Ten Caesars – by Barry Strauss
Date read: 7/20/19. Recommendation: 7/10.
Approachable introduction to the lives and reigns of ten Roman emperors, from Augustus to Constantine. It’s a great high-level overview that allows you to explore some of the most influential leaders of the Roman Empire. I enjoy books like these because they introduce different historical figures and help me find the most interesting ones who are worth exploring later, without investing 300 pages in a single person. There are some great lessons in power, strategy, ego, discipline, and philosophy. For the Stoics out there, the section on Marcus Aurelius is particularly insightful.
See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.
Augustus: The Founder
Empire: Augustus ended a century of revolution and replaced the Roman Republic with an empire that would last centuries.
Focus on internals: Lost his father at the age of four and one of his guardians plundered his inheritance. But he turned to the internal strengths in his life: his own resilience, his mother, and her family. One of his defining characteristics was self-control.
Strategy: Turned pain into strategy and became one of the three most powerful men in the Roman Empire by age 20. He was master strategist, thought further ahead and in greater dimensions than everyone else around him.
Gray area: Augustus ended a civil war, rid the sea of pirates and brought peace. But there were also murders, betrayal, and excess along the way. His successors would have trouble balance the competing (often contradictory) demands.
“Caesar and Augustus were two sides of the coin of Roman genius. Caesar was the god of battle who poured his talent and his ego into two literary classics. Augustus was the Machiavellian statesman who forged his power in blood and iron, and then went on to build a structure of peace and wealth that survived his passing for two hundred years.” BS
Nero: The Entertainer
Seneca (Nero’s tutor): Seneca was born into a wealthy, influential Roman family from Hispania. His father was a writer, his mother studied philosophy. Seneca rose in Rome as an orator, philosopher, essayist, and playwright. Argued that mercy should be the hallmark of Nero’s reign. Advocated eloquence and dignity. Nero would eventually order both Seneca and his mother’s deaths.
Ego: For the first five years, Nero kept his promises and shared power with the senators. But he craved popularity above all else – he was insecure and vain. When he didn’t get his way, he sought vengeance.
Lack of discipline: Nero would often wander into the streets of Rome at night to party in taverns and brothels. Neglected his primary duties because he viewed himself first and foremost as an artist.
Marcus Aurelius: The Philosopher
Meditations: Private journal (now best-selling book), where he documented his philosophy (Stoicism) and life. Saved complaints for his diary, never revealed them in public.
Justice and goodness: “As a general, he was conscientious rather than outstanding. And yet Marcus was great because, more than any other emperor, he ruled through a commitment to justice and goodness. He aimed at humanity, steered clear of cruelty, and frequently sought compromise.” BS
Challenges: Faced one of the most difficult times in the Roman Empire by inheriting wars on two foreign fronts, a smallpox epidemic (and shortage of labor that followed after millions died), natural disaster, and financial struggles.
Preparation: Marcus didn’t come into power until age 40. He received top education in rhetoric and philosophy. His character was impeccable. Admired the philosophy of Epictetus (Stoicism) and achieving inner freedom. But the one thing he had never done, despite holding all the important public offices in Rome, was commanding an army. His principles, discipline, and sense of duty allowed him to rise to the occasion.
Character: He was thoughtful, but not quick witted. Worked hard. Thrifty. Reputation for being firm but reasonable. Ruled in favor of slave’s freedom whenever possible. Respected the Senate and attended their meetings. Improved welfare for poor children. Carefully monitored grain supply. Cleaned and repaired the streets of Rome. Made gladiators use blunt swords.
Diocletian: The Great Divider
Restoring stability: First great accomplishment in an empire trapped in violence. For the previous 50 years, 20 men were emperor (average reign < 3 years). “Diocletian was big, bold, brutal, and orderly. Finesse was not his way, but the times did not call for finesse. They demanded military muscle, a steel-trap mind, an iron will, and absolute self-confidence.” BS
Sharing power: Diocletian knew sharing power was the key to maintaining power. Knew it would discourage the ambitious and talented from revolting. Also kew that Rome’s problems were too big for him to handle on his own. Named Maximian co-emperor, and Constantius and Galerius as Caesars who played a military role, serving Diocletian and Maximian. Maximian and Constantius ran the West. Diocletian and Galerius ran the East. But Diocletian controlled overall strategy and had final decision.
Military strategy: Made border forts smaller, thicker, and harder to access. Number of legions expanded from 33 to 50, but with fewer men per legion (similar to Genghis Khan’s strategy).
Taxation: Massive building campaigns and military budget demanded more money. For the first time in Italy’s history, it was no longer exempt from taxes. Even Rome and the senators had to pay.
Retirement: First and only Roman emperor to retired. Lived in relative peace in his palace in Split, Croatia for 10 years. Knew it was better to go out on top than to linger and lose loyalty the moment he grew weak. “In victory, know when to stop.”