Recently I gave a presentation for the local "Learning in Retirement" program. It was on Hadrian's Wall, both the walking trail aspect and the archeology. It was quite fun. But I did have to prepare for questions of all sorts, and the matter of Imperial Politics might easily have come up.
Now, the Founding Fathers of America were very well read chaps, all too aware of the strengths and weaknesses of Empire. In some areas they copied from Rome rather directly. Our Senate for example. In other cases they took an exact opposite approach. Civilian control of the military for instance.
But over the course of Roman history so many different methods of government were tried, especially with respect to the transfer of power. What if Jefferson, Franklin and their colleagues had all gone on an epic bender at The City Tavern and in a drunken state decided to emulate some of Rome's other political experiments?
Dispatches from an Alternate Rome on the Potomac....
1. The Tetrarchy
In the late Empire things had gotten so complicated. The Empire was huge and the problems they faced - military, economic, cultural - seemed insurmountable. The solution? Divide the Empire into Eastern and Western halves. Put an Emperor in charge of each. Have each Emperor name a junior partner, called a Caesar, who would by years of experience be ready to step up to the big chair in his turn. In theory the more senior of the two Emperors would have some veto power, or at least influence, over the selection of Caesars in East and West. How did it work out? Oh, about as you'd expect. But let me spell it out for you in Imperial Purple.
Dateline Richmondia As the Southern Empire mourns the death of Emperor Robertus Byrd a struggle for succession is brewing. The new Emperor Jefferson Davis III is being challenged by Lindonius Johnson who claims legitimacy on the basis of his being the unrecognized son of Robertus by a woman from the Texan Province. The Imperial Palace has issued a categorical denial of these claims saying that "Just because a matron from the trailer park starts calling herself Lady Byrd does not mean she ever knew the man". Johnson is said to be rallying troops to his cause over the border in the Northern Province of Transmontana. Emperor Lincoln IV has not issued a statement.
2. To the Highest Bidder. In 193 AD the Emperor Pertinax had an "unfortunate accident" at the hands of his Praetorian Guard. This followed only 86 days after his predecessor had a similar mishap. In a moment of inspiration the Praetorians decided to sell the position - such as it was - to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus "won" with a bid of 25,000 sesterces per Praetorian. His reign lasted 66 days until he also met with misfortune.
Dateline Domus Albia, District of Columbia The White House chief of communications, Mendacem Lupus, today announced a "Marvelous new Opportunity". In the wake of the Empress Kardashian's unfortunate hair dryer mishap the post of Emperor/Empress will be available to the highest bidder. "Go to our online partner IdesMarch.com for details on how to bid", said Mr. Lupus. This reporter upon reading the fine print does note that the previous 90 day guarantee has been reduced to 60 days.
3. Dynasties. Sometimes the real world trumps any attempt at satire. If you want a modern day version of the perils of hereditary rule you can find them aplenty. The decline of the Kennedy family from their lofty status recalls the late Imperial practice of raising assorted lesser sons, grandsons and nephews to The Purple. And for an example from the earlier Empire where unprincipled, dangerous thugs rose to power I suggest a study of North Korea. Now, on the matter of dynasties and trumps....
4. The Adoptive Presidency. A play on the Adoptive Emperors. These were the extremely competent rulers from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius, who ruled the Roman empire so well in the 2nd Century AD. They are sometimes called "The Five Good Emperors", a term coined by no less than Niccolo Machiavelli. And his credentials on knowing the good and bad of leadership can hardly be questioned.
One thing that contributed to this impressive run was that it was not dynastic. In each succession - right up until old Marcus so foolishly trusted his son Commodus - the ruling Emperor found some extremely competent and worthy non relative....and adopted him as his designated heir and successor.
Of course this was in part making a virtue of necessity. This run of emperors had a shortage of living male heirs. Infant mortality, a tendency towards daughters, Hadrian's - ahem - excessive interest in Greek boys. But all this aside the adoptive system worked well and Gibbon pronounced this "...the period of history in the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous..." So could it work today?
Dateline The White House. July 4th 2017
"Happy Birthday America! Glad we ditched that loser George III."
"Hilary would have been no better!"
"And don't get me going on Chelsea. Or even worse, Michelle!!!!!!!"
"Truth is my own kids are no prizes. Trust me, I know 'em!"
"You could do better pulling names out of a hat. In fact, I did that. After I retire I will be succeeded by this guy from Wisconsin. Tom, I think is his name. You could do worse! With elections you usually do!"