Your RDA of Irony

Ghostwriting for Caligula

As the ongoing–and ongoing–political campaign reminds us, the history of rhetoric is replete with the shameless and the preposterous. Let me reassure you, however, that it could be worse. From a speechwriter’s perspective, the Roman Empire was the Golden Age of hypocrisy.

There has never been a more shameless gang of orators than the Roman Senate. Those patricians once ruled the Roman Republic, but they abdicated their power and self-respect. Their sole remaining responsibility was to flatter the Emperor. The senators did not merely praise the tyrant; they prayed to him. Their speeches were orgies of hyperbole. Of course, such profuse unction was often prudent. If faced with the choice of death or hypocrisy, you too might decide that Nero was an artistic genius. Most of the Emperors, however, were not mad or particularly murderous; they limited their killing to predecessors, their own relatives and the aspiring saints.

If terror did not inspire the speakers, ambition did. The speeches actually were audition for government office. Within the Empire’s bureaucracy, there were many prestigious positions that offered wonderful opportunities for graft. When the Emperor had to fill such posts, he certainly chose his most devoted advocates. The positions required some ability, but the Emperor did not mistake flattery for talent. On the contrary, the Romans appraised a man’s talents by his mastery of rhetoric. An excellent speaker demonstrated intelligence, education and discipline. His sincerity was irrelevant, but his eloquence made him a suitable candidate for honors and office.

One can only imagine the ambition that prompted this praise of the Emperor Elagabalus. The third-century ruler was proclaimed the son of a god, “the unconquered, the supreme, the harmonious.” In fact, Elagabalus was a teenage transvestite; he was considered such an embarrassment that his own grandmother arranged his murder. From the third century, we also have this example of a profitable speech.

The Emperor Philippus was depressed by his own incompetence, so he went to the Senate for reassurance. In that chorus of sycophants, Senator Decius distinguished himself. The orator exclaimed that the Gods were devoted to Philippus; an Emperor so beloved by Olympus need have no worries on earth. Philippus’ confidence was restored, and he rewarded Decius with a strategic command in the army. Perhaps the Gods were devoted to Philippus, but the army and Decius were not. A year later, Decius was the Emperor. He was to reign only two years, but at least he was not killed by a fellow speechwriter.

  1. Alan says:

    And yet the tradition of flattering the boss continues. There is no surer path to the top, though no one has yet called Jack Welch a god.

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