Today, there is an interesting piece in The American Interest.
Obama and Commodus , the son of Marcus Aurelius.
Unlike the preceding Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, he seems to have had little interest in the business of administration and tended throughout his reign to leave the practical running of the state to a succession of favourites, beginning with Saoterus, a freedman from Nicomedia who had become his chamberlain.
Sound familiar ? Also:
the evidence suggests that he remained popular with the army and the common people for much of his reign, not least because of his lavish shows of largesse (recorded on his coinage) and because he staged and took part in spectacular gladiatorial combats.
One of the ways he paid for his donatives and mass entertainments was to tax the senatorial order
But enough of his biography. Why does he resemble Obama?
Obama’s rapid withdrawal from Iraq and disengagement from the Middle East in general is therefore understandable, even though it’s a justified target for criticism in the recent memoirs by former officials of his administration. The allure of proclaiming peace and the appeal of focusing on domestic undertakings trumps the unrewarding slog of negotiating with allies and chasing barbaric groups in distant valleys. But the risks are big and, now, they are on the front pages.
Obama is not the first one to have withdrawn from a fight. Commodus did it before him. As recounted by Herodian in his Roman history , Commodus, Roman Emperor in the second half of the 2nd century AD, inherited a war with the barbarians along the Danube River from his father, the prudent Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius was noted as an educated and benign emperor but he was also concerned with defending the empire.
He ruled with Lucius Verus as co-emperor from 161 until Verus’ death in 169. He was the last of the Five Good Emperors, and is also considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers.
During his reign, the Empire defeated a revitalized Parthian Empire in the East; Aurelius’ general Avidius Cassius sacked the capital Ctesiphon in 164. In central Europe, Aurelius fought the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians with success during the Marcomannic Wars, with the threat of the Germanic tribes beginning to represent a troubling reality for the Empire. A revolt in the East led by Avidius Cassius failed to gain momentum and was suppressed immediately.
He is also revered as a scholar and philosopher.
Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic tome Meditations, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration.
How did Commodus do ?
two groups of advisers competed for Commodus’s ear. On the one hand, sycophantic courtesans, “who gauge their pleasure by their bellies and something a little lower,” kept dangling in front of Commodus the attractions of a return to Rome. Life was easier, more pleasant there; the new Emperor would be celebrated and praised by the populace, and he could enjoy there the excitement of intellectual conversations at well appointed tables of influential men (perhaps the Roman equivalent of a “2006 Brunello, grilled rib-eye and three pasta dishes—cacio e pepe, all’arrabbiata and Bolognese” and a conversation about “the importance of understanding science, the future of the universe, how sports brings people together, and many other things,” as recounted in a New York Times article describing Obama’s attraction to such meetings). How preferable this vision must have been to the grinding details of frontier warfare! Moreover, were he to return to Rome and to a direct control over domestic affairs, the Emperor could perhaps also keep an eye on his political opponents, quickly criticizing them or bringing them to his court to coopt them.
Commodus was eventually assassinated by his sister’s lovers. Before that, he was a disappointment.
Michael Grant, in The Climax of Rome (1968), writes of Commodus:
The youth turned out to be very erratic or at least so anti-traditional that disaster was inevitable. But whether or not Marcus ought to have known this to be so, the rejections of his son’s claims in favour of someone else would almost certainly involved one of the civil wars which were to proliferate so disastrous around future successions.
We shall see how Obama turns out.
On the frontier, the Emperor decided to let others fight the war. He left the war “in the hands of leaders he deemed capable and trustworthy.” And they chose to avoid a fight. It was easier to buy the barbarians off, even though they sold “peace at a huge price.” But this approach was preferable to Commodus too: he “bargained for release from care and gave the barbarians everything they demanded.”
We shall see what happens after Obama.