Sunday, April 11, 2010

Second Bananas

I remember hearing somewhere about a septic tank cleaner who advertises "we're number one in number two!" I thought of him lately as the Mr. and Mrs. Buce readaloud sodality made its way through Augustus, John Williams' historical novel about the first don't-call-him-Emperor of Rome and, not least, about his faithful sidekick Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.

Was there ever such another pairing in the leadership of a great polity? Agrippa was a schoolmate of Augustus', and from the very beginning of Augustus' rise, Agrippa served at his side. He continued so to serve until he died at the age of 51 (Augustus outlived him by 26 years). In all Agrippa's 30-odd years of service, there was never so much as a flicker of disloyalty; never for a moment a hint that he thought that he and not Augustus should be the top guy.

And it is certainly not that he lacked grounds for temptation. The record credits Agrippa with the victory in virtually every one of Augustus' military campaigns; Augustus' own military record remains shadowy to the point of evanescence. And Agrippa supervised so much of the construction that allowed Augustus to boast that he found Rome of brick and left it of marble.

How to account for such loyalty? Part of the secret must lie in the enigmatic posture of Augustus himself, surely the oddest of world-historic figures. He created the Roman Empire and ruled it for 41 years (or more, depending on what you count). Yet he ruled almost entirely by indirection, as if always pretending that he was just another well-wisher to the state. Such a tactic only works if activated by an extraordinary gift for manipulating other people: it must be that Augustus knew how to assure Agrippa that he was appreciated--and to make him know tht he would regret it if he stepped out of line.

Was there ever such another? Possibly. We often observe corporate CEOs who go through their careers joined at the tip with another, less visible, figure who seems to do what the CEO himself can't do. Creative types are lucky if they find good managers: Bill Gates found Steve Ballmer. Roosevelt had Harry Hopkins although I guess it isn't quite the same thing. On a more modest level, I remember Kentucky governor A.B. "Happy" Chandler. Chandler was a virtuoso campaigner, but the chores of administration bored him. He did best in office when he had the good sense to let others run the state for him.

But all these examples appear to pale beside the long and seemingly unbroken record of cooperation between Augustus and Agrippa. Augustus owed him a lot, and so did Rome. Sadly, he left another legacy to his city which was not so commodious: he was grandfather to Caligula and great-grandfather to Nero. If Augustus was one of the best of emperors; Agrippa's two progeny surely count as among the worst.

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