In case you didn’t catch it from last week, Texan may be frozen stiff in the wake of #Snowpocalypse2021, but his last blog entry was fire.
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I gotta tell ya, I did not expect the D&F to have more genre switches than a season of WandaVision. We had a foundational episode, a military history documentary, an anthropology class, a C-SPAN customs hearing, a Star Wars prequel … and now it’s time for a gangster episode!
Just FYI, some of the exploits detailed within are so theatrical, I have to wonder if the ancient writers Gibbon cites were exaggerating a little bit for dramatic effect. Then again, we see plenty of (scripted and unscripted) nonsense from the public figures of our own time; so if the reader does choose to take everything at face value, he’ll have to suspend his disbelief less for this chapter than for Goodfellas.
The Biblically literate will also notice a few moments reminiscent of the contrasts between King David and his assorted ridiculous sons, and between Solomon and Rehoboam.
Chapter 4 Part 1
This chapter title got me expecting soap opera-level shenanigans: “The Cruelty, Follies, and Murder of Commodus.” And he probably doesn’t mean the Ziegfeld Follies.
We start by reviewing the excellencies of Marcus Aurelius’ character, marred only by the fact that he was too trusting and too generous (unless you were a Christian, lol) with his inescapable armies of flatterers, who pretended to be enraptured by his disquisitions on Stoic virtues while carefully refusing any special favors — which of course gained them all the imperial swag they wanted very quickly.
He was too busy thinking deep thoughts to notice that the flighty wife he’d plucked straight from Rome’s chapter of PNK had more side dudes than Marilyn Monroe. This oversight undermined his reputation a little bit. Of course, there’s always the chance that he did notice, but was in decades’ worth of denial about it because the alternative was too painful to contemplate.
Now for the subject of this chapter:
“It has been objected” (Gibbon doesn’t say by whom) “to Marcus … that he chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.” Interesting. So even at this point in the empire, it was by no means a given that the emperor’s son would be the next emperor. Handpicked successors chosen for their character and capability, rather than their bloodline, were still at least theoretically possible.
Commodus’ birth during his father’s reign was unprecedented in the history of the empire. The Romans called him porphyrogenitus — “born in the purple.” (Or “born with vampire disease” if you’re feeling punny.)
(By the way, I’m going ahead and including a chart of the first few hundred years’ worth of emperors here for reference, since we’ve been jumping around quite a bit in our narrative thus far.)
Poor Marcus. He hired all the best tutors, but Commodus just wanted to play video games and throw his royal weight around. The on-the-job training referenced in the previous chapter, intended to steady the prince’s mind by giving him real-world experience with his future responsibilities, only served to set Commodus on the road to power-madness sooner than necessary.
Gibbon points out that while human greed and national instability will drive the average person to cruelty, Commodus had no such motive to turn out evil, since he grew up in as luxurious and relatively safe an environment as could be wished. This may, in fact, have been his very undoing. Despite the security of his accession to the throne, he was still spoiling for a fight wherever he could get one.
Gibbon attributes this to nurture rather than nature, claiming that Commodus’ gradual descent into depravity was the result of “a weak rather than a wicked disposition.” There was bad soil there to begin with, but the attractiveness of evil influences and the comparative dullness of positive ones did nothing to ameliorate this state of affairs.
“The servile and profligate youths whom Marcus had banished, soon regained their station and influence about the new emperor.”
This unelected Brat Pack soon found powerful puppet-strings attached to Commodus’ laziness and used them to pull him firmly away from an ongoing war. No glorious Hadrianesque campaigns for this emperor — only an ill-advised treaty, followed by a preening triumphal entry into the city he’d never left, as if Commodus himself had vanquished all opponents with his own hand. The people excused him from any thought of noblesse oblige by reminding each other how young and hot he was.
Alas, an uninterrupted life of mindless luxury and ease in Rome was not to be his reward for avoiding the battlefield. Instead we get our first occurrence of Borgia-worthy drama. An assassin supposedly commissioned by the Senate tries to go all “The Lannisters send their regards,” but commits the classic blunder of calling his attack in a guarded area.
But GASP! It wasn’t the Senate at all! It was …
Commodus’ own sister Lucilla!
Naturally, the career of this would-be queenpin was swiftly cut short when she was revealed to be at the bottom of the affair.
While several senators were implicated in this abortive plot (with the notable exception of Lucilla’s own husband, Claudius Pompeiarus, whom she must have rightly recognized as too virtuous to want any part of it), the assassin’s claim to have been hired by the whole governing body was patently false. But Commodus wasn’t about to let facts get in the way of his narrative. Every honorable quality which a senator might exhibit, and which had previously recommended men of noble character for Senate seats, was now tacitly interpreted as a diss on Commodus for not possessing those qualities.
“Suspicion was equivalent to proof; trial to condemnation.”
The only way to be safe in a government office was to be, beyond a shadow of a doubt, utterly incompetent and corrupt — that is, to be exactly the sort of person that Marcus Aurelius wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole. The lure of monetary rewards had people reporting each other to the emperor’s unofficial Gestapo left and right. Authoritarian cancel culture was in full swing.
The success of his purge of the Senate apparently surprised even Commodus. According to the historian Dion, the Commode had charged his minister Perennis (who had himself achieved his station via Klingon Promotion) with most of the dirty work — a job which Perennis took full advantage of by appropriating the property of the supposed “traitors” for himself upon their execution. Unfortunately, this newfound wealth boost, plus his already great store of political power within Rome, brought Perennis a little too far into Commodus’ jealous notice for his own good.
His depredations were so notorious that even the troops in Britain heard about it. (Our good old Roman road relay system at work again.) Their planned march on the capital gave Commodus sufficient excuse to silence the two birds of his conscience and a disgruntled army with the single stone of Perennis’ tragic demise.
For the record, all three major editors call into question Dion’s reliability regarding the true nature of Perennis’ character and downfall in their footnotes on this section.
Remember how much Gibbon made of that impeccable Roman military discipline? Yeah, it’s gone. At least for now. Guys who were sick of fighting the emperor’s endless wars had quit sneaking off in the middle of the night and started openly riding the rails in their homemade “Army Deserter” t-shirts. One such soldier named Maternus (I’d make a “your mom” joke if I didn’t already suspect he had to hear one every day of his life) gathered enough of these undrafted free agents under his own banner to start gallivanting around western Europe in a way that presaged both Nat Turner and Robin Hood. Gibbon implies that local officials were perhaps getting a cut of his spoils, as they seemed none too keen to get in his way until Commodus himself got peeved that somebody was stealing his stuff.
When the tides of his fortune turned, Maternus was streetwise enough to have everyone split up and reassemble right under the emperor’s nose during one of ancient Rome’s many versions of Mardi Gras, this one called Magalesia. His aim: the throne.
Yep. Small-town raiding is no longer profitable, so why not go for broke and stage a coup? If you know you’re on the way out, you might as well go with a bang. He was well enough acquainted with Commodus’ love of leisure and perpetual prioritization of self-indulgence over vigilance that he had a fair shot … at least until he got Starscreamed by an unnamed “[envious] accomplice.” We hear no more about Your Mom after this, so I guess he just wasn’t Scarface material.
Remember the unfortunately-named Cleander? Whether or not his predecessor Perennis was ultimately a decent fellow, there seems to be no question that Cleander himself was not. Unlike Commodus, whom Gibbon grants a weak character, but paints as having turned to evil because of external influences, Cleander’s “stubborn, but servile temper” over which “blows only could prevail” is attributed entirely to his Phrygian ethnicity. Nice.
I’m getting the impression that Gibbon didn’t like the Turkish peoples very much.
This erstwhile slave who had successfully schemed his way to the top of society was, unhappily for the rest of the empire, perfectly suited to goad Commodus to ever-greater depravity. He was entirely corrupt himself, while having no redeeming qualities to make the emperor fear him as a possible future rival. Everyone who wanted to be anyone in Roman government soon learned that Cleander first required his cut. Without a substantial contribution, election results meant nothing, and there would be no chance of an imperial appointment. Meanwhile, the Bernie Madoffs of the time could easily buy their own jail key, then turn around and lock up the entire prosecutor’s office in their old cell on the way out.
(Joseph Kennedy? Is that you?)
He had to spend the obscene fortune this practice brought him on something; so he settled for producing an endless waterfall of gifts for Commodus from one pocket and an endless stream of entertainment facilities for the public from the other. Like Herodes Atticus, minus the honest acquisition of wealth. His string of politically motivated murders (of really decent guys, no less) not only rivals the Season 1 finale of Boardwalk Empire, but it made many people wish they could have Perennis back. That’s an achievement.
The 30-day interval between Perennis and Cleander, says Gibbon, was as close as Commodus got to potentially reforming his own character before he was back to being Don Commodeone for good.
Chapter 4 Part 2
Even with all these proofs of corrupt governance in plain sight, it took the more immediate motivators of hunger and disease to stir the people up. When a plague struck Rome, they believed the gods had sent it because of Cleander’s unchecked wickedness. The man himself had personally triggered, or at least exacerbated, a famine by locking up all the corn. (From Joe Kennedy to Charles Trevelyan?) Despite taking Dion with a grain of salt earlier, Gibbon still appears to hold him in enough regard as a historian to cite his estimate of 2,000 deaths per day in Rome alone.
Not even the latest gladiator fight was enough of a distraction this time, and the people headed to the palace to demand an explanation. Instead of trying to pacify them with some kind of sensitive display, like laying his head on a balcony before them, Cleander heard them preparing to storm the palace and dispatched the Praetorians to deal with them.
This command power was traditionally reserved for the Praetorian prefect. Apparently Mr. Clean could have had Commodus appoint him as prefect if he’d wanted to, but realizing the ongoing importance of political theater, he refused the title. He still managed to retain the power associated with the prefecture by using the paper-thin excuse that he was “intrusted with the defence of his master’s person.”
This deployment proved disastrous for the mob within the close quarters of the palace grounds. Back out in the open city, where they could stage ambushes from convenient buildings, the citizens were able to turn the tide on the emperor’s guard by enlisting the sympathies of the non-mounted city guard, who had had enough of the Praetorian cavalry lording it over them. The Pretty Boys were no match for this level of resistance.
The mob attempted a second assault on the palace, where Commodus was chilling in his home theater, still unaware of the first assault. His favorite sex slave, Marcia, and one of his sisters were the only two who were brave enough to risk death for disturbing him with news of danger. His response?
“Oh, are they mad at Cleander? Send them his head.”
And just like that, it worked.
Gibbon suggests that Commodus may yet have won the hearts of the people back if he had not been so utterly degenerate by that time. To him, getting to be the emperor was only as good as the opportunities it afforded him to use every waking moment feeding his addictions. Gibbon declines to translate the original Latin accounts of Commodus’ proclivities precisely because their details are so accurate.
We know the type of guy he was based on Gibbon’s characterization: the terrible student whose favorite class is P.E., who claims he’ll never need to work because he’s going to college on a football scholarship and plans to make millions in the NFL; and who is (all the worse for him) talented enough that he’ll probably do it.
Even as a kid, all Commodus wanted to do was kill things. While he retained his taste for playing dress-up and fighting wild animals into adulthood, the unrestrained power he was afforded by his father’s death allowed him to play at being Doctor Moreau with the gladiators as well.
Most people pretended to love the fanart of himself as a real-life Hercules that Commodus commissioned and placed on every street corner — though a few brave souls wrote and circulated mocking poems about this. He had lions and other game transported to Rome (at public expense, of course) so he could show off his marksmanship on the animals within a tightly controlled environment that ensured he was never in any real danger. (But heaven help you if you had a homestead in a lion’s natural habitat and had to kill it in self-defense before one of Commodus’ game wardens was able to catch it and ship it alive to Rome.)
In this week’s edition of Footnote Wars, Milman corrects Gibbon’s assertion that nobody since Commodus has ventured to bring a giraffe to Europe, naming several Western rulers who had them in their menageries to prove his point. Meanwhile, I’m just sad that with all the apex predators to choose from, the dude had a giraffe brought all the way from sub-Saharan Africa solely so he could kill it.
Even losers had standards, though. Gibbon asserts that even the most lowlife Romans hated Commodus’ self-aggrandizing Colosseum reality shows. I guess it was fine to watch gladiators fight to the death in scripted conflicts and ridiculous costumes, but for the head of state to jump in the ring was TOO FAR.
As a self-styled gladiator, Commodus naturally helped himself to loads more money from the gladiator prize pool, which his loving subjects were then made to replenish. He dragged the Senate into this mess, too, so they could watch him make a spectacle of himself, and either pretend to be loving it or be forced to participate. (Apparently, Nero also used to throw a senator or two into the ring for his own amusement, so this was not unprecedented.)
The problem was, no matter how hard they flattered him, Commodus knew he couldn’t claim a shred of true respect from anyone in the empire.
“His ferocious spirit was irritated by the consciousness of that hatred, by the envy of every kind of merit, by the just apprehension of danger, and by the habit of slaughter, which he contracted in his daily amusements.”
Everyone had had enough, but it was our old friend Marcia who finally decided to do something. She grabbed a couple guys from the household and the guard and seamlessly executed a multi-step assassination plan that would have made Connie Corleone proud.
The news of Commodus’ death was such an unlooked-for relief to the whole city, who had been living on eggshells for years, that neither the Senate, the Praetorians, nor the conspirators’ chosen successor, Pertinax, would immediately believe that a regime change was happening. The Senate took the news a lot better than the Praetorians did, as the latter benefited the most and were threatened the least by Commodus’ whims. With Pertinax being one of the only members of Marcus Aurelius’ old guard who had somehow escaped all of the purges, the Guard was pretty sure they had much less cushy lives to look forward to; but the memory of Commodus was so hated, and he had been planning so many more outrageous exploits before his death, that even they knew they’d have to play along.
The Senate performed the traditionally raucous ceremonies to install a new emperor with even more heartfelt joy than normal. Pertinax had just enough time to make the usual statements about not deserving this great honor before the unleashed public set about tearing down Commodus’ memorials and trying to desecrate his corpse.
“These effusions of impotent rage against a dead emperor, whom the senate had flattered when alive with the most abject servility, betrayed a just but ungenerous spirit of revenge.”
I don’t know that Gibbon has much room to quibble here, never having lived under such a tyrant (seriously, George III was milk and cookies compared to this guy); but he’s right that expending all your wrath on an evil dictator after he’s dead does come off rather like insincere virtue signaling. No point in making strong denunciations only when it’s safe to do so, because you know everyone around you feels the exact same way.
“[T]he feeble assembly was obliged to content itself with inflicting on a fallen tyrant that public justice, from which, during his life and reign, he had been shielded by the strong arm of military despotism.”
Humans tend to overcorrect previous failings, both real and perceived, with the most dramatic pendulum swings possible; and unfortunately, Pertinax was no exception. Commodus had accrued to himself and his favorites every benefit and title of glory he could squeeze from the imperial seat, so Pertinax resolved to do the exact opposite. Instead of formally naming his son the crown prince and his wife the empress, he gave all his money to his wife (with the accompanying understanding that she was not to touch public funds) and put his son in the period equivalent of military school. He walked back some unnecessary taxes, cut the palace budget by 50%, and sold off all the Lambos and designer handbags lying around. As far as state dinners went, he was so cheap that even his “friends” made fun of him for not wining and dining them as well as Commodus had. If eBay had been around, he probably would have sold the imperial jet on it too.
To his credit, Pertinax was genuinely committed to righting as many wrongs as he could, especially wherever the victims of Commodus’ caprices were still alive. He even managed to free the innocent and punish the guilty while keeping his cool, when so many others were clamoring for all-out revenge against Commodus’ memory and his surviving accomplices. His fiscal conservatism and encouragement of free enterprise was, at least in Gibbon’s estimation, better for the (empty) national coffers in just a couple of months than Commodus’ years of heavy taxes had been.
But, if all this sounds too good to be true, it is. While the crowd initially loved him for embodying all the virtues that Rome historically claimed to value, like self-denial, mercy, and frugality, they just as soon turned against Pertinax once they realized he was enforcing the laws a little too uniformly, and there were no more loopholes for them to exploit for their own ends. The era of Marcus Aurelius wouldn’t be brought back by force. The whiplash was too great for a people grown accustomed to lax rule and corruption.
Meanwhile, the simmering Praetorians (oh joy) were the least prepared of anyone to give up the high pay and low oversight they’d enjoyed under C-middy, and immediately started scrolling Craigslist for a replacement. This AFTER Pertinax had promised to buy them off with a “new-emperor bonus” and was raising the money to do so, mind you. The fact that an incoming ruler was bound on any level to shell out a chunk of change to his sworn bodyguard army to get them to protect him should have been more than a little concerning.
Their first and second candidates came face to face with Pertinax, who let them off with a warning and begged the public to forgive them. He wasn’t mad, just disappointed.
Finally they got tired of waiting for the right new emperor and decided to get rid of the old one first, then decide what to do afterward. Pertinax, seeing that his hour had come when a band of Praetorians stormed the palace, tried the old Shaming the Mob trick. This worked for about 30 seconds. Then it was Julius Caesar part II.
And on that cheerful note …
Quotations that stood out to me:
“Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsociable nature, since the pride of one mind requires the submission of the multitude.”
Yeah. It’s such a blight, in fact, that Tolkien created an entire fictional world just to explore this idea.
“In the tumult of civil discord, the laws of society lose their force, and their place is seldom supplied by those of humanity. The ardor of contention, the pride of victory, the despair of success, the memory of past injuries, and the fear of future dangers, all contribute to inflame the mind, and to silence the voice of pity.”
Or, to quote the fictional “Orwell’s Final Warning”:
“there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement.”
This doesn’t sound familiar to you, right? Cause it definitely doesn’t sound familiar to me. Not at all, not one bit …
“[T]he power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.”
So Gibbon’s educational philosophy is … autodidacticism? Considering that much of his own education was self-guided heavy reading, I guess he extrapolated this sentiment from his own experience. It’s definitely true at times, but maybe not a universal maxim.
“Suspicious princes often promote the last of mankind, from a vain persuasion, that those who have no dependence, except on their favor, will have no attachment, except to the person of their benefactor.”
Moral: suspicion has never made anyone a good judge of character, and it’s not going to start now.
“A hasty zeal to reform the corrupted state, accompanied with less prudence than might have been expected from the years and experience of Pertinax, proved fatal to himself and to his country. His honest indiscretion united against him the servile crowd, who found their private benefit in the public disorders, and who preferred the favor of a tyrant to the inexorable equality of the laws.”
With subjects like these, who needs revolting barbarians, amirite?
Can’t wait to see what genre the next chapter of Rome’s unfolding train wreck will resemble.