Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends! We’re so glad you could attend! Come inside, come inside! And on this week’s episode of Meet the Romans…
Gallienus was quite the character, wasn’t he? In fact, he’s quite the character after an entire string of WUT characters. Decius had one of the first real “A-HA!” moments in his realization of just how derelict Roman culture had become. Mind you, his solution was a bandaid (and an ineffectual one, at that)… but at least he had some concept of the problem. And what is it they say about “the first step is acknowledging the problem?” Unfortunately for Rome, his immediate successors didn’t have quite the same epiphany.
But finally, after so many chapters, we finally get in a zone where Gibbon can shamelessly be a Rome fanboi again. We haven’t had this much fawning since the early chapters about Trajan and the Antonines! But wait no more… he’s back in full force to beatify two new Model Citizens™!
Before We Get Started: The Big Asterisk
Gibbon relies very heavily on the Historia Augusta for his tales of the Gallic and Palmyrene kingdoms, which is regarded as among the more unreliable sources from its time. This makes it especially funny to hear him express his surprise at some of the narrative he’s communicating. For example, regarding Victoria: “After the murder of so many valiant princes, it is somewhat remarkable, that a female for a long time controlled the fierce legions of Gaul” ……. it’s surprising because it could easily be an extreme exaggeration or even total fiction. Aside from some unreliable sources, discoveries made in the last 200+ years can provide a better picture than Gibbon would’ve been able to form. It is very, very, very possible that Victoria’s influence and position were overstated in the source Gibbon’s relying on. This is one of a few spots in this chapter that will be viewed differently in a modern history. Some details might only amount to different timing, but some create some pretty unreliable narrative. I’ve noted a couple points of discrepancy where it seemed worthy.
Anywho, let’s begin.
Part 1: A Breath of Fresh Air
Happiness and rejoicing are about to overtake Rome. They’re overdue for some type of good turn and that time is upon them. By this point, Rome has decided their pain needs a name, and that name is Gallienus. They’ve had all they can take. And, frankly, it’s hard to blame them. Gibbon opens up by getting the last couple of parting shots in on him:
“The removal of an effeminate tyrant made way for a succession of heroes. The indignation of the people imputed all their calamities to Gallienus, and the far greater part were, indeed, the consequence of his dissolute manners and careless administration. He was even destitute of a sense of honor, which so frequently supplies the absence of public virtue; and as long as he was permitted to enjoy the possession of Italy, a victory of the barbarians, the loss of a province, or the rebellion of a general, seldom disturbed the tranquil course of his pleasures.”
By the way, no you’re not crazy… the whole pestilence, famine, weeping, and gnashing of teeth thing from the end of chapter 10 was absolutely left behind. A classic example of Brian Regan’s “one thing led to another” joke about all the detail getting left out.
And so we play the broken record that we’ve heard sooooooooo many times before: the army decides it’s time for a new emperor. Mutiny is becoming so common you’d think it was a Broadway show running seven days a week. Hmm. Mutiny: The Musical!
Has a nice ring to it.
Well, this mutineering (mutineerish? mutineeryous?) army from the Danube decides that Aureolus should be the new boss. They go to Milan, where Aureolus basically slaps Gallienus across the face with his white gloves (metaphorically, of course). This, in turn, caused Gallienus to freak the heck out and get his lazy carcass off the couch to lead the legions of Rome towards this Total Loser™ Aureolus. I’m sure he expected total victory, but it seems Gallienus forgot opposite day was coming up soon.
Now, of course the Roman legions mopped the floor with the usurping army and laid siege to Milan when Aureolus retreated to the city. I can only guess that a different outcome would be hard to fathom. But Aureolus starts spinning the second rinse-wash-repeat trope of usurping emperors: slander, libel, defamation, character assasination. And just like that, Gallienus’ legions decided they’d rather work for someone else. Its magic! The Praetorian Praefect and the head of the Dalmatian guards decided to take care of business, once and for all.
“I wonder if there were 101 of them?”
So, one night while Gallienus was in his natural habitat – “protracted by the pleasures of the table” – Aureolus and his troops suddenly charged out of Milan. Or so Gallienus thought. He abandoned the 7th gourmet course, jumped on his horse without his armor to meet the attackers, and found that (a) Aureolus was not attacking, and (b) he was… how shall we say? … not alone. Whoops. There’s no record of exactly who did him in, but suffice to say that the mortal wound was dealt. Before he died, “a patriotic sentiment rising in the mind of Gallienus, induced him to name a deserving successor.” Its hard to think that he’d actually pick someone other than a loser like himself, but… he actually picked someone worthy? PLOT TWIST.
Claudius was apparently a universally loved and regarded general, so everyone was more than happy to support the ascension of Claudius and grant Gallienus’ last wish. And anyone who was thinking about protesting? They were pleasantly taken care of.
Claudius: This is Your Life!
*best bouncy and cheery ’50s TV announcer/emcee voice I can muster*
*cues the music: https://youtu.be/xELDqIyrtNA*
Yes, this native of the Danube provinces grew up dedicated to military service. The emperor Decius discovered him and made sure he got the shot at stardom he deserved. And while he bounced around and didn’t get much of a second thought for a while, Valerian recognized his potential and put him in charge of the Illyrian Frontier so he would command troops in Thrace, Mæsia, Dacia, Pannonia, and Dalmatia, not to mention the the præfect of Egypt and proconsul of Africa. Yes, Claudius was really going places! He continued to work hard and dedicate his life to the empire until the empire called on him to wear the Purple!
*best deep-voiced Discovery Channel/A&E documentary narrator voice I can muster*
*cues the music: https://youtu.be/_PybCKpaw3U?t=1623*
But the relationship between Claudius and Gallienus was not as friendly as it may have seemed. In fact, Claudius despised the emperor, viewing him as undeserving of such a high station. At one point, Gallienus learned that Claudius had spoken candidly about him. Unwilling to risk Claudius stepping up to challenge him in the future, he authorized an officer to shower him with gifts: money, clothes, treasure… enough to ensure that Claudius remained loyal for the rest of his life.
And that’s the wild part: Claudius apparently had nothing to do with the elimination of Gallienus, and possibly had no knowledge of the betrayal. It’s kind of a fascinating dynamic when you think about it: Gallienus picked the general who hadn’t been involved in his demise. It seems like a statement of the obvious (cause it is), but there’s a deeper concept in there worth pondering: the person deemed worthy of being the leader was the guy who remained loyal in spite of being at the top of the “I don’t like Gallienus” list.
Of course, Claudius still has a usurper to deal with and Aureolus realizes his scheme didn’t work quite like he wanted it to. In terms of difficulty, he traded a stroll through the park (which he was already struggling with) for a solo climb on Mt. Everest. An attempt to flatter Claudius went nowhere, so he surrendered. The legions executed him. Meanwhile, the Senate happily accepted Claudius as the new emperor and set about finding and punishing anyone associated with Gallienus. Which they did with, um, verve and gusto. Milman explains:
“The senate decreed that his relations and servants should be thrown down headlong from the Gemonian stairs. An obnoxious officer of the revenue had his eyes torn out whilst under examination.”
Thankfully for most of these people, Claudius intervened and stopped the mass executions. Hopefully, he got the blinded guy a service dog. (I bet Gibbon would say “of course he did.”)
Yet, in spite of the flowery praises Gibbon has already showered on Claudius (not to mention bigger praise is still to come), it seems that Claudius was not squeaky clean. Apparently Gallienus would confiscate property and wealth from Roman citizens and give it to officials and generals. And when an elderly woman begged Claudius for assistance to and restitution, it turned out that Claudius himself was the recipient of her possessions. Gibbon writes of his new bestie, “The emperor blushed at the reproach” but was determined to live up to her expectations (or is this Gibbon’s expectations? its getting hard to tell) so he confessed and brought about restitution. A BEACON OF MORALITY AND ETHICS!!
The Legions Are Forced to Listen to Devo’s Hit Song Whip It on Repeat
Now Gibbon’s new favorite emperor has his work cut out for him (should we start calling him Teacher’s Pet yet?) and his first order of business is getting the military back in shape. Though his experience and superior manliness, he communicates to them what no one else had been able to: they’re sloppy, unprepared, and they’re a big part of why Rome is in the sorry state that its in. Basically, he delivers General Waverly’s inspection speech from White Christmas.
Claudius’ next order of business: focus on the enemy – the barbarians. And while all of these usurping frivolities have been going on, the wild men of the north have been busy, busy, busy getting ready to get on their boats again. Try as they may, unfortunately none of them learned to sail since their last sea voyage and this causes Davy Jones’ locker to get some new residents. Should’ve brought T-Pain with you this time! And to make matters worse, they didn’t get much consolation from pillaging and attacking: they started losing. Nevertheless, their determination drove them to higher goals: they laid siege to Thessalonica. They sure thought they had it made… but then Emperor Claudius showed up with the Legions… but the barbarians wanted a fight so badly that … they … rode … towards … them. Huh?
Meanwhile, Claudius sent a letter back to Rome to dramatically announced his intention to fight the big mean barbarians and give it his all. It reads, especially in Gibbon’s telling, as a wildly melodramatic event: I get the image of Claudius, dictating a letter, resigning himself to a fate of sacrifice while half-collapsed on a chaise lounge, while the Senate and people of Rome wait with baited breath. Kind of like the end of the 1966 classic Batman: The Movie when they go to rehydrate the members of the United World Organization Security Council and the entire world is depicted in waiting with baited breath. I mean, just look at this from Gibbon:
“The melancholy firmness of this epistle announces a hero careless of his fate, conscious of his danger, but still deriving a well-grounded hope from the resources of his own mind.”
GIBBON. IS. A. FAN. BOI.
Claudius, as you can can guess, absolutely mops the floor with the barbarians. In fact Gibbon tells us that he would have done so even faster had everyone around him not failed him. Indeed, the troops were either tired or *gasp* didn’t follow orders. And when the Romans struggled it was because of the screw ups of the troops, who were constantly bailed out by that incredible wonderful Claudius. Beyond the genius and all-around macho of Claudius, the Goths also suffered because their boats were not available for retreat: they’d been “taken or sunk.”
But not all manly He-Men live forever. The missing boats would be fatal to Claudius, because it allowed them to beat the hordes too effectively. Yes. Really.
The barbarians took refuge up in a mountain, backing themselves into a corner where they were completely cut off from the world. Slowly over the winter, they would succumb to starvation and disease. After a just handful emerged in defeat in the spring, their diseases were spread to the Romans and Claudius ended up getting sick. Gibbon takes a moment to eulogize Claudius with great fervor and discusses how, much like his predecessor, he successfully named the next emperor before his passing: the general Aurelian. As for his death, one writer said he died of the disease, another said he instructed his officers to kill him after he named Aurelian emperor, and third said he was killed by misbehaving troops. Gibbon opts for the truly Wagnerian treatment of option #2, asserting that his death was his own doing.
Gibbon quickly profiles the new emperor: much like Claudius, Aurelian was a commoner who started at square one in the Roman military, working his way up to the top. He was made consul by Valerian and, also courtesy of Valerian, found himself married into the family of one of the wealthiest senators. At this point, Gibbon spoils a bit of the next part so I’ll leave that for the rest of the post (suffice it to say that there was lots of winning).
Aurelian’s prescription for military conduct made Claudius look like a kid screaming “we’re gonna live forever!”
“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. “The public allowance,” continues the emperor, “is sufficient for their support; their wealth should be collected from the spoils of the enemy, not from the tears of the provincials.”
Lest you think he wasn’t serious about this, he would pull out the wildest and most grotesque acts of cruelty as punishment to make an example out of any and all perpetrators. And, sparing the gory parts, lets just say that seeing someone literally pulled apart probably made a lasting impression on the troops.
Part 2: Give Peace a Chance
The Goths caught wind of the demise of Claudius, inspiring them to give it another good ‘ol college try. The resulting body count was enough to prompt a peace treaty between the Goths and the Romans in which the Goths gave up a lot and Rome gave up very little. The barbarians were able to take control of the region of Dacia (a particular region that was to the north of Greece and had the Danube for its southern border), and the Romans got a contingent of barbarian cavalry. In a show of longer term friendliness, a number of barbarian women married Roman officers. And in a bit of a plot twist, some Roman ex-pats residing in Dacia (indicated by Gibbon to be criminals, fugitives, and/or other purveyors of turpitude) were able to provide some instruction in civilization to the Goths. So do we call this Gothic Cotillion?
These Goths Of Sophistication became critical to Rome, as they proved to be a deterrent against Goths Lacking In Sophistication who might threaten the empire. Gibbon particularly sells this territorial giveaway by Aurelian as strategically brilliant, but based on how this chapter reads, I think Gibbon would sell Aurelian’s burnt toast as strategically brilliant.
One barbarian problem was traded for another, though: the Alemanni broke a peace deal that they had struck with, well, someone. That’s right, Gibbon’s not sure: he suggests that either Gallienus had paid them off or that Claudius forced a peace deal on them through superior strength. A bit of cursory digging through modern sources suggests that it’s likely the later, as Claudius seems to have given them a first class schooling. These Alemanni decided to raid and pillage and then try returning home, so Aurelian was more than happy to lay it on them personally. He let the barbarians walk right into the middle of a huge ambush of concealed legions, surrounding them completely in a scene so cinematic that it would be criticized as unrealistic if it were written for a movie.
“The legions stood to their arms in well-ordered ranks and awful silence. The principal commanders, distinguished by the ensigns of their rank, appeared on horseback on either side of the Imperial throne. Behind the throne the consecrated images of the emperor, and his predecessors, the golden eagles, and the various titles of the legions, engraved in letters of gold, were exalted in the air on lofty pikes covered with silver. When Aurelian assumed his seat, his manly grace and majestic figure taught the barbarians to revere the person as well as the purple of their conqueror.”
This is the Roman equivalent of Johnny Carson’s famous (and hilarious) rambling, bunny-trail laden introduction of Bill Clinton in 1988:
The Alemanni’s response to getting completely surrounded with no hope of escape starts off okay, with the typical grovelling at the feet of the emperor and various tale-telling of their exploits and the value they see in peace… but then they demanded that the Romans pay them for this peace deal. May I remind you, they are 100% surrounded with absolutely no hope escape and they got the bright idea to demand a payment. Someone didn’t get the memo. Fortunately for the Alemanni, Aurelian was called away on urgent business and the officers were left to either starve the barbarians via the de facto siege they were in, or simply go through and finish them off through violence. After the emperor’s departure, the barbarians were able to make a break for it through a weak side of the Roman line and then found their way to the Italian mountains.
This is about what Aurelian looked like when he saw the memo that they escaped:
A fair amount of search and destroy and guerilla type skirmishes ensued, though Rome almost had their helmets handed to them in one larger contest. But the Alemanni made a significant mistake: they went to the place where Hannibal lost. Now, I’m not saying anything about the tactical advantages or disadvantages of that place, nor am I saying that they should’ve been superstitious about it had they understood that’s where they were, nor am I say that it’s why they lost. But I am saying that if I were the Alemanni, I wouldn’t want to be caught dead there lest I be caught dead there. And it was a real bummer for them: they were about as successful as Hannibal was…. they got caught dead there.
Adieu, adieu, parting is such sweet sorrow.
Pomp & Circumstance (& Forts… & Enemies Domestic)
It seems the constant fighting and lingering barbarian opponents were beginning to live rent free in everyone’s heads. A polytheistic superstition-laden culture did what polytheistic superstition-laden cultures do: massive ritualistic spectacle! Animals, parades, sacrifices, readings from mystic texts, choruses of youths and virgins… a no expense spared extravaganza. Curiously, Gibbon takes a sentence to note that the Romans did not sacrifice any humans. Yay for Rome. I’m taking this to be a play by Gibbon to clarify their “civil nature” and/or provide a subtle contrast to the cultic habits of the barbarians, who we know did perform human sacrifice.
Rome didn’t completely trust the spectacle for protection, though. Widespread defense construction began across the empire and, for the first time, significant defenses were constructed in Rome itself – something that Gibbon states would’ve been unthinkable to prior centuries of Romans. And at this point, Aurelian’s attention is forced towards the self-appointed emperors and leaders of the further provinces of Gaul (and points north and west) and Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Gibbon previously addressed that Gaul, Spain and Britain proclaimed themselves to have their own emperor during Gallienus’ reign (back when trying to be emperor was the latest rage and there were 19 of them). Additionally, Gibbon had also briefly alluded to the relatively quick fall of Posthumus, who was killed by his own troops for trying to hold them to a code of conduct when dispatching a would-be usurper. How… typical. The next Gallic emperor of note was Victorinus, who was not very victorious (despite his name) or particularly moral or ethical. Gibbon refers to his assassins as “a conspiracy of jealous husbands” who were exacting their revenge for their wives’ infidelity and his playboy habits.
I get a Murder on the Orient Express grade conspiracy feeling on this one.
If you’ve never read original the Agatha Christie or seen the brilliant film version of
Murder on the Orient Express (1974), do not watch this… it 100% spoils the solution.
In the wake of Victorinus’ exit, his mom took over the Gallic empire, which is one way of mourning, I guess. She managed to get Tetricus put on the throne and continued to wield power either near or equal to that of her handpicked emperor (as mentioned at the top of the post, parts of Gibbon’s info on Victoria may be inaccurate). She died not long after Tetricus was made the Gallic ruler, possibly due to his foul play, though this isn’t concretely known. Tetricus eventually became scared enough of the Gallic army (they had taken out one ruler already, after all) that he secretly passed notes to Aurelian, begging him to come reconquer the Gallic regions for Rome. He might have even passed intelligence to the Roman army and defected over to their camp at the first available chance. It’s not hard to guess how that conflict went: quickly and decisively in Rome’s favor.
At this point, Aurelian turns his attention south and east towards the land ruled by Zenobia. Readers may recall Odenathus from the last chapter: the ruler of Palmyra who gave the Persians such utter grief on the battlefield, earning the appreciation of Rome for his skill, ability, and help giving the Persian such utter grief on the battlefield. Eventually, Odenathus became the Palmyrene king and married Zenobia, who became queen. Different than Victoria, Zenobia was a significant driving force behind that kingdom. She was a highly educated polyglot who was dead serious about running Palmyra to the best of her ability.
Part 3: It’s A Lot Like the End of The Phantom Menace
Odenathus met his demise via assassination. Yeah, that’s pretty much how Part 3 starts.
Gibbon attributes the dirty deed done dirt cheap to his nephew. The nephew, by the way, was punished promptly by Zenobia. As a side note, this is another usage of Historia Augusta: other sources attribute Odenathus’ demise to a variety of potential assassins, who possibly conspired with Zenobia. Either way, Zenobia becomes the sole head of Palmyra. By all accounts presented by Gibbon, she was a wildly effective leader and shrewd negotiator, but Aurelian was a bit of a disruption. Different than her late husband, she couldn’t stand Rome and wanted nothing to do with them (she even sent a Roman general packing as a sign of ill will). We can’t have that, now can we? Well, Aurelian wouldn’t take it either.
Some of the Palmyrene provinces fell to Rome militarily, but several others immediately defected to Rome the minute Aurelian showed up (Gibbon specifically argues that some may have been disillusioned by a female ruler and were looking for an excuse to bail). Despite her cunning and skill, the Palmyrene forces were no match for Rome and they were conned into fighting the same losing battle twice. Gibbon describes them as “so similar in almost every circumstance, that we can scarcely distinguish them from each other” aside from the different locations of each contest. Each battle followed the same pattern:
- Palmyra’s army was heavily armed cavalry and archers
- They’d chase Rome, eventually running out of ammo and energy
- When the time was right, the Romans would flank them, turn around on them, and then obliterate them.
At this point, Gibbon briefly exits the narrative to record a brief history of the region, paying particular attention to its longstanding status as a city independent of Rome. Palmyra became a prosperous and opulent Roman colony under Trajan until “ages of prosperity were sacrificed to a moment of glory.”
Aurelian, armed with the understanding that his quest was not the most popular thing (but believing it to be the correct course of action) marched on towards Palmyra. Upon arrival, he offered a treaty rather than open up with a fight… but his offer was rejected in no uncertain terms. Zenobia’s rejection was heavily rooted in her belief that the attacking legions would have supply chain problems and would be forced to surrender or retreat, but this hope never materialized. When it became clear that Rome wasn’t going to lose, Zenobia decided to flee, but her short-lived escape was ended by capture at the hands of the Romans.
When Aurelian asked why she had opposed Rome, she gave a first-rate teacher’s pet/suck-up answer: because I didn’t like the last emperors, but I’ll acknowledge you.
Sadly for her underlings, she threw them under the bus and most of them didn’t survive the firing squad.
The Romans left without needing to unleash too much on Palmyra, simply placing a garrison and a governor in the city. But whatever Palmyra was spared at that time, Aurelian made up for it on the required return trip. The Palmyrenes rebelled and reportedly slaughtered the Roman troops and officials, so the Romans came back and the DOOM music kicked in.
Palmyra was left in ruins. (Gibbon describes this encounter as occurring on the trip back to Rome… it may have actually happened a bit later than that… end result is the same nonetheless.)
One final detour of arms was required of Aurelian, who needed to address a pesky merchant named Firmus, who was doing silly things in Egypt… like selling people on the idea of freedom from Rome, which is a serious faux-pas according to the Romans. That five second conflict resulted in the vivid elimination of Firmus. Not gonna lie: its really easy to read this section like Rome is a protection racket and Firmus, the shopkeeper who won’t pay, is being made into an example by the mob running the racket.
Of course, that sorta actually is what’s happening here.
Party All Night Long
Aurelian had a lot to celebrate, and my gosh did this guy know how to throw a block party.
First off, let’s get the music blasting:
The level of spectacle that this fiesta had? Imagine Barnum & Bailey, Ringling Bros., Cirque du Soleil, a rave, a Wagner opera, Shamu, and Metallica. At the same time.
This was the parade portion: elephants, tigers, 200+ exotic animals, 1,600 gladiators, the flags and wealth of captured nations, the ambassadors of the empire, gold, jewels, and a “long train of captives who reluctantly attended his triumph”. “Reluctantly” – hashtag when Gibbon burns the losers more than Aurelian. Tetricus (and son) and Zenobia stole the show, though. As for the former, the crowd was obsessed with them because they were wearing pants. Pants were fairly rare at the time, and were associated with either barbarians, illness, effeminacy, or bourgeois elite. That… is a really strange mix of pants users. As for Zenobia, the gawking might have had something to do with the fact that she was walking alongside a fancy chariot, wearing these insane gold shackles, a gold collar around her neck with a gold chain held by a slave, all of which were covered in jewels. You’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore, as Jack Black once told us.
Oh, and by the way: if I read Mr. Gibbon correctly, the parade ran for nine hours.
And a final note here: in spite of their appearance as servants in the most vitriolic faux-gravitas fashion, it does seem that the conquered rulers were treated well and with decency by Aurelian – they each lived out their lives in relative luxury and splendor instead of rotting in a prison. Tetricus and his son even made it back into government.
A New Coat of Paint Doesn’t Fix the Moldy Walls
As good as Aurelian was and as effective of a job he did (per Gibbon, who agrees his burnt toast is worthy of 3 Michelin Stars), it’s a drop in the bucket of his whole reign and the magnitude of Rome’s problems..
“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.”
An attempt to fix the Roman money system after mint workers “adulterated” the coin was met with a revolt. Gibbon, however, thinks that there’s a bit of artful politicking going on here and that the real story is much more complex. He contends that if insurrectionists gave the legions the trouble that Aurelian claims they did, then there had to be something more conspiratorial going on: a confluence of crushing taxes, a society split into factions, and a perpetual dissatisfaction with Roman government which would congeal into an organized anti-Rome movement.
The emperor, so good in war, decided to run the country like a commander dealing with enemy combatants.
“The executioners (if we may use the expression of a contemporary poet) were fatigued, the prisons were crowded, and the unhappy senate lamented the death or absence of its most illustrious members.”
Witch hunts, suspicions, conspiracies, scandals, executions… these pesky details are the grape juice stains on Gibbon’s white linen portrayal of Aurelian. He’s just a paranoid thug who lucked into a lot of power, like so many that came before him.
Eventually, Aurelian turned back to his wheelhouse and decided to go after the Persians. On the way there, he took exception to one of his aides over suspicions he was an extortionist. The extortionist’s get-out-of-jail card was forging a note to make it look like Aurelian was making an enemies list of his officers. Unaware they were looking at a forgery and that Aurelian had no designs to kill them, the officers decided to save themselves from their imagined fate and assassinate the emperor.
“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.”
It’s easy to get a sense just how excited Gibbon is by the ascension of Claudius and Aurelian to the throne, but especially Claudius. Its a weight lifted off of his shoulders. For the first time in several chapters he has an opportunity to lionize and shamelessly promote someone.
Anna recently observed how blatant Gibbon’s attempts to romanticize the marriage of Gallienus and Pipa were. And yeah, he practically sticks a neon sign on the page that lights up with audience cues like they use when filming live-audience sitcoms. In conversation on this chapter, she pointed out that Gibbon actually praises the territorial giveaway of Dacia… something that he would probably condemn had anyone else done it. Her observation got me to thinking back into the earlier chapters and the lengths that Gibbon goes to cast Rome and/or particular Roman characters as individuals of superhuman character, skill, and intelligence. We’ve each noted some different blindspots and tendencies that this creates for dearest Gibbon, which range from skimming over serious stains on Emperors’ reputations to condemnation and dismissal of most (if not all) non-Roman cultures. This chapter allows a significant return to form for Gibbon, who gets to present an Ideal Roman™ who only has faults that were because he couldn’t “[escape] the contagion of the times.” Ah, a victim of circumstance! Society did this to him!
I’m beginning to think that Gibbon’s telling of Roman history is best understood as a Western, of sorts: the guys in the white hats are really good and have little to no flaw, the guys in the black hats are absolutely rotten, deserve little to no mercy, and rarely have any redeeming quality. Rome, of course, is the Wild West and Yul Brynner roams around at will.
I can’t help but remember an anecdote that a teacher of mine loved about Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England under the title Lord Protector in the 1650s. He apparently had a notable growth on his face, which a portrait artist intended to ignore so he would look better in the painting. Cromwell protested, however, demanding he be painted, “warts and all.” Gibbon’s work is critiqued for its accuracy issues today, but research failures and limitations aside, his quest to make everything fit a picturesque narrative is among the biggest overall causes of inaccuracy. A lot of the times, he’s painting an incomplete picture to get that preffered result.