In the spring of 2003, as the radio delivered report after breathless report of the second American invasion of Iraq, charting the progress of the Abrams tanks rolling into Baghdad, I was reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the first time. It had been on my “must read” list for years and I’d finally worked up the nerve.
Gibbon’s masterpiece lives up to its reputation: it is a rich and rewarding read. But what struck me most, in passages describing how the ancient “golden age” had passed from prosperity and relative peace to decay and continual war, is how closely the trajectory of the contemporary American empire mirrors that of the Roman empire.
From Gibbon I turned to Will Durant for a more general view. In his Caesar to Christ, the similarities between the two empires is made even more stark. Read page 88 of that book for a remarkable, though unintentional, correspondence; Durant could have been writing about 21st century America.
Today, pundits often casually refer to the US as a reincarnation of the Roman empire. They talk of Pax Americana, imperial presidencies, and American exceptionalism. The founding fathers, steeped in the neo-classicism of the Enlightenment era, envisioned the United States in Rome’s image. Of course, it was republican, not imperial, Rome they had in mind – it takes time for a nation to trace that downward arc. Commentators draw superficial parallels between the two empires. But in reading Gibbon and Durant I wondered how far one could go. I began work on The Last Stoic that summer.
Some of the characters and places in The Last Stoic are historical, others are fictional. Where they are historical, I have endeavoured to hew as closely as possible to the received facts as they have been handed down by the chroniclers. Of course, some sources are considered more reliable than others. The reliability of the Historia Augusta, for example, while accepted by historians like Gibbon, has lately been cast into doubt; some modern scholars wonder if it isn’t deliberate fiction or even satire. Thus, while The Last Stoic isn’t meant to be a piece of scholarly research, and many historical descriptions, if they are interesting, are taken at face value, I have tried to keep with the current, common consensus.
All quotations from The Meditations appearing in The Last Stoic are taken from the following translation: Aurelius, Marcus. The Meditations, transl. Maxwell Staniforth (London: Folio Society, Penguin Books, 2005).
Here are a few additional notes on some of the historical characters that appear in The Last Stoic.
Commodus is emblematic of the fall of the Roman empire. In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon describes the period of the Antonine emperors (138 C.E. – 193 C.E.) as the “golden age”. Marcus Aurelius, philosopher-king, was the last of these golden emperors who oversaw the Pax Romana. His son, Commodus, was “born into the purple,” the first emperor in many generations rising to the throne, not through merit, but bloodline. In most ways he was the opposite of his father and he has come to represent the degeneracy that rotted the empire from within. Marcia, his Christian concubine attempted to poison him. Narcissus, his wrestling partner, finished him off through strangulation.
The emperor Caracallus ruled Rome from 211 to 217 C.E.. Born Lucius Septimius Bassianus, and renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus when he was seven, he was popularly known as Caracalla, for the Germanic cloak he would often wear, though at least one historian (Cassius Dio) records that he was sometimes called “Karakallos” (Greek) or “Caracallus” (Latin). Though the nickname was originally meant to be an epithet, and was never used in the emperor’s presence, some commentators suggest it was secretly relished by Caracallus because it lent him a patina of low savagery – perhaps an ancient version of “street cred.”
(Thanks to Professor James Fraser, University of Edinburgh for his clarifications.)
President of the United States (POTUS)
Presidential administrations consciously and unconsciously present themselves with an air of imperial Rome. And the parallels appear to go both ways. In chapters four and twenty-two, a good portion of Caracallus’ address to the troops is taken verbatim from similar addresses made by George W. Bush to the American military.
The Story of Sextus Condianus
Sextus Condianus was a real person, if we can believe Cassius Dio in his History of Rome. The story that the innkeeper relates to Marcus in Chapter Two about how Sextus escaped execution largely follows Dio’s own retelling.
Sextus Condianus, the son of Maximus, who surpassed all others by reason both of his native ability and his training, when he heard that sentence of death had been pronounced against him, too, drank the blood of a hare (he was living in Syria at the time), after which he mounted a horse and purposely fell from it; then, as he vomited the blood, which was supposed to be his own, he was taken up, apparently on the point of death, and was carried to his room. He himself now disappeared, while a ram’s body was placed in a coffin in his stead and burned. After this, constantly changing his appearance and clothing, he wandered about here and there. And when this story got out (for it is impossible that such matters should remain hidden very long), diligent search was made for him high and low.
Loeb Classical Library, 9 volumes, Greek texts and facing English translation: Harvard University Press, 1914 thru 1927. Translation by Earnest Cary.
At the time of The Last Stoic, Mithraism was Christianity’s chief rival. Like Christianity, it had its origins in the East. Though Mithraism is several thousand years older, the two religions share a similar mythology: Mithras was born on Dec. 25th, is identified with both the lion and the lamb, a divine light led to him gift-bearing shepherds, he worked miracles, etc.. The cult was enormously popular with the soldiers, who took its rituals and customs all around the nations of the empire. Both Commodus and Caracallus were initiates. There were two major threats to its longevity, however; secrecy and exclusivity – only males could participate. When Constantine converted and made Christianity the state religion in the fourth century, Mithraism was suppressed and gradually withered into obscurity.
Barbarian Invasions of Rome
There is no evidence that the barbarian attack on the Emporium in Rome that occurs at the end of Chapter Sixteen actually took place. Neither am I aware of any evidence to the contrary. Invasions of Rome by the Vandals and Goths began to happen with regularity in the fifth century.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, philosopher-emperor, the last of Gibbon’s “five good emperors,” wrote this volume near the end of his life while he was encamped on the banks of the Danube, in between campaigns against the tide of Quadi, Marcomanni, and Sarmati surging across the Germanic border. Maxwell Staniforth, in the introduction to his 1964 translation writes as follows: “there, among the misty swamps and reedy islands of that melancholy region, [Aurelius] consoled the hours of loneliness and exile by penning the volume of his Meditations.” Galen, the emperor’s physician, was perhaps his only companion as an infectious disease took hold and ended his life in 180 C.E..
It is believed that the emperor’s journal, entitled “To Myself,” was never meant for publication and wasn’t discovered by scholars until the fourth century. As distant heirs, we are fortunate that the parchment managed to survive the empire’s disintegration and the heedlessness of time. It is a conceit of The Last Stoic that an extant copy found its way from Galen’s steady hand to Commodus, to Narcissus, Commodus’ assassin, to the assassin’s kin, and then was sold, perhaps at a market or a bookseller, to Vincentius, Marcus’ grandfather, and finally to Marcus himself.