|An example of a Roman Emperor|
On top of those energy sapping problems an emperor was also expected to do stuff for their people. Easy, I hear you cry, Bread and Circuses! Oh if only it were that easy. Let’s take the circus part of that duo of people pleasers.
The emperor builds a shiny new amphitheatre. If it’s the colosseum it’s taken 10 whole years to complete, a whopping big hugely complex building project that took hundreds of people and oodles of money. This structure is not for the emperor, it’s not a palace where he can kick off his sandals at the end of hard day of emperoring and sink into a comfy couch with a glass of vino and some honey roasted dormice to snack on, it is purely for his people.
You’d think they’d be at least a bit grateful for the effort or at the least the thought. But no! They require more. They want to be entertained and they want the emperor to pay for and stage this entertainment in their shiny new amphitheatre he’s taken 10 years to build for them. And it was not enough to throw a load of gladiators in the arena and tell them to get on with it. Oh no, the people want to see something new from their emperor, something novel, something that nobody had ever seen before, and they want to see it now or else they might riot out their displeasure at your ever so ordinary games.
Even if they are enjoying watching two blind men fight, elephants walking the tightrope and freaking leopards doing kick boxing (that last one is invented, as far as we know, frankly I’m not ruling it out) they will probably make use of being in the same space as the man who makes all the decisions by yelling out why they think those decisions you made stink. This being ancient Rome, a time when poets put pen to papyri to threaten people they didn’t like with the insertion of a radish and a mullet fish in an orifice of their choice and the noble citizen of a seaside down one day paused on his evening walk to scrawl the immortal line ‘I’ve buggered men’ on a wall*, you can bet that such political commentary is likely not going to be terribly polite.
These demands of perfection are applied to every task that an emperor undertakes. Woe betide any that fall a cm short, because they can expect to find themselves in one of the pithier passages in Suetonius’ highly entertaining biographies of the first eleven emperors (and Julius Caesar) or in the case of Claudius here who grievously failed with the Bread part, actual physical danger:
|The Emperor Claudius having possibly lost his clothes in that mob attack|
Is it any surprise that Emperors dive at the perks of the role, grasping them in both hands and shed a grateful tear as their name is slapped on a building, a month renamed in their honour and an enormous dish of flamingo tongues and eel spunk* is placed in front of them? Frankly they deserve that eel spunk, let them have it.
However, one Emperor decided he wanted proper appreciation for the job that he’d done and he found a way that ensured that the generally ungrateful Roman public could never forget all the good stuff he had done for them. The route he took to do this was not subtle, but subtlety gets you nowhere in a society where lucky penises are scrawled onto every available surface. His name was Augustus and you’ll have heard of him because he made damn sure he was unforgettable by writing a list of everything he’d done that was marvellous, having it inscribed in massive letters and shipping copies to be put on display throughout the empire.
|The man himself, Augustus looking damn Imperial|
The Res Gestae Divi Augustus or the deeds of the divine Augustus as it translates, is a list of all the achievements that Rome’s first emperor wanted to be recorded for posterity. It consists of 35 paragraphs, every single one of which translates as ‘I’m brilliant, marvel at it.’
Reading the Res Gestae for the first time is an interesting experience, the boastful tone is at odds with our modern sensibilities where achievements must be downplayed, and we must act humble and grateful when rightfully rewarded. Or at least you do when you’re British. Probably the nearest analogy I can find to the Res Gestae is a job application and that box that asks you to, ‘explain why we should appoint you to the position of xxxx using examples.’ Which you fill in with an account of how you have made a glorious success of every job you've ever held and how much everyone loved you for that, even if you didn’t and they didn’t. But nobody ever got offered a job interview by downplaying their successes or referencing the time they completely cocked up a project.
|Amongst Augustus' many talents was directing people to the facilities|
The Res Gestae is similar in tone. There is no mention of any cock ups in those 35 paragraphs but rather a hugely long list of things he, Augustus, has personally done during his forty odd years in power. He uses ‘I’ 122 times in a text that is only 3861 words long, so he would have been useless at the teamwork question on a job application. But being proactive and working on one’s own initiative Augustus has examples of in spades, as it evident from the opening line of the Res Gestae
A singular sentence that is capable of rendering every reader over 20 feeling instantly inadequate and pondering quite why they spent so much time downing £1 pints of cider in the student union bar when they could have been off championing the liberty of the republic instead.
On keeping the ungrateful people of Rome grateful Augustus is at pains to mention how many times he dipped into his pockets for them:
Now I could work out for you what 300 sesterces times 250,000 people is and then do the same for the subsequent amounts mentioned and then translate this into how many loaves of bread/soldiers/pints of eel spunk that would purchase in total. But I don’t need to, the fact that Augustus mentions it and the number of 0’s that feature demonstrates on its own that Augustus gave away sh*t loads of money to the Roman public. Although it might be handy for you to know that the annual salary of a soldier in this time was around 1200 sesterces per year and soldiers were considered suitably recompensed. Because if they weren’t there tended to be trouble of the pointy sword variety.
|Yet another thing Augustus was brilliant at - obedience training wild boars|
In a paragraph dedicated to the Games he staged, Augustus is keen to have noted the efforts he went to in providing entertainments.
I can almost feel him hovering over my shoulder like the ghost of Obi wan Kenobi in Star Wars saying in Alec Guiness' deep voice ‘Be impressed, my child.’ Impressed am I' (accidental Yoda voice).
|Augustus with that far more succinct first draft of the Res Gestae|
Other impressive things Augustus is keen to impress upon us include .
I undertook many civil and foreign wars by land and sea throughout the world, and as victor I spared the lives of all citizens who asked for mercy.
I restored the Capitol and the theatre of Pompey, both works at great expense without inscribing my own name on either.
The door-posts of my house were publicly wreathed with bay leaves and a civic crown was fixed over my door and a golden shield was set in the Curia Julia, which, as attested by the inscription thereon, was given me by the senate and people of Rome on account of my courage, clemency, justice and piety.
I made the sea peaceful and freed it of pirates.
And my all time favourite: After this time I excelled all in influence, although I possessed no more official power than others who were my colleagues in the several magistracies.
The Res Gestae as well as being a document to big up one man (and by the gods it does that!) also acts as a blueprint for what a good emperor should be; they should be generous to the people, build a ton of stuff, secure Rome’s frontiers & conquer new lands, be mindful of religion and paying respect to the gods, take care to reward the army and put on fabulous entertainments.
All of which sounds bloody exhausting, someone pass the roasted dormice please!