Monday, April 30, 2007

17: Henry Ate

Hence the stomach.
Before Henry VIII there were lots of turbulent times, collectively known as the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses. The Hundred Years War was a succession of arguments over who owned France, the English or the French, the answer to which may seem intuitive but in a way the French owned it either way since they still owned England, sort of, as our landlords were all descended from William the Conqueror's cohorts. It all gets so muddy after a while you wonder why they bother arguing over it in the first place. The wars of the Roses were a succession of quarrels over who owned England if it wasn't the French. (As it turned out, it was Henry VII, who might have saved everyone a lot of trouble by turning up about fifty years earlier.)
His offspring Henry VIII was one of those ruler-by-accident types, who never expected to get the job when he was younger and threw his considerable weight about after he did get it. My own impession of the gent - and it should be clear by now that this is based on minimal actual knowlwdge - is that he wasn't one to suffer fools gladly or to tolerate a situation he wasn't happy with. Being unhappy with his first wife, Henry decided to divorce her. The problem was that the Catholic Church, which was generally agreed to be the one power in Europe over and above its assorted kings, didn't approve of divorce and vetoed the idea.
Henry, quite sensationally, responded by vetoing the Catholic Church and setting up the Church of England. Who needs popes anyway? Since nothing in the Western world at this time had a longer pedigree than the Church, one can easily imagine that this seemed just like rejecting God himself so it's scarcely surprising that we are still feeling the ripples of this act to this day, in Northern Ireland for instance - though how much of some religious conflicts are simply facades for political ones is a debate I might like to join in one day when I know what I'm talking about.
But back to Henry VIII: his dismissal of the Catholic Church had the incidental effect of dissolving all the long-established monasteries, but it seems there was widespread support for this on account of the popular image of monks as having a rather cushy lifestyle - no wars to fight, nice accommodation, and always plenty to eat, hence the caricature of 'Friar Tuck' in the Robin Hood stories.  By modern standards a medieval monk's life probably sounds rather austere, but I wonder how well they kept to their vows... If I was a medieval monk, I've got a pretty good idea what I'd be doing while the big tough local farmers were off fighting the crusades.... especially if I had nice high monastery walls plus the power of the church to hide behind when they got back.  (Incidentally I wonder if the name "Friar Tuck" name is a deliberate Spoonerism.)

16: Monarchy Business

Traditionally (ie 'until everything went wrong in the 70s') history was taught in schools largely as a string of kings and queens, and what they did and what happened during their reigns. I went to school in the 70s and early 80s by which time it had been deemed that none of that stuff was really important, and that instead we should be taught a smattering of information about the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, then nothing at all before the Industrial Revolution, rounding off with the causes of the First World War.
Needless to say, all those various topics meant very little in isolation, so I remained vaguely curious about all the gaps for many years after that. Just vaguely enough, in fact, not to actually read up on those gaps very much, and consequently it wasn't until the last year or so that I finally got the succession of the monarchy straight in my head - more or less. By which I mean, with a mental effort I can rattle off the complete list of British monarchs from William the Conqueror. Doesn't mean I know anything ABOUT them, but just find me someone else with a post-50s education who can do that, and who isn't a history graduate.

There now follows the aforementioned list, with whatever random facts about those monarchs that have permeated my brain over the years. None at all in many cases, I expect.

WILLIAM I 1066-1080-something
William the Conqueror, William the Bastard, William of Normandy. Invaded England in 1066 and took over from Harold, who was killed at the battle of Hastings, reputedly with an arrow in the eye. Like all good historical stories, apparently not true.

WILLIAM II 1080something-1100ish

William Rufus, on account of his red hair. If you don't have a smattering of Latin, this makes as much sense as those never-explained Bible stories where Jesus says something like 'I shall call you Peter, because you will be the rock upon which I shall build my church'. You might as well say 'I shall call you Kevin, because you like fish' (or something). You could be forgiven for thinking that people just liked to be cryptic in those days.

HENRY I 1100ish-1135

Henry Beauclerc, on account of his administrative prowess. Sound like an interesting chap, doesn't he? Married Matilda, daughter of the king of Scotland, and named her as heir, a move that led to raised eyebrows and later swords.

STEPHEN (You can look up the dates yourself for now on.)

'King Steve' Who'd have thought there was ever such a chap? Henry's nephew. Much of his reign was spent disputing his claim with the equally-surprising Queen Matilda. 


He of 'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?' fame. A good friend of Thomas Becket for many years until Becket got above himself and started stirring things up.
Someone with a sword overheard the king's offhand remark and saw him off righ there in the cathederal, the bounder.
Becket was, for some reason, known to the history books for centuries as 'Thomas a Becket'. Obviously a mistake - if he wasn't Thomas the Becket, then I don't know who was.


Crusader King, often played in movie cameos by the likes of Sean Connery. Got held prisoner for a king's ransom (naturally) on his way back from the crusades. Bit of a lapse of security there. Reigned for about 12 years I think but only spent six months of that time in the country, the rest of it off slaughtering Saracens or other heathens.

JOHN (Some years either side of 1215)

Ruled as regent in Richard's absence and is rather badly spoken of in all the Robin Hood stories. Became the victim of Magna Carta during his own reign, the famous piece of legislation that is noted for not being the King's own idea, and therefore a major early move in shifting power further down the social scale - if only as far as the aristocracy.


Reigned from 1216 to 1272, but failed to include a War of the Roses, Thomas a Becket or Magna Carta in all that time. Therefore wins my prize for having Longest Reign With Fewest Famous Things In It.

'Hammer of the Scots' - not a nice man, if 'Braveheart' is anything to go by. Wasn't any nicer to the Welsh either, apparently. Got put to a lot of trouble by William Wallace. (Incidentally there are no contemporary accounts that say Wallace looked anything like Mel Gibson). Didn't die on the same day either.


Bit of drip compared to the old man - so much so that he more or less abdicated in the face of collosal lack of support, and was subsequently spirited away to a country castle somewhere, where he was apparently disposed of by skilful use of a red-hot poker.


Decided he was King of France as well as England, thus setting off a string of wars. Against that, he wins my prize for being King Who Looks Most Like a King, if portraits are anything to go by.   

RICHARD II (around 1347)

Youngster who saw off the Peasant's Revolt, qv.


Obscure prequel to Henry V

'Hold their manhood cheap, accursed they were not here, those who fought with us, upon St Crispin's day' or something of the kind. Apologies to Shakespeare and Lawrence Olivier. (Kenneth Who?)
Conquered France.

Lost it again. Duh. Lost the Wars of the Roses as well. 


Calling yourself King Edward at this point in time seems like a triumph of faith over experience, but there you go. Henry VI was still alive when Edward was king, but was in his dotage and wearing a paper crown, if you believe the old movies.


One of the unfortunate princes-in-the-tower of Richard III fame.


Of princes-in-the-tower fame... as in, bumped them off to aid his own succession. Probably. Or is it all just Tudor propaganda? If it wasn't him, who was it, eh? Tell me that. Guilty as the man on the grassy knoll, if you ask me.


First of the Tudor kings, defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field. Famously thrifty - organised the country's finances sufficiently well to build a royal palace good enough to compete on the increasingly-glamourous European stage.


Most notable monarchs only seem to have got the job on account of the unexpected death of an older sibling. Perhaps there's something to do with NOT having been groomed for the job, that allows one to retain enough independent spirit to make an impression. (Other examples are King Richard and John F Kennedy). In Bluff King Hal's case, this manifested itself in his determination to marry who he wanted, when he wanted, and pulling out all the stops to get away with it, including setting up a new state religion and dispensing with the old one. That's what being *KING* is all about-!


Poor mite, never got a good shot at the job. Died a sickly youth.


Tried to reassert Catholicism as state religion. Burnt a lot of unrepentant Protestants. "Bloody Mary", as many a Protestant no doubt muttered as quietly as possible.


Good Queen Bess. Put Protestantism back. Burnt Catholics. Seems like if you were foolish enough to have outspoken integrity in these times, you were going to get burnt by SOMEONE.


Oh dear, oh dear... Catholic AND Scottish - bound to be unpopular. No wonder they tried to blow him up.


Had a spaniel named after him. Or was that his son? Possibly both.


Bit of a hiatus between the two Charleses while we experimented with having a republic... but it turned out to be one of those states of affairs that can't seem to survive with the force of personality of its leader, in this case Oliver Cromwell... a bit like the empire of Alexander the Great or Nazi Germany, or the GLC.
Anyway, Charles II's 'restoration' reign was a bit like the Swinging Sixties - a time of freedom and licentiousness following a long period of war alternating with spiritual repression. Many parallels. The Restoration had Restoration Comedies, the Sixties had The Monkees. The Restoration the Plague, the sixties had other interesting infections. The Restoration had the Fire of London, the sixties - well, should have had, really.


Another unwelcome return to Catholicism. Tried to make Catholicism acceptable and consequenrtly got seem off after only three years.


A Dutch import, no local Protestant candidates being available.


Had some chairs named after her.


Now then. George was a German import. Reason being, a thing called the 'Act of Settlement' had gone through Parliament by this time, decreeing that all monarchs had to be C of E. (There must have been a feeling of 'That's THAT settled', hence the name.) George was about 50th in line for the throne, but 1st if you take away all the Catholics, who must have been well miffed.


Last British monarch not to be born here. In charge during the memorably-name "War of Jenkins's Ear". (I think Jenkins lost.)


Farmer George. Longest reign until Victoria at about 60 years. Was upset about losing the American colonies when they declared independence. Went mad. God, this is taking ages. I forgot there were so many.


Ruled as Prince Regent while his dad was mad. Anything labelled 'regency ' hails from this time.


Bit of a lad-about-town. Just brings to mind a mental picture of a newspaper (or possibly 'Punch') cartoon of the time, showing the bemused king looking at graffiti on a wall reading 'Reform Bill'.


Ah, the Victorians. Invented everything. Most of them were Scottish, you know. Except Stephenson, he was a Geordie. Lots to say about this lady and her times but I can't be bothered right now.




Wore a sailor cap I think. I'm getting tired now. Can you tell? It's 1.30am.


Abdicated. People objected to his brash American girlfriend stomping round Balmoral saying things like 'Those curtains will HAVE to go!!'


Had a stutter. Terrible public speakers, the royals, aren't they?


Gawd bless 'er. Despite sixty years of steadfastly maintaining dignity at all times and in all circumstances, will no doubt probably be best remembered for apparently parachuting into the 2012 Olympics with James Bond.  I can't help wondering if she had to get talked into that, because she had a face like thunder when she walked into the stadium.

15: The Peasants Are Revolting

We might be forgiven for imagining that medieval life was short, dull and muddy, but books and TV documentaries pop up from time to time to revise that view for us, and tell us there was a lot more going on than we think... but it's hard to be convinced, when all the evidence favours the view that there was no TV or radio, no Facebook, no theme parks, no iPads or DVD players, no cinemas or nightclubs (though plenty of knights and, I daresay, clubs). The printing press was a long way off and what few handwritten books there were were in Latin, apparently for the express purpose of not distracting the peasants.
So what did everyone do with their time? Very little, I imagine, except pull up carrots and cabbages and go to church to thank God for the privilege. This was the order of things and the hoi-polloi had no reason to think it ought to be any different, or ever had been.
Science was centuries away, so the only view of how the world worked came from the church, handed down to the peasants by the friendly local priest, who no doubt would have them soundly whipped if they failed to turn up to listen to his message of God's love, or chargrilled if they voiced any reservations.
Said message, when it wasn't expressed by anyone with their own agenda, could be summed up as 'Be nice to each other and God will be nice to you' - a thought that must have given much consolation on many a muddy carrot-pulling day.
What the millions of faithful hardworking carrot-pullers thought about it in 1347 when the Black Death reduced their number by two-thirds probably hasn't been recorded in any great detail, since most of those who might have recorded it got despatched with an equal lack of prejudice, but it's a safe bet that many of them must have wondered if it was something they said, or failed to say, in church.
What else could it possibly be? The very idea that such wholesale, not to mention unsightly, slaughter was simply an accident of nature was probably beyond the medieval imagination. God WAS nature, and this could only be a manifestation of his judgment.
Consequently, things must have been made worse by thousands of plague-ridden peasants huddling together in churches apologising for they knew not what, instead of keeping their distance.
Estimates vary over the proportion of the population of Europe that were carried off by the Black Death over the two or three years of its reign of terror, but the figures you hear most range from half to two-thirds. Soberingly, that means that if you were living in Europe in 1345, chances were that you would be dead in 1348.
There must be many more, and stranger, tales and tragedies of those years than could ever be recorded or imagined. One man had the sense to wall himself up inside his house with a supply of food and water until the threat had passed. He survived. An eight-year-old girl in Norway or Denmark or some such place inherited an entire village, having been the sole survivor.
If those who got sick and died horribly felt hard done by (and who wouldn't?), those who survived must have felt somewhat privileged. God must like THEM. And this might have had something to do with the Peasant's Revolt, which was led some years later by one Wat Tyler.

There's a popular misconception that economics is a human invention that has something to do with money.
In fact, the whole universe runs on economics. Seas and deserts become hotter or colder, richer or more barren, because there is this much sunlight or that much rain. Stars and planets move in their orbits because there is this much gravity acting upon this much mass. Now, thanks to the plague, there were only so many peasants to pick so many carrots, and the balance of power had shifted just a little.
The workforce discovered that if one landlord didn't want to pay them just that little bit more for tending his farm, the one down the road, who was desperately short of help, would. The problem was that the ancient 'feudal system' whereby everyone in society knew his place and did what he was told by the next man up the ladder, did not permit any upstarts to rock the boat in this manner. You had to mind your place and like it.
So began what might be regarded as an early experiment in communism. Jack Straw and his buddies rallied the peasants and marched on London to present their case to the king. In the middle of town, Straw marched right up to the teenage Richard II, and in true communist form, chummily addressed him as a brother.
Whereupon Richard, or possibly one of his followers, (exercising the diving right of kings to at least defer the laws of the universe) sent him to meet his Father, leaving the rest of to wait another 500 years for Karl Marx.

14: The Crusades

By the Middle Ages the former Roman Empire was still clinging to life in Constantinople, but new powers were on the rise in that part of the world in the form of Islam... and it's at this point in my narrative that I suddenly have to be careful what I say, since some adherents of that faith are famously sensitive about their culture and like to take, shall we say, strong action against anyone who speaks out in way they feel is disrespectful. This type of reaction, combined with a popular perception of Islam as a culture that exercises a far stronger dogmatic influence over its people than some of us are used to, has helped to give it a rather menacing aspect to some of us in the Western world, but it's worth remembering that Islamic culture was the torch-bearer for the art of learning and discovery for several centuries which were still the 'dark ages' to the rest of us, which to me suggests that it's not so much the scripture itself that dictates how nobly or otherwise its followers conduct themselves, it's the mindset of those who lead the way, and what they decide to take from the those scriptures. But that's just my personal opinion, and I'm prepared to revise it, preferably by force of argument, though, please.    
But I digress. Around 1100, Islamic forces were encroaching on Christendom (Which side you were on has often been defined in history as what name you give to your God), and the for the next few hundred years, Christian kings and princes in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean would send out a call for help every now and again to the safer kingdoms in the West, to say that Jerusalem was falling into the hands of the Heathens (ie - 'those who don't believe in God'. Their word for the rest of us was 'Infidels', ie 'those who don't believe in Allah'. Allah being God.).
Now, life in the middle ages was probably, on the whole, pretty dull. For the average peasant, a standard day probably went something like this:
1. Get up.
2. Traipse out to field.
3. Pick turnips.
4. Eat lunch. Turnips.
5. Pick more turnips.
6. Go home to chilly damp hovel shared with donkey.
7. Watch fire.
8. Change channel. Still fire.
9. Service wife in full view of donkey.
10. Sleep.

If, from time to time, a king's messenger passed through the village promising fun and adventure in far-off lands, with food other than turnips, you would probably be tempted to take him up on the offer. Sure, you might get slaughtered by a greasy Saracen, but what the hell? If you stayed at home you'd be just as likely to die of pneumonia before you were thirty - and besides - if YOU slaughtered the greasy saracen instead of vice versa, or even several, the kudos would be worth a few beers for years to come when you got home. And anyway, this was the nearest thing they had to backpacking in those days.

So when, after 300 years of this sort of thing, Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Empire (thus, incidentally, finally ending all pretence that the Roman Empire was still a force in the world), it must have seemed, on the one hand, a lot of trouble for nothing... but on the other hand, a lot of fun while it lasted... or else King Richard wouldn't have spent all but six months of his reign out there himself.

13: The Normans

Contrary to what one might expect, few if any of the Normans were actually called Norman. Although if you think a bit further it's not so surprising, since they came from France and Norman doesn't sound like a French name. It sounds like the name of a geography teacher or a civil servant (no disrespect to either). Frenchmen have names like Francois or Gilles, or something else that somehow suggests a slightly slimy seductive quality despite having tonsils that taste of snails - though if you've discovered that Gilles' tonsils taste of snails it's probably too late not to be seduced.
Where were we?
The Normans. The Normans invaded Britain in 1066. Up until that time, Great Britain had been squabbled over for centuries by Romans, assorted Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Celts. The Celts, who were here before any of the others, got more and more marginalised during this time and ended up backing away into the territories that no-one else was all that interested in, ie Wales and Scotland, tourism being in its infancy then.
England had been a single autonomous kingdom, ie not part of the ridiculous-sounding Danish empire, for only about a hundred years or so when William the Conqueror decided that it was to become part of the William the Conqueror Empire, and set off across the Channel with an army in a lot of ships to organise that.
The incumbent king of England, Harold, was up north in York with his own army, busy fending off another invasion, from those troublesome Vikings (led incidentally by Harold's own brother Tostig. Families, eh!!) No sooner were the Vikings seen off - for the last time in history, as it happens - than Harold had to drag his weary army all the way down to Hastings to deal with the Normans.
He lost, of course, and if the Bayeaux Tapestry is anything to go by he got an arrow in the eye for his trouble, and William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard depending on your allegiances) became England's next king.
What did this mean for the Englishman in the street? Probably not a great deal. The Anglo-Saxon ruling class were booted out and all their castles and lands given to Norman knights and aristocrats. As far as your average peasant was concerned, he just had a new boss who talked funny.
A curiously long-lived side-effect of this business is that kings and queens of England are numbered from William 1st, as if the Anglo-Saxon kings before him didn't count... even though they were the only really English ones and therefore ought to count even more. A case, I think, of history being written by the winning side... and also part of a long-standing tradition of English kings and queens being anything but English.
Another interesting thought is that those Normans who were once the ruling class, are now so mixed in with the rest of us that many of their descendants are no doubt geography teachers and civil servants. Called Norman.

12: The Vikings

With the decline of the Roman Empire, power in Europe dropped into the hands of the various cultures that it had once dominated, and they in their turn spread their influence and swung their swords over their surrounding territories, and the territories surrounding those territories. Among the tribes that stomped around Europe were the Huns (who were very fond of each other - called each other 'hun' all the time - except for their fierce leader Attila, who was probably just annoyed about having a girl's name), the Goths (in their scary black and white makeup), the Austrogoths (hats with corks) the Visigoths, and presumably the Invisgoths (though nobody ever saw them).
On the more peaceful side, there were the Celts, whose main contribution to history was to inspire (1) the nice ornate artwork that those monks on Lindisfarne used all over their gospels, (2) the elves in 'Lord of the Rings' and (3) all of Enya's music, though I think St Cuthbert might have been disappointed by the last couple of albums.
Now finally we can move on to the Vikings.
The Vikings came from Scandinavia, notably Norway, and were motivated into moving further afield by the cold rocky barrenness of their own country. For much of the ninth and tenth centuries (not the seventh and eighth, as Orson Welles tells you at the beginning of the otherwise excellent film 'The Vikings') they sailed and rowed their scary-prowed longboats all over northern Europe, raping and pillaging and often deciding they liked the place and staying, much to the discomfort of their hosts, I imagine.
The Vikings explored as far as North Africa and Russia (which even takes it name from the 'Rus', the tribe who settled the place) and it's now widely accepted that they got to North America as well. They don't appear to have been very successful in colonising the place - perhaps having been enticed to Greenland by the alluring name given to the place by their explorers, they thought 'once bitten, twice shy'.
At the peak of their power, the Vikings (or at least the Danes) controlled all of Scandinavia and England as well, and took a kingly share of that country's revenue for the privelege. ('Danegeld')
We in this country don't seem to care to remember that England was once simply part of the Danish Empire. We chiefly associate the place with bacon, Lego and angsty TV detectives, so it's understandable.

11: The Dark Ages

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe once again became an expanse of relatively small, scattered states and communities, with nothing really to unite them except the common religion of Christianity, by now spreading far and wide due to the efforts of a lot of dedicated monks and missionaries.
The successful spread of Christianity was probably mainly down to two things.
Firstly, people didn't really know very much in those days. There wasn't any science to speak of; no-one bothered to sit and figure out why things happened the way they did or why things were the way they were - the issue seldom even occurred to them, as in fact it seldom occurs to many people today. But at least if it occurs to us today we can Google it - or even better, find a book about it by people it's occurred to before who did something about it, and who developed a thing called the 'Scientific Method', which is basically this:

Suppose you want to know why it is that a tree moves about in the wind. You might surmise that something invisible is moving it. You don't know about air, as such, because you've never seen the stuff. But clearly something is moving the tree - something you can't see. How can you prove, one way or another, whether something is there or not?
Let's assume that glass has been invented (which I'm informed it had been - thanks Dave-!) and that you have a glass bowl. You turn the bowl upside down and hold it on the surface of a pond. You surmise that, if there is an invisible substance all around you that moves the trees there must be some of it in that bowl, and that if you push the bowl downwards that substance will in turn push the water down. If nothing is there the water will remain level. You do and it doesn't. There is something there. Your curiosity piqued, you then surmise that this stuff must be made up of small invisible bits, so you try the same experiment with a tea-strainer. The water stays level. (At least I'm assuming it does.) You now know that the particles that make up the 'air' as you've decided to call it (by way of thinking 'I think I'll call it... errrr...') are smaller than the holes in the tea-strainer, as they are clearly escaping through it.
In the meantime your friend, who has also observed the tree shaking, has simply decided that the tree is shaking because God is shaking it, probably because he's pissed off about something; perhaps about the fact that your friend is wasting good worshipping time by messing about with tea-strainers.
This conclusion makes a certain amount of sense because a tree shaking violently in the wind is scary in the same way that having someone bigger than you shout and shake his fists at you is scary. It also saves you having to think about it any more depth and leaves you free to plough your field without having to worry about it any further, except for a nagging suspicion that God is angry because he didn't want you to use that particular field.
So, when monks and missionaries come plodding by with their big bibles, and tell you that you don't, indeed, have to think about all this stuff at all - the answers are all here in this book - how we got here and when; where we go when we leave and why - it seems sensible to pay attention, even if they do have silly haircuts. It feels like an even better idea when they tell you that if you don't happen to agree you'll spend eternity - or at least that part of it that starts when you die - burning horribly while little demons prod your more sensitive parts with forks and laugh maniacally. (It doesn't actually say this in the book, but this is no doubt a mere oversight on God's part.)
So for the next thousand years or so, a lot of people could be seen going into churches and promising to be good, while relatively few people were seen next to ponds messing about with tea-strainers.
And that's how the Dark Ages happened. 
The irony is that the people who were going around telling us what to think were largely the same people who were keeping all the old books of the Greeks and Romans safe in well-guarded monasteries, so that one day we'd be able to read them and start to dig our was out into the light again.   

10: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Abridged)

Meanwhile, Back in Rome, the emperor Claudius, much to everyone's surprise, was making a respectable go of the job and presiding with relative sanity. He put his stamp on his reign by finishing the job Julius Caesar started and invading Britain. 
He didn't stay long personally since the natives were just a bunch of hooligans who liked painting their faces, grunting and hitting each other (yes, I know)- and the weather was crap too. But he left a few thousand soldiers and colonists behind in an attempt to introduce civilisation, which by now meant plumbing, central heating, pizza and better swords as well as slavery and philosophy. Indeed the better swords pretty much made the philosophy redundant, since when you're top dog you don't tend to worry too much about abstract considerations - in fact if you worry too much about abstract considerations instead of about practical things like swords and plumbing you tend not to get to be top dog in the first place which is why Greece became a province of Rome and not vice versa, and also why I'm writing 'vice versa' instead of whatever it is in Greek, and also why I don't know what it is in Greek anyway.
In the following few hundred years Rome had its ups and downs... Claudius was succeeded by another raving egomaniac, Nero, who was too busy amusing himself to keep order and consequently allowed havoc to reign across his empire, culminating in the city itself getting burnt down - though it's widely believed he did this himself so he could build himself a Nero Theme Park. Either way, in a tradition that goes all the way to the twentieth century, he blamed the mess on an unpopular religious minority who just wanted to be left alone, and had many of them distastefully disposed of. Since violent movies hadn't been invented, the peasants had to make do with the real thing - with lions instead of special effects and Christians as extras. This kept the peasants in check by keeping them from getting too bored.
After a string of short-lived emperors things stabilised for a while until the time of the famously wise and philosophical Marcus Aurelius... sadly though his celebrated wisdom seems to have been of no interest to his adopted son Commodus, under whose aegis things went downhill again, and after couple of hundred years had degenerated to such an extent that the administration abandoned Rome to the invading tribes and moved en masse to Constantinople, named after the then-emperor Constantine.
The problem with being emperor, by this point, was that you basically had to consistently please two sets of people with conflicting interests, either of whom would swiftly do you in if they weren't happy with you. One lot was the general public, who wanted you to spend the Imperial Budget on better roads, civil amenities, and entertainment, and the other was the Praetorian Guard - the Emperor's personal security service - who wanted in all spent on them. It was so impossible to please both that hardly a single emperor from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine died of natural causes.    
Constantine, incidentally, was the Emperor who decided that Christianity was now the official religion of the empire. The persecuted minority had become the establishment - a bit like Steven Spielberg.