Last night we headed for Waterstones in The Galleries, Bristol to hear the author Tom Holland give a captivating talk on his latest tome, Pax: War and Peace in Rome's Golden Age. I received the book as a birthday present from my son and have just started to dip into it. The last time we heard Holland speak at the same venue he was promoting his previous work, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (see a report here).
The speaker began by taking us to Hadrian's Wall, which marked the northernmost point of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Hadrian liked to visit the outposts of his vast domain, which stretched from Scotland to Arabia. The point of Hadrian's Wall was not so much to keep the barbarous Scots at bay, as to rub their noses in the fact that they had been excluded from the vast cultivated garden that flourished under Roman rule.
Nero was the last Emperor to have descended from the great Augustus. His demise triggered the 'Year of the Four Emperors' in 69AD. Wannabes Galba, Otho and Vitellius failed to maintain their hold on power. Those who followed such as Vespasian, Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian ruled for long enough to ensure stability. That stability was the product of good PR as much as the might of the legions at the Imperial overlord's command.
The Emperors had statues erected in their honour across their domains. Coins bore the stamp of the Emperor's face. These images depicted how the Emperors wished to be seen, whether as aged throwbacks to antique virtue, or eternally young and virile rulers. Roman noblemen were usually clean shaven, but Hadrian affected a soldierly beard, which also gave him the aspect of a Greek philosopher. Holland had a suspiring amount to say about imperial barnets and beards. Otho's toupee made him an altogether unsuitable candidate for Emperor. No wonder he only lasted three months and a day in office.
The writer described the Roman Emperors as the 'apex predators' of history. They ruled unhindered by any Christian notion of what constitutes right and wrong. After the death of his wife Poppaea, Nero spotted a slave boy who bore a passing resemblance to his dear departed Mrs. He had 'Sporus' castrated and married him. Following Nero's death, Vitellius sought to win the approval of the masses by having Sporus gang raped at a gladiator show. The poor lad only avoided this public humiliation by committing suicide. The short-lived rule of Vitellius ended when he was slaughtered by his successor Vespasian's troops.
Holland described Christians of the time as 'Mesozoic mammals in a ecosystem dominated by dinosaurs.' But it was the little Christian mammals who won the day. The reason why we are appalled at the blood-soaked deeds of the mighty Emperors is that the 'Christian Revolution' totally transformed the moral landscape of the ancient world. How that happened is the story told in Dominion.