. We discussed how this could happen. . .
1. Among other things, the Romans demonstrated what happens to addicts. More and more is needed as the ‘drug’ gives less and less back, but it becomes so much a part of you that stopping is near impossible, at least humanly speaking. Along those lines we discussed how in Scripture sin is described as a ‘power,’ a kind of black hole like vortex. We delude ourselves when we think that we can easily jump back and forth between sinning and not sinning. Quicksand doesn’t work that way.
2. The games satisfied Rome’s need for glory and courage. Rome believed that they were still Rome, but very few citizens fought anymore. Cicero, among others, thought the games served the purpose of ‘toughening’ the citizens. The Pax Romana created a breathing space for Rome that they could have used to transform themselves to some degree. However, the very foundation of the Augustus’s principate system was built on the idea that Rome had not changed. The games allowed the Romans to imagine that they were just like their ancestors, tough and able to deal with violence.
3. The games were also related to Rome’s broken political system. Like the Wizard of Oz, Rome’s emperors could ill afford the citizens a look behind the curtain. The games proved a marvelous distraction for the populace. Also, since all power became centralized with the emperor, he needed to appear all powerful. The bigger the spectacle, the better it tended to reflect on the emperor.
But the political problem had broader foundations than this. With the rise of wealthy landowners gobbling up the small farms, thousands ended up flocking to the cities to find work, especially Rome. What could be done with these people? Ultimately. . .
4. The games also show Rome’s continual band-aid approach to its problems. They were not good at making hard choices about who they were at this point in their history. The games distracted people and bought the short term favor of the lower classes, but it produced nothing for their society. Whole armies of soldiers, slaves, and animals perished, countless money was spent, merely to enhance the image of the emperor and entertain the people. But no creative or productive activity flowed from the games. It was all ‘sunk costs.’
5. The Romans viewed the games as a means of displaying their power, in at least two ways. First, it meant that Romans could say something to the effect of, “Look at what we can make people do for us!” Perhaps this was more subconsciously believed than stated. But the variety of people and the different fighting styles they employed did serve as a visual reminder of the scope of their power.
Had Rome been more productive or creative economically, this population influx might have led to a economic revolution of sorts for Rome, if we imagine the mid-late 19th century Industrial Revolution on a smaller, less technical scale. However, being economically creative can’t just happen when you want it to. It takes a foundation in education and attitude that Rome did not have.
Thus, the games reveal not only Rome’s moral bankruptcy, but its political and economic stagnation.
7. Finally, the games reflect Rome’s social and cultural climate “gone bad.”
When thinking of how the empire functioned we cannot lose hold of the context of Rome’s past Republican history. Rome’s revolution in 508 B.C. created some measure of what we would call democracy, but it mainly gave the aristocracy/patricians more direct control over policy. Americans view aristocracy as a dirty word, but Rome’s Republic functioned very well for many centuries. One reason for this is that Rome’s aristocracy usually considered themselves patrons and acted as “patrons of Rome” without being overly “patronizing.” The “patrons” sought to look after the lower classes, to provide for them, give them gifts, and sometimes be the stern father figure. In fact, the patrons of Rome came from the “patrician” class, i.e. the “fathers.”
Good Roman fathers have many roles. They lead worship. They provide law. They provide continuance of the family line. Sometimes, too, they give gifts. “Here’s 20 bucks, go have a good time at the movies with your friends,” and so on. Emperors served as Rome’s ultimate patrons. The Civil Wars of 133-31 B.C. decimated Rome’s aristocracy and left the Senate impotent. Thus, whereas before Rome had many “fathers,” now for the most part, they have just one, the Emperor.
We understand Roman reaction to their emperors better if we view it through this lens.
- Augustus cast the perfect balance between stern, reliable Roman father upholding the morals of Rome, with a sprinkling of gifts (of money, bread, etc.) and indulgence.
- Tiberius was a great manager of money, but viewed as a miser. He never threw a party, never gave gifts, etc. He had no “heart.”
- Caligula was a disaster — completely unreliable, giving no family stability
- Claudius didn’t look the part, which was a drawback. He had some problems with women — also a drawback. But in the main he followed Augustus’ model.
- Nero was the dad in perpetual mid-life crisis, who spent your inheritance and that of his brothers. He steals from other families when that runs dry. He quits his job to become a very unsuccessful opera-singer and provides no leadership, no example, for his children.
Roman fathers had to show that they identified with their children’s interests. The Roman Games were one big party, given as a gift. Of course because Rome’s political system meant that they had just one father, the party had to be huge to cover the whole population. The expense, the expectation, and the length of the games (by the 2nd century the games might last 4-5 months) all grew as each emperor tried to establish his credentials as a proper Roman father.*
All of this is bound to catch up with them at some point. This week we will take a look at Rome’s decline through the lens of economics and architecture, and begin to find our way towards the coming of Constantine.