Anna’s Update 15: spot the informant

You know the one — he’s the guy with inside information about the fortress his enemies are trying to invade, and he’s willing to sell said information for the right price. There’s a higher than normal concentration of such informants in this chapter, so I’ve started marking them with tiny trollfaces.

Also, this term was likely not around at the time Edward Gibbon wrote; but we’ve been smack-dab in the middle of what historians now call the Crisis of the Third Century for a couple of chapters now. Welcome. No reading ahead, though.

Chapter 10 Part 3

The Frankish incursions were growing so frequent on the northwestern front that Valerian dispatched Crown Prince/Co-Emperor Gallienus to go deal with them. Gallienus displayed his perfect aptitude for a middle management position by delegating the task to someone else and settling in at modern Trier, Germany, to live in style far from Rome, where he didn’t have to play second fiddle to his dad. (Though he did display a righteous sense of humor while he was in Rome.) The third fiddle, baby Salonius, got a front-row seat to the empire’s problems long before he was old enough to do anything about them. Meanwhile, the real leadership up there was furnished by:

The Conqueror of the Germans! The Savior of Gaul! Generaaaal … Posthumus!

(Don’t laugh. They really did lavish bombastic titles on the man just for being willing to put in the work on the front lines so everyone else could get back to the theater.)

He lived up to his hype for quite a while, as the Franks began to turn their attention westward to the tempting Mediterranean bounties of Spain rather than face Posthumus’ legendary defensive line. Poor Spain. First the Romans force them to mine their land bare of precious metals, then the Franks roll up in search of free stuff. Once they’d looted all they could, the marauders swiped some boats and descended upon the equally unsuspecting residents of Mauritania.

We backtrack for a second to discuss another tribe, the Suebi, who wore man buns way before those went mainstream and held their religious rites in one of the aforementioned creepy forests. They’d been a tangential threat as far back as Caracalla, and had been coalescing on the far bank of the Main River (part of the Rhine) ever since. As more members of different tribes showed up to swell their numbers, they adopted the more diverse and inclusive name of “Allmen” (Alemanni). Any Spanish scholars among us will recognize this as the source of the word alemán for “German.” And they have the armored Humvees of the ancient world in their lineup: a crackerjack cavalry. Sounds like the Persian nobility has some competition.

Alexander Severus (or rather, his army) and Maximinus Thrax had kept the Allman Brothers Band intimidated enough to keep them from trying anything too risky. It’s now been at least 20 years since those guys, though. Upon Decius’ ignominious demise in a swamp at the hands of their distant Goth cousins, the Alemanni figured they wouldn’t meet with any serious resistance and charged south over the mountains — no elephants included — to try their luck in Italy.

Eighteenth verse, same as the first:

“The insult and the danger rekindled in the senate some sparks of their ancient virtue. Both the emperors were engaged in far distant wars, Valerian in the East, and Gallienus on the Rhine. All the hopes and resources of the Romans were in themselves. In this emergency, the senators resumed the defence of the republic, drew out the Prætorian guards, who had been left to garrison the capital, and filled up their numbers, by enlisting into the public service the stoutest and most willing of the Plebeians. The Alemanni, astonished with the sudden appearance of an army more numerous than their own, retired into Germany, laden with spoil; and their retreat was esteemed as a victory by the unwarlike Romans.”

How many more times do the urbanites think they can pull this off, anyway?

Surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, Gallienus was more mad about having been rendered superfluous than he was grateful that there was still a Rome to come home to. He shot off an executive order that all military properties must immediately post “No Senators Allowed” signs at all entrances. Turns out that in his zeal to protect those aspects of his authority that he knew to be a bit dictatorial, he overestimated the people’s love of liberty.

“The rich and luxurious nobles, sinking into their natural character, accepted, as a favor, this disgraceful exemption from military service; and as long as they were indulged in the enjoyment of their baths, their theatres, and their villas, they cheerfully resigned the more dangerous cares of empire to the rough hands of peasants and soldiers.”

Expectations:

Reality:

Appreciating that the northern invaders were still, for the moment, more dangerous to the stability of his rule than any anticipated uprisings at home, Gallienus solidified a political alliance with the North by way of Pipa, a Marcomanni chieftain’s daughter. This lady’s official status was a point of contention then and remains murky now. In Rome, she was considered a concubine. Gibbon ascribes this slight solely to class and ethnic snobbery, which I’m sure was a major factor; but it doesn’t hurt to remember that Gallienus already had an official consort named Salonina. The Marcomanni, however, considered Pipa to be the emperor’s rightful wife. Whether they were aware of the legal difficulties and clung to this belief anyway out of stubbornness, or whether Gallienus actively encouraged their perception and assumed they’d be too dumb to ever figure out the truth, is unclear. Even the couple’s personal feelings about their relationship are not entirely settled by the historical record. Gibbon really wants this to be a tragic love story, but he’d probably have been better off keeping Grimm’s Fairy Tales out of his source material stack.

The Romans may have called the Rhine River “the Safeguard of the Provinces” (again with the florid titlery), but the Danube River and its defenders were the real MVP. Mercenaries from Illyria especially found this post to be a pipeline straight to fame and fortune, due to the ample opportunities afforded by Gothic attacks for soldiers to distinguish themselves in battle there. But after working their way far enough east along the river to the Black Sea coast, the Goths suddenly smacked themselves in the head and asked, “What have we been thinking? We totally control Ukraine now, and across the Black Sea from us is Asia Minor. Nobody expects an attack from there.”

With good reason, since the kings of the Bosphorus Strait area had been a pretty dependable defensive asset to the empire. However, the hereditary line of that monarchy had ceased, for reasons that Gibbon doesn’t elaborate, and some newbies who were a lot more scared of the Goths than of the Romans had taken their place. The aspiring invaders didn’t know how to sail, but they didn’t care. Pressing enough shipwrights and sailors into service to get them across the sea proved to be much easier than trying to cross the still-defended Danube. Look out, Pontus; here come the Goths.

Their treatment of Pityus, Colchis, and Trebizond calls to mind the old French and English tales about Viking invaders. The last of these cities had enough advance warning to call in reinforcements, and the ten thousand who showed up should have been enough to hold a fortified city. Unfortunately for the civilians, said reinforcements made the age-old mistake of considering walls a sufficient substitute for men, and sat around “dissolved in riot and luxury” while the unopposed Goths calmly built some siege towers and climbed right in. Not quite as ingenious as how Cyrus got into Babylon, but same energy.

“A general massacre of the people ensued, whilst the affrighted soldiers escaped through the opposite gates of the town. The most holy temples, and the most splendid edifices, were involved in a common destruction.

The Goths used their new crop of slaves to staff their new war fleet, courtesy of Trebizond’s undefended harbor, and sailed home in triumph.

Next time, they got bolder. Chalcedon, Nicomedia, and the province of Bithynia fell to the invaders this time. The whole southeast corner of Europe was their new playground, and Germania’s finest rampaged through the unprepared cities and villages like sugared-up toddlers in a sandbox. The locals, who hadn’t had a defense budget in literal centuries according to Gibbon, were unequipped to defend themselves; and the emergency army that Chalcedon called in at the first sign of trouble was, once again, not worth a dang. For a modern analogue of what the conquered areas looked like, picture something like this:

In another echo of history, we learn that the Goths got the idea to go after the rich and low-hanging fruit of Nicomedia from “a perfidious fugitive.” Ring any bells, Thermopylae?

“He guided the march, which was only sixty miles from the camp of Chalcedon, directed the resistless attack, and partook of the booty; for the Goths had learned sufficient policy to reward the traitor whom they detested.”

Once they held (the ruins of) Bithynia’s historical capital, nothing could stop the Goths … except the weather. The next prize in their crosshairs was the city of Cyzicus, which had once successfully repelled Mithridates — he of “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” fame. The Rhyndacus River’s unusually high water levels that year and the Goths’ heavy loot wagons were not going to mix.

Should have caulked and floated.

Plus, their captive Turkish navigators informed them that if they let the leaves turn too many more colors before they started packing it in, trying to sail home across the Black Sea in winter would be suicide.

Not to worry, Cyzicus. The Goths will be back next year. And after Cyzicus …

Not even the city’s best defensive engineer or coast guard commander could keep Athens from getting captured. (No one else in the empire cared enough to assist, apparently, or if they did they’re not mentioned). These two officials, Cleodamus and Dexippus, managed to escape the conquest and organize some ongoing Robin Hood-style guerrilla attacks against the new masters of Athens, but these incursions only served to make the Goths attack the remaining Greek city-states even harder.

“Thebes and Argos, Corinth and Sparta, which had formerly waged such memorable wars against each other, were now unable to bring an army into the field, or even to defend their ruined fortifications. The rage of war, both by land and by sea, spread from the eastern point of Sunium to the western coast of Epirus. The Goths had already advanced within sight of Italy, when the approach of such imminent danger awakened the indolent Gallienus from his dream of pleasure.”

(He must have returned to Rome from Treves/Trier at some point during the Goths’ red-light/green-light advance around the coast of Greece.)

Seeing an incumbent Roman emperor take the field against them for the first time since Decius pulled the Goths up short for a sec. In an unprecedented move, Gallienus had to recruit a chieftain from an allied Germanic tribe and swear him in as a Roman consul to get his troop strength up to snuff, but it worked. The Goths had been on the road long enough that, pugilistic as they were, they made like a Roman battalion and started whining for home.

The fastest way back to Ukraine was across the previously impregnable Danube. The generals stationed in Mæsia were so busy squabbling among themselves, they didn’t know what to do with an enemy force that was trying to cross from the other side. Thus, the Goths were able to slip right through their fingers. Tack that onto the list of things that shouldn’t have worked but did.

Tired as they were, they mustered enough energy to pause their headlong flight and spray some graffiti on whatever walls were still standing in Troy. Then they stumbled the rest of the way into Thrace, which was under their control, and had a nice soak in Anchialus’ hot springs. I can’t not picture Uncle Iroh getting in on this.

“It may seem difficult to conceive how the original body of fifteen thousand warriors could sustain the losses and divisions of so bold an adventure. But as [the Goths’] numbers were gradually wasted by the sword, by shipwrecks, and by the influence of a warm climate, they were perpetually renewed by troops of banditti and deserters, who flocked to the standard of plunder, and by a crowd of fugitive slaves, often of German or Sarmatian extraction, who eagerly seized the glorious opportunity of freedom and revenge.”

The chickens always come home to roost.

Chapter 10 Part 4

After a bizarrely extended lament over the destruction of the temple of Diana (I halfway expected Gibbon to launch into “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” at any minute), we’re back on track discussing the Goths’ general depredations. Gib treats us to an amusing, if dubious, anecdote about how the libraries of Athens were saved from a Last Crusade-style book bonfire by a chief’s reasoning that nerds will never learn how to fight as long as you let them keep their books.

I mean, I resemble that remark.

If only someone had thought to apply the same logic to the Library of Alexandria … sniff.

Nowhere near as big as St. Peter’s Basilica. Still a wonder of the ancient world.

Meanwhile, Sapor’s Persian Empire reunion tour is adding some new cities to its itinerary. The province of Armenia has just lost its king to assassins, the rightful heir is a baby, and Rome was too lazy to intervene in time; so Sapor helpfully took over their governmental affairs and set about seeing how much further into Roman territory he could get.

As we’ve already mentioned, Valerian was no spring chicken, but he took the loss of Armenia as a personal insult and set out to avenge it personally, leaving his underlings to keep an eye on the Goths at the northern borders. Thanks to his terrible judgment-of-character skills (see also: naming Gallienus his successor), Valerian had chosen a Praetorian prefect who was only good for throwing his weight around at home and was absolute rubbish on campaign. Sapor’s army surrounded them easily, and for the first time, the Romans weren’t able to buy their way out of this one. Sapor wanted Valerian instead.

Upon the latter’s surrender, Sapor appointed a Persian puppet as Rome’s new emperor and pulled a Kneel Before Zod on the flabbergasted legions. They did not appreciate any of these proceedings.

Valerian was genre savvy enough to know he had a better chance of staying alive if he made himself useful. His intel enabled Sapor to capture Antioch, Tarsus, and Caesarea.

One guy stood up to the Persian rampage through Syria: the high priest of Emesa and his slingshot-wielding congregation. As hilarious as this mental image is, it did not result in said priest’s becoming emperor, unlike a certain former priest of Emesa. Ultimately, his doomed last stand did about as much good as Demosthenes’ resistance in Caesarea. The latter city put up a good fight, but was at last “betrayed by the perfidy of a physician.” So much for the Hippocratic Oath.

While Sapor was relatively nice to the Armenians, his only objective on Roman soil was to grab the gold and leave a smoking wasteland behind him as he trundled back to Persia.

“It’s
not
about
the
territory …”

Odenathus of Palmyra tried preemptively offering Sapor some tribute, but the latter responded to this overture about as well as he had to Valerian’s attempt to purchase a head start for his retreat. Sapor’s reply was so insulting that Odenathus mustered an army in response, raided the king’s camp, and got away with it.

As with the German guy who purportedly saved Athens’ libraries, Gibbon relates a couple tales of Sapor’s degrading treatment of Valerian before dismissing them as sensationalistic fabrications. Using the disgraced emperor as a footstool when mounting his horse, and making a Crap Taxidermy version of him to decorate a temple, sound both preposterous and not completely out of the question for an ancient Near Eastern despot. I guess we’ll just have to wonder.

Unlike Caracalla, who at least pretended to be sad about his brother’s untimely demise, Gallienus affected a stoic resignation which fooled his sycophants, but not his chroniclers. The Stoics felt things deeply; they had just trained themselves not to let their emotions overwhelm their judgment or turn a bad situation into a worse one. Decius gives us an example of this early in the battle that ended his life:

“In the beginning of the action, the son of Decius [not Hostilianus, but his elder brother] … was slain by an arrow, in the sight of his afflicted father; who, summoning all his fortitude, admonished the dismayed troops, that the loss of a single soldier was of little importance to the republic.”

(Notice how even now, he’s still pretending it’s a republic.)

Meanwhile Gallienus

received the intelligence of [Valerian’s] misfortunes with secret pleasure and avowed indifference.
‘I knew that my father was a mortal,’ said he; ‘and since he has acted as it becomes a brave man, I am satisfied.’ Whilst Rome lamented the fate of her sovereign, the savage coldness of his son was extolled by the servile courtiers as the perfect firmness of a hero and a stoic.”

Gibbon clearly finds the sentiments of the former to have been backed by more sincerity than those of the latter. Maggie Smith said it best:

With Dad out of the way, Gallienus was free to indulge his esoteric tastes and rule as a kind of Elagabalus lite. He doesn’t seem to have pulled any shocking publicity stunts (other than the chicken), but he consistently prioritized his hobbies and intellectual pursuits over his governing responsibilities. Whenever an enemy army subsumed a new territory, he loftily asked his court if the empire would crumble without the particular agricultural or manufacturing contributions of that area, then used their dutiful replies of “I guess not” as an excuse not to get involved.

Every would-be imperial claimant realized that almost nothing would shake the emperor from his languor, and they all started proclaiming themselves emperor from the safety of their own cities and provinces. The traditional number of these is 30. Gibbon’s research into the source materials was only able to confirm 19 — not that that isn’t plenty.

The sad part is, a lot of them were decent people, and they administered their smaller stations with a skill and regard for their subjects that Gallienus would have done well to imitate on an empire-wide scale. Unfortunately for them, none of the aspiring usurpers were able to gain much traction outside their immediate spheres of influence. Those generals who were seized and proclaimed emperor by the army’s latest whim were especially aware of the futility of their appointments.

“If the dangerous favor of the army had imprudently declared them deserving of the purple, they were marked for sure destruction; and even prudence would counsel them to secure a short enjoyment of empire, and rather to try the fortune of war than to expect the hand of an executioner. When the clamor of the soldiers invested the reluctant victims with the ensigns of sovereign authority, they sometimes mourned in secret their approaching fate. ‘You have lost,’ said Saturninus, on the day of his elevation, ‘you have lost a useful commander, and you have made a very wretched emperor.’”

Another short-lived candidate, Marius, had risen to prominence in business via his armor shop; and when he lost the public confidence as quickly as he’d gained it, “Marius was killed by a soldier, who had formerly served as a workman in his shop, and who exclaimed, as he struck, ‘Behold the sword which thyself hast forged.’”

These guys had an insatiable appetite for the grandiose.

“Of the nineteen tyrants who started up under the reign of Gallienus, there was not one who enjoyed a life of peace, or a natural death. As soon as they were invested with the bloody purple, they inspired their adherents with the same fears and ambition which had occasioned their own revolt. Encompassed with domestic conspiracy, military sedition, and civil war, they trembled on the edge of precipices, in which, after a longer or shorter term of anxiety, they were inevitably lost.”

This cannot be good for the economy. Besides the normal price fluctuations that always accompany periods of wild government instability, each newly nominated emperor had to tax his (or her) people into the ground just to acquire enough capital for the “donative” that an incoming ruler was expected/demanded to bestow upon the army. Kinda makes the rapid succession of new emperors look like a blatant cash grab by the troops.

Gallienus was not favorably disposed to any of these pretenders, except Odenathus, whose bravery in battle and long-standing deference moved Gallienus to appoint him an official co-emperor. Odenathus and his successor, his widow Zenobia, were the lucky ones. When others of the 19 were deposed, such as Ingenuus, Gallienus ordered an extermination of all men suspected of having supported him, whether they actually took up arms for him or not. Meanwhile, each royal candidate was giving another enemy tribe an inroad to the empire, as they made hasty alliances with the Germans to try to bolster their support numbers. Once the former invaders had been invited to enter Roman territory on a red carpet, of course, they were in no hurry to leave.

We close with a few specific snapshots.

Sicily, with no official government to keep its internal revolutions in check, passed through an ever-revolving series of bandit governments — bad news for the Roman nobles who maintained private estates there. Those farms were all ruined sooner or later.

Alexandria, with its internal prosperity and strategic trade location, sounds creepily like post-Vietnam America with its inhabitants’ proclivity to riot at the slightest provocation. Some of the outrages that occasioned a protest-turned-brawl included the following:

  • A transient scarcity of flesh or lentils
  • The sacrilegious murder of a divine cat
  • The neglect of an accustomed salutation
  • A mistake of precedency in the public baths
  • A dispute between a soldier and a townsman about a pair of shoes

Relaxed supervision from the capital let these isolated riots merge into a solid 12-year war. Alexandria’s relevance as a cosmopolitan cultural center was irreversibly damaged by this.

An ill-fated imperial accession attempt in the province of Isauria led to the entire population disavowing their Roman citizenship and going off the grid. This worked surprisingly well, as they were able to absorb Cilicia into their secession and gain some coastline. Gibbon leaves their ultimate fate unresolved, but it looks like more of the empire is on the verge of balkanizing in a similar way.

Oh, and just as an afterthought, Gibbon drops a mention of a severe famine followed by a 15-year plague, which led to such cheerful statistics as 5,000 daily deaths in Rome and the reduction of Alexandria’s remaining population by half.

If only they’d had some N95s. Oh wait, those were probably being manufactured in a province that the Germans just assimilated.

Pun Fact:

Gallienus’ name means “rooster.” Maybe that’s where he got the idea to bluff the merchant with the chicken.

Quotations that stood out to me:

“There are not any advantages capable of supplying the absence of discipline & vigilance.”

Can’t buy your way out of trouble forever, in other words.


“The voice of history … is often little more than the organ of hatred or flattery.”

Especially when there’s power to be gained by keeping your contemporaries in the dark about what really happened back in the day.


“In times of confusion every active genius finds the place assigned him by nature.”

Is this some high-falutin’ determinism, or just Gibbon’s way of expressing the truism “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”? This may be a question for the ages.


Come back next time, as we see if the Roman world has any population left after the onset of a catastrophic disease that they didn’t have The Experts™ to tell them how to handle.

— The Experts

2 thoughts on “Anna’s Update 15: spot the informant

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