barlag roman
Extreme avarice. Fratricide. Megalomania. Debauchery. Genocide. At the height of its power and influence ancient Rome was led by some truly crazy and terrifying people. Caligula and Nero come to mind as the most famous, but they had a lot of company: men (and women) whose unbridled ambition and wielding of power were employed to absolutely horrible and destructive effect. And even if they were assassinated (which was quite often the case!), another grossly incompetent and tyrannical psychopath was quite often installed to replace them! Knowing this history, it seems like a true wonder that Rome was as relatively stable as it was for as long as it was.

But who were these individuals whose names we are probably unfamiliar with? What levers of influence did they use to assume the seat of power? And how did the famed empire manage to survive the rule of such figures?

Join us this week on MindMatters as we talk to author Phillip Barlag and discuss his new book Evil Roman Emperors: The Shocking History of Ancient Rome's Most Wicked Rulers from Caligula to Nero and More - and get a glimpse into a place and time that may make the evils we see now pale in comparison.

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Here is the transcript:

Harrison: Welcome back to Mind Matters everyone. Today we are pleased to have joining us again, Phillip Barlag, author of the new book Evil Roman Emperors: The Shocking History of Ancient Rome's Most Wicked Rulers from Caligula to Nero and More. This just came out a couple of weeks ago. Is that right Phillip?

Phillip: That's right. June 15 or 16 was the final official publication date. So it moved about 15 times. It went from May 1st to May 15th back to May 1st, to June 1st, to June 15th, to June 16th. It was like the peripatetic launch date. So at this point I'm not even sure of the exact date that it came out. All I know is it's out and I'm really happy to be here.

Harrison: Great! We had you on a couple of months ago to talk about a book that you'd written several years ago called The Leadership Genius of Julius Caesar and after that you'd written a book that you let us know about last time. What was the other book called? The History of Rome in 12 Places or something like that?

Phillip: Yeah, in 12 Buildings. That's right.

Harrison: So this is your third book on Rome. I guess my first question is how did this one grow out of your previous books and your previous interests? What was the impetus for this book and this theme in particular?

Phillip: You know in a lot of ways this was the book that I had actually wanted to write all along. The last time you were kind enough to have me on I shared, and I'll share again, that I'm not a historian. I'm an amateur. I read and write about history in my spare time because I enjoy and I am particularly fascinated by Roman society, Roman history and I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing and I wrote the first book and largely a leadership book because that's what it took to get a book published. A publisher I don't know and knows me. I am this independent non-historian, non-expert nobody in the publishing world. All of those conditions are still true on my third book.

So in order to get published they had to go towards a genre that would have a wider audience which was leadership. So the challenge was how do you translate ancient Rome into modern leadership and I'm actually delighted with the result and I love the book and I hope people like it too.

The second book I thought, okay I want to try this again and I tried to pick a book that I thought would be competitive in its category, as in travel. I didn't see there was a lot of overlap between genuine history and travel. I remember being in Rome for the very first time and asking someone why the coliseum was called the coliseum and the answer is contained in that book. So in a lot of ways I tried to write a book that I wish I had had when I went to Rome for the first time as a guide for people to help them have a richer experience participating in the great history through its archeology and architecture.

But again, I tried to engineer towards a specific outcome. "Let me target a category and write something unique in that category." This is the first time I've ever really tried to say, "I love Roman history. Let me write a history book" and just unabashedly embrace the fact that "Yeah, I'm an amateur but I'm trying my hand at history and I hope you all like it." So I wrote the book because I felt like I hadn't yet expressed myself as an author about how I write, how I think, how I analyze history and how I share the stories that I accumulate, with the world. So it is my third book about Rome but it is the first book that I felt like I really wrote for me and I hope that's reflected in the experience that people have and I hope there's some joy and humour in the tone, that maybe my voice is still coming out and I hope everybody likes it.

Harrison: It is very entertaining. There are some good jokes. I was reading some of the reviews on Goodreads or Amazon and there were a few people that said that they listened to the audio book and because there's no pictures in the audio book obviously, they said "The pictures must be hilarious because the descriptions are very funny." There are some good captions to the pictures, like the busts of a lot of these emperors or leaders.

Well that's one thing I wanted to say about the book. You get almost an overview of the entire history of Rome through these high points or low points - high points of evil but low points in humanity.

Phillip: Right.

Harrison: So from the beginning, from the mythological, legendary beginnings of Romulus and Remus all the way to the fall of the western empire. So how did you go about finding the individual accounts? Did you start out with a long list and just eliminate them or were these the ones that just came to mind for these particular individuals and groups?

Phillip: Well I think it's a little bit of both. I'm glad that you highlighted the portion about the book being a history from the founding to the collapse of the western empire period. One of the things I hope people really like about this is that hiding inside this book is intended to be a single volume history of Rome, from its founding to its collapse, at least the western empire, which spans a 1,200-1,300 year period. I'll also confess with you, as you guys get to know me even better, you'll know I give these long-winded, rambling answers to seemingly simple questions so bear with me because I promise I'll get there.

I hate the title of the book. Or I should say I hated the title of the book. The publisher is the one that pushed for this to be the title. I wanted to call the book Murders, Tyrants and Lunatics because I thought that was much more descriptive of who these people were and as a non-professional historian or an aspiring professional historian, there is an inaccuracy in the very title, which is that not all people covered in this book are emperors! In Roman history you have the monarchy, you have the senate, you have the empire, you have the dominant or big, apocryphal cycles of Roman history and not everyone contained therein is actually an emperor.

So I needed to have my publisher tell me to stop being such a nerd about technical language and be descriptive about what this book really covers which is just truly the worst of the worst from Rome. Some of the people are just intrinsically obvious. Nero and Caligula. The reason they're names are in the sub-title, it's a signal to those that know those people, "Hey you're going to learn something about folks you may be familiar with,."

However, I, in my review of Roman history have gotten to know some of the lesser known but equally genuinely awful people whose stories deserve to be told. And what I've found as I dug a little bit deeper is that the ones that people know the best are not necessarily the worst. So if you think Caligula's the worst, read on. My argument in the book is that he's not. I won't tell you where he falls on the countdown from 10 to one but he's not number one. He's not the worst and I think there's a pretty compelling case that there are quite a few other people who at least rival if not exceed him in terms of their awfulness and those are stories that need to be told as well.

So I think there's a really long and distinguished list or ignoble list of people that would contend for consideration in a book like this but I think I'm pretty happy with where we landed and, to be very, very precise, I did feel a little like it was necessary to even out the chronology so that you had not a thousand year gap between person A and person B. We needed to find people from within Roman history that would smooth out the narrative and really have a nice timeline so that you're not having giant gaps because part of what we're trying to accomplish with the book is to tell the story of what Roman society was and if you're having to start from scratch in a completely different time period with a completely different ruler and system of government, too much time gets lost in that background. So I was just trying to keep things constant, smooth out the narrative and have some fun along the way.

Harrison: Well it is fun. One of the things that I appreciated about the book, as I mentioned, it's an overview of the whole history of Rome and it begins in the legends and the myths and the point you make right at the beginning is that historians nowadays acknowledge that probably things didn't happen like the Romans themselves believed that they happened, with the founding of Rome, with Romulus and Remus and the story like that. There's some legendary and mythic undercurrents and probably a lot of those stories are pure myth.

But the point you make is that it's still important to know those stories and to present them because those were the stories that Romans themselves told themselves. That was their self-perception. So the story of the founding of Rome and the fratricide and then later the regicide, there is murder and betrayal built right into the founding myths. And then as you show in the book, this proceeds over the millennia through the whole history of Rome.

But you do something similar with a lot of these guys because in several of them in particular you point out that a lot of historians wonder how many of the evil stories that are told about them are actually true and how much of it was stories told after the fact by historians that wanted to besmirch the name of these emperors, maybe further that they'd already besmirched themselves? I just wanted to know how you dealt with that, how you think that question enters into it.

I'll give one example because we mentioned him already. I believe it's Caligula. Caligula was the one where there are several stories and several accounts of why he was the way he was and there's one account that he had this illness and beforehand he seemed like a pretty good guy, a pretty decent guy with some interesting and progressive policies for reform and then he had this illness and came out and was just bat shit crazy. But there are several different accounts of why that might be the case. What do you think about that? And what do you think about some of the more outlandish stories that are told about emperors? Do you think we should take them with a grain of salt or take them seriously? How do you approach that?

Phillip: It's actually probably the central question about how do you write a book like this, right? Which is you're presenting things almost as historical truths that in certain cases come from very suspect sources and stories that were written to achieve political goals that you know there's going to be a variance from the truth. I'm guessing every nation can probably find inside its founding mythology some story that a collective nation tells itself about a truth. "I cannot lie. I chopped down the cherry tree." Two hundred years it took before we realized that that was completely fabricated but by the time it did, it didn't matter. People's impression of George Washington as a stalwart 9-year-old boy was rooted and was part of the mythology. It was part of the folklore. It's part of the founding ethos of America.

So Rome is no different in that sense. It just told stories about itself to be reflective of what it wanted to be as a society and occasionally, governments fell and rose and fell and rose, and the following and successive narrators, propagandizers, historians, etc. had a political incentive to trash the predecessors or to highlight as weird and deviant the people that would have been political enemies or representatives of the prior regime.

Take for example Elagabalus, who is one of the featured characters in this book. He's worth getting to know. He was definitely strange. He was probably not as awful as he was described and for most of his life and career, the only extant Latin history is a document called the Historio Augusto which, if you dig into a little bit of the historical accuracy, you find that it kind of collapses right away. But at the same time we have no other narrative that would contradict it, balance it out, etc., so the only source we have is the one that is proven to be unreliable.

So you have a choice. Do you just ignore that character or do you tell the stories with a big asterisk next to it saying, "This is one version of events. It may or may not have happened. It sure is fun storytelling"? The challenge for me is to try to get to the essence of who these people were, even if some of the details about how we construct that essence are questionable, you still want to get to the fundamental truth. He was a 14-year-old kid. He was WAY unprepared for power. He had some very profound identity issues in a way that manifested themselves in the behaviour that Romans would have deemed to be aberrant and strange and weird. The chroniclers would have taken what they deemed to be strange and weird, characterize them to a further extreme and what's left is that extreme version of the truth. There's no doubt that he was an ill-prepared and incompetent emperor. The essence of his character is harder to nail down.

So it is a tough challenge to write about this. If you read the introduction - I was getting very paranoid by the way. I try to think about what are the critiques of books and put my response to those critiques into the introduction. I said we have to simultaneously take historians at their word and take it with a grain of salt. You have no other choice otherwise. A lot of historians gain a lot of traction by saying, "Yeah, but we don't really know this happened." And it's true. Certain things in history are just utterly unprovable, up to interpretation, etc.

If we stopped this book every single time we ran into a fact that said, "Yeah but maybe that didn't happen. Yeah but the historian and the sources are unreliable", it would be dull and tedious and absolute crap and no one would want to read it. And as an independent guy trying to sell a book here and there, I've got to keep pushing as hard as I can. {laughs} I don't want to stop the train. So the intention of the book is not to only qualify with academic rigor that which is knowable. For Roman history that's an impossible task.

So yes, absolutely hard, have to take some of the sources with a grain of salt and qualify in the very beginning, in the first few pages of the introduction, "This is what it is. This is what you're dealing with. When you're dealing with Roman history, this is what you're dealing with." And even some of the more well documented figures, Caesar, Augustus, etc., a lot of what has been accepted as conventional narrative is also ultimately unverifiable and unprovable. That doesn't mean we stop teaching it. When you stop teaching Roman history and only narrow it down to that which is 100% knowable it would be a very, very short curriculum. So it's a challenge of the sources but hopefully we thread the needle a little bit and got through to the other side.

Elan: Well Phillip, there is this overall kind of picture that you paint in your book that shows this extreme tension between those leaders that would seek to make things stable, to institute policies of reform, to not go on the war path and then these leaders that basically took power either through assassination or association and it's as though there was this two sides to ancient Rome that were vying for dominance; one of order and stability and control and balance and another that was just plain murderous and psychopathic.

Phillip: Right.

Elan: So I think one of the virtues of the book is if you look past the idea that yeah, some of the details might not have actually been correct, you do get this overall, overarching view of ancient Rome that presents as this kind of schizophrenic - on the one hand it could have been this wonderful center for civilization for most of its time but there are other periods where you've got these guys coming into power and you have to wonder, wasn't there some collective memory by the people of Rome that if you kill the wise philosopher king and you put this tyrannical general in power...

Phillip: Right.

Elan: ...things are going to get bad?! Lots of people are going to die. A lot of money's going to get wasted. A lot of resources are going to be diminished. So this greater picture that you present, I think is very valuable and instructive. I wonder if you can speak a little bit about this overarching picture that you paint of ancient Rome along those lines.

Phillip: Thank you and you're right. If you didn't have good ones every once in a while then things would have fallen apart a lot sooner and part of the reason that Rome could, for lack of a better term, 'afford' or endure such murderous tyrants and lunatics is because there were lots of people of extreme competence and more importantly, Rome itself had built institutions that allowed for a measure of self-sufficiency. It mattered very little in the provinces and Gaul if the emperor back in Rome was behaving crazily and killing his wife, i.e. Nero, or humiliating the senate, i.e., Caligula or indulging in weird eastern religious mystery cults, i.e., Elagabalus, because the Roman system itself had a measure of sustainability to it and that's part of why Rome endured for so long. It was the institutions that it built very early on and evolved and found their ultimate capstone in Augustus and the birth of the empire, created a measure of stability that was hard to erode through the rule of any one megalomaniac.

Take Nero as a great example. When you read the book - and I hope everyone here does and enjoys it - you'll find that some of the stories add a lens to it. Would this matter to someone in the provinces? Would it matter to someone in Gaul that Nero and his mom were feuding and he probably killed her? Would that matter? Would that actually affect the stability of the empire? Did it make him an awful person and warrant consideration for this book? Sure! Did it matter in the provinces? Not a lick.

So there is a bit of the personal behavior versus its broader impact on the empire. But to the point on focus of competence, one of the questions that I get asked a lot is, "Well who's your favorite Roman ruler or emperor?" That's tough. It's like which of your kids do you love the most. But I tend to skew towards the answer, Emperor Aurelian. In the mid-3rd century Rome fractured and almost had a premature death. There was a breakaway kingdom in the south with the wily Queen Zenobia and the Palmyrene empire kind of broke off and carved a piece of itself away in the northwest in the Gallic empire. So there was a breakaway republic over here, breakaway republic over there, each claiming to be the true, legitimate source of Roman power and then what was left was in the middle in the traditional Italic-based empire.

So Aurelian, who was a Roman general from the province of Illyria, Aurelian was a man of exceptional competence. He came to power in 270 in the midst of what's called the crisis of the third century and he went off conquering and he smashed the leaders of both of those breakaway kingdoms, brought them back into the fold, for which he was given and took the epithet 'restitutor orbis' or restorer of the world. He brought from three kingdoms back into one and reunified the Roman empire and did so with such incredible vigor that it set the stage for Rome to last for another couple of hundred years and his successors, some of whom are very famous, Diocletian, Constantine, etc., never would have been able to have ruled over a unified kingdom had it not been for his enormous energy and enormous competence.

He ruled for five years. They were spectacular. He was assassinated in a massive bout of myopia, but he was able to put it all back together and his competence allowed for Rome to continue to prosper, thrive and absorb some of the people who appear later in its chronology that were not of the same level of talent.

Harrison: You mention the institutions that Rome had created and how that led to a certain kind of system resiliency, that Rome was able to survive because of those institutions and a lot of the things that the worst of these guys were doing didn't really reach into the provinces. But I wanted to know who do you think - maybe one, two or just who comes to mind out of these leaders in your book - which ones do you think had the most influence, the farthest reach, to the point where the people in the provinces were affected? So it wasn't just limited to the elite circles in Rome and the aristocracy? Who do you think had the most effect on the actual people in the empire itself and all of its extensions?

Phillip: Would it be fair to also add as an addendum to the question, which emperors began to undermine the institutions themselves?

Harrison: Yes.

Phillip: As opposed to chaos in the imperial system? I think the clear winner in that ignoble awards ceremony is Maximinus Thrax, which by the way is such a cool name. {laugher} Thrax just meant Thracian. I have a friend of mine who wrote me an email after having read the book that said, "I wish you'd written this 13 years ago. My son would have been named Max Thrax Roberts because why not take advantage of history."

He was a giant. He clearly had some kind of hormonal or glandular issues that let him grow very, very big. His legendary stature is in the book. Who knows how much of it is embellishment? It's clear he was a giant. It's how he got the attention of the emperor, got into the imperial services as this peasant off in the hinterlands. The conventions of ancient warfare were that when your army went and conquered, the plunder of war became part of how you paid your army. Go sack a Germanic village, seize it's movable loot, distribute the spoils among your troops, your troops are happy, the armies become a cash raising engine to finance themselves. That has happened from time immemorial. In that way Rome was no different. What made Maximinus Thrax such an insidious character is that he began to sack Roman cities, Roman villages, Roman provinces. He took a Roman army and put it to conquest against Roman citizens simply, in larger part to pay the army, but also as a sheer brute exercise of power because that's just kind of who he was.

So when you have your own emperor destroying your own people purely for profit and for dominion and exertion of power, that's going to go a long way to eroding the trust that exists between institutions and the governing class, between the civilian population, between the military and it's going to have long-term consequences and indeed it did. Most of the sources would point to the fact that his troops didn't even want to do this but he made them do this. How do you say no to an emperor who is eight-and-a-half-feet tall and can eat 40 pounds of meat at a time and all the legendary things about his size?

So this is where it really started to tip for Rome and the wheels began to come off, so to speak.

Elan: So you devote a little bit of attention to the Praetorian Guard. The head team of people who provided security for the emperor were quite often responsible for actually committing the assassinations and/or launching a new emperor and being the emperor maker. You describe some of the characters in the Praetorian Guard that got too big for their britches and were incredibly powerful themselves and would restrict the amount of information that they were giving to the emperor at the time. I think Tiberius was one of those emperors who was outside of Rome and one of these Praetorian Guard leaders would filter out information because he was so manipulative.

I have my own ideas about it Phillip, but I was thinking about that as a group of individuals as opposed to an emperor that wielded this incredible amount of power at the time, so I was wondering if there is, in your mind perhaps, an analogous group in contemporary history that you might think, "That's kind of like the Praetorian Guard, what this agency or that military has been doing here or there." Or if you have any comments about that concentration of power among people who are not elected but have this kind of security detail.

Phillip: Right. I think it's a really fascinating question and I would love to specifically address the temptation to draw parallels to modern society and why I tend to avoid it because there's a very cynical and self-serving reason why I do so. But to give a very direct answer to the question, I think that any time you can see a cabal of people who align their interests and their power to put themselves before the citizenry you're going to find echoes of the Praetorian Guard and think about monopolies in the pre-Sherman antitrust act era who price controlled, gouged, manipulated and there was no other choice because they were the only show in town. In fact the monopoly on force is what allowed for the Praetorian Guard to be so extractive, exploitative, violent, just degenerate. They were the only armed troops allowed inside the city of Rome!

They were well-trained people who took these posts generally after a distinguished career in the military and they would use that power to promote their own gains and when they had a weak emperor, they could in fact hold the fate of the empire in their hands because they could exert that power and they could do what they could do and they were unrivaled. They were a monopoly.

So think about a monopoly. Think about an economic block that holds the fate of society in its hands, whose only goals are for the furtherance of exploitation of wealth, resources or whatever and that way I think you'll find the echoes without naming specific organizations, but monopolies in general. Who controls access to information? Who has power? Who controls access to power?

I will say that I get asked a lot to draw a parallel between say, an ancient Roman emperor and a modern American president or a modern American politician or a world leader or whatever the case may be and I avoid that like the plague. It's for a couple of reasons. One, we in this country, in America, are so politically divisive, the moment I declare Caligula equals, let's say Trump, or Nero equals Biden, whatever, half the people that might read this book are gone. They're just gone! And I can't afford to alienate half the audience. But it's more basic than that.

The worst of contemporary American politicians are an absolute lightweight compared to Caligula, compared to Nero, compared to any of these people. If you think American politics is bad now, man you don't know what Rome looks like then! There is so much more at stake when the ruler has unquestioned authority, unquestioned power, when they snap their fingers and someone dies or ten thousand people die, or twenty thousand people die. There is no comparison! None! Are there seeds of megalomaniac personalities in a lot of world leaders? Absolutely! Do some world leaders now kill, violently exploit their people? Without the shadow of a doubt! Is there any contemporary American politician that would come in the top 50 of this list? None! Zero! Regardless of your political proclivities.

Part of it is because American currently benefits from the same thing that propped Rome up, which is strong institutions. There are arguments to be made that those institutions are eroding or under attack. Those debates are important. They should absolutely be had. But for right now, right now, there's no one that could come to the presidency of the United States, chair a senate committee, the supreme court, whatever, who could order 20,000 people to be slaughtered like that, no questions asked, within the confines of its domain. Yes, there are absolute questions about foreign imperialism, military adventures, the role of countries, ours and others, intervening in the affairs of other people. Those are also important questions. I'm simply talking contained within the walls of our own domestic system.

So put a parameter set around that. I don't want to talk about when we go off to war and the motivations for them, etc. Just within the confines of the American political system, there's no one out there who would warrant consideration on a list like this because frankly, the institutions serve as too much of a check on those types of impulses. Does that make sense? Does that work?

Harrison: Yeah. I want to tie that into one of the first things we talked about today which was the nature of the sources on these ancient Romans. Even if you go the skeptical historian's route of saying 'we can't know if that actually happened, we can't know if this actually happened', well even then, the propaganda of Rome tells something about Roman society.

Phillip: Right.

Harrison: Because you couldn't find a popular historian on the par of these ancient historians of Rome who would say things about, say the particular things about American politicians that they said about Elagabalus or Commodus or Caracalla, right? The fact that these things were able to be said and presumably be taken as plausible stories says something about the kinds of things that went on in Roman society and how things actually worked, that this stuff could happen, that things like this did happen. There were tons of assassinations. There were prescriptions and death lists and outright slaughter all over the place.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is to take the skeptical route isn't to say that none of this stuff ever happened and things were all rosy. It's really, 'Well maybe in this case, this didn't actually happen' but it was a plausible story at the time and it was a plausible story to Romans even immediately after the fact. That really doesn't compare to a lot of contemporary politics or trends or actual practices.

Phillip: Right. The aphorism that's been modified and warped so many times that I'll probably get it horribly wrong, but the essence of it is the truth: 'never let the facts get in the way of the truth'. There is a fundamental truth to the nature of Roman society. It was violent. Autocracy was unchecked. The violent impulses of people that held absolute power, there was no control against those and the results were devastating in a lot of different cases.

That said, not everything in this book is so questioned in terms of its historicity. The prescription you mentioned, the first one, Sulla is a senator and our general. He defies Roman convention. He marches his troops into the city and after some back and forth struggles in the civil war with his great foe, he eventually orders a complete liquidation of the political class that stood in opposition to him, or those members of the political organization or political affiliation that stood in opposition to him. He put a list. 'Your lives are forfeit. Bring me the head of the following people and you will be rewarded.' And heads went up all over the forum and heads went off all around the empire. Thousands of people were killed. I have not yet found a source that said that probably didn't happen. I don't know about that.

So there is some truth to the overall arc of Roman history. It was exceedingly violent, blood-thirsty and there are certain instances that remain more or less consensus. Some version of this, some very close approximation of this is likely what happened. So yes the sources are occasionally and episodically unreliable, but the broad truth of what Rome was and how Roman power was exercised and the implications of that remain unchanged no matter how many qualifiers you put over the actual precision of the details that have come down to us.

Elan: So I guess my first introduction to some of these leaders was in the 1979 movie Caligula with Malcolm McDowell which I don't recommend by the way. It's pornographic and brutal and very violent but it did give a very good sense of how perfectly awful Caligula was. Fellini made Satyricon and we also have Ridley Scott's Gladiator. That includes a little bit of Promotus I think. But in your slim volume Phillip - because there were so many times when I realized I didn't have the scope of just how brutal and psychopathic Rome had become during these periods or how brutal and psychopathic the leadership was allowed to be. So I just wanted to say that also prior to reading this I was familiar with Sulla, the general who was basically terrorizing his public just prior to Julius Caesar taking the reins. But this book really gives a sense of the outsized, off the charts capacity for a - at that time - modern, developed civilization to what complete chaos can look like in a very short period of time.

One of the stories that you point out is Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher king/emperor who did a wonderful job for a period of time, we know his works through his Stoic writings, his son - was it Commodus?...

Phillip: Commodus, yeah.

Elan: The apple fell so far from the tree in that particular story.

Phillip: Oh, don't spoil it man! {laughter}

Elan: Well I apologize, it's too late. But certainly...

Harrison: We'll put a censor bleep over that number there.

Elan: Yes. We'll edit that out. I think if one of the features of the book succeeds so well is in how quickly things could turn so bad, so soon with just a psychopathic leader.

Phillip: It really almost defies belief when you think about the gap between what Marcus Aurelius was and what his son was, right? It HAS to be THE biggest, in terms of sheer competence, in terms of analytical power, in terms of just this capability to go from Marcus Aurelius to Commodus. Someone listening to this and knows their history of Marcus Aurelius would very rightly point out that he was engaged in a near-genocidal war against Germanic tribes. He was no peach. He was off a-conquering, trying to go and wipe out people who had dared to resist the hegemony of Rome. He had his own body count. There's no doubt. And that didn't come out in the meditations very often. He said "Dear diary, today I killed 2,000 Germans." It doesn't really show up much in that essence of his character and it kind of gets overlooked.

So we want to offer the asterisk that none of the Roman emperors sought to exercise power purely through humanitarian means. There is some qualification that goes there, but Marcus Aurelius was indeed brilliant. He did try to genuinely serve what he thought was the cause of empire over the best of his own needs. I think there's one thing in the meditations that says, "Oh you're all warm in your blankets here while your troops are out freezing. Get up you lazy bum and go!" He did have this inner drive, this inner monologue, this competence, this analytical capability. None of it existed in his son, Commodus. Edward Gibbons says that the secession from Marcus Aurelius to Commodus is the point where Rome was on terminal decline because from here on out it's more bad news than good, even though the Roman empire has another 300 years left, at least the western empire. That's a massive, massive gap.

But it's important to say about Commodus and the movie Gladiator, almost everyone has seen Gladiator and in that movie Commodus is cunning, he's brilliant but tortured, he's twisted but he's channeling his needs against a small group of enemies. He's this, he's that, he's this, he's that. The problem with Gladiator is it WAY gives him too much credit. He was not smart, cunning, or calculating! He didn't give a lick whether the people liked him or not. He was brutal universally. He was an awful, awful, awful person and even as twisted as the Ridley Scott Commodus is, there is some redeeming element of tortured genius that, "Oh, if only he had applied that to good needs." No! None of it! There's no way Commodus had the motivation or the drive to try to execute some plan, some scheme. He just wasn't that bright. He wasn't that sharp. He wasn't that motivated. He wasn't that driven.

The problem with the movie is it makes him way, way better than he really was. Even as bad as it makes him look, the real Commodus was just much worse. So that's why it's worth exploring why he's numbered on the list {laughter} and I think the contrast between the image that comes to him versus what he really is will be quite telling.

The last thing I'll say about Commodus, Marcus to Comodus, Marcus Aurelius gets a lot of grief from historians for not having adopted and appointed an heir of talent and merit. He was the last of what Gibbon called the five good emperors. We've got Nerva, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, Hadrian, Marcus. I got those last two out of order. Forgive me. But each one adopted their successor. Nerva adopted Trajan. Trajan adopted Hadrian. Hadrian made Antoninus Pius, Antoninus Pius, Marcus. Marcus did not adopt his successor, he had Commodus and he gave the empire to his son knowing full well his son was an idiot.

Why? People ask that all the time. Why? None of the previous four guys had a male heir. None. So it probably never crossed his mind to adopt someone with talent. The only reason that any of the prior four emperors had come to power is because they had been adopted because there was no son to hand things over to. So we do need to give Marcus a little bit of a pass on that. It would have been stranger for him to NOT have given the empire over to his son and to bypass him for a successor. And by the way, had he done that, it would have unleashed a civil war and there would have been even more bloodshed and turmoil and he was probably hoping 'put in my lout, surround him by good, talented, smart people. They can temper his excesses and everything will be okay.' In the end it didn't really work out. But that's one area we've got to give Marcus a little bit of a pass. He really didn't have much of a say in the matter.

Harrison: Most fathers or most parents aren't always the greatest at seeing the flaws in their children, especially when they don't know how they're going to turn out, right? You can't always tell that your child is a complete monster and even if they were, it's hard to admit that as a parent. So yeah, cut him some slack.

But one of the things that stood out to me about both the reigns both of Commodus and Caracalla - and these aren't the only ones that did that but - whether they did it intentionally or not, what they both ended up achieving was destroying as many competent people in the ruling class as possible and replacing them with totally incompetent shlubs. That's all I'll say about that. I just want to know if you have any comment on that dynamic and what happened and just anything about that.

Phillip: So there's a theme of certain Roman rulers who sought to exercise and vent their fury on the nobility because you can almost feel their insecurity coming through in the way that they express power. Maximinus Thrax, anyone who even knew of his peasant origin, friend or foe, he had killed. Lifelong best friend or BFFs were good. "Hey! You're emperor now. Cool!" Dead because that person knew from whence Maximunus Thrax came.

Caracalla has a rage and a vent against the nobility. Caligula has a rage against the nobility. Caligula came from an absolutely impeccable imperial pedigree but he hated the nobility. He hated the farce of the pretence of deference to power and he just called the bluff of all the sycophants. He took their dignity and then he took their lives. But that is absolutely a pattern and to answer the question asked earlier about 'do you see modern echoes', I think we can all see in bad leadership people who manifest the worst of their leadership as an expression of their insecurity.

These are all people who were born, grew up, nurtured, cared for, ruled, died. They were people. They were human beings. They were full of psychological flaws and craziness and they had people that loved them and they had people that hated them and they were all human beings who walked the earth and then don't anymore. There's no doubt that any one of these people actually existed. Each is a confirmed historical figure. There's no argument that any of these people - well except for Romulus - are wholly mythologized. But part of being human is to have insecurity and when you have insecurity on one hand and unlimited power on the other, bad things are going to happen. Some people were decent rulers who managed to overcome some of those insecurities and others became chapters in this book.

Adam: That was one thing that I really liked about your book. I'm only five chapters in so I've still got a ways to go.

Phillip: It all falls apart in number 6. Stop right now! {laughter}

Adam: Well it's number one, very entertaining. I hate to say delightful because of the subject matter, but nevertheless it's entertaining and delightful and a very pleasant read. One of the things that you do a good job of, like you were just saying, you're able to give these characters depth, these historical characters, as horrible as some of them are and were, they still have - well I haven't read all of them and it sounds like some of them don't have a very deep character. But some of them, despite being terrible in various ways, still had some depth and range to them that made them human and therefore interesting.

So I just really appreciated the way that that all came out. Was there one particular event in all of the history that you had been reading, that stuck out to you as being the most shocking, I guess you could say? Because there was one part where you were talking about the pig Athena. I can't remember her name or how it's spelled. The younger.

Phillip: Agrippina the younger.

Adam: Yes. Who ended up marrying her uncle and then you had put in parentheses "eewwee". {laughter}

Phillip: Yes. That was gross even to the Romans. The Romans' conventions on what was and was not an acceptable marriage, especially within their nobility, were probably less restrictive than would be in contemporary American society, but that would have been pretty shocking even to the Romans in their time. But I think the single most deplorable act in terms of just the psychosis that goes into it, for me was the assassination of the emperor Geta by his brother and co-emperor Caracalla. When their father Septimius Severus died, he left the empire to his sons. He gave deathbed advice. Honor the troops. Look after each other. Scorn all other men and they hated each other.

They almost immediately went to civil war with one another. They literally divided the empire in half. They divided the imperial palace in half. They'd have a big line down the middle of it, bar the entries and bodyguards facing off against each other to make sure no one tried to come in and their mother decided she needed to step in and broker a truce. So she invited the two of them to dinner, no bodyguards, no weapons, nothing, just the three of them and 'We're going to sit down as a family and we're going to hash it out."

The invitation may have come from Caracalla and his mother sort of encouraged it but sure enough, the three of them get together and they've had this cease fire and the whole thing is a trap and a set up and Caracalla has his armed bodyguards kick down the door. They murder Geta and in the arms of their mother, Julia Domna who is shielding her son, one son from the other and she gets injured in the process too. So imagine holding your child and having them murdered on the orders of your other child while they watch glibly.

There's some incredible acts of savagery. I don't want to create moral equivalency. Caracalla later ordered the simultaneous execution of 20,000 Alexandrian citizens. It's not to say that one is worse than the other but the thing that stood out to me is, holy cow, that just aberrant even for that particular time. Though what made it particularly insidious is that Caracalla then forbade his mother from expressing any mourning in public. And she had to look joyful because one son, Caracalla, justified this as he's unveiled the plot. He has said that "My brother's trying to assassinate me and I got him before he got me and I've liberated Rome from this evil tyrant and you should all be happy. You too, mom! And if I see you looking sad in public I will have you killed too."

So to force at the point of a spear or a knife, to have your own mother express joy at the murder of his son whom she held in her arms as he bleed into death, that was the one thing that still hits me as a parent, as a son. It's pretty brutal. A lot of the Roman forum is dominated by the Arch of Septimius Severus which he built to commemorate his military conquests. He had portraits of his sons inscribed upon it and Caracalla issued an edict that one son, Geta, his brother, would be wiped from the memory so coins of Geta are scratched off. His face on the arch is gone. Any artwork that commemorated Geta is destroyed. So not only did he kill his brother, he did it in the arms of their mother. He demanded that everyone express joy and then sought to wipe his brother's memory from the face of the earth.

And that's not even number one! That's not a spoiler. Caracalla's not even one. So if you think that's bad, it actually does get worse. Gentlemen, I have to go. It is 10:30. I'm greatly enjoying the conversation. I'd be delighted to pick it up again later or whatever your needs are here. I'm incredibly grateful for giving me this audience and I appreciate it very much. So I'll leave it to you to tell me what would be best, either just to have an awkward, rushed good-bye or to pick it up a little bit later.

Harrison: Well let's do an awkward, rushed good-bye for now and then if we change our minds we can let you know.

Phillip: Okay.

Harrison: Thanks everyone.

Phillip: Thank you all for watching, for listening, please buy the book, please give it a good review. Someone on Good Reads wrote a review that said, "This is great! I laughed. I really enjoyed it. Great breezy style. Three stars." Come on man! Help me out! Give me that five stars if you really laughed, enjoyed it, found it breezy, don't be so damned pedantic! Don't be withholding folks. Give me the reviews! Just kidding. Love you all. Thank you so much. I appreciate you.

Harrison: Alright.

Phillip: Have a great day.

Harrison: Take care Phillip. Bye-bye.