Originally posted September 26, 2014.
York was not on the original summer itinerary. The plan was to go to England’s Lakes District and do some hiking. But by the time we decided that as our final destination the price of accommodations was sky high, so we looked for cheaper options that would be just as interesting.
Compared to York, I suspect the Lake District would have been a letdown. York has two millennia of history, all within a short walking distance. I was quite surprised to discover just how much of that history I remembered, from Roman times to the War of the Roses to the treats of my childhood.
York is where my favorite chocolate bars come from: Kit Kat and Aero bars (and Smarties of course) got their start here. I remember when the wrappings said Rowntree’s, not Nestlé’s. Times change. And in adulthood it’s the chocolate orange, from Terry’s, another York chocolatier, that has tickled my taste buds.
Probably the biggest event to ever take place in York seems to be almost forgotten with all the other history of the area. I will admit though that I was somewhat emotional as I stood in the undercroft of York Minster Cathedral and read that it was on that site, or somewhere close by, that Roman general Constantine’s troops had proclaimed him Emperor. It was a pivotal moment in world history, one that would in just a few years lead to official recognition of Christianity by the state which had previously persecuted it. Our world today was shaped by Constantine’s actions, perhaps none more important than convening the Council of Nicaea.
Though his father had also been Emperor, Constantine’s accession to the throne was not guaranteed. The men he commanded were confident in his leadership, but there were other claimants to the position. It would be six years of civil war before he consolidated his hold on power. I wonder if at times during those six years of struggle he questioned whether it was worth the effort, or did he have a sense of destiny?
Standing in that spot I started thinking about leadership and what it takes to be a leader. I’m not sure if there is a rating system for Roman emperors, such as we frequently have for modern-day politicians when surveys are done to determine who was the best president or prime minister. Depending on who makes the list, there were about 80 emperors during Rome’s imperial period. How many can you name? For me probably at least a dozen, but then I also studied Latin in school. You probably names Julius Caesar, Augustus, maybe Nero. Claudius or Caligula perhaps, because of movies or television. Most are footnotes to history. I would say Constantine was the one with the biggest lasting influence.
Thinking about Constantine got me to wondering how present-day leaders compare to those from history. Leaving aside the dictators and despots who rule by fear and force, what do you think of those who lead 21st century democracies? From what I can see, our leaders are like most Roman emperors, pretty uninspiring. That may be because they have not yet been thrown into situations that require strong leadership and visionary thinking.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example, was poorly regarded by the public and his fellow politicians before the Second World War. Yet there is no doubt he was the backbone of a nation in crisis that rallied under his leadership (and voted him out of office as soon as the crisis had passed). Under the right circumstances Churchill was what Britain needed.
Similarly, American President John F. Kennedy’s short record is pretty lacklustre when viewed objectively, both in terms of his legislative accomplishments and his foreign policy. However he had a vision and inspired a generation to put a man on the moon for the first time. Perhaps not as noble a goal as eradicating poverty or racism in the United States, but he achieved it. (In fairness to Kennedy I should note he was the driving force behind the creation of the Peace Corps, which also inspired a generation.)
Constantine, Churchill, Kennedy – leaders who inspired. Are there any like them today?