Roman Ruminations

Today, I find myself exchanging the partisan and political intrigue of the day for that of ancient Rome. To me, examining the past, especially the ancient world, allows one to often learn the same key lessons needed to comprehend the politics and world of the present with less biases and emotional baggage.

Currently, I am very interested in examining the 2nd century Roman Empire, in which it arguably reached its peak under the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty. This dynasty produced the “Five Good Emperors,” some the best rulers the empire ever had. For example, Trajan, a great military commander who extended the empire to its largest point, and Marcus Aurelius, the great philosopher-emperor who wrote Meditations and protected the empire’s frontiers, are among the five.

What makes the “Five Good Emperors” even more remarkable is that each one was only distantly related to the previous one, if there was any relation at all. In the most generous reading of the history, each man was chosen because he was worthy and dedicated to the empire. A more pragmatic analysis emphasizes the fact that none of the emperors produced biological male heirs and were forced to pick successors elsewhere. Aurelius, the last of the five, named his son Commodus as successor, providing a good argument for this position. The reality is probably a fusion of both ideas.

Either way, these Adoptive Emperors (as they are also known) were not hereditary. A family member was not groomed to be emperor for years in advance and could not expect to inherit the position. I strongly believe not having hereditary succession was a reason for the period’s strength. If one has to earn the position of emperor by demonstrating their skill as a commander, administrator or otherwise, then there is less probability of developing delusions of grandeur or megalomania and having a Caligula take the imperial purple.

Only selecting these worthy men demonstrates that the emperor, while the single most powerful individual in the empire, is still supposed to serve the res publica. The empire is no one’s personal property. The Romans had created a ‘career path’ for aspiring politicians during the time of the Republic. Why not incorporate the emperorship into this path?

One particular office gives me inspiration for this idea. After some military triumphs, in which the victorious commander was given a parade and had thousands screaming his name, a slave who might have been the auriga would whisper in the commander’s ear: “remember, you are only a man.” Being reminded of his mortality at the height of his power and majesty would make any commander think twice before doing something rash or foolish. While not fully institutionalized, this practice suggests the Romans were all to aware of what too much power does to humans.

One could institutionalize the office of the emperor by having the emperor be at least 30 or 40, have to pass the Senate and military’s scrutiny and have no blood relation, however distant, with the previous emperor. Once approved, the new emperor could have an auriga follow him most of the time to constantly remind him of his mortality. Seeing as civil wars tore the empire apart during the 3rd and 4th centuries, having an established path of succession based on law would have greatly reduced the likelihood of bloodshed, anarchy and weakness.

Don’t forget that there were many attempts to revive or recreate the Roman Empire during late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Imagine if the Romans had institutionalized the office of the emperor. Perhaps the Western Roman Empire would have lasted as long as its Eastern counterpart or the empire would have never split at all. The West could have admired the Empire for another achievement: that of stable, lawful, non-hereditary succession.

Although these events transpired over 1000 years ago, there are many lessons we can learn in the present.

The Roman Empire was one of the most powerful political units in its day and flourished with the Adoptive Emperors and other capable rulers. Whenever the Empire was treated as a family possession, the problems started anew. In hindsight, the lack of eligibility requirements for the most powerful office in the land was a grievous error. Arguably, the Roman Empire destroyed itself from within, with hordes of wannabe emperors pitting their armies against each other to prove themselves in one of the only ways they could: the battlefield.

Like the Roman Empire, the United States is one of, if not the most, powerful political unit of its day. Be wary of those who want consolidate power into the hands of the few, potentially making some hereditary positions. Despite the fact that our highest offices have eligibility requirements, recent events as of late may suggest the need for more stringent ones. As the presidential race heats up (again, ugh), avoid all the wannabe presidents who will tear this country apart in a cultural civil war to reach their goals.

We must learn our lessons from history, avoiding the errors while building on what was successful.

Originally published at on June 11, 2018.



I am a young professional with keen interests in politics, history, foreign languages and the arts.

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Patrick McCorkle

I am a young professional with keen interests in politics, history, foreign languages and the arts.