The banquet of a noble Roman in ancient Rome was more than a lavish social meal, it was a crucial power tool — a way of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.
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Excerpt: Ten Caesars
A NIGHT ON THE PALATINE
It is night on the Palatine Hill, a historic height in the heart of Rome. Imagine yourself alone there after the tourists go home and the guards lock the gates. Even during the day, the Palatine is quiet compared with the crowded sites in the valleys below. At night, alone and given an eerie nocturnal run of the place, could you rouse imperial ghosts?
At first sight, the answer might seem to be no. The breezy, leafy hilltop lacks the majesty of the nearby Roman Forum’s columns and arches or the spectacle of the Colosseum and its bloodstained arcades. The ruins on the Palatine appear as a confusing jumble of brick and concrete and misnomers. The so-called Hippodrome, or oval-shaped stadium, for example, is really a sunken garden, while the “House of Livia” did not belong to that great lady.
But look more closely. Give rein to your imagination, and you will understand why the Palatine Hill gave us our word palace. It was here on the Palatine that Rome’s first emperor planted the flag of power and where, for centuries, most of his successors each ruled over fifty million to sixty million people. It began as a modest compound for the ruler and his family and a temple to his patron god. Then it turned into a series of ever-grander domus, or “houses.” They were palatial estates used not only as homes but also for imperial audiences, councils, embassies, morning salutations, evening banquets, love affairs, old and new religious rituals, conspiracies, and assassinations.
In their day, they bespoke magnificence. Their walls were lined with colored marbles from around the empire. Their columns gleamed with Numidian yellow, Phrygian purple, Egyptian granite, Greek gray, and Italian white. Gilded ceilings rose high over tall windows and heated floors. One banquet room seated thousands while another revolved. Water flowed in fountains and pools fed by the Palatine’s own aqueduct. Some rooms looked over the chariot races in the Circus Maximus in the valley to the south, offering a kind of skybox.
Perhaps a modern night visitor to the Palatine could imagine a famous dinner party with the emperor at which one guest said he felt like he was dining with Jupiter in midheaven. Or a less pleasant banquet when the emperor had the walls painted black and the dining couches laid out like tombstones, leaving the terrified guests in fear of their lives—which were spared. Or we might remember the rumor that another emperor turned the palace into a brothel—a salacious but not very credible tale. We might think of the palace steps, where one emperor was first hailed and another announced his abdication. We might think of the grand entrance, where one new emperor’s wife proclaimed her resolution not to be corrupted, or the back door, where another emperor slinked home, barely escaping with his life from a food riot in the Forum. Or we might imagine a Senate meeting in a palace hall, with the emperor’s mother watching through a curtain. Or the covered passage where a crowd of conspirators murdered a young tyrant. They all happened here.
From the Palatine, the emperors ruled what they called the world, a vast realm stretching at its height from Britain to Iraq. Or at least they tried to rule it. Few excelled at the grueling job. The imperial administration took care of ordinary business, but crises proved a challenge. Many emperors turned out not to be up to the task. A few did extremely well. They brought to bear, in equal measure, ambition, cunning, and cruelty.
They brought family, too. The Roman emperors ran one of history’s most successful family businesses and one of its most paradoxical. In order to concentrate power in trusted hands, the imperial family made full use of its members, including women. As a result, mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and mistresses enjoyed what some might consider a surprising amount of power. But it was sometimes an unhappy family, with forced marriages common and infighting and murder hardly rare. It was, moreover, a family whose definition was loose and flexible. More emperors came to the throne from adoption than by inheriting it from their fathers, and not a few seized power in civil war. It was both the empire’s glory and curse that succession was often contested. It opened the door to talent and to violence.
The first emperor, Augustus, set the tone. Adopted by the founder of the family’s fortune, his great-uncle and Rome’s last dictator, Julius Caesar, Augustus had to fight a civil war in order to prevail. Indeed, his wife, Livia, eventually perhaps the most powerful woman in Roman history, was once a refugee in that war and had run away from the man she eventually married.
The following pages tell the story of ten who ruled. They were Rome’s most capable and successful emperors—or, in the case of Nero, at least one of the most titillating, and even he was a great builder. Success was defined variously according to circumstance and talent, but all emperors wanted to exercise political control at home, project military power abroad, preside over prosperity, build up the city of Rome, and enjoy a good relationship with the divine. And every emperor wanted to die in bed and turn over power to his chosen heir.
We begin with the founder, the first emperor, Augustus, and end about 350 years later with the second founder, Constantine, who converted to Christianity and created a new capital in the East, Constantinople (today’s Istanbul, Turkey). Roughly halfway in time between the two men came Hadrian, who called himself a second Augustus and who did more than most to make the empire peaceable and to open the elite to outsiders. Alas, Hadrian was also tyrannical and murderous. In that, he was not unusual.
From beginning to end, the Roman emperors resorted to force. They rarely hesitated to have rivals and dissidents killed. They depended on the army, which conquered the empire, defended it, and put down revolt with brutality. Even Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher-emperor who preferred the arts of peace and came to power with no military experience, devoted most of his reign to fighting on the frontier.
No less important, the army made and broke emperors. No emperor could rule without the soldiers’ consent. They mattered even more than the Roman Senate, those members of the elite who supplied the leadership class, at least at first. The emperors increasingly relied for administration on nonsenators, even on ex-slaves. The people of Rome also mattered to the emperors, but they were bought off with subsidized food and entertainment—not that life was ever easy for the poor, who made up the vast majority of the empire. Finally, the gods also mattered. Every emperor established peace with the gods, and more than a few introduced new gods while not rejecting the old. Constantine was different not in worshipping a new god but in turning his back on Rome’s ancestral deities.
But religion is embedded in culture, and the character of Rome’s culture would change mightily with the coming of monarchy. Between them, Augustus and his successor, Tiberius, accomplished a herculean feat. They turned the Roman Empire from conquest to administration. They took power away from the proud, militaristic, quarrelsome nobility and began to transfer it to bureaucrats, who came from less prestigious social classes. They decentered the city of Rome to the benefit first of Italy and then of the provinces.
Augustus’s successors added two new provinces to the empire by armed force; but these were minor border adjustments compared with the two previous centuries, when Rome conquered the entire Mediterranean and northwestern Europe. Conquering elites always burn themselves out and become more interested in money and pleasure than in expansion. Every empire declines without exception. However, the Romans did an excellent job of holding onto what they had won.
Behind a façade of sumptuous and extravagant rhetoric lay the heart of a pragmatist. That was the real Rome. The real Rome is found less in the periodic sentences of Cicero or the polished prose of Publius Cornelius Tacitus than in Tiberius’s giving up Germany without a backward glance or in the emperor Vespasian justifying a tax on public toilets with the observation that “money has no smell.” New blood and new gods; tough choices and strategic retreats: in order to survive as an empire, the Romans were willing to do whatever it took.
Eventually Rome lost its role as capital. The Western emperor ruled from northern Italy or Germany—and eventually there was a Western emperor as well as an Eastern emperor. Constantine’s predecessor, Diocletian, recognized that the empire was too big and its problems too great for one man to manage. Constantine, who carried the full burden, was an exception.
Rome outgrew itself, but that was one of the reasons for its success. Change was built into the very fabric of the system, not that it came easily or without bloodshed. New men rose to the top. The two middle emperors of the book, Trajan and Hadrian, were both born in Hispania, today’s Spain. Two generations later, the emperor Septimius Severus came from North Africa. He was of Italian-immigrant descent, as well possibly of mixed African and Middle Eastern ancestry, but not Diocletian or Constantine, both of whom came from the Balkans and had no Italian blood. New women rose, too: Severus’s wife came from Syria and Constantine’s mother from Asia Minor, today’s Turkey.
The lords and ladies of the Palatine proved in time to be more diverse than the empire’s founder could have imagined. Their voices are long stilled, many of their names forgotten. In some cases, their statues are lost or the ancients tore them down after revolution or scratched their images off paintings or stone reliefs. Yet we can call up their ghosts from literary texts and inscriptions, from art and archaeology, and from the scientific study of everything from shipwrecks to sewage.
The Romans live, and they do so not only in the imagination of a night on the Palatine.