It happened today - March 7, 2016
On this date, March 7, in 161 A.D. Antoninus Pius died. I always wondered if the title meant he was pious (his full name was Titus Fulvus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius but the last bits were added after he became emperor). It turns out no one’s quite sure. It may have been because he insisted the Senate deify his adopted father Hadrian which wasn’t exactly piety as we understand the word. But he was a good emperor.
What’s more, he was succeeded by a philosopher. There were a lot of issues with the Roman system of government including its tendency to succession by gladius in ventrem. But mysteriously, as that noted political commentator Louis Dearborn L’Amour once put it, in Education of a Wandering Man, “Even during the dark days of Nero and Caligula, the Roman Empire was governed well. The terrors they brought were largely spent on their associates at court; the administration in the provinces was only slightly affected, if at all.”
Incidentally it could be argued that if writers of pulp Westerns 50 years ago knew more about ancient history than most college professors today then progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But I digress.
The point is, L’Amour was right. The Roman system signally failed to channel popular consent institutionally. And yet it generally furnished good government, more proof that political culture matters enormously given how in much of the world formal democratic institutions don’t improve governance much. And while it certainly put some truly awful people in the top office, and then removed them in several pieces, it also put some truly great ones in.
Including Marcus Aurelius, who initially shared the emperorship with his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, whose debauchery annoyed Aurelius without impairing his performance of his duties. After he died in 169 of the “Antonine plague” that may well have been smallpox or possibly measles, Aurelius ruled singlehanded as the last of what Machiavelli dubbed the “Five Good Emperors” and as a noted philosopher.
Now when someone says they are “being philosophical” about things it matters a great deal which philosophy. I don’t remember where I first encountered this insight, but I do recall Conrad Black telling a reporter he was feeling “philosophical” on his way into a Hollinger Inc. meeting and when asked which philosophy replied “Darwinian capitalism, as always.” But Marcus Aurelius was a distinguished exponent of the philosophy people typically have in mind when they use the phrase, of dignified stoicism that “can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same”.
I would be very surprised to see such a wise thinker and judicious leader elected at any point in the near future in any country on earth.
On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by the appalling Commodus, a cruel and capricious man who debauched the currency and also gladiatorial combat (a genuinely tremendous athlete and formidable archer, he personally killed crippled soldiers and citizens in the arena for laughs). Moreover, he was suspected of being the son not of Aurelius but of one of his somewhat shady wife Faustina the Younger’s gladiatorial lovers. And I am among those who suspect it.
Aurelius himself, regrettably, could not see that his son was a dangerous dud who would come to regard himself as the reincarnation of Hercules and was ultimately poisoned and when that didn’t work strangled in his bath, ushering in the “Year of Five Emperors” and much destructive turmoil.
So yes, Antoninus Pius showed that the Roman system could get the succession very right. But Marcus Aurelius showed that it could also get it very wrong, even in the hands of singularly enlightened rulers.
As I contemplate with horror a U.S. election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, after watching Justin Trudeau beat Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair, I find solace in the writings of Marcus Aurelius. But our system is still better.