When the state becomes a personal possession


Bust of Julius Caesar, Vatican Museum

“By a mixture of personal charisma and political skill, the Caesars convinced the Roman people to relinquish their democratic rights in exchange for an implicit promise that autocratic rule would be in their interest.

The Tsars and the Kaisers who used the name of Caesar are gone yet the pernicious example of Caesar and his heirs continues to convince many that effective autocracy is superior to a dysfunctional democracy.

In effect the Julian-Claudian dynasty hijacked the government of Rome and turned the state into a personal possession. And they did this so effectively that the civil war which followed the death of the last Julian-Claudian emperor was not about whether to restore the Republic, but about who should now rule their Empire. To achieve this, the Julian-Claudians had to overcome the checks and balances built into the Republic by its founding fathers.”

From The Sons of Caesar: Imperial Rome’s First Dynasty, by Philip Matyszak



In praise of inertia?

“It is no easy thing to overthrow a democracy, and harder yet to replace it with an autocracy. The social institutions of any society possess a massive inertia which, unlike governments, cannot be changed overnight.”

The Sons of Caesar, by Philip Matyszak.

The Emperor inflates his charisma


“The survival of an autocracy depends on the visible exercise of power by the autocrat himself; a democracy may be run by an abstract administrative entity (though even here figureheads are required), but an autocrat has to be seen to be actively in charge. Hence it is particularly important for him to embody the authority of the supreme purveyor of justice. A correlation has been made between the increasingly harsh penalties under the Empire and the absolutist trend in Roman government; so too the emperor is free to devise ingenious methods of ridding his empire of undesirable elements, inflating his charisma by the reincarnation of myth.”

From “Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments,” by K.M. Coleman. In the Journal of Roman Studies, Volume 80, 1990.

Legitimate objects of violence

Pollice Verso (With a turned thumb), painting by Jean-Leon Gerome.

“Pollice Verso (with a turned thumb),” 1872 painting by Jean-Leon Gerome. In the Phoenix Art Museum. Photo from Wikimedia commons.


“Modern scholars have long pondered how civilized Romans could condone and even enjoy, make sport of, watching hundreds and even thousands of humans and animals being killed in elaborate public spectacles. Yet violence was omnipresent in Roman society and history. From animal sacrifice and slaughter to the disciplining of slaves and children to the brutalities of ancient warfare, the Romans had long grown accustomed to regarding creatures of lowly status, others and outsiders without reason or rights, as legitimate objects of violence.”

From Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, by Donald G. Kyle.

Seneca on Saturday — on effective punishment

Amphitheater Mosaic, from Villa di Dar Buc Amméra at Zliten, in the Archaeological Museum of Tripoli.

Gladiator Mosaic, from Villa di Dar Buc Amméra at Zliten, in the Archaeological Museum of Tripoli. Photo from Livius.org.

Severity is the best corrective, but loses its efficacy by over-use.

On Clemency. From Seneca’s Moral Essays. Translated by John W. Basore. The Loeb Classical Library. London: W. Heinemann, 1928-1935. 3 vols.: Volume I.

July Word of Mouth


Music: Guilt By Association Volume IV: 1966 — Various artists


Creativity: The Path of Least Resistance — Robert Fritz


TV: Grantchester — Daisy Coulam



Not-So-Ancient Inspiration: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., from Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, with thanks to Rene for the reference.