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Augustus of Silicon Valley
On youth, leadership, and the Roman Empire
Augustus of Prima Porta, a 1st Century A.D. marble statue of the first Roman emperor
One remarkable thing about the tech industry is the age of its leaders. Mark Zuckerberg was 20 when he founded Facebook. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both recent college dropouts, also in their early 20s, when they founded their companies.
America is often accused of being a gerontocracy — gerontos being the Greek genitive of “old man” and kratos being the Greek for “power”. Senescent senators stay into their nineties, preferring to die in office rather than retire. Advanced age is in the name — the words “senate” and “senator” are derived from senex, the Latin for “old man”. But in tech, this is reversed. In the most successful industry in the history of the world, youth is dynamism, rather than inexperience. Nobody in Silicon Valley is afraid to back a teenage CEO.
Of course, young people doing great things is hardly new. Alexander the Great became King of Macedonia at 20, stormed through the Persian Empire, and was dead at 32. Ramanujan, who also died at 32, made many of his revolutionary mathematical discoveries in his teens and early twenties.
If this makes you feel like an underachiever, don’t worry. You’re in good company. In 69 B.C., a 32-year-old Julius Caesar was in Spain. He broke down in tears in front of a statue of Alexander the Great, having been “appalled by his own laziness”. At his age, Alexander the Great had conquered the world. What had the young Caesar achieved? Steeling himself to accomplish great things, the then-minor official immediately resigned his role and returned to Rome to chase something new. What happened next is well-known. It’s never too late to conquer the world.
Eventually, like Alexander’s father Philip, Caesar was assassinated while preparing for war against Persia. Also like Philip, he left his titles and fortune to a young, unproven heir. That heir, Caesar’s grand-nephew Octavian, was only 18 at the time.
Octavian inherited Caesar’s name, Gaius Julius Caesar. Later, he also took the title Augustus — “the revered one” — and became the first Roman emperor.
In Silicon Valley, Augustus is most notable for being Mark Zuckerberg’s role model. It’s not hard to see why the Facebook princepsmight identify with the Roman autocrat. Both men, clever but underestimated, came to power at around the same age, dropping out of their educations to take a run at ruling the world. Augustus was at the top of Roman politics for 58 years. Zuckerberg could rule his own business empire for even longer.
Zuckerberg is a die-hard student of Ancient Rome. He and his siblings learned Latin at school and his sister is a Classicist with a PhD from Princeton. He’s such a fan of Augustus that he named one of his daughters August. His other two daughters are called Maxima and Aurelia. He regularly quotes Virgil’s Aeneid. He even cuts his hair in the style of an early imperial scion.
If you’re going to emulate any emperor, Augustus isn’t a bad one to pick. For one thing, he managed to die peacefully of old age, a rare achievement for a Roman ruler. (Rumors that his wife Livia poisoned him are probably untrue.)
Among emperors who came to power young, Augustus is even more of an outlier. Adolescent Roman despots were almost all vicious, scandalous, and speedily assassinated. Go down the list of worst Roman emperors and you’ll see them — Caligula, Nero, Commodus. None of them came to illustrious ends.
Roman historians present Caligula as perverted and insane, but the truth is more chilling. The great-grandson of Augustus was perfectly lucid; he just enjoyed causing pain. He loved emotional torture just as much as the physical kind. After one too many of his cruel jokes, a humiliated bodyguard stabbed him to death. He died at 28, having lasted only four years.
Nero was emperor at 17. Notoriously, he murdered his own mother, Agrippina, Caligula’s sister. He lasted just nine years post matricide, eventually falling on his own sword rather than into rebels’ hands.
Commodus, who came to power at 19, was senseless and brutish. In fine despotic tradition, he renamed as much as he could think of after himself. (The Romans were even forced to start calling themselves “Commodians”.) He ended up strangled in the bathtub by his personal trainer.
Of the 28-ish emperors who ruled from 27 B.C. to 235 A.D., at least half were either murdered or committed suicide. Of the emperors who came to power before they were 30, every single one except Augustus met a violent end.
So why can teenagers on giant ego trips run tech start-ups but not premodern empires?
Part of it must be how they end up in charge. Many founders come from privileged backgrounds, but none are appointed by birth. Unlike Caligula, Nero, Commodus, and the rest, they choose their dominions. And they are at least competent enough to build a skeleton product and find investors. It’s hard to believe that Commodus — whom one ancient historian described as “more stupid than any other”— would be coding anything from his Stanford dorm room. Plausibly, the average undergraduate, appointed dictator-for-life of their own private fiefdom, would crash and burn. But Mark Zuckerberg was never an average undergraduate and that’s why he became Meta’s dictator perpetuo.
But it’s also because building an empire and running an empire are different skillsets. Caligula wasn’t made CEO of Facebook in 2005. He was put in charge of Apple at a market cap of $3 trillion, promptly fired the C-suite, and appointed his horse to the board. Maybe he would have been better at running a start-up, or at least have failed with less catastrophic consequences.
Sam Altman founded his first company at 19. When asked to account for the OpenAI CEO’s success, Peter Thiel produced a marvellous classical metaphor. Altman, Thiel claimed, sails perfectly between the “Scylla of misplaced idealism” and the “Charybdis of myopic ambition”.
Idealism and ambition are both traits of youth. They are also the traits of the worst Roman emperors. Nero was an idealist, a self-proclaimed “artist” who, it was rumored, conspired to burn down Rome and rebuild it in his own image. His successor, the 60-year-old Vespasian, was a finance-minded pragmatist, who once quipped pecunia non olet — “money doesn’t smell”. Vespasian was a better emperor than Nero; he was older, steadier, more managerial. Rome needed a Tim Cook, not a 17-year-old high school dropout. It needed a Vespasian, not a Nero.
So, it makes sense that the empire’s most successful young ruler was also its founder, the founder who “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble”. Far-sighted, but ruthless when he had to be, Augustus breezed past Thiel’s Scylla and Charybdis. Crucially, the young Roman nobleman also had friends he could rely on. If Augustus had been running a startup, his school classmate and chief lieutenant Marcus Agrippa would have been the tireless co-founder.
Still, Augustus’ age sometimes got the better of him. Early in his reign, he scandalized Roman society by prancing around dressed as Apollo. Like most great start-up founders, Augustus was prone to delusions of grandeur.
But I suppose they’re not delusions if you win.
SVBSCRIBE SI AVDES
“pertaesus ignaviam suam”, Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Jul. 7
Latin, meaning “first citizen”, adopted by Augustus and his successors
The real total could be higher. Some allege that Tiberius was smothered on his deathbed to ensure a smooth transition of power; others claim that Claudius was fed a poisoned mushroom by Agrippina.
Specifically, Caligula was brutalized by a humiliated bodyguard, Nero impaled himself on a sword, Domitian was mutilated by a court official, Commodus was strangled in the bath, Geta was tricked and murdered by his brother Caracalla, Caracalla, while urinating, was slain by a soldier whom he had passed over for a promotion, Elagabalus was killed by a mob immediately after losing a popularity contest to his cousin Severus Alexander, and Severus Alexander was killed in a spontaneous mutiny by troops who justified it by comparing him to Elagabalus.
“τις ἄλλος ἀνθρώπων ἄκακος”, Cassius Dio, Roman History, 73.1
Latin title meaning “Dictator, indefinitely”. Given to Julius Caesar a month before his assassination in 44 B.C.
Misquote from Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Ves. 23, et même si ce n’est pas vrai, et cetera, et cetera
“[Augustus used to say, proudly and rightfully, that] marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset”, Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Aug. 28