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Septimius Severus - the Barack Obama of the Roman Empire?
December 8, 2008 1:10 AM   Subscribe

Is history repeating itself? Note quite 2000 years ago, the Roman hegemony got its first black leader - a former senator whose father was African and mother was white. Septimius Severus inherited a failed military campaign in Iraq and an ailing economy. He first resolves the situation in Iraq, undertakes a number of new building projects, stamps out governmental corruption, raises taxes to pay for wage increases (and kicks British arse a few times). Ultimately though, it all might have only hastened the Empire's decline.
posted by zaebiz (95 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out...
posted by crapmatic at 1:17 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just wait till he pulls a modern-day Constantine and converts us all to Islam.
posted by Dasein at 1:21 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't understand. Did the Roman hegemony elect a new black leader?

Haha. Looks like fun.
posted by bluejayk at 1:22 AM on December 8, 2008


*waits expectantly for someone to point out that modern-day Iraq was only part of 197 AD Parthia*
posted by zaebiz at 1:42 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I love Roman history, but drawing any strong conclusions between this chapter of history and Obama's coming presidency is taking "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it" wayyyy to literally. We have all sorts of entrenched bureaucratic systems with scary feedback loops, but nothing approaching that truly odious Roman taxation system. And we think modern financial bubbles are bad... that one took hundreds of years to play out. Libertarians feel free to disagree with me.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 1:45 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Modern-day Iraq was only part of 197 AD Parthia*.
posted by orthogonality at 1:53 AM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


This is a bit silly. First, Parthia was a Persian empire. Although part of it did cover part of what is Iraq today, you could just as well say Parthia was Turkmenistan.

Second, according to the Wiki article the author herself links to, "Severus was of Italian Roman ancestry on his mothers side and of either Berber or Phoenician ancestory on his fathers". Berbers, incidentally, are Mediterranean - they are more closely related to Sicilians, Italians, Southern Spaniards, and Egyptians than, say, to Nigerians, Ethiopians, or Saudi Arabians. She says "we don't know if Septimus Severus was black" but then goes on to talk about Roman race relations, and that "Obama’s understandable decision not to mention his own ethnic identity, or anything else about race, in his acceptance speech had decided echoes of Septimius Severus’ image as a white emperor. The more you present Obama as any other president, and peddle the self-congratulatory clichés about the end of a raclal divide at the highest pinnacle of American politics, the more you are simply refusing to see that for most people in the US and the rest of the world race does still matter."

I appreciate America = Roman Empire mind exercises as much as the next person, but she really stretches facts to draw parallels, and to what end? I remember people comparing Obama to Malcolm X for the same reason of being "mixed". How about we let the guy be president before we decide which Roman empire to compare him to?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:55 AM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


Kicked British arse? I think not. Kicked English arse maybe, but not the Scots.
posted by mattoxic at 1:58 AM on December 8, 2008 [13 favorites]


I, for one, prefer the social reforms put forth by Servius Tullius. Mainly because I did an awesome presentation on him for 7th grade Latin in which I got to wear a toga.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:58 AM on December 8, 2008 [7 favorites]


Marisa Stole the Precious Thing: You seem to have become omnipresent on metafilter lately. I swear you are in every thread I read or comment on. Are you the internet incarnate or something?
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:05 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just found this kinda fun anti-Obama video poem on YouTube from a few months ago making the same comparison with SS.
posted by zaebiz at 2:06 AM on December 8, 2008


I swear you are in every thread I read or comment on.

Is this like that "so-and-so is an alcoholic; every time I go to the bar, there he is" joke?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:08 AM on December 8, 2008 [16 favorites]


yup.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:15 AM on December 8, 2008


I've had a lot of free time lately. And at my job, I have stretches lasting hours with nothing to do but hang out online. Doesn't help that people keep posting awesomeness.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:18 AM on December 8, 2008


I'm up all night turning a somewhat technical paper on ecological city design into a play for a final presentation. It features Robotic Time Traveling Patrick Geddes and the Willamette River as characters. Metafilter is where I go whenever I have some kind of creative block, and tonight has been an awful series of mental impasses. I'm not used to writing plays.

Anyways, back to the thread in progress...
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:24 AM on December 8, 2008


All I know is if I see any horses around here on Capitol Hill I'm moving to Macedonia.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:28 AM on December 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


"Yes We Can" in Latin?
posted by chillmost at 2:41 AM on December 8, 2008


chillmost: "Yes We Can" in Latin?

Interestingly enough, the Obama campaign adopted the Latin version "Vero Possumus" which is approximate Latin for "Yes We Can", for its campaign seal.
posted by zaebiz at 3:01 AM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


Kicked British arse? I think not. Kicked English arse maybe, but not the Scots.

That's not really right, He certainly did kick Briton arse, and I doubt that he kicked Angle arse, but yeah, the Scots didn't get any ass kicking.
posted by afu at 3:01 AM on December 8, 2008


Vero Possumus.
posted by adamvasco at 3:06 AM on December 8, 2008


afu: " but yeah, the Scots didn't get any ass kicking."

I have tremendous respect for the fighting ability of the Scots in general but it appears that it was precisely the Scots who Severus attempted to wipe out.
posted by zaebiz at 3:10 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


This Post - does it include a question in its title?
posted by redteam at 3:16 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


<valis>The Empire never ended.</valis>
posted by Ritchie at 3:32 AM on December 8, 2008 [6 favorites]


We have all sorts of entrenched bureaucratic systems with scary feedback loops, but nothing approaching that truly odious Roman taxation system.

I believe the modern equivalent is not income tax, but the insurance + health care bureaucrazy.
posted by rokusan at 3:52 AM on December 8, 2008


Black Caesar
posted by Eideteker at 4:26 AM on December 8, 2008


His pay increases for the army, however, established a trend that placed a severe burden on the Roman state. Future emperor's were expected to follow suite and increase pay as well. The cost of these pay raises resulted in ever increasing taxation that damaged the economy. Some historians believe the high taxes, initiated by Severus policies, played a significant role in Rome's long-term decline.

Even if we accept the rightwing nutjobbery of the root of all evil being high taxes, the fact remains that it was the military's unrealistic expectations, not an initially fair wage, that caused this situation.
posted by DU at 4:33 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Unless you consider Moroccans black, he wasn't black.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:45 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


But the Arab people in North Africa fetched up a few centuries later, didn't they? Not that I'm pretending to know exactly who was living there at the time.
posted by Abiezer at 5:02 AM on December 8, 2008


Well at least we see the good before we get to the bad....
posted by The1andonly at 5:05 AM on December 8, 2008


According to my calculations, the closest parallel between present-day America and ancient Rome isn't to Severus' era, but closer to 50 BC.

Specifically, we're now in the middle of our "civilization and spiritual winter", lasting from about 1815 AD to 2415 AD, which parallels Egypt in 1675-1550 BC, Rome from 300 BC to 300 AD, and Arabia from 800 to 1050 AD; more narrowly, we're about a quarter of the way into the era of Caeserism, which lasted in Egypt through 1550-1328 BC (the 18th dynasty), Rome 100 BC to 100 AD, and Arabia 1050 to 1250 AD (the Seljuk Sultanate).

I'm pegging the 2012 election of Nehemiah Scudder, aka Palin, as 49 BC in Rome.

Fortunately for us, while bureaucratic Western culture is in decline, we're /also/ in the middle of the early period of the rise of the /next/ culture, which I'm guessing is the one based on MIT-type Hacker principles - around-about 1975 being roughly parallel to Egypt in 2600 BC, India in 1500 BC, Greek/Roman classical culture in 1100 BC, Arabia around 0 AD, and Western culture around 900 AD.

Yes, that's all based on Spengler's highly-debatable theory, such as can be seen in a table similar to the one here.
posted by DataPacRat at 5:14 AM on December 8, 2008 [4 favorites]


These parallels are fun. Don't take it too seriously, people.
posted by orange swan at 5:15 AM on December 8, 2008


I have heard somewhere that comparisons of the US and Rome are inapt. We fit the Carthage model better. The Russians probably match up with the Romans better than we do.
posted by RussHy at 5:24 AM on December 8, 2008


Meanwhile, in an alternate universe...

Hillary and Hatshepsut: The Same Person?
Pantsuits and Trade Missions — An Infrastructure Boom — Is the President-Elect 3500 Years Old?
posted by sixswitch at 5:31 AM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


Unless you consider Moroccans black, he wasn't black.

Why don't we ask Shakespeare what he thinks of Morroccans coming to Italy getting it on with white chicks?

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:44 AM on December 8, 2008


Capitol Hill = Capitoline Hill?
Discuss.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 5:59 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


(Yes, I am aware that the word capitol derives from the word capitoline.)
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 6:02 AM on December 8, 2008


White people are so racist. OH LETS HAVE EVERY ROMAN EMPEROR BE A FUCKIN WHITEY. I swear to god.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 6:04 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Caracalla Severus MALIA ANN OBAMA: Thanks for coming over, Sasha. Mom and I really appreciate this effort to patch things up.

Geta Severus NATASHA OBAMA: I'm pretty drained about all this, myself. So long as we can put this behind us, I'll be glad to-

Doors burst open as suited figures and camera crews enter the room

MALIA ANN OBAMA: There she is - there's the socialist community organizer!

NATASHA OBAMA: What the-

MALIA ANN OBAMA: I'm glad we could finally wrap things up-

Julia Doma Severus MICHELLE OBAMA: I didn't agree to this! It wasn't part of the plan!

NATASHA OBAMA: Mom! You were in on this?

MICHELLE OBAMA: I'm sorry! I didn't think it would turn out this way!

MALIA ANN OBAMA: That's why it's called an October surprise, Mom. Now stop crying. You're on camera and I have a republic to run...
posted by Smart Dalek at 6:06 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


SENATVS ET POPVLVS QVE AMERICANVS
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:17 AM on December 8, 2008


The Times writer says that she is surprised that nobody has drawn the parallel between Obama and Septimus Severus, and she wonders if she missed it. In fact, she has, since it is discussed at length in Webster Tarpley's Unauthorised Biography of Barack Obama, p. 409-412. I can post the extended quotation if you're interested and it's OK with the moderator.
posted by Tarn at 6:19 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


it was precisely the Scots who Severus attempted to wipe out

Not precisely - it was actually the Caledonians. I don't think the Scots had arrived in Britain by AD 208, any more than the English.

Busts of Severus show him with what seem to be European features and a long luxuriant beard. However, this family picture has him looking prety bronzed.
posted by Phanx at 6:25 AM on December 8, 2008


Black Caesar

Indeed. Actually, why no one has made a blaxploitation movie about Scipio Africanus (The Staff of Africa) is beyond me.
posted by ob at 6:38 AM on December 8, 2008


chillmost, zaebiz and adamvasco, now that you have Obama's motto in Latin, you need the mascot.
posted by liza at 6:43 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


If the historical lessons for Obama are to avoid nepotism and not invade Britain, I think we're pretty safe.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:03 AM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]



Indeed. Actually, why no one has made a blaxploitation movie about Scipio Africanus (The Staff of Africa) is beyond me.


Does fascploitation count?
posted by nasreddin at 7:13 AM on December 8, 2008


hey you know who else didn't invade britain?
posted by pyramid termite at 7:17 AM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


How can I tenuously connect this to HBO's Rome?

'cause that series was awesome and had just about as much to do with Obama as this crap.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:23 AM on December 8, 2008


The historical province of Roman Africa is not the same as Africa itself-- it's a coastal blob of land that clings to the Mediterranean. Any parallels drawn between the policies of Septimius and Obama would be equally valid comparing him Bush or Clinton.

The downfall of the empire has a lot of factors, and to get a real idea of how it played out, you'd have to go back to Gaius Marius (~100 BC), who reformed the armies such that they became the linchpin of emperors, if not much much earlier.

You could also look at the optimates, ardently conservative aristorcrats, who arguably backed a lot of people, Marius and Julius Caesar included, into impossible legal situations ("Come home to Rome, that we may strip you of your honors and prosecute you") and were not above slandering and occasionally murdering their opponents if expedient.

If we continue to seize upon Obama's "african-ness", why not compare him with Scipio Africanus? A senator, he squelched Hannibal ina great series of battles, and was reckoned to be one of the greatest tactical and strategic minds of his time. His victory came about with the assistance of the Hispania, who played a decisive role as "hidden" reinforcements. Now we see someone who out-thought, out-planned a great adversary with the surprise help of people who sound a whole lot like "hispanic", so surely that counts for something, or would if I were phoning in an article comparing Obama to a Roman.

A lot of great nations feel compelled, still, to size themselves up to the Roman Empire, picking out contrived coincidences for bragging rights or to warn of impending doom, and it's always a wash -- Roman history was well documented enough that it's possible to put any contemporary event in either a positive or negative light framed against the romans.
posted by boo_radley at 7:24 AM on December 8, 2008 [4 favorites]


This week on Monday Night Colliseum Titans vs. Giants!
posted by Pollomacho at 7:55 AM on December 8, 2008


This is ridiculous. Septimius Severus wasn't black, and he has nothing whatever to do with Barack Obama. Don't we have enough Obama posts without dragging him in where he doesn't belong?
posted by languagehat at 8:25 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


or what lhat said in 1/100 the words...
posted by boo_radley at 8:47 AM on December 8, 2008


Why would you make a blaxploitation movie -- or compare Obama -- to Scipio Africanus? He was a born and bred Roman patrician, with several ancestors as consuls. In a blaxploitation movie he'd be a crooked cop wearing a plaid jacket.

Good general, though, from what I've read.
posted by condour75 at 8:56 AM on December 8, 2008


I for one welcome our new
(black/not black/Roman/Carthagean/Parthian/Dolemite/possum) overlords
posted by ElvisJesus at 8:58 AM on December 8, 2008


Scipio Africanus wasn't black.
posted by elle.jeezy at 8:58 AM on December 8, 2008


This week on Monday Night Colliseum Titans vs. Giants!

The early game is Lions vs. Saints.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:06 AM on December 8, 2008 [4 favorites]


And in a smaller arena around the corner: Wizards vs. Magic
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:20 AM on December 8, 2008


Septimius Severus...

KILLS DUMBLEDORE!
posted by GuyZero at 9:26 AM on December 8, 2008 [5 favorites]


*skims thread*

Hold on... Obama is a 2000 years old Roman senator?

We elected a VAMPIRE!

[there is a great straight-to-video movie in this...]
posted by quin at 10:12 AM on December 8, 2008


Given the extremely similar social and economic conditions of late '00 America with fifth-season Dementia 5, I think we are likely to see a first term under Obama of Infinata-like proportions.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:07 AM on December 8, 2008


The historical analogy falls apart because Roman Africans were not oppressed and marginalized the way that Black Americans have been. Roman Africans did not spend four centuries being enslaved. Roman Africans were not segregated by law. Furthermore, native Romans did not create a racist ideology comparable to what we have in the West today.

To claim that Septimus Severus had a "black" identity in a manner corresponding to contemporary American ideas of racial classification is to project our own biases onto the past.

Wikipedia on presentism.

"Presentism is a mode of historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter."
posted by jason's_planet at 11:28 AM on December 8, 2008 [4 favorites]


Furthermore, native Romans did not create a racist ideology comparable to what we have in the West today.

no, their racist ideology was quite unique.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:45 AM on December 8, 2008


Roman citizenship was not racialized in the same way that American identity was racialized.

The Roman Senate did not have debates about the appropriateness of conquering certain provinces because it would incorporate racially impure peoples into the Empire.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:51 AM on December 8, 2008


I dunno about this. But having a general named Petraeus was for me a dead giveaway we’d skipped a grove on the history record.
(The campaign for Arabia Petraea was pretty interesting from a U.S. perspective - granted, tongue in cheek, but still...)
posted by Smedleyman at 12:38 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


(‘Groove’ - I’ve been playing too much GTA SA.)
posted by Smedleyman at 12:38 PM on December 8, 2008


If someone could point out the Philip K. Dick of 2000 years ago, I would really appreciate it.
posted by Pronoiac at 2:22 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Tarn: "Unauthorised Biography of Barack Obama, p. 409-412. I can post the extended quotation if you're interested and it's OK with the moderator."

I'm not the moderator but I'm interested.
posted by zaebiz at 2:54 PM on December 8, 2008


The Roman Senate did not have debates about the appropriateness of conquering certain provinces because it would incorporate racially impure peoples into the Empire.

They just debated how much of their stuff could be stolen.

Let's not pretend for a second that somehow the Romans didn't have a greatly inflated sense of superiority. I think they parsed it down to smaller particles than race.

It can be described as:

Roman Patrician Class = "God Damn We Are Awesome."

Roman Plebeian Class = "Shut Your Ungrateful Pie-hole and Eat Your Gruel."

Not Roman = "Is There Shit We Can Steal?"
posted by tkchrist at 3:10 PM on December 8, 2008 [4 favorites]


BTW. The poor bastard who did this post is really getting slightly reamed for what was a kinda neat, if tenuously connected, set of links about a dude I, and most people, didn't know much about. Sheesh.
posted by tkchrist at 3:18 PM on December 8, 2008


This is nonsense, Obama is absolutely nothing like Snape.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 3:20 PM on December 8, 2008


“If someone could point out the Philip K. Dick of 2000 years ago, I would really appreciate it.”

Dude, Petronius; illusion of progress, all that.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:10 PM on December 8, 2008


granted severus is not black but neither is obama.
posted by Glibpaxman at 4:12 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Let's not pretend for a second that somehow the Romans didn't have a greatly inflated sense of superiority. I think they parsed it down to smaller particles than race.

And sometimes they could be downright old-school genocidal. See Third Punic war.
posted by condour75 at 4:30 PM on December 8, 2008


And sometimes they could be downright old-school genocidal. See Third Punic war.

Think about that. The Romans did that with arrows, swords, and spears. None of this pussy labor saving tanks, bombs, machine guns and poison gas. Damn.

How brutal must that have been.
posted by tkchrist at 4:41 PM on December 8, 2008


zaebiz, your wish is my command:

A DISTANT MIRROR FOR OBAMA: SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS, ROMAN EMPEROR
A distant mirror for these questions may well be provided by the history of the Roman empire.

The reign of the Emperor Commodus (180–192 AD), who was the son of the famous Stoic Marcus
Aurelius and who survived one assassination attempt before succumbing to another, brought the
Antonine dynasty to an end, and marked the transition from a period of stagnation and slow decline
into a time of more acute crisis. The murder of Commodus is associated with the end of the Pax
Romani, or “Roman Peace,” and the onset of the long decline of the Roman Empire. The end of
Commodus began the Year of the Five Emperors in 193, when there were five contenders for title
of Roman Emperor. The five were the City Prefect Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger in
Syria, Clodius Albinus in Britain, and Septimius Severus in Pannonia.
Septimius Severus was by most accounts a dark-skinned native of Libya in North Africa; some
Afrocentric historians have identified him and celebrated him as the first black emperor of Rome.
But being black or nearly black did not prevent him from representing a catastrophic turning point
in Roman history. Septimius Severus had allied himself with a prominent Syrian family by his
marriage to Julia Domna. In the same way, Obama’s marriage to Michelle allied him with the Daley
machine, her family business. Septimius Severus may not have been the only dark-skinned
contender at this point, as suggested by the name of his rival Pescennius Niger, since “niger” means
black or dark, and he is described as a “black man” in some translations of the contemporary writer
Cassius Dio. But there are others who say that this was just a nickname, and that Pescennius Niger
was not African. After disposing of all of his rivals, Septimius Severus assumed power and founded
a dynasty that would extend through increasingly troubled times to include himself (193–211), his
notoriously cruel and vindictive son Caracalla (211–217), Macrinus (217–218), the monster
Elagabalus or Heliogabalus (218–222), and Alexander Severus (222–235).
SEPTIMIUS’ LARGER ARMY AND PAY HIKES START
THE GREAT ROMAN HYPERINFLATION
Because of his status as an outsider and a general, Septimius Severus decided to lean on the
praetorian guard in the Roman army, while freezing out many representatives of the Roman Senate,
where the leading oligarchs assembled. In order to win the loyalty of the Army, he substantially
increased the rates of pay, creating a very serious budget deficit that was the main cause
contributing to the beginning of hyperinflation. The hyperinflation which was launched by
Septimius Severus kept going for 300 years, and was one of the biggest causes of the final collapse
of the Roman empire and of western civilization itself. He also substituted equestrian officers for
senators in key administrative positions. Not surprisingly, Septimius Severus’ relations with the
Senate were very poor, and to compensate for this he had to appeal to the city mob as well as to the
army, which cost even more money. Septimius Severus also abolished the local regular standing
jury courts, which dated back to Republican times. He was also an energetic persecutor of
Christians and Jews.
Obama for his part has promised to increase the size of the United States Armed Forces by about
100,000 troops — a very sinister and hugely expensive detail which many of his fawning left-liberal
acolytes are incapable of comprehending. There are, however, widespread reports of grave
discontent and deep suspicion on the part of top generals and admirals towards the parvenu Obama.
How might Obama attempt to secure support from the Pentagon, or at least stave off a mutiny or a
military counter-coup? One way would clearly be to imitate Septimius Severus and radically raise
military pay rates, benefits, and bonuses in the form of a thinly disguised bribe for the officer class.
The record of the dynasty founded by Septimius Severus suggests that once a bidding war of this
type has begun it is almost impossible to stop, and often ends with tremendous political instability
as the monetary demands of the praetorian class become greater and greater, notwithstanding the
evident economic crisis of the empire.
CARACALLA’S POLITICAL REPRESSION
For our analytical purposes here, it will be convenient to compare Obama to the three most
important figures of the Septimius Severus dynasty, namely Septimius Severus himself, his son
Caracalla, and the notorious Heliogabalus. When Septimius Severus died, there was a violent
succession fight which ended when Caracalla succeeded in killing his brother Geta. Caracalla was
noted for lavish bribes to the praetorians, and also for his legendary cruelty, which was expressed in
the form of numerous assassinations of his real or imagined enemies and rivals. Michelle Obama
may find her own distant mirror among the strong-willed and ambitious women of the Severan
dynasty, beginning with Septimius Severus’s wife Julia Domna, who schemed and plotted to help
her husband become Emperor. Among the other influential women of this disastrous dynasty we
find Julia Maesa, sister of Julia Domna, and Maesa’s two daughters, Julia Soaemias, mother of
the monster Heliogabalus, and Julia Avita Mamaea, mother of Alexander Severus. It was in fact this
feminine cabal that secured the throne for Heliogabalus in 218.
HELIOGABALUS: TEENAGE EMPEROR AND MONSTER
Heliogabalus provides lasting proof that the participation of young people in politics is not
necessarily a good thing, since he was only about 15 years old when he seized the Imperial throne,
and racked up his entire record of monstrous slaughters and perversions before he was liquidated
somewhat short of the age of 20. Heliogabalus ranks with Nero and Caligula as one of the greatest
monsters to rule Rome. According to some reports, he suffocated the guests at one of his dinner
parties by releasing masses of rose petals on them from above. He married one of the vestal virgins,
a very serious violation of Roman tradition and law. Like Nero, he also married one of his own
male lovers. He is said to have prostituted himself inside his own Imperial Palace. One of
Heliogabalus’ obsessions was his quest to obtain a sex change operation so that, like Tiresias, he
could also experience life as a woman. Heliogabalus has often been characterized by modern writers
as transgender, most likely transsexual. The parallels to Obama’s reported homosexuality and
bisexuality are evident. With Heliogabalus devoting so much time and energy to these lascivious
activities, the administration of the empire fell into the hands of his grandmother and mother (Julia
Soamias). Late in his reign, Heliogabalus replaced Jupiter, the central figure of the Roman
pantheon, with a new Oriental god, Deus Sol Invictus, whose original name, Elagabalus or El-
Gabal, happened to be identical with the Emperor’s own assumed name. Heliogabalus forced the
Roman notables to comply with these changes, meaning that by praying to the new god they would
be praying to the Emperor at the same time. Julia Maesa in particular was aware that the outrageous
behavior of Heliogabalus was likely to trigger a rebellion, and could easily lead to the loss of power
by the family as a whole. She therefore organized a conspiracy which led to the assassination of
Heliogabalus and the installation of Alexander Severus, the last of the dynasty, in 222. Alexander
won some successes against the Persian Empire in the East, but his increasing inability to control
the money-hungry army led eventually to its mutiny and his assassination in 235. Heliogabalus’
religious edicts were reversed and the statue of El-Gabal, which Heliogabalus had erected for public
worship, was removed from Rome. Women were barred from ever attending meetings of the
Senate. The extreme sanction of damnatio memoriae—erasing and expunging a person from all
public records—was decreed upon Heliogabalus.
THE BREAKDOWN CRISIS OF THE THIRD CENTURY, 235-284 AD
The death of Alexander Severus began a period of about half a century which can be considered
the first collapse of the Roman Empire. This period is known as the crisis of the third century,
extending from 235-284 AD. It is also called the period of the “military anarchy.” During this time,
as a direct consequence of the abuses and failures of the Septimius Severus dynasty, the Empire
underwent military, political and economic crises and began to collapse. The leading factors in this
collapse were a constant series of barbarian invasions by Germanic tribes coming out of Central
Asia, a civil war inside the empire, and the galloping hyperinflation which had been triggered by
Septimius Severus’ increase in the size and pay scales of the Army. The crisis of the third century
was marked by acute political instability, with about 25 Emperors seizing and losing power, usually
by assassination, in a period of 50 years. Many of these emperors were lower-class adventurers,
and a number were quite exotic, such as the Emperor Philip the Arab. The western provinces of the
empire broke away to form an ephemeral empire of Gaul, while the Eastern provinces created an
equally unstable empire of Palmyra. At the same time, a series of barbarian invasions by Carpians,
Goths, Vandals, and Alamanni
occurred, supplemented by attacks from the Sassanid Persians in the east. The strength of the
empire was undermined by the runaway hyperinflation caused by many years of debasing the
coinage. This had started earlier under the Severan emperors who enlarged the army by one quarter
and doubled the base pay. As each new upstart barracks Emperor took power, they had to loot the
treasury and the merchant class to quickly raise the money needed to pay the expected “accession
bonus” to the troops, and this was often accomplished by clipping coins and minting new coinage
with more copper and lead. The easiest way to do so was by simply cutting the silver in coins and
adding less valuable metals. This total crisis of the empire is often thought of as marking the
transition between classical Greco-Roman civilization and late antiquity, or the beginning of the
dark ages. A relative stabilization of the empire was reached about 284 with the coming of
Diocletian, but then in such a way that guaranteed the final collapse a couple of centuries later.
The reforms of Diocletian boiled down to preserving a semblance of imperial power based on a
zero-growth totalitarian military autocracy that was doomed to an eventual collapse. One of the
main problems was that during the crisis of the third century, lawlessness, piracy, and brigandage
had expanded to such a scale that the Roman roads and the sea lanes of mare nostrum (the
Mediterranean) were no longer safe for merchants to travel, while the currency crisis made any
system of payments unstable and chaotic. Trade inside the empire had suffered a collapse from
which it would never recover. This led to tendencies towards local self-sufficiency, giving rise over
time to the manorial system, accompanied by the dominance of the feudal aristocracy who ruled
over a population of proto-serfs who had given up most of their liberty in exchange for food and
protection. In late Roman times these serfs became a half-free class of citizens known as coloni.
Even though a semblance of political unity was restored under Diocletian, dozens of important
cities in the western part of the empire had been largely destroyed, and their populations forced to
flee. Most of these cities would never recover for centuries to come. The atmosphere of general
insecurity is reflected by the city walls that had to be put up to defend important commercial
centers, including Rome itself.
ULPIAN: WHAT PLEASES THE PRINCE HAS THE FORCE OF LAW
For a sampling of the political mentality of these times, we can turn to the Roman jurist
Domitius Ulpianus (died 228), known as Ulpian. Ulpian was appointed by Septimius Severus to the
Council of State, and under Caracalla was master of the requests (magister libellorum). He was
driven out of office by Heliogabalus but brought back by Alexander, whom he served as chief
adviser. He was killed by the soldiers in 208 AD when he tried to crack down on some of the
abusive privileges enjoyed by the praetorian guard. Some of Ulpian’s sayings are simply edifying
propaganda of the hope and change variety such as his one-liner “Law is the art of the good and the
fair.” (Jus est ars boni et aequi.) Much more to the point is another saying which expresses the
spirit of every totalitarian regime down to the present day: “The sovereign is not bound by the
laws.” (Princeps legibus solutus est.) Bush believes that, and his fellow megalomaniac Obama
probably will lodge a similar claim. Another of Ulpian’s sayings captures some of the spirit of the
20th century dictators: “What pleases the prince has the force of law.” (Quo principi placuit legis
habet vigorem.)
All of these developments can be thought of as a result of the institutional and economic
processes which had been set in motion by the dynasty founded by Septimius Severus. If this phase
of Roman history can provide any insight into our own time, we may be facing a process of galloping
hyperinflation, the breakdown of internal order, institutional dissolution, military defeat
abroad, civil war, and social chaos under a possible Obama regime.

source: Webster Tarpley, The Unauthorised Biography of Barack H. Obama , (Progressive, 2008) p. 409-412
posted by Tarn at 7:20 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Obama killed Dumbledore?!
posted by codswallop at 10:17 PM on December 8, 2008


"A Distant Mirror" ... sounds familiar.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:33 PM on December 8, 2008


Ultimately though, it all might have only hastened the Empire's decline.

I dunno, doesn't seem right to blame Severus for something that happens that much later - why, it'd be like blaming a 19th century naturalist for a 20th century disaster like killer bees.
posted by scheptech at 11:15 PM on December 8, 2008


Think about that. The Romans did that with arrows, swords, and spears. None of this pussy labor saving tanks, bombs, machine guns and poison gas. Damn.

Rwanda managed with less than Rome had; with solely the humble machete.

Even if we accept the rightwing nutjobbery of the root of all evil being high taxes, the fact remains that it was the military's unrealistic expectations, not an initially fair wage, that caused this situation.

Thank you. What the hell is this about anyway? "He TAXED the RICH and ROME FELL."
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:34 AM on December 9, 2008


Obama is a pussy mulatto demagogue devoid of military training and experience; Severus was a sociopathic Roman-Phoenecian soldier with balls and a genuinely brilliant wife. I much prefer Obama.
posted by abakua at 5:09 AM on December 9, 2008


I've heard the same shaky comparisons made with both Vespasian and Hadrian.

Still, anything that gingers up interest in history should be counted a good thing.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:17 AM on December 9, 2008


The Roman Senate did not have debates about the appropriateness of conquering certain provinces because it would incorporate racially impure peoples into the Empire.

You're kidding right? The Romans were obsessed with categorizing peoples and determining their worth based on race. They debated often if certain groups were worthy of being named "Roman" or if they should just be enslaved and oppressed as inferiors. Inprobus races and even pure Romans had a heck of a time getting full citizenship outside of Italy until 212 when Caracalla (the son of our hero above) opened up citizenship to all Roman provinces (which, mind you, had to be actually declared Provinces rather than Protectorates) and he may have only done it to swell the numbers of the Legions and taxpayers, though he was known (also through the rumors spread by his enemies) for his admiration of inferior barbarian races like Germans and Dalmatians.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:20 AM on December 9, 2008


No. Not in the least. I stand by what I said.

In the 19th century, prominent Americans, representatives of the ruling class, argued against specific territorial conquests because doing so would incorporate racially "impure" peoples into the American empire. Cuba, the remaining portion of Mexico, the Phillipines -- all of them were pigmentationally incorrect and therefore, these men argued, not worthy of inclusion into what they unselfconsciously called a white man's republic.

Can you cite an example of the Roman ruling class making a similar choice, for the same reasons?
posted by jason's_planet at 10:49 AM on December 9, 2008


Can you cite an example of the Roman ruling class making a similar choice, for the same reasons?

I think all you can claim was that the Romans were more practical and greedy. Maybe even smarter. Not more enlightened or humanitarian in terms of race.
posted by tkchrist at 1:07 PM on December 9, 2008


Here's the first time that the Romans fought against anyone outside of Italy, in this case the Senate debated it for quite some time before deciding to fight against the Syracusans and take Messana sparking the First Punic War. For their help the Romans made the Mammertines (the pirates that controlled Messana) settle down and become Romanesque.

Periochae Book 16:

1Origo Carthaginiensium et primordia urbis eorum referuntur.

2Contra quos et Hieronem, regem Syracusanorum, auxilium Mamertinis ferendum senatus censuit, cum de ea re inter suadentes ut id fieret, dissuadentesque contentio fuisset; transgressisque tunc primum mare exercitibus Romanis adversus Hieronem saepius bene pugnatum.


Remember, this is the very first time that the Romans ventured outside of what they considered their gods-given homeland of Italy for conquest. In this time even, they would not fully incorporate Scicily into true Romanhood for fifty more years when they debated and decided to form the province of Scicily. Each subsequent time they ventured out there is more debate about it in the Senate, specifically debate about the merits of incorporating the territories into the overall Empire. In some conquests the Romans simply felt that the locals were too barbarous and set about Romanizing the countryside and establishing towns where Romans would live and barbarians would either have to "civilize" or live in squalor. In many places, like France, Spain, Portugal, we still see vestiges of Romanization in the language that people speak.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:30 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Still, anything that gingers up interest in history should be counted a good thing.

I hear there are these "Twilight" books that are getting the kids interested in reading.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:51 PM on December 9, 2008


Oh, I shoud add, in the first line, the Senate debates the origin of the Carthiginians who also have an interest in Messina, it was still unclear to the Senate if Carthage would fight the Romans if they took Messina from the Syracusans. The outcome of the debate was that they decided that the Mammertines could become potential Romans because they worshiped the god Mammer, who was the local version of Mars rather than the Carthaginian Baal or Melqart and that was OK in their book.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:17 PM on December 9, 2008


I think all you can claim was that the Romans were more practical and greedy. Maybe even smarter. Not more enlightened or humanitarian in terms of race.

I assure you that I am not trying to paint the Romans as sensitive new age guys. They were guilty of greed, xenophobia, imperial arrogance and a whole bunch of other unpleasant cultural traits. What I'm quibbling about here is the idea that our 20th/21st century concept of “racism” can be applied to Imperial Rome. And I don't think that's the case because our society's racism grew out of certain historical circumstances – specifically, the African slave trade, the subsequent creation of a skin-color based caste of enslaved people and the adoption of an elaborate system of beliefs to justify and support white domination.

So, no, I don't think that Romans had “racist” beliefs comparable to what we have in the West. BUT if you and Pollomacho are using the term in a looser, more popular sense covering typical human xenophobia and contempt for different cultures, well, I can't really argue with that. The Romans were arrogant, contemptuous bastards. The historical record backs that up.


Periochae 16, in English:

Against them and against king Hiero of the Syracusans, the Senate decided to offer help to the Mamertines. There had been much debate between those for and against it. For the first time, the Romans crossed the sea with an army and they fought successfully against Hiero. 


With all due respect, I don't think this quote supports your argument well. What I'm referring to is this kind of rhetoric:
[W]e have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind, of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race....[emphasis mine] We are anxious to force free government on all; and I see that it has been urged ... that it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the world, and especially over this continent. It is a great mistake.[22]
Senator John Calhoun, arguing against the annexation of Mexico


The outcome of the debate was that they decided that the Mammertines could become potential Romans because they worshiped the god Mammer, who was the local version of Mars rather than the Carthaginian Baal or Melqart and that was OK in their book.


That's closer but I'm still not hearing these ancient Romans invoking irreconcileable racial differences and racial hierarchies the way that Calhoun does above. They mention cultural similarities, religious similarities. But not race.
posted by jason's_planet at 10:54 PM on December 9, 2008


jason's_planet is correct. There is zero evidence for the existence of racism as we know it in the ancient world, for the very good reason that race is a modern construct. Sure, they were xenophobic and bastardly in all sorts of ways, and if you want to define "racism" as "not being a nice person," go right ahead. In the usual sense, the Romans were not racist.
posted by languagehat at 5:19 AM on December 10, 2008


There is zero evidence for the existence of racism as we know it in the ancient world, for the very good reason that race is a modern construct.

What? Really? Perhaps you and I have a very different idea of what the definition of race and racism are? In my definition of racism one ethnic group believes itself to be superior to another. Often these beliefs of superiority allows the group to justify atrocities committed against so called lesser peoples. In that sense history is mostly a series of recitations of this occurrence, and that includes the history of Rome over what they, themselves, refered to as barbarians. We even still have the words that they used in our own language. Two thousand years later we still use words like barbarian and savage. We still call France France and Britain Britain because that is where the Roman defined races of Franks and Britons lived. We in our modern construct wouldn't even consider French and British people to be a differnt race, maybe that is what you are defining as race?

You don't have to go farther than the Bible to see the ancient obsession with whom begat whom and the feeling of superiority one group feels over another. Take the story of the Good Samaritan for example. What's so special about that in a racial discussion? He's Samaritan, a lesser race of people and yet, even though he's a filthy Samaritan, he's still good and kind.

You want more examples? Here's Tacitus in his Histories Ch. 5 verses 4 and 5 describing the Jews (via Livius):

[4] In order to secure the allegiance of his people in the future, Moses prescribed for them a novel religion quite different from those of the rest of mankind. Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral. In the innermost part of the Temple, they consecrated an image of the animal which had delivered them from their wandering and thirst, choosing a ram as beast of sacrifice to demonstrate, so it seems, their contempt for Hammon. The bull is also offered up, because the Egyptians worship it as Apis. They avoid eating pork in memory of their tribulations, as they themselves were once infected with the disease to which this creature is subject. They still fast frequently as an admission of the hunger they once endured so long, and to symbolize their hurried meal the bread eaten by the Jews is unleavened. We are told that the seventh day was set aside for rest because this marked the end of their toils. In course of time the seductions of idleness made them devote every seventh year to indolence as well. Others say that this is a mark of respect to Saturn, either because they owe the basic principles of their religion to the Idaei, who, we are told, were expelled in the company of Saturn and became the founders of the Jewish race, or because, among the seven stars that rule mankind, the one that describes the highest orbit and exerts the greatest influence is Saturn. A further argument is that most of the heavenly bodies complete their path and revolutions in multiples of seven.

[5] Whatever their origin, these observances are sanctioned by their antiquity. The other practices of the Jews are sinister and revolting, and have entrenched themselves by their very wickedness. Wretches of the most abandoned kind who had no use for the religion of their fathers took to contributing dues and free-will offerings to swell the Jewish exchequer; and other reasons for their increasing wealth way be found in their stubborn loyalty and ready benevolence towards brother Jews. But the rest of the world they confront with the hatred reserved for enemies. They will not feed or intermarry with gentiles. Though a most lascivious people, the Jews avoid sexual intercourse with women of alien race. Among themselves nothing is barred. They have introduced the practice of circumcision to show that they are different from others. Proselytes to Jewry adopt the same practices, and the very first lesson they learn is to despise the gods, shed all feelings of patriotism, and consider parents, children and brothers as readily expendable. However, the Jews see to it that their numbers increase. It is a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child, and they think that eternal life is granted to those who die in battle or execution - hence their eagerness to have children, and their contempt for death. Rather than cremate their dead, they prefer to bury them in imitation of the Egyptian fashion, and they have the same concern and beliefs about the world below. But their conception of heavenly things is quite different. The Egyptians worship a variety of animals and half-human, half-bestial forms, whereas the Jewish religion is a purely spiritual monotheism. They hold it to be impious to make idols of perishable materials in the likeness of man: for them, the Most High and Eternal cannot be portrayed by human hands and will never pass away. For this reason they erect no images in their cities, still less in their temples. Their kings are not so flattered, the Roman emperors not so honored. However, their priests used to perform their chants to the flute and drums, crowned with ivy, and a golden vine was discovered in the Temple; and this has led some to imagine that the god thus worshipped was Prince Liber, the conqueror of the East. But the two cults are diametrically opposed. Liber founded a festive and happy cult: the Jewish belief is paradoxical and degraded.


The Greeks too had this concept of superiority. Here's Aristotle in Politics Chapter One, Part two (found here):

But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female. Wherefore the poets say, "It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians; " as if they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:32 AM on December 10, 2008


Pollomacho, you're wasting a lot of time and effort. No one is denying the ancientness of group solidarity and exclusiveness. If you think "racism" is no more than that, that's a strange idea but there's no point debating it, since we're never going to agree (and you're going to run into a lot of confusing discussions, because using words in an idiosyncratic way tends to do that). The word "barbarian" comes from Greek, where it means "anyone who does not speak (correct) Greek." Alexander the Great was considered a barbarian by many Athenians. If you think that is racism, well, like I said, that's a strange idea but you're welcome to it.
posted by languagehat at 6:35 AM on December 10, 2008


I'm not talking about simple "group solidarity," I'm talking specifically about ethnic group belief of superiority (and in part on the very self definition of ethnicity). So what then is your definition of race and racism LH? I don't think we're operating on a common terminology here at all.

Alexander the Great was considered a barbarian by many Athenians.

They considered him barbaric (barbaros), but still Hellenic. But, by his time though Hellenes were defined by culture and language rather than common ethnicity. It was still considered a superior culture, but a culture rather than an ethnicity all the same.

Isocrates Pangyricus: [50] And so far has our city [Athens] distanced the rest of mankind in thought and in speech that her pupils have become the teachers of the rest of the world; and she has brought it about that the name Hellenes suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and that the title Hellenes is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:11 AM on December 10, 2008


So what then is your definition of race and racism

The standard one. African-Americans are not a different "ethnic group." but are considered a different race. As I said, race is a modern construct, and it did not exist in the ancient world. And if you're citing that Isocrates translation because it mentions "race," the original talks about γένος, which is not "race."

I don't think we're operating on a common terminology here at all.

Very true, and as I said before, I'm pretty sure yours is the outlier; you're welcome to it, but you're going to find yourself in a lot of frustrating discussions like this one. Why exactly are you so determined to find modern concepts of race in the ancient world, anyway?
posted by languagehat at 10:27 AM on December 10, 2008


On the subject of race, I highly recommend Kenan Malik's The Meaning of Race.
posted by languagehat at 10:51 AM on December 10, 2008


I suppose African-American is a race in the sense of self-identification. African-Americans are distinct in their (believed) common ancestry, which does fit into the definition of ethnicity or race. Black, would be, by the modern sense, a race as black people be they in America or Africa share physical features we've decided in our infinate wisdom to categorize as somehow different. Did ancient Romans lump people with one skin tone or ancestry together? They couldn't get enough of it!

Why exactly are you so determined to find modern concepts of race in the ancient world, anyway?

I had no intention of doing so until you brought it up actually. I was actually trying to counter jason's_planet's supposition that the Roman Senate did not debate the conquest of other nations because it might mean having to allow impure blood lines into Roman society.

Do I think that Romans included or excluded certain people because they fit into an over-arching, general, broad categories such as "black people" or "white people?" No. Do I think that they debated if Nubians or Gauls or Allemani or Judeans or Chaldians or Caledonians or Latins or Thracians or Iberians or etc. have X tendencies, customs, or characteristics and are therefore worthy or unworthy of being called Roman? Certainly, some of those characteristics even included the way they looked. If that does not fit into what you term as the modern construct of race, well then I suppose we have a departure point, but it certainly did occur in Rome specifically and around the world generally. I found it strange that people don't think that happened. I mean why impose strict dress codes based on ethnicity and tribe across the empire if not to be able to point out plain as the goofy hat on his head who is a Thracian and who is a Kurd (and therefore know what to expect of him based on prejudiced assumptions about his ethnicity, aka, in the modern sense racism).

Why do I care? I don't particularly, it's only for the sake of discussion. Everything on MetaFilter is a general waste of time anyway, is it not? I mean we aren't getting more than entertainment and education out of it. I won't be personally offended if we continue to disagree and I'll happily continue to discuss things with you in the future, sometime agreeing or disagreeing.

And last,

if you're citing that Isocrates translation because it mentions "race," the original talks about γένος, which is not "race."

No, I was thinking more of the last line where he says they share common culture rather than common blood.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:31 AM on December 10, 2008


I hear there are these "Twilight" books that are getting the kids interested in reading.

Not nice, Marisa.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:21 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


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