The Boy’s Own Paper’s view of a chariot race at the Circus Maximus in Rome

The layers of ancient Rome

Emperors existed at the intersection of many seeming incompatibilities

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On 18 December 69 AD, the emperor Vitellius, who briefly grabbed the supreme power in the civil war that followed the suicide of Nero, realised that his time was up. The army was abandoning him, and the troops of a new pretender were closing in on Rome. He descended from the imperial residence on the Palatine hill (whence our “palace”) into the Forum, the symbolic heart of Republican Rome, to abdicate. He gave a tearful speech and surrendered his sword — symbolising the power to pass the death penalty — to the consul, the chief magistrate of the Republic.

Then this solemn and sombre occasion went spectacularly wrong. On his way to deposit the imperial insignia at the temple of Concord, Vitellius lost his nerve and was persuaded to change his mind. Two days of chaotic fighting followed. The temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest on the Capitol got burned down.

The Roman Emperor Vitellius, killed by his own soldiers

On 20 December, in a final fit of panic, Vitellius, who had been moving aimlessly around the city, arrived back on the Palatine. The palace was completely abandoned. In an unforgettable cinematic vignette, which he does so well, the Roman historian Tacitus describes the doomed emperor running through its corridors. “The solitude and silence of the place were frightening. He tried locked doors and shuddered to find rooms empty.”

This scene, used in Tom Holland’s Pax but not in Mary Beard’s Emperor of Rome, illustrates many of the contradictions and complexities that have long been seen as key to understanding that constitutional and political peculiarity, the Roman imperial regime: The symbolic and legalistic significance of age-old Republican institutions. Their frequent practical impotence in the face of crisis. The choreography of power anchored in the historical topography of Rome. The very thinly veiled threat of the military behind all the decorum. The bustling world of the palace offices underlying the emperor’s ability to do anything, yet staffed by slaves and freedmen just like any aristocratic household. The theatricality that came from the emperor’s ability “to play well in the comedy of life”, as the first of the emperors, Augustus, put it on his deathbed. It is all there.

Yet, historians over the last century have increasingly doubted that this is what Roman imperial history was actually about. Rome was, in the words of one influential university textbook, an “empire without bureaucracy”. The power of the central institutions to affect local lives was often more imaginary than real. Provincial intellectuals could joke that for country bumpkins, the “king” still meant Agamemnon.

Much recent historical work looks at the empire neither from the Palatine (as Suetonius did in his Twelve Caesars) nor from the senate house (as Tacitus did), but from the innumerable, diverse and semi-autonomous communities of Italy and overseas provinces. There most everyday governmental responsibilities rested. The right balance is difficult to strike, but for those who are interested in politics and power, the older view from the city of Rome remains important — and it is always in need of updating in the light of provincial and Italian perspectives.

Nor is this only a narrow, elite perspective: it is precisely at the nerve centre of Roman politics that we know most about the influence of crowds and of the various non-elite individuals involved in running the empire. Both Beard and Holland take us, in their different ways, back to this traditional set of problems and concerns of the Roman ruling class.

Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World, Mary Beard (Profile, £30)

Beard, however, finds more scope than Holland does for the small-town dimension, particularly in her chapter dealing with the emperor “on the job”, and for non-elite participation in the exercise of power in Rome itself. The chapters on “palace people” and on the emperor at the spectacles (the prime venue for interactions with the people, both serious and playful) are amongst the highlights of her book.

For once, the horse races and the Circus Maximus, the true centre of Roman popular culture, get their rightful pride of place alongside the gladiatorial fights at the Colosseum that are better known in modern imagination. Cameo appearances of individuals around the emperors vividly convey the variety of their social world, from the journey of the “father of Claudius Etruscus” across the whole of the 1st century AD (beginning as a slave at Smyrna and ending with the full elite status and dangers of imperial displeasure) to the guardsman Lucius Marius Vitalis, who joined up in the hope of literate education and died on his first trip with the emperor Hadrian, aged 17.

For all the focus on the emperors and their court, Beard avoids straightforward narrative and goes for a thematic approach — browsing freely amongst whatever might be relevant from Augustus to the fall of the Severan dynasty in the 3rd century. She declares herself not to be in complete sympathy with Fergus Millar, who advanced in his 1977 book The Emperor in the Roman World an immensely influential view of the emperors reacting primarily to local initiatives and expectations (her emperor “did more than just wait for the mail”).

The emerging image is not in fact all that different, though: just as for Millar, Beard’s emperor is, ultimately, “what he did”, shaped by the expectations of the governed, and largely free from that bane of modern politics: the need to have policies. In the pages dealing with the well-documented governorship of the smooth and obfuscatory Pliny the Younger, “an emperor who appears by turn to enjoy the (illusion of) micromanagement and to wash his hands of it” is presented most convincingly.

Holland settles on a shorter period, from the late years of Nero in the 60s AD to the death of Hadrian in 138. This straightforward sequential account focusses on political and military events, and the authorial voice resonates with ancient sources. This deep-dive has important advantages. “Events, dear boy, events” (in Harold Macmillan’s phrase) do matter: for all the slow pace of change, too much happened in the empire over three centuries for Beard (or anyone) to cover in just one volume.

Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age, Tom Holland (Little, Brown, £30)

Holland’s writing style is superb, and he has a gift for scene-setting. The account of the soon-to-be-cancelled deification of Nero’s second empress, Poppaea Sabina, with which the book opens is just one highlight amongst many. It also has its dangers. The balance of the story traces the survival of ancient narrative sources too closely for my taste (did the crisis following Nero’s death really deserve to take half of the book?), and it is difficult to avoid putting too much weight on an unreliable anecdote or perpetuating a cliche.

It is arguably true that Nero “adored acting”, but so allegedly did some of his moralistic opponents. Perhaps more interesting is why such interests become public and even politically advantageous at some times, but not others (was there an earlier era when a former Shadow Chancellor could salvage his popularity by dancing on television?).

The account of Trajan, “the best of emperors”, openly follows Trajan’s own propaganda. Not many other scholars would buy the line that Pliny the Younger was “not complicit in the bloodbath” of Domitian’s years, much as he would have liked us to. Despite oversize emperors trampling barbarians underfoot in art, the Roman army was much less of a “killing machine” than the emperors liked to admit: an average Roman soldier in a typical year would never kill an enemy.

It also tends to prioritise what is on the screen: the confusion of Roman arrangements in Judaea, to which Holland provides an excellent guide, could not have been much worse than in Britain. King Togidubnus at Fishbourne was not all that different from Herod Agrippa II in Galilee.

This hinders Holland on a surprising point: though his book is called Pax, there is relatively little exploration of what “peace” meant and for whom. Whilst he conveys the sense that Roman peace was ideologically rooted in victories and ends the book memorably with a Roman graffito in modern Jordan, “The Romans always win” (rather than Romanes eunt domus), other voices do not get much of a hearing, not even Tacitus’ Calgacus: “they create a devastation and call it peace”.

Roman emperors and their empire existed at the intersection of many seemingly incompatible viewpoints: they were bringers of peace and insatiable conquerors, monsters on display and civilised citizens, gods and frightened mortals. Holland provides a supremely readable story of how the Roman elite liked to see them, but Beard’s book is more alert to these different layers of meaning.

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