He heard there was a great deal on a well cared for used yacht. His family said “go for it dad, it’ll be great!” He did. He got it. And he went home with his new yacht, really quite proud of himself. But then he had a moment of clarity: “wait… what in the world did I buy this for? I live in KANSAS.”
Well, what happened to Didius Julianus is kinda like that, but with the Roman Empire. Whoopsie.
Gibbon provides one of his shorter chapters so far in Chapter 5, and one that is more on the historical side through the first 75%, with a most of the opinion reserved for concluding thoughts. However, the extreme history detail is for a reason. There’s a lot to cover from a very small time frame: A significant portion of the chapter only addresses events that occurred within a single month-long timeframe, while the rest hits highlights from the following couple of years. There’s also fewer interjections from the editors in this chapter… I can only guess that this is caused by the general clarity of the historical record: there’s just less to guess about.
Pertinax is dead, in case you forgot. Not that the Praetorians were going to let you, anyway. Yes, we have the first chapter that picks up the very minute that the last one left off, so they’re all still partying it up with Pertinax’s noggin on a stake. Pertinax’s father-in-law had been trying to calm them (or maybe not), but shifted fairly quickly to trying to convince them that they should make him the new emperor. Realizing that they didn’t entirely think this through but now have to deal with the biggest ripple effect – that part where they assassinated the Roman emperor – they figure that they might as well get paid. If you do something and do it well, why do it for free, amirite?
So the former in-law is trying to convince them but word starts spreading that you can buy the ultimate promotion. ENTER DIDIUS JULIANUS, who was eating a fancy dinner when “wife and his daughter, his freedmen and his parasites” convinced him he should go buy an empire. Sw33t.
Wait wait wait wait… his “parasites”?
Julianus shows up and goes back and forth before he knocks the ex-in-law out with a bid of 6,250 drachms per Praetorian. From what I can tell, this is roughly $27,000 in silver or $1.8mil in gold. Per. Praetorian. And the empire was in below average condition! Always check Kelley Blue Book, people. Make sure you’re not stiffed on used empire prices. It even wasn’t a certified pre-owned empire! It wasn’t being sold by a reputable used empire dealer, either!! Regardless, the bid wins. And they party it up!
Until Julianus is left alone that night and he stares in the mirror and has the ultimate buyers remorse. Gibbon notes that he not only realizes his grip on the known world is pretty stinkin’ poor, he starts to contemplate that the Praetorians had murdered Pertinax… and Pertinax was a good guy.
Now, lest you think this is going to go well……………
…………………….LOLOL of course it won’t.
More than one Roman official abroad in other lands learns of Pertinax’s demise at the hands of the Praetorians and is upset. And can you blame them? The emperor was exterminated because the so-called best and brightest wanted their job to be a perpetual spring break party. And if these officials were incensed at the demise of Pertinax, you better believe they were mortified at the notion that rule of the empire was sold to the highest bidder like a villain would do in a James Bond movie.
Clodius Albinus, governor in England, was outraged.
Septimus Severus from Pannonia/Dalmatia was ready to get his gang and tear up a town.
Pescennius Niger, leader in Syria, was ready to tweet mean things. Very mean things.
One problem, though. They all also did this:
Niger basically camped out and passed the bottle in celebration, Albinus was some distance away… but Severus? Oh, yeah. He was close. And resourceful. And he inspired his army with a rousing speech and a lament for the state of the empire (and also promised to pay his army double what the Praetorians sold Rome for… but they totally did it for the honor, y’all wink wink).
Then Julianus heard about it and did this:
Julian, Julian, Julian. The onward march isn’t comforting to dearest Julian. ALL HE WANTED WAS A YACHT. AND HE’S IN KANSAS. Why did his family tell him to get a yacht? How could they have thought this was a good idea!? HE’S IN KANSAS. Everything he does to try and slow down Severus fails. Entire cities treat Severus like a knight in shining armor coming to save them. Negotiators and assassins are caught or abandon Julian for Severus. He broke out the Vestal virgians, all the colleges of priests, and tried to stop Severus with “magic ceremonies and unlawful sacrifices.” Believe it or not, those don’t work either.
At this point, Severus is pretty much Schwarzenegger at the beginning of Kindergarten Cop:
Anywho, Severus tells the Praetorians that if they give up the imposter emperor and the soldiers who murdered Pertinax, he’ll spare them.
Julian’s rule prematurely concludes at a mere 36 days due to an acute case of decapitation.
The murderous traitor Praetorians face similar fates.
What must his family have thought about this? Did they not know they lived in Kansas? I mean, it was their idea! Sadly, Gibbon doesn’t address this because more murder and mayhem is upon us. Severus tells all the Praetorians to put on their fancy clothes and meet him outside the city, unarmed. Though they thought they were going to be executed, Severus only chewed them out and exiled them from the city. The new Praetorians? Straight from Severus’ own army and recruited from elsewhere based on strength. The new Praetorians were big brute macho men with no moral compass.
Severus does becomes emperor – and does last longer than a mere 36 days – but he’s hardly the second coming of Pertinax. Why get to work administering an empire when you can get revenge? Despite
conquering liberating Rome without doing any real dirty work himself, he more than makes up for it after getting the throne. Remember Niger? Severus went strait to work on a military campaign against him and any nation who supported his claim to the throne. Result? Niger sleeps with the fishes. Clodius Albinus? After Severus gave him the title of Caesar and acted like he was the bestest man in all the land, he tried to assassinate him and then resoundingly defeated him in battle. Exit Clodius. Several dozen senators and their families were also killed off for not slobbering all over Severus, again after being treated as royalty. Gibbon emphasizes that this was a pattern with Severus: he always ensured that enemies and targets were under no suspicion of being on his hit list… he buttered them up and got them all to think that they were his buddy. And then…
Despite the personal grievance and power acquisition brutality, Severus became massively popular among the populace because he fully undid all the problems and injustices caused by Commodus. Specifically, Gibbon indicates that for the most part, things are relatively peaceable outside of the noted conquests of vengeance and power, though he does make it a point to say that the state of the empire is missing that special something that made it such a great place all those years before. It has all the appearance but none of the substance. Like Hollywood or something like that.
And this is where Gibbon begins waxing eloquently on the state of the empire. The senate by this point is nothing more than the Galactic Senate under Emperor Palpatine: a vestige of tradition used as placebo to rubber stamp a dictator. Gibbon indicates that Severus and his actions, especially related to the changes in the Praetorians and newfound emphasis on the Praefect, give devolution of Rome a really strong into a government run by military despotism. Basically, Gibbon indicates that the decline is now in full swing. It’s only downhill from here.
The Praetorian Problem
Check out these potent potables from Gibbon:
“The Prætorian bands, whose licentious fury was the first symptom and cause of the decline of the Roman empire, scarcely amounted to the last-mentioned number. They derived their institution from Augustus. That crafty tyrant… gradually formed this powerful body of guards, in constant readiness to protect his person, to awe the senate, and either to prevent or to crush the first motions of rebellion…after fifty years of peace and servitude, Tiberius ventured on a decisive measure, which forever rivetted the fetters of his country. Under the fair pretences of relieving Italy from the heavy burden of military quarters, and of introducing a stricter discipline among the guards, he assembled them at Rome, in a permanent camp, which was fortified with skilful care, and placed on a commanding situation.”
“The faithless Prætorians, whose resistance was supported only by sullen obstinacy, gladly complied with the easy conditions, seized the greatest part of the assassins, and signified to the senate, that they no longer defended the cause of Julian. That assembly, convoked by the consul, unanimously acknowledged Severus as lawful emperor, decreed divine honors to Pertinax, and pronounced a sentence of deposition and death against his unfortunate successor. Julian was conducted into a private apartment of the baths of the palace, and beheaded as a common criminal, after having purchased, with an immense treasure, an anxious and precarious reign of only sixty-six days.”
“He was obeyed by those haughty troops, whose contrition was the effect of their just terrors.”
“The Prætorians, who murdered their emperor and sold the empire, had received the just punishment of their treason; but the necessary, though dangerous, institution of guards was soon restored on a new model by Severus, and increased to four times the ancient number…it was established by Severus, that from all the legions of the frontiers, the soldiers most distinguished for strength, valor, and fidelity, should be occasionally draughted; and promoted, as an honor and reward, into the more eligible service of the guards…the capital was terrified by the strange aspect and manners of a multitude of barbarians. But Severus flattered himself, that the legions would consider these chosen Prætorians as the representatives of the whole military order; and that the present aid of fifty thousand men, superior in arms and appointments to any force that could be brought into the field against them, would forever crush the hopes of rebellion, and secure the empire to himself and his posterity.”
“The command of these favored and formidable troops soon became the first office of the empire. As the government degenerated into military despotism, the Prætorian Præfect, who in his origin had been a simple captain of the guards, was placed not only at the head of the army, but of the finances, and even of the law. In every department of administration, he represented the person, and exercised the authority, of the emperor. The first præfect who enjoyed and abused this immense power was Plautianus, the favorite minister of Severus. His reign lasted above ten years, till the marriage of his daughter with the eldest son of the emperor, which seemed to assure his fortune, proved the occasion of his ruin. The animosities of the palace, by irritating the ambition and alarming the fears of Plautianus, threatened to produce a revolution, and obliged the emperor, who still loved him, to consent with reluctance to his death. After the fall of Plautianus, an eminent lawyer, the celebrated Papinian, was appointed to execute the motley office of Prætorian Præfect.”
I’ll stop there and leave you with that because if I start in, this post would morph from a blog post into a 15,000 word treatise.
This is starting to make me slam my head into a filing cabinet. Similar to the often quoted phrase about 1984, this is a warning, not an instruction manual! At this rate, we’re as lucky as Dead Meat in Hot Shots!