Thursday, 8 December 2016

Thought 409: French Scholarship - Roman Emperors

Despite the alleged backwardness of French universities as compared to English-speaking ones, and their low ranking in highly questionable league tables that in my opinion obtain the results they choose to measure, I have often been struck by the high quality and high calibre of French scholarship. 

French scholarship, at its best, can be blissfully free of the waffle and the woolly-headedness of British and American academe and can often arrive at counter-intuitive but nonetheless penetrating insights expressed in simple and eloquent language. 

The example I will focus on for the purpose of this blog post is the one provided by classicist/ancient historian Paul Veyne who brought me to levels of insight in my subject (Classics) not otherwise attained by my reading English-speaking authorities. 

The issue in question was that of Roman Emperors and the whole tradition of seeing some as good (Trajan, Hadrian, Aurelius) and others as bad (Caligula, Nero, Commodus). 

While my English lecturer contented herself with saying that the good and bad emperor paradigm was outmoded and was reflective of elite senatorial bias and axes to grind in the shape of such disgruntled authors as Tacitus and Suetonius, Paul Veyne for his part does not dismiss the paradigm out of hand. 

While he admits to senatorial and elite prejudice, such as that which was offended by Nero's artistic and theatrical ventures and therefore coloured him as a mad, lascivious emperor unbefitting of his status and power, he does offer an alternative view on the good and bad emperor dialectic.   

His argument is that those who have come to be seen by posterity as good emperors were naturally tyrannical and therefore un-phased and unaffected by the gigantic level of worldly power they were granted with when invested with imperium

Being thus un-phased they were naturally suited for the position of 'master of the world' and were able to exercise rulership efficiently and effectively. This was due not to them being enlightened or moral but due to their naturally tyrannical instincts, for all are not comfortable or at ease with having power in their hands, let alone the fate of the world.

The so-called bad emperors of Rome like Caligula and Nero were in fact not naturally tyrannical and were perturbed and driven insane by being invested with supreme temporal power. This psychological discomfort with power manifested in poor judgement and bad decisions that offended the taste of the senatorial elite whose writings about the emperors have come to colour, even determine our traditional view of them. 

He adds that 'crazy' emperors like Nero were much loved by the common people, if not by the literate classes, and this is symptomatic of a difference of viewpoint still prevalent today, i.e. intellectuals bemoaning the immorality and failures of 'populist' leaders who nonetheless remain popular with the non intellectual sensibilities of the many.