The emperor Julius Valerius Maiorianus, known to English-speaking posterity as Majorian, was a vigorous and able sovereign. He is conceded to have been one of the last western Roman leaders who made an energetic effort to maintain and improve the empire’s institutions. Even Gibbon, who usually had only snide comments for the later occupants of the Roman throne, condescended to say a good word for him in chapter 36 of his History.
“[H]is laws,” wrote Gibbon, “remarkable for an original cast of thought and expression, faithfully represent the character of a sovereign who loved his people, who sympathized in their distress, who had studied the causes of the decline of the empire, and who was capable of applying (as far as such reformation was practicable) judicious and effectual remedies to the public disorders.” Majorian was invested with the royal purple at Ravenna at the age of about thirty-six. Imagine, dear reader, an empire of such vast scope and extent, and beset by such difficulties, entrusted to a man of thirty-six!
And yet this is how things should be. Political reform belongs to the vigor of youth; octogenarians have no business in the captaincies of states. The historian Procopius (Vandal Wars I.1) says of Majorian, “That he was gentle to his subjects; that he was terrible to his enemies; and that he excelled in every virtue all his predecessors who had reigned over the Romans.” The scholar Sidonius Apollinaris delivered a panegyric in Latin verse on the emperor’s behalf at the city of Lyons in 458 A.D. while Majorian was still alive. He provides us with the following anecdote about the emperor’s leadership style.
Majorian was leading a military force through the Alps in winter. The terrain was forbidding; the passage involved crossing icy crags, treacherous glacial slopes, and bitter winds that never relented. As the men were making their way over one mountain, progress ground to a halt. The men were exhausted and frustrated. One soldier in the column began to grumble aloud. He exclaimed,
I would prefer enemy swords and, in solemn quiet, the cold that comes from death;
My numbness binds my limbs with sluggish inflexibility,
And frostbite has crippled my body with the fires of cold.
We follow an eager youth who accepts no limit to labor;
Yet the bravest, whether king or people,
Are safely occupying their camps or lying down in sunshine
Under animal skins: but we destroy the enjoyment of the year.
What he commands will be a law for all things.
[Pan. de Maioriano 520-526]
The emperor was told of this soldierly grumbling, and confronted the man who had so loudly complained. He spoke these words to his men:
Whoever you are, who fears the hazardous incline facing you,
Break the surface of the hanging water,
And carve out the river to make the pure liquid a place for you to step.
Stop these shameful complaints:
Inactivity brings on the cold.
Did nature give me the limbs of the double-formed Hylaeus?
Did Pegasus help me with wings, whichever place I step?
And did Calais and Zethus give me—whom you see marching the snowy line of this summit with you—feathers to fly with?
Are you broken by the cold? Are you broken by the Alps?
[Pan. de Maioriano 544—548]
I can imagine similar words being spoken during the Marine retreat at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea in 1950, but with rather more profane language. Now we should point out that there were two purposes behind Majorian’s words here. The first intention was to shame and humiliate the man who had complained; for during periods of danger and hardship, nothing can be so infectious as cowardice or plummeting morale. The second goal was the emperor’s desire to show his men that he was in fact sharing all their hardships. He had been on campaign with them, he had marched with them, eaten with them, slept among them, and fought with them. Everything he asked his men to do, he himself also did. It was a principle of leadership that he knew to be inviolate.
There is no substitute for the credibility earned with shared sacrifice. Any leader of men, any commander who hopes to gain the trust and loyalty of his people, must—and I repeat, must—share all of difficulties that they face. Even if a leader is told, for example, by his own seniors to do otherwise, he should do all he can to evade or disregard such orders. Without an example that is set by a leader, there can be no trust in that leader. I would say: nihil exemplum, nihil fiducia. No example, no loyalty. In olden times, the gap between leader and led was, in many instances, far less cavernous than it is now. Leaders had a closer proximity to the grime, mud, and sand that their men had to face; and with this closeness came credibility and loyalty.
Yet this principle today gets little more than lip-service from many leaders. Many of them speak a great deal about what they have done, or what they are going to do; but they fail to realize that their words count for nothing unless they are actually experiencing what their people experience. No one is going to want to follow someone, or even listen to someone, whose personal appearance and conduct are not congruent with his words. Leadership is based on action and conduct, not on empty phrases and slogans, or finger-wagging rebukes from pashas sitting on gilded thrones.
We see this all around us today, in both civilian and military settings. Any man who wishes to lead, to be an example to his family, community, or group, must demonstrate that he has the character and will to shoulder every burden he assigns to others. He must show his willingness to dive into the mud and sand, and grind out the assigned mission, standing shoulder to shoulder with his men to the bitter end. If he cannot do this, he has no business leading. Nihil exemplum, nihil fiducia: let this be our creed.
The historian Cassius Dio, in his Roman history (LXVIII.16), relates an anecdote about the emperor Trajan, who many consider to be among the very greatest of Rome’s sovereigns. When he assumed the purple, Trajan took a large sword, a symbol of the office of prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and presented it to the prefect, who was required to wear it at all times. This man’s name was Sextus Attius Suburanus; he even became consul in 101 and 104 A.D. Trajan told Sextus Attius, “Take this sword, in order that, if I rule well, you may use it for me, but if ill, against me.” He knew he had nothing to fear, for Trajan was the type of emperor who did not just sit on feathered seat-cushions and issue commandments. He led by example, and gained the trust of all. Men like Majorian and Trajan may not have always lived up to the ethic, but at least they acknowledged that a normative standard of conduct for leadership existed, and should be aimed for. And this was why Pliny the Younger, in his brilliant Panegyric (67) on behalf of Trajan, said as follows:
Doesn’t it seem to you, Conscript Fathers, that this sentiment agitates his [Trajan’s] mind day and night: “If the interest of all requires it, I have placed arms in the hands of the prefect. But in fact I will never try to avoid the anger or apathy of the gods. On the contrary, I will ask and pray that the state shall not unwillingly have to take on the burden of my pledges for me; or if it has made such pledges, that they have no effect.
He placed the common good above his own personal vanity and aggrandizement. He did not want to become a burden to the nation; he expected his peers to remove him should be ever become an embarrassment to the office. Here was an example, and here was trust.
Read more about character and leadership in the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders: