I must once again apologize for the delay in this posting, HOWEVER… I am pleased to report my anticipation that this should be the final major posting delay from me!
When we last left our intrepid Severus, he had essentially conquered Rome while simultaneously “restoring” Rome. Of course, restoring is in scare quotes because he didn’t actually restore it. Think of it more like an intense redecoration. Severus now seeks to settle down. He gets a good wife. They have kids. And that’s when the trouble starts.
In the course of Gibbon’s effort we have our first blatant “rinse, wash, repeat” moment: the kids are really ill-suited to actually running an empire (need a refresher on poorly that went last time? Here’s Anna’s take, as as well as mine). Caracella and Geta hate each other’s guts from childhood, leaving their father to navigate how to keep everything 100% in balance as far as the royal duties are concerned. They engage in every form of petty and serious contest, always trying to outdo each other. Eventually Severus makes a prediction:
One will kill the other, and then the survivor will fall victim to his own vices.
Let’s see how good Severus is at fortune telling!
Gibbon takes a brief moment to share a story of Severus having Caracella and Geta accompany him on a “take your sons to work” trip to go to war in Britain and fight the barbarians of the North (hint: they eat haggis). It really doesn’t prove to be overly eventful, and the Caledonians are eventually spared because Severus dies before his orders to plow through and kill everyone on sight are carried out. Gibbon mainly spends these brief paragraphs to eloquently spin about the fabled eras of ancient British history and admits he’s including them purely for that. Even Gibbon gets on a bunny trail!!
Anywho, Caracella starts trying to kill Severus and repeatedly fails. Gibbon laments that Severus, unable to forgo his parental devotion to his son, prevented his underlings from eliminating Caracella in spite of how rotten he had become. When he finally passed away, Severus made his two sons equal heirs to the empire. As Gibbon observed, this wouldn’t have went well even with brothers who get along, much less brothers who loathe each other. In a moment straight out of the famous “A House Divided” episode of The Munsters, they split the palace in half and refuse to go into each other’s side.
To top off the performative malice, it seems they only see each other in public with each towing a small army of bodyguards.
I bet this ends swimmingly.
In an attempt to fix the issue, someone proposed splitting the empire in two and letting each brother have his own empire. This goes over like a lead balloon, and Caracella decides to be a good Smeagol. He agrees to meet Geta with their mother under the pretense of peace-making and then kills Geta with aid from some hired hitmen. Caracella then claims himself the victim to the Praetorians, who, despite the fact that they didn’t believe him and liked Geta better, spare Caracella. Dumping the entirety of his father’s fortune on them as a payoff surely didn’t hurt. Of note here is Gibbon’s point that Geta was just as covetous of power… he simply fell victim to the other’s designs first.
“Severus foretold that the weaker of his sons would fall a sacrifice to the stronger”
Severus is now +1.
Caracella though… he couldn’t handle the truth. And the truth was that he murdered his brother. So he tried to escape the memory of it by any and all means available. Which included going all Red Queen and killing anyone who reminded him of the deed or even remotely made him think they didn’t like him.
‘Cella’s quest for conformity goes to such an extreme that it makes the body count from the ending of The Godfather look like a picnic. And this plays out across the empire. Everywhere he goes becomes the scene of a bloodbath; everywhere else, taxes and fees ruin the living. But no one goes unpunished forever. One of the Praefect leaders, Macrinus, became the subject of a prophecy: he and his son would succeed Caracella as emperors. Catching wind of this news before Caracella and knowing that it would mean his death, he goaded some people into offing Caracella. “Such was the end of a monster whose life disgraced human nature.” Gibbon going for the jugular here.
“who, in his turn, would be ruined by his own vices.”
And Severus completes the play at 2 for 2.
Gibbon takes a moment to point out that even in spite of Caracella’s general terribleness and the fact that everyone hated him, the Senate and everyone in the government clown themselves by acting like he was a wonderful guy and cementing him as a deity! Adventus, the military leader in the Praefecture (Macrinus was the Praefect’s civilian affairs guy) declined the opportunity due to age and health (Gibbon previously called him “an experienced rather than able soldier”). And lo, Macrinus ends up becoming emperor… and appoints his son as successor! But he’s got problems. Lots of problems. For one, no one likes him and as his faults come to bear, they like him less. Two: his attempts to reform the military, though shrewd, still inflame the troops and ripen their minds for dissent and treachery. And if there’s one thing we aren’t on short supply on, it is dissent and treachery!
After Caracella’s early expiration, his mother (Severus’ widow) starved herself to death. Though Guizet suggests the timeline is a bit more complex than Gibbon indicated, the result is the same. After her suicide, her sister was kicked out. With an ax to grind against Macrinus, she concocts a story to feed to the already displeased military: her grandson Bassianus is actually Caracella’s son. Gibbon’s phrasing is quite artful: “readily sacrificing her daughter’s reputation to the fortune of her grandson, she insinuated that Bassianus was the natural son of their murdered sovereign.” The military in their area, who were already drawn to Bassianus through his priesthood at a temple, decide to support him. I’M SURE THE MONEY SHE PAID THEM OFF WITH HELPED THEM REACH A DECISION. I think I’m going to add this as a permanent phase on my clipboard and assign it a keyboard command.
Gibbon drops out a hilarious line: “Whilst a conspiracy of women and eunuchs was concerted with prudence, and conducted with rapid vigor, Macrinus, who, by a decisive motion, might have crushed his infant enemy, floated between the opposite extremes of terror and security, which alike fixed him inactive at Antioch.” He finally goes to fight and, despite the Praetorian’s lack of enthusiasm, they begin to subdue the revolutionaries. UNTIL THE WOMEN AND EUNUCHS START BEATING THEM, causing MACRINUS TO FLEE. The dude chickened on women and eunuchs. Bad move. The Praetorians were eventually convinced that Macrinus deserted them and flipped over to acknowledge Bassianus, now going by Antonius, as the true emperor.
Macrinus tries to outlaw Antonius by snail mail, but everyone eventually falls in line to the new emperor, especially after he sends his own letters that mimic the writings of Augustus and Marcus. But Antonius proved to be far removed from Marcus or Augustus. Gibbon writes:
“A faithful picture, however, which preceded his arrival, and was placed by his immediate order over the altar of Victory in the senate house, conveyed to the Romans the just but unworthy resemblance of his person and manners. He was drawn in his sacerdotal robes of silk and gold, after the loose flowing fashion of the Medes and Phœnicians; his head was covered with a lofty tiara, his numerous collars and bracelets were adorned with gems of an inestimable value. His eyebrows were tinged with black, and his cheeks painted with an artificial red and white. The grave senators confessed with a sigh, that, after having long experienced the stern tyranny of their own countrymen, Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism.”
The result? Sun worship. Lots and lots of sun god worship. For Antonius, “who, in the rest of his life, never acted like a man….The display of superstitious gratitude was the only serious business of his reign.”
“The richest wines, the most extraordinary victims, and the rarest aromatics, were profusely consumed on his altar. Around the altar, a chorus of Syrian damsels performed their lascivious dances to the sound of barbarian music, whilst the gravest personages of the state and army, clothed in long Phœnician tunics, officiated in the meanest functions, with affected zeal and secret indignation.”
If they had only known what the sun god was really like.
Is it time for a moral? Yes.
And the moral of today’s story is: not fixing a problem is a problem, not calling evil “evil” is a problem.
By my count, there were three distinct opportunities to stop the rise of Caracella. Severus could have actually done something when he repeatedly tried to kill him. Severus could have not promoted Caracella to emperor. And when Caracella killed Geta, the Praetorians could have dispatched him. Instead, untold numbers of people died. Even more suffered silently, lest they join the victim list. Then, when the tyrant was finally dead, he was proclaimed a god and his praises were sung loudly by those who were his victims.
Clapping like seals for their tormentor. That’s sick.
We have our own analogous issues that are too many to list here. Much of the current back and forth on the right revolves around the so-called culture war. The challenge is that at a certain segment of society blows all this off for one reason or another. People complain about Disney, but go to Disneyland 5 times a year and blow untold sums on merchandise and movie tickets. Politicians and their policies blow up norms, but every opportunity to take an exit or hit the brakes is passed. As Reagan said, “A government program once launched is the closest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see.”
It’s just not the hill to die on.
It will just be stuck down in court, so it’s not worth doing.
Ugh don’t be so old fashioned.
Why can’t you be tolerant?
These phrases, and their many siblings and cousins, pervade public discourse while the despotic and disgusting are promoted, even celebrated. Up is said to be down, while an entire crew of pseudo intellectuals perform gymnastic feats to assert that 2+2 doesn’t have to equal 4. The people who scream “follow the science” care little about the scientific process or data…they just want cover for their preferred policies. Meanwhile, the David Frenches of the world wax stoically about morality and virtue, yet dismiss the severity of every serious cultural issue and blast selective outrage at easy targets. It’s not to say that the Sohrab Ahmari side of the debate is always right, but at least it is willing to actually identify problems.
Gad Saad laments the unwillingness many people to judge in his bestseller, The Parasitic Mind. He stated in the chapter “Call to Action”,
“The West is founded on a bedrock of Judeo-Christian traditions and many assume, as per Christian theology, that judging others can be a sin. Several gospels contain edicts against judging others… Many people interpret these teachings as implying that the act of judging is divinely forbidden, a cosmic command to live and let live. But this is incorrect; these edits are referring to moral hypocrisy. People who spew falsehoods should be judged. I do it every day. Cultural relativism also impedes people from casting judgements, especially against otherwise abhorrent religious and cultural practices. Several generations of university students have been indoctrinated into the false belief that it is gauche if not bigoted to judge people of different ethnic or religious backgrounds… To judge is to be human… It is an integral part of being a well-functioning adult…Fence-sitters who equivocate about the pros and cons of every conceivable issue without ever pronouncing judgement are profoundly boring people.”
Additional thoughts worth pondering:
And last but not least, the best scene in one of the best movies of the century: