Vol. 26 No. 11 · 3 June 2004
Short Cuts

The life expectancy of a Roman emperor

Thomas Jones

847 words

The third century AD was a bad time for the Roman Empire.* It was under threat from enemies on all sides, and in a terrible state economically. Disgruntled legions were able to murder incumbent emperors and appoint new ones as the whim took them. Between 235 and 284 there were 21 ‘official’ emperors, and countless ephemeral others, of whom all but one died of unnatural causes. The lucky odd man out was Claudius Gothicus, 214-70 (not all that lucky, actually: he was emperor for less than two years, and died of plague in Sirmium, in what is now Kosovo, while preparing for a major assault on the Goths). Fik Meijer’s Emperors Don’t Die in Bed (Routledge, £14.99, translated from Dutch by S.J. Leinbach) is a brief history of the empire structured around the deaths of its rulers, from Julius Caesar to Romulus Augustulus. Caesar wasn’t, strictly speaking, an emperor, but he did declare himself dictator for life and, in Meijer’s (or rather Leinbach’s) words, ‘paved the way’ for the empire. Romulus Augustulus, dethroned by Odoacer in 476 when he had been emperor for less than a year and was still only 15 years old, wasn’t – unlike the overwhelming majority of his predecessors – horribly murdered, but lived out a comfortable retirement on a country estate in Campania. Odoacer, by contrast, was overthrown by Theoderic and killed.

The catalogue of murders can get wearisome. As Meijer writes, ‘a long series of dreary deaths could depress a modern reader,’ though ‘personally’ he ‘had no problem with this while writing’. Though none was ever attacked with anything as outlandish as a condom full of purple flour, there is some variation in the details of each imperial demise. Caracalla (188-217, emperor from 211), who murdered his brother, carried out sporadic pogroms – twenty thousand people were killed in Rome in the early part of 212 – and built the awesome complex of baths where Shelley, 16 centuries later, would write Prometheus Unbound, was despatched while at his most vulnerable. Campaigning in Mesopotamia, he had left the army camp to visit a nearby shrine and make a sacrifice to Selene, the moon goddess. Caught short on the journey, he left his bodyguard in order to relieve himself; one of the soldiers accompanying him took the opportunity to stab him in the chest.

Unedifying stuff, perhaps. But Meijer’s book could be a handy memento mori for world leaders to keep at their bedsides. Few of the Roman emperors learned the lesson of their forerunners; and British prime ministers don’t seem to be much better at knowing when to give up. It’s not a matter of life or death, certainly, though Blair talks so portentously about putting his job on the line you could be forgiven for thinking it was. Indeed, the implication that the most he has to sacrifice is his job tells you more than you might want to know about his (and many other politicians’) priorities.

Media bosses, by contrast, seem not to be able to abandon ship quickly enough. Piers Morgan, like Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies before him, was out of a job as soon as it was established that he had been responsible for misinforming the public about goings-on in Iraq. (In one sense, though not in the sense the cabinet would like, the publication of those photos makes the Mirror quite different from the government: the Mirror was over eager to publish evidence of torture that wasn’t taking place in Iraq; the secretary of state for defence and the prime minister were more than happy to overlook evidence of torture that was.) Admittedly, Morgan didn’t resign so much as get sacked, but it would be rash of the prime minister to wait for the electorate to sack him: Gordon Brown wouldn’t be the only disappointed person were Tony Blair to be succeeded by Michael Howard.

Caracalla was succeeded by Macrinus, a co-conspirator of Martialis, the man who did the actual stabbing and was shortly afterwards caught and impaled. Macrinus, thoroughly incompetent, was dead within 14 months, to be replaced by Heliogabalus, a high priest of Baal (a.k.a. Elagabal, hence the name). He came to power at the age of 14 or 15, and according to Meijer ‘fitted into the tradition of perverted emperors such as Caligula, Nero, Commodus and Caracalla’. He married three women – including a Vestal Virgin – and a man, and while he ‘traipsed from one orgy to another’, his mother and grandmother ran the show. They soon fell out with one another, Julia Maesa, Heliogabalus’ grandmother, giving up on him in favour of a different grandson, Severus Alexander. The attempts of Heliogabalus and his mother to do away with his cousin failed; eventually the imperial guard took a side and put mother and son to the sword. According to one account, their corpses were mutilated and stuffed into the sewer, but the pipes were too narrow so the bodies were weighted with stones and dumped off a bridge into the Tiber. Heliogabalus was 18 years old. Given the choice, I’d rather have a gap year.

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Vol. 26 No. 14 · 22 July 2004

Thomas Jones is wrong to place Sirmium, the Roman town where Emperor Claudius Gothicus died of plague, in modern day Kosovo (LRB, 3 June). What used to be Sirmium is now called Sremska Mitrovica and is a regional centre of Srem, one of the three constituent parts of the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina (in Roman times known as Panonia). Jones was probably confused by the similarity between the names of Sremska Mitrovica (‘Mitrovica in Srem’ in Serbian) and Kosovska Mitrovica (‘Mitrovica in Kosovo’).

Vladan Vidakovic

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