This chapter is such a chönk that we’re only getting through the first section today.
A recurring thought, which I have not remembered to include until this moment: I would have had a serious talk with Gibbon about his excessive comma usage if he’d asked me to proofread.
Chapter 7 Part 1
Before getting to the good stuff, Gibbon opens with an expansive soliloquy about the seeming ridiculousness of hereditary monarchy when compared with more representative succession arrangements. He then pivots to extol what he sees as the underlying *stability* of this system. As he notes,
“In the cool shade of retirement, we may easily devise imaginary forms of government, in which the sceptre shall be constantly bestowed on the most worthy, by the free and incorrupt suffrage of the whole community. Experience overturns these airy fabrics, and teaches us, that in a large society, the election of a monarch can never devolve to the wisest, or to the most numerous part of the people.”
Gibbon, who sounds very jaded by how often the Praetorians have been throwing their weight around, expounds on his observation that benevolent people often lack the strength of will and the unity to outlast their opposition when taking actions they believe to be necessary. Those who DO possess such strength of will and internal unity (or enforced uniformity) are usually far more self-interested than benevolent.
And the armchair quarterbacks munch their schadenfreude popcorn as the world burns.
Unfortunately for Rome’s future stability, the early Caesars did not share Gibbon’s opinion that a hereditary succession is the most stable and most likely to redound to the common good. They trusted to the strength of tradition, and to the wisdom and superior education of the noble families and their elected representatives in the Senate, to select the worthiest nobleman to serve as head of state and then hold him comfortably in check.
“But the Roman empire, after the authority of the senate had sunk into contempt, was a vast scene of confusion. The royal, and even noble, families of the provinces had long since been led in triumph before the car of the haughty republicans. The ancient families of Rome had successively fallen beneath the tyranny of the Cæsars [my note: yeah, they were taxed to death]; and whilst those princes were shackled by the forms of a commonwealth, and disappointed by the repeated failure of their posterity, it was impossible that any idea of hereditary succession should have taken root in the minds of their subjects. The right to the throne, which none could claim from birth, every one assumed from merit. The daring hopes of ambition were set loose from the salutary restraints of law and prejudice; and the meanest of mankind might, without folly, entertain a hope of being raised by valor and fortune to a rank in the army, in which a single crime would enable him to wrest the sceptre of the world from his feeble and unpopular master.”
But first … a flashback.
Emperor Severus has brought the ill-fated younger prince Geta along for a military campaign; or, as Sev calls it, “father-son bonding time.” They stop to throw Geta the manliest birthday party, consisting mainly of combat sports, when some Balkan hayseed named Maximin steps up and asks to join in.
He thinks it will be a fair contest. It’s not … for the guys that get assigned to fight him.
After watching him throw down 16 times in a row, the onlookers figure the guy’s proved his point and hand him a Roman Army-branded water bottle and an enlistment form. Maximin takes them up on the opportunity; but like an aspiring entrepreneur at a VC cocktail party, he goes through the new recruit welcome sessions with one eye on constant lookout for a chance to talk to the emperor.
He gets his chance the next day when Severus rides past. Max pulls an Elijah and races the royal horse for an unspecified distance – Gibbon only calls it “a long and rapid career.” Severus wants to know if this kid can replicate yesterday’s feat after sprinting so hard. This time they give him actual soldiers to fight, not civilian grunts, and Maximin once again makes them look like minimum wage mall cops.
Severus is duly impressed and appoints the new recruit to his personal mounted bodyguard. And that … was his first mistake.
For the next 32 years, Maximin acquires a veneer of sophistication and develops a knack for politics while rising through the ranks and kicking his troops into shape. His view of the progression of emperors is something like this:
- Septimius Severus (respect)
- Caracalla (stay far away)
- Elagabalus (ew)
- Alexander Severus (is this a joke?)
- Elagabalus (ew)
- Caracalla (stay far away)
Since he’s not one of the bureaucrats responsible for the fluctuations in their pay – and since he started from the bottom like most of them – the soldiers like him, even though he makes them work.
He doesn’t like him, though. He can’t forget his unrefined, uneducated background, and enough snubs from snooty patricians have let him know that there are others who will never forget it either. Gradually he comes to believe that there’s only one way to beat his impostor syndrome: like Severus before him, he’ll just have to fight his way to the top.
It’s no secret that the army despises Alexander, his prim and proper etiquette, his bloodless bureaucracy, and his mom, so with a few well-placed followers running anonymous Twitter accounts, Maximin starts tantalizing them with the idea of working for a man’s man. Set aside the fact that Alexander just raised their wages yet again – Max convinces them that ALL the treasures of the empire belong to the army by right; as their commander in chief, he could get them the bonuses they really deserve.
Oblivious to all of this, the idealistic emperor has put Maximin in charge of preparing the army for a German campaign. Alexander, maybe wanting to prove he’s no slouch, is coming too; but instead of accompanying his trusted general to review the troops, he’s in his tent getting ready for nappytime.
And that … was his last mistake.
Accounts vary here. Either Alexander was accidentally awakened by a maladroit court jester seconds before Maximin’s assassins charged him, or he was fully aware of the impromptu coronation that had sprung up on the other side of the camp, but he was too caught off guard to marshal his few faithful soldiers to oppose it. Whichever way it went, he reputedly did not face death with the stoic resolution that the ancient Roman chroniclers admired in their tragic heroes, but spent his last moments in inelegant blubbering.
So passeth our homeschool hero. Press F to pay respects.
Staying on par with the actions of his predecessors, Maximin, also known to history as Maximinus Thrax, conducted the inevitable purge of all of Alexander’s remaining loyalists. And the cycle of imperial brutality began again; for as you might expect if you know anything about psychology, finally achieving his ultimate goal only made Maxy T’s raging inferiority superiority complex worse, not better.
Once again, suspicion amounted to guilt in his regime. He was a master of inventing uniquely sadistic ways to dispatch of suspected dissidents (who, naturally, were denied anything resembling due process). Anyone who knew about the emperor’s humble origins, had achieved their positions through charm and skill, or were simply of noble birth had to go. This upped his body count significantly.
How many reruns of this sort of thing have we watched by now?
“As long as the cruelty of Maximin was confined to the illustrious senators, or even to the bold adventurers, who in the court or army expose themselves to the caprice of fortune, the body of the people viewed their sufferings with indifference, or perhaps with pleasure. But the tyrant’s avarice, stimulated by the insatiate desires of the soldiers, at length attacked the public property.”
That’s right, bleeding the rich dry just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Instead, all spending accounts, slush funds, and precious metal fittings that could be found in the public buildings and temples of every city were forcibly collectivized for distribution among the soldiers.
One person I wouldn’t mind knowing more about is Maximin’s wife Paulina. We learn exactly two things about her in this chapter, both from footnotes: that she was occasionally able to restrain his more brute impulses in his dealings with his subjects, and that she predeceased him – possibly at his orders. It would be interesting to know if she was from a noble family, as that dynamic would heavily color their relationship and determine how much influence she had on him at any point during his reign.
Some rich young delinquents in an African province, who were facing the confiscation of basically their entire inheritances as a fine for a crime they had committed, finally said Enough. They dug around in some family trees and discovered that their local proconsul Gordianus was a distant relative of the Emperor Trajan.
The unfortunate man had made himself too conspicuous by being a fair and generous public servant. “[H]e possessed the uncommon talent of acquiring the esteem of virtuous princes, without alarming the jealousy of tyrants.” They forced him to the head of their ranks and proclaimed him a rival emperor to Maximin, very much against Gordianus’ wishes. However, realizing that at this point his days were numbered no matter what he did, he decided to play along.
“[A]fter the barbarous Maximin had usurped the throne, Gordianus alleviated the miseries which he was unable to prevent. When he reluctantly accepted the purple, he was above fourscore years old; a last and valuable remains of the happy age of the Antonines, whose virtues he revived in his own conduct … The Roman people … rested the public hope on those latent virtues which had hitherto, as they fondly imagined, lain concealed in the luxurious indolence of private life.”
Silly Romans, character is for kids!
No, really. When you realize your whole civilization is sliding into wrack and ruin, you can’t bring back the past by plucking one virtuous figurehead from obscurity and planting him on the masthead of your sinking ship. You gotta get the whole society on the same track. That means everyone learns self-denial, everyone starts standing up to tyrants in sheep’s clothing, everyone gets used to doing things the hard way, everyone is willing to sacrifice anything from their luxuries to their lives if that’s what it takes to leave a safer world to their descendants … and they require the same things of their children every single day.
But that would be too much work. It’s far easier to elect someone who talks a good game so you can assure yourself that everything is okay now and get back to business as usual: entertaining yourself and ignoring your children.
Though Gordianus and his son – collectively “the Gordians” – were popular with their people in North Africa, they had enough regard for the laws that were still observed in Rome to know they had no chance of actually taking the throne unless the Senate was on their side. Fortunately for them, not only did the Senate hate Minimax with the fury of a thousand suns (and the feeling was mutual), they happily recognized the Gordians as members of Roman society’s version of the Four Hundred.
The memory of their cowardice in yielding to the usurper inspirited the senators with new resolve to defy him; so after bravely locking themselves in for a secret session, to which not even their scribes were invited, they approved Gordianus & Son as the new emperor and crown prince.
As usual, the fox was away, ruling from his mobile command center, and had left everyone’s favorite Praetorians in charge of the henhouse. The Senate ordered his murder by proxy in the person of Vitalianus, the Praetorian prefect and Maximin’s second-in-command in bloodthirst. Bounties were put on the heads of the reigning royal family. Statues came down. Generals were appointed. Dispatch riders were sent out to raise an army.
There was just one problem:
The Gordians were dead.
Their station at Carthage, where they were still trying to raise their own army to get them to Rome, was pitifully vulnerable to attack, which is exactly what the governor of Mauritania did in hopes of pleasing the emperor. Junior perished in his attempt to lead such unprepared troops as they had against the Mauritanian offense, and Senior canceled himself upon learning of his son’s failure.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Meanwhile in Rome …
The Senate knew immediately that however much trouble they were already in for when Maximin arrived, it was going to be even worse now. One man stood up and said, “Well, guys, we already have nothing to lose. Let’s just appoint two senators as co-emperors and get on with the war. We’re going to die anyway, so we might as well do it right.”
It was settled. One emperor would run the government, one would lead the army, and they would show Maximin exactly what you can expect from a population pushed to “that uncommon distress, in which the body of the people has more to fear from oppression than from resistance.”
Quotations that stood out to me:
“It is easy for faction and calumny to shed their poison on the administration of the best of princes, and to accuse even their virtues by artfully confounding them with those vices to which they bear the nearest affinity.”
Good thing we’ve never seen that happen here in the ol’ U.S. of A., am I right? … *laughs nervously*
“[A]ccording to the reasoning of tyrants, those who have been esteemed worthy of the throne deserve death, and those who deliberate have already rebelled.”
THOSE WHO DELIBERATE HAVE ALREADY REBELLED.
Tune in next week to find out if the citizens succeeded in their mission to blow up Maximin’s power grid. Not even I know the answer to that yet.