History of the decline and fall of the roman empire edward Gibbon, Esq

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more alarming nature. The despair of the citizens could only attempt,

what the power of the soldiers was, at any time, able to execute. How

precarious was his own authority over men whom he had taught to violate

every social duty! He had heard their seditious clamors; he dreaded

their calmer moments of reflection. One revolution had been purchased by

immense rewards; but a second revolution might double those rewards. The

troops professed the fondest attachment to the house of Caesar; but the

attachments of the multitude are capricious and inconstant. Augustus

summoned to his aid whatever remained in those fierce minds of Roman

prejudices; enforced the rigor of discipline by the sanction of law;

and, interposing the majesty of the senate between the emperor and the

army, boldly claimed their allegiance, as the first magistrate of the


During a long period of two hundred and twenty years from the

establishment of this artful system to the death of Commodus, the

dangers inherent to a military government were, in a great measure,

suspended. The soldiers were seldom roused to that fatal sense of their

own strength, and of the weakness of the civil authority, which was,

before and afterwards, productive of such dreadful calamities. Caligula

and Domitian were assassinated in their palace by their own domestics:

[281] the convulsions which agitated Rome on the death of the former, were

confined to the walls of the city. But Nero involved the whole empire in

his ruin. In the space of eighteen months, four princes perished by

the sword; and the Roman world was shaken by the fury of the contending

armies. Excepting only this short, though violent eruption of military

license, the two centuries from Augustus [29] to Commodus passed away

unstained with civil blood, and undisturbed by revolutions. The emperor

was elected by the authority of the senate, and the consent of the

soldiers. [30] The legions respected their oath of fidelity; and it

requires a minute inspection of the Roman annals to discover three

inconsiderable rebellions, which were all suppressed in a few months,

and without even the hazard of a battle. [31]
[Footnote 281: Caligula perished by a conspiracy formed by the officers

of the praetorian troops, and Domitian would not, perhaps, have been

assassinated without the participation of the two chiefs of that guard

in his death.--W.]

[Footnote 29: Augustus restored the ancient severity of discipline.

After the civil wars, he dropped the endearing name of Fellow-Soldiers,

and called them only Soldiers, (Sueton. in August. c. 25.) See the use

Tiberius made of the Senate in the mutiny of the Pannonian legions,

(Tacit. Annal. i.)]
[Footnote 30: These words seem to have been the constitutional language.

See Tacit. Annal. xiii. 4. * Note: This panegyric on the soldiery is

rather too liberal. Claudius was obliged to purchase their consent to

his coronation: the presents which he made, and those which the

praetorians received on other occasions, considerably embarrassed the

finances. Moreover, this formidable guard favored, in general, the

cruelties of the tyrants. The distant revolts were more frequent than

Gibbon thinks: already, under Tiberius, the legions of Germany would

have seditiously constrained Germanicus to assume the Imperial purple.

On the revolt of Claudius Civilis, under Vespasian, the legions of Gaul

murdered their general, and offered their assistance to the Gauls who

were in insurrection. Julius Sabinus made himself be proclaimed emperor,

&c. The wars, the merit, and the severe discipline of Trajan, Hadrian,

and the two Antonines, established, for some time, a greater degree of

[Footnote 31: The first was Camillus Scribonianus, who took up arms in

Dalmatia against Claudius, and was deserted by his own troops in five

days, the second, L. Antonius, in Germany, who rebelled against

Domitian; and the third, Avidius Cassius, in the reign of M. Antoninus.

The two last reigned but a few months, and were cut off by their own

adherents. We may observe, that both Camillus and Cassius colored their

ambition with the design of restoring the republic; a task, said Cassius

peculiarly reserved for his name and family.]

In elective monarchies, the vacancy of the throne is a moment big with

danger and mischief. The Roman emperors, desirous to spare the legions

that interval of suspense, and the temptation of an irregular choice,

invested their designed successor with so large a share of present

power, as should enable him, after their decease, to assume the

remainder, without suffering the empire to perceive the change of

masters. Thus Augustus, after all his fairer prospects had been snatched

from him by untimely deaths, rested his last hopes on Tiberius, obtained

for his adopted son the censorial and tribunitian powers, and dictated a

law, by which the future prince was invested with an authority equal to

his own, over the provinces and the armies. [32] Thus Vespasian subdued

the generous mind of his eldest son. Titus was adored by the eastern

legions, which, under his command, had recently achieved the conquest of

Judaea. His power was dreaded, and, as his virtues were clouded by the

intemperance of youth, his designs were suspected. Instead of listening

to such unworthy suspicions, the prudent monarch associated Titus to the

full powers of the Imperial dignity; and the grateful son ever approved

himself the humble and faithful minister of so indulgent a father. [33]

[Footnote 32: Velleius Paterculus, l. ii. c. 121. Sueton. in Tiber. c.

[Footnote 33: Sueton. in Tit. c. 6. Plin. in Praefat. Hist. Natur.]

The good sense of Vespasian engaged him indeed to embrace every measure

that might confirm his recent and precarious elevation. The military

oath, and the fidelity of the troops, had been consecrated, by the

habits of a hundred years, to the name and family of the Caesars; and

although that family had been continued only by the fictitious rite of

adoption, the Romans still revered, in the person of Nero, the grandson

of Germanicus, and the lineal successor of Augustus. It was not without

reluctance and remorse, that the praetorian guards had been persuaded to

abandon the cause of the tyrant. [34] The rapid downfall of Galba,

Otho, and Vitellus, taught the armies to consider the emperors as the

creatures of their will, and the instruments of their license. The birth

of Vespasian was mean: his grandfather had been a private soldier, his

father a petty officer of the revenue; [35] his own merit had raised him,

in an advanced age, to the empire; but his merit was rather useful than

shining, and his virtues were disgraced by a strict and even sordid

parsimony. Such a prince consulted his true interest by the association

of a son, whose more splendid and amiable character might turn the

public attention from the obscure origin, to the future glories, of the

Flavian house. Under the mild administration of Titus, the Roman world

enjoyed a transient felicity, and his beloved memory served to protect,

above fifteen years, the vices of his brother Domitian.
[Footnote 34: This idea is frequently and strongly inculcated by

Tacitus. See Hist. i. 5, 16, ii. 76.]

[Footnote 35: The emperor Vespasian, with his usual good sense, laughed

at the genealogists, who deduced his family from Flavius, the founder of

Reate, (his native country,) and one of the companions of Hercules Suet

in Vespasian, c. 12.]

Nerva had scarcely accepted the purple from the assassins of Domitian,

before he discovered that his feeble age was unable to stem the torrent

of public disorders, which had multiplied under the long tyranny of his

predecessor. His mild disposition was respected by the good; but the

degenerate Romans required a more vigorous character, whose justice

should strike terror into the guilty. Though he had several relations,

he fixed his choice on a stranger. He adopted Trajan, then about forty

years of age, and who commanded a powerful army in the Lower Germany;

and immediately, by a decree of the senate, declared him his colleague

and successor in the empire. [36] It is sincerely to be lamented, that

whilst we are fatigued with the disgustful relation of Nero's crimes

and follies, we are reduced to collect the actions of Trajan from the

glimmerings of an abridgment, or the doubtful light of a panegyric.

There remains, however, one panegyric far removed beyond the suspicion

of flattery. Above two hundred and fifty years after the death of

Trajan, the senate, in pouring out the customary acclamations on the

accession of a new emperor, wished that he might surpass the felicity of

Augustus, and the virtue of Trajan. [37]

[Footnote 36: Dion, l. lxviii. p. 1121. Plin. Secund. in Panegyric.]
[Footnote 37: Felicior Augusto, Melior Trajano. Eutrop. viii. 5.]
We may readily believe, that the father of his country hesitated whether

he ought to intrust the various and doubtful character of his kinsman

Hadrian with sovereign power. In his last moments the arts of the

empress Plotina either fixed the irresolution of Trajan, or boldly

supposed a fictitious adoption; [38] the truth of which could not be

safely disputed, and Hadrian was peaceably acknowledged as his lawful

successor. Under his reign, as has been already mentioned, the empire

flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed

the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces

in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most

enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy. But the ruling

passions of his soul were curiosity and vanity. As they prevailed, and

as they were attracted by different objects, Hadrian was, by turns,

an excellent prince, a ridiculous sophist, and a jealous tyrant.

The general tenor of his conduct deserved praise for its equity and

moderation. Yet in the first days of his reign, he put to death four

consular senators, his personal enemies, and men who had been judged

worthy of empire; and the tediousness of a painful illness rendered

him, at last, peevish and cruel. The senate doubted whether they should

pronounce him a god or a tyrant; and the honors decreed to his memory

were granted to the prayers of the pious Antoninus. [39]
[Footnote 38: Dion (l. lxix. p. 1249) affirms the whole to have been

a fiction, on the authority of his father, who, being governor of the

province where Trajan died, had very good opportunities of sifting

this mysterious transaction. Yet Dodwell (Praelect. Camden. xvii.) has

maintained that Hadrian was called to the certain hope of the empire,

during the lifetime of Trajan.]

[Footnote 39: Dion, (l. lxx. p. 1171.) Aurel. Victor.]
The caprice of Hadrian influenced his choice of a successor.
After revolving in his mind several men of distinguished merit, whom

he esteemed and hated, he adopted Aelius Verus a gay and voluptuous

nobleman, recommended by uncommon beauty to the lover of Antinous. [40]

But whilst Hadrian was delighting himself with his own applause, and

the acclamations of the soldiers, whose consent had been secured by an

immense donative, the new Caesar [41] was ravished from his embraces by

an untimely death. He left only one son. Hadrian commended the boy to

the gratitude of the Antonines. He was adopted by Pius; and, on the

accession of Marcus, was invested with an equal share of sovereign

power. Among the many vices of this younger Verus, he possessed

one virtue; a dutiful reverence for his wiser colleague, to whom he

willingly abandoned the ruder cares of empire. The philosophic emperor

dissembled his follies, lamented his early death, and cast a decent veil

over his memory.

[Footnote 40: The deification of Antinous, his medals, his statues,

temples, city, oracles, and constellation, are well known, and still

dishonor the memory of Hadrian. Yet we may remark, that of the first

fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was

entirely correct. For the honors of Antinous, see Spanheim, Commentaire

sui les Caesars de Julien, p. 80.]

[Footnote 41: Hist. August. p. 13. Aurelius Victor in Epitom.]
As soon as Hadrian's passion was either gratified or disappointed, he

resolved to deserve the thanks of posterity, by placing the most exalted

merit on the Roman throne. His discerning eye easily discovered a

senator about fifty years of age, clameless in all the offices of life;

and a youth of about seventeen, whose riper years opened a fair prospect

of every virtue: the elder of these was declared the son and successor

of Hadrian, on condition, however, that he himself should immediately

adopt the younger. The two Antonines (for it is of them that we are now

peaking,) governed the Roman world forty-two years, with the same

invariable spirit of wisdom and virtue. Although Pius had two sons, [42]

he preferred the welfare of Rome to the interest of his family, gave his

daughter Faustina, in marriage to young Marcus, obtained from the senate

the tribunitian and proconsular powers, and, with a noble disdain, or

rather ignorance of jealousy, associated him to all the labors of

government. Marcus, on the other hand, revered the character of his

benefactor, loved him as a parent, obeyed him as his sovereign, [43]

and, after he was no more, regulated his own administration by the

example and maxims of his predecessor. Their united reigns are possibly

the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was

the sole object of government.

[Footnote 42: Without the help of medals and inscriptions, we should be

ignorant of this fact, so honorable to the memory of Pius. Note: Gibbon

attributes to Antoninus Pius a merit which he either did not possess, or

was not in a situation to display.

1. He was adopted only on the condition that he would adopt, in his

turn, Marcus Aurelius and L. Verus.

2. His two sons died children, and one of them, M. Galerius, alone,

appears to have survived, for a few years, his father's coronation.

Gibbon is also mistaken when he says (note 42) that "without the help

of medals and inscriptions, we should be ignorant that Antoninus had

two sons." Capitolinus says expressly, (c. 1,) Filii mares duo,

duae-foeminae; we only owe their names to the medals. Pagi. Cont. Baron,

i. 33, edit Paris.--W.]
[Footnote 43: During the twenty-three years of Pius's reign, Marcus was

only two nights absent from the palace, and even those were at different

times. Hist. August. p. 25.]
Titus Antoninus Pius has been justly denominated a second Numa. The

same love of religion, justice, and peace, was the distinguishing

characteristic of both princes. But the situation of the latter opened

a much larger field for the exercise of those virtues. Numa could

only prevent a few neighboring villages from plundering each other's

harvests. Antoninus diffused order and tranquillity over the greatest

part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of

furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more

than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.

In private life, he was an amiable, as well as a good man. The native

simplicity of his virtue was a stranger to vanity or affectation.

He enjoyed with moderation the conveniences of his fortune, and the

innocent pleasures of society; [44] and the benevolence of his soul

displayed itself in a cheerful serenity of temper.

[Footnote 44: He was fond of the theatre, and not insensible to the

charms of the fair sex. Marcus Antoninus, i. 16. Hist. August. p. 20,

21. Julian in Caesar.]
The virtue of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was of severer and more

laborious kind. [45] It was the well-earned harvest of many a learned

conference, of many a patient lecture, and many a midnight lucubration.

At the age of twelve years he embraced the rigid system of the Stoics,

which taught him to submit his body to his mind, his passions to his

reason; to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only evil, all

things external as things indifferent. [46] His meditations, composed in

the tumult of the camp, are still extant; and he even condescended to

give lessons of philosophy, in a more public manner than was perhaps

consistent with the modesty of sage, or the dignity of an emperor. [47]

But his life was the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno. He was

severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just

and beneficent to all mankind. He regretted that Avidius Cassius, who

excited a rebellion in Syria, had disappointed him, by a voluntary

death, [471] of the pleasure of converting an enemy into a friend;; and he

justified the sincerity of that sentiment, by moderating the zeal of the

senate against the adherents of the traitor. [48] War he detested, as the

disgrace and calamity of human nature; [481] but when the necessity of

a just defence called upon him to take up arms, he readily exposed his

person to eight winter campaigns, on the frozen banks of the Danube, the

severity of which was at last fatal to the weakness of his constitution.

His memory was revered by a grateful posterity, and above a century

after his death, many persons preserved the image of Marcus Antoninus

among those of their household gods. [49]

[Footnote 45: The enemies of Marcus charged him with hypocrisy, and

with a want of that simplicity which distinguished Pius and even Verus.

(Hist. August. 6, 34.) This suspicions, unjust as it was, may serve to

account for the superior applause bestowed upon personal qualifications,

in preference to the social virtues. Even Marcus Antoninus has been

called a hypocrite; but the wildest scepticism never insinuated that

Caesar might probably be a coward, or Tully a fool. Wit and valor are

qualifications more easily ascertained than humanity or the love of

[Footnote 46: Tacitus has characterized, in a few words, the principles

of the portico: Doctores sapientiae secutus est, qui sola bona quae

honesta, main tantum quae turpia; potentiam, nobilitatem, aeteraque

extra... bonis neque malis adnumerant. Tacit. Hist. iv. 5.]

[Footnote 47: Before he went on the second expedition against the

Germans, he read lectures of philosophy to the Roman people, during

three days. He had already done the same in the cities of Greece and

Asia. Hist. August. in Cassio, c. 3.]

[Footnote 471: Cassius was murdered by his own partisans. Vulcat. Gallic.

in Cassio, c. 7. Dion, lxxi. c. 27.--W.]

[Footnote 48: Dion, l. lxxi. p. 1190. Hist. August. in Avid. Cassio.

Note: See one of the newly discovered passages of Dion Cassius. Marcus

wrote to the senate, who urged the execution of the partisans of

Cassius, in these words: "I entreat and beseech you to preserve my reign

unstained by senatorial blood. None of your order must perish either by

your desire or mine." Mai. Fragm. Vatican. ii. p. 224.--M.]

[Footnote 481: Marcus would not accept the services of any of the

barbarian allies who crowded to his standard in the war against Avidius

Cassius. "Barbarians," he said, with wise but vain sagacity, "must not

become acquainted with the dissensions of the Roman people." Mai. Fragm

Vatican l. 224.--M.]
[Footnote 49: Hist. August. in Marc. Antonin. c. 18.]
If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world,

during which the condition of the human race was most happy and

prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from

the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of

the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of

virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle

hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority

commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration

were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines,

who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering

themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes

deserved the honor of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their

days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.
The labors of these monarchs were overpaid by the immense reward that

inseparably waited on their success; by the honest pride of virtue, and

by the exquisite delight of beholding the general happiness of which

they were the authors. A just but melancholy reflection imbittered,

however, the noblest of human enjoyments. They must often have

recollected the instability of a happiness which depended on the

character of single man. The fatal moment was perhaps approaching,

when some licentious youth, or some jealous tyrant, would abuse, to the

destruction, that absolute power, which they had exerted for the benefit

of their people. The ideal restraints of the senate and the laws might

serve to display the virtues, but could never correct the vices, of the

emperor. The military force was a blind and irresistible instrument

of oppression; and the corruption of Roman manners would always supply

flatterers eager to applaud, and ministers prepared to serve, the fear

or the avarice, the lust or the cruelty, of their master. These gloomy

apprehensions had been already justified by the experience of the

Romans. The annals of the emperors exhibit a strong and various picture

of human nature, which we should vainly seek among the mixed and

doubtful characters of modern history. In the conduct of those monarchs

we may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted

perfection, and the meanest degeneracy of our own species. The golden

age of Trajan and the Antonines had been preceded by an age of iron. It

is almost superfluous to enumerate the unworthy successors of Augustus.

Their unparalleled vices, and the splendid theatre on which they were

acted, have saved them from oblivion. The dark, unrelenting Tiberius,

the furious Caligula, the feeble Claudius, the profligate and cruel

Nero, the beastly Vitellius, [50] and the timid, inhuman Domitian, are

condemned to everlasting infamy. During fourscore years (excepting only

the short and doubtful respite of Vespasian's reign) [51] Rome groaned

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