Within the span of three years, all of these people were emperor or were declared to be emperor. And yet there was only one possible direction for Rome to go.
Yep. Believe it or not, our emperor total is going to the moon.
Gibbon delivers Chapter 7 Parts 2 and 3. Weirdly, Part 3 is only a couple paragraphs that are more or less concluding Part 2. And as you can guess from the addition of more emperors into the mix, we have many, many, many, many more disturbances, power grabs, usurpations, and betrayals to go. There’s a huge chunk of territory to cover, not to mention the fact that I’ve got a mountain of thoughts on this, so let’s dive right in!
Probably want to keep a notepad handy for this one… this gets messy.
Maximus and Balbinus are pretty much the prototypical emperor material… of several decades prior. They come from good families, they have some amount of experience in various areas of the government and military, and they are the respected statesmen types. The senate says “congrats you’re emperors” and as soon as they go to the temple of Jupiter, an angry mob of Romans shows up and demands… wait for it… more emperors! They weren’t really moved by two lifelong government cogs becoming emperor without some public approval and essentially said, “we’ll live with you two if you let one of the Gordians be an emperor with you.” The two consent and the completely inexperienced 13 year old remaining member of the Gordian family is declared to be an emperor, too. Happy people, happy emperors.
So, just to clarify, right now there are *four* emperors: Maximin, Maximus, Balbinus, and Gordian III. The brutal and violent Maximin is away from Rome and Italy with the military, and the other three are in Rome and are out to stop his reign of terror. And speaking of Maximin, he takes the news of new emperors characteristically unwell and becomes so enraged that his own family and trusted lieutenants can’t be around him out of fear for their lives. Gibbon describes his manner as that “rage of a wild beast.” If you haven’t figured it out, this petulant murderer does not have self-control. At all.
A man without self-control
is like a city broken into and left without walls.
Maximin sets out for blood… but… later? Gibbon walks through it:
“it appears that the operations of some foreign war deferred the Italian expedition till the ensuing spring. From the prudent conduct of Maximin, we may learn that the savage features of his character have been exaggerated by the pencil of party, that his passions, however impetuous, submitted to the force of reason, and that the barbarian possessed something of the generous spirit of Sylla, who subdued the enemies of Rome before he suffered himself to revenge his private injuries.”
It is about at this point that Guizot slides into the footnotes with an absolute marathon regarding the veracity of historical accounts and the difficulty trying to pin down timelines and actions. He also spoils the rest of the chapter. Don’t be like Guizot.
I find this hard to believe and would contend that there must be another explanation. First, people as unhinged and unpredictable as Maximin don’t magically attain reason. Second, if he is as skilled a soldier and general and Gibbon asserts him to be, he would have known that delaying an incursion into Italy would give his opponents time to prepare for him (though he may have believed his legions would be superior whether the fight was sooner or later). Perhaps he judged that there was simply no choice but to fight one before the other, but to suggest a man as out of control as Maximin magically makes rational, mature, disciplined decisions? Ehh. Either it’s all overhyped or it’s not.
And better served Maximin would have been had he pushed towards Rome immediately, because prepare the new emperors did. When he and his forces finally start their slash, burn, and murder campaign… there’s nothing to slash, burn, and murder. The Romans pulled a 100% Russian winter move. They abandoned their towns ahead of the attacking force, leaving them with nothing. No goods, no food, no bridges, nothing. The senate figured that the best shot they had was to make the fighting last as long as possible, to deprive the attackers of food and water. Maximin and his army had no choice but to march onward without picking up new provisions. The people and the goods were stockpiled in cities rich in resources that would be able to withstand and outlast any sieging force. When the barbarian’s legions end up laying siege to Aquileia, the people, motivated by the scourge of Maximin and pampered by nearly indefinite stores of goods, repelled the military seemingly with no sign of ever wearing down. I particularly love this image Gibbon paints regarding the Aquileian’s effectiveness in routing Maximin: “his machines [were] destroyed by showers of artificial fire.”
Maximin realizes he has a problem: he’s getting nowhere in the seige but attacking Rome outright is suicide. Aquileia makes like Merry and Pippin resting with the finest weed of the Southfarthing while Maximin’s forces are experiencing famine, disease, and pestilence… and are watching the bodies pile up. Getting blamed for their failures by the rage-filled Maximin didn’t help morale much, either. So the Praetorians butchered Maximin, his son, and his cronies. Notably, Maximin’s son had already been declared to be an emperor by his dad. Yes, another emperor – who is now dead. Anyways, the troops paraded the despots’ entrails around, the Aquileians welcomed them into the city and they provided them with the food and care they needed.
Gibbon does provide an interesting note here regarding Maximin, who apparently resembled a mini-Goliath:
“The stature of Maximin exceeded the measure of eight feet, and circumstances almost incredible are related of his matchless strength and appetite. Had he lived in a less enlightened age, tradition and poetry might well have described him as one of those monstrous giants, whose supernatural power was constantly exerted for the destruction of mankind.”
”His father was a Goth, and his mother of the nation of the Alani.”
-The opening lyrics to Sk8er Boi by Avril Lavigne, if written about Maximin
Meanwhile in Rome…
Gibbon adds in the other half of the story now, revealing that Balbinus was in the middle of a complete civil war in Rome while Maximus was off leading the war against Maximin. It seems some hothead senators killed some hothead guards and instigated a riot bent on murdering all the Praetorians. A full on urban warfare scenario exploded across the streets of Rome with an untold number of casualties on both sides. Lovely. Really lovely. I bet the reviews on Yelp would have been something else.
At this point, we reach a rinse, wash, repeat phase of this calamity with a number of important points that will be familiar from prior chapters. Tell me if you’ve head this before:
The people joyously welcome the victorious trio of emperors (Maximus, Balbinus, Gordian III), the army begrudgingly pledges loyalty to them, and nearly all of the oppressive taxes and regulations created by Maximin are reduced or eliminated. Life is good. While attempting to undo the effects of the legions’ mutiny/coup to make Maximin emperor and restore an actual republic governance, Maximus has a moment of clarity in telling Balbinus that he fears the military and the fact that they were wrong and are not in the driver’s seat anymore.
Familiar sounding, isn’t it?
While they’re nearly alone at the palace during the Capitoline Games (basically the Olympics), here come the military’s assassins. In a moment of dark humor, Gibbon reveals that Maximus and Balbinus kinda sorta don’t get along and, even when facing death, can’t put it aside long enough to try and prevent their deaths. The military assassins drag them through the streets of Rome, insulting them as “emperors of the senate” and only stopped their violent and fatal show out of fear of the Imperial Guards.
Actual video of Capitoline Games:
As Gibbon states, within just six months, six emperors have been roasted: Maximin, Maximin’s son, Gordian I, Gordian II, Maximus, and Balbinus. Now we’re down to a lone emperor: a juvenile Gordian III. Thankfully for the short term, everyone likes Gordy. The military recognize him as emperor and the people adore him – after all, he was the one that the people demanded be made emperor alongside Maximus and Balbinus. So we finally have a meeting of the minds that prompts me to drop a meeting of the memes: one modern meme and one pulled from the famous German sci-if silent film Metropolis:
And so Gordian III is the sole emperor. This is where the detail gets particularly fuzzy, since he was only emperor for 6 years, from age 13 to 19. Gibbon acknowledges that there isn’t particularly good information on him, and the editors do even more to cloud this picture. But we have a return of the eunuchs and, as can be guessed, they do Gordian no good:
“Immediately after his accession, he fell into the hands of his mother’s eunuchs, that pernicious vermin of the East, who, since the days of Elagabalus, had infested the Roman palace. By the artful conspiracy of these wretches, an impenetrable veil was drawn between an innocent prince and his oppressed subjects, the virtuous disposition of Gordian was deceived, and the honors of the empire sold without his knowledge, though in a very public manner, to the most worthless of mankind.”
So it seems the remnants of Elagamemnon** were not completely rooted out as Alexander Severus and Mamaea thought. Mrs. Gordian’s Mom’s slaves are a bad influence on her kid. Shame on you Mrs. Gordian’s Mom. You should know better.
First, we note that Gibbon was soooooo unclear on his thoughts on these eunuchs: “pernicious vermin”, “infested”, “wretches”. He should really tell us what he thinks next time LOL. Now in case you missed it, we have encountered eunuchs before. Anna specifically addressed the so-called “luxury” of eunuch slaves in one of her prior updates, while my own notes on that chapter expressed my lack of surprise at the revelation that the use and commonality of eunuchs increased as Rome declined. On a cultural and societal fabric level, it takes warped views of the world, of human nature, of human worth, and of the individual to reach a place where mutilating a human is seen as a benefit. Gibbon seems to be mixing in some of his disdain for the Eastern cultures and idolization of Roman life in his own commentary (eunuchs were hardly a 100% import), though he successfully makes his views of their existence crystal clear in spite of these issues. Gibbon doesn’t delve directly into the nature of the eunuch’s influences and what exactly was going on, but later on suggests that they were disillusioning and lying to Gordo while the “honors of the empire [were] sold without his knowledge”. Some further digging outside of Gibbon suggests that an effective way to interpret Gibbon’s description in light of modern research is that political power was sold off and usurped by aristocrats and government cretins while Gordian was kept in the dark by the eunuchs. Gibbon further stated that “We are ignorant by what fortunate accident the emperor escaped from this ignominious slavery”, but we do know that he had them driven from the palace.
In the aftermath of this, Gordian marries his rhetoric teacher’s daughter and promotes his newfound father-in-law to the top of the government, where he excels. Gordian goes to war, beating the Persians without firing a shot. Life is great, lots of promise for this young Gordian fella. And then on a scale of 1-10, we have a #11 grade Rome moment.
The father-in-law dies, maybe poisoned. His successor, Phillip, moves into the job. Phil wants the throne and conspires to create bad conditions in the military camps, which they blame on poor Gordian. Gibbon says we don’t know how or exactly who, but we do know there’s a monument where Gordian was whacked. He could have died in battle, he could have died in exile, he could have been killed… we just don’t know. Guizot and Milman do little to aid clarity to the picture.
Either way: exit Gordian III, enter the new Roman emperor Phillip. Oh. You thought we wouldn’t have more emperors by the time this chapter ended? That’s cute.
Phillip does what all usurpers do. Dangle shiny things in front of everybody to make them forget about and ignore that whole usurper bit. He called for the equivalent of the mega-Olympics to celebrate 1,000 years of Rome: “The magnificence of Philip’s shows and entertainments dazzled the eyes of the multitude. The devout were employed in the rites of superstition, whilst the reflecting few revolved in their anxious minds the past history and the future fate of the empire.”
SO… WHAT THE HECK JUST HAPPENED!?
Alexander Severus was killed by Maximin.
Maximin was made emperor.
Maximin made his son co-emperor.
Gordian 1 and 2 were declared to be emperor.
Gordian 2 is killed.
Gordian 1 commits suicide.
Maximus and Balbinus are declared to be emperor.
Gordian 3 is declared to be emperor, too.
Maximin and Maximin Jr. are killed.
Maximus and Balbinus are killed.
Gordian 3 is killed.
Philip is made emperor.
9 emperors in just one chapter, 8 of them not surviving the chapter.
The genie, as they say, is out of the bottle. The military got a taste of true power. They want to be involved, even more than they were. They want to run the show. Meanwhile, every other area of government is completely disintegrated. The senate only functions in part. The Roman people are largely powerless against the government, save for civil war style unrest. Policy is inconsistent, doing complete 180’s from emperor to emperor. It is clearer at this point of Gibbon’s history than at any other prior chapter: Rome has devolved into a run-of-the-mill dictatorship with irrelevant stooges in the senate who may gain more power in times of a weak emperor. The only significant factors that determine policy and daily life are dictator-emperors’ effectiveness in seizing and wielding power, their level of benevolence, and the level of oligarchy and bureaucracy that surrounds the palace. This might seem like stating the obvious, but this is a massive change from Rome’s founding. This was a constitutional republic and operated this way for about 500 years! Augustus became the first true emperor of the Roman Empire in 27 AD. Phillip is barely more than 200 years removed from Augustus p. Any methods from the old way of doing things are gone. Even more importantly, they aren’t even trying to do performative gestures towards the old way of doing things – no one is trying to hide it anymore.
Alongside the governmental decay, there’s the cultural and moral decay. The treatment of slaves, the increase in eunuchs, the entire Elagabambam** incident, gladiators – literal murder for sport and entertainment… these are drops in the ocean of culture issues. I can’t help but think of these quotes related to the founding of these United States:
“Whereas true religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness . . . it is hereby earnestly recommended to the several States to take the most effectual measures for the encouragement thereof.”
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
“Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them or by a power without them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or by the bayonet.”
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”
“Christian religion, in its purity, is the basis, or rather the source of all genuine freedom in government. . . . and I am persuaded that no civil government of a republican form can exist and be durable in which the principles of that religion have not a controlling influence.”
“I believe that religion is the only solid base of morals and that morals are the only possible support of free governments. [T]herefore education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God.”
This is but a tiny fraction of many likeminded writings and sayings of the founding fathers. It’s no wonder our own country is in the state that it’s in, considering the declines in church attendance and religiosity and increasing numbers of fractured families. There’s a slightly (okay, somewhat) cheesy Christian movie from 2002 called Time Changer. Okay, okay: it’s substantially cheesy… but it manages to make a pertinent observation through its plot device. In it, a Bible professor in the 1800s uses a time machine to send one of his colleagues to the modern day (circa 2002) to see the effects of trying to promote morals and ethics without reliance on Scripture. Lots of fish-out-of-water gags related to a nineteenth century theologian grappling with being in a major modern city. But, they did a great job of emphasizing his perpetual culture shock. There’s a scene where he goes to see a movie with a church group and he ends up running through the theater, hysterically demanding the movie be stopped because of the content. There’s another where he stumbles through trying to convince a child of the 90s that his behavior is wrong. His conclusion is that modern culture is basically Sodom and Gomorrah. And that was this film’s take on the decrepit post-Apocalyptic landscape of…… 2002!? The crazy part is that 2021 and 2002 aren’t even in the same universe as each other. We now long for the clean living and virtues of the … *checks notes* … 1990s and early 2000s!? Yes, we do. Because it’s worse now. A lot worse.
The great Robbie P. George wrote that “a people lacking in virtue could be counted on to trade liberty for protection, for financial or personal security, for comfort, for being looked after, for being taken care of, for having their problems solved quickly. And there will always be people occupying or standing for public office who will be happy to offer the deal—an expansion of their power in return for what they can offer by virtue of that expansion.” In this sense, what we see in Rome and what we see today is moral degradation making government and governance worse. It’s folly to think a lone elected official changes anything. Politics won’t fix our problems, just as an emperor didn’t fix Rome’s. It requires a cultural sea-change.
Good thing we don’t have the military problems. Oh, wait. #headdesk
Gibbon concludes this chapter with the following ominous observation:
“The discipline of the legions, which alone, after the extinction of every other virtue, had propped the greatness of the state, was corrupted by the ambition, or relaxed by the weakness, of the emperors. The strength of the frontiers, which had always consisted in arms rather than in fortifications, was insensibly undermined; and the fairest provinces were left exposed to the rapaciousness or ambition of the barbarians, who soon discovered the decline of the Roman empire.”
Ah. Barbarians. Many, many Maximins. Hordes of them. And what are the highest goals of Barbarian life?
A little glimpse of Aquileia, the town that stopped Maximin in his tracks:
** LOL there’s too many good parodies that I cant waste. Elagabalus’ relevance will subside before I run out.