Barack Obama -- and the first 'African-Roman' emperor of Rome
I’m surprised that no-one seems to have spotted an obvious Roman parallel for the success of Barack Obama. Or have I missed it? In the second century AD, Lucius Septimius Severus became the first ‘African-Roman’ emperor of Rome. Like Obama he was of mixed race -- his father from Libya, his mother of European descent. He too had an outspoken and determined wife, from Syria. And his first task on coming to the throne in 193 AD was to deal with a military disaster in Iraq (‘Parthia’ as it was then known). The success of his surge was commemorated in the great arch, which remains to this day one of the most impressive monuments in the Forum at Rome.
The two little children he took with him to the palace did not fare so well. In fact they grew up to be murderous thugs – even if the elder, Caracalla, did go on to initiate the most daring extension of civic rights in the whole of world history. Once he had got rid of his brother (nastily murdered on his mother’s lap), he gave full Roman citizenship, and the legal privileges and protection that went with it, to all the free male inhabitants of the empire.
Did the success of Septimius Severus show that race no longer mattered in Roman politics? And is there a message in his story for the new president-elect?
If so, the message is a double-edged one. A few more African-Romans did make it to the higher echelons of the imperial government (in many cases members of the emperor’s own family, or his wife’s friends). But on the wider view, it was not so much that his race did not matter, but that the Roman upper class and the Roman media made sure that it simply was not seen.
We do not know for certain whether or not Septimius Severus was black. That is itself significant. One historian writing three hundred years after his lifetime claimed that he was ‘dark’, and one or two portrait statues appear to show him with African features. But the vast majority of images that survive make him look like any other Roman emperor before him – his whiteness over-emphasised by the shiny white marble in which he was so often portrayed. This was not a black man claiming the imperial throne for himself. This was the Roman imperial machine turning a man of colour into an emperor more or less indistinguishable from all his predecessors. The machine was making sure that race did not show.
No-one is suggesting, of course, that Obama’s publicity team will attempt, literally, to whiten the image of the forty-fourth president. But the ‘Septimius Severus problem’ is already clear enough. Obama’s understandable decision not to mention his own ethnic identity, or anything else about race, in his acceptance speech had decided echoes of Septimius Severus’ image as a white emperor. The more you present Obama as any other president, and peddle the self-congratulatory clichés about the end of a raclal divide at the highest pinnacle of American politics, the more you are simply refusing to see that for most people in the US and the rest of the world race does still matter..
Most British women will recognise a much more recent political analogy. For ethnicity, read gender. Margaret Thatcher did almost nothing to advance the chances of other women in British public life, Quite the reverse. By making it look as if the gender wars were a conflict now decisively won --- when for millions of British women the battle had hardly begun -- the effect of Thatcher’s victory was to put back the cause of women for a generation at least.
Lets hope the same is not true for Obama – and that he doesn’t take the Septimius Severus route towards the same old orthodoxy of power. If race (or gender) is really not to matter it needs to be visible to us.