- - Monday, March 4, 2019


By Rose Mary Sheldon

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, $37, 384 pages

The truly professional service officers sworn to guard chiefs of state and other dignitaries — notably U.S. Secret Service officers — have a hard rule: Good intelligence is the key to saving the subject’s life.

When intelligence fails, the result can be disaster. And such certainly was the case in the Roman Empire. Despite the detailing of up to 9,000 men to guard the emperors, 85 percent of the men who sat on the throne were assassinated.

Even Rose Mary Sheldon, a professor of history at Virginia Military Institute, and our foremost authority on ancient intelligence, was startled at the body count.

Why and how did the Romans resort to assassination to rid themselves of rulers? Ms. Sheldon explores the fate of Julius Caesar and his four immediate successors to explore what went horribly wrong in Rome — how security failures and seemingly endless family wrangles cost so many lives.

Her case studies show that the Roman Empire was a boiling cauldron of conspiracy, where even an emperor’s brothers or sons were not beyond suspicion. She lists four broad groups an emperor had to control to feel safe: The aristocracy, the military, the populace and his own family.

More unsettling, “the very people who made up the emperor’s closest circle were also the ones who could endanger his security.”

Ms. Sheldon is a determined researcher who apparently leaves no document unturned. (The book at hand has 143 pages of notes.) And she converts her findings into smooth-flowing prose that brings her story to life.

To be sure, the number of potential assassins was somewhat limited. As Ms. Sheldon notes, “The leader of a conspiracy had to be from the upper classes because the major reason for killing an emperor was to take his place, and this could be done only by a person of high enough rank and birth to qualify for the position.” Little wonder that one observer wondered “if dissident behavior ran in families.”

Despite the uncountable volumes devoted to Roman history, Ms. Sheldon found that conspiracy was a seldom discussed issue. A primary reason, she writes, is that “conspiracies are based on secrecy and silence and leave little trace.” Further, the existing evidence is fragmentary and often contradictory.

Wisely, several emperors took concrete measures for self-protection. Claudius, for instance, required that anyone who came into his presence had to undergo a body search. And when he visited, say, an ailing senator, an advance search was made of the room, including the bedding and pillows. Claudius also made sure his guards lived well, granting them the equivalent of five years pay for each year they served.

All to no avail: A “trusted” woman friend slipped him a fatal dose of poison.

Another supposed safeguard was to hire informers to keep watch over possible threats. Such was a tactic of one of Augustus, who perhaps did not deserve his reputation as one of the more progressive-minded rulers. This approach, too, had its flaws. An informer would receive a healthy share of a “guilty” man’s estate upon conviction; hence contrived accusations were not unknown.

Augustus also relied on another rule beloved by dictators of many generations. He “habitually and effectively suppressed general circulation of embarrassing, unpalatable facts. Books were burned; authors were suppressed. As one observer wrote, “It is not easy to write against one who can suppress you.”

At the height of his rule, Augustus “had nearly ten thousand security personnel policing Rome, approximately one per hundred inhabitants of the city.” The stated goals were protection of the poor and tourists.

Augustus did confront a unique problem. Daughter Julia had a succession of arranged marriages, none of them happy. To her father’s distress, she harbored ambitions of succeeding him. Such was not to be: She was charged — perhaps without foundation — with adultery with several young men from prominent families. Augustus first considered the death penalty then “relented” and had the senate sentence her to lifetime exile on a barren isle.

What was the major flaw of the Roman system, so susceptible to succession by murder? Ms. Sheldon notes no constitutional provision was made for succession. So an emperor “had to work frantically” to justify his very rule, much less that of his successor. Thus emperors became “prisoners” of multiple factions. And the largest mystery, she writes, is that “the Roman Empire survived another three centuries.” A sound conclusion to a sound book.

• Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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