Anna’s Update 9: rich kids of ancient rome

There’s a stylish new emperor in town, he’s assumed the throne under the ruling name of his favorite god, and his top priority is … better ketchup.

No, really.

This week’s installment brought to you by the letter

“E” for Elagabalus, of course.

Chapter 6 Part 3

To return briefly to the last section of Gibbon I covered, he writes, “It had hitherto been the peculiar felicity of the Romans, and in the worst of times the consolation, that the virtue of the emperors was active, and their vice indolent.”

The new hotness is unfortunately innocent of this particular charge. Gibbon notes that Elagabalus hired some New York Times staff writers the Washington Post Editorial Board several propagandists to produce and circulate hit pieces against Macrinus, just to keep the populace in mind of how much better their current emperor was than his unfortunate predecessor. He knew this was necessary because, if they were to turn off the news and be honest with themselves for a moment, everyone who abandoned Macrinus really gave Rome the worse end of the deal. He may have been a wimp, but he was a semi-principled wimp.

Meanwhile, in gratitude to his former “boss” and current namesake, Elagabalus got busy making sun-worship the new state religion, complete with a symbolic marriage between the sun god and the moon goddess. Everyone in the empire was required to pledge a sizable donation to the happy couple’s honeymoon fund … which the emperor helpfully accepted on their behalf, since they were statues and couldn’t spend it.

You’ve heard of Rich Kids of Instagram. Not that Elagabalus would brag – scratch that, he totally would – but he was the OG. Estimated between the ages of 14 and 17 when he took the throne, he was (as Gibbon succinctly observes) “corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune,” so as any undisciplined teenager-turned-emperor would, he “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury, and soon found disgust and satiety in the midst of his enjoyments.”

E thought he was cooler than all the previous emperors because of how much more proficient he was at wasting money. Here are a few of his most bizarre stunts:

  • “The invention of a new sauce was liberally rewarded; but if it was not relished, the inventor was confined to eat of nothing else till he had discovered another more agreeable to the Imperial palate.”
  • In an allusion to one of Homer’s most mysterious descriptive phrases, “the wine-dark sea,” E flooded arenas with enough wine for ships to sail on and engage in mock naval battles.
    • (Meanwhile 2015 saw the internet slamming Beyonce for pouring one bottle of champagne into her hot tub. Psh. Amateur stuff.)
  • “A dancer was made præfect of the city, a charioteer præfect of the watch, a barber præfect of the provisions.”
  • And, as I teased last time, that infamous banquet at which E employed a retractable ceiling to drown diners in rose petals – literally, according to legend. Historians tend to agree that ancient writers exaggerated many of his exploits for shock value, or were only repeating stories secondhand without knowing the facts. While the truth may not reach all the way to multiple people dying of suffocation at this event (rose petals are rather lightweight), our Roman King Joffrey was certainly extravagant enough to fill a banquet room feet deep with them.

One can easily imagine a fame-starved social media influencer with cash to blow attempting each and every last one of these things. Now picture that person with political power and a taste for sadism. If you know anything about Uday Hussein, you’ve got the idea.

Gibbon credits “honor” and “gallantry” – you know, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind – with restraining any similar proclivities in the royals of his own time, but such prudish sentiments had no influence on E’s exhibitionism. Rather than go deep into all of the sordid details available about the emperor’s personal life, which he insisted on making public, I shall instead bless your eyes with another Markiplier meme.

Let’s pause here to meet a couple of the minor players hinted at in the last entry, who are becoming major players even as we speak.

Julia Mæsa (hereinafter “Grandma”):

  • sister of Severus’ wife Julia Domna
  • mother of Soæmias and Mamæa
  • grandmother of E
  • … and Alexander Severus
  • adorner of money

Julia Soæmias (hereinafter “Soæmias”):

  • cousin and (thanks to Grandma’s strategic gossip) rumored mistress of Caracalla
  • girl about town
  • mother of E

Julia Mamæa (hereinafter “Mamæa”):

  • aunt of E
  • mother of Alexander Severus
  • proof that you weren’t a Roman noblewoman unless your first name was Julia
  • except she named her daughter Theoclia
  • way to break the streak, Mamæa

Ok, but who’s this Alexander Severus guy?

Even the army, which usually could not have lower standards if it tried, had gotten tired of E’s three years of antics and was subtly casting about for a replacement. Grandma knew this would happen eventually, and she had just the person already in mind:

Alexander Severus!

My name is Alexander Severus …

She had already convinced Elagabalus to adopt her younger grandson as his heir. With his flighty relationship habits and aversion to responsibility, he wasn’t likely to produce a crown prince the old-fashioned way. Plus, getting a successor in line to begin training for the role early would take many of the cares of governing off of E’s shoulders, so he could get back to his real job: having fun on the taxpayer’s dime.

E was fine with this … until it became apparent that Alexander Severus was a likable guy who cared more about doing real good than blowing the empire’s money, and the tide of public opinion started to shift accordingly in his favor. E decided he’d better get rid of this rival for the people’s affections and do it quick. Fortunately for Alexander Severus, he was able to dodge every assassin that was sent his way, because E couldn’t stop bragging about the brilliance of his plots before they had even been carried out.

Next he tried to strip Alexander of his official titles, but this went over so poorly with the army and the Senate that the Emperor of Rome was reduced to begging for his life. As soon as he felt he was safe, E tried again; this time sending out a trial message that Alexander was dead to see how the army would take it. Once again, their reaction was violent. When E mustered the courage to stand up to them this time, they rewarded him and Soæmias with their very own cement shoes.

Thus ended that imperial frat party.

Alexander was now about the age Elagabalus had been at his coronation. Grandma and Mamæa, eager to prevent a repeat of the past, held on tightly to the reins of power even after the new boy emperor’s recognition by the Senate. Alexander held all the authority in name – the Senate had NOT appreciated Elagabalus’ appointment of Soæmias as a senator, and had outlawed anyone from doing that again – but it was very much a matriarchal government. Mamæa was more of a “power behind the throne” type than her sister had been. She retained control over Tommen’s Alexander’s public and private life until she died. This included arranging and then annulling her son’s marriage, once she began to suspect that he might love his wife more than her.

She may have had enough control issues to rival the Empress Dowager Cixi, but she had a good head for government. Her personal anti-corruption taskforce, chosen from among the best of the Senate, was remarkably successful. They chose people to replace E’s personal favorites based on their actual qualifications for the job, rather than their physical attributes. What a concept.

Guizot chides Gibbon for not mentioning how strong of an influence Christianity was becoming on the royal family by this time, thereby crediting its principles for the sudden improvement in imperial administration. Milman assures us Gibbon will get to this later.

It helped that Alexander was, by all accounts, a naturally virtuous guy himself (though whether he is portrayed as a saintly altar boy or a milquetoast marionette varies, depending on which Roman chronicler you read). With a daily schedule more regimented than Benjamin Franklin’s, and a frugality in his personal expenses not seen since Pertinax, what’s not to love?

“Since the accession of Commodus, the Roman world had experienced, during the term of forty years, the successive and various vices of four tyrants. From the death of Elagabalus, it enjoyed an auspicious calm of thirteen years. The provinces, relieved from the oppressive taxes invented by Caracalla and his pretended son, flourished in peace and prosperity [Milman’s note: except for some endless wars], under the administration of magistrates who were convinced by experience that to deserve the love of the subjects was their best and only method of obtaining the favor of their sovereign. … In the civil administration of Alexander, wisdom was enforced by power, and the people, sensible of the public felicity, repaid their benefactor with their love and gratitude.”

The incorrigible army was the elephant in the room. Alexander, knowing he already owed his life to the violence of their hatred of Elagabalus, feared to push them too far. Instead he attempted to coax them into doing actual military work by keeping them well paid, providing lots of shiny armor and toys, and relaxing their physical standards.

This didn’t work super well. The Praetorians, once they no longer had anyone to protect Alexander from, eventually grew tired of him and started missing E’s profligacy. They took their frustration out on Ulpian, the incorruptible prefect Mamæa had handpicked to oversee them, by murdering him in the throne room. The harshest punishment the emperor dared inflict for this was to reward the ringleader with a government job far, far away in a thinly disguised exile. Another general who dared to discipline his troops had to be kicked upstairs and sent to live in the country, to protect him from his soldiers’ fury at being expected to behave like soldiers.

Chapter 6 Part 4

Alexander knew that any attempt to reform the army was not likely to last long. Mutinies were constantly cropping up, due to the soldiers’ consciousness of their superior force against one unarmed man, whose elevated title and supposed divine lineage no longer inspired any respect. He got through to one legion once by firing them all from the army (and its attendant prestige and pay) and not letting them re-enlist until they had groveled for a month. Even though the cause of this group’s reprimand was that they had been caught in the local women’s bathhouse – yes, ancient peoples understood consent too – I suspect that this was still one of the more disciplined legions, considering they didn’t just kill the emperor on the spot for chastising them.

Gibbon suspects that this occasion was distorted by retelling, as the emperor’s general softness of demeanor and Mamæa’s well-known overbearing nature had made Alex too much of a No Respect Guy to intimidate anyone in a tense situation.

We interrupt this thrill ride of intrigue and scandal to bring you some … tax history. Yay?

In case Gibbon hasn’t sufficiently impressed this fact on the mind of the reader yet: maintaining an army large enough to fight all of the empire’s incessant wars, while keeping them entertained in the style to which they had grown accustomed, was Expensive. Originally, only citizens could be taxed, so Caracalla threw open the gates of citizenship – formerly a coveted and exclusive designation – to every non-slave who lived within his dominions at that time. By increasing the pool of eligible taxpayers, he thought to keep his war chest full without having to cut back on his lavish personal amusements. (And because there is nothing new under the sun, that policy is being proposed again today, with different details.)

The commander who arrested Paul in Jerusalem is going to be so mad.

Gibbon backtracks a little to explain How We Got Here. The army at the beginning of the Roman Republic was so hilariously bad at its job that its campaigns took longer and cost more than necessary. The Senate, figuring that no precedent they could set would be as bad for the people as a reputation for retreating would be for Rome’s international standing, passed special bills to give the army a regular salary so they would stick it out. The strong new national pride of the citizens had them wholeheartedly agreeing to pay more taxes. At first, this paid off; the armies regularly brought home so much treasure, the citizens felt that any extra tax they had to pay would always be worth the reward.

^ the enemy city about to be conquered seeing a Roman legion outside

Emperor Augustus took the situation a step further by giving the Senate a balance sheet showing exactly how lucrative the practice of imposing tribute on conquered nations had been, and how much more lucrative raising the tax rates on citizens could be.

This made a lot of people very angry and was widely regarded as a bad move.

Augustus, not being predisposed to luxury himself, nor having the benefit of a Hari Seldon to advise him, could hardly have predicted that in just a couple hundred years (heh) some lascivious characters acting under his name would use his taxation precedents to fund their personal expense accounts. Nevertheless, the seed was sown.

Early emperors tried to be fair by imposing the highest taxes on luxury goods (most likely to be purchased by Rome’s blue bloods, who could best afford them) and by gradually raising estate taxes. The latter strategy took on new popularity in response to the rise of insincere hangers-on who used estate tax loopholes to wheedle rich old men they barely knew into leaving them fortunes.

I’ll will him the Batcave if I want to!

By the time of Nero, the government depended so heavily on the estate tax that when Nero tried to abolish it to win himself some social capital, the Senate sweetly let him know he wouldn’t be doing that. Caracalla went the opposite direction, doubling the estate tax rate AND the revenue obligations of all the foreign subjects he had just made citizens with one blanket decree. They now had to keep paying the tributes which they had formerly owed as subjugated client states, as well as the regular taxes now due from them as citizens. His significant reduction of the required tribute amount was one of the few things they did respect Alexander for.

Unfortunately, as the national debt got ever hungrier, heavy taxation spread from the realm of luxuries to that of everyday necessities. Affording to live was getting difficult.

“As long as Rome and Italy were respected as the centre of government, a national spirit was preserved by the ancient, and insensibly imbibed by the adopted, citizens. The principal commands of the army were filled by men who had received a liberal education, were well instructed in the advantages of laws and letters, and who had risen, by equal steps, through the regular succession of civil and military honors. To their influence and example we may partly ascribe the modest obedience of the legions during the two first centuries of the Imperial history.

But when the last enclosure of the Roman constitution was trampled down by Caracalla, the separation of professions gradually succeeded to the distinction of ranks. The more polished citizens of the internal provinces were alone qualified to act as lawyers and magistrates. The rougher trade of arms was abandoned to the peasants and barbarians of the frontiers, who knew no country but their camp, no science but that of war, no civil laws, and scarcely those of military discipline. With bloody hands, savage manners, and desperate resolutions, they sometimes guarded, but much oftener subverted, the throne of the emperors.”

Future looks bright, fam.

Quotations that stood out to me:

“The most worthless of mankind are not afraid to condemn in others the same disorders which they allow in themselves; and can readily discover some nice difference of age, character, or station, to justify the partial distinction.”

“In every age and country, the wiser, or at least the stronger, of the two sexes, has usurped the powers of the state, and confined the other to the cares and pleasures of domestic life. In hereditary monarchies, however, and especially in those of modern Europe, the gallant spirit of chivalry, and the law of succession, have accustomed us to allow a singular exception; and a woman is often acknowledged the absolute sovereign of a great kingdom, in which she would be deemed incapable of exercising the smallest employment, civil or military. … Metellus Numidicus, the censor, acknowledged to the Roman people, in a public oration, that had kind nature allowed us to exist without the help of women, we should be delivered from a very troublesome companion; and he could recommend matrimony only as the sacrifice of private pleasure to public duty.”

This way of thinking is so anachronistic today, I had to highlight it here for the shock value. I surmise that Gibbon probably had some strong opinions about Elizabeth I.

Also, lol at Metellus Numidicus. Poor guy. Did he know no one who enjoyed their marriages?

(insert plug for Christianity making marriage about love and growth, not just the securing of property ownership)

“The resolutions of the multitude generally depend on a moment; and the caprice of passion might equally determine the seditious legion to lay down their arms at the emperor’s feet, or to plunge them into his breast.”

And the fact that my generation is being bamboozled into advocating for pure majority rule could not be a more perfect illustration of why that’s a bad idea.

“Spain, by a very singular fatality, was the Peru and Mexico of the old world. The discovery of the rich western continent by the Phoenicians, and the oppression of the simple natives, who were compelled to labor in their own mines for the benefit of strangers, form an exact type of the more recent history of Spanish America. The Phoenicians were acquainted only with the sea-coast of Spain; avarice, as well as ambition, carried the arms of Rome and Carthage into the heart of the country, and almost every part of the soil was found pregnant with copper, silver, and gold. Mention is made of a mine near Carthagena which yielded every day twenty-five thousand drachmns of silver, or about three hundred thousand pounds a year. Twenty thousand pound weight of gold was annually received from the provinces of Asturia, Gallicia, and Lusitania.”


This passage introduces some salient meditations on the concept of collective memory and how “hurt people hurt people.”

Currently approved versions of the history of the Western Hemisphere all follow the same general tenor: “indigenous peoples good, Europeans bad.” What if looking further back reveals an ironic echo of the cycles of history repeating?

Not that it would have comforted the Aztecs/Mexica very much to know, as they were compelled to labor in their own mines for the benefit of strangers, that their new overlords had been in the exact same situation 1300 years ago, and the Romans had long since bled the Spanish mines dry by the time the conquistadores rolled up to the New World.

Not that the Aztecs’ hands were exactly clean, either. Just ask the Totonacs, the Huaxtec, the Tarascans, the Tepanecs, …

Aspiring conquerors would do well to remember that the descendants of their victims might well become the abusers of their own descendants (or someone else’s).

Though aspiring conquerors don’t tend to care too much about who has to deal with the fallout of their misdeeds after they’re dead, as long as it won’t be their problem.

^ This scene is not exactly analogous, but the sentiment is there.


*looks up location of Cartagena, Spain*

*looks up borders of Carthaginian Empire*

How did I never make this connection before.

[after listing the luxury goods available during the time of Alexander, a list ending with “eunuchs”]:

“We may observe that the use and value of those effeminate slaves gradually rose with the decline of the empire.”

While I have objected loudly and often to Gibbon’s characterization of Eastern men as “effeminate” on an ethnic basis, I have to agree with the biological basis here. Removing the testosterone production centers from the body does change the personality.

And thinking that other humans are yours to “buy” for your pleasure or convenience does change your society. For the worse.

Good day.

3 thoughts on “Anna’s Update 9: rich kids of ancient rome

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