Tex’s Update 15: “Gothic Aquatic” & “19 Would-Be Emperors on the Wall”

In the first half of Chapter 10, Gibbon outlined some more Goth history and then chronicled the effectiveness with which the Goths schooled Rome and the unmitigated disaster of Rome’s responses to this. More importantly, he outlined Decius’ realization that Rome’s culture was incredibly broken and, for Rome to prevail, it would have to be fixed. By the end of that section, Valerian and Gallienus had become co-emperors and Decius’ “omg teh culturez” had fallen flat on its face.

Not gonna lie: Gibbon’s bunny trail in the first half of this chapter really didn’t grab me, especially when he skipped forward and started talking about Goths as late as the 11th Century. Well, Gibbon more than makes up for it here.

In the time it takes to turn the page from the first half of the chapter to the second half, Rome’s predicament did not improve. Gallienus is now in Gaul because of the Germans, and the general Posthumus capably leads the legions. But Rome is about to suffer from a significant problem that they are no longer prepared for: getting flanked. Our Gothic friends do a little bit of this, but the Persians explode back into our narrative and Gibbon shares Rome’s ill-timed and costly encounter with them.

And so, this is where we resume our investigation. Go Go Gadget Barbarian Invasion!

Part 3: The Goths Learn a New Trick

The barbarians are everywhere. They’re attacking while they traverse the mountains. They’re sacking the cities. They’re crushing their enemies, they’re seeing them driven before them, and they’re hearing the lamentations of their women. Now they’re attacking the previously safe and untouched country of Spain… and that’s where things take an unexpected twist.

The Franks “seized on some vessels in the ports of Spain” and headed to Mauritania. You’ve heard of Wraiths on Wings? This is Barbarians on Boats!

OK, fine, I’ll do better boat joke next time.
Give me a minute to think up something else.

Gibbon jumps out of phase for a moment to talk about the Suevi some more. This particular group of Germans have come up in previous chapters while talking about the movement and history of the barbaric groups in Germany. In fact, he shares that this particular group of Germans had been trying to encroach on Roman territory as far back as Caracalla. Out of these Suevi, Gibbon asserts that the nation of the Alemanni was formed, but Guizot objects, before Milman objects to the objection and calls Guizot “hasty.” A brutal smackdown if ever there was a brutal smackdown.

But these barbarians who had been blockaded so effectively by prior emperors took full advantage of the demise of Decius AND CHARGED STRAIGHT FOR ROME. Talk about some pent up frustrations! With Valerian and Gallienus both far removed from the capital, the Senators had no choice but to take charge of the Praetorian Guards and find as many volunteers as they could in order to drive off the attackers. Believe it or not, they succeeded! Also believe it or not, Gallienus thought that was a problem. Wut?

I know, Steve. I know.
It passes fast in the clip, but the split-second look of total revulsion on Robin’s face makes the shot.

Yah, see Gallienus was more concerned about the Senate flexing all of that power on such a short notice THAN THE LITERAL BARBARIAN HORDE THAT WAS 5 SECONDS FROM ATTACKING ROME. This deserves another Stranger Things gif, ’cause this is as confounding as Dustin singing the Never Ending Story song.

Gallienus proclaims that the Senate can’t do stuff like that, as a means of protecting his own skin – after all, what would stop the Senators from raising up such an army against him? Hilariously, the Senate is overjoyed to learn that they don’t have to care about those pesky things like invading forces threatening their own city and they promptly zone out in their hot baths and luxurious, flamboyant, debauchery-filled lifestyles. Turns out that Gallienus doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of Rome quite as effectively as Decius did. Though there is one other Alemanni invasion recorded in history, Gibbon questions the accuracy of the account. However, he does discuss Gallienus’ attempt to protect Rome through a marriage to Pipa, the daughter of a Marcomanni king (the Marcomanni were a German kingdom that were part of the Suevi). Despite the cruelty and near inhumanity of Gallienus that Gibbon discusses later, it is kinda sad that Gibbon indicates that he really did care about Pipa but Romans wouldn’t acknowledge the marriage because “ew barbarian”. The flip side of the coin is that, well, barbarian hordes weren’t giving anyone much reason to be generous to the idea of a Roman emperor marrying into a barbarian horde.

Meanwhile, some of our other barbarian friends found a new way of attacking Rome.

The Life Aquatic

During the reign of Valerian and Gallienus, Rome actually was pretty good about defending the Danube from attackers and would-be invaders. So, the Goths got a new idea. As alluded to in the first half of this chapter, they had been able to establish themselves around the Ukraine. While that does seem far removed from the heart of the empire, this location gave them control of the northern coast of what Gibbon refers to as the Euxine, which is what we would call the Black Sea. From here, the Goths had all the means necessary to raid, pillage, burn, and kill.

After unknown faction or factions let the Goths into the kingdom of Bosphorus, the barbarians found themselves with quite a weapon: a naval fleet. Despite their own lack of sea-faring skills and knowledge, not to mention their makeshift crews “whose skill and fidelity were equally suspicious”, they were ready to charge headfirst on a naval expedition so that they might crush their enemies, see them driven before them, and hear the lamentations of their women.

And so, it was time to depart.

And I’ve had time to come up with better maritime humor that Gollum’s “barbarians on boats.”

Get your towels ready, cause it’s about to go down.

Goths be like:

Now that was better, wasn’t it? I thought so.

Their first port of call was Pityus, a place on the very edges of the empire, which was defended well by the locals and the Romans. Then Valerian had a genius move and promoted the main military officer there, Successianus. After that, the place crumpled like paper under the Goth attack and they left it totally destroyed. This serves as an important leadership reminder: be careful not to promote people away from crucial operations which are dependent on them. This was strategic blunder despite Successianus clearly deserving a better post.

Side note – I’m loving some of the names in this chapter due to their completely unintended foreshadowing and story power. Seriously, the first place to fall to the Goths on the naval conquest is called “Pityus.” Pity. Us. The guy named “Successianus” is the successful leader of a force who failed to have success as soon as he was gone. I can’t wait to see what happens to the dude named “Posthumus.”

This puts the Aquatic Goths on the board with a score of 1.
Time to collect their nautical themed pashmina afghans.

After moving to 1-1 when they failed to pillage a temple in Colchis, they moved to their next target: Trebizond, a Greek colony that basked in the glory (and money) of Hadrian and had turned into a port city powerhouse. Despite incredible fortifications and a reinforced garrison of 10,000+ men, these soldiers were of such poor character that they were consumed with “riot and luxury” instead of the simple dutiful act of guarding and fortifying the city. Golly, I wonder how this turns out #eyeroll! Indeed, the people were massacred and the temples and other great architectures were demolished while the so-called soldiers retreated in disgrace. The Goths had free reign across the entire province and had the good fortune of discovering that surrounding cities and countries had treated Trebizond as a bank where they stored their riches, due to its heavy fortifications. Also in this campaign, the Goths got a second fleet of ships, which they promptly loaded with loot and sailed back to home base in Bosphorus.

Trebizond soldiers are awarded a mention in the “You had one job!” list.
Goths move to 2-1. I guess they’re liking the boat thing about now.

They’ve got their swim trunks and their flippy floppies.

After what I can only guess was a hearty party back in their crib, they took the SS Minnow out on a three hour for a second trip. This time? They navigated towards the Mediterranean. And we have a déjà vu of sorts: despite having a huge number of Roman troops in Chalcedon – a greater number than the Goth naval contingent, according to Gibbon – they mimicked their colleagues in Trebizond and deserted at the sight of the enemy and let the Goths walk in and take an arms cache and a bunch of money. With soldiers like these, who needs enemies amirite?

Water Goths are now 3-1.

A fugitive suggested they attack the Bithynian city of Nicomedia next and acted as their guide and strategic forecaster. He also “partook of the booty” after their successful attack. The Goths planted their flag in four more Bithynian cities over the course of a month or two.

Aqua Goths are now 8-1.

Probably a good time to mention this Gibbon quotable, which I’ll circle back to at the end of the post:

“Three hundred years of peace, enjoyed by the soft inhabitants of Asia, had abolished the exercise of arms, and removed the apprehension of danger. The ancient walls were suffered to moulder away, and all the revenue of the most opulent cities was reserved for the construction of baths, temples, and theatres.”

Cyzicus was next on the hit list for the Goths, though they had to call it off temporarily due to weather and return to Bosphorus. But return they did, and in the greatest numbers yet – no weather phenomena could save Cyzicus from what came their way: this third naval expedition is reported by Gibbon to have been five hundred ships with upwards of 15,000 men (fun fact: three US Navy carriers would have more personnel than these 500 ships). Goths go 9-1. From there, they attacked across the Aegean Sea at will, pillaging and destroying everything they came across. They made it as far as the port of Athens, before they were handed a second defeat. Yep, despite being ??-1 after their conquests of Greecian islands, a soldier named Dexippus and an engineer named Cleodamus put together a force of soldiers and volunteers to hand the Goths the L. Sounds a heck of a lot like The Rock… Connery is Dexippus and Cage is Cleodamus.

Fun fact: there’s a longstanding fan theory that The Rock is actually a secret James Bond movie and that Connery is playing Bond. After all, he’s an SAS and British Intelligence trained agent and all the dates given about his activities in the 60’s and 70’s perfectly line up with the plot and date events of his Bond movies. #FoodForThought

Unfortunately for Greece, the Goths didn’t take this loss well. They raged all over that country and many other of the Mediterranean lands until they were right on Italy’s front door. This disturbed Gallienus who, as as we’ll see in a bit, generally balanced out Valerian’s dedication to the military efforts by slacking off and daydreaming. But in this case, he actually showed up ready to fight (or at least looked the part) and it spooked the Aqua Goths. One faction pledged service to Rome, while another escaped back to the Ukraine by land, courtesy of the incompetence of Rome. The remainder turned around and went back to Bosphorus, though they took some pit stops along the way to crush enemies. Of one of the more famous locales of their retreating attacks Gibbon wrote, “Troy, whose fame, immortalized by Homer, will probably survive the memory of the Gothic conquests.”

All in all, the Goths didn’t do to bad for knowing nothing about sea-faring.

Part 4: Valerian Makes a Boo-Boo

A very big boo-boo, might I add. But first, Gibbon devotes the opening graphs of Part 4 to tidying up a couple loose ends from the prior section.

  1. He laments the destruction of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, a reported architectural wonder of the ancient world.
    • “But the rude savages of the Baltic were destitute of a taste for the elegant arts, and they despised the ideal terrors of a foreign superstition.”
  2. He mentions a purported attempt by the Goths to burn the contents of the Greek libraries which was stopped by a Goth leader on the grounds that, “as long as the Greeks were addicted to the study of books, they would never apply themselves to the exercise of arms.” However, Gibbon clearly asserts his opinion that this tale was the product of an exaggerating historian of a more modern pedigree.
    • “The sagacious counsellor (should the truth of the fact be admitted) reasoned like an ignorant barbarian. In the most polite and powerful nations, genius of every kind has displayed itself about the same period; and the age of science has generally been the age of military virtue and success.”

At this point, Gibbon turns his attentions (and ours) back to the Persians and it seems he is more than happy to pick up that cliffhanger from a couple of chapters ago. Sapor, the current Persian ruler and son of Artaxerxes (the A.D. one, not the B.C. one) was able to take control of Armenia and snatch it away from Rome. This did not make Valerian happy, and he left the northern Rhine/Danube defenses in the hands of trusted officers so that he might go to Persia personally and give Sapor the what-for. His travel caused lots of disruption, including cessation of Gothic hostilities in whatever region he was in lest he unleash his legions on them.

But when they crossed the Euphrates, Valerian was taken prisoner by the Persians.

*record scratch*
*freeze frame*
“Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got here.”

“The particulars of this great event are darkly and imperfectly represented; yet, by the glimmering light which is afforded us, we may discover a long series of imprudence, of error, and of deserved misfortunes on the side of the Roman emperor.”

Valerian trusted the wrong people, set his camp up for failure, and ended up getting surrounded and besieged by the Persians. When things started going really downhill, Valerian’s own men blamed him for their predicament. When Sapor wouldn’t take a payoff to let them go, Valerian was left no choice but to surrender himself to Sapor, lest they all be massacred. The Roman troops were left stunned and reluctantly had to give their unwilling approval to Sapor’s pick of the new Roman Emperor – a literal fugitive of justice. The Persians unloaded on Rome at this point, razing Antioch and venturing on to repeat an unchecked assault campaign across Syria and Cilicia (a region of Turkey). Sapor was cruel and unrelenting, massacring people as a regular feature of his conquests and leaving nothing in his wake: “He despaired of making any permanent establishment in the empire, and sought only to leave behind him a wasted desert, whilst he transported into Persia the people and the treasures of the provinces.” The only exception Gibbon notes to this campaign of terror is Emesa, where the high priest at the temple led an army of “fanatic peasants” and succeeded in driving the Persians off. The temple at Emesa, if you’ll recall, is the point of origin for the Roman Emperor Bassianus, aka, Elagablabadingdong (yes, I brought him up purely for the purpose of making another Elagabalus joke).

At some point in time, Sapor received a large gift from Odenathus, a senator from Palmyra. He thumbed his nose at it and demanded that Odenathus come in person, “If he entertains a hope of mitigating his punishment, let him fall prostrate before the foot of our throne… Should he hesitate, swift destruction shall be poured on his head, on his whole race, and on his country”. Odenathus showed up alright, but with a small army that blindsided the Persians. He successfully captured part of the Persians’ treasure and “what was dearer than any treasure, several of the women of the great king”.

Sapor vs. Odenathus, colorized

As for Valerian’s fate, the jury was out, at least at the time of Gibbon. He was the only Roman emperor to ever be captured by an enemy and this novelty apparently made him a tourist attraction of sorts, so the Persians constantly subjected him to public ridicule. According to one of the more fantastical accounts that Gibbon doubted the voracity of, he was even preserved after he died and stuffed like a trophy hunt animal as a sort of statue/monument. That’s… well… morbid. Ew. Though Gibbon doubted some of the wilder sounding tales and sought to ascribe some form of decency or respect to the Persians, Milman drops in a footnote to inform the reader that Gibbon deals with a transcript of the emperor Galerius elsewhere in the book which describes the sorts of crazy and dishonorable things that the Persians did with (and to) Valerian… as Milman suggests to the reader, its weird that Gibbon knew that text yet still maintained that the Persians would hold to some form of gentleman’s code of honor.

Modern history isn’t much clearer on Valerian’s fate. Theories range from acceptance of the outlandish and violent tales of torment and torture as genuine to the possibilty that it was all overblown and Valerian and the other captive Romans more or less lived in peace under house arrest. Barring some revelations from hitherto unknown source materials, Valerian’s real fate will probably remain a bit of a mystery. But for our intents and purposes, this is the time to say farewell to Valerian. BUT. Before we do, I will note that Valerian was responsible for extreme persecution of Christians. He issued edicts requiring Christians to worship Roman gods or else they’d have their property seized and would be exiled. Numerous prominent Christians and church leaders were executed because of Valerian. Let’s see… does Gibbon mention this here?

You’ve got five guesses and the first four don’t count.

Anyway, Exit Valerian.

But with Valerian’s exit comes Gallienus as the sole emperor and hoo boy is this guy a trip and a half. His reaction to his dad’s capture at the hands of the Persians was “secret pleasure and avowed indifference”. Gibbon quotes him as saying, “I knew that my father was a mortal… and since he has acted as it becomes a brave man, I am satisfied.”

Well, that’s, uh, a response. I guess.

Gibbon really cranks the heat up on this loser:

“In every art that he attempted, his lively genius enabled him to succeed; and as his genius was destitute of judgment, he attempted every art, except the important ones of war and government. He was a master of several curious, but useless sciences, a ready orator, an elegant poet, a skilful gardener, an excellent cook, and most contemptible prince. When the great emergencies of the state required his presence and attention, he was engaged in conversation with the philosopher Plotinus, wasting his time in trifling or licentious pleasures, preparing his initiation to the Grecian mysteries, or soliciting a place in the Areopagus of Athens.”

His profuse magnificence insulted the general poverty; the solemn ridicule of his triumphs impressed a deeper sense of the public disgrace. The repeated intelligence of invasions, defeats, and rebellions, he received with a careless smile; and singling out, with affected contempt, some particular production of the lost province, he carelessly asked, whether Rome must be ruined, unless it was supplied with linen from Egypt, and arras cloth from Gaul. There were, however, a few short moments in the life of Gallienus, when, exasperated by some recent injury, he suddenly appeared the intrepid soldier and the cruel tyrant; till, satiated with blood, or fatigued by resistance, he insensibly sunk into the natural mildness and indolence of his character.

19 Would-Be Emperors on the Wall

Since we’ve established that Gallienus was kind of a loser, it’s unsurprising that a bunch of people thought they could offer improvements to the situation and decided to try their hand at usurpation. Nineteen entities did this, to be specific:

  • Cyriades
  • Macrianus
  • Balista
  • Odenathus
  • Zenobia
  • Posthumus
  • Lollianus
  • Victorinus (& his mother Victoria)
  • Marius
  • Tetricus
  • Ingenuus
  • Regillianus
  • Aureolus
  • Saturninus
  • Trebellianus
  • Piso
  • Valens
  • Æmilianus
  • Celsus

Several generals are on this list, though there’s only one senator and one nobleman. Some of these people were good, some of them weren’t – but they all saw the opportunity for one reason or another. And as my subtitle suggests… none of them lived into ripe old age to tell the tale. Most of the time, their own supporters did them in. Yes, that means the guy named Posthumus was killed by his own troops, thus continuing the ironic names of Chapter 10.

Outside of a few particular instances, Gibbon doesn’t hit these nineteen unlucky contestants with too much detail, but each of the nineteen losses caused a ton of ripple effects. Gallienus, who Gibbon has already established to be a total loser, would make sure to twist the knife and take his anger out on as wide an angle as possible over some of these failed usurpers. On the occasion of Ingenuus losing, the emperor decided that the most ideal punishment was genocide. Yes, that’s right. Genocide.

“It is not enough,” says that soft but inhuman prince, “that you exterminate such as have appeared in arms; the chance of battle might have served me as effectually. The male sex of every age must be extirpated; provided that, in the execution of the children and old men, you can contrive means to save our reputation. Let every one die who has dropped an expression, who has entertained a thought against me, against me, the son of Valerian, the father and brother of so many princes.Remember that Ingenuus was made emperor: tear, kill, hew in pieces. I write to you with my own hand, and would inspire you with my own feelings.”

Of course, while all these imperial cat fights were going on they only left Rome more vulnerable to foreign attackers and many of the unguarded provinces (along with the ones put under the cross-hairs by the nineteen would-be emperors) had to strike treaties or issue payoffs to the barbarians, etc to stay afloat.

In concluding the chapter, Gibbon briefly highlights three additional bits of information for the value of context that are about to factor in:

  1. Sicily was a dumpster fire, despite being naturally shielded from barbarians and not producing one of the nineteen mutineers. Instead, a peasant/slave revolt turned the whole island upside down and caused mass destruction and disruption of crucial agriculture.
  2. Alexandria was basically a powder keg where everyone was really industrious but would would take serious offense to even the slightest and negligible perceived transgressions. In other words, it was a massive social media platform. After Valerian’s capture, it melted down into a city-wide civil war of mob rule factions fighting each other. Like I said: social media.
  3. Trebellianus, one of the nineteen, was cut down in the prime of life for his usurpation. But the province of ex-barbarians he was from, Isauria, decided that their response was anarchy (Isauria is towards the southern coast of modern day Turkey). Eventually they were walled off to contain them as best as possible from the rest of the empire and they took control of most of the land between there territory and the coast.

Beyond all of this, Rome’s problems are just getting started. Yes, FAMINE AND PESTILENCE are just entering, stage left.

“But a long and general famine was a calamity of a more serious kind. It was the inevitable consequence of rapine and oppression, which extirpated the produce of the present and the hope of future harvests. Famine is almost always followed by epidemical diseases, the effect of scanty and unwholesome food. Other causes must, however, have contributed to the furious plague, which, from the year two hundred and fifty to the year two hundred and sixty-five, raged without interruption in every province, every city, and almost every family, of the Roman empire. During some time five thousand persons died daily in Rome; and many towns, that had escaped the hands of the Barbarians, were entirely depopulated.”

Bottom line? A lot of people died. From the barbarians. From the civil unrest. From Gallienus. From famine. From disease. By Gibbon’s math the population of Alexandria was cut in half. Half! Even if that were the proved to be the case scenario, a marginally better statistic would still be catastrophic.

And thus ends Chapter 10.

And the moral of the story is?

“Three hundred years of peace, enjoyed by the soft inhabitants of Asia, had abolished the exercise of arms, and removed the apprehension of danger. The ancient walls were suffered to moulder away, and all the revenue of the most opulent cities was reserved for the construction of baths, temples, and theatres.”

As promised, we turn back to that quote since it summarizes a lot of the issues into their distilled form. What Rome experienced in the years covered in this chapter (somewhere around 15-20 years, by my calculation) is the product of decisions that precede these events by years and decades. For example, Decius’ realization that decades of decay had left Roman culture so screwed up that it made a successful military campaign unlikely. And in Gibbon’s quote, these towns in Asia were completely unprepared for problems because of their dismissal of the possibility and/or the loss of understanding of the consequences. A foreign invader, a significant conflict, was so far removed that they didn’t even think it possible.

People lose touch with things that are out of sight, out of mind. It seems like a truism, but randomly approach people on the street and find someone who truly understands how the food supply works. In fact, many of the people you’d talk to not only have little to no grasp of how food supply works in this country… they couldn’t begin to successfully grow a turnip if they had to! People do not know skills required for basic survival. They think meat is a thing that comes in a plastic container and frozen pizza grows on trees. This can be extrapolated into far more areas of life than there’s time for in this post, but one additional topic that comes to mind is the public connection to war. Everyone in the US was connected to the fighting and the needs of the country in WWII, but what about now? The US has been in combat for nearly 20 years and it has no discernible impact on your day-to-day life. The cost is not felt and the sacrifices are not made… at least now, anyways.

The moral?

If you kick the can down the road long enough, you eventually run out of road.
If you lose connection with absolute truth and basic reality, you’ll eventually have a head on collision with it.

And if there’s one thing that surprised me in this chapter?

There can only be one answer:








All of Rome’s misfortunes kind of like toppling dominoes, yes?

One thought on “Tex’s Update 15: “Gothic Aquatic” & “19 Would-Be Emperors on the Wall”

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