four Good Emperors, some forgotten guy, and one more Good Emperor, then:
May 22, 2020 4:33 PM   Subscribe

 
The analogy seems a little unfair to Commodus.
posted by ocschwar at 5:04 PM on May 22 [5 favorites]


Yes, Commodus has had a bad press. He actually promoted Peace as Roman policy, which (I think) may have caused him to get into all that gladiator stuff: he had to demonstrate he could be as tough and martial as any other emperor. But, no matter how Dio Cassius may have exaggerated the situation, Commodus does appear to have become unhinged once in power.
posted by CCBC at 6:15 PM on May 22 [3 favorites]


He had lustrous curly hair, too.
posted by Segundus at 6:46 PM on May 22


I was looking for a pull-quote that best represented this essay for the sake of posting it elsewhere without misrepresenting it, and I settled on this:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” So said the philosopher-king of the Pax Americana, once again the ‘last great emperor’ of a dying empire lashing out with senseless aggression before everything once again went to shit. Barack Obama and Marcus Aurelius were both afflicted by the same awful curse: to be the poor tragic soul of a ruler burdened unlike all his foolish predecessors with actually understanding the terrible nature of the bloodthirsty machine atop which he sat, and through which his most deeply-held values were ultimately devoured by all the lies of his empire.
Thanks for sharing. It’s a great essay, and also a great example of how to talk about Obama’s presidency critically from an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist perspective in a way that neither callously disclaims what was important about his election nor pulls any punches in describing what he wrought.
posted by invitapriore at 8:15 PM on May 22 [22 favorites]


That was a lot of an essay, with some good zingers and some very good points about political ideas.

Thanks for posting.
posted by ropeladder at 8:17 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]


This is a fantastic essay and I can't get over these lines:
Empires are never just built abroad. American exceptionalism, Britain’s “white man’s burden,” the Pax Romana, the German “place in the sun,” French Laïcité… all of them have the same ancient decay, the same necessity of empire: practice oppression there, perfect it here.
posted by Ouverture at 8:31 PM on May 22 [11 favorites]


“...this is why imperial propaganda (and ideology) tends to survive so much longer than the “thousand year Reich” itself, zombie-like, not a life but a half-life, no longer in charge but still warmongering from among the ruins. Nuclear waste remains radioactive for millennia. Fossils become fuel.”
posted by sixswitch at 8:45 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]


Nowhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does it identify a patient sending several legions to invade the south coast of Britain only to have them step onto the beach, collect seashells, then turn around and sail away without even trying to conquer anyone.

Recently I rewatched I, Claudius, which includes this scene. Watching John Hurt as Caligula, posturing, shouting, threatening the senators and then turning his back on them, I remembered something of what I had thought when I had first seen it. That is to say--how could that entire room of seasoned politicians and hardened guards not have a single man in it who had the nerve to walk up and split his wispy blond head in half?

When I was young, I supposed it was because they were from Ancient Times--they had never seen such a thing before, and even though they knew he was mad, they were fearful in a way that men of today could never be. Now, of course, I understand better.

It's a hell of an essay, but essentially nihilistic. That's more of an observation than a complaint.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:55 PM on May 22 [14 favorites]


to be the poor tragic soul of a ruler burdened unlike all his foolish predecessors with actually understanding the terrible nature of the bloodthirsty machine atop which he sat, and through which his most deeply-held values were ultimately devoured by all the lies of his empire.

"Not only will america go to your country and kill all your people. But they'll come back 20 years later and make a movie essay about how killing your people made their soldiers president feel sad." - Frankie Boyle me
posted by lalochezia at 10:06 PM on May 22 [13 favorites]


The stuff about Churchill and Godwin in the middle of this essay is also well worth reading. I had known about Churchill's role in stuffing up the Gallipoli campaign in WWI, but it had been painted as a kind of noble suffering as he learned his lesson. I had no idea about his disgusting actions and comments in India and re the Palestinians.
posted by freethefeet at 11:13 PM on May 22 [4 favorites]


Any places apart from Medoium where I can find more by Laurie Charles? I had never heard of them up until now, but I could do with more like this. Bracing.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:15 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]




Churchill and the Bengal famine: Bengal Shadows.
posted by Pendragon at 2:27 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


Commodus was a truly catastrophic exception. Granting him heirdom was neither the behaviour of a wise man nor of a Good Dad™. That is the behaviour of an entitled bungler, a hypocrite, a weakling. And Marcus knew his kid was bad. What, then, is the philosopher-king in reality?

Worth noting that Marcus Aurelius was the first emperor in a long time to have a son who lived to adulthood. The adoptions which produced the "good emperors" were done out of necessity.

In several subtle but profound ways, and despite its claims to the contrary, the Stoic philosophy encourages a denial of personal responsibility more than an embrace of it. It fails as a philosophy because it has no coherent critique of power in the real world; it is a dead zone of political thought.

I wasn't aware that this was a requirement of philosophy.
posted by atrazine at 8:15 AM on May 23 [7 favorites]


Worth noting that Marcus Aurelius was the first emperor in a long time to have a son who lived to adulthood.

Between Augustus and Aurelius, only Vespasian had adult sons, and he got into a serious fight with the senate over their following him: "Either my sons will succeed me, or no one will!" Technically, the princeps was the choice of the senate, but the senate tended to rubberstamp these things. In the event, the Flavians turned out to be a solid crew and essentially built the happy platform for the Five Good Emperors. (Domitian gets bad press, but that's story for another time.)

how could that entire room of seasoned politicians and hardened guards not have a single man in it who had the nerve to walk up and split his wispy blond head in half?

Indeed. Story goes (and I hope it is true) that when Khrushchev took over in the Soviet Union and gave his 1956 speech to the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union about how awful Stalin had been, someone in the audience shouted out, "why didn't you do something?" Khrushchev glared at the crowd and shouted "Who said that?"

Crickets.

Then, quietly, he noted - "Now you know why."

Examples seems a bit eurocentric. Plenty of other interesting empires out there if empires, as the author says, are her business.
posted by BWA at 9:13 AM on May 23 [18 favorites]


I had a mixed reaction to this essay. Enjoyed the takedown of imperial hubris and the colorful asides, though it was more than a bit arch. Neat rhetorical flourishes don't always lead to convincing analogies (fossil fuels still burn like the imperial dynamics of Rome still apply--but... some greenhouse gasses like methane won't last as long as others like carbon dioxide? Does nothing bad expire?)

Another rhetorical flourish I thought was over the top: that nobody of note had moved the US toward liberty and justice for all... Why would Lincoln or MLK or the Voting Rights Act not count?

So also some things have changed in the last 2 thousand years. I think a lot of secular lefty thinkers don't give enough credit for the Christian influence on Obama's (and Hillary's) thinking. (See Hillary on Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor.) Partly through Reinhold Niebuhr (Comey's pseudonym, also an influence on Jimmy Carter).

And that's tied in also I think to the disappointing history of many idealistic movements, like the French and Russian Revolutions.

Obama wasn't just a stoic, his theory of change was based on Christian ideas about the fallen nature of Man, a history of best intentions backfiring, a general tragic sense that even a thoughtful compassionate leader couldn't just turn everything around, but by working with existing powers could here and there nudge (same word used by Cass Sunstein to describe how the 99% might be helped without any noticeable disruption) history with a light touch.

That Obama lent his Nobel Peace Prizing Winning authority to flying robot murder doesn't mean his whole project went against his philosophical nature but that from the start he realized his mission was tragically limited. Without Obama there we might not have had a treaty with Iran (which might either have like North Korea achieved a bomb, or might have stymied us in a worse war than Iraq), and he began to normalize relations with Cuba, changed the way our missile defense system was deployed. For things like NSA spying, Obama was motivated by the Christmas Underwear Bomber--he realized his domestic and foreign programs would be completely negated by a major terrorist act causing him to lose credibility.

Over the course of the Obama years I began to realize more was possible than this "light touch" theory of change, and also that even though incremental yet stable (unlike French or Russian Revolutions) changes would make a real difference, the NEGATIVE developments were happening much faster (rich getting richer, with regulatory capture, etc.)
posted by Schmucko at 5:31 PM on May 23 [8 favorites]


Between Augustus and Aurelius, only Vespasian had adult sons

Look, so I bribed some dudes but Britanniacus had a toga, and was older then Nero.

it's true about the Khrushchev cricket's, true as can be without audio transcripts.

good take, yeah, when the empire was east coast/ west coast in the early days, the mix of adopted and real sons through the empire into more infighting, with the potential of the coeval empire with 4 ceasers in title, to much infighting like licinius and constitine, if old #1 didn't construct of version of the bailey bridge, chances are it would Liciniantnaople.

"Ancient Rome was ridiculous. The emperor Caligula (“Little Boots” in Latin) has been widely regarded by history to have been utterly, certifiably bonkers. He made his horse a consul. He blew his predecessor’s hoard of wealth in the space of a year. He declared himself a living god and frequently dressed up in public as Apollo and Jupiter."

it was Jove for the most part, not Apollo and Starbuck. ok, Gaius was hailed as the savior from Tiberius and did not spend all the loot in year one but close. The first year or so of his reign was regarded as happy and prosperous then he went insane. He shouldn't have succeeded, his father should have and his uncle did.

I do believe he made Claudius councel one year, the horse the next because one must be a senator before councel, even a horse.


"Nowhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does it identify a patient sending several legions to invade the south coast of Britain only to have them step onto the beach, collect seashells, then turn around and sail away without even trying to conquer anyone."

no where in my history courses was I taught that Gauis even made it to Dover, he didn't. Claudius did.

history is mad. but getting it wrong to ascibe a point about empire decline is like playing poker near a black hole.

I'm tired of ripping the article apart.

if Obama has to be compared to an emperor, have to be Severus.
posted by clavdivs at 5:59 PM on May 23 [3 favorites]


"He advocated.... calmcore macho beard-strokery."

Highly recommend.
posted by storybored at 6:49 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


Dio Cassius, on Caligula's abortive invasion of Britain:

"And when he reached the ocean, as if he were going to conduct a campaign in Britain, and had drawn up all the soldiers on the beach, 2 he embarked on a trireme, and then, after putting out a little from the land, sailed back again. Next he took his seat on a lofty platform and gave the soldiers the signal as if for battle, bidding the trumpeters urge them on; then of a sudden he ordered them to gather up the shells. 3 Having secured these spoils (for he needed booty, of course, for his triumphal procession), he became greatly elated, as if he had enslaved the very ocean; and he gave his soldiers many presents. The shells he took back to Rome for the purpose of exhibiting the booty to the people there as well."
posted by Earthtopus at 6:51 PM on May 23


commodus died in 192 - the western part of the roman empire "fell" in 476 - that would be 284 years of decline and "catastrophic" government - which is a few decades longer than the u s has managed to exist

just trying to put this in context and proportion - as bad as some periods of late antiquity were, i don't think the fracturing of the western empire was a foregone conclusion until the mid 5th century
posted by pyramid termite at 7:09 PM on May 23


hey PT, the western empire fractured around 370, but agree that empire as a whole was not written off just that by 420, the empire could not aborb or conquer new territory, like 50 years of protracted defense.
posted by clavdivs at 8:35 PM on May 23


Look, so I bribed some dudes but Britanniacus had a toga, and was older then Nero.

Britannicus son of Claudius? He was born AD 41. Nero (Claudius's stepson) was born in AD 37. Britannicus died as he was on brink of manhood (age 14), said to have been poisoned at his birthday party, that just four months after Claudius's own death. What a grim little affair that must have been, his (murdered?) father just four months death, the party being hosted by his scheming step-mother Agrippina and her natural son Nero, whose attitude towards the seizure Britannicus suffered after drinking the wine was, "just a passing epileptic fit, he'll be fine in a minute". Even Agrippina was alarmed, but it all worked out in the end for Nero, who went on for a thirteen year stint as emperor (long time, thirteen years), and was well beloved by the masses, so much so that after his miserable death, two, possibly three, imposters came forward and claimed that they themselves were the true Nero, and had just taken a break from the trials of rulership.

Honestly, the current American political class would not last five minutes against these people.

"Nowhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does it identify a patient sending several legions to invade the south coast of Britain..."

For lack of legions is probably the sticking point for these dreamers. My understanding si that mental wards are mostly Napoleon wannabes. Another man who dreamed of invading Britain.

"The shells he took back to Rome for the purpose of exhibiting the booty to the people there as well."

Many reams of paper by classical scholars trying to explain that story away, some quite ingenious. Caligula was mad, Caligula was making a joke, the latin for shells is also an obscure word for boat (aka coracle), the shells in question were pearl bearing oysters. Step right up, take your pick.

(And, to pick one more nit - he talked about making the horse Incitatus a consul, but never actually did it. Again, sign of madness or sign of contempt? You decide.)

if Obama has to be compared to an emperor, have to be Severus.

Interesting! Septimius Severus or Severus Alexander? Could go either way. Both did a number on the currency.

(Sorry to gas on, I'm finishing up a Roman project just now, this stuff is kind of in the forefront of my brain. I'll shut up now.)
posted by BWA at 6:08 AM on May 24 [4 favorites]


We haven't had a drag emperor yet, so it's not Severus Alexander.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:37 AM on May 24


It’s a pretty good essay with a pretty dubious premise, and the analogy fails almost immediately; Obama didn’t get to name his successor, of course. And bringing up the examples of the Founding Fathers and Churchill as people who are admired but shouldn’t be, prior to getting around to Obama is pretty bogus. “Between 384 and 807 civilians” killed by drones isn’t good, of course, but it’s also less than a rounding error compared to the civilians mowed through by his predecessor, whose stunt of landing on an aircraft carrier and prematurely declaring victory is maybe one of the closest equivalents to staging a raid on Britain’s seashells. (Not to mention the lives saved by expanding health care.) But, in a very real and persistent sense, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and Charles makes no bones about which side she’s on.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:16 AM on May 24 [7 favorites]


It’s a pretty good essay with a pretty dubious premise, and the analogy fails almost immediately; Obama didn’t get to name his successor, of course. And bringing up the examples of the Founding Fathers and Churchill as people who are admired but shouldn’t be, prior to getting around to Obama is pretty bogus. “Between 384 and 807 civilians” killed by drones isn’t good, of course, but it’s also less than a rounding error compared to the civilians mowed through by his predecessor, whose stunt of landing on an aircraft carrier and prematurely declaring victory is maybe one of the closest equivalents to staging a raid on Britain’s seashells. (Not to mention the lives saved by expanding health care.) But, in a very real and persistent sense, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and Charles makes no bones about which side she’s on.

The Yemeni genocide and the destruction of Libya both have far larger body counts if Obama's neoconservative legacy isn't clear enough.

And of course, there were all those CIA torturers and Wall St executives who were never prosecuted during those 8 years.
posted by Ouverture at 8:19 AM on May 24 [5 favorites]


Britannicus son of Claudius? He was born AD 41. Nero (Claudius's stepson) was born in AD 37. Britannicus died as he was on brink of manhood

yup, my bad for taking hubris over fact.

and double bad for positing that Incitatus was even a senator.

For lack of legions is probably the sticking point for these dreamers

interesting that Claudius invaded only a few year after Gaius' death. one paper suggests it was a scouting mission and that he just decided to take it because Galba warned him of danger.

good work. yeah, not Alexander despite Severus' absolute policy.
posted by clavdivs at 12:35 PM on May 24


“Between 384 and 807 civilians” killed by drones isn’t good, of course, but

Imperialism is a hell of a drug.
posted by Cezar Golescu at 7:54 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


If you're going to indict Obama, and stretch that far back to do so, at least mention his greatest failing: his belief that light touch reform would be sufficient.
posted by blue shadows at 9:47 PM on May 25 [1 favorite]


A long essay, which I got about 75% of (judging by the position of the scrollbar) when I determined that the remaining minutes of my life were better spent on something else. Yes there are a few zingers, and some takedowns of shibboleths, and some trenchant observations, but I guess the target demographic is not me.

The proposed pull quote about Obama as a true philosopher-king was good. But overall it just felt like a bumper-car ride of knocking over common delusions and exposing irony.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 10:07 AM on May 26 [1 favorite]


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