When we last left our “heroes” of the Praetorian Guard, they were staring at the steaming remains of Emperor Pertinax, with it slowly dawning in their thick heads that the empire needed a new figurehead fast, or they’d shortly be even worse off than they were under Pertinax’s austerity budget.
But first, we examine in more detail how they got to be this entitled in the first place.
Chapter 5 Part 1
Caesar Augustus, knowing that some of his subjects would be less than excited to see him absorbing the powers of various government positions into himself, formed the Praetorian Guard as his own personal army. (He may have been inspired by the Ten Thousand Immortals that guarded the ancient Persian emperors, as Gibbon estimates the original Praetorian forces around the same number.) From the beginning, these troops were overpaid and undertrained, as alluded to in our military chapters. However, any tendencies toward self-importance they might have gained from this treatment were initially mitigated by keeping most of their divisions scattered throughout the nearby countryside, rather than stationed and quartered all together inside Rome.
Emperor Tiberius eventually made the short-sighted decision to bring them all into one camp within the city, where the Praetorians soon learned that their numbers gave them more clout to throw around than they had previously realized.
“In the luxurious idleness of an opulent city, their pride was nourished by the sense of their irresistible weight; nor was it possible to conceal from them, that the person of the sovereign, the authority of the senate, the public treasure, and the seat of empire, were all in their hands.”
Any regular army division could have beaten them easily if they’d tried something stupid, but all of the good fighters were kept far away. The only way to keep the Praetorians under control was to keep paying them off … in ever-increasing amounts. It soon became a tacit understanding between the guards and the rising emperor that unless he paid them a large cash bonus upon acceding to the throne, they might not be too motivated to protect or serve said emperor. Their reasoning for this was that, as a (former) republic, Rome should be ruled by the representatives chosen by the best of the people; and who were the best if not the Praetorians? Highly-placed citizens of impeccable pedigree had been securing commissions for their sons in this body for decades now, so surely their disproportionate influence on the choice of a ruler was merely the truest expression of what was meant by the term “republic.”
Everyone basically eyed the Praetorians’ weapons and said, “suuuure, we’ll go with that.” After they had murdered Pertinax, however, even these favored sons of fortune appeared to realize they had crossed a line.
The only remedy was to cross it twice. They announced that the throne would be sold to whoever paid them the most money.
Sure enough, some sap from the Imperial Senate took the bait, and that very day, the Praetorians began squiring around Emperor Didius Julianus; while “those who had been the distinguished friends of Pertinax, or the personal enemies of Julian, found it necessary to affect a more than common share of satisfaction at this happy revolution.” Hilariously, Julianus took this opportunity to make a speech celebrating “the freedom of his election,” before retiring to the palace to replace Pertinax’s ramen noodle rations with the Gatsby parties to which everyone had grown accustomed under Commodus. The glory days were back, baby!
… At least until everyone had gotten sufficiently drunk and been wheeled home. Then Julianus had to get ready for bed in the imperial palace for the first time, suddenly full of terror at the precarious position he had just purchased in such an unheard-of way, and asking himself what the crap he was going to do now.
“On the throne of the world he found himself without a friend, and even without an adherent. The guards themselves were ashamed of the prince whom their avarice had persuaded them to accept; nor was there a citizen who did not consider his elevation with horror, as the last insult on the Roman name. The nobility, whose conspicuous station, and ample possessions, exacted the strictest caution, dissembled their sentiments, and met the affected civility of the emperor with smiles of complacency and professions of duty. But the people, secure in their numbers and obscurity, gave a free vent to their passions.”
Wow. Maybe you should have thought about that before you let your social-climbing wife and daughter flatter you into making this impulse buy, ya twit.
The Twitter mobs started roaring for someone, anyone, to come stage a bloody revolution and take the empire by force, the way God intended. Unfortunately for the stability of the next few years, three generals stationed abroad in command of equally large armies perked up their ears at the news of the dissatisfaction at home.
Let’s meet the contestants:
Location: Roman Britain
Supporters: Marcus Aurelius (deceased); Commodus (deceased); his men; some former supporters of Pertinax
good poker face
willingness to reject grandiose titles
distance from Rome
recurring delusions of grandeur
Supporters: his Middle Eastern under-kings; the southwesternmost Roman provinces; his men
effective administration of discipline
encouragement of & participation in local traditions and culture
susceptibility to flattery
underestimation of his competitors
Location: Pannonia, southeastern Europe (across the Adriatic Sea from Italy)
Supporters: his men; some former supporters of Pertinax
proximity to Rome
laser focus on victory
a physically powerful & highly-trained fighting force
no noble ancestry
The 20/20 hindsight of history probably colors the chances of success that Gibbon ascribes to each competitor here, but his early assumption that Severus had Rome in the bag is not without merit. Albinus was just so far away, and Niger was unfortunately prone to count his chickens before the eggs had even been laid. Meanwhile, Severus was personally leading his troops on a GORUCK Challenge at near-inhuman speeds while in full armor, and Julianus was starting to shake in his sandals.
The only allies the hapless emperor had to depend on were the Praetorians, who had to be paid EVEN MORE bonuses just to get them out of the dinner theater and into the armor they hadn’t tried on since the last decoration day. Their attempts to perform some basic elephant cavalry maneuvers gave the Roman populace the best entertainment they’d had in weeks.
“Every motion of Julian betrayed his trembling perplexity. He insisted that Severus should be declared a public enemy by the senate. He entreated that the Pannonian general might be associated to the empire. He sent public ambassadors of consular rank to negotiate with his rival; he despatched private assassins to take away his life. He designed that the Vestal virgins, and all the colleges of priests, in their sacerdotal habits, and bearing before them the sacred pledges of the Roman religion, should advance in solemn procession to meet the Pannonian legions; and, at the same time, he vainly tried to interrogate, or appease, the fates, by magic ceremonies and unlawful sacrifices.”
You can’t but feel sorry for him.
Chapter 5 Part 2
Gibbon praises Severus for wanting to stage a bloodless coup. To that end, the savvy general dispatched a psychological warfare unit within Rome to promise mercy to anyone who would join his side. Everyone’s favorite mercenaries abandoned Julian without Severus even having to offer them any money first – they were probably better aware than anybody else that REAL soldiers were on the way, and they were tired of being pilloried by the local wags for their failed attempts at impressive military maneuvers.
Not only did Severus have the best-equipped, best-trained, and fastest army in the three generals’ race to the throne; he also knew not to underestimate Roman politicians’ penchant for negotiation by assassination, and he absorbed every envoy that was sent to oppose him into his own retinue. The Praetorians knew on which side their bread was buttered. They loftily informed the Senate that Septimius Severus was now their emperor, and invited Julianus out the back door to go for a ride with Nico.
Meanwhile, Severus was setting up camp outside the city. After calling the Praetorians out to the principal’s office to let them know how disappointed he was by their choices over the past several months, Severus casually informed them that their assets had been seized and they were banished from Rome forever. His next appearance was at Pertinax’s memorial service, which both the Senate and the crowd found appropriately reverent and emotional, thus cementing Severus in their hearts as an emperor worthy of the golden age.
“Sensible, however, that arms, not ceremonies, must assert his claim to the empire, he left Rome at the end of thirty days, and without suffering himself to be elated by this easy victory, prepared to encounter his more formidable rivals.”
So far, so good, right?
Gibbon is still an early-Caesar fanboy, and he lets it slip out again here. He insinuates that while Severus was a masterful military man on par with the best of them, he was still many strata beneath the first Caesar as far as taste and intellect go. Milman slyly interjects a footnote here on Lord Byron’s wistful eulogies of Julius Caesar as the pinnacle of ancient manhood—a polymathic James Bond who writes for ArtReview while cleaning his latest big game quarry. Is Milman suggesting a subtle parallel between 1) the fanfiction-esque throes of passion we see in George Gordon and 2) Edward Gibbon’s historical hero worship?
But, says our author, no matter how much we grudgingly grant that politicians will lie, Septimius Severus took it TOO FAR. Thus follows one of Gibbon’s lines that I’ve seen quoted most often in other authors’ writings:
“He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin; and however he might occasionally bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation.”
The subsequent account of how Severus wore down Pescennius Niger by sending armies the latter’s way (claiming that he only wanted to see how his old pal was managing the eastern territories), and by letting it be known that he would simply hate it if anything … unfortunate … happened to Niger’s sons at their Roman boarding school, is positively Machiavellian. He tried the same tricks with Clodius Albinus; but after his
messengers assassins failed at their One Job, Albinus realized his days were numbered and decided to go full steam ahead. If he was going to die, he’d go down fighting.
In the end, both rival contestants on “Who Wants to Be the Emperor” forced Severus to a showdown. Niger went down relatively easily, thanks to his “effeminate” forces. While Albinus put up more of a fight, his army also buckled when their inferior training was put to a prolonged test against Severus’ men and their home-turf advantage.
We get a nice cameo in this battle from Laetus: one of the original co-conspirators who whacked Commodus. Wenck and Guizot credit him with restoring the flagging morale of Severus’ troops for the final effort that won them the victory; whereas Milman points to other sources, indicating that Laetus hung back until Severus had everything handled, then rode in to insist that he’d totally been helping the whole time. Either way, east and west were both vanquished, and Severus was now in control.
Gibbon takes a time-out to lament how, by this point, Rome had lost its military mojo. No one signed up for the army from motives like Principle or Patriotism anymore. Literally all they cared about was who could pay the most. National/imperial self-respect was gone, and within the empire, few cities other than Rome could have made war in any meaningful way even if they’d wanted to. Byzantium, an ally of Niger, is singled out from this melancholy assessment. Even though the city was dismantled with extreme prejudice after the last portion of Niger’s army that tried to hold out there was defeated, you feel that Gibbon may be choosing to spotlight it early in order to set up a future chapter in his treatment of European history. A+ for foreshadowing.
Also unlike his predecessors, Severus proved by his post-victory decisions that he and magnanimity were strangers.
“Niger and Albinus were discovered and put to death … Their fate excited neither surprise nor compassion. They had staked their lives against the chance of empire, and suffered what they would have inflicted; … But [Severus’] unforgiving temper … indulged a spirit of revenge, where there was no room for apprehension. The most considerable of the provincials, who, without any dislike to the fortunate candidate, had obeyed the governor under whose authority they were accidentally placed, were punished by death, exile, and especially by the confiscation of their estates. Many cities of the East were stripped of their ancient honors, and obliged to pay, into the treasury of Severus, 4 times the amount of the sums contributed by them for the service of Niger.
… The head of Albinus, accompanied with a menacing letter, announced to the Romans that he was resolved to spare none of the adherents of his unfortunate competitors. … He condemned forty-one other senators … their wives, children, and clients attended them in death, and the noblest provincials of Spain and Gaul were involved in the same ruin. Such rigid justice—for so he termed it—was, in the opinion of Severus, the only conduct capable of insuring peace to the people or stability to the prince; and he condescended slightly to lament, that to be mild, it was necessary that he should first be cruel.”
Milman disputes the execution of as many wives and children as Gibbon claims, but it remains undisputed that Severus was a scorched-earth guy. He would have benefited from an Uncle Iroh to teach him not to be a sore winner.
At least he was pragmatic enough to realize that a happy populace means lower chances of revolt, so Severus set out to increase the general prosperity of the empire by infusing his military discipline into the civic and economic affairs which now fell under his supervision.
“Whenever he deviated from the strict line of equity, it was generally in favor of the poor and oppressed … The misfortunes of civil discord were obliterated. … He boasted, with a just pride, that, having received the empire oppressed with foreign and domestic wars, he left it established in profound, universal, and honorable peace.”
(Unless you were a Christian, lol.)
But even if you’re an economically secure, complacent emperor-worshipping pagan, don’t get too comfortable. This work is called the Decline and Fall, after all.
Severus recognized that the entire army, not just the Praetorians, were too accustomed to luxury, and too fond of flexing their political muscles whenever they took a notion, to be truly brought to heel in any way that might contradict their own self-interest. Not wanting to rouse that sleeping dragon against himself, Severus went along with their demands for pomp and circumstance, while timidly hinting in private to a few generals that maybe they might want to do something about discipline?
Too little too late, buddy.
Remember how he got rid of the Praetorians? That was a good move. At least until he replaced those ten thousand spoiled frat boys with FIFTY THOUSAND BLOODTHIRSTY FOREIGN MERCENARIES. And then picked a guy with no previous experience in any of these fields to be the new Praetorian Prefect, Imperial Warlord, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Supreme Court Chief Justice.
This is gonna go great. I can’t see any part of this ever going badly at all.
Needless to say, this became only the latest high court position to be sought after (and then undermined) by every cutthroat with a personal fortune and the emperor’s ear. The only structure that Severus understood was strict military hierarchy, so any checks and balances that previous emperors had recognized as necessary were brushed aside by him as pointless niceties.
“His haughty and inflexible spirit could not discover, or would not acknowledge, the advantage of preserving an intermediate power, however imaginary, between the emperor and the army. He disdained to profess himself the servant of an assembly that detested his person and trembled at his frown; he issued his commands, where his requests would have proved as effectual; assumed the conduct and style of a sovereign and a conqueror, and exercised, without disguise, the whole legislative, as well as the executive power.”
Fortunately for the senators’ personal chances of survival, they had grown so used to being a purely symbolic institution that they contented themselves with reminding each other how revered the Senate used to be, back in republican days, while settling in with popcorn to watch whatever Severus did next. He slowly replaced them all with stool pigeons from countries that had only ever known monarchic rule, and thus had no concept of “the consent of the governed” or of social mobility, so after a while the Senate was even more irrelevant and ineffective than before — except as a propaganda machine for servitude and compliance.
“Posterity, who experienced the fatal effects of his maxims and example, justly considered him as the principal author of the decline of the Roman empire.”
Quotations that stood out to me:
“The power of the sword is more sensibly felt in an extensive monarchy, than in a small community.”
Another reason why the Dear Leader types are always looking for ways to centralize, collectivize, and amalgamate the largest possible population under a form of power concentrated in the smallest possible clique.
“From the senate Julian was conducted, by the same military procession, to take possession of the palace. The first objects that struck his eyes, were the abandoned trunk of Pertinax, and the frugal entertainment prepared for his supper. ”
“The true interest of an absolute monarch generally coincides with that of his people. Their numbers, their wealth, their order, and their security, are the best and only foundations of his real greatness; and were he totally devoid of virtue, prudence might supply its place, and would dictate the same rule of conduct.”
It will if he’s smart. Too bad wisdom so often has an inverse proportion to power.
I’ve skipped for now a couple of the exploits involving Severus’ son, the next crown prince. Don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of delightful anecdotes about him coming down the pipeline.