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

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[Footnote 16: In a note upon the Augustan History, Casaubon has

collected a number of particulars concerning these celebrated brothers.

See p. 96 of his learned commentary.]
The tyrant's rage, after having shed the noblest blood of the senate,

at length recoiled on the principal instrument of his cruelty. Whilst

Commodus was immersed in blood and luxury, he devolved the detail of the

public business on Perennis, a servile and ambitious minister, who had

obtained his post by the murder of his predecessor, but who possessed a

considerable share of vigor and ability. By acts of extortion, and

the forfeited estates of the nobles sacrificed to his avarice, he had

accumulated an immense treasure. The Praetorian guards were under

his immediate command; and his son, who already discovered a military

genius, was at the head of the Illyrian legions. Perennis aspired to the

empire; or what, in the eyes of Commodus, amounted to the same crime, he

was capable of aspiring to it, had he not been prevented, surprised, and

put to death. The fall of a minister is a very trifling incident in the

general history of the empire; but it was hastened by an extraordinary

circumstance, which proved how much the nerves of discipline were

already relaxed. The legions of Britain, discontented with the

administration of Perennis, formed a deputation of fifteen hundred

select men, with instructions to march to Rome, and lay their complaints

before the emperor. These military petitioners, by their own determined

behaviour, by inflaming the divisions of the guards, by exaggerating

the strength of the British army, and by alarming the fears of Commodus,

exacted and obtained the minister's death, as the only redress of their

grievances. [17] This presumption of a distant army, and their discovery

of the weakness of government, was a sure presage of the most dreadful

[Footnote 17: Dion, l. lxxii. p. 1210. Herodian, l. i. p. 22. Hist.

August. p. 48. Dion gives a much less odious character of Perennis, than

the other historians. His moderation is almost a pledge of his veracity.

Note: Gibbon praises Dion for the moderation with which he speaks of

Perennis: he follows, nevertheless, in his own narrative, Herodian and

Lampridius. Dion speaks of Perennis not only with moderation, but with

admiration; he represents him as a great man, virtuous in his life, and

blameless in his death: perhaps he may be suspected of partiality; but

it is singular that Gibbon, having adopted, from Herodian and

Lampridius, their judgment on this minister, follows Dion's improbable

account of his death. What likelihood, in fact, that fifteen hundred men

should have traversed Gaul and Italy, and have arrived at Rome without

any understanding with the Praetorians, or without detection or

opposition from Perennis, the Praetorian praefect? Gibbon, foreseeing,

perhaps, this difficulty, has added, that the military deputation

inflamed the divisions of the guards; but Dion says expressly that they

did not reach Rome, but that the emperor went out to meet them: he even

reproaches him for not having opposed them with the guards, who were

superior in number. Herodian relates that Commodus, having learned, from

a soldier, the ambitious designs of Perennis and his son, caused them to

be attacked and massacred by night.--G. from W. Dion's narrative is

remarkably circumstantial, and his authority higher than either of the

other writers. He hints that Cleander, a new favorite, had already

undermined the influence of Perennis.--M.]

The negligence of the public administration was betrayed, soon

afterwards, by a new disorder, which arose from the smallest beginnings.

A spirit of desertion began to prevail among the troops: and the

deserters, instead of seeking their safety in flight or concealment,

infested the highways. Maternus, a private soldier, of a daring boldness

above his station, collected these bands of robbers into a little army,

set open the prisons, invited the slaves to assert their freedom, and

plundered with impunity the rich and defenceless cities of Gaul and

Spain. The governors of the provinces, who had long been the spectators,

and perhaps the partners, of his depredations, were, at length, roused

from their supine indolence by the threatening commands of the emperor.

Maternus found that he was encompassed, and foresaw that he must be

overpowered. A great effort of despair was his last resource. He ordered

his followers to disperse, to pass the Alps in small parties and various

disguises, and to assemble at Rome, during the licentious tumult of the

festival of Cybele. [18] To murder Commodus, and to ascend the vacant

throne, was the ambition of no vulgar robber. His measures were so ably

concerted that his concealed troops already filled the streets of

Rome. The envy of an accomplice discovered and ruined this singular

enterprise, in a moment when it was ripe for execution. [19]

[Footnote 18: During the second Punic war, the Romans imported from Asia

the worship of the mother of the gods. Her festival, the Megalesia,

began on the fourth of April, and lasted six days. The streets were

crowded with mad processions, the theatres with spectators, and the

public tables with unbidden guests. Order and police were suspended, and

pleasure was the only serious business of the city. See Ovid. de Fastis,

l. iv. 189, &c.]
[Footnote 19: Herodian, l. i. p. 23, 23.]
Suspicious princes often promote the last of mankind, from a vain

persuasion, that those who have no dependence, except on their favor,

will have no attachment, except to the person of their benefactor.

Cleander, the successor of Perennis, was a Phrygian by birth; of

a nation over whose stubborn, but servile temper, blows only could

prevail. [20] He had been sent from his native country to Rome, in the

capacity of a slave. As a slave he entered the Imperial palace, rendered

himself useful to his master's passions, and rapidly ascended to the

most exalted station which a subject could enjoy. His influence over

the mind of Commodus was much greater than that of his predecessor; for

Cleander was devoid of any ability or virtue which could inspire the

emperor with envy or distrust. Avarice was the reigning passion of his

soul, and the great principle of his administration. The rank of Consul,

of Patrician, of Senator, was exposed to public sale; and it would have

been considered as disaffection, if any one had refused to purchase

these empty and disgraceful honors with the greatest part of his

fortune. [21] In the lucrative provincial employments, the minister

shared with the governor the spoils of the people. The execution of the

laws was penal and arbitrary. A wealthy criminal might obtain, not only

the reversal of the sentence by which he was justly condemned, but might

likewise inflict whatever punishment he pleased on the accuser, the

witnesses, and the judge.

[Footnote 20: Cicero pro Flacco, c. 27.]
[Footnote 21: One of these dear-bought promotions occasioned a

current... that Julius Solon was banished into the senate.]

By these means, Cleander, in the space of three years, had accumulated

more wealth than had ever yet been possessed by any freedman. [22]

Commodus was perfectly satisfied with the magnificent presents which

the artful courtier laid at his feet in the most seasonable moments.

To divert the public envy, Cleander, under the emperor's name, erected

baths, porticos, and places of exercise, for the use of the people.

[23] He flattered himself that the Romans, dazzled and amused by this

apparent liberality, would be less affected by the bloody scenes which

were daily exhibited; that they would forget the death of Byrrhus, a

senator to whose superior merit the late emperor had granted one of

his daughters; and that they would forgive the execution of Arrius

Antoninus, the last representative of the name and virtues of the

Antonines. The former, with more integrity than prudence, had attempted

to disclose, to his brother-in-law, the true character of Cleander. An

equitable sentence pronounced by the latter, when proconsul of Asia,

against a worthless creature of the favorite, proved fatal to him. [24]

After the fall of Perennis, the terrors of Commodus had, for a short

time, assumed the appearance of a return to virtue. He repealed the most

odious of his acts; loaded his memory with the public execration, and

ascribed to the pernicious counsels of that wicked minister all the

errors of his inexperienced youth. But his repentance lasted only thirty

days; and, under Cleander's tyranny, the administration of Perennis was

often regretted.
[Footnote 22: Dion (l. lxxii. p. 12, 13) observes, that no freedman had

possessed riches equal to those of Cleander. The fortune of Pallas

amounted, however, to upwards of five and twenty hundred thousand

pounds; Ter millies.]

[Footnote 23: Dion, l. lxxii. p. 12, 13. Herodian, l. i. p. 29. Hist.

August. p. 52. These baths were situated near the Porta Capena. See

Nardini Roma Antica, p. 79.]
[Footnote 24: Hist. August. p. 79.]

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

Pestilence and famine contributed to fill up the measure of the

calamities of Rome. [25] The first could be only imputed to the just

indignation of the gods; but a monopoly of corn, supported by the riches

and power of the minister, was considered as the immediate cause of

the second. The popular discontent, after it had long circulated in

whispers, broke out in the assembled circus. The people quitted their

favorite amusements for the more delicious pleasure of revenge,

rushed in crowds towards a palace in the suburbs, one of the emperor's

retirements, and demanded, with angry clamors, the head of the public

enemy. Cleander, who commanded the Praetorian guards, [26] ordered a body

of cavalry to sally forth, and disperse the seditious multitude. The

multitude fled with precipitation towards the city; several were slain,

and many more were trampled to death; but when the cavalry entered the

streets, their pursuit was checked by a shower of stones and darts from

the roofs and windows of the houses. The foot guards, [27] who had

been long jealous of the prerogatives and insolence of the Praetorian

cavalry, embraced the party of the people. The tumult became a regular

engagement, and threatened a general massacre. The Praetorians, at

length, gave way, oppressed with numbers; and the tide of popular fury

returned with redoubled violence against the gates of the palace, where

Commodus lay, dissolved in luxury, and alone unconscious of the civil

war. It was death to approach his person with the unwelcome news. He

would have perished in this supine security, had not two women, his

eldest sister Fadilla, and Marcia, the most favored of his concubines,

ventured to break into his presence. Bathed in tears, and with

dishevelled hair, they threw themselves at his feet; and with all the

pressing eloquence of fear, discovered to the affrighted emperor the

crimes of the minister, the rage of the people, and the impending

ruin, which, in a few minutes, would burst over his palace and person.

Commodus started from his dream of pleasure, and commanded that the head

of Cleander should be thrown out to the people. The desired spectacle

instantly appeased the tumult; and the son of Marcus might even yet have

regained the affection and confidence of his subjects. [28]
[Footnote 25: Herodian, l. i. p. 28. Dion, l. lxxii. p. 1215. The

latter says that two thousand persons died every day at Rome, during a

considerable length of time.]
[Footnote 26: Tuneque primum tres praefecti praetorio fuere: inter quos

libertinus. From some remains of modesty, Cleander declined the title,

whilst he assumed the powers, of Praetorian praefect. As the other

freedmen were styled, from their several departments, a rationibus,

ab epistolis, Cleander called himself a pugione, as intrusted with the

defence of his master's person. Salmasius and Casaubon seem to have

talked very idly upon this passage. * Note: M. Guizot denies that

Lampridius means Cleander as praefect a pugione. The Libertinus seems to

me to mean him.--M.]
[Footnote 27: Herodian, l. i. p. 31. It is doubtful whether he means

the Praetorian infantry, or the cohortes urbanae, a body of six thousand

men, but whose rank and discipline were not equal to their numbers.

Neither Tillemont nor Wotton choose to decide this question.]

[Footnote 28: Dion Cassius, l. lxxii. p. 1215. Herodian, l. i. p. 32.

Hist. August. p. 48.]

But every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of

Commodus. Whilst he thus abandoned the reins of empire to these unworthy

favorites, he valued nothing in sovereign power, except the unbounded

license of indulging his sensual appetites. His hours were spent in a

seraglio of three hundred beautiful women, and as many boys, of every

rank, and of every province; and, wherever the arts of seduction proved

ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence. The

ancient historians [29] have expatiated on these abandoned scenes of

prostitution, which scorned every restraint of nature or modesty; but it

would not be easy to translate their too faithful descriptions into the

decency of modern language. The intervals of lust were filled up with

the basest amusements. The influence of a polite age, and the labor of

an attentive education, had never been able to infuse into his rude and

brutish mind the least tincture of learning; and he was the first of

the Roman emperors totally devoid of taste for the pleasures of the

understanding. Nero himself excelled, or affected to excel, in the

elegant arts of music and poetry: nor should we despise his pursuits,

had he not converted the pleasing relaxation of a leisure hour into

the serious business and ambition of his life. But Commodus, from his

earliest infancy, discovered an aversion to whatever was rational or

liberal, and a fond attachment to the amusements of the populace; the

sports of the circus and amphitheatre, the combats of gladiators, and

the hunting of wild beasts. The masters in every branch of learning,

whom Marcus provided for his son, were heard with inattention and

disgust; whilst the Moors and Parthians, who taught him to dart the

javelin and to shoot with the bow, found a disciple who delighted in his

application, and soon equalled the most skilful of his instructors in

the steadiness of the eye and the dexterity of the hand.

[Footnote 29: Sororibus suis constupratis. Ipsas concubinas suas sub

oculis...stuprari jubebat. Nec irruentium in se juvenum carebat infamia,

omni parte corporis atque ore in sexum utrumque pollutus. Hist. Aug. p.

The servile crowd, whose fortune depended on their master's vices,

applauded these ignoble pursuits. The perfidious voice of flattery

reminded him, that by exploits of the same nature, by the defeat of the

Nemaean lion, and the slaughter of the wild boar of Erymanthus, the

Grecian Hercules had acquired a place among the gods, and an immortal

memory among men. They only forgot to observe, that, in the first ages

of society, when the fiercer animals often dispute with man the

possession of an unsettled country, a successful war against those

savages is one of the most innocent and beneficial labors of heroism. In

the civilized state of the Roman empire, the wild beasts had long since

retired from the face of man, and the neighborhood of populous cities.

To surprise them in their solitary haunts, and to transport them to

Rome, that they might be slain in pomp by the hand of an emperor, was an

enterprise equally ridiculous for the prince and oppressive for the

people. [30] Ignorant of these distinctions, Commodus eagerly embraced

the glorious resemblance, and styled himself (as we still read on his

medals [31] the Roman Hercules. [311] The club and the lion's hide were

placed by the side of the throne, amongst the ensigns of sovereignty;

and statues were erected, in which Commodus was represented in the

character, and with the attributes, of the god, whose valor and

dexterity he endeavored to emulate in the daily course of his ferocious

amusements. [32]
[Footnote 30: The African lions, when pressed by hunger, infested the open

villages and cultivated country; and they infested them with impunity.

The royal beast was reserved for the pleasures of the emperor and the

capital; and the unfortunate peasant who killed one of them though

in his own defence, incurred a very heavy penalty. This extraordinary

game-law was mitigated by Honorius, and finally repealed by Justinian.

Codex Theodos. tom. v. p. 92, et Comment Gothofred.]
[Footnote 31: Spanheim de Numismat. Dissertat. xii. tom. ii. p. 493.]
[Footnote 311: Commodus placed his own head on the colossal statue of

Hercules with the inscription, Lucius Commodus Hercules. The wits of

Rome, according to a new fragment of Dion, published an epigram, of

which, like many other ancient jests, the point is not very clear.

It seems to be a protest of the god against being confounded with the

emperor. Mai Fragm. Vatican. ii. 225.--M.]

[Footnote 32: Dion, l. lxxii. p. 1216. Hist. August. p. 49.]
Elated with these praises, which gradually extinguished the innate sense

of shame, Commodus resolved to exhibit before the eyes of the Roman

people those exercises, which till then he had decently confined within

the walls of his palace, and to the presence of a few favorites. On the

appointed day, the various motives of flattery, fear, and curiosity,

attracted to the amphitheatre an innumerable multitude of spectators;

and some degree of applause was deservedly bestowed on the uncommon

skill of the Imperial performer. Whether he aimed at the head or heart

of the animal, the wound was alike certain and mortal. With arrows whose

point was shaped into the form of crescent, Commodus often intercepted

the rapid career, and cut asunder the long, bony neck of the ostrich.

[33] A panther was let loose; and the archer waited till he had leaped

upon a trembling malefactor. In the same instant the shaft flew, the

beast dropped dead, and the man remained unhurt. The dens of the

amphitheatre disgorged at once a hundred lions: a hundred darts from the

unerring hand of Commodus laid them dead as they run raging round the

Arena. Neither the huge bulk of the elephant, nor the scaly hide of the

rhinoceros, could defend them from his stroke. Aethiopia and India

yielded their most extraordinary productions; and several animals were

slain in the amphitheatre, which had been seen only in the

representations of art, or perhaps of fancy. [34] In all these

exhibitions, the securest precautions were used to protect the person of

the Roman Hercules from the desperate spring of any savage, who might

possibly disregard the dignity of the emperor and the sanctity of the

god. [35]
[Footnote 33: The ostrich's neck is three feet long, and composed of

seventeen vertebrae. See Buffon, Hist. Naturelle.]

[Footnote 34: Commodus killed a camelopardalis or Giraffe, (Dion, l.

lxxii. p. 1211,) the tallest, the most gentle, and the most useless

of the large quadrupeds. This singular animal, a native only of the

interior parts of Africa, has not been seen in Europe since the revival

of letters; and though M. de Buffon (Hist. Naturelle, tom. xiii.) has

endeavored to describe, he has not ventured to delineate, the Giraffe. *

Note: The naturalists of our days have been more fortunate. London

probably now contains more specimens of this animal than have been seen

in Europe since the fall of the Roman empire, unless in the pleasure

gardens of the emperor Frederic II., in Sicily, which possessed several.

Frederic's collections of wild beasts were exhibited, for the popular

amusement, in many parts of Italy. Raumer, Geschichte der Hohenstaufen,

v. iii. p. 571. Gibbon, moreover, is mistaken; as a giraffe was

presented to Lorenzo de Medici, either by the sultan of Egypt or the

king of Tunis. Contemporary authorities are quoted in the old work,

Gesner de Quadrupedibum p. 162.--M.]

[Footnote 35: Herodian, l. i. p. 37. Hist. August. p. 50.]
But the meanest of the populace were affected with shame and indignation

when they beheld their sovereign enter the lists as a gladiator, and

glory in a profession which the laws and manners of the Romans had

branded with the justest note of infamy. [36] He chose the habit and

arms of the Secutor, whose combat with the Retiarius formed one of the

most lively scenes in the bloody sports of the amphitheatre. The Secutor

was armed with a helmet, sword, and buckler; his naked antagonist had

only a large net and a trident; with the one he endeavored to entangle,

with the other to despatch his enemy. If he missed the first throw, he

was obliged to fly from the pursuit of the Secutor, till he had prepared

his net for a second cast. [37] The emperor fought in this character

seven hundred and thirty-five several times. These glorious achievements

were carefully recorded in the public acts of the empire; and that he

might omit no circumstance of infamy, he received from the common fund

of gladiators a stipend so exorbitant that it became a new and most

ignominious tax upon the Roman people. [38] It may be easily supposed,

that in these engagements the master of the world was always successful;

in the amphitheatre, his victories were not often sanguinary; but when

he exercised his skill in the school of gladiators, or his own palace,

his wretched antagonists were frequently honored with a mortal wound

from the hand of Commodus, and obliged to seal their flattery with their

blood. [39] He now disdained the appellation of Hercules. The name of

Paulus, a celebrated Secutor, was the only one which delighted his ear.

It was inscribed on his colossal statues, and repeated in the redoubled

acclamations [40] of the mournful and applauding senate. [41] Claudius

Pompeianus, the virtuous husband of Lucilla, was the only senator who

asserted the honor of his rank. As a father, he permitted his sons to

consult their safety by attending the amphitheatre. As a Roman, he

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