In This Chapter
● Men who set the standards for being Romans
● Dictators, emperors, politicians, farmers, and ordinary soldiers
In every historical era, a few people really stand out from the rest for helping define the age they lived in. They don’t always have to be the great movers and shakers, but they’re usually somehow in the centre of events.
Cincinnatus (519-438 BC)
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus is one of the great traditional figures of the Roman Republic. Cincinnatus was a consul in 460 BC, but in 458 BC, while ploughing his fields, he was made dictator and placed in charge of the war against the Volsci and Aequi. Cincinnatus did the job in just 16 days, after which he laid down his command and went back to the plough. In 439 BC, he was made dictator again, despite being 80 years old, to put down a conspiracy. He gave up the post again after 21 days and turned down any rewards. Cincinnatus sums up the Roman Republican ideal - a man of honour and leadership who wanted nothing more than the chance to plough his fields. The American city of Cincinnati in Ohio is named after him.
Scipio Africanus the Elder (236-185 BC)
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus was the great hero of the Second Punic War. In fact, the war had been the backdrop to the whole of his early life. Not
only was he at Cannae in 216 BC, but in 211, he heard his father and uncle had been killed in the fighting in Spain. Catapulted to being head of his family at only 24, Scipio was given the unprecedented award of proconsular imperium at so young an age and was sent off to avenge his family. His triumphant defeat of the Carthaginians in Spain by 206 BC and then in Africa at Zama in 202 BC made him a great Roman hero. Ruined eventually by corruption charges brought by Cato (see the later section on Cato), Scipio ended up dying in exile. But Scipio went down in Roman lore as a heroic Roman of great honour and was revered for it. His family later included Scipio Aemilianus Africanus the Younger and the Gracchi brothers, whom you can read about in Chapter 14.
Marcus Sergius (fate third century BC)
Marcus Sergius was said by some to have been the bravest Roman who ever lived. By the time of the Second Punic War, he’d already been wounded 23 times, including losing his right hand, and fought four battles using his left hand only. He ended up apparently unable to use his feet or his remaining hand, presumably temporarily. Hannibal captured him twice, but he escaped both times despite being banged up in chains for 20 months. Plans were made to disqualify him from the praetorship for being disabled, but Sergius was persistent and was elected anyway. He had an iron right hand made for himself and proceeded to raise the siege of Cremona in 200 BC during the war against the Cisalpine Gauls, and captured 12 enemy camps. Ironically for such a brave man and an inspiration to the Romans, his great-grandson was the arch-villain Sergius Catilinus (more about him in Chapter 24).
Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BC)
Cato (sometimes called ‘Cato the Elder’) was admired in Roman history as the ultimate stickler for traditional Roman virtues. He fought in the Second Punic War (covered in Chapter 12) while still only 17. Cato earned a reputation for ignoring any temptations to indulge himself. He stuck to water and simple meals. Cato hated luxury, decadence, and corruption of any sort and was even disgusted by Greek art, believing it would undermine the great Roman tradition of rural simplicity. You can read about his influential farmer’s manual which celebrated the Roman myth of rural bliss and purity in Chapter 4. His moral strictness echoed down later generations, and Virgil even made him one of the judges of hell in the Aeneid. Cato sounds like a pretty dreadful person, and indeed it was Cato who called for Carthage’s final
destruction (described in Chapter 13). But there’s no getting away from the fact that Cato summed up what some thought Rome stood for and the way Rome should have stayed.
Gaius Gracchus (d. 121 BC)
Gaius Gracchus (see Chapter 14) was a remarkable man who, like his brother Tiberius, knew that Rome couldn’t possibly survive so long as the senatorial aristocracy tried to keep all Rome’s wealth to themselves. Unlike Tiberius though, Gaius Gracchus was far more organised and had a much bigger programme of reform. Gaius Gracchus also understood that Rome’s Italian allies needed to be rewarded with citizenship and Latin status. His legal measures to recover the liberty of the people earned him the loathing of the aristocracy, and like his brother, he paid with his life. But the Gracchi became martyrs in the cause of political reform, and the Senate had no choice but to accept a lot of what they’d done. Their violent deaths set the tone for Republican politics that lasted until nearly a century later when Augustus took power.
Julius Caesar (102-44 BC)
Caesar deserves his place in this list because he’s the most famous Roman who ever lived. Let’s get one thing straight: Caesar wasn’t an emperor, though he’s sometimes described as if he was. But he was a consummate politician who worked the mob like a genius and manipulated his rivals. He was also one of Rome’s greatest generals and a brilliant leader of men. A relentless self-publicist, Caesar always had an eye on posterity and left behind his own account of some of these activities. In the end he went too far for the reactionaries who thought he was turning himself into a king. They might have killed him but all they did was cement Caesar’s place in history and created a crisis which led to Caesar’s nephew Augustus establishing a monarchy. Caesar himself has echoed down the ages, influencing every great military leader ever since.
Augustus (63 BC-AD 14)
Augustus is an obvious choice, but I’m making no apologies for including him here. He was no great general, but he was the winner at the end of all the
ghastly civil wars of the first century BC, and instead of using his power to make himself fantastically rich and turn himself into a despot, he created the principate (the Empire disguised as a restored Republic with himself as ‘first citizen’ - see Chapter 16). What he also achieved was the image of the emperor himself, a kind of universal ageless identity that linked every part of the Roman world together under a single umbrella. Few of his successors were his equal in any way, and it was Rome’s great and good fortune that he was the man he was. Augustus wasn’t perfect by any means, but considering how some of his successors behaved, he was about as good as a Roman emperor could be.
Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79)
I love Pliny the Elder. He was fascinated by the world around him and, thank goodness, he wrote it all down for his own time and for ours. His Natural History is packed from end to end with what passed for Roman science, together with an endless parade of anecdotes, half-baked theories, historical facts, and yarns. It’s completely absorbing, as well as amusing. Pliny’s total fascination with what made the world tick makes him truly one of the first ‘moderns’ - if he’d lived centuries later he’d have been one of the geniuses of the Renaissance or a Victorian scientist, and he’d have got on like a house on fire with Thomas Jefferson. It’s only appropriate he died when he went to view the eruption of Vesuvius at first hand in AD 79. What a truly fascinating man he must have been.
Carausius (reigned AD 286-293)
Including Carausius is blatant favouritism on my part. I’m intrigued by this man who emerged from total obscurity on the North Sea coast of Belgium to command the Roman fleet sent to clear out pirates. He ended up declaring himself emperor in Britain and part of Gaul, to the fury of Diocletian and Maximian. Simultaneously a rebel and a patriot, his revolt was just as much about frustration at the destruction caused to Rome’s reputation by generations of civil war. Carausius resurrected ancient Roman traditions, myths, and literature, and declared his regime to be a brand new, restored Roman Empire. His front was breathtaking, but he’s also a symbol of Rome’s extraordinary impact on communities all round her Empire. He was the ultimate product of Augustus’s branding and anticipated the medieval imitation Roman emperors because the Roman world had created the template for power.
Sextus Valerius Genialis (late first century AD)
Sextus Valerius Genialis was a nobody, but I’m including him because he sums up the Roman Empire. The only thing that survives of this man is his tombstone. It tells us he came from Frisia, just beyond the Rhine frontier.
Genialis joined the Roman army and served for 20 years, dying at the age of 40 while on campaign in Britain in the late first century AD with a wing of cavalry from Thrace in northern Greece. His tria nomina (see Chapter 2 for Roman naming practices) shows that, unusually for an auxiliary, he hadn’t had to wait until retirement to become a Roman citizen and was probably awarded it while in service. His name is totally generically Roman, blurring his own ethnic identity into a Roman one. Without the mention of Frisia, we’d otherwise have no idea at all where Genialis came from. Genialis is a symbol of untold millions of other men from places hundreds of miles from Rome, a city he probably never even saw, whose greatest ambition in life was to become a Roman. The fact that they wanted to and were allowed to is one of the reasons the Roman Empire became so powerful.