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:


The citizens of Prusa [modern day Bursa in Turkey], my lord, have public baths which are filthy and out of date, and they think it important to have a new building.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.


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.



W. H. Auden’s “Good Angel”

Hannay, Lynton; Professor W. P. Ker (1855-1923)

Extending from the reign of Queen Victoria to the aftermath of World War II, Britain produced a bumper crop of great literary scholars and essayists. I have already written about F. L. Lucas (1894-1967). I am currently exploring the work of W. P. Ker, short for William Paton Ker. It was poet W. H. Auden who, in The Dyer’s Hand, penned this tribute to the Scottish scholar:

[w]hat good angel lured me into Blackwell’s [Oxford Bookstore] one afternoon and, from such a wilderness of volumes, picked out for me the essays of W. P. Ker? No other critic whom I have subsequently read could have granted me the same vision of a kind of literary All Souls Night in which the dead, the living and the unborn writers of every age and tongue were seen as engaged upon a common, noble and civilizing task. No other could have so instantaneously aroused in me a fascination with prosody, which I have never lost.

I have been reading Volume I Ker’s Collected Essays, which one of the literature librarians at the Los Angeles Central Library entrusted me to take out, though it belongs to the Reference Collection. I read with interest until, suddenly, beginning with Page 109, I hate pay dirt. No doubt the name of Horace Walpole probably doesn’t mean much to most people, unless they suffered through the gothic The Castle of Otranto in college English. Instead, Ker concentrates on Walpole’s letters. Here he describes the country around Chamonix in the Alpes in a letter to his friend Paget Toynbee on September 18, 1739:

But the road, West, the road! winding round a prodigious mountain, and surrounded with others, all shagged with hanging woods, obscured with pines, or lost in clouds. Below, a torrent breaking through cliffs, and tumbling through fragments of rocks! Sheets of cascades forcing their silver speed down channeled precipices, and hastening into the roughened river at the bottom. Now and then and old footbridge, with a broken rail, a leaning cross, a cottage or the ruin of an hermitage. This sounds too bombastic and too romantic to one who has not seen it, too cold for one that has. If I could send you my letter post between two lovely tempests that echoed each other’s wrath, you might have some idea of this noble roaring scene, as you were reading it.

There are almost no collections of literary letters being written now, because there are no letters. There are scads of e-mails, tweets, text messages—few of which will be (or deserve to be) saved. Ker himself explains why such letters are valuable:

There is an interest in reading a series of letters like this which is not found even in personal memoirs. It may be a childish idea, but somehow in reading letters one seems to be nearer to the reality than in reading any other history. The phantoms of the past rise there less pale and shadowy than in common history, they come nearer to us, the colours deepen, the voices are more distinct. Letters like those of Cicero are not a record of the time; they are the life itself, the very accents of the time. He does not write any more to Atticus or to his brother: he writes to us: he tells us how Caesar came to stay with him, how they talked at dinner, how they spoke, Caesar spoke.

I wasted no time in buying Volume I of Horace Walpole’s collected letters (only 99 cents on Kindle). And I will, of course, finish reading Ker’s Collected Essays.

Ker’s Excellent The Dark Ages (1904)

This is not the first work of Ker’s that I have read. I own an old Mentor paperback edition of his The Dark Ages, and I have read portions of his Epic and Romance (1908), which is still available through Dover Publications.