Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Roman Emperors: Categorization

So a colleague and I have been kicking around the idea of teaching an "Ancient Roman Politics" class, which means that I've been trying to catch up on my Roman government readings. These are of course few and far between, since the Romans (like modern Americans) weren't really great political thinkers. They were great soldiers, engineers, lawyers, architects, and all other manner of practical occupations, but when it came to being philosophical, well, that was best left to the Greeks.


Anyway, that's an aside. While reading a book about the Roman Empire, I tried to piece together some kind of outline of Roman Emperors. The question is, how do we classify the various kind of Emperors? I don't mean in terms of good vs. bad Emperors, I mean in terms of some kind of unified philosophy of political rule? What kinds of capabilities did the Emperors bring to the administrative table, and what did their rule in general look like?

Unfortunately, the infographic doesn't easily transfer over from Word (no doubt someone with better technological capabilities than me could do it), but this is what I've come up with:

  • Republicans (ruling as exemplars of ancient virtue): Augustus through Marcus Aurelius
  • Tyrants (ruling as kings, for personal profit/pleasure/personal virtue--this one might need some work): Commodus through Elagabalus
  • Military Dictators (ruling as generals first, administrators second): Septimus Severus through Numerian
  • Administrative Bureaucrats (ruling as organizers and unifiers): Diocletian through Theodosius
  • [Western Empire] Puppet Rulers (ruling under the thumb of others, usually a general or staffer, sometimes a barbarian monarch): Honorius through Romulus Augustulus
  • [Eastern Empire] Caesaropapists (ruling church and state alike): Arcadius through Constantine XI
Obviously this is an imperfect list. The "Tyrants" category, for example, implies that there were no good emperors in that stretch, which I'm not sure is the case. Maybe "Autocrats" would be better? The idea is more that the language of the Republic has disappeared, even if the actual style of governing had not changed all that much within the Empire. Instead of pretending to be "Princeps" ("First Citizen"), they were now openly "Imperator."

And of course two of the last three do not account for the rise of Christianity, which has to fit in somewhere. By the time of Diocelation's efforts to consolidate the Empire--including by stamping out dissenting religions--the Christians as a political force have to be accounted for when thinking about the Emperor. In that sense, "What is the Emperor's relationship to minority cultures in the Empire?" becomes a key question. (This would apply to barbarians as well as believers.)

Finally, I'm not at all satisfied with my characterization of the Eastern Empire, but this is a result of my ignorance. I just don't know that much about the Byzantine Emperors, though I suspect that a similar pattern to the one traced out above might apply.

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