Stuff from Way Back #34a: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It

 

(This essay follows Stuff from Way Back #33: Roma, We Have a Problem.  A note on Roman names: Romans – at least the elites – traditionally had a base of three names, the praenomen, nomen and cognomen, as in Gaius Julius Caesar.  The praenomen was the personal name, usually abbreviated, and by the time of the Principate there were only about a dozen in common use.  The nomen was the gens or clan name, and the cognomen was originally a modifier of the nomen, but could become hereditary, in which case it indicated the particular family in that clan.  Other cognomina might be added to express some achievement, such as P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus.  This arrangement crumbled during the Anarchy, and in the Dominate nomina [or a modified form of them] were frequently employed in the place of a traditional praenomen.)

 

Against all odds the Roman Empire had survived the Anarchy, but the Late Empire or Dominate bore little resemblance to the autocracy that Augustus had established three centuries earlier.  Most important, the political stability that characterized most of the history of the Principate was gone forever, washed away by the civil wars of the Anarchy and the corruption of the military.  The Empire was now facing continually growing barbarian pressure on the northern frontiers as the great German migrations to the west and the south got underway, while the effectiveness of the army had plummeted, allowing incursion after incursion into the provinces.  Economically, the Empire was in ruins, as the tax base shrank from devastated farmlands and declining commerce, while the state resources consumed by the army continued to rise.  The Empire had become an unpleasant place in which to live, and it may be assumed that any sense of loyalty to the state, which was now seen as an oppressor, had disappeared.

Maximian

Maximian

Diocletian

Diocletian

But Diocletian did bring a measure of stability, and the empire was relatively free of internal strife for the next two decades.  Having assumed the purple in 284, two years later he made another Illyrian, M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus, his co-ruler, who would look after the west while he took up residence in Nicomedia in the east.  Diocletian had determined that because of internal troubles and barbarian invasions the Empire was now too big for one man to govern, and in 293 he established the Tetrarchy.  Each Augustus appointed a Caesar, Galerius Valerius Maximianus for Diocletian and Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus for Maximian, the idea being that each Caesar would succeed his Augustus in an orderly fashion.

In a way the Tetrarchy was a return to Augustus’ original plan for succession – the Princeps would train his successor and associate him in power – but it is doubtful that this complex structure of four rulers could have worked even in the halcyon days of the early Principate.  It certainly did not in the wake of the Anarchy.  The type of man likely to be an effective ruler of the problem-plagued Late Empire was likely also to be ambitious and reluctant to share the ultimate power.  Further, the natural son of an Emperor was not likely to be amused if someone else was named his father’s Caesar.

Constantine Chlorus

Constantine Chlorus

Galerius

Galerius

When Diocletian abdicated in 305 and compelled a reluctant Maximian to do the same, the Second Tetrarchy quickly collapsed into a new civil war.  For a variety of reasons Diocletian decided to pass over the sons of Galerius and Chlorus as the new Caesars, naming Flavius Valerius Severus and Galerius Valerius Maximinus Daia.  In 306 Chlorus died after crushing an invasion of Picts in Britain, and while Severus succeeded him as Augustus in Rome, the army elevated Chlorus’ illegitimate son, Flavius Valerius Constantinus, to Augustus, thus opening the floodgates.  Maximian came out of retirement, and he and his son, M. Aurelius Valerius Maxentius, became Augusti in 306, turning out Severus and causing Galerius to invade Italy, unsuccessfully.  Diocletian himself attempted to negotiate a settlement in 308, retiring Maximian again, outlawing Maxentius and naming Valrerius Licinianus Licinius Augustus.  There were now six Augusti: Galerius, Constantine, Maximinus Daia, Maximian, who refused to stay retired, Maxentius, who refused to go quietly, and Licinius.  It was now necessary to have a program to keep track of the players.

Licinius

Licinius

Maximinus Daia

Maximinus Daia

Constantine

Constantine

Maxentius

Maxentius

Severus

Severus

It got simpler.  Maximian was murdered, and in 311 Galerius finally died, removing the major player from the game.  The following year Constantine formed an alliance with Licinius in the east and invaded Italy to take out Maxentius, who was allied to Maximinus Daia.  At the battle of the Milvan Bridge outside Rome, Constantine, a better general with a better though smaller army, crushed Maxentius, having sought the aid of the Christian god by having the Chi Rho (the first two letters of Christos in Greek) painted on his men’s shields.  For the first time a Roman ruler had appealed to the new god.

Chi Rho

Chi Rho

Now there were three, and in 313 Maximinus Daia, who had received no cut of Maxentius’ territory, attacked Licinius, was defeated and died of sickness.  Licinius began to intrigue against Constantine, but in the wake of inconclusive military action they reconciled and in 317 named their sons as their Caesars.  The showdown came in 323, when Constantine chased raiding Goths into Thrace, Licinius’ territory, and the eastern Augustus responded by launching a war, which ended the following year in Licinius’ defeat and later execution.

Constantine was now sole Emperor and would remain so until his death in 337.  During this period he continued and in some cases completed developments that had been underway since the Anarchy and especially since Diocletian.  The exclusion of the civil authorities from involvement in the military, begun in earnest by Gallerius during the Anarchy, was now complete, and the Senate had essentially become little more than a municipal council and a ceremonial and honorary association.  The autocracy had become an absolute despotism, and Constantine ruled by the grace of god.  He adopted the diadem and an oriental style court, replete with ceremonial procedures, titles and orders of preference, and what had originally been an unequal partnership between the Princeps and Senate was now a traditional Near Eastern kingship.

Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great

The Imperial bureaucracy continued its rapid growth, as the state attempted to control every aspect of the lives of the Empire’s inhabitants, and as much as was possible for a pre-industrial society, the Roman Empire became more and more totalitarian.  In order to prevent land from going out of cultivation, farmers were legally tied to their farms, unable to escape the increasingly oppressive taxation.  These bound farmers, the coloni, would form the basis of medieval serfdom.  Occupations, especially farming, were made hereditary, turning the Empire into a vast social prison and creating a highly stratified society, in which inequality was institutionalized in the law.  The elites, state and municipal officials, soldiers and veterans, were the honestiores; virtually all the rest of the population constituted the humiliores, who were subject to more restrictive laws and more brutal punishments.

These arrangements of course seriously injured agricultural productivity and especially commerce, and while Constantine reformed the currency, there simply was not enough revenue to support the military without crushing taxation, which further injured the economy.  The Empire was running out of silver and gold, and Diocletian’s attempt in 301 to freeze prices was, as one might expect, a complete failure.  Constantine had to accept taxes in kind, laying another foundation for medieval society.  Further, the maintenance of the Imperial infrastructure had traditionally relied upon liturgies, the voluntary contributions of the municipal elites, but these men were being now squeezed by the increasing taxation, which compelled the state to make such contributions mandatory.  The result was the deterioration of the middle income class, especially businessmen, who were at the heart of the non-agricultural economy, and it became harder and harder to find individuals willing to serve in the municipal offices.

Major changes were taking place in the military sphere.  Constantine created a Field Army that could be rushed to any crisis in the Empire, further emphasizing cavalry, which formed the core of the new army, while for the first time in Roman history infantry took second place.  The prominence of horse was not just a response to the Persians, who had excellent cavalry, but also because of its mobility in dealing with threats.  Meanwhile, the frontiers were increasingly dependent upon fortifications and border troops that were little more than local poorly trained militias.  From the point defense of the Principate and the elastic defense of the Anarchy the Empire moved to a defense in depth, in which multiple lines of fortified points would slow any barbarian invasion, providing the Field Army the time to move to confront the danger.  Finally, more and more barbarians were being recruited into the military, especially the frontier units, and entire tribes were being given land within the Empire in return for their military services.  This development was to a great degree a response to the declining population of the Empire, who were desperately needed in agriculture, but it nevertheless boded ill for the future.

Late Roman "Heavy" Cavalry

Late Roman “Heavy” Cavalry

Traditional Roman Infantry

Traditional Roman Infantry

Late Roman Infantry

Late Roman Infantry

Regarding that future, two of Constantine’s achievements were momentous enough to mark major turning points in Roman history – and that of the West in general.  Because of the Persian threat and the fact that the major barbarian pressure was along the lower Danube, he perceived a need for a “capital” in the east, and consequently the ancient Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosporus was rebuilt in 324 as Constantinople, the “city of Constantine.”  Constantine could hardly know it, of course, but the existence of a “New Rome” would certainly help facilitate the later separation of the Empire into two states and the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, which would carry on a Greek version of the Roman tradition for another millennium.

The other was even more world shaking, the establishment of Christianity as the favored and then official religion of the Empire.  I have tended to be cynical about Constantine’s conversion (which took place on his death bed, a not uncommon occurrence), but the more I look into this (I have always found studying the Late Empire depressing.) the more I think his commitment to the Church was genuine.  Most of the army was after all polytheist, and it is estimated that by the fourth century Christians only comprised about ten percent of the population, a weak base upon which to establish a new imperial policy simply for political reasons.  The stories of visions in the sky and dreams may be discounted, but it may well be that the success of his somewhat desperate invasion of Italy and the victory at the Milvan Bridge convinced him of the power of the Christian god.  His various efforts to preserve the unity of the religion, particularly the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which officially defined the Church’s understanding of the Trinity, strongly suggests a man who is personally concerned about the faith.

Whatever his motives, his conversion resulted in every succeeding Emperor but one being Christian, and Christianity thus rapidly became identified with the state and emerged as the official religion under Theodosius (379-395).  Constantine himself was generally respectful of the rights of non-Christians, but given the exclusive nature of monotheism and growing power of the Church, it was only inevitable that future rulers would become more repressive.  The persecution of the pagani would in fact begin under Constantine’s sons.  (See also Stuff from Way Back #14: The New God on the Block and Stuff from Way Back #15: These Christians Are Really Annoying.)

Constantine gained the appellation “the Great,” certainly deserved, for like Augustus he was one of the few individuals in history who single-handedly and dramatically affected the course of events.

 

285-337 Dominate I

284-305 C. Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (abdicated)

286-305 M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus (abdicated)

286 Peasant revolt in Gaul

297-298 Persian War

301 Edict on Prices

303-304 Edicts against Christians

305-306 Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus

305-311 Galerius Valerius Maximianus 

306-337 Flavius Valerius Constantinus 

306-307 Flavius Valerus Severus 

306-308 M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus

                           M. Aurelius Valerius Maxentius 

308-324 Valerius Licinianus Licinius 

310-313 Galerius Valerius Maximinus Daia 

                   312 Battle of the Milvan Bridge

313 Edict of Milan/Toleration

324-330 Foundation of Constantinople

325 First Council of Nicaea; Constantine adopts the diadem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                       

 

 

Je Suis Charlie (Mais Non Est Obama)

 

What is wrong with Barack Obama?  On January 11 1.6 million people, including more than forty presidents and prime ministers, gathered in the Place de la République in Paris for a show of solidarity against Islamic terrorism.  But unless you recognized the face of the American ambassador in Paris you would search in vain for a representative of the United States among the heads of state marching with linked arms.  The American Attorney General happened to be in France, but did not attend the rally.

Surely the American President, the leader of the global anti-terror war, had no business more important (a fund raiser?) than showing his face in Paris.  The White House then added another insult by bringing up concerns about the President’s safety (though the Secret Service was never consulted), suggesting that the French security forces are inept, an opinion apparently not shared by the leaders who did show up.  Since the President may presumably ignore the concerns of his advisors, Obama ends up looking a bit like a coward or an aloof jerk, especially since the very first national leader to hurry to the US after 9/11 was Jacques Chirac, the President of France.

Je suis Barack

Je suis Barack

One leader who did show up, apparently against the wishes of the French President, Francois Hollande, was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prompting Hollande to immediately invite Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority.  Netanyahu proceeded to make a fool of himself, waving to the crowd, unlike the others in the somber march, and inviting French Jews to emigrate to Israel, where they would be safe, a completely outrageous statement for a guest of the French to make.  Of course, the presence of people like Vladimir Putin and the representative of Saudia Arabia was a study in hypocrisy as they memorialized the Charlie Hebdo journalists, all of whom would be in prison in their countries.

Slaughtering innocents, especially children, is certainly barbaric, but the assault on the writers and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo was a blow against what I believe to be the most important of our rights, that of free expression.  If one cannot say what one pleases, short of creating an immediate physical danger, all other political freedoms become meaningless.  Limiting free speech because someone, be it an individual or an entire group of people, may be offended is tantamount to eliminating free speech.  Freedom of expression comes with a sometimes onerous responsibility: tolerating the offensive or inane speech of others.  “Hate” speech and certainly stupid speech are unfortunately facets of free speech.

Islamic extremism, at least when it targets what it considers offensive expression, might be considered a sort of political correctness gone wild.  Instead of facing censure or job loss because of criticism of some group, you now face death threats and violence.  There are well meaning-people who believe that if we do not insult these individuals by criticizing or lampooning their bizarre and brutal interpretation of Islam, they will not be moved to such barbarous behavior, a ludicrous idea.  And there are far less well-meaning people (see for example the official Turkish press), who suggest this sort of violence is happening because of excessive free speech, implying that the victims at Charlie Hebdo deserved what they got.  Well, all governments (and university administrations) are uncomfortable to some degree with real free speech, and it is a never ending struggle to secure our right to say what we will.

Free speech aside, these jihadi scum are reminiscent of a violent group that has actually contributed a common noun to the English language – the Thuggees or Thugs.  The Thugs were a criminal/religious association plaguing India since at least the fourteenth century, until they were virtually eliminated by the British in the nineteenth.  The Thugs originally traced their roots back to seven Muslim tribes, but their theology was Hindu during their reign of terror.  They were essentially a criminal underclass, specializing in strangling and robbing travelers, but they believed themselves (Muslims notwithstanding) to be the children of the violent goddess Kali, consort of Shiva, thus providing a kind of religious justification for their murderous activities.  The Thugs were at root thieves, but they inevitably murdered their victims, making them something more than just another robber band.  Estimates vary wildly, but the Thugs may have killed as many as two million people during their centuries of terror.

Kali, unofficial deity of Isis

Kali, unofficial deity of Isis

Thugs

Thugs

And what to do about the wave of Muslim fanaticism that is rolling around the planet?  I wish I knew.  These deluded jihadists are like the Terminator: they can’t be reasoned with, they can’t be bought off and they can’t be intimidated.  The British were able to turn many Thugs by sparing them the death penalty, but how can one do this with someone who believes that getting blown up is a good thing?

Killing them is the only immediate answer, but without an effective army actually engaging ISIS in Syria and Iraq this will be a long and difficult process.  Cutting off the supply of new recruits means improving living conditions, including education, for young Muslim men, a tough enough challenge in Europe, especially France, where there is a rising tide of Islamaphobia, and perhaps impossible in the Middle East.  Of course, droning innocents in Pakistan and Yemen is not helping the cause, although the ISIS fanatics would likely still be trying to build their caliphate even if the West had no history of colonialism in the Middle East and no war on terror.

Perhaps western leaders need to begin thinking outside the box.  Declare that Syria is a province of the Israeli empire and let them take care of the situation.  Or make it clear to the jihadists that if captured they will be put in stocks and pelted with pork and forced to listen to historians and theologians explaining Islam to them.  Or send in attorneys and administrators to help ISIS construct a true bureaucratic state, in the wake of which they will be unable to get anything done.  Just saying. enhanced-30843-1420643123-9[1]enhanced-15505-1420644639-7[1]

A World War I Christmas from the Winter War

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

 

For those of you who might be into such things: this is a Model 1910 Maxim heavy machine gun used by the Russian Imperial Army and subsequently by the Red Army until it was replaced in 1943.  The gun is water cooled (hence the metal tube surrounding the barrel), takes the 7.62x54mmR rifle cartridge used in the Imperial/Soviet Mosin-Nagant service rifle and is affixed to a wheeled Sokolov mount.  The weapon generally also has a shield mounted between the barrel and the receiver, but I have been unable to get the damned thing on.  This example was probably manufactured in the twenties or thirties and was captured by the Finns during either the Winter War (1939-1940) or the Continuation War (1941-1944).  The Continuation War was of course the Finnish participation in the German invasion of the USSR in 1941; the Winter War is more obscure.

In 1939 the Soviets demanded territory from Finland, most importantly, the Karelian Peninsula and the eastern part of South Karelia, which they felt threatened Leningrad.  The Finns, who would lose their border defenses and a substantial chunk of their economy, refused, and in November 1939 the Red Army invaded, expecting an easy victory.  That was not to be.  The Red Army had been devastated by Stalin’s purge of the officer corps, and the Finns knew the terrain and fighting conditions.  I suspect the origins of the Olympic Biathelon are found in the  winter War: ski through the woods, shoot a Russian, ski through the woods, shoot another Russian.  The Soviets suffered huge casualties (convincing Hitler the Red Army was weaker than it actually was), but in the end overwhelmed the Finns with their superior manpower and got what they had demanded.  The costly resistance of Finland probably contributed to Stalin’s decision not to attempt to incorporate the country into the USSR after the defeat of Germany.

The Finns captured large amounts of Soviet equipment, including the Maxim pictured above, and thus this weapon has traveled from the snows of Karelia to the sands of New Mexico.

Finns with a captured Soviet Maxim

Finns with a captured Soviet Maxim

Stuff from Way Back #33: Roma, We Have a Problem

(This essay on the Anarchy follows Stuff from Way Back #32b: When Is a Republic Not a Republic?  These pieces have become much longer than I intended, and after the last in the series I will endeavor to leave these long lectures behind, not an easy task for me.)

 

The Anarchy, from 235 to 285, is the great watershed of the Roman Empire.  It separates the Principate from the Dominate, from an autocracy in which the Emperor was in theory a partner of the Senate and exercising the authority of the people to one in which the Emperor was a blatant oriental despot.  It separates a stable and reasonably prosperous Empire from one which had only moments of stability under a strong man and a rapidly declining economy of strangulating taxation.  It sees the replacement of the disciplined and loyal heavy infantry, whose weapons and tactics dated back to the fourth century BC, with a poorly trained rabble of light infantry and a revival of cavalry.  It ushered in a new Christian Roman Empire.

The aptly named Anarchy was essentially a fifty year long civil war, so chaotic that there is not complete agreement on who might be considered actual emperors.  I believe twenty-seven men (three in the separatist Gallo-Roman Empire) held the imperial purple long enough to be considered legitimate rulers, and of those thirteen were elevated by their own soldiers.  Two of them committed suicide, one was captured by the Persians, one died of plague, four were killed in battle and seventeen were assassinated, mostly by their soldiers or officers; only two died a natural death.  Barbarian incursions into the heart of the Empire would become commonplace, and at one point it would actually break into three separate states.  The astounding thing is that the Empire did not collapse completely.

C. Julius Verus Maximinus Thrax, who had become Emperor with the assassination of the last Severan in 235, spent two years dong useful work on the Rhine and Danube, quelling revolts and carrying on a war against the Senatorial class. In 238 M. Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus, proconsul in Africa, and his like-named son were accepted by the Senate as Emperors, but without serious military support they lasted only twenty-two days.  The Senate then chose two of its members, D. Caelius Calvinus Balbinus and M. Clodius Pupienus Maximus, as co-rulers.  Maximinus had already come south to deal with the Gordians, but while unsuccessfully besieging Aquileia he was murdered by his disgruntled troops.  Shortly thereafter the Praetorians, unhappy with the Senatorial candidates, killed Balbinus and Pupienus and proclaimed M. Antonius Gordianus, grandson of the first Gordian, Emperor.

Gordian III

Gordian III

Gordian III managed to keep the job for six years, engaged in continuous warfare in the north, followed in 243 with a war against the Persians, who had begun overrunning Roman territory during the reign of Maximinus.  The campaign was successful, but Gordian’s Praetorian Prefect, who had been the real ruler of the Empire since his appointment in 241, died during the winter, and in early 244 his replacement, M. Julius Philippus Arabus, incited the troops to murder Gordian and name him Emperor.  Philip, who named his son of the same name co-Emperor in 248, was actually a responsible ruler, restoring relations with the Senate and attempting to bring stability to the Empire.  But the job required someone of Herculean energy and talent to deal with the continuous barbarian pressures in the north, the sinking economy and the ever rebellious troops, who elevated at least three pretenders during Philip’s administration.

In 248 C. Messius Quintus Decius Traianus was able to restore order among the mutinous troops on the Danube and expel the barbarian invaders, but the soldiers decided to invest Decius with the purple despite his apparently sincere protests.  Decius attempted to remain loyal to Philip, but the latter did not trust him, and in 249 both Philip’s fell in battle and Decius became Emperor.  He lasted all of two years, betrayed in battle against the Goths in 251 by his lieutenant C. Vibius Trebonianus Gallus, who became Emperor along with his son C. Vibius Afinius Gallus Veldumnianus Volusianus.  They also lasted two years, defeated in battle in 253 by M. Aemilius Aemilianus, who was chosen by his troops after a victory against the now ever present Goths.  Three months later Aemilius was murdered by his own soldiers at the approach of P. Licinius Valerianus, who had been summoned by Gallus and proclaimed Emperor by his troops upon Gallus’ death.  In eighteen years Rome had enjoyed no less than a dozen rulers.

Valerian and King Shapur

Valerian and King Shapur

Valerian

Valerian

Gallienus

Gallienus

Valerian made his son P. Licinius Egantius Gallienus co-Emperor, and they immediately got about the job of restoring the frontiers.  Gallienus went to Gaul where the Franks had broken through and raided through Spain to Mauretania, and he defeated a group of Alamanni in northern Italy in 258.  He then moved to the Danube to crush a couple of usurpers, and returned to Gaul, where in 259 M. Cassianus Latinius Postumus had won the support of the legions in Germany, Spain and Britain.  Meanwhile, Valerian battled sundry barbarians around the Black Sea and Asia Minor, and with his army weakened by disease he attempted negotiations with the Persian king, Sapor, who had been pressing Syria.  The treacherous Sapor captured him, and a Roman emperor died in Persian captivity in 260.

Now it gets complicated.  Gallienus was busy in the west fighting Postumus, Sapor was again threatening Syria and one of Valerian’s generals named his two sons emperors of the east.  One was killed in battle by Gallienus’ troops and the other was executed; a third pretender was killed by his troops in 261.  Tied up in the west, Gallienus relied on the self-proclaimed king of the wealthy caravan city of Palmyra, Septimius Odenath, who in 262 defeated the Persians, only to be assassinated in 266/7.  His wife, Zenobia, took power, and with Gallienus too weak to oppose her she became ruler of all the eastern territories except Egypt and Asia Minor.

Zenobia

Zenobia

Palmyra

Palmyra

Meanwhile, in the west Postumus had solidified his position, but in 268 he was killed by his troops and M. Piavonius Victorinus became the ruler of Britain, Gaul and Spain.  Gallienus could do nothing about this and instead spent his time fighting off waves of Goths invading the Empire until the revolt of one of his generals called him back to Italy.  There in 268 he fell to a conspiracy of Illyrian officers, who resented his Hadrian-like Hellenizing and wanted an Emperor from Illyria, which had become the premier recruiting ground of the Empire and would produce numerous soldier-Emperors.

The Roman Empire had entered its most serious crisis.  It was exhausted, constantly overrun by barbarians and now divided into three parts.  But a string of three short-lived but capable Illyrian Emperors was able to put the imperial Humpty Dumpty back together again.  The conspirators chose M. Aurelius Claudius, who had risen from the ranks, and he promptly crushed an army of Alammani that had invaded Italy.  The Gallo-Roman Empire was meanwhile disintegrating, and Victorinus was killed in 270 and succeeded by C. Pius Esuvius Tetricus, who now controlled Britain and most of Gaul.  Claudius ignored him to deal with an invasion of the Aegean by some 300,000 Goths, whom he utterly crushed, earning the cognomen Gothicus, but while on his way back west to counter an incursion of Juthungi and Vandals in 270, he died of plague.  The Senate elevated Claudius’ brother, M. Aurelius Claudius Quintillus, but the troops chose his senior commander, L. Domitius Aurelianus, who had just finished off the Gothic War, and Quintillus committed suicide.

Aurelian was immediately confronted with an invasion of Vandals, which was quickly dealt with, but a coalition of Juthungi, Alammani and Marcomanni penetrated into Italy.  Fortunately for Rome, they split up to plunder and were defeated piecemeal by Aurelian, who also cleaned up a major disturbance in Rome itself.  With the Danube frontier now so porous he decided it was time to replace the old Servian wall, which had been built to protect Rome almost a half millennium earlier.  The Aurelian wall is still standing in Rome today.

Claudius Gothicus

Claudius Gothicus

Aurelian Wall

Aurelian Wall

Aurelian

Aurelian

It was also time to deal with Zenobia, who had added Egypt and eastern Asia Minor to her domains.  By 273 Palmyra was destroyed, Zenobia captured and the eastern provinces restored to Rome, and Aurelian then easily ended the Gallo-Roman Empire, where Tetricus had lost support because of the constant ravaging of Germans across the Rhine.  He spent most of 274 in Rome, reforming the currency and establishing the worship of Sol Invictus (the “unconquered sun”) as a new imperial cult, and decided to abandon Goth-decimated Dacia, which would otherwise have had to be reconquered.  In 275 he was on his way to the east to recover Mesopotamia, when as a result of an incredibly senseless and silly plot by a disgruntled secretary, he was murdered.

Aurelian was perhaps the greatest of the Anarchy Emperors, the Restitutor Orbis (Restorer of the World), and had he not been assassinated, he might well have anticipated Diocletian in returning the Empire to a measure of stability.  Instead, the Anarchy would go on for another decade.

The Aurelian troops in Rome were reluctant to name a successor lest they be associated with the conspirators, and with trouble looming on the Danube frontier the Senate named the seventy-five year old M. Claudius Tacitus, who was murdered in 276.  His half-brother, M. Annius Florianus, promptly named himself Emperor, but several weeks later he was killed by his troops when confronting the army of one of Aurelian’s officers, M. Aurelius Probus, another Illyrian.  Probus immediately attended to an invasion of Gaul by the Franks, Burgundians and others, and then in 278 repelled a Vandal descent into Illyria.  He spent the next two years dealing with disturbances in the east, suppressed a rebellious general on the Rhine and returned to Rome in 281.  In 282 he set out north to mobilize legions for an invasion of Persia, but when news arrived that M. Aurelius Carus was proclaimed Emperor by his troops, Probus’ own men, unhappy with the hard work and discipline, murdered him.  Another excellent ruler had been struck down.

Probus

Probus

Carus made his sons, M. Aurelius Carinus and M. Aurelius Numerianus his co-rulers, and leaving Carinus to look after the west, he continued with Probus’ plans and easily occupied Mesopotamia.  There in 283 he was killed, probably by unknown conspirators, and the unwarlike Numerianus decided to return to Europe.  He was murdered on the way by his father-in-law, but the enraged troops, who did not trust Carinus, elevated another Illyrian soldier of humble birth, and in November 284 C. Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus became Emperor.  In the following year he met Carinus, who had come east with an army, and might well have lost the battle had Carinus not been assassinated by a tribune whose wife he had seduced.  Diocletian was now sole Emperor, and the Anarchy had come to an end.

Diocletian

Diocletian

But so had the Principate.  The loyal, disciplined army, the relatively quiet frontiers and the prosperity of the first two centuries of the Empire were forever gone, and while Diocletian would restore a measure of stability, it would be a stability of repression, a political sine wave in which each effective soldier-Emperor was followed by a period of civil war that would produce the next.

The nature of the Roman military was profoundly affected by the Anarchy.   The weaponry, tactics and levels of discipline and training that had remained virtually constant since the adoption of the short sword and manipular legion in the fourth century BC were all swept away.  By the end of the Anarchy the “legions” were for the most part light infantry formations, short on body armor and equipped with spears, missile weapons and the spatha or long sword.  They no longer had the expertise and discipline to practice the combat engineering and complex formations and tactics that characterized the traditional army.

Further, the unending scramble for troops, which led to the breakdown in training and discipline by the pandering of ambitious generals and desperate Emperors, also resulted in a change in recruiting patterns.  The Principate had found its new soldiers primarily in the legionary camps and urban areas, where romanitas (Roman culture) was strongest, producing legionaries who already had some feeling of loyalty to the Empire.  During the Anarchy recruiting moved to the far less Romanized rural areas, producing a peasant army whose loyalty was to their commander, if even that.  This was aggravated by the spreading policy of employing barbarians as allies and settling entire tribes in depopulated frontier areas.  The Empire was becoming barbarized.

The infantry also began rapidly surrendering center stage to new cavalry units, as the conditions of the Anarchy forced Rome to remedy her traditional weakness in horse.  The excellent cavalry of the new Persian Empire played a role in this development, but far more important was the need for a strong mobile force that could be rushed to deal with competitors and invasions.  Gallienus created the first major cavalry corps, and by the time of Diocletian these cavalry units were the only truly trained and skilled formations in the Roman military.  A measure of their importance can be seen in the large number of cavalry commanders who became Emperor during the Anarchy and Dominate.

The grand strategy of the Empire had also changed.  The Principate’s policy of forward defense could not survive the new burdens placed upon the military in the middle of the third century: the internal struggles, the aggressive Persian Empire and the Germans, who were finally learning how to form larger and more threatening coalitions.  Rome had little choice but to adopt an elastic defense, in which static, poor quality frontier units dealt with minor threats, but major invading forces were met well inside the Empire by the more mobile central and regional reserves.  Damage to the provincial populations and infrastructure was thus traded for the time needed to concentrate the forces that would guarantee ultimate Roman victory.

The Senatorial class, which had originally governed the empire as an unequal partner of the Emperor, was already being excluded from military command under the Severans, and Gallienus’ reforms, which freed the legions from the control of the provincial governors, completed the exclusion of the onetime ruling class from the now all-important military and thus the stewardship of the empire.  Its place was taken by a new elite, which emerged from the ranks of the army to govern the Roman world with a talent, flexibility and boldness the old ruling families seemed no longer to have.  Mostly of humble origins and untutored, the new military aristocracy enthusiastically embraced classical learning as a sign of having arrived and consequently contributed to the historically critical revival of classical culture in the late third and fourth centuries.

Of course, the inhabitants of the Empire had little idea of the great changes taking place or that they were in fact enjoying a specific period called the Anarchy.  What they did understand was that life in the Roman Empire stank, and when Philip celebrated the thousand year anniversary of Rome in 247, many might have thought: Who the hell cares?

Philip

Philip

 

235–285 Anarchy

                        235-238 C. Julius Verus Maximinus Thrax

                                     237-243 Persian war

238         M. Antonius Gordianus Sempronius I

                                       M. Antonius Gordianus Sempronius II                        

                                       D. Caelius Calvinus Balbinus

                                       M. Clodius Pupienus Maximus 

                        238-244 M. Antonius Gordianus III 

                        244-249 M. Julius Philippus Arabus 

                        248-249 M. Julius Philippus 

                        249-251 C. Messius Quintus Decius Traianus

251-253 C. Vibius Trebonius Gallus

                                       C. Vibius Afinius Gallus Veldumnianus Volusianus

250s Invasions of Goths, Samartae, etc. in east; Marcommani, Alammani, Franks in west

253        M. Aemilius Aemilianus 

                        253-260 P. Licinius Valerianus  

253-268 P. Licinius Gallienus 

                                    257-262 Persian war 

259-268 M. Cassianius Latinius Postumus (Gallo-Roman Empire)

259-273 Gallo-Roman Empire

267-273 Kingdom of Palmyra (267-272 Zenobia) 

                         268-270 M. Aurelius Claudius Gothicus

                                         M. Piavonius Victorinus (Gallo-Roman Empire)

268-269 Gothic war 

270        M. Aurelius Claudius Quintillus     

270-273 C. Pius Esuvius Tetricus (Gallo-Roman Empire) 

270-275 L. Domitius Aurelianus 

                                     274 Dacia abandoned 

275-276 M. Claudius Tacitus 

276         M. Annius Florianus 

276-282 M. Aurelius Probus 

276-277 Invasions into Gaul 

282-283 M. Aurelius Carus 

283-284 M. Aurelius Numerianus 

283-285 M. Aurelius Carinus 

284-305 C. Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (retired)

 

(Enhanced) Interrogations ‘R’ Us

Extremely rare are the times when I applaud the action of the US Congress, but I do so now with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the abuses and crimes committed by the Central Intelligence Agency in the forever war on terror.  The five year investigation has revealed repeated acts of what any normal person would label torture and the deliberate misleading of Congress and even the White House about what the CIA was actually doing.  The charges are all based on documentation, and the Committee did not interview spooks because the Justice Department was carrying on its own investigation – and what would be the point anyway?

One should of course suspect the motives of any politician, but Senator Dianne Feinstein’s outrage seems genuine; she is after all a hawkish Democrat who supports the drone program.  And who could gainsay Senator John McCain?  He is a Republican, an extreme hawk and most important, the only member of Congress who has actually been tortured.  One might think his opinions on the subject of torture would carry some serious weight.

liberal patriot

liberal patriot

conservative patriot

conservative patriot

But no.  The Republican heavyweights are condemning the report as politically motivated and a danger to American lives, and inasmuch as it is difficult to deny the CIA actually did these things, they maintain that none of it was torture and that it was perfectly legal and necessary to gain information to protect America.  Former President Bush, during whose administration this crap went down, seems unaware that anything wrong was done, but it appears that he and Colin Powell were not even informed of the program for several years.  Of course Dick Cheney, the puppet master of the Bush administration, knew and has dismissed the Senate report as “hooey.”  Inasmuch as he is one of the few people in the universe who believes the invasion of Iraq was a good thing, I cannot understand why anyone would solicit his opinion.

As expected, the CIA has denied any wrongdoing, emphasizing that it was all sanctioned by Congress and the White House, including the Attorney General – “We were just following orders.”  Apart from the suspicion that Attorneys General always provide cover for their Presidents, it is clear that the President and Congress did not know the extent of the CIA’s actions.  And why would anyone assign any credibility to the CIA?  Not only are they an intelligence agency, engaged in deception and secrecy, but the CIA also has a long, long history of exceeding its mandate and lying to the government.   Feinstein claims the agency spent $40 million to prevent the release of this report; a former spokesman for the CIA (there is a veritable blitzkrieg of former spooks on the news) says the money was used for a “secure facility” to house the documents the Committee wanted.  Now, which of these explanations is more believable?

The Republicans, the CIA and the Pentagon are all saying this is the wrong time to release this report because it will endanger American lives around the world (implying that there is a good time and thus that what the report says is true), which is absolute nonsense.  American lives are already threatened everywhere.  Is there anyone hostile to the US who did not already believe we were torturing people?  Do ISIS and their friends need an excuse?  They claim this will improve ISIS recruitment.  Is there any potential jihadist who would refuse to believe we were doing this without being presented with proof?  They claim this is a bad time because we are at war around the planet.  When will we not be at war?  The Republicans claim the release of the report is politically motivated.  Then why was it not released before the last election?  Further, once the Republicans take control of the Intelligence Committee next year nothing like this report will ever see the light of day.   The Republican Party stakes a claim to being the defender of American values yet constantly demonstrates a willingness to violate those values.

traitor

traitor

traitor

traitor

Hardly able to deny what the CIA was actually doing, its defenders simply assert that it was not torture but only “enhanced interrogation” of “enemy combatants,” essentially arguing that if we call it something else, it is something else.  If what the report describes is not torture, it is hard to see what is.  The Gestapo hung shackled prisoners from the ceiling; was that “enhanced interrogation”?  Stalin’s NKVD employed sleep deprivation, assembly line interrogation, cramped cells and beatings; was that “enhanced interrogation”?  If this was not torture, then why did the agency go to such lengths to do it outside the US?

The CIA now asserts that whatever you call them, these interrogations produced valuable information in the war against terror (saving American lives again!).  Not only does the evidence not support that contention, but the whole history of torture argues otherwise.  The traditional non-coercive interrogation methods of the FBI and military have a proven record of results, while torture manifestly does not.  I have never been tortured, but it sure seems that the average individual will tell you whatever you want in order to stop the pain.  Stalin arrested millions of people, virtually all of them innocent of any crimes, yet the vast majority ended up signing confessions and in some cases performing in the show trials of the 1930s.  Torture does not produce information; it produces cooperation.

enhanced interrogator

enhanced interrogator

enhanced interrogator

enhanced interrogator

And suppose the torture did lead to any information.  Is that a valid reason for violating our basic values, of becoming like the Nazis or the Soviets or ISIS?  Once again, the people who trumpet the loudest about freedom not being free and how many men died for our way of life always seem to be the most willing to surrender those freedoms and values in the interest of security.  If we (rightly) celebrate those willing to give their lives in defense of our values, how can we justify violating them on the grounds that it might save lives.  If we are so concerned with saving Americans, why do we not negotiate with terrorists, as Europe and even Israel do?  If conservatives and others are so damned concerned about American lives, why do they not attend to gun control or drunk driving?  The hypocrisy is awe inspiring.

Torture is not only wrong and ineffective, it is illegal, whatever sundry Attorneys General have said.  It is cruel and unusual punishment, and the prohibition applies to non-citizens and “enemy combatants,” who are actually POWs in a new kind of war.  Doing it in Cuba or Poland makes no difference – agents of the US government are still torturing people.  We are also bound, at least in theory, to international law, many of whose conventions we have authored and pledged to uphold, and every one of those instruments prohibits torture under any circumstances.  Unfortunately, America’s regard for international law now goes only so far as our national interests, undermining one of our strongest assets, our long tradition of being the good guys, or at least the better guys.  Another bit of American exceptionalism down the drain of Realpolitik and stupidity.

Ultimately Congress and the White House are to blame for this disgusting episode, allowing the CIA (and NSA and god knows who else) to do pretty much whatever it pleased, including spying on and lying to them.  The Republicans are now actually defending this, and the ever mysterious Obama backed off from any serious investigation and appointed as director of the agency a career CIA official, who is now defending the organization.  What goes on in the minds of these people?

Who is this guy?

Who is this guy?

Nothing will change, except possibly a few unimportant cosmetic touches (we no longer bug Chancellor Merkel’s private telephone).  It has all happened before.  We are already being told that no one will be charged with any crimes, which is hardly a surprise; we already know from the blatant lies of James Clapper, the current Director of National Intelligence, that contempt of Congress does not apply to some people.  One can only hope that the UN and various European countries will take legal action against these traitors and at least deprive them of free foreign travel, but of course America will go into bully mode to prevent this.  What the hell happened to my mother country?

Green Eggs and Cicero

I was of course surprised to discover that US Senator Ted Cruz was a cum laude graduate of Princeton University; he must have missed the class on rational thought.  Remember, this is the man who read all of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham during a filibuster.  In any case, in a recent speech he balanced this, I suppose, by paraphrasing an oration of M. Tullius Cicero, the In Catilinam (Against Catiline), delivered before the Roman Senate in 63 BC.  Cruz quotes the opening passage (I.1-3) of the first of the four Catiline speeches, adding and removing words in order to modify the oration into an attack on President Obama, whom he believes is threatening the American Senate and the Constitution.

T. Tullius Cruz

T. Tullius Cruz

M. Tullius Cicero

M. Tullius Cicero

L. Sergius Catilina (c.108-63 BC) was a familiar denizen of the Late Republic, politically ambitious and an increasingly desperate extremist.  The almost five hundred year old Roman Republic was in its death throes, and little more than three decades after Catiline it would finally give way to the Principate, the military autocracy established by Octavian/Augustus (see Stuff from Way Back #26: Image Is Everything).  These are the final days of the Roman Revolution, which had begun in 133 BC with the attempted reforms of Senator T. Sempronius Gracchus, who understood that in the wake of the Hannibalic War (218-201 BC) and the rapid expansion into the wealthy Greek east Italy had undergone massive demographic change that required reform.  Unfortunately, the Senate had become corrupted and resisted any challenge to their authority, even the relatively minor changes proposed by Gracchus.

The result was the Revolution.  Gracchus resorted to more revolutionary – perfectly legal but unprecedented – tactics by appealing directly to the citizen assemblies, which had generally been content to ratify anything the Senate recommended.  His success drove the Senate to more radical resistance, and Gracchus and his supporters ended up dead in a “riot.”  But they had demonstrated it was possible to challenge the Senate, and as the struggle continued, reform was forgotten as politically ambitious individuals entered the fray on both sides for their own reasons.  Within a half century violence had become endemic in the political arena and was finally formalized by the entrance of the legions, and Rome experienced her first civil war in 83-82 BC, resulting in the effective dictatorship of L. Cornelius Sulla.

Sulla actually retired after destroying the opposition and strengthening the position of the Senate, but he himself was the perfect role model for new men seeking power.  Seemingly restored, the Republic was already dead, and the second half of the revolution, though still witnessing political battles centered in the Senate, was essentially a contest among incredibly powerful men and ultimately their armies.  In the 60s BC those men were Cn. Pompeius Magnus, riding an inflated military reputation, and M. Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome and political patron of the up and coming C. Julius Caesar.  In 60 BC the three would form a coalition to dominate the state, the First Triumvirate, which would lead to a civil war between Pompey and Caesar in 49-46 BC.

Catiline was one of the minor losers in this environment.  In 63 BC he failed in his second bid for the consulship (the two annually elected consuls were the highest state officials, able to command troops), and seriously in debt and apparently abandoned by Crassus, he was now desperate enough to form a conspiracy to seize control of Rome.  While his associates in the city created chaos and murdered prominent leaders, including Cicero, he would raise a populist revolt in Italy and march on Rome.  This plan was doomed from the start, since even had he succeeded, the inevitable result would be the return of Pompey from the east with his army to restore order, something Crassus and Caesar certainly did not want to see.

L. Sergius Catilina

L. Sergius Catilina

As it happened, the conspiracy was discovered, and Cicero, one of the two consuls, persuaded the Senate to pass the consultum ultimum (“last decree”), a controversial mechanism that in effect declared a state of emergency and directed the consuls to take extraordinary measures to protect the Republic.  Catiline fled to muster his insurgents in Etruria, while his co-conspirators in Rome were arrested, which led to a hot debate in the Senate regarding their fate.  For his own political reasons Caesar argued that as Roman citizens they could not be put to death without a trial, a constitutional point that swayed the Senate, but up popped M. Porcius Cato Uticensis (the Younger), a man so conservative that even most Romans considered him off the deep end.  (The Cato Institute is well named.)  He argued that the conspirators, who were obviously guilty, were no longer citizens because they had plotted against the government and the Senate had to take bold action to nip any insurrection in the bud.  The Senate was persuaded, and the prisoners were executed.

Cato the Younger

Cato the Younger

Cicero before the Senate

Cicero before the Senate

Cato was of course wrong.  Catiline by now had taken up arms against the state and could be legally killed, but the others had taken no action.  In following the advice of the Senate, which he was not bound to do, Cicero had grossly violated basic laws of the Republic.  The news of the executions, however, caused Catiline’s troops to begin melting away, and he was easily defeated by the other consul, C. Antonius Hybrida.  Catiline fought to the death.

Thus, Cruz takes the role of Cicero, defending the Republic, that is, the Congress and Constitution, from Obama, an American Catiline who is threatening the state, not with an army and murder but with executive action.  Paraphrasing a speech of Cicero, the great orator and defender of the Republic, is clever on Cruz’ part, but the analogy is stretched past the breaking point.  Granted Catiline was a populist, seeking to capitalize on popular dissatisfaction with inept Senatorial rule, but he intended to assassinate members of the Senate and seize Rome by military force, hardly in the same league with an executive action.  Cruz argues that the action would be unconstitutional because Obama would be creating law, yet George W. Bush did the same thing, tinkering with the existing situation, just as Obama claims to be doing.

And it must be remembered that the Republic that Cicero was defending in 63 BC was already dead, and the Senate had become a corrupt body, filled with toadies belonging to Pompey and Crassus.  Perhaps here the analogy is correct, since Cruz is defending a Senate filled with members beholden to corporate financiers.  Further, in the interests of expediency this Senate was willing to violate a basic constitutional right (though the Republic had no written constitution) of Roman citizens in the interests of national security, something of course that resonates with the entire American government.

Though an incredibly vain man, Cicero was eloquent, extremely intelligent and a patriot who preferred to die with the Republic rather than flee.  Ted Cruz is a joke, a man of little dignity.  It is impossible to imagine Cicero tying up the Roman Senate with an extended reading of Viridia ova atque perna.

viridia ova atque perna

viridia ova atque perna

Stufff from Way Back #32b: When Is a Republic Not a Republic?

The Flavian dynasty came to an end with Domitian’s death, but circumstances conspired to prevent a repeat of 68. The Senatorial conspirators had their own candidate ready, a respected sixty-year old Senator, M. Cocceius Nerva, who was far more careful than Galba.  He had the actual murderers of Domitian executed and adopted as his heir the popular general M. Ulpius Trajanus, whom he made co-ruler.  So well trained was the military by the Flavians that these measures were enough to secure their acquiescence to the assassination of Domitian.  Nerva, who died in 98, was in some ways the Gerald Ford of the Principate, keeping the imperial seat warm for a military leader acceptable to the legions.  His important achievement was preventing another civil war and inaugurating a period of excellent government, the apogee of the Empire, the age of the Five Good Emperors, of whom Nerva was the first.

Nerva

Nerva

Trajan was the great warrior Princeps, violating the dictum of Augustus and dramatically extending the Empire. The Dacian Wars made strategic sense, eliminating the centuries old Dacian kingdom, which under Decebalus had been engaged in constant raiding across the Danube.  The two Dacian provinces he created (the heart of present-day Romania) were rich in gold and fairly easily defended in normal times; they were abandoned during the Anarchy.

Suicide of Decebalus

Suicide of Decebalus

Trajan

Trajan

His attempt to find a final solution to the problem of the Parthian Empire, an irritant rather than a serious threat on Rome’s eastern frontier, is far less easy to defend. Their rich western territories, essentially Mesopotamia, were easily conquered, but the Parthians simply fled east to Iran.  By the time Trajan reached the head of the Persian Gulf, revolt was already erupting behind him.  The problem was not conquest; it was occupation.  The area already possessed a millennia old non-classical civilization that could not be easily assimilated, as were the Hellenized eastern provinces or the barbarian western.  This meant extensive internal occupation would be required, and the Roman military simply did not have the manpower to secure these new provinces.  Trajan died suddenly of a stroke in 117 and was subsequently remembered as the Optimus Princeps for his excellent administration and relations with the Senate and his stirring conquests.

It was reported that on his deathbed that the childless Trajan had adopted his nearest male relative, a second cousin, P. Aelius Hadrianus, and while this may be untrue, the army accepted it.  Trajan had cultivated good relations with the Senate, dispelling the ill will of the Flavian era, and Hadrian attempted to follow his example, actually requesting that the Senate approve his nomination as Princeps, which of course they had little choice but to do.  He returned to a defensive policy, wisely abandoning Trajan’s eastern conquests, a very bold and less than popular move for a Roman emperor.  He wanted to evacuate Dacia as well, but sensed that popular opinion would not tolerate this.  Otherwise, Hadrian was the great peripatetic Princeps, constantly touring the Empire to insure that the military, essentially a garrison force, maintained a high standard of efficiency.  And to see the sights – he was also the great tourist Princeps, especially taken by anything Greek, which may account for his wearing a beard, which became the fashion for subsequent emperors.

Hadrian

Hadrian

The one great tragedy of Hadrian’s reign was the Second Jewish Revolt, which could possibly have been prevented. Diaspora Jews were already causing serious trouble before Trajan’s death, and Hadrian, in a rare instance of inept policy, decided to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem as a purely gentile settlement with a temple of Jupiter where the Jewish temple had once stood.  The result was a revolt that took the Romans three years to crush and devastated Judea, killing several hundred thousand people, both Jews and non-Jews.

Hadrian died in 138, apparently from tuberculosis. His adopted heir was the Senator T. Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, who gained the cognomen Pius for convincing a Senate hostile to Hadrian to deify him.  To secure long term stability Hadrian also compelled Antoninus to adopt his own nephew, the seventeen year old M. Annius Verus, and curiously, also the seven year old L. Ceionius Commodus, whose father, also L. Ceionius Commodus, was his first choice, now dead.  Antoninus’ reign was essentially peaceful and his relations with the Senate excellent, and when he died in 161, he was succeeded by his well-trained nephew, known now as M. Aelius Aurelius Verus.

Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

Upon his succession Aelius took the name M. Aurelius Antoninus and made L. Ceionius his colleague under the name L. Verus Commodus. This was the first time the Empire had actual co-rulers, but fortunately for Rome the indolent Verus died in 169, leaving Aurelius sole Princeps.  In 177 his natural son, M. Commodus Antoninus, became co-emperor and obvious heir, a decision that would prove to be disastrous for the Empire.

It can be said that the decline of the Roman Empire began with the reign of Marcus Aurelius, perhaps ironically, given his character and dedication. He was the great Stoic emperor, in many ways the philosopher ruler that Plato had dreamed of.  Possessing a fine intellect, he was early on attracted to Stoic philosophy and almost certainly would have preferred to spend his life in conversation with his friends rather than shouldering the burden of rule.  But he was a citizen of the cosmopolis, the world polis, which Roman Stoics, with some justification, had identified with the Roman Empire.

Greek Stoicism had sought apathē, a state of emotional equilibrium in which the individual was disturbed by neither bad nor good developments.  This naturally inclined the Stoic to withdraw from the disturbances of the world, but the Roman character could not accept such rejection of duty, and Roman Stoics, prominent among the Senatorial elites, felt the need to serve.  And Aurelius was not just a citizen of the cosmopolis, but designated to become the First Citizen, a duty he could not refuse.

And that duty was onerous. In 161 the Parthians invaded Armenia and Syria, and after some setbacks – the eastern legions were never as tough as the northern – they were repulsed and Parthia was invaded.  By 166 the Parthians were defeated and their capital, Ctesiphon, destroyed, leaving them quiet for the next thirty years.  Unfortunately, the returning troops brought with them the “Antonine plague,” probably smallpox, which rapidly spread across the Empire, leaving entire districts depopulated, and it may have been the cause of Verus’ death in 169.

The removal of so many northern units for the Parthian War encouraged barbarian tribes north of the Danube, themselves under pressure from Germans in central Europe, to cross the river. The north central provinces were over run, and one group crossed the Alps and besieged Aquileia, the first time barbarians had entered Italy in almost three hundred years.  The barbarians cleared out, but the storm soon broke again, and one group, the Costoboci, penetrated as far as Athens.  Aurelius spent most of his remaining years on the Danube frontier fighting the Marcommani, Iazges and Quadi and was apparently on the verge of thoroughly pacifying the districts north of the river when he died in 180.

Marcus Aurelius is virtually unique among heads of state in western history in that we are able to peer into his very soul. He was accustomed to jot down his innermost thoughts, and these writings were preserved and published as the Meditations, apparently contrary to his intentions.  What we see is a man who was compelled to perform his duty to the Empire, but who did so with a kind of detachment, spending those long years fighting on the Danube frontier yet believing that in the end none of it really mattered.  Life was transient, fleeting, as he eloquently puts it: “Yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes.”  He was, in short, the noblest man to rule the Empire.

The imperial situation had been restored, but the Empire was still in dire straits, short of money and manpower from the plague and constant warfare. Had it not been for the attention paid to the military establishment by his predecessors and Aurelius’ diligence in dealing with the growing barbarian tide, the Empire might actually have begun collapsing.  Even a competent successor would have faced serious problems, and unfortunately Rome was left in the hands of a seriously incompetent ruler, Aurelius’ son, M. Commodus Antoninus, who had been made co-emperor in 177.

Why Aurelius allowed his unpromising son to succeed him is something of a mystery, and there is evidence that at his end he realized his mistake, too late. Commodus, who was with his father in the north, promptly made peace with tribes, undoing much of his father’s work, in order to return to the pleasures of Rome.  Commodus was corrupt, indolent and brutal and preferred to leave the government of the Empire at this critical time to a succession of favorites, who unlike Pallas and Narcissus under Claudius were far less interested in the state than their own power.  (One is perhaps reminded of the American Congress.)  Unsurprisingly, he did not get along with the Senate and executions abounded, while he indulged himself fighting as a gladiator in the arena, a slap in the face of Roman dignity.  By 191 he seems to have become completely deranged, playing the role of Hercules and renaming Rome Colonia Commodiana.  Meanwhile, the Senatorial class was decimated and the treasuries empty, despite the practice of selling state offices, and the Empire was surviving because of the diligence of his commanders.  His favorites saw the handwriting on the wall, and on the last day of 192 he was strangled, and his memory was damned.

Commodus

Commodus

Commodus’ assassination was followed by a replay of the Year of the Four Emperors, this time on a larger and more destructive scale. The conspirators selected a respected army commander, P. Helvius Pertinax, but although the Praetorians initially accepted him, they really did not trust him, especially when he paid only half the promised bribe.  He lasted three months before he was murdered, and the Guard, at a loss for a candidate, auctioned off the Empire to the highest bidder, a rich Senator named M. Didius Julianus.  This humiliating moment in the history of the Principate angered everyone, and Julianus’ days were numbered in any case.  Once news of the death of Pertinax had reached the headquarters of the Danubian army, the troops had proclaimed L. Septimius Severus emperor, and he was already marching on Rome.  Septimius promised the Praetorians their lives if they abandoned Julianus, and he was murdered on the first of June 193.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

Pertinax

Pertinax

Didius Julianus

Didius Julianus

 

Thus began the last dynasty of the Principate. Septimius disbanded the Praetorian Guard and created it anew, this time with veterans from outside Italy, and soon after he stationed a legion in Italy.  Meanwhile, a challenger, C. Perscennius Niger Justus, former general and present governor of Syria, was proclaimed emperor by his troops, and Septimius marched east and defeated him in 194.  Septimius then invaded Parthia, and though successful, he was soon called back west to face another challenger, D. Clodius Albinus.  Septimius had made Albinus, the governor of Britain, his “Caesar,” a sign that he was to be the successor, but in 195 or 196 he was proclaimed emperor by his forces, probably because he feared betrayal by Septimius.  He was defeated in 197, and Septimius returned to the east, where by 199 he had chased the Parthian king east and created a province of Mesopotamia.  He died in 212, fighting Caledonians in Britain.

Clodius Albinus

Clodius Albinus

Perscennius Niger

Perscennius Niger

According to his wish, Septimius’ sons, M. Aurelius Antoninus Caracallus and P. Septimius Geta, became co-rulers, but they already hated one another, and Caracalla had his younger brother murdered in 212. Caracalla, though cruel and cowardly and lacking in any charm, understood the importance of keeping the army happy, and while he had no particular military talents, he did useful work on the northern frontiers.  Pursuing his dream of becoming a second Alexander the Great, in 216 he invaded Parthia and occupied northern Mesopotamia without encountering any resistance.  In the spring of the following year, however, he was assassinated on the orders of his Praetorian Prefect, M. Opellius Macrinus, who himself feared that Caracalla was about to arrest him. Two days later Macrinus was proclaimed emperor by the army.

Geta

Geta

Caracalla

Caracalla

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foreshadowing the Anarchy, Macrinus was the first emperor who was not of the Senatorial order. He was initially not unpopular after the vindictive tyranny of Caracalla, but though without vices, he was also lacking in any talent, and he alienated his troops by buying peace from the Parthians and keeping his northern legions in Syria.  Meanwhile, the Severan family was not idle.  Caracalla’s aunt, Julia Maesa, had two grandsons, and she put it about that the elder, Bassianus, was the natural son of Caracalla, and this along with the now customary bribe caused the nearest legion to proclaim him emperor in 218.  Troops began deserting to Bassianus, and soon defeated, Macrinus and his son and co-emperor, Diadumenianus, were killed.  Thus began the reign of easily the most worthless man ever to rule the Emperor.

Macrinus

Macrinus

The fifteen year old Bassianus officially took the name M. Aurelius Antoninus, but as chief priest of an orgiastic Syrian deity, he had adopted the name of his god, Elagabalus. His obsession with this alien religion, shared by his mother Julia Soaemias, quickly led to disaster.  He made Elagabalus chief god of Rome, engaged in rites such as ritual prostitution and cross-dressing and even married one of the Vestal Virgins.  Depravity became the means of access to high office.  Everyone was disgusted, and fearing for her own position, his grandmother convinced Elagabalus in 221 to adopt her other grandson, the thirteen year old Alexanius, a youth of entirely different character.  In 222 Alexander’s mother Julia Mammaea bribed the already resentful Praetorians to murder Elagabalus and his mother, who were dragged through the streets and thrown in the Tiber.

Elagabalus

Elagabalus

Julia Maesa

Julia Maesa

M. Aurelius Severus Alexander became the last Princeps, if that term may still be applied. In effect the government was run by his grandmother and after her death his mother, and although their administration saw a return of respect for the Senate and some economic revival in the Empire, the soldiery grew impatient with the unwarlike Alexander. In 227 the Sassanid Persian dynasty put an end to the exhausted Parthian Empire and occupied the Roman province of Mesopotamia, and in 231 Alexander invaded the new Persian Empire, but failed to recover Mesopotamia. In 234 he responded to German incursions across the Rhine and Danube by concentrating an army near Mainz, but he first attempted to buy off the barbarians, perhaps influenced by his mother, who was present.  The disgusted northern legions murdered him and his mother in 235 and proclaimed C. Julius Verus Maximinus, a one-time Thracian peasant who had risen through the ranks, emperor.  The Anarchy had begun.

Maximinus

Maximinus

Alexander

Alexander

Politically, things had certainly changed. By 235 the Senate had become a virtually powerless institution, no longer proposing decrees and no longer having any control over the magistracies and governmental appointments.  Its only power was to grant or withhold deification of a dead emperor, and that was constrained by the whims of the new ruler.  Further, less and less did the Senate represent the old Roman noble families.  It was not simply new Italian families, such as the Flavians, but increasingly also provincial nobility, a process that went all the way back to Caesar.

This growing cosmopolitanism was also reflected in the Princeps and the Empire as a whole. Trajan and Hadrian were Spaniards and Septimius Severus from north Africa, as Roman as Caesar but without the pure bloodlines of the old families.  This “democratization” ultimately extended to even the lowest: in 212 Caracalla granted the Roman citizenship to virtually every free male in the Empire – the so-called Antonine Constitution.  Caracalla did this in order to increase revenues and the citizenship had become essentially politically meaningless, but it represents something virtually unique in the history of empire.  A man whose ancestors had painted themselves blue and fought the legions now had the same legal status as one who could trace his line back to the early Republic.  This enfranchisement of the Empire, together with Septimius’ stationing of a legion in Italy, paved the way for the ultimate evolution of Italy into just another set of provinces.

This “democratization” was also impacting the military. Traditionally, the officer class came from the Senatorial nobility, and the highest a ranker might rise to was chief centurion, the Roman equivalent of Sergeant-Major. This barrier was already crumbling as emperors made increasing use of the Equestrian class for commands and high posts (the lesser nobility, traditionally involved in business and lower administrative posts), further marginalizing the Senate.   Septimius dramatically increased the opportunities for rankers and especially their sons to gain Equestrian and even Senatorial status, thus opening the way for the highest offices, including Princeps, as Maximinus demonstrates.  The replacement of the traditional soldiers’ cult of the legionary standards with a sort of emperor worship is a sign of the increasingly intimate relationship between army and ruler.  In fact, veterans had become a favored class in the state, enjoying many special privileges; this is the “militarization” of the Empire.

Military pay had risen steadily and donatives by newly elevated emperors were now the common practice, but the army remained an efficient and disciplined force. Frontier fortifications were becoming more common – Hadrian built a wall from the Tyne to the Solway Firth and further north Antoninus constructed an earthen rampart and ditch from the Forth to the Clyde – but the legions remained a field army, ready to be moved to any critical spot, and a point defense remained the grand strategy of the Empire.  The provincial auxiliaries had become virtually identical to the legions, especially in the wake of the Antonine Constitution, and were very Romanized, but the practice of creating numeri, cheaper but thinly Romanized native and even barbarian units on the frontiers, was a growing threat to imperial stability.  Finally, Parthia and subsequently Persia was becoming an imperial obsession and drain on resources, as lower quality rulers sought to emulate Alexander the Great.

One might include the period after the assassination of Commodus in the Anarchy, but while the Severans are certainly a sort of Coming Attractions for the Anarchy, they are still substantially different from what will follow. They do present a relatively stable, if weak, dynasty lasting forty-two years (compared to the twenty-seven of the Flavians), and the military has not yet declined into an inefficient and completely undisciplined mass, supporting whomever will make their lives easier, Empire be damned.  The idea of a Princeps working in partnership with the Senate has of course atrophied into an all-powerful emperor, backed by the army, dealing with a virtually powerless institution.  But the idea is still there, if now completely at the whim of the autocrat.  It disappears completely during the Anarchy, and the emperor of the Late Empire is no longer a First Citizen but a Dominus or Lord, answering only to himself and soon enough, the Christian god.

 

96-180 The Five Good Emperors 

   96-98 Nerva 

   98-117 Trajan 

            101-102 First Dacian War

105-106 Second Dacian War

114-117 Parthian War

117-138 Hadrian 

            132-135 Second Jewish Revolt 

138-161 Antoninus Pius 

   161-180 Marcus Aurelius 

161-169 Lucius Verus 

            177-180 Commodus 

            161-166 Parthian War

167-175, 177-180 Danubian barbarian wars 

   180-192 Commodus 

193 Jan-March Pertinax 

193 March-June Didius Julianus 

193-235 Severans 

193-211 Septimius Severus 

            194 Defeat of Perscennius Niger

195, 197-199 Parthian war

197 Defeat of Clodius Albinus

211-217 Caracalla 

211-212 Geta 

            212 Antoninian Constitution

214 ParthianWar 

   (217-218 Macrinus [and Diadumenianus]) 

218-222 Elagabalus 

   222-235 Severus Alexander

             227 Sassanid Persians replace Parthians

230-233 Persian War

235 – 285 Anarchy

 285 – 5th Century   Dominate or Late Empire