The Bizarre Lives of Rome’s Emperors

The New York Times
By Catherine Nixey

Roman emperors can be so troublesome to the modern reader. Less because their crimes were, by modern standards, breathtaking — although as Barry Strauss shows in his engaging new book, “Ten Caesars,” they were. Nero, it is claimed, committed incest with his mother, then executed her. The emperor Galerius, meanwhile, was said to enliven mealtimes by feeding criminals to his pet bears as he ate. Yet terrible though these acts may be, one must admit that they make for entertaining if unsavory reading.

The real reason emperors cause modern hearts to sink is not so much the matricide, fratricide, pederasty or (in one instance) insistence on entirely blue meals. What is truly troubling about the emperors is that there were just so many of them. Between the start of the first and the fourth centuries there were (depending on how you count them) around 70 or so — five in A.D. 193 alone. And they were hardly kind with their names. It takes a reader of stern historical fiber not to be a little put off by the concatenation of Constans, Constantius and Constantine.

So even before opening the first page of “Ten Caesars,” the reader feels a debt of gratitude to Strauss for scything off a superfluous 60-plus rulers and concentrating on a manageable number. The table of contents shows that he has further simplified things by giving each emperor an epithet. So you find “Tiberius, the Tyrant,” “Nero, the Entertainer” and so on — a trick familiar from the names of medieval kings. Or possibly “Game of Thrones.”

Strauss, a professor at Cornell, has the intellectual credentials to brave such simplification. Moreover, the task he has set himself requires it. To cover 360-odd years in a similar number of pages means going at quite a lick. The four-decade reign of Augustus (“the Founder”) is covered in 40 pages. The 30-year reign of Constantine (“the Christian”) passes in a brisk 28. That speed is both the great strength and the great weakness of this book.

The strength of this approach is that it offers perspective. All too often books on Rome, like literary grand tourists, revisit the familiar sites, lingering over the naughty Neros, the effective armies and the efficient bureaucracy. But, as Strauss shows, Rome was far more complex and far more interesting than that. This huge and multifarious empire stretched from Spain to Syria and lasted, in the West, for half a millennium. Its leaders reflected this.

So one chapter is devoted to Septimius Severus (“the African”); another emphasizes how Rome came to be run not by Italians but by “hard military men from the Balkans” — though not so hard, Strauss observes, that they didn’t enjoy purple robes accessorized with silk shoes and jewels. Dictator chic has a long history.

Strauss also brings back the often-neglected Elagabalus, though not with a chapter of his own. It was he who enjoyed those blue (not to mention green and iridescent) meals. He also, more intriguingly, tried to impose the worship of an all-powerful Semitic god on Rome. Elagabalus failed where Constantine would, more famously, succeed a century later — but you understand Constantine far better in the light of his often-ignored predecessor.

However, too frequently the cost of this breadth is depth — a sense not helped by this book’s style. Strauss is not an author to balk either at cliché (one emperor “sowed his wild oats”; another is a “former bad boy”) or anachronism. Severus is likened to “a new C.E.O., brought in to effect a restructuring,” while the Colosseum was “as revolutionary as Facebook or Twitter,” a simile no less baffling than it is anachronistic. Rome and its Senate were not Silicon Valley in sandals. To suggest such things, even in passing, is not merely oversimplification but misrepresentation — and mars an otherwise enlightening book.

Barry Strauss
Ten Caesars