In the Court of the Lion of Judah

The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah

He was short and somewhat frail, yet Haile Selassie managed to reign as Emperor of Ethiopia for some 44 years, from 1930 to 1974, when his government was toppled by a revolution. Although his book about Selassie, entitled The Emperor, has come under fire for certain inaccuracies, Ryszard Kapuściński leaves us an unforgettable portrait which is probably mostly true. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:

His Majesty spent the hour between nine and ten in the morning handing out assignments in the Audience Hall, and thus this time was called the Hour of Assignments. The Emperor would enter the Hall, where a row of waiting dignitaries, nominated for assignment, bowed humbly. His Majesty would take his place on the throne, and when he had seated himself I would slide a pillow under his feet. This had to be done like lightning so as not to leave Our Distinguished Monarch’s legs hanging in the air for even a moment. We all know that His Highness was of small stature. At the same time, the dignity of the Imperial Office required that he be elevated above his subjects, even in a strictly physical sense. Thus the Imperial thrones had long legs and high seats, especially those left by Emperor Menelik, an exceptionally tall man. Therefore a contradiction arose between the necessity of a high throne and the figure of His Venerable Majesty, a contradiction most sensitive and troublesome precisely in the region of the legs, since it is difficult to imagine that an appropriate dignity can be maintained by a person whose legs are dangling in the air like those of a small child. The pillow solved this delicate and all-important conundrum.

I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth—I say it with pride—His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne, and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer. I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones. This allowed me quickly to choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between the pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur. I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colors. I personally monitored their storage, constantly, so that fleas—the plague of our country—would not breed there, since the consequences of any such oversight could lead to a very unpleasant scandal.

Good Government

The Emperor Trajan (AD 53-117)

The Roman Emperors get a lot of bad press in the history books, thanks largely to such holders of the crown as Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius (yes, he was not a nice guy after all), and Nero—not to mention some of the later occupants such as Commodus and Elagabalus. Still, there was a period of some eighty years when there was a sequence of five emperors who were actually outstanding both in terms of governance and as human beings.

Edward Gibbon’s 18th century The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire begins with this paragraph:

In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113)

Earlier this month, I finished reading the complete surviving letters of Pliny the Younger, who was selected by Trajan to be the governor of Bithynia-Pontus and who maintained a regular correspondence with the emperor. Here is a typical exchange:

PLINY:

The citizens of Prusa [modern day Bursa in Turkey], my lord, have public baths which are filthy and out of date, and they think it important to have a new building. In my view you can show favour to their request, for there will be money to finance it. In the first place, there are the sums which I have already begun to recover and to exact from private citizens, and secondly, amounts which they habitually expend on olive oil they are ready to contribute towards the building of the baths. In general, both the prestige of the town and the splendour of your reign make this demand.

TRAJAN:

If the construction of the new baths is not going to impose a burden on the resources of the Prusians, we can grant this request, so long as no levy is imposed on them for that purpose, and that they do not have fewer resources available for necessary expenditure in the future.

The whole of Book X of Pliny’s letters consists of numerous missives to the emperor, followed by the emperor’s responses. To me, this was the most interesting section in the letters, as it shows a correspondence between a competent and honest governor and a caring Roman emperor.