Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Looking beyond the Resume

In 69 AD, a guy named Titus Flavius Vespasianus applied for the position of Roman emperor with an incredibly lousy resume.

The Romans had no real experience in hiring emperors – the job had been fulfilled only by the glitzy Julio-Claudians, so requirements were rather vague: an established aristocratic background, going back to the origins of Rome and consolidated by marriages and alliances with other aristocratic families; lots of family drama to fulfill the never-ending appetite for gossip; and lavish spending habits backed by personal wealth.

Vespasian came from a very modest background. His father was a customs officer and small-time money lender, and there was little chance of claiming any direct lineage to a god, or at least to Romulus, since the family wasn't even from Rome. Needless to say, such meager origins could not provide much entertainment: Vespasian got married, had three children (Titus, Domitian and Domitilla), never remarried after his wife died, end of story. No adoptions, no divorces, no poisoned uncles, where's the fun in that?

As for the wealth part, well, Vespasian was pretty much flat broke. He had to mortgage his properties and borrow money from his brother. Domitian would later recall that, growing up, he didn't see a single piece of silver in their home.

When looking at Vespasian's employment record – well, things go from bad to worse. Under Caligula, he held a minor position in Rome, in charge of street cleaning, and did such a poor job, that Caligula had him covered in mud, to demonstrate how dirty the streets were. He achieved some military success during the campaign in Britannia, under Claudius, enough to earn him a consulship, only to mess up later, when he pissed off Claudius' wife, the influential Agrippina. He survived probably because Agrippina had more important people to kill, and made a comeback as governor of the province Africa – where, what do you know, he messed up again. He did such a poor job that people pelted him with turnips, and Tacitus describes Vespasian's period in Africa as “infamous and odious”.

Whatever he did in Africa, Vespasian returned to Rome poorer than he left, a very remarkable achievement for a governor, and went to accompany Nero in his tour of Greece. If he was hoping to butter up the young emperor, he failed again, after falling asleep during one of Nero's performances. This lack of artistic sensibility could have been his death sentence, but he managed to retire from public life and disappear from the eyes of the emperor in time.

If the story above is true, then it seems Nero didn't hold a grudge, and appointed Vespasian in 66 to deal with the uprising in Judaea. Nero probably thought that somebody with so little appreciation for the fine arts had to be good at war, at least, and most certainly thought that Vespasian was so dull he couldn't pose any serious threat, and could be entrusted with an army.

For a change, Vespasian did a good job in Judaea, methodically crushing the rebellion, until he reached Jerusalem. Then he decided to stop. News came from Rome that Nero died, and Vespasian waited for orders from the new emperor to continue with the siege of Jerusalem – in other words, he could foresee a long and bloody campaign ahead, and didn't want to take all the blame for it. (It's questionable whether a decisive attack on the city at that point could have prevented the massive bloodbath that followed the next year. Then again, we're talking about Vespasian – he messed up so much with the things he did, let's give him some credit that he didn't mess up even more by not doing something.)

So, while waiting and thinking that Judaea was a dead end, Vespasian came up with the idea of submitting his resume for the top job in Rome. He mentioned, briefly, his main asset – the support of over 60,000 professional soldiers under his command. Perhaps he was too subtle about this, because Rome didn't seem to get the point.

Historians of the age go at great lengths to justify Vespasian's campaign in Italy, and how hard he tried to make it a peaceful transfer of power, since the standing emperor, Vitellius, was obviously incapable of ruling. (Peaceful meaning he was trying to starve the people of Rome, by cutting off their grain supplies from Egypt, rather than kill them with his army.) But all in all, it was just another act in a bloody, messy civil war, with the city of Cremona taking a hard hit for being on the wrong side.

And in the end, the Romans decided to take Vespasian's resume seriously. Partly because his Eastern legions proved so persuasive, and partly because everybody was sick of doing interviews, as the previous three candidates had already failed their probation periods miserably.

Vespasian ruled Rome for 10 years. At the end, he managed to fulfill two of the greatest challenges for an emperor: he died of natural causes (with his famous last words, “oh, dear, I think I'm about to become a god”) and managed to transfer the power to his son, Titus, peacefully and without much fuss.

And so, following in the footsteps of Tacitus, let me summarize the moral of the story: when you see a good job, always mail your resume, even if chances are slim. You never know how many people screwed it up before to make you look good by comparison.