Monday, February 7, 2011

5th February 2011

Romans would have regarded Hosni Mubarak as effectively the emperor of Egypt. But they would not have thought he had played a very intelligent hand.
The Roman emperor held supreme authority. As head of state (princeps), he ruled the Treasury, controlled all the top political appointments, passed all laws, was final arbiter in all legal cases and selected provincial governors. As pontifex maximus, he led all the major state rituals in honour of the gods. As commander-in-chief (imperator), he ruled over the armed forces, chose all generals and determined military policy, often leading the army himself. To help him he had a circle of hand-picked, trusted advisers and a remarkably small civil service.
But life was far too busy to spend his days indulging in orgies. Petitions, for example, poured in from all over the empire—requests for citizenship, repayment of tax, legitimisation of children, a portion of an inheritance, and so on. It looks as if they were personally dealt with, too. And that was just the private business.
Further, there were the people of Rome to keep happy. Romans knew all about that. In the republican period, the billionaire Crassus once paid the grain supply for every Roman in the city for three months; Julius Caesar put on games featuring 320 pairs of gladiators, equipped with ornate silvered armour. So important were such spectacles for generating popular support that the emperor Domitian ruled they could be staged only by members of the imperial family. After his triumphs in AD 108 in Dacia (N. Romania), Trajan staged 117 days of entertainment at which ten thousand gladiators fought and eleven thousand animals were killed. This was not just about keeping the people sweet, either. The emperor himself was on display on such occasions, and if the crowd had reasons to vent its feelings against him, they did. Emperors paid attention.
Most Roman emperors understood that they would survive and prosper only by persuading most of the people most of the time that they ruled in their interests, not in those of the imperial household and its chums. It does not seem too much to ask of today’s equivalents.

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