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)

 

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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