- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is an ancient history buff.
- He recently discussed his fascination with the Roman emperor Augustus in a New Yorker profile.
- Zuckerberg’s interest in the ancient historical figure shouldn’t come as a surprise – the two share some interesting traits.
- The Facebook CEO’s professed interest raises a few questions about how he feels about trade-offs.
In a recent New Yorker profile, the tech mogul revealed that his fascination with the ancient Roman emperor Augustus even figured into his 2012 honeymoon in Rome.
“My wife was making fun of me, saying she thought there were three people on the honeymoon: me, her, and Augustus,” Zuckerberg told the New Yorker. “All the photos were different sculptures of Augustus.”
Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm for classical history reportedly dates back to his time at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he studied Latin and immersed himself in learning about the civilisation’s “good and bad and complex figures.”
On his fascination with Augustus, Zuckerberg said, “Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace. What are the trade-offs in that? On the one hand, world peace is a long-term goal that people talk about today. Two hundred years feels unattainable.”
Zuckerberg’s deep interest in another young upstart who disrupted – and connected – the world like never before doesn’t come as a surprise. But it might raise some questions about how far the CEO is willing to go in order to achieve Facebook’s mission to “bring the world closer together.”
Augustus’ triumph came at the cost of the Roman Republic
Before Augustus was declared the first citizen of Rome or the son of the divine or a god among men, he was just a teenager named Octavian.
Granted, he was the adopted son of the powerful dictator Julius Caesar. But he wasn’t the only power player on the block in the bloody political circus that followed his adopted dad’s assassination.
The young man fared well, however. He accrued power and successfully waged war against the assassins, and, eventually, his early allies, like Mark Anthony.
Octavian’s victory in the 31 BCE Battle of Actium sank the hopes of Mark Anthony, Cleopatra, and their supporters – the power couple committed suicide shortly after the loss. And so the path was cleared for Octavian – who eventually took on the honorific “Augustus” – to become the sole ruler of Rome.
Let’s be clear – Augustus didn’t single-handedly murder the Roman Republic. Nor was the Republic some sort of perfect, equitable utopia. The entire system was falling apart long before Augustus came onto the scene. And the republican facade endured during his reign.
But his rule marked the death knell of the Republic and the dawn of the Roman Empire.
The Pax Romana wasn’t entirely peaceful, either
Augustus gets a ton of credit for the Pax Romana – or “Roman peace.”
And, sure, his reign did kick off a period of relative calm that stretched from the beginning of his rule in 27 BCE all the way into the reign of his five successors, the Five Good Emperors.
Before his time, the Roman Republic had been roiled by a number of civil wars: Rome faced down its various Italian allies during the Social War; generals Marius and Sulla wrestled for control; Julius Caesar squared off against his rival Pompey. And, of course, Augustus himself seized power through violence, and snuffed out his rivals along the way.
But it’s inaccurate to think of the Roman Empire during the subsequent Pax Romana as as war-free zone.
In “Rome’s Fall and After,” historian Walter Goffart writes, “The volume of the Cambridge Ancient History for the years A.D. 70-192 is called ‘The Imperial Peace,’ but peace is not what one finds in its pages.”
There were revolts in Judea, Mauretania, and Illyricum during Augustus’ reign, alone. He also annexed Egypt and northern Spain during his stint as emperor.
Reflecting on the darker side of Augustus’ rise to power
Comparatively, it’s fair to say the Pax Romana did represent a time of peace for Rome. But, as historian Arnaldo Momigliano wrote in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, “Pax Romana is a simple formula for propaganda, but a difficult subject for research.”
What’s more, there was a dark side to the Roman Empire’s very definition of peace. Ancient Romans didn’t think of peace as some sort of tranquil kumbaya-fest between nations. According to Momigliano, they conceived of peace more as a state in which all of Rome’s rivals had been vanquished.
In the New Yorker interview, Zuckerberg rightfully concluded that the Pax Romana “didn’t come for free” and vaguely acknowledged that Augustus “had to do certain things” in order to secure the peace.
Today, people around the world are beginning to question the impact that tech giants like Facebook are having on democratic societies. That’s not to say that Zuckerberg is a calculating ancient despot like Augustus. But social media platforms are having a real impact on the political realm.
Heck, the title of the New Yorker profile in which he’s quoted is “Can Mark Zuckerberg Fix Facebook Before It Breaks Democracy?”
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