A see-saw of invention vs burning people at the stake

Lovers of Rome will know a square called “Campo de’ Fiori“: Today’s the day to remember it and all that it might symbolise. It’s in the dead centre of town, very quaint buildings with wonderful pastel colours, cobbled stones, a famous fresh fruit and vegetable market; and a scary statue of a hooded monk holding a book.

Fruit and veg at Campo de' Fiori square in Rome
Yummy fruit and veg at Campo de’ Fiori square
Statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome
The philosopher monk Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake on 17th Feb 1600.

It’s the only square in Rome that doesn’t have a church: The monk was an intellectual called Giordano Bruno, and this was the place where he was burned at the stake, a victim of the inquisition.

He was also contemporary to Galileo and surprisingly, it was he who suggested that the stars were other suns like our own, not Galileo or Copernicus. Bruno embraced the Copernican system of the solar system and went further to tear down the medieval barriers of astronomy. He opened up the mind to the notion of an infinite universe. In his view, the universe had no centre: not the Sun, nor the Earth. His thinking led him to propose that all of existence must be infinite as well as made of atoms: Notions which had been forgotten since the fall of Roman hegemony. Interestingly, all these ideas came to him through logic and metaphysics, rather than maths and astronomical observation. He was a strong proponent of the scientific method.

The date was 17th February 1600. The trailing end of the Renaissance and ante-chamber to “The Enlightenment”, but not without a set of intellectual battles with evidently material effects:

  1. Biblical authority: Diverging points of view on Biblical authority and what kind of truth is to be had from it – yes there are various kinds of truth, and Einstein seems to have stretched things even further. Theological interpretations over words such as “...and I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it…” (Matthew 16:18). The issue here being that “Peter” in Latin means “Rock”, hence the sentence can be read as explicitly saying that it is Peter, and hence his successor the Pope, who should be the foundation of the Church. Others might have had a more symbolic interpretation.
    • ie Power and a desire to maintain the status-quo was at play: “I am the pope, and therefore, you will do as I say!”.
  2.  Scientific method: The clash of learning based on classical thought based largely on logic and pre-established dogma vs. the growing Scientific method based on evidence, supported by the likes of Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. Induction and Deduction.
    • ie another angle on how to gain greater access to learning; with a ricochet hit on Biblical authority.

Ironically, the Fathers of the Church had gone to great lengths to reconcile the Old and New Testaments with (parts of) Greek Philosophy. Discovery that some of that doctrine like the earth being the centre of the universe and planets revolving around it, caused interpretative issues, if taken at face value.

The control on power, social order, and knowledge were all stirred up in one dangerous soup.

So back in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, the monk-cum-philosopher Giordano, got too close to the edge of the pot and fell into the flames of a very man-made hell. We all know that Galileo made the faux-pas of getting on the wrong side of authorities on the theme of scientific method and motion of the planets, but he steered clear of having anything to do with numero uno. Galileo repented and got away. Giordano didn’t. Both contributed to free thinking and foundational understanding of the universe we live in. Both are deservedly remembered.

Having noted the importance of today (17th Feb) we could stop here, but the ambition of this short essay is to scratch a little further to investigate the see-saw of capital punishment and scientific progress. Perhaps we may learn something of our future?

Invention vs. Divine Inspiration?

A step further in our journey of discovery could be taken by looking at the preceding Biblical phrase to the one already quoted: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven.” hmmm many will have a sense of doubt at this point. But let’s dig…

For sure we have a nice merger of the above stake-burning themes; it suggests learning coming from divine inspiration, rather than human effort (aka the scientific method). But if we remember to focus our interest on Scientific Progress & Invention, put Simon’s specific case to one side, and indeed put aside the idea that inspiration is necessarily Divine; you could play the sentence ambiguously:

  • The scientific method based on theory and experiment has brought us much progress and invention. No doubt.
  • On the other hand, invention never seems to be the result of someone stumbling on it as a result of an institutionalised path of research. This is a very generic statement, but you can collect intelligence and knowledge as they did in ancient Alexandria or communist Russia and countless other states, without it easily translating into actual results of progress and innovation.
    • It’s an ongoing, unresolved, modern political debate: Institutionalised approach <> invention and progress. Never solved.

It’s as if the true inventor sees a peak in the distance, a flash of inspiration, and then methodically works a path towards it, NOT the other way around. It’s not a random ramble, stumbling across an invention, but a definite path with an end-point in mind which no-one has mapped out before!!! Call it pre-cognition, or even Divine inspiration if you will, but something weird is happening before the scientific method actually turns that inspiration into something worthwhile. The scientific method is a powerful tool; it is not the source of invention.

Divine or not in source, at this point the conclusion would be that the key to a future of revelatory scientific discovery lies closer to the message for Simon than that for Peter and the argument contained in those two phrases and the subsequent arguments they lead to is somehow reflective of the eternal see-saw of innovation and learning vs burning people at the stake.

What about the See-Saw of stake burning and innovation throughout time?

That biblical conversation was written down in ancient Roman times. Already then, the issue of invention, new knowledge, and the impact it could have on the establishment were a major concern setting hierarchies and social orders. Irrespective of your religious views or even the Biblical example, it is easy to find other instances. Another curious example is found in a few ancient Roman texts, also including Pliny’s Natural History (NH36.66): “In the reign of Tiberius, it is said, a combination was devised which produced a flexible glass; but the manufactory of the artist was totally destroyed, we are told, in order to prevent the value of copper, silver, and gold, from becoming depreciated.” Suetonius tells a similar story in his “12 Caesars” as do other writers, also telling of how emperor Tiberius assured himself that the information of the invention’s recipe was unknown to anyone else, and then proceeded to have the inventor beheaded. I guess beheading is better than burning at a stake.

So what of today and tomorrow? Is the see-saw of invention and persecution still at play? Surely yes. Even setting aside the world of industrial espionage, hacking and space-age encryption, there are countless stories of regimes muffling the voices of those who might spread unwelcome information and learning. The debate is increasingly strong particularly in times of free-flowing boundary-less information. The reality is likely more disturbing and entering an evolutionary stage with fresh mutations.

The new set of questions seems very mixed up and confusing, perhaps getting difficult to distinguish the “good” from the “bad”:

  • There is no doubting that data, analytics and artificial intelligence is able to see your every move and predict your every need before you even know it; opening up the gates to a veritable future of Orwellian control, and yet on the flip side the need to defend ourselves from irrational radicalism seems to lead to a public demand for the authorities to know every move of hitherto non-suspectable 16 year-olds gone awry. 
    • Question: Will the see-saw reverse so-to-speak? Will the fighters of truth and liberty be fighting a battle, not for the freedom to spread new knowledge, but to contain our personal information?
  • What will happen when we instill that uniquely human or indeed Divine “inspiration” which lies at the heart of invention into Artificial Intelligence “engines”? An interview with Gary Kasparov the mighty chess-player might allay our fears: “Type A” artificial intelligence is about brute force of numbers and variables within a confined set of rules; it’s not actually able to think… It will aid us and free us to do greater and better things. But what about “Type B” or C or X for that matter? Steven Hawking might tell us to watch out and fear the future as machines surpass “us”. The jury is still out as to whether AI will be good or bad. Most say good, rather like the Industrial Revolution has had definitely positive aspects for all of us – though we should remember that the Industrial Revolution came with its upheavals and a generation of job displacement which even today would be difficult to deal with. Just like it was difficult to deal with on the 17th February 1600.
    • You can’t suddenly convert the taxi, cleaning, bricklaying, shop-attending jobs to “data scientist” degrees (though London cab drivers do seem to have the brain the size of a planet).
  • Question: Will there be a day when humans will be burning the AI machines at the proverbial stake, out of that self-same fear of our being displaced?

History has much to teach.

The column which made history, defied gravity, and warped space-time

One of the most iconic monuments of all time was erected by emperor Trajan; it is now better known as “Trajan’s Column”. As columns go, it defines the very essence of defying gravity, transforming its purpose into a historical artifact, a vehicle of political propaganda,  a pedestal for a statue and much more (not to mention housing for pigeons).

Many readers will know of it and for sure we can hardly do it justice with just a few lines. Nevertheless, I can’t help myself but to jot a few thoughts down because of the realisation that it made history for a number of reasons of which the below are just a tiny few. As I write I realise that perhaps there’s more to it than I at first thought…

Trajan’s column made history because:

  • It was a monument which commemorated Emperor Trajan’s victory over the Dacian’s: including the region spreading across Romania, Moldovia, Hungary, and Poland. Impressive, but that’s almost an excuse for its existence.
  • The column’s spiral architecture was inspired by the construction of a scroll narrating a story. Cool. And for those who say Roman art was a copy-cat trick please note, it was a truly Roman invention. An eclectic transformation of a column into a quintessential architectural artifact.
  • True to it’s literary inspiration it was located in the centre of Trajan’s library, built in the Roman forum, it’s story being (roughly) legible both as a spiral as well as vertically from a single vantage point.
    • For some reason, it reminds me of Erik Verlinde’s theories of gravity being a resulting phenomenon of the entropy (information) associated with the position of material bodies… hmmm. That’s the beauty of classical architecture for you!
  • It was of such a size that you could walk up the inside.
  • The sculpted lettering on the column’s pedestal is widely regarded by lovers and professionals of Font and Type as the true representation of ancient Roman lettering. A version of this was made into ‘Trajan’ typeface at the beginning of the 20th century, surprise surprise. 

So there we have it:

A column which surpassed the very meaning of column, located in a library, used a typeface which defined fonts for the next 2000 years and was structured to deliver a (commemorative) message irrespective of your position in space and time. Wow. A veritable time machine.

 

From ancient Roman roads to living on the moon

This is a map of the North Eastern part of the ancient roman world. Printed in 1789.

The title has great opportunity to be both dramatic and romantic….”All roads lead to the moon” or “A straight road from Rome to the moon”. Hmmm

An interesting article on the UK DailyMail about NASA studies into a cheap base on the moon led me to my usual consideration: Surely there are some parallels with past events in history which can help us consider this futuristic event? Surely Ancient Rome will have something to teach us about colonising the Moon and indeed Mars?

Here are a few ideas which quickly sprang to mind:

  1. The expansion of the Roman empire, it’s military with their great engineering skills and their famous Roman roads were usually preceded by Roman merchants on the search for new markets. Perhaps SpaceX is just one of many such mercantile enablers of our space future?
  2. When the Romans went about colonising a new region they’d establish military camps and build roads to enable movement of goods and troops. These engineering projects used local slaves and building materials.
  3. Logistics and strategy around getting goods and people to the new location to set up a stable site.
  4. Choosing the strategic location and indeed the design of appropriate settlements would surely have developed over time. The Romans would surely have learned much from the Greeks who had been great colonisers and founders of cities before them. A great example being Alexander the Great and Alexandria itself. Might this imply a new era of settlement planning and architecture?
  5. And of course, there must have been great savvy in ancient Rome around how to render such expansionist initiatives economically feasible… In the earliest days of the Roman Kingdom wars were only waged in certain times of the year, not only for weather reasons but also bearing in mind the need to tend the land and harvests. It was later in time that Marius thought of setting up a professional army and going against the past social etiquette.

The parallels could be that in the modern age:

  • Much like the ancient Roman merchants, modern private firms are investing heavily: Not only in space travel itself but also in the technologies which are essential for colonisation. First and foremost I think of robotics, self-driving vehicles and so on. All of this brings down the cost of the would-be colonising agency since much of the innovation is being done for them. Perhaps self-driving or remote controlled mining and tunneling machines….
  • The robots we build would then be used to go and do much of the work up there, using local materials to build the basic 2D structures like roads. I wonder whether the technique would remain the same of layering materials starting with the finest and pounding the larger blocks into them. The material used happens to be the same as the Romans are best known for: Basalt! However, as mentioned above they would have used what materials were most available locally to avoid lengthy transportation.

So at this point, we have two elements: Slaves (robots) and Roads (using local basalt), but surely we can look further….

  • Might the comparison go further? Perhaps the journey is as risky as it was back in the Roman age and the travel times are similar, especially when considering travel to Mars (9 months apparently). To this, we might add the strategy around sending out increasingly stable groups of personnel, trained and capable of differing jobs. The social relations and personal motivations at work when setting up a colony are probably similar too.
  • And last but not least, it may be worth thinking of what factors were at play when the empire began to shrink. For example, once the Romans withdrew, the cities and settlements in ancient Roman-Britain began to fall into disuse again…so again, reminding us of various factors at play, such as culture, communications, and support from home-base as fundamental necessities for a distant outpost to be functional.

All of this leads us to consider the often forgotten obvious: Simply getting out there is not sufficient and that multiple factors, many less obvious than others are necessary to the successful establishment of a distant outpost.

Reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire

The reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire can be approached in different ways, none of which can be demonstrated to be the right one. Answering the question goes to the core of philosophy:

 

  • historical events can be considered in a cause-effect structure, which has the nasty hitch of removing the idea of human free will and after all what is history if not a description of human affairs, presumably free thinking humans? Ie if every event in the timeline of Roman history is the result of the preceding event (its cause) then the event must be considered as pre-destined. So the fall of the Roman empire was predestined from the very beginning. Yuck!
  • On the other hand we could take a “teleological” approach which considers that events are driven by a final goal (whatever that might be) and hence permit some human free will (phew, I’m not a robot). In this model of Roman history we can actually allow the question of “what might have been done to avoid the decline and fall of the Roman empire”.

 

To get another angle at understanding the issue it is interesting to consider St.Augustine who was a Christian fore-father who furthermore happened to be alive at the time when the Roman empire was falling. The Christians played a big big role at the time of the roman empire’s collapse and are certainly one of the factors at play, although it’s difficult to say whether they were a cause as such. One of St. Augustine’s issues was this: if humans behave according to cause-effect in a causal kind of world then we cannot say we are free to choose because everything is predestined, and if so we cannot be blamed (by God) for our sins! As you can see, digging into historical events and the roles of people within them requires us to use a variety of tools.

A Teleological approach to explaining the reasons for the collapse of the Roman empire

So the teleological (the second) approach to the fall of the Roman empire seems an obvious choice – but it’s also tough to unravel as it’s like answering the question “why did the chicken cross the road” and possibly getting the unreasonable answer “to get to the other side“. If we tried it on the reasons for the fall of the Roman empire we might get a weirdly esoterical answer like:

 

  • Actually if you look at the timeline of Ancient RomeRoman society had already run its course and died long before the 4th century AD. Roman society had found a degree of equilibrium for its “Jungian” tensions of collective unconscious when “panem et circenses” proved to be a suitable answer for “happiness” and eliminated the cause for tension between poor Plebeians and rich Patricians. What we consider as the fall of the Roman empire only happened after “true” Roman society had already died out and been quietly replaced by a “civitas” where foreign barbarians with foreign values, foreign cultures and foreign personal aims far outnumbered true Romans and failed to use the Roman system to find their own social goal.“This made-up goal-ended answer is clearly full of broad unprovable statements but it is suggesting some intriguing ideas:
    • What we consider the fall of the Roman empire is simply the outwardly, delayed and visible effect of a society which had reached its “goal” (if such an concept really existed).
    • Roman society died out when it had evolved to its nirvana and the Roman empire fell because of the squatters who moved in in search of their own nirvana (and evidently didn’t find it)
    • This answer is pretty much in line with what the Christians of the time were saying – ie that pagan roman society was a decaying corpse; except they were blaming it on paganism as a religioius system rather than considering the demise of the empire as the aftermath of ancient Roman society having achieved its peaceful goal.

 

The Teleological (goal based) approach seems to give some interesting insights and it allows for free will but takes us into uncharted esoterical waters. Using it more extensively would require many pages worth of unqualifiable conjecture; the causal approach is easier and academically less dangerous to chat about.

A mechanistic-causal approach to explaining the reasons for the fall of the roman empire

I suggest that whoever is approaching the subject should start by taking the causal path, use it to learn the factors involved as if the result really were an inevitability and then step back and consider it all over again from a social- teleological standpoint. Very difficult and inevitably takes you into deep philosophy and psychology; I personally found Carl Jung and Myers-Briggs an interesting way to go (not discussed further in this article).

Returning to the “simple” causal approach….The reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire are broad and varied. As with other cataclysmic events it is not a single action, but rather a set chain of events coupled with a “final” trigger which takes history in a new direction. The chain can be there for a while and the final event may have failed to trigger a few times, but in the end statistical chance won the day:

 

  • Economic decline: all the wealth lay in the East. Nasty imbalance of trade.
  • Mutated social conditions, in terms of values, morals, individual objectives.
  • A shift in religion to Christianity which underpinned the failure of the “old” model of Romanity and rule. Perhaps it was a cause, perhaps a catalyst.
  • Overly extended boundaries created unsurmountable logistical and resource issues.
  • Increasing threat from outside the empire’s borders and indeed from her own allies and provinces ie geopolitics of a scale never encountered before.
  • Increasing power of the military. Strong link between military and ruling power made for highly unstable politics and hence lack of true government.
  • Ruling class’ increasing stranglehold on Roman society and trade. In spite of a series of adequate social, economic and technological conditions being place, comparable to those of pre.industrial revolution England, the ruling class (Roman Emperor) had great interest in maintaining the status quo – even as a means of avoiding social unrest. One way or another, social unrest or social dismemberment seems to have been structural and unavoidable…. sounds rather like a recipe for Hegelian historical cycles and Marxist social revolutions doesn’t it? I guess it’s a danger of the causal approach.

 

Having chosen the causal approach, and trying to remember that the approach itself will have a bias for a certain kind of conclusion (a little like the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat in physics), we will ponder the variety of factors both internal and external, which made up the chain of internal events leading to the collapse of ancient Roman civilisation: social, military, political, economic and religious as well as geopolitical (external to the empire).

These aspects of the fall of the Roman empire will be given some further consideration in the following sections:

 

Supremacy of the Roman Gods

In the earliest times of Rome it was prohibited to represent the gods with human semblance. This attitude was at times reinforced as an action to determine the supremacy of the Roman gods.

This is of interest when we think of similar theological issues of “iconoclasm” regarding the representation of god and Christ which raged on right through the Renaissance and Baroque. We can see this theological problem making itself felt in Rome towards the end of the empire when mosaics of Byzantine inspiration avoided excessively naturalistic facial features in representations of holy figures.

There were also a number of gods according to human attributes such as Spes (hope) and Fides (faithfulness) for example. Relatively ad hoc gods also came into being such as “Romulus”, founder of the city, “Rome” the city itself and most if not all the city’s emperors from Augustus onwards. Julius Caesar was also deified after his death.

A face was given to all of these deities and they were often represented on coins and public buildings as part and parcel of the political propaganda of the times.

Each divinity had its easily recognisable, personal attributes such as lightning, eagles, a chariot, a cornucopia (horn full of fruit), a snake and so on. These attributes allowed the deities which might be represented on coins to be instantly recognisable and be associated with the ruler or emperor shown on the other face of the coin.

Ancient Roman Recipes

Numerous ancient Roman recipes have made their way down to us although we cannot be absolutely certain of their accuracy given that the primary sources, such as Apicius’ De Coquinaria have made it down to us via copies made by monks and quite likely distorted by tastes and available ingredients of their own times.

It is interesting how incredibly popular ingredients or elements of Roman cookery such as the fish based sauce called “Garum” should become completely unknown to us, at least as far as its preparation is concerned.

As outlined in our page on Roman food the foods and recipes found on Roman tables varied and went in parallel with did Roman fortunes, wealth and culture both on the way up and the subsequent way down. The early Romans were austere shepherds/warriors. The Romans of the Republic were increasingly rich and in spite of the warnings of a nostalgic few such as Cato, avidly took on the habits of the populations they took over, for example the Greeks.

Conquest and riches gave access to imports from distant countries and exotic spices and ingredients with the obvious consequences this would have on traditional foods and recipes.

It seems that Roman recipes were handed from cook to cook with little information by way of quantities, presumably because it would be the cook’s on job to decide how and how much of each ingredient to add.

The philosophy behind Roman cookery (and tastes) was one of addition. This contrasts with the modern western approach whereby the various ingredients and spices are generally meant to enhance and support a major flavour which takes the principal role in the dish. This could possibly be likened to oriental cookery where the notion of opposites (ying and yang) plays a strong role and opposing flavours are often played against one another in equally powerful quantities. For example in sweet and sour!

The space that follows will be employed to add ancient Roman recipes….

Recipes

Please note: these recipes are shown for information purposes only. Should you try them you are doing so at your own risk – but do let us know how you get on!

Fabam Vitellianam – Cream of broad beans à la Vitellio – Cook the broad beans and when it has frothed add leaks, coriander and mallow wild flowers.

 

Roman Aqueducts

Despite the river Tiber and a small number of springs, the natural water supply was not sufficient for the city of Rome, particularly at its greatest expansion.

The first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, was build by Appius Claudius who was Censor for 18 months around 312BC (AUC441).  He also commissioned the first military road – the Via Appia. At first both public works were heavily criticised in the Senate for their high cost. Their social and strategic value later went unquestioned as even their construction provided the benefit of acting as a good source of stable employment for many plebeians. Both undertakings bear his name.

The aqueduct runs along an underground tunnel from about the 7th mile of the Via Prenestina (one of the Consular roads of Rome) before reaching a reservoir called a “castellum” near the city’s Porta Capena gate. When fully functional it carried some 75000 cubic meters of water per day into the city around the heavily populated Aventine hill. A section of this aqueduct can still be seen running across the top of the Porta Maggiore gate of Rome.

This point was particularly favourable as a water entry point to the city due to its relative topographical height above the rest of the urban area. Other water aqueducts arriving to Rome at this point include Anio Vetus (275BC), Aqua Marcia(144), Aqua Tepula (125), Aqua Iulia (33BC), Aqua Claudia and Aqua Novus (52AD). These last two are some 70kilometers in length and bring water all the way from Tivoli. Porta Maggiore is itself the result of a number of arches from these aqueducts which were included within the Aurelian defense walls of the city.

Other aqueducts were built during the next 500 years until the year 226AD, making a total of eleven. Most of the water was drawn from the hills to the south of Rome and from the area east of the city, near Tivoli. A couple drew water from the north, around the Volcanic lake of Bracciano.

The water drawn by the aqueducts entered the city through their own form of Triumphal monument called the mostra “the show”. The mostra was a particularly pompous fountain which was usually directly connected with the castellum. Although not of ancient Roman origin a famous mostra is the Trevi fountain. Similarly to the Trevi fountain, two of the best known fountains of antiquity were themselves mostre. One, the Julia fountain is still partially visible in the square in front of Rome’s central railway Termini station. The other was known as the Meta Sudans and was situated next to the Colosseum near to where the arch of Constantine stands. From here the water was distributed throughout the city for public use, in large villas, fountains and public baths.

The water system was so evolved as to cater for public lavatories also. Emperor Vespasian was responsible for the introduction of these lavatories throughout the city. This was not only aimed at hygiene but also at improving state finances as he introduced fines for soiling, as well as charging for use of the toilets. The public toilets were built as a large room with a number of toilet seats, with holes, built into the walls. A continuous stream of water ran under the seats to the sewers. Users of the toilets could then wash at a fountain situated in the same room – just like a modern public toilet (except for the lack of privacy)! The association with toilets ensured that the name Vespasian has never been popular for one’s children.

The barbarian invasions which brought an end to the Roman Empire of the West resulted in the eventual breaking of the aqueducts in order to cut the city’s water supplies. The Goths, led by Vitiges cut them in the year 537AD forcing the dwindling population of the city to rely on the river Tiber for several hundreds of years thereafter.

Restoration and renovation of the aqueducts only began with the Renaissance during which period a large number of fountains and water displays were added to embellish the city. The total number of aqueducts gradually increased until it was brought back up to eight by the early 1950’s.

Ancient Roman Leaders

Roman leaders in early RomeAncient Roman leaders is a difficult task to manage with precision, both because the term “Romans” can refer to a huge time span and range of concepts of Roman society and also because the term “leader” can refer to a vast range of different leader types, including rulers, senators, military leaders, leaders of the people and so on.

Even in their own time, the Romans had a shifting definition of what might be considered a Roman leader:

  • shifting from a local clan chief
  • to one of the 7 Roman kings (see image left)
  • to an elected Roman consul during the Republic (two were elected each year),
  • military generals,
  • temporary dictators (until Caesar had himself nominated perpetual dictator).

If we really wanted to understand Roman leaders we would also have to consider Roman women: Women not only bore great influence on roman leadership and society but at times actually took an enormous share of power, such as Fulvia wife of Mark AnthonyCleopatra (to whom Caesar erected a statue in the Forum), Agrippina who murdered her husband Claudius and was in turn murdered by her own son Nero.

The following page provides access to lists of ancient Roman leaders as well as making a brief effort at placing them in their historical context for those who have little knowledge of Roman history. A very good detailed summary of Roman leaders of all types and through the ages may be had from our timeline of ancient rome.

It is worthwhile to begin by remembering that the “Roman Empire” actually began as a kingdom in the 8th century BC and that after a few centuries and the expulsion of King Tarquin the Proud, Rome became a Republic.

The image to the left is from an 18th century French chronology of world history. It shows Latin kings followed by kings of Rome from its foundation in 753BC. The column to the right (“ans”) shows the number of years each king ruled.

By around the year 0 Rome was becoming an Empire. The Empire eventually grew so large as to be unmanageable and was eventually split into two halves: west and east.

The western part eventually fell to a succession of barbarian invasions around the 8th century AD. The Roman empire of the east with capital at Constantinople held firm until the Renaissance when the Turks managed to breach its walls with modern cannons.

There are no contemporary written records of the earliest history of the city and as a consequence much that is known is due to myth and archeological findings such as, for example, frescoes in Etruscan tombs which happen to make reference to leaders and events of the time.

It therefore follows that the earliest figures are shrouded in mystery which the Romans themselves loved to elaborate on. A good example of this is how emperor Augustus had Virgil write the epic poem ‘Aeneid’ as part of his own propaganda and in so doing built on the legends of the early founding of Rome to promote himself and his successors as descending from the gods. This wasn’t an unknown political ploy of course as others before him, such as Julius Caesar had built on their own descendency from deities such as Venus and others. In fact it didn’t take long before the emperors directly associated themselves to deities in themselves much in the manner of Eastern leaders.

Roman toga Praetexta with purple stripeWe provide a more detailed yet succinct history of ancient Rome on a separate page. A general list of the most significant ancient Roman leaders including kings, consuls, dictators and emperors follows….

Brief list of ancient Roman leaders

  • Aeneas – forefather of Rome’s founders. Himself son of Venus. He came to Latium as a refugee of the Trojan war.
  • Romulus – founder of Rome
  • The seven kings of Rome (of which the first was Romulus himself)
  • The kings were followed by the Roman Republican period and an extremely long list of consuls which I will endeavour to include when time permits. There were two Consuls at any one time so that no-one should have absolute power but in times of extreme danger a dictator could be nominated for a period of 6 months. The most famous of these is Cincinnatus (519 BC). George Washington is sometimes compared to him for his lack of desire for power. Cincinnatus worked his fields in a small farm, went and did his stint to save Rome from the enemy (as nominated Dictator) and then returned the vestiges of power to go back to his plough.
  • A variety of famous generals became involved in various phases of Rome’s expansion across Italy and then across the Mediterranean but most particularly with the Punic wars against Carthage.
    A mythical example is the rather moralistic tale of general Coriolanus: he reputedly led Roman troops against the Volscians (a population south of Rome) in the 5th century BC and subdued them. He himself subsequently fell into disgrace with the Romans, probably due to the numerous enemies he had. He therefore  turned against Rome by joining those he had conquered and successfully led their troops against Rome. He may well have been an excuse for the defeats Rome suffered against the Volscians.
  • A further example but rather better recorded is the Scipio family, which provided a good number of military leaders of great fame and success (including against Hannibal).
    Cicero (see below) wrote a rather interesting “Dream of Scipio”. An allegorical vision or dream in which Scipio Aemilianus Africanus meets his grandfather Scipio Africanus who had defeated the Carthaginian Hannibal.
  • The Gracchi brothers both held important government positions, forced significant reforms and got killed by the rich for them.
  • Cicero is rather unique in a number of ways. Most interestingly he was not a general but rather an acclaimed jurist, politician and writer/philosopher (you might roll it all into one by calling him an Orator). He became Consul, prevented the Catiline coup-d’etat, was acclaimed father of the nation but was eventually assassinated and beheaded by one of his clients at the behest ofMark Anthony and his wife Fulvia. Fulvia is said to have enjoyed holding his severed head on her lap, forcing his mouth open and sticking hair pins into his tongue. Wow.
  • The civil wars during the Roman republic produced a good number of leaders such as MariusSullaPompey the Great and Julius Caesar.

Image of a Roman Emperor wearing a Chlamys and holding the orb of power.Roman leaders from the end of the Republic and start of the Empire….

  • Caesar’s death was followed by a further fight for power between the likes of Anthony and Cleopatra versus Octavian (aka Emperor Augustus)
  • A good number of Emperors including but not limited to: TiberiusCaligulaClaudiusNeroVespasian, Domitian, TrajanHadrian , Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Elagabalus (noteworthy for his litentiousness and sex change), Aurelian, Diocletian, Constantine, Romulus Augustulus (last emperor of the Western Empire).
  • A full list of Roman emperors is given separately.
  • Of the Eastern Empire we readily remember Valentinian, Justinian (he reorganised and shored up Roman law into what was used in much of the civilised world thereafter), Theodosius.

This is clearly not an exhaustive list at all. It hardly looks beyond the obvious. For example it may be interesting to consider Saints Peter and Paul, Paul was a Roman citizen, both became powerful preachers (Roman leaders ?) of Christianity.

This page is in continued construction but you can get a good list of ancient roman leaders accompanied by notes by going to the ancient rome timeline.

Want more about ancient Roman leaders? Roman Leaders forum.

Ancient Roman Leaders: Bibliography


A simplified genealogy of the Scipio family – great Roman leaders! – is given below.

Genealogy of the Scipio Family in Ancient Rome (gens Cornelia)

The Scipios formed a lengthy family tree which entwined itself with other great names of Roman history such as the Gracchi. The diagram above is a simplified version of the full family tree but sufficient to show the extent of Roman leadership within a single family: consuls and military leaders famous for their endeavours in the Punic wars which gave Rome supremacy of the Mediterranean, all the way through to defenders of plebeian rights (tribunes of the people) eventually assassinated for their revolutionary endeavours.

Their “revolutionary” reforms, particularly free grain for the poor, eventually became standard practice thanks to the example first given by Julius Caesar and eventually carried through by all the Emperors who followed him.

Concluding Remarks about Ancient Roman Leaders

It is interesting to note that the genealogy of the gens Cornelia shown above touches on leading figures of ancient Rome which span the entire period between the conquest of Italy, the wars with Carthage, domination of the Mediterranean almost reaching the final  crisis of the republic and the social wars of 90-80BC. Why is this interesting? Because if we consider aspects such as roman inventions, the roman economy, and even look at provincial cities such as ancient Pompeii, we will note that this period was both convulsed with civil strife yet at the same time a period of great socio-economic growth and wealth.

It is poignant to compare this group of Roman leaders with the Caesars and Julio-Claudian dynasty which ruled the Roman empire over a century later – the different, orientalising, approach to leadership exercised by emperors such as Caligula and perhaps most memorable in Nero’s model of rule and leadership. The plebeain masses came to hold less sway in daily politics and fortunes of the empire. The role of some Roman women such as Livia and Agrippina the younger played fundamental roles in establishing the rights to rule and the Roman army (increasingly full of plebeians) took an increasing role in establishing imperial nominees.

This was the period when the balance of Roman society really began to shift and even the definition of Romans was changing. With hindsight we can see there was still with some growth to come and the empire was still to reach its greatest extension but some of the aspects and symptoms of the fall of the Roman empire already beginning to manifest themselves. Few Roman leaders were truly able to reverse the ongoing process of decline.

Leaders and Caesars of Ancient Rome in chronological order: | ancient Roman kings | Tarquin | Marius | Sulla | Rome Julius Caesar | Augustus |The 12 Caesars | Emperor Tiberius |  Caligula | Emperor Claudius | Emperor Nero | Emperor Vespasian | Hadrian | Roman Emperor Trajan | Rome’s Five Good Emperors | Emperor Constantine | Emperor Justinian | Other emperors of Ancient Rome |

You might also have a look at what it was to be emperor or “imperator”. A list of Roman emperors.  A general look at famous Romans such as Scaevola “the left handed”.

Interesting external links about ancient Roman leaders

An interesting look at the value of hereditary leadership in ancient Rome

Thought provoking essay comparing Ancient Roman leaders, the Empire, the US and Barack Obama

 

 

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"Ancient Rome" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for www.mariamilani.com - Ancient Rome History
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