Alex makes a boo boo. A really big boo boo. Despite his relative success and general good-guyness, he eventually ran out of road when a would-be Conan the Barbarian decided he could be the head honcho.
The result was… bloody and horrifying. How typical.
Gibbon opens up with a hilarious monologue about the failings of hereditary monarchies. Hilarious because (a) he makes fun of monarchies while being a citizen and parliamentarian in a hereditary monarchy and (b) he roasts monarchies as clownish endeavors and then proclaims their reasonability and greatness in the next sentence.
Never change Gibbon, never change.
Epic Actual Battles of History, begin!
Gibbon litigates various philosophies of government, and settles into a discourse on the power and effectiveness of militaries picking their countries’ leaders. He observes the advantageous position armies have in installing leaders, despite the significant shortcomings of militaries to prioritize or even understand significant civil needs. Interestingly, Gibbon pens a dismissal of countries that would elect their leader, arguing that “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.” This is ironic because his country was about to lose a war to a bunch of colonial upstarts who wanted to elect their leaders (and have been doing so ever since), though his point about pure democracy rings true. Arguably, the fact that the US is not a straight democracy is the reason we have been electing leaders since the late 1700s. And while I have the opportunity, let me emphasize that the USA is a REPUBLIC, NOT A DEMOCRACY.
After centuries of civil and constitutional erosion by the emperors, “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.”
Hint: this is a literary technique called foreshadowing.
Gibbon now does something that annoys me, and it’s the first of a couple times in the chapter he does it. Out of nowhere, he begins referencing the murder of Alexander Severus as if he already covered it. He has not. Then he backtracks with a sentence that opens with “about 32 years before that event.” Dude. Unexplained or unexpected continuity breaks are unhelpful when writing history.
Now, enough about Gibbon and his weird rants and quirks. Let’s do as the Romans do!
Good to Bad to Worse
A big burly barbarian man named Maximin approached the military camp during celebrations for Alexander Severus’s son, Geta. After asking to celebrate Festivus by participating in the Feats of Strength tradition, he licked so many from the Roman army in wrestling that they gave him gifts and let him join. The next day he randomly challenged Alexander to a race. Let me stress, This guy has the gumption to challenge *the emperor* to a race literally the day after he joins the army. The. Next. Day.
Folks, I don’t know about you but I’d find that really quite disturbing. That suggests someone who needs discipline and, at least, needs a good schooling of what is appropriate. Random guy beats a bunch of trained killers in wrestling… then he immediately goes up to the ruler of the known world?
Sadly for Alex, he doesn’t see this. Of course, he may have been slightly distracted by the fact that he was riding a horse… and Maximin simply ran alongside. WUT. So of course, Alex wants more wrestling! And immediately after RACING A HORSE, Maximin goes 7-0 against some of the burliest, strongest, capable guys in the Roman military.
And herein lies Alex’s mistake: Maximin is given more gifts… and is appointed to the emperor’s horse guards. Now, Maximin is not completely without resume. He had been in the military under Septimius Severus, but bowed out during the reigns of Caracella and Elagabahgrabah.** Now back in the ranks, Maximin did nothing but impress and make everyone happy in his new positions with the Roman military. He eventually led the fourth legion and made them the absolute best. A true born leader!
Problem: he’s still a barbarian.
”His father was a Goth, and his mother of the nation of the Alani.”
-The opening lyrics from Sk8er Boi if Avril Lavigne wrote it about Maximin
He makes Conan look civilized. The Barbarian, not O’Brien. And he has contempt for the special treatment he’s gotten. And elites in general. In fact, his outright loathing of elites would make even the most anti-elitist person alive today blush. So he started gaming the system and working his legion over. Next thing you know, they’re proclaiming him emperor and plotting how to rid themselves of Alexander Severus. And they huffed and they puffed and they brutally murdered Alexander, Mamæa, and anyone and everyone who had any association with them.
Gibbon asserts the inability to liken Maximin to Rome’s prior mega-bad emperors, as the likes of Nero were all well educated and taught the virtues of being Caesar – they just had various failings and corruptions. Maximin, on the other hand, was a barbarian – a literal barbarian – who was self-conscious enough that he delivered brutality to anyone who he even began to think had any contempt, dislike, or other elite revulsion for him.
”The dark and sanguinary soul of the tyrant was open to every suspicion against those among his subjects who were the most distinguished by their birth or merit.”
Like most dictatorial scum, Maximin was driven by paranoias and suspicions. Stalin was notorious for this and was known to jail, exile, and murder absolutely devoted underlings purely on his fear of being the victim of a plot there was no evidence of. In Maximin’s case, his imaginations fit right in with his unbridled hatred of certain classes and families. Gibbon notes that one such imagined plot resulted in the death of a senator… and over 4,000 purported accomplices. And much like the USSR under Stalin (and other dictatorships of recent and historical memory), informers, spies, and assorted random people were ready, willing, and able to turn in someone for any number of real or manufactured offenses. I’ll spare you some of the gory details that Gibbon addresses, but suffice it to say that Maximin was a Godless barbarian who reveled in inflicting maximum suffering and carnage on his victims.
This went on for three whole years! And the crazy part: no one cared as long as Maximin’s chief target was the Senate and Roman elite. The average Roman was content to let him eat the rich because they weren’t on the naughty list! Of course, a lot of dictators have been allowed to assume and retain power because they either went after the right people at the beginning or were ignored as described in Niemöller’s renowned poem. And then it all changed. Maximin ordered huge confiscation of wealth from across Rome, including stripping the temples of their precious metals, gems, and artifacts. This resulted in an untold number of deaths and clashes when people tried to oppose the military in carrying out their orders. And, despite getting a payout for their handiwork, the military kinda knows they’ve stepped in it… and are now between Maximin and everyone else.
The Fire Rises
The town of Thysdrus became the home of the Rebellion…I mean the Resistance… oh never mind. Point is that they had enough and they weren’t the only ones. They browbeat the aging proconsul Gordianus into agreeing to claim the throne, along with his son: now known as Gordian I and II. They met with the Senate and convinced them to actually claim the authority they should have as the Senate and oppose the tyrant Maximin, which the senators did.
Side note, I flipped out over the following quote regarding Gordian II:
“Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.”
First off, a library of 62,000 is absolutely nothing to scoff at. There’s a good chance your local library branch doesn’t have 62,000 items on hand. But what a crazy way for Gibbon to describe the concubines *cough*sexslaves*cough*.
Anyways, after an impassioned speech from one of the Senators, they were ready to rock. And then Gordian II imitated Faramir trying to reclaim Osgiliath, except he did so of his own accord (no insane Palantir addicted father this time). Then Gordian I committed suicide the moment he heard what happened.
Since these two were going to spearhead a massive revolution against Maximin and they were dead, there was an understandable level of unhappiness, wailing, and wearing of sackcloth and ashes. At least, until a Senator gave a Braveheart speech in a super secret Senate meeting and got them to agree on two more emperors, both senators, since they’re all already dead for opposing Maximin to start with. And now we have the fifth and sixth emperors this chapter: Maximus and Balbinus. We’ll meet them in earnest next time.
Looks like we’re having a revolution after all!
A Natural Conclusion
There’s no surprises here. This is the culmination of a few hundred years of Roman degradation and the prior several emperors’ failures and insufficiencies. A pagan society trying to bring order to itself through means that will never fully succeed at making sense of the world… and that’s the means that aren’t would-be Neros and Caligulas.
**You thought I’d actually say Elagabalus this time didn’t you.