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



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beneath an unremitting tyranny, which exterminated the ancient families

of the republic, and was fatal to almost every virtue and every talent

that arose in that unhappy period.


[Footnote 50: Vitellius consumed in mere eating at least six millions

of our money in about seven months. It is not easy to express his vices

with dignity, or even decency. Tacitus fairly calls him a hog, but it

is by substituting for a coarse word a very fine image. "At Vitellius,

umbraculis hortorum abditus, ut ignava animalia, quibus si cibum

suggeras, jacent torpentque, praeterita, instantia, futura, pari

oblivione dimiserat. Atque illum nemore Aricino desidem et marcentum,"

&c. Tacit. Hist. iii. 36, ii. 95. Sueton. in Vitell. c. 13. Dion.

Cassius, l xv. p. 1062.]
[Footnote 51: The execution of Helvidius Priscus, and of the virtuous

Eponina, disgraced the reign of Vespasian.]


Under the reign of these monsters, the slavery of the Romans was

accompanied with two peculiar circumstances, the one occasioned by their

former liberty, the other by their extensive conquests, which rendered

their condition more completely wretched than that of the victims of

tyranny in any other age or country. From these causes were derived, 1.

The exquisite sensibility of the sufferers; and, 2. The impossibility of

escaping from the hand of the oppressor.

I. When Persia was governed by the descendants of Sefi, a race of

princes whose wanton cruelty often stained their divan, their table, and

their bed, with the blood of their favorites, there is a saying recorded

of a young nobleman, that he never departed from the sultan's presence,

without satisfying himself whether his head was still on his shoulders.

The experience of every day might almost justify the scepticism of

Rustan. [52] Yet the fatal sword, suspended above him by a single

thread, seems not to have disturbed the slumbers, or interrupted the

tranquillity, of the Persian. The monarch's frown, he well knew, could

level him with the dust; but the stroke of lightning or apoplexy might

be equally fatal; and it was the part of a wise man to forget the

inevitable calamities of human life in the enjoyment of the fleeting

hour. He was dignified with the appellation of the king's slave; had,

perhaps, been purchased from obscure parents, in a country which he

had never known; and was trained up from his infancy in the severe

discipline of the seraglio. [53] His name, his wealth,his honors, were

the gift of a master, who might, without injustice, resume what he had

bestowed. Rustan's knowledge, if he possessed any, could only serve to

confirm his habits by prejudices. His language afforded not words for

any form of government, except absolute monarchy. The history of the

East informed him, that such had ever been the condition of mankind.

[54] The Koran, and the interpreters of that divine book, inculcated to

him, that the sultan was the descendant of the prophet, and the

vicegerent of heaven; that patience was the first virtue of a Mussulman,

and unlimited obedience the great duty of a subject.


[Footnote 52: Voyage de Chardin en Perse, vol. iii. p. 293.]
[Footnote 53: The practice of raising slaves to the great offices of

state is still more common among the Turks than among the Persians. The

miserable countries of Georgia and Circassia supply rulers to the

greatest part of the East.]


[Footnote 54: Chardin says, that European travellers have diffused among

the Persians some ideas of the freedom and mildness of our governments.

They have done them a very ill office.]
The minds of the Romans were very differently prepared for slavery.

Oppressed beneath the weight of their own corruption and of military

violence, they for a long while preserved the sentiments, or at least

the ideas, of their free-born ancestors. The education of Helvidius and

Thrasea, of Tacitus and Pliny, was the same as that of Cato and Cicero.

From Grecian philosophy, they had imbibed the justest and most liberal

notions of the dignity of human nature, and the origin of civil society.

The history of their own country had taught them to revere a free, a

virtuous, and a victorious commonwealth; to abhor the successful crimes

of Caesar and Augustus; and inwardly to despise those tyrants whom they

adored with the most abject flattery. As magistrates and senators they

were admitted into the great council, which had once dictated laws

to the earth, whose authority was so often prostituted to the vilest

purposes of tyranny. Tiberius, and those emperors who adopted his

maxims, attempted to disguise their murders by the formalities of

justice, and perhaps enjoyed a secret pleasure in rendering the senate

their accomplice as well as their victim. By this assembly, the last of

the Romans were condemned for imaginary crimes and real virtues. Their

infamous accusers assumed the language of independent patriots, who

arraigned a dangerous citizen before the tribunal of his country; and

the public service was rewarded by riches and honors. [55] The servile

judges professed to assert the majesty of the commonwealth, violated

in the person of its first magistrate, [56] whose clemency they most

applauded when they trembled the most at his inexorable and impending

cruelty. [57] The tyrant beheld their baseness with just contempt, and

encountered their secret sentiments of detestation with sincere and

avowed hatred for the whole body of the senate.
[Footnote 55: They alleged the example of Scipio and Cato, (Tacit.

Annal. iii. 66.) Marcellus Epirus and Crispus Vibius had acquired two

millions and a half under Nero. Their wealth, which aggravated their

crimes, protected them under Vespasian. See Tacit. Hist. iv. 43. Dialog.

de Orator. c. 8. For one accusation, Regulus, the just object of Pliny's

satire, received from the senate the consular ornaments, and a present

of sixty thousand pounds.]
[Footnote 56: The crime of majesty was formerly a treasonable offence

against the Roman people. As tribunes of the people, Augustus and

Tiberius applied tit to their own persons, and extended it to an

infinite latitude. Note: It was Tiberius, not Augustus, who first took

in this sense the words crimen laesae majestatis. Bachii Trajanus, 27.

--W.]
[Footnote 57: After the virtuous and unfortunate widow of Germanicus had

been put to death, Tiberius received the thanks of the senate for his

clemency. she had not been publicly strangled; nor was the body drawn

with a hook to the Gemoniae, where those of common male factors were

exposed. See Tacit. Annal. vi. 25. Sueton. in Tiberio c. 53.]

II. The division of Europe into a number of independent states,

connected, however, with each other by the general resemblance of

religion, language, and manners, is productive of the most beneficial

consequences to the liberty of mankind. A modern tyrant, who should find

no resistance either in his own breast, or in his people, would soon

experience a gentle restrain form the example of his equals, the dread

of present censure,d the advice of his allies, and the apprehension of

his enemies. The object of his displeasure, escaping from the narrow

limits of his dominions, would easily obtain, in a happier climate,

a secure refuge, a new fortune adequate to his merit, the freedom of

complaint, and perhaps the means of revenge. But the empire of the

Romans filled the world, and when the empire fell into the hands of a

single person, he wold became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies.

The slave of Imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drags his

gilded chain in rome and the senate, or to were out a life of exile on

the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen bank of the Danube, expected

his fate in silent despair. [58] To resist was fatal, and it was

impossible to fly. On every side he was encompassed with a vast extent

of sea and land, which he could never hope to traverse without being

discovered, seized, and restored to his irritated master. Beyond the

frontiers, his anxious view could discover nothing, except the ocean,

inhospitable deserts, hostile tribes of barbarians, of fierce manners

and unknown language, or dependent kings, who would gladly purchase

the emperor's protection by the sacrifice of an obnoxious fugitive. [59]

"Wherever you are," said Cicero to the exiled Marcellus, "remember that

you are equally within the power of the conqueror." [60]


[Footnote 58: Seriphus was a small rocky island in the Aegean Sea, the

inhabitants of which were despised for their ignorance and obscurity.

The place of Ovid's exile is well known, by his just, but unmanly

lamentations. It should seem, that he only received an order to leave

rome in so many days, and to transport himself to Tomi. Guards and

jailers were unnecessary.]


[Footnote 59: Under Tiberius, a Roman knight attempted to fly to the

Parthians. He was stopped in the straits of Sicily; but so little danger

did there appear in the example, that the most jealous of tyrants

disdained to punish it. Tacit. Annal. vi. 14.]


[Footnote 60: Cicero ad Familiares, iv. 7.]

Chapter IV: The Cruelty, Follies And Murder Of Commodus.--Part I.


The Cruelty, Follies, And Murder Of Commodus--Election Of

Pertinax--His Attempts To Reform The State--His

Assassination By The Praetorian Guards.
The mildness of Marcus, which the rigid discipline of the Stoics was

unable to eradicate, formed, at the same time, the most amiable, and the

only defective part of his character. His excellent understanding was

often deceived by the unsuspecting goodness of his heart. Artful men,

who study the passions of princes, and conceal their own, approached his

person in the disguise of philosophic sanctity, and acquired riches and

honors by affecting to despise them. [1] His excessive indulgence to

his brother, [105] his wife, and his son, exceeded the bounds of private

virtue, and became a public injury, by the example and consequences of

their vices.


[Footnote 1: See the complaints of Avidius Cassius, Hist. August. p.

45. These are, it is true, the complaints of faction; but even faction

exaggerates, rather than invents.]
[Footnote 105: His brother by adoption, and his colleague, L. Verus.

Marcus Aurelius had no other brother.--W.]


Faustina, the daughter of Pius and the wife of Marcus, has been as much

celebrated for her gallantries as for her beauty. The grave simplicity

of the philosopher was ill calculated to engage her wanton levity, or to

fix that unbounded passion for variety, which often discovered personal

merit in the meanest of mankind. [2] The Cupid of the ancients was, in

general, a very sensual deity; and the amours of an empress, as they

exact on her side the plainest advances, are seldom susceptible of much

sentimental delicacy. Marcus was the only man in the empire who seemed

ignorant or insensible of the irregularities of Faustina; which,

according to the prejudices of every age, reflected some disgrace on the

injured husband. He promoted several of her lovers to posts of honor and

profit, [3] and during a connection of thirty years, invariably gave her

proofs of the most tender confidence, and of a respect which ended not

with her life. In his Meditations, he thanks the gods, who had bestowed

on him a wife so faithful, so gentle, and of such a wonderful simplicity

of manners. [4] The obsequious senate, at his earnest request, declared

her a goddess. She was represented in her temples, with the attributes

of Juno, Venus, and Ceres; and it was decreed, that, on the day of their

nuptials, the youth of either sex should pay their vows before the altar

of their chaste patroness. [5]


[Footnote 2: Faustinam satis constat apud Cajetam conditiones sibi et

nauticas et gladiatorias, elegisse. Hist. August. p. 30. Lampridius

explains the sort of merit which Faustina chose, and the conditions

which she exacted. Hist. August. p. 102.]


[Footnote 3: Hist. August. p. 34.]
[Footnote 4: Meditat. l. i. The world has laughed at the credulity of

Marcus but Madam Dacier assures us, (and we may credit a lady,) that the

husband will always be deceived, if the wife condescends to dissemble.]

[Footnote 5: Dion Cassius, l. lxxi. [c. 31,] p. 1195. Hist. August.

p. 33. Commentaire de Spanheim sur les Caesars de Julien, p. 289. The

deification of Faustina is the only defect which Julian's criticism is

able to discover in the all-accomplished character of Marcus.]
The monstrous vices of the son have cast a shade on the purity of the

father's virtues. It has been objected to Marcus, that he sacrificed the

happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy; and that

he chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.

Nothing however, was neglected by the anxious father, and by the men of

virtue and learning whom he summoned to his assistance, to expand the

narrow mind of young Commodus, to correct his growing vices, and to

render him worthy of the throne for which he was designed. But the

power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy

dispositions where it is almost superfluous. The distasteful lesson of

a grave philosopher was, in a moment, obliterated by the whisper of

a profligate favorite; and Marcus himself blasted the fruits of this

labored education, by admitting his son, at the age of fourteen or

fifteen, to a full participation of the Imperial power. He lived

but four years afterwards: but he lived long enough to repent a rash

measure, which raised the impetuous youth above the restraint of reason

and authority.
Most of the crimes which disturb the internal peace of society, are

produced by the restraints which the necessary but unequal laws of

property have imposed on the appetites of mankind, by confining to a

few the possession of those objects that are coveted by many. Of all our

passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and

unsociable nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of

the multitude. In the tumult of civil discord, the laws of society lose

their force, and their place is seldom supplied by those of humanity.

The ardor of contention, the pride of victory, the despair of success,

the memory of past injuries, and the fear of future dangers, all

contribute to inflame the mind, and to silence the voice of pity. From

such motives almost every page of history has been stained with civil

blood; but these motives will not account for the unprovoked cruelties

of Commodus, who had nothing to wish and every thing to enjoy. The

beloved son of Marcus succeeded to his father, amidst the acclamations

of the senate and armies; [6] and when he ascended the throne, the happy

youth saw round him neither competitor to remove, nor enemies to punish.

In this calm, elevated station, it was surely natural that he should

prefer the love of mankind to their detestation, the mild glories of his

five predecessors to the ignominious fate of Nero and Domitian.


[Footnote 6: Commodus was the first Porphyrogenitus, (born since his

father's accession to the throne.) By a new strain of flattery,

the Egyptian medals date by the years of his life; as if they were

synonymous to those of his reign. Tillemont, Hist. des Empereurs, tom.

ii. p. 752.]
Yet Commodus was not, as he has been represented, a tiger born with an

insatiate thirst of human blood, and capable, from his infancy, of the

most inhuman actions. [7] Nature had formed him of a weak rather than a

wicked disposition. His simplicity and timidity rendered him the slave

of his attendants, who gradually corrupted his mind. His cruelty, which

at first obeyed the dictates of others, degenerated into habit, and at

length became the ruling passion of his soul. [8]
[Footnote 7: Hist. August. p. 46.]
[Footnote 8: Dion Cassius, l. lxxii. p. 1203.]
Upon the death of his father, Commodus found himself embarrassed with

the command of a great army, and the conduct of a difficult war against

the Quadi and Marcomanni. [9] The servile and profligate youths whom

Marcus had banished, soon regained their station and influence about the

new emperor. They exaggerated the hardships and dangers of a campaign

in the wild countries beyond the Danube; and they assured the indolent

prince that the terror of his name, and the arms of his lieutenants,

would be sufficient to complete the conquest of the dismayed barbarians,

or to impose such conditions as were more advantageous than any

conquest. By a dexterous application to his sensual appetites, they

compared the tranquillity, the splendor, the refined pleasures of Rome,

with the tumult of a Pannonian camp, which afforded neither leisure nor

materials for luxury. [10] Commodus listened to the pleasing advice; but

whilst he hesitated between his own inclination and the awe which he

still retained for his father's counsellors, the summer insensibly

elapsed, and his triumphal entry into the capital was deferred till the

autumn. His graceful person, [11] popular address, and imagined virtues,

attracted the public favor; the honorable peace which he had recently

granted to the barbarians, diffused a universal joy; [12] his impatience

to revisit Rome was fondly ascribed to the love of his country; and

his dissolute course of amusements was faintly condemned in a prince of

nineteen years of age.


[Footnote 9: According to Tertullian, (Apolog. c. 25,) he died at

Sirmium. But the situation of Vindobona, or Vienna, where both the

Victors place his death, is better adapted to the operations of the war

against the Marcomanni and Quadi.]


[Footnote 10: Herodian, l. i. p. 12.]
[Footnote 11: Herodian, l. i. p. 16.]
[Footnote 12: This universal joy is well described (from the medals as

well as historians) by Mr. Wotton, Hist. of Rome, p. 192, 193.] During

the three first years of his reign, the forms, and even the spirit, of

the old administration, were maintained by those faithful counsellors,

to whom Marcus had recommended his son, and for whose wisdom and

integrity Commodus still entertained a reluctant esteem. The young

prince and his profligate favorites revelled in all the license of

sovereign power; but his hands were yet unstained with blood; and he

had even displayed a generosity of sentiment, which might perhaps have

ripened into solid virtue. [13] A fatal incident decided his fluctuating

character.
[Footnote 13: Manilius, the confidential secretary of Avidius Cassius,

was discovered after he had lain concealed several years. The emperor

nobly relieved the public anxiety by refusing to see him, and burning

his papers without opening them. Dion Cassius, l. lxxii. p. 1209.]


One evening, as the emperor was returning to the palace, through a dark

and narrow portico in the amphitheatre, [14] an assassin, who waited his

passage, rushed upon him with a drawn sword, loudly exclaiming, "The

senate sends you this." The menace prevented the deed; the assassin

was seized by the guards, and immediately revealed the authors of the

conspiracy. It had been formed, not in the state, but within the walls

of the palace. Lucilla, the emperor's sister, and widow of Lucius Verus,

impatient of the second rank, and jealous of the reigning empress, had

armed the murderer against her brother's life. She had not ventured to

communicate the black design to her second husband, Claudius Pompeiarus,

a senator of distinguished merit and unshaken loyalty; but among the

crowd of her lovers (for she imitated the manners of Faustina) she found

men of desperate fortunes and wild ambition, who were prepared to serve

her more violent, as well as her tender passions. The conspirators

experienced the rigor of justice, and the abandoned princess was

punished, first with exile, and afterwards with death. [15]


[Footnote 14: See Maffei degli Amphitheatri, p. 126.]
[Footnote 15: Dion, l. lxxi. p. 1205 Herodian, l. i. p. 16 Hist. August

p. 46.]
But the words of the assassin sunk deep into the mind of Commodus, and

left an indelible impression of fear and hatred against the whole body

of the senate. [151] Those whom he had dreaded as importunate ministers,

he now suspected as secret enemies. The Delators, a race of men

discouraged, and almost extinguished, under the former reigns, again

became formidable, as soon as they discovered that the emperor was

desirous of finding disaffection and treason in the senate. That

assembly, whom Marcus had ever considered as the great council of

the nation, was composed of the most distinguished of the Romans; and

distinction of every kind soon became criminal. The possession of wealth

stimulated the diligence of the informers; rigid virtue implied a tacit

censure of the irregularities of Commodus; important services implied a

dangerous superiority of merit; and the friendship of the father always

insured the aversion of the son. Suspicion was equivalent to proof;

trial to condemnation. The execution of a considerable senator was

attended with the death of all who might lament or revenge his fate; and

when Commodus had once tasted human blood, he became incapable of

pity or remorse.
[Footnote 151: The conspirators were senators, even the assassin

himself. Herod. 81.--G.]


Of these innocent victims of tyranny, none died more lamented than the

two brothers of the Quintilian family, Maximus and Condianus; whose

fraternal love has saved their names from oblivion, and endeared their

memory to posterity. Their studies and their occupations, their pursuits

and their pleasures, were still the same. In the enjoyment of a great

estate, they never admitted the idea of a separate interest: some

fragments are now extant of a treatise which they composed in common;

[152] and in every action of life it was observed that their two bodies

were animated by one soul. The Antonines, who valued their virtues, and

delighted in their union, raised them, in the same year, to the

consulship; and Marcus afterwards intrusted to their joint care the

civil administration of Greece, and a great military command, in which

they obtained a signal victory over the Germans. The kind cruelty of

Commodus united them in death. [16]


[Footnote 152: This work was on agriculture, and is often quoted by later

writers. See P. Needham, Proleg. ad Geoponic. Camb. 1704.--W.]



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