Two terrible parents

 Dear Hannah,

Marcus Aurelius is known for being one of the wisest and most upright emperors of Rome.  The other thing he's known for is being one of the worst parents.


His reign is considered one of the last peaceful periods of Roman tyranny, in which the emperors still respected the pretense of republicanism and pretended to abide by constitutional law.  He was tough on himself, and kind to others; he attempted to make friends out of enemies instead of having them killed; and his moderation kept Rome from going bankrupt and from being mismanaged or outright pillaged.  Even the women were safe.  

If you're unimpressed by this it's only because you aren't too familiar with the emperors who came before or after him.  Before him Nero married a man, stabbed random citizens in the middle of the night,  and set Christians on fire to light the streets.  Tiberius raped the best-bred women he could find, and murdered the wealthiest citizens in the nation.  Afterward Elagabalus had a harem of little boys, dressed like a woman, and placed his dancers and barbers in the most important positions of power.  An emperor could do nearly anything, which is why Marcus Aurelius is famous for not doing everything.

The one thing that Aurelius was incapable of managing was his own kid.  After his wife gave birth to Commodus, he attempted to culture every virtue in the boy by getting him the most respected teachers.  But Commodus was unruly and Marcus and every one of his advisors knew it.  Something inside of Marcus was incapable of doing anything about it.  And when it came time to choose the next emperor (as Roman emperors at that time were in the habit of doing long before they died), despite all the warning signs of excess and stupidity and contempt of everything decent, Commodus was proclaimed heir to the empire.

After the death of Aurelius, Commodus continued in his dad's footsteps for the first three years of his reign*.  Soon after, he murdered nearly everyone of any talent and virtue in the Senate, corrupted the courts so badly that any judgment could be bought, accumulated a large harem of around 300 little boys, and promoted the most greedy and lawless people into the most powerful positions.  He robbed the rich and impoverished the empire with lavish games and parties.  He even became a gladiator, and slew slaves who were too smart to put up a serious fight.  

During his reign the most contemptible people in Roman society returned -- the informants. These domestic rats would slander the rich and powerful.  The slander would result, without a trial, in the confiscation of property and for many an unfair execution.  Then the rats would get paid on the proceeds -- a payout which resulted in more slander, and more rats.  All of Rome suffered under Commodus, which is another way of saying they suffered because of Marcus Aurelius.

The second terrible parent I'll mention is Severus, one of the three major generals who fought one another for the position of emperor.  Out of the three Roman generals, Severus was the wisest and most talented, and immediately put into place a series of reforms that ended the political murders, corruption, and waste of the Roman government.

During his reign nearly everything improved to a state almost as peaceful as that under Marcus Aurelius, but he had two children who were completely useless -- Caracalla and Geta.  The distinguishing mark of these two brothers (aside from being completely useless and effeminate) was their mutual hatred of each other and plans to rule the empire.  Caracalla believed he should rule by birthright; Geta ignored the question of age, and made himself popular with the people and the military.

When it came time for Severus to choose the next emperor, he found not only that he was incapable of choosing anyone other than his sons, but that he wasn't even able to choose between them.  And so he did the stupidest thing possible.  He chose two people who hated each other to share the imperial power equally.

The results of his policy were brutal and immediate.  The moment Severus died his two sons divided the empire and the younger son was murdered.  Caracalla, through a series of lies, was able to win the army to his side, which he kept loyal by a policy of bribes and loose discipline which impoverished the state and made the army ungovernable.  But when Caracalla murdered 20,000 citizens for being "friends" of Geta, ruined the wealthiest families by confiscation and assassination, and murdered his closest advisors and even cities for the tiniest and most ridiculous reasons, even the overpaid soldiers were forced into self-preservation.  Caracalla was murdered, and control of the state was given to Macrinus: a man of mediocre talens who was widely considered less dangerous.

The reason I'm telling you this is because parenting has been much harder than I thought, and I'm frustrated because my expectations were all unrealistic.  Not only are you more unruly than I expected, but I'm not authoritative enough to fix it.  I now realize that all the easiest moments were during your infancy, and that as you develop your personality, your vices are becoming obvious -- as they do with all of us.  It's my job to train them out of you.   I don't know if I have the balls to do it.

There's a question every parent asks himself when he has to first discipline his kid, and that is whether or not his kid is going to hate him.  The question doesn't make us weak, but the way we answer it can.  Marcus Aurelius and Severus answered it wrongly.  They could handle their own passions and warfare and fathering the Roman empire, but being an actual father was too difficult for them.  Softness conquered where hardness had no sway.  Fighting the barbarians on the frontiers was easier for these men than parenting, and parenting proved more ruinous for the empire than the invading barbarians.

People on the left are fond of saying that hatred is the thing that keeps us apart, but laissez-faire parents and the monsters they breed prove that "love" can be equally dangerous.  They breed men we have to hate.  They make people too rude, too loose, and too selfish for company.   I remember a party were which a six-year-old boy screamed at his parents for five minutes, only to get a soft reprieve and an eye-roll from his dad.  At that point I didn't want to see the boy grabbed by the ear and dragged off to his room.  I was hoping the wife would step in -- and that she'd give the dad a good beating.

So this morning I've resolved that because I love you and want to continue to love you, I'm going to develop your character whether you love me or not.  I've decided that the kind of person you are is more important than the kind of person you think I am -- because my judgment is a man's judgment, and yours is a little kid's.  If you end up hating me, then so be it -- but it's better than me hating myself.  And I'll hate myself if you turn out a mess and I didn't do anything to stop it.

What I'm trying to say is that today you begin your civilization.  Tomorrow when you read this, you will respect me -- and then eventually you'll like me.  A parent who gets them backwards gets neither.  Or he could get worse.  He could get Commodus.

Your father,
-J

*The reign of Nero also began promisingly -- so who knows what power does to a person's heart?  

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