This chapter’s two main emperors may have 99 problems, but being called “effeminate” by Gibbon ain’t one. He loves these guys. Let’s see if his favorable opinion of Gallienus’ immediate successors is justified.
Chapter 11 Part 1
What? After all that buildup about a near extinction-level pandemic at the end of the last chapter, it doesn’t even score a mention in this chapter? Ok, I see ya, Gibbon.
What we do get is a masterclass in foreshadowing that not even I, with my baccalaureate in English, saw coming. Last time, Gibbon noted that the defensive outposts along the Danube River were providing opportunities for Roman soldiers (of Illyrian extraction in particular) to shoot straight to the top of their military careers. He then opens this chapter with the assurance that all of the problems caused by Valerian and Gallienus are about to be solved “by a series of great princes, who derived their obscure origin from the martial provinces of Illyricum.” Well played, sir.
Remember how gushy our author got over Augustus and Hadrian? Well, with the rise of the Illyrian warlords, that Gibbon is back. I told Texan after my first read-through that I felt like I was being hypnotized to love Claudius and Aurelian. Even with his old-world verbosity, ya boy can still take our emotional perceptions for a ride with the best of ‘em. By comparison with the new guys, even Valerian’s rosy portrayal in our previous readings gets a partial retcon into something a bit more contemptible.
As recapped previously, not much would rouse Gallienus from his beloved dinner parties with philosophers; but if the threat seemed big enough to him, he would get a move on. The proclamation of Aureolus as a rival emperor by the army was sufficient to mobilize him this time. Gallienus’ troops forced Aureolus to a standoff at Milan, wherein the newbie retreated behind the walls and the conflict became a siege. At this point, Aureolus had the ingenious idea to sow some oppo research among his enemies, reminding his rival’s army how many of their countrymen Gallienus had defrauded so he could continue living in unearned luxury.
Apparently he struck a nerve, because the army said, “By Jove, you’re right!” and several high-ranking officers began plotting Gallienus’ immediate removal. Late one night, as the soldiers were tucking into bed and the emperor was tucking into yet another dinner course, the conspirators raised a call to arms to repel a surprise attack from Aureolus.
(Narrator: There was no surprise attack.)
Someone had been watching too many action movies. Gallienus leaped up unarmed, like the main character he thought he was, jumped on a horse, and took off for the front lines ALONE. In the clamor of a battle-arming camp (because the common soldiers didn’t know the alarm was false), it was all too easy for some faceless assassin to plug him with an arrow and melt back into the shadows of history.
So far, so good for Aureolus. Then Gallienus came through with a last-minute curveball. With his dying breath, he named General Claudius the next emperor.
The army really liked Claudius. The higher-ups already wanted to crown him anyway. Just like that, Aureolus’ stock tanked again. (The guys on the ground were still a little curious about where Gallienus had gone after charging off in his jammies to try to be Naruto; but after some suit made the rounds and told them all, “These 20 gold pieces say you don’t have any questions,” they collectively shrugged and affirmed that Claudius was their emperor now.)
Gotta give the n00b some points for sticking it out, though. When Claudius arrived and assumed command, Aureolus stood his ground and tried to open negotiations. Claudius shut him down immediately. With Milan back in imperial control, the army demanded Aureolus’ execution, which Claudius granted with pretend reluctance. The Senate wanted to take things even further by executing all of the deposed usurper’s friends and relations; but Claudius, proving he knew how to play politics, allowed them to pass this resolution … before promptly vetoing it in a magnificent show of generosity toward the vanquished.
Wherever Claudius got his diplomatic savvy, it was probably not a family trait. Gibbon suggests that the paucity of information about his early life is a telltale sign that the emperor was of humble origins and didn’t want people digging up his past. We know he was from Illyria and joined the army defending the Danube at a young age, where his talent and good attitude gained him Decius and Valerian’s approval, lots of promotions, and Gallienus’ resentment. This last feeling was mutual.
Some snitch advised Gallienus that the newly promoted general had been trashing him in private. Understandably, this hurt the emperor’s feelings; but he was still shrewd enough to recognize that he was safer with Claudius on his team. He sent a servant to the camp with some luxury gifts for Claudius and strict instructions not to let it slip that Gallienus knew what he had said. This obvious ploy to keep another general from prematurely declaring himself emperor actually worked! Claudius remained a loyal soldier, even under protest at times, but his personal opinions about his eventual predecessor never improved.
Next on the agenda was a legendary come-to-Jesus meeting with the legions. Claudius took the podium like a boss and informed his men of the following:
- Their laziness had ruined the army,
- Their failure to protect the people had driven the people into such poverty that they could no longer afford the taxes needed to *pay* the army,
- Their inordinate control over the imperial seat had unjustly endangered the private sector,
- Their fickleness in switching emperors every few months was the direct reason that they were all dying in stupid battles,
- The empire had no money, respect, or worthwhile landholdings left, and it was all their fault.
As far as Claudius was concerned, the only order of business worth pursuing immediately was driving the Germans back from the Roman borders, where they had been getting entirely too comfortable. Then it’d be time to get rid of the two rival emperors at either end of his dominion, whom Gallienus had left in power to deal with the invaders on their frontiers so he’d have less to worry about. Claudius was not a fan of this decision. In his mind, there was only one emperor of the Romans,
Over in Ukraine, the Goths and their allies had cobbled together their biggest and motliest crew yet. Too bad they still didn’t know how to sail. They lost not a few ships and troops while just trying to get through the Bosphorus and around Turkey, and their planned Ultimate Invasion of Europe dwindled into some farm country raids and a half-hearted siege of Thessalonica. Claudius directed his efforts there. He wrote the Senate a
touching dramatic “last dispatch from the front” – suitable for reading aloud at his funeral if he didn’t make it.
(Narrator: He made it.)
“The event surpassed his own expectations and those of the world. By the most signal victories he delivered the empire from this host of barbarians, and was distinguished by posterity under the glorious appellation of the Gothic Claudius.
… The favorable instant was improved by the activity of Claudius. He revived the courage of his troops, restored their ranks, and pressed the barbarians on every side.
… When the Romans suffered any loss, it was commonly occasioned by their own cowardice or rashness; but the superior talents of the emperor, his perfect knowledge of the country, and his judicious choice of measures as well as officers, assured on most occasions the success of his arms.”
Told ya Gibbon was back in full hero-worship mode. I can totally see him in his study making Chuck Norris memes about this.
The campaign took the better part of a year, and Claudius hadn’t jerked the slack out of his men a moment too soon. Judging from how many women and children were part of the invasion force, the Goths were looking to stay wherever they conquered.
Over the winter, while Rome’s land-based version of the Anaconda Plan kept most of the Gothic fighting force trapped on a mountain with no supplies, a plague started going around. It is unclear if this is the pestilence mentioned at the end of Chapter 10. If they are indeed the same, I take back what I said at the beginning of this entry.
Either way, Claudius caught it. He took a page from Gallienus and appointed one of his own generals, Aurelian, to succeed him. I’ll spare you Eddie G’s panegyric on Claudius’ perfections as a ruler and cut straight to the latest succession crisis (because of course there was one.)
Apparently Claudius had no kids? If he did, they put up suspiciously little fight when Aurelian’s nomination was announced. His brother Quintilius, who was not so tractable, crowned himself emperor, got the Senate to approve, and reigned for seventeen whole days before his army ditched him to join Aurelian’s much more impressive force.
Aurelian, like Claudius, was of humble origins and had worked his way from the ground up to a generalship under Valerian’s appraising eye. He reigned twice as long as Claudius, and was possibly twice as severe as his predecessor in matters of military discipline.
“His military regulations are contained in a very concise epistle to one of his inferior officers, who is commanded to enforce them, as he wishes to become a tribune, or as he is desirous to live. Gaming, drinking, and the arts of divination, were severely prohibited. Aurelian expected that his soldiers should be modest, frugal, and laborious; that their armor should be constantly kept bright, their weapons sharp, their clothing and horses ready for immediate service; that they should live in their quarters with chastity and sobriety, without damaging the cornfields, without stealing even a sheep, a fowl, or a bunch of grapes, without exacting from their landlords either salt, or oil, or wood. [I’ve redacted a rather graphic punishment he administered to a soldier who presumed on his landlady’s person, but you can look it up if you really want to.] The punishments of Aurelian were terrible; but he had seldom occasion to punish more than once the same offence.”
Yeah, I bet.
Chapter 11 Part 2
Gibbon may be sad to see Claudius go, but the Goths weren’t. They and their allies took advantage of the army’s momentary distraction during Quintilius’ 17-day rebellion to escape the mountain they’d been stranded on and regroup for another assault. Aurelian, having dealt with the interloper, came back with his newly reunified force to meet them.
Both armies agreed they were tired of fighting and didn’t really want to do more of it later. Aurelian secured a treaty which looked pretty good for the Romans on the front end: he acquired 2,000 Gothic horsemen to shore up the deficiencies in his own cavalry, and the invaders got a protected retreat and permission to engage in trade as far as the Danube.
The Goths took this for the golden opportunity that it was. So eager were they to make sure Aurelian wouldn’t change his mind that when a crew of Germanic warriors, who’d joined the party too late to hear about the treaty, struck out on their own to do a little unsanctioned raiding, their chief killed them all. (Musta been taking notes on Aurelian’s troop discipline methods.) Meanwhile, Aurelian had a slightly more pragmatic way to ensure their compliance: he took the Gothic chieftains’ children to be educated and married off among his own court.
Oh, and he also gave the attackers the entire province of Dacia. He reasoned that no one was farming there anymore, since the Germans had been hammering it for decades now, so his new allies might as well see if they could get some use out of it. Those Roman citizens who didn’t relish the thought of Thor-worshipping meatheads for neighbors decamped to the south side of the Danube, where they could remain in their accustomed society; while those who were too attached to their farms to leave them began acquainting the new arrivals with how things were done within an imperial structure.
Because Aurelian can do no wrong, Gibbon paints us a rosy picture of how these two disparate people groups blended into one big happy province, which united the best of German rough-and-readiness with Roman refinement. Your humble narrator is a bit more cautious, and will wait to see if this is not an early stage of letting the camel put his nose into the tent.
Just as soon as that problem is solved, another one pops up.
The Alemanni, whose numbers were still swelling with no end in sight, finally burst their bounds and started storming southward into Italy. The impenetrable defense of the Danube had at last been breached.
Aurelian responded with a display of the tactical mastery that had won him such high promotions – using the terrain to his advantage to divide and surround the enemy army, then waiting for the right moment to strike. The Alemanni, seeing that the battle was a foregone conclusion, sent up a white flag. The emperor welcomed them to his camp for a chat. When they arrived, they were greeted with the most elaborate open-air throne room that anyone had ever seen. Don’t ask me how Aurelian knew to bring along his household statues, golden eagles, and an entire throne, just in case he needed to hold court in the middle of nowhere. I bet the guys who were tasked with carrying all this stuff felt immensely validated when the Alemanni parley gave them a chance to actually set it all up, though.
The ambassadors started out on the right foot … but then after they’d been talking for a while, they got a little ahead of themselves and demanded that Aurelian pay them to retreat. Other emperors had done it, so why wouldn’t he? But Aurelian, as they soon saw, was not Gallienus (or any of those other wimps).
“The answer of the emperor was stern and imperious. He treated their offer with contempt, and their demand with indignation, reproached the barbarians, that they were as ignorant of the arts of war as of the laws of peace, and finally dismissed them with the choice only of submitting to this unconditional mercy, or awaiting the utmost severity of his resentment.”
However, another whack-a-mole popped up just then in Pannonia (modern Austria-Hungary). Aurelian headed out with a clap on the back for the commanders he was leaving in charge, confident that they would take care of it.
(Narrator: They did not take care of it.)
The Alemanni had more to lose in a defeat than the Romans had to gain from a victory. They also knew this better than the remaining Roman officers did. They made a break for it and got as far as Milan, pillaging all the way, before the unfortunate intern who was sent to break the bad news caught up with the emperor’s caravan. Aurelian groaned and turned around, summoning the military’s A-team from across the empire as he went. Then came the tiresome business of spreading out his troops to match the dispersion of the fleeing Alemanni forces, while still ensuring that each contingent had enough troops to beat whatever size of German army they encountered. Gibbon makes a show of being objective here, and of not giving too much credit to the ancient historians who obviously loved Aurelian as much as he does, but you can still kind of tell that he sees the emperor as the One Punch Man of this carnival game:
Though Aurelian ultimately located and pulled out all splinters of the Alemanni army that had been worming their way through northern Italy, the folks watching at home were worried enough that they started appealing to more … intangible allies.
“Such was the public consternation … that, by a decree of the senate the Sibylline books were consulted. Even the emperor himself, from a motive either of religion or of policy, recommended this salutary measure, chided the tardiness of the senate, and offered to supply whatever expense, whatever animals, whatever captives of any nation, the gods should require.
‘One should imagine, he said, that you were assembled in a Christian church, not in the temple of all the gods.’”
(Though we can safely assume that Gibbon shares the Christian objection to human sacrifice, I am unsurprised that he made sure to include Aurelian’s jab at the Senate’s hesitancy to enlist all resources available by comparing them to a bunch of Christians.)
Gibbon is well on the side of the Romans in this story. While he hastens to comfort us here,
“it does not appear [emphasis mine] that any human victims expiated with their blood the sins of the Roman people. The Sibylline books enjoined ceremonies of a more harmless nature,”
he left no doubt in our minds that the Germans provided their gods with human victims in his last extended look at Gothic life. Sometimes they even offered up humans in totally peaceful ceremonies, such as the annual bathing of the mother goddess Nerthus. However, Rome’s Sibylline books themselves did still allow for ritual killings in special circumstances, particularly when leaving the subject alive might displease a god. Distinguishing between that and “human sacrifice” sounds like splitting hairs to me.
I bring all this up to say that the phenomenon of scapegoating a convenient victim during a general panic is nothing new. No matter how advanced a civilization considers itself, if it does not hold inviolate any axioms about the sanctity of human life, sooner or later someone who finds himself out of favor will get offered up to placate whatever angry force is perceived to be causing the distress of the moment.
Back in the land of the living: anyone who might believe that the supernatural had a hand in Aurelian’s eventual victory is swiftly encouraged to perish the thought that such “puerile arts” have any effect on warfare — except maybe their psychological effects on a superstitious enemy. The citizens of Rome must have felt this too, because they didn’t just make New Year’s Resolutions to visit the temple more often in the wake of the danger’s passing. They assessed the extent of the population sprawl beyond the original city walls and began a multi-emperor building campaign to encircle the metropolis’ most vital farmland within an additional wall.
Ba Sing Se, anyone?
“It was a great but a melancholy labor, since the defence of the capital betrayed the decline of monarchy. The Romans of a more prosperous age, who trusted to the arms of the legions the safety of the frontier camps, were very far from entertaining a suspicion that it would ever become necessary to fortify the seat of empire against the inroads of the barbarians.”
With the last foreign mole solidly whacked (at least for the time being), Aurelian was free to turn his attention to the second of Claudius’ main goals: deposing those two increasingly seditious emperors on the west and the east whom Gallienus had allowed to create sub-states of their own.
“And to complete the ignominy of Rome, these rival thrones had been usurped by women.”
First let’s head west to the green bit.
Poor Posthumus, he of the sterling military record and the unfortunate name, didn’t last long as The General Who Saved Gaul once his troops voluntold him that he was their emperor now, and then got mad when he wouldn’t reward them by letting them take people’s stuff. (Note to self: never get between an undisciplined Roman legion and the loot in the city they just conquered.) His pal Victorinus took the reins next, but he was more interested in the ladies than in his duties as an imperial pretender. After a series of escapades that would have gotten him personally drawn and quartered by Aurelian, “he was slain … by a conspiracy of jealous husbands.”
And again I say, Lol.
Waiting in the wings was Victorinus’ mom Victoria, who had a keen head for government and enough cash at her disposal to remain the queen regent and power behind the throne throughout the reins of Marius and Tetricus.
Despite the power and prestige that came with ruling a good chunk of the western Roman Empire (even in name only, as Victoria’s puppet), Tetricus was unhappy with his situation. He heard how good Aurelian was in battle and contacted him in secret with a request to be rescued.
This put him in the unusual situation of “committing an act of treason against himself” if he didn’t at least pretend like Aurelian was a threat to the aspiring Gallic dynasty. He assembled a token force against the Aurelian juggernaut, set them up to lose, told the emperor exactly where everyone would be, and ducked out the back door right before the battle. What a guy.
While Tetricus cooled his heels in the Roman camp as Aurelian’s honorable prisoner, his aggrieved army decided to make the invasion force work for Gaul, and got busy fighting as hard as if they had a chance.
(Narrator: They didn’t. It makes a heck of a story, though.)
Now that Europe is locked down, let’s head east. While introducing Zenobia, Gibbon grants some reluctant credibility to the notion of female rulers:
“Modern Europe has produced several illustrious women who have sustained with glory the weight of empire; nor is our own age destitute of such distinguished characters.”
Maybe he was ok with Elizabeth I.
The astute reader will note that he praises Victoria for her “manly vigor,” and Zenobia for her “manly understanding” and “manly counsels.” The latter empress almost gets the Claudius/Aurelian makeover here, as Gibbon makes several flattering remarks about her beauty and scholastic accomplishments before describing her power-couple relationship with Odenathus (one of the rival emperors from last time). And when I say “power couple,” I mean literally. Our historian asserts that she mainly married him for the political advantages. In their off time, they did enjoy the same hobbies of big-game hunting and campaign warfare.
The Ferdinand and Isabella of Palmyra were so successful at holding off the Goths and Persians, and so beloved by Rome / the residents of the provinces that their victories kept within Rome’s eastern perimeter, that Gallienus saw no harm in allowing Odenathus to continue as his equal.
Claudius and Aurelian:
Chapter 11 Part 3
Even the happiest (political) marriages must, alas, come to an end. Not only did Odenathus love hunting, he was very strict about the attendant etiquette. No one was allowed to shoot at a quarry before he did. His spoiled nephew Mæonius thumbed his nose at that rule and took the first shot anyway, on two separate occasions. Odenathus grounded him. This enraged Mæonius so much that he recruited some of his ne’er-do-well friends to help him scrag his uncle and cousin Herod at the next big palace party. Zenobia said “Not in my house” and returned the favor by executing Mæonius.
And just like that, she was the ranking royal in the Palmyrene Sub-Roman Empire. The Roman Senate under Gallienus sent an army east to ask her nicely if she would surrender her crown now. In reply, she gave them a good pants-kicking back to Italy and settled a little deeper into her throne. Claudius grudgingly let her be, since he had more pressing military matters to mind, and he knew she’d be a decent administrator until he had time to come depose her properly. Her three sons often appeared in public as accessories to her reign, and she only called herself “Queen of the East” rather than “empress” — unlike Victoria in the west, who openly used “Augusta” in her official correspondence. Rome still harbored an uneasy suspicion that she was aiming higher and would strike eventually.
Aurelian came marching in before long. His strategic mix of “take no prisoners” total war and unexpected offers of amnesty gained him Bithynia, Ancyra, Tyana, Antioch, and Emesa. Zenobia straightened her crown and took the field personally, as was her habit, to challenge his advances at the latter two of these cities. Her light cavalry (perfect for desert warfare) and heavy cavalry (a tank-class defensive force) had been unstoppable in previous battles. Aurelian, however, displayed his usual genius at turning his adversary’s strengths to his advantage. He lured the heavy cavalry into chasing his lighter troops until they were worn out, then moved in for the kill; while he stayed out of range of the light horse archers until they were out of arrows, then charged them with swords that they didn’t wear enough armor to repel.
Zenobia’s few remaining troops pulled a Spongebob.
The queen herself retreated to her lavish capital and prepared for a siege. Aurelian followed, beset by the twin annoyances of desert bandits along his march and Zenobia’s well-armed long-range defenses surrounding Palmyra. He invited her to surrender, which she promptly spurned. As Imperial Russia relied on General Mud and General Winter to repel enemy invasions, Zenobia was counting on General Famine to set in among the Roman legions unused to the desert. However, he never showed up.
Our old friend the would-be emperor of Persia, Sapor, also died during this time, so any help she might have summoned from that quarter was underwhelming and easily redirected or absorbed by the Roman forces under Aurelian’s general Probus. Zenobia had declared at the beginning of the siege that she would die before being deposed. At this point, she elected to run instead.
It took sixty miles, but Aurelian’s cavalry caught up with her. The emperor again surprised the people who had heard such terrifying tales of his ferocity with his unexpected gentleness. He left Palmyra in the care of a small occupation force, took most of their valuables, and promptly redistributed them to the people of Emesa. His sudden overflow of beneficence “restored to the obedience of Rome those provinces that had renounced their allegiance since the captivity of Valerian.”
Meanwhile he had to deal with Zenobia herself, who started backpedaling faster than the personal assistant of a disgraced D.C. politician. She claimed that she had only resisted Aurelian’s unworthy predecessors, but was more than happy to subject herself to his rule. It was her advisors, she protested, who had so treacherously urged her to keep fighting when she should have capitulated sooner. Aurelian took her at her word, or pretended to, and obligingly executed those officials whom she had thrown under the bus. This did little for Zenobia’s reputation.
Once the citizens of Palmyra felt that the royal army had gotten far enough away, they killed their occupiers and tried to reassert their independence. Aurelian pulled a U-turn faster than you can say “Romulus and Remus” and unleashed all the fury he had spared them the first time.
“We have a letter of Aurelian himself, in which he acknowledges, that old men, women, children, and peasants, had been involved in that dreadful execution, which should have been confined to armed rebellion; and although his principal concern seems directed to the reëstablishment of a temple of the Sun (what is it with this era and their sun worship?), he discovers some pity for the remnant of the Palmyrenians, to whom he grants the permission of rebuilding and inhabiting their city. But it is easier to destroy than to restore. The seat of commerce, of arts, and of Zenobia, gradually sunk into an obscure town, a trifling fortress, and at length a miserable village.”
Some Egyptian merchant named Firmus, thinking he’d stick it to Aurelian by raising a rebellion in the name of Odenathus and Zenobia, launched his own well-funded but poorly planned empire from Alexandria. This is almost too good to be true, but his stock-in-trade was …
Aurelian blew that resistance right down like a house of cards, and the Roman Empire was whole once again. He decided that the ultimate success of this three-year campaign deserved a little party.
We get our English word “triumph” from victory parades of the kind that Aurelian now organized for his re-entry into Rome. If the ancient accounts are to be believed, Aurelian’s triumph would be hard to match in any era.
“The pomp was opened by twenty elephants, four royal tigers, and above two hundred of the most curious animals from every climate of the North, the East, and the South. They were followed by sixteen hundred gladiators, devoted to the cruel amusement of the amphitheatre. The wealth of Asia, the arms and ensigns of so many conquered nations, and the magnificent plate and wardrobe of the Syrian queen, were disposed in exact symmetry or artful disorder. The ambassadors of the most remote parts of the earth, of Æthiopia, Arabia, Persia, Bactriana, India, and China, all remarkable by their rich or singular dresses, displayed the fame and power of the Roman emperor, who exposed likewise to the public view the presents that he had received, and particularly a great number of crowns of gold, the offerings of grateful cities.
The festival was protracted by theatrical representations, the games of the circus, the hunting of wild beasts, combats of gladiators, and naval engagements. Liberal donatives were distributed to the army and people, and several institutions, agreeable or beneficial to the city, contributed to perpetuate the glory of Aurelian. A considerable portion of his oriental spoils was consecrated to the gods of Rome; the Capitol, and every other temple, glittered with the offerings of his ostentatious piety; and the temple of the Sun alone received above fifteen thousand pounds of gold.”
(Of interest: Aurelian’s mom was a minor Sun priestess, which might explain his name.)
Time for some OG Roman magnificence, just to set the mood.
Quite a few captives were on display in this procession, too. The biggest trophies were the two rival imperial claimants whom Aurelian had successfully taken alive.
Tetricus and his son were dressed for the occasion in expensive clothes, courtesy of the emperor, including a pair of “Gallic trousers” for each of them. This pant style was banded at the hem, rather than free-flowing, which was both extremely stylish *and* still haunted by a connotation in Roman fashion history of – you guessed it – “effeminacy.” Aurelian was both showing off his generosity towards his prisoners and subtly calling them sissies.
Zenobia, meanwhile, was made to walk in front of her chariot, loaded down with stylized (but very heavy) golden chains and enough jewelry for a Bollywood bride. As any girl who has had to walk more than a few blocks in fancy dress can tell you, this was probably the worst torture Aurelian could have come up with, since this parade lasted almost all day.
Unlike most of his forebears, Aurelian allowed his erstwhile co-emperors to live past the end of the parade. Zenobia received a lavish estate where she could live out her days under a comfortable house arrest. Tetricus and his son were included in the imperial court and both given fairly high-ranking government jobs. It was a calculated risk, but it seems to have worked out for Aurelian.
With external threats removed for the present, Aurelian switched gears to domestic reform.
“But if we attentively reflect how much swifter is the progress of corruption than its cure, and if we remember that the years abandoned to public disorders exceeded the months allotted to the martial reign of Aurelian, we must confess that a few short intervals of peace were insufficient for the arduous work of reformation.”
Exhibit A: a rebellion at the Mint. Apparently coins had been being cut with inferior metals for some time, and Aurelian’s attempts to reinstate pure money were not universally popular. While the ensuing economic confusion and stress probably resembled what would happen today if we went back on the gold standard, Gibbon is skeptical that the huge civil insurrection that ensued can be 100% blamed on financial disagreements, as the emperor claimed in his personal correspondence. Gibbon thinks it more likely that Rome’s uppercrust old guard, personified in the Senate, Praetorians, and equestrian orders, fomented a rebellion out of distaste for the peasant-born Aurelian’s kinship with the common people.
If this is true, it didn’t help his cause that Aurelian was as much of a martinet in rooting out the specters of civil conspiracies as he was in his military life. His suspicion of the nobility’s role in this mess led to yet another of the “guilt by association” purges we’ve seen under previous, less competent rulers. If convinced of someone’s guilt, he was as likely as not to override due process and order the relevant executions himself, which didn’t win him any more friends in the Senate.
The city breathed a collective sigh of relief when Aurelian took the field again, upon a report that the Persians were resuming their agitations. This reprieve did not extend to his personal assistants; they were still subjected to his accusations of treason and betrayal throughout the journey. One aide in particular realized his number was coming up and organized one of the more creative conspiracies we’ve seen thus far: he used his handwriting skills as the emperor’s secretary to forge a purported list of upcoming executions. Coincidentally, most of the names on the list were army officials – powerful enough to protect the unfortunate secretary, and possessed of high enough security clearances to snuff Aurelian easily.
The army’s official fact-checkers were apparently on vacation, and the list was Snopes verified, so Aurelian got ambushed and killed by one of his favorite generals near the Straits of Bosphorus.
“He died regretted by the army, detested by the senate, but universally acknowledged as a warlike and fortunate prince, the useful, though severe reformer of a degenerate state.”
Quotations that stood out to me:
“The indignation of the people imputed all their calamities to Gallienus …”
They sound like the party that just lost the election, which makes all of the subsequent difficulties entirely the fault of the current administration. (Whereas, if they’d won the election, any and all subsequent difficulties would be entirely the fault of the previous administration).
“His own conduct gave a sanction to his laws, and the seditious legions dreaded a chief who had learned to obey, and who was worthy to command.”
“Fear has been the original parent of superstition.”
Can’t really disagree. I love Gibbon when he hits us with those maxims.
“Such … is the policy of civil war: severely to remember injuries, and to forget the most important services. Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.”
I also can’t believe he left this Machiavellian gem tucked in the footnotes. Gibbon! Show off a little more!
Wait, we’ve seen what happens when your pen runs away with you, so actually don’t.
“It is easier to destroy than to restore.”
And on that cheerful note …