Defense correspondent Guy Raz is currently on sabbatical as a 2008-09 Nieman fellow at Harvard University.
When he takes office in January, President-elect Barack Obama will inherit the gloomiest economy since the Great Depression, prompting comparisons to another president who came into office during tough economic times: Franklin D. Roosevelt. But there's another leader Obama could draw inspiration from — a 2nd century Roman emperor.
The world's most powerful army was bleeding in Iraq. An easy invasion five years earlier had quickly turned into a deadly guerilla war. Tens of thousands of soldiers had already been killed by insurgents. The corpses of many more civilians and insurgents littered the deserts of Mesopotamia.
The war was expensive. The government that had sent the army to the Middle East now faced a crushing debt. The economy was foundering. Elsewhere in the known world, that same army — stretched to its limits — struggled to provide enough manpower to keep a lid on three other rebellions.
The year was A.D. 117, and the exotic young man who was about to assume the leadership of the Roman Empire wasn't born in the capital city, but in modern-day Spain.
His name was Hadrian. And the empire he inherited from his predecessor Trajan was — militarily, economically and diplomatically — in a precarious position.
Leaders Accused Of Arrogance
At the time, Roman legions were fighting rebellions from the western corner of north Africa all the way to the Tigris River.
The people who lived under Rome's sphere of influence in Gaul and along the Danube complained that their grievances weren't being heard. And they accused Rome's leaders of arrogance.
So Emperor Hadrian, faced with challenges at home and abroad, decided to do three things.
The first decision was to withdraw his legions from Mesopotamia. He decided to shrink and then consolidate the borders of the empire.
The next was to shift money from the war in the east to deal with the public debts. He even found some extra cash to boost the economy with a massive public infrastructure project — things like repairing aqueducts, roads and bridges.
Finally, Hadrian did what few of his predecessors would even consider: He went on a road trip and visited nearly every corner of the empire. He knew that for Rome to bolster its influence, it had to show at least some respect for the nations so affected by its power. Hadrian also increased foreign aid and started a program of nation-building throughout the empire.
By and large, it worked.
An Unprecedented Feat
Now, judging by modern-day standards, Hadrian was brutal. He crushed a Jewish rebellion, killing thousands, and very nearly abolished the Jewish faith. (He saw the Jews as a threat to the stability of the empire.)
But considering that he reigned for two decades, Hadrian's era was remarkable for the virtual absence of war — an unprecedented feat for a Roman emperor up to that point.
By the time he died in 138, Hadrian's Roman Empire had become more peaceful — and powerful — than at any other time before or after.
NPR's Guy Raz is on sabbatical as a Nieman fellow at Harvard University where he is studying ancient history.