MICHELE NORRIS, host:
When he takes office next month, President-elect Barack Obama will inherit the gloomiest economy since the Great Depression. This has prompted comparisons with another president who came into office during tough economic times, Franklin Roosevelt. But that comparison may be limited. NPR's Guy Raz is on sabbatical. He's spending the year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, and he's been studying ancient history. Guy Raz says he's come across another leader Mr. Obama could draw inspiration from. All you have to do is go back in time to the Roman Empire, circa the 2nd century A.D.
GUY RAZ: The world's most powerful army was bleeding in Iraq. What started as an easy invasion five years earlier quickly turned into a deadly guerrilla war. Thousands of soldiers were already killed by insurgents. And the corpses of many more civilians and insurgents littered the deserts of Mesopotamia. The war was expensive, and the government that had sent the army to the Middle East now faced a crushing debt. Its economy was floundering. 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 117 A.D., 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. 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 places like Gaul and along the Danube complained that their grievances weren't being heard. And they accused Rome's leaders of arrogance.
And 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 to consolidate the borders of the empire. The next was to shift money from that 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. And 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. So Hadrian also increased foreign aid, and he started a program of nation building throughout the empire. And by and large, it worked.
Now, judging by modern-day standards, Hadrian was also 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 his 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. And so by the time he died in 138, Hadrian's Roman Empire would become more peaceful and powerful than at any other time before or after.
NORRIS: That's NPR correspondent Guy Raz. He's spending the year on sabbatical, studying ancient history at Harvard University.
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