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Weekly theme: Empire builders

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 13:06 UK time, Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Emperor AugustusSo, why build an empire? And if you do, how do you keep it?

For our first week back on air, A History of the World in 100 objects has moved on to the last couple of centuries BC, where we meet Augustus, Alexander the Great, Ashoka, the Chinese Han emperor and the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt - each of them rulers of empires that dominated Europe, Africa and Asia.

JD Hill, lead curator of A History of the World, told me why empires were the thing to have at this time:

This is an age of empire, and what's interesting about it is how the idea of building and maintaining an empire spreads. The Persians have the first one; Alexander takes it over. Ashoka's grandfather  does it in India and the First Emperor - Qin Shihangdi - does it in China.

Clearly, once you have the idea of a 'big empire' that brings together different peoples, languages and environments, it sticks. These are also empires of the mind, as well as empires in the real world.

I find the idea of 'empires of the mind' really interesting. The idea that holding power is as much about the brain as it is about brawn.

These past few weeks in election-gripped Britain have been something of a lesson in the tactical requirements of leadership. Looking back, it's clear that charismatic leaders in the ancient world knew as much about public relations as any modern politician. In fact it's their rulebook sitting under the metaphorical pillow of contemporary politics. We might have Twitter, billboards and leaders' debates to reach the populace, but these are just new ways to carry out old tricks.

Alexander the GreatTake Lysimachus, a Greek ruler in what is now Turkey. His claim to the crown was a little uncertain, so he minted a coin with his name on it, but the face of Alexander the Great. Nice move; associate yourself with a man whose almost superhuman ability to attract power led him to create an empire across three continents by the age of 24.

Rome's first emperor, Augustus, was also inspired by Alexander and knew that image was everything. He had statues of himself erected across his domain, ensuring all his subjects could put a face to his authority. In China, the Han emperor used luxury presents and gifts to buy favour and reward his followers.
In India, Ashoka's ideas of peaceful rule were proclaimed in inscriptions on pillars throughout the subcontinent. Likewise Ptolemy, a Greek king of second century BC Egypt, had his name inscribed in three different languages on the Rosetta Stone - later to bring him even greater fame as it was this very stone that led to the deciphering of hieroglyphs, and the discovery of the secrets of ancient Egypt.
So, what are we going to learn this week?

That at a certain point in time empire fever gripped the ancient world and that to get one some of history's greatest and most enduring leaders deployed a little more than just big armies. To borrow a modern phrase, they worked out how to win the peace as well as war.
Though to be fair one or two were dab hands at the latter too.

What do you think? Add a comment


  • Comment number 1.

    Its really questionable whether Augustus saw himself as an empire builder. His chosen title was "Princeps" which means something like leading citizen, and probably would be most akin constitutionally to being a particularly strong President, with veto power and direct, personal control over most of the military. He certainly insisted that Rome continued to be a Republic throughout his lifetime and that he held the position of Princeps by popular demand, which may well have been the case, since Rome had been so traumatized by the long period of Civil War that began after the assassination of Julius Caesar as to prefer the relatively humane rule of Augustus to the intercine warfare of grandees which characterized the late Republic. I have read it argued quite persuasively that the first real Roman "Emperor" in the commonly understood sense of one who ruled by dictate was Caligula, and he only managed to do so for a couple of years before being assassinated.

  • Comment number 2.

    MEPiston – thanks for your comment. I’ve been speaking to our curator of Ancient Rome here at the Museum and his view is that Augustus’ reign – certainly in the later stages – was all about trying to promote potential successors to what he realised was by now a monarchy.

    The point the programme was exploring was that Augustus was a very good politician in the modern sense and managed his image extremely well - the role of the Senate during his reign of course remained important, as too was the position of the generals, and as an emperor he would try to keep the Senate happy.

    The huge difference was that both senate and army now ‘reported’ to the emperor. The title of Princeps does mean more than president, but Augustus also had the title of ‘imperator’ (commander in chief) and Pontifex Maximus (head of the state religion) - never in Rome had so many powers been concentrated permanently in the hands of one person. This situation continued with Augustus’ successors, which is why many ancient historians see Augustus’ reign as a major change and the start of the Imperial period.

    David Prudames, British Museum


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