Monday, July 6, 2009

Romans capture most slots on 10 most extravagant emperors list

I see that Roman emperors captured six of the 10 slots for Times Online's list of ten most extravagant emperors. I do wish professional journalists would at least get the facts straight, though.

[Image - Bust of Commodus dressed as Hercules in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Photo by Mary Harrsch]

In the brief recap on Caligula, the Times repeated the myth that Caligula made his horse a consul. But classicist Michael Grant disavowed this oft quoted tale:

"Since the beginning of his reign Caligula had spent lavishly on public shows, games, and displays (sometimes even participating in them himself); in the most extravagant of these, he had hundreds of ships tied together to make a temporary floating bridge so that he could ride across the Bay of Naples on horseback. By 39, the public treasury was near bankruptcy. Therefore, at the beginning of the year Caligula revived the treason trials that had become so unpopular under Tiberius; he also began other methods of raising public money, including the auctioning off of public properties left over from shows. Many of these revealed his strange sense of humor (e.g., at one of these auctions a senator fell asleep and Caligula took each of his nods as bids, selling him 13 gladiators for a huge sum). In the words of historian Michael Grant, “Caligula had an irrepressible, bizarre sense of the ridiculous, deliberately designed to shock, but frequently taken by his alarmed subjects too seriously. Notoriously absurd traditions . . . such as the story that he intended to give a consulship to his favorite horse Incitatus no doubt originated from his continual stream of jokes. Probably he remarked that Incitatus would do the job as well as most of the recent incumbents; and meanwhile he ordered silence in the entire neighborhood, to prevent the horse from being disturbed” (The Twelve Caesars, [New York: Scribner, 1975], 113). Some of his jokes were more sadistic, as when he arranged an oratory competition in which all the losers had to erase their wax tablets with their tongues." - More:

The Times also mentioned how Nero was famous for fiddling (playing the lute) while Rome burned - another myth circulated at the time by his political enemies. They also portrayed him as obese. His appearance was certainly bizarre for the head of a militarily-based empire:

“He was of average height, fair-haired, with features that were pretty rather than handsome, weak blue eyes, a fat neck, pot belly, skinny legs, and a body which smelt and was covered with spots. . . . He was so insensitive about his appearance that he used to wear his hair in rows of curls, and when he was on his Greek trip he let it grow down his back. He usually appeared in public in a dressing-gown without a belt, a scarf round his neck, and no shoes.” (Suetonius, Nero 51)

I don't think I would classify him as "pretty" if he looked anything like this digital recreation by Richard Sebring though.

[Image courtesy of The Romans]

The summary for Commodus mentioned that he battled gladiators in the nude in public. I don't think I had ever heard of that before so I checked the Historia Augusta and all I could find there were references to his impropriety, so charged for dressing as a woman:

"Such was his prowess in the slaying of wild beasts, that he once transfixed an elephant with a pole, pierced a gazelle's horn with a spear, and on a thousand occasions dispatched a mighty beast with a single blow. 4 Such was his complete indifference to propriety, that time and again he sat in the theatre or amphitheatre dressed in a woman's garments and drank quite publicly." - Historia Augusta

Commodus had some really nasty dining habits, however:

"It is claimed that he often mixed human excrement with the most expensive foods, and he did not refrain from tasting them, mocking the rest of the company..." - Historia Augusta

and he did not shy away from humiliating his his praetor prefect:

"He pushed into a swimming-pool his praetor prefect Julianus,85 although he was clad in his toga and accompanied by his staff; and he even ordered this same Julianus to dance naked before his concubines, clashing cymbals and making grimaces." - Historia Augusta

Although the Historia Augusta is considered severely biased, the list it provides of Commodus' offenses would certainly place Commodus above Caligula in brutality in my book.

The Times list also includes Hadrian, one of the five "good" emperors, apparently for his lavish construction of his 250-acre villa in Tivoli.

[Image -Bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian found at Heraklion on Crete 127-128 CE now in the permanent collection of The Louvre. Photo by Mary Harrsch]

However, it should be pointed out that Hadrian did not accumulate his wealth by butchering other wealthy Romans like Commodus. On the contrary, Hadrian was known for his generosity:

Hadrian gave large sums of money to communities and individuals. He allowed the children of proscribed individuals to inherit part of the estate. The Augustan History says he wouldn't take legacies from people he didn't know or from people with sons who could inherit. He wouldn't allow maiestas (treason) charges. He tried in many ways to live unassumingly, like a private citizens. - More:

Hadrian even paid 900,000,000 sesterces in back taxes to the Roman treasury.

"He remitted to private debtors in Rome and in Italy immense sums of money owed to the privy-purse,66 and in the provinces he remitted large amounts of arrears; and he ordered the promissory notes to be burned in the Forum of the Deified Trajan,67 in order that the general sense of security might thereby be increased. 7 He gave orders that the property of condemned persons should not accrue to the privy-purse, p25and in each case deposited the whole amount in the public treasury. 8 He made additional appropriations for the children to whom Trajan had allotted grants of money.68 9 He supplemented the property of senators impoverished through no fault of their own, making the allowance in each case proportionate to the number of children, so that it might be enough for a senatorial career;69 to many, indeed, he paid punctually on the date the amount allotted for their living. 10 Sums of money sufficient to enable men to hold office he bestowed, not on his friends alone, but also on many far and wide, 11 and by his donations he helped a number of women to sustain life. 12 - Historia Augusta

As commander in chief he also ensured that the army was properly equipped and money wasn't squandered on poorly made equipment or tainted supplies:

"...he strove to have an accurate knowledge of the military stores, and the receipts from the provinces he examined with care in order to make good any deficit that might occur in any particular instance. But more than any other emperor he made it a point not to purchase or maintain anything that was not serviceable." - Historia Augusta

So, although Hadrian spent a lot of money on innumerable projects, he apparently spent his own money - not money confiscated from his fellow Romans like Commodus or Caligula. I couldn't find any references to how Hadrian accumulated his wealth. It must have been a combination of inherited wealth and tribute paid by conquered tribes either to Hadrian himself or to Trajan that was then passed on to Hadrian upon his adoption.

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