Lol, what even is a posting schedule. I clearly don’t know. Many thanks to @zproudtexan for holding it down over here.
But, I found another Roman emperor facial reconstruction artist. His name is Haroun Binous, and you can find his graphics for sale here. This interpretation of Maximinus Thrax definitely has a wrestler’s neck.
Too bad Gibbon glossed over Caligula. Binous’ version of him looks like he never blinks and is also the Life Model Decoy of Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe we’ll be treated to one of Gibbon’s famous time skips later on – the better to acknowledge that in the Jupiter Ascending universe, Zuck could be the heir to Cali’s interplanetary fortune.
Chapter 7 Part 2
The co-emperors nominated by the Senate seemed like the perfect two halves of a complete whole. The guy in charge of civil administration, Balbinus, was an ultra-refined brainiac whose polite sophistication and sound business sense would have made him a dean that any school of humanities could be proud of. The other one led the Senate’s military; and with a name like Maximus, it’s hard to imagine him leading anything else. Politically, they both had a Proven Track Record™ as senators and former consuls. Personally, they were both well into their golden years. The populace could expect a respite from the kinds of shenanigans featured on the last few seasons of Teen Emperor.
Unfortunately, the respect enjoyed by Maximus and the admiration that beatified Balbinus seemed to evaporate once they were announced as the new claimants for the throne. A Roman mob crashed their instatement rites, coming across very much like the classic indecisive friend who doesn’t know where she wants to eat, but as soon as a suggestion is made, she says, “not that.” Unlike that one friend, however, the mob did have a suggestion of their own. They wanted a THIRD co-emperor appointed from the Gordians’ family.
“It is prudent to yield when the contest, whatever may be the issue of it, must be fatal to both parties,” quoth Gibbon. Or as we say today, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” M and B found an extra purple robe for the thirteen-year-old Gordian scion (seriously. THIRTEEN. Have we learned nothing?!?),
and the mob, pacified, went home.
Maximin had the Hulk-out you can expect when he heard of this. However, the ongoing foreign wars kept him from returning to Rome to snuff out this rebellion immediately. Gibbon attributes this to the emperor being a tad more pragmatic than anti-Maximin historians of the time give him credit for; like maybe he knew it was more important to secure the empire from the threat of external enemies before he went to take personal revenge on his usurpers. It’s also possible that he just knew he was relatively safer among an army that loved him than in a declining capital city ruled by timid politicians, where anyone could whip up a mob and the bravest people were the assassins.
There’s an extensive footnote about exactly when each battle was most likely fought, but if you think I’m getting off into those weeds …
Turns out Maximus was no mean strategist. Knowing from which direction Maximin’s army would be returning, Maximus ordered the country dwellers to withdraw from the area, taking with them or destroying anything that the embattled emperor could use to feed or shelter his troops. Seems a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face, but such is the lot of common folk in war, I guess. They wanted Maximin & Co. to be nice and hungry by the time they reached Aquileia, the first city too big to abandon, where the inhabitants were well defended and stocked up for a siege.
“The walls, fallen to decay during the security of a long peace, had been hastily repaired on this sudden emergency: but the firmest defence of Aquileia consisted in the constancy of the citizens; all ranks of whom, instead of being dismayed, were animated by the extreme danger, and their knowledge of the tyrant’s unrelenting temper.”
Kinda sounds like Aquileia would make a better capital than Rome at this point. Also its name is cooler.
Maximus knew his own forces wouldn’t be up to the job if Maximin got tired of messing with Aquileia and decided to march straight to Rome. Fortunately for him, morale was low among Maximin’s troops. They were having greater difficulty than usual maintaining the siege, and were succumbing to the despair that every city from there to Rome would be another Aquileia, with no Maximin loyalists remaining in the empire.
“Meanwhile, Back in Rome …”
Balbinus was dealing with a civil war. *Jim Dale voice* The facts were these:
A couple of soldiers sneaked into the Senate one day, where everyone was concealed carrying and EXTREMELY jumpy. The revelation of these guys hiding behind a pillar convinced Balbinus that the Praetorians were trying to undermine the new administration, and he sicced the common folk on their camp. The outnumbered but more ruthless soldiers proved to be equally matched with the larger but untrained civilian mob and the gladiators they’d recruited to fight for them, who were mainly used to silly, stylized combats with scripted endings. Balbinus was left wringing his hands on the sidelines and begging everyone to settle down. This did little for his and the Senate’s reputation with either party. (Especially the soldiers.)
However, the Praetorians’ families had been left as sitting ducks in another camp outside Rome, and the guards had no desire to see them harmed. Ending the entire war was the most prudent choice as far as they were concerned.
Three guesses on who eventually stepped up to usher Maximin and his son into permanent retirement.
With their former leaders’ heads on pikes, the rest of Maximin’s army gained access to the full pantries and natural springs of Aquileia, where they had no problem switching allegiances while wolfing down the first real meal they’d had in weeks. Gibbon notes that the news of Maximin’s defeat reportedly traveled to Rome in four days. According to Google Maps, Aquileia and Rome are over five days apart on foot. This gives me visions of some kind of “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix”-type scenario.
(Yes, Maps also says it’s only a 34-hour journey by bike, and the dispatch rider system was probably still operational at that time. I don’t care. Let me dream.)
The peaceful era that everyone hoped would succeed Maximin’s reign started out well. Balbinus played good cop to Maximus’ bad cop as they decided court cases, lowered taxes, and raised military discipline, while young Gordian was off somewhere doing his homework. Balbinus innocently predicted that this peace would continue riding the wave of the people’s gratitude; but the more military-wise Maximus feared that the army hadn’t forgotten the civil war and would pull something soon.
Even though he acted tough in matters of state, the army felt that Maximus’ merciful speeches to them at Aquileia, plus the mass quantities of gold he’d used to buy them off (of course), only proved that they held the real power in the empire but wouldn’t get to use it as long as the wimpy senators were in charge. Instead, they fumed, they’d been included in the co-emperors’ triumphal entry into Rome as if they themselves were prisoners of war, and the expressions on their faces let you know they were thinking it.
Meanwhile, M and B were letting the inconveniences of shared power go to their heads and exacerbate their secret opinions of each other’s flaws. They tried to hide the growing tension between them, but nobody was fooled; especially the soldiers, who were on the lookout for just such an opportunity. Like Caracalla and Geta before them, the “emperors of the Senate” had taken to living at opposite ends of the palace. Thus, neither household was able to help or warn the other when they were simultaneously rushed by Praetorian assassin squads during ancient Rome’s version of the Super Bowl.
To replace them, the army chose, of all people … Gordian the Third, the last co-emperor. Seems weird at first, considering how he was a vestige of the old administration, but Gibbon observes that “his tender age promised a long impunity of military license.”
Newly on his own, Gordian III proved to be an even bigger pushover than Alexander Severus. Not only was he easily manipulated by his courtiers, he lacked the drive to investigate their versions of current events for himself. Once again, the bureaucracy filled up with corruption around the throne as every position was sold to the highest bidder. I’ve got A:TLA on the brain, so this regime reminds me of Ba Sing Se under Earth King Kuei
under Long Feng and the Dai Li.
He was a kind-hearted kid, however. His father-in-law Misitheus, who had somehow managed to rise through the ranks to the role of Praetorian Prefect despite his virtuous character, improved on this hopeful quality by teaching Gordian to take a more direct role in the affairs of empire. Gordian sacked the syndicate of eunuchs who’d been keeping him in the dark and personally accompanied Misitheus on a successful military campaign against Persia, which did wonders for his confidence.
Unfortunately, Misitheus died while they were abroad, of an illness which may or may not have arisen from natural causes. Without him, Gordian was once again floundering and unsure. The new prefect, Philip, took advantage of the emperor’s indecision and the army’s ever-present discontent to have Gordian offed. The account of Gordian’s final moments is particularly sad: he tried to stand up to the army, but got intimidated by every “no” into requesting lower and lower statuses for himself. His last request was to be left alive.
I’ll leave you to imagine the outcome of that.
Chapter 7 Part 3
Philip is now the newest self-appointed ruler of the Roman world. Knowing how much of a revolving door the Imperium has been lately, he takes a page from 21st-century media and puts on an entertainment like no other. Nothing distracts people from the advancing erasure of their rights like free tickets to the greatest show on earth.
It was a savvy political move, too. Like Maximin, Philip was not of Roman descent, so he needed to make some over-the-top concessions to traditional Roman culture if he wanted to win over the old guard (whatever was left of them, at least). Why not host a public sporting event that had only happened four times before in imperial history?
“Every circumstance of the secular games was skillfully adapted to inspire the superstitious mind with deep and solemn reverence. The long interval between them exceeded the term of human life; and as none of the spectators had already seen them, none could flatter themselves with the expectation of beholding them a second time. The mystic sacrifices were performed, during three nights, on the banks of the Tyber; and the Campus Martius resounded with music and dances, and was illuminated with innumerable lamps and torches. … 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.”
Darn those reflecting few. Imagine a foreign ruler conquering the United States, but instead of crushing us, he throws a nationwide Fourth of July celebration with free admission to every amusement park, star-studded concerts, fireworks, and free fair food. And then he announces the revival of Friends. It would be perfect … if not for those few cranks on Substack blogging from their location-scrambled laptops about how this won’t last.
Gibbon is better at summaries than I am, so I’ll let him conclude in his own words.
(FYI, my summary of this section is longer than the actual word count of the section.)
“The limits of the Roman empire still extended from the Western Ocean to the Tigris, and from Mount Atlas to the Rhine and the Danube. To the undiscerning eye of the vulgar, Philip appeared a monarch no less powerful than Hadrian or Augustus had formerly been. The form was still the same, but the animating health and vigor were fled. The industry of the people was discouraged and exhausted by a long series of oppression. 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.”
Quotations that stood out to me:
“A temple was likewise built to Venus the Bald, in honor of the women of Aquileia, who had given up their hair to make ropes for the military engines.”
That’s just funny.
“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. … We are told that Maximin could drink in a day an amphora (or about seven gallons) of wine, and eat thirty or forty pounds of meat. He could move a loaded wagon, break a horse’s leg with his fist, crumble stones in his hand, and tear up small trees by the roots.”
So Maximinus Thrax was, like … evil Mr. Incredible?
“What was the emperor, except the minister of a violent government, elected for the private benefit of the soldiers?”
“Philip, his successor in the præfecture, was an Arab by birth, and consequently, in the earlier part of his life, a robber by profession.”
Note to self: get your information about Middle Eastern peoples from someone whose knowledge of the region is more widely sourced than a few childhood viewings of Aladdin.
“During the four first ages, the Romans, in the laborious school of poverty, had acquired the virtues of war and government: by the vigorous exertion of those virtues, and by the assistance of fortune, they had obtained, in the course of the three succeeding centuries, an absolute empire over many countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The last three hundred years had been consumed in apparent prosperity and internal decline. The nation of soldiers, magistrates, and legislators, who composed the thirty-five tribes of the Roman people, were dissolved into the common mass of mankind, and confounded with the millions of servile provincials, who had received the name, without adopting the spirit, of Romans. A mercenary army, levied among the subjects and barbarians of the frontier, was the only order of men who preserved and abused their independence.”
A helpful summary of the whole work so far from Gibbon’s footnotes.
Until next time!