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



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declared, that his own life was in the emperor's hands, but that he

would never behold the son of Marcus prostituting his person and

dignity. Notwithstanding his manly resolution Pompeianus escaped the

resentment of the tyrant, and, with his honor, had the good fortune to

preserve his life. [42]
[Footnote 36: The virtuous and even the wise princes forbade the

senators and knights to embrace this scandalous profession, under pain

of infamy, or, what was more dreaded by those profligate wretches, of

exile. The tyrants allured them to dishonor by threats and rewards.

Nero once produced in the arena forty senators and sixty knights. See

Lipsius, Saturnalia, l. ii. c. 2. He has happily corrected a passage

of Suetonius in Nerone, c. 12.]
[Footnote 37: Lipsius, l. ii. c. 7, 8. Juvenal, in the eighth satire,

gives a picturesque description of this combat.]


[Footnote 38: Hist. August. p. 50. Dion, l. lxxii. p. 1220. He received,

for each time, decies, about 8000l. sterling.]


[Footnote 39: Victor tells us, that Commodus only allowed his

antagonists a...weapon, dreading most probably the consequences of their

despair.]
[Footnote 40: They were obliged to repeat, six hundred and twenty-six

times, Paolus first of the Secutors, &c.]


[Footnote 41: Dion, l. lxxii. p. 1221. He speaks of his own baseness and

danger.]
[Footnote 42: He mixed, however, some prudence with his courage, and

passed the greatest part of his time in a country retirement; alleging

his advanced age, and the weakness of his eyes. "I never saw him in the

senate," says Dion, "except during the short reign of Pertinax." All his

infirmities had suddenly left him, and they returned as suddenly upon

the murder of that excellent prince. Dion, l. lxxiii. p. 1227.]
Commodus had now attained the summit of vice and infamy. Amidst the

acclamations of a flattering court, he was unable to disguise from

himself, that he had deserved the contempt and hatred of every man of

sense and virtue in his empire. His ferocious spirit was irritated by

the consciousness of that hatred, by the envy of every kind of merit, by

the just apprehension of danger, and by the habit of slaughter, which he

contracted in his daily amusements. History has preserved a long list of

consular senators sacrificed to his wanton suspicion, which sought out,

with peculiar anxiety, those unfortunate persons connected, however

remotely, with the family of the Antonines, without sparing even the

ministers of his crimes or pleasures. [43] His cruelty proved at last

fatal to himself. He had shed with impunity the noblest blood of Rome:

he perished as soon as he was dreaded by his own domestics. Marcia,

his favorite concubine, Eclectus, his chamberlain, and Laetus, his

Praetorian praefect, alarmed by the fate of their companions and

predecessors, resolved to prevent the destruction which every hour hung

over their heads, either from the mad caprice of the tyrant, [431] or

the sudden indignation of the people. Marcia seized the occasion of

presenting a draught of wine to her lover, after he had fatigued himself

with hunting some wild beasts. Commodus retired to sleep; but whilst he

was laboring with the effects of poison and drunkenness, a robust youth,

by profession a wrestler, entered his chamber, and strangled him without

resistance. The body was secretly conveyed out of the palace, before the

least suspicion was entertained in the city, or even in the court, of

the emperor's death. Such was the fate of the son of Marcus, and so

easy was it to destroy a hated tyrant, who, by the artificial powers of

government, had oppressed, during thirteen years, so many millions of

subjects, each of whom was equal to their master in personal strength

and personal abilities. [44]
[Footnote 43: The prefects were changed almost hourly or daily; and the

caprice of Commodus was often fatal to his most favored chamberlains.

Hist. August. p. 46, 51.]
[Footnote 431: Commodus had already resolved to massacre them the

following night they determined o anticipate his design. Herod. i.

17.--W.]
[Footnote 44: Dion, l. lxxii. p. 1222. Herodian, l. i. p. 43. Hist.

August. p. 52.]


The measures of he conspirators were conducted with the deliberate

coolness and celerity which the greatness of the occasion required.

They resolved instantly to fill the vacant throne with an emperor whose

character would justify and maintain the action that had been committed.

They fixed on Pertinax, praefect of the city, an ancient senator of

consular rank, whose conspicuous merit had broke through the obscurity

of his birth, and raised him to the first honors of the state. He had

successively governed most of the provinces of the empire; and in all

his great employments, military as well as civil, he had uniformly

distinguished himself by the firmness, the prudence, and the integrity

of his conduct. [45] He now remained almost alone of the friends and

ministers of Marcus; and when, at a late hour of the night, he was

awakened with the news, that the chamberlain and the praefect were at

his door, he received them with intrepid resignation, and desired they

would execute their master's orders. Instead of death, they offered him

the throne of the Roman world. During some moments he distrusted their

intentions and assurances. Convinced at length of the death of Commodus,

he accepted the purple with a sincere reluctance, the natural effect of

his knowledge both of the duties and of the dangers of the supreme rank.

[46]
[Footnote 45: Pertinax was a native of Alba Pompeia, in Piedmont,

and son of a timber merchant. The order of his employments (it is marked

by Capitolinus) well deserves to be set down, as expressive of the form

of government and manners of the age. 1. He was a centurion. 2. Praefect

of a cohort in Syria, in the Parthian war, and in Britain. 3. He

obtained an Ala, or squadron of horse, in Maesia. 4. He was commissary

of provisions on the Aemilian way. 5. He commanded the fleet upon the

Rhine. 6. He was procurator of Dacia, with a salary of about 1600l. a

year. 7. He commanded the veterans of a legion. 8. He obtained the rank

of senator. 9. Of praetor. 10. With the command of the first legion

in Rhaetia and Noricum. 11. He was consul about the year 175. 12. He

attended Marcus into the East. 13. He commanded an army on the Danube.

14. He was consular legate of Maesia. 15. Of Dacia. 16. Of Syria. 17.

Of Britain. 18. He had the care of the public provisions at Rome. 19.

He was proconsul of Africa. 20. Praefect of the city. Herodian (l. i.

p. 48) does justice to his disinterested spirit; but Capitolinus, who

collected every popular rumor, charges him with a great fortune acquired

by bribery and corruption.]
[Footnote 46: Julian, in the Caesars, taxes him with being accessory to

the death of Commodus.]


Laetus conducted without delay his new emperor to the camp of the

Praetorians, diffusing at the same time through the city a seasonable

report that Commodus died suddenly of an apoplexy; and that the virtuous

Pertinax had already succeeded to the throne. The guards were rather

surprised than pleased with the suspicious death of a prince, whose

indulgence and liberality they alone had experienced; but the emergency

of the occasion, the authority of their praefect, the reputation of

Pertinax, and the clamors of the people, obliged them to stifle their

secret discontents, to accept the donative promised by the new emperor,

to swear allegiance to him, and with joyful acclamations and laurels

in their hands to conduct him to the senate house, that the military

consent might be ratified by the civil authority. This important night

was now far spent; with the dawn of day, and the commencement of the new

year, the senators expected a summons to attend an ignominious ceremony.

[461] In spite of all remonstrances, even of those of his creatures who

yet preserved any regard for prudence or decency, Commodus had resolved

to pass the night in the gladiators' school, and from thence to take

possession of the consulship, in the habit and with the attendance of

that infamous crew. On a sudden, before the break of day, the senate was

called together in the temple of Concord, to meet the guards, and to

ratify the election of a new emperor. For a few minutes they sat in

silent suspense, doubtful of their unexpected deliverance, and

suspicious of the cruel artifices of Commodus: but when at length they

were assured that the tyrant was no more, they resigned themselves to

all the transports of joy and indignation. Pertinax, who modestly

represented the meanness of his extraction, and pointed out several

noble senators more deserving than himself of the empire, was

constrained by their dutiful violence to ascend the throne, and received

all the titles of Imperial power, confirmed by the most sincere vows of

fidelity. The memory of Commodus was branded with eternal infamy. The

names of tyrant, of gladiator, of public enemy resounded in every corner

of the house. They decreed in tumultuous votes, [462] that his honors

should be reversed, his titles erased from the public monuments, his

statues thrown down, his body dragged with a hook into the stripping

room of the gladiators, to satiate the public fury; and they expressed

some indignation against those officious servants who had already

presumed to screen his remains from the justice of the senate. But

Pertinax could not refuse those last rites to the memory of Marcus, and

the tears of his first protector Claudius Pompeianus, who lamented the

cruel fate of his brother-in-law, and lamented still more that he had

deserved it. [47]
[Footnote 461: The senate always assembled at the beginning of the year,

on the night of the 1st January, (see Savaron on Sid. Apoll. viii. 6,)

and this happened the present year, as usual, without any particular

order.--G from W.]


[Footnote 462: What Gibbon improperly calls, both here and in the note,

tumultuous decrees, were no more than the applauses and acclamations

which recur so often in the history of the emperors. The custom passed

from the theatre to the forum, from the forum to the senate. Applauses

on the adoption of the Imperial decrees were first introduced under

Trajan. (Plin. jun. Panegyr. 75.) One senator read the form of the

decree, and all the rest answered by acclamations, accompanied with a

kind of chant or rhythm. These were some of the acclamations addressed

to Pertinax, and against the memory of Commodus. Hosti patriae honores

detrahantur. Parricidae honores detrahantur. Ut salvi simus, Jupiter,

optime, maxime, serva nobis Pertinacem. This custom prevailed not only

in the councils of state, but in all the meetings of the senate. However

inconsistent it may appear with the solemnity of a religious assembly,

the early Christians adopted and introduced it into their synods,

notwithstanding the opposition of some of the Fathers, particularly of

St. Chrysostom. See the Coll. of Franc. Bern. Ferrarius de veterum

acclamatione in Graevii Thesaur. Antiq. Rom. i. 6.--W. This note is

rather hypercritical, as regards Gibbon, but appears to be worthy of

preservation.--M.]
[Footnote 47: Capitolinus gives us the particulars of these tumultuary

votes, which were moved by one senator, and repeated, or rather chanted

by the whole body. Hist. August. p. 52.]
These effusions of impotent rage against a dead emperor, whom the senate

had flattered when alive with the most abject servility, betrayed a just

but ungenerous spirit of revenge.
The legality of these decrees was, however, supported by the principles

of the Imperial constitution. To censure, to depose, or to punish

with death, the first magistrate of the republic, who had abused his

delegated trust, was the ancient and undoubted prerogative of the Roman

senate; [48] but the feeble assembly was obliged to content itself with

inflicting on a fallen tyrant that public justice, from which, during

his life and reign, he had been shielded by the strong arm of military

despotism. [481]


[Footnote 48: The senate condemned Nero to be put to death more majorum.

Sueton. c. 49.]


[Footnote 481: No particular law assigned this right to the senate: it was

deduced from the ancient principles of the republic. Gibbon appears to

infer, from the passage of Suetonius, that the senate, according to its

ancient right, punished Nero with death. The words, however, more

majerum refer not to the decree of the senate, but to the kind of death,

which was taken from an old law of Romulus. (See Victor. Epit. Ed.

Artzen p. 484, n. 7.)--W.]
Pertinax found a nobler way of condemning his predecessor's memory; by

the contrast of his own virtues with the vices of Commodus. On the day

of his accession, he resigned over to his wife and son his whole private

fortune; that they might have no pretence to solicit favors at the

expense of the state. He refused to flatter the vanity of the former

with the title of Augusta; or to corrupt the inexperienced youth of

the latter by the rank of Caesar. Accurately distinguishing between the

duties of a parent and those of a sovereign, he educated his son with a

severe simplicity, which, while it gave him no assured prospect of the

throne, might in time have rendered him worthy of it. In public, the

behavior of Pertinax was grave and affable. He lived with the virtuous

part of the senate, (and, in a private station, he had been acquainted

with the true character of each individual,) without either pride or

jealousy; considered them as friends and companions, with whom he had

shared the danger of the tyranny, and with whom he wished to enjoy

the security of the present time. He very frequently invited them to

familiar entertainments, the frugality of which was ridiculed by those

who remembered and regretted the luxurious prodigality of Commodus. [49]


[Footnote 49: Dion (l. lxxiii. p. 1223) speaks of these entertainments,

as a senator who had supped with the emperor; Capitolinus, (Hist.

August. p. 58,) like a slave, who had received his intelligence from one

the scullions.]


To heal, as far as I was possible, the wounds inflicted

by the hand of tyranny, was the pleasing, but melancholy, task of

Pertinax. The innocent victims, who yet survived, were recalled from

exile, released from prison, and restored to the full possession of

their honors and fortunes. The unburied bodies of murdered senators (for

the cruelty of Commodus endeavored to extend itself beyond death)

were deposited in the sepulchres of their ancestors; their memory

was justified and every consolation was bestowed on their ruined and

afflicted families. Among these consolations, one of the most grateful

was the punishment of the Delators; the common enemies of their master,

of virtue, and of their country. Yet even in the inquisition of these

legal assassins, Pertinax proceeded with a steady temper, which gave

every thing to justice, and nothing to popular prejudice and resentment.

The finances of the state demanded the most vigilant care of the

emperor. Though every measure of injustice and extortion had been

adopted, which could collect the property of the subject into the

coffers of the prince, the rapaciousness of Commodus had been so very

inadequate to his extravagance, that, upon his death, no more than eight

thousand pounds were found in the exhausted treasury, [50] to defray the

current expenses of government, and to discharge the pressing demand of

a liberal donative, which the new emperor had been obliged to promise

to the Praetorian guards. Yet under these distressed circumstances,

Pertinax had the generous firmness to remit all the oppressive taxes

invented by Commodus, and to cancel all the unjust claims of the

treasury; declaring, in a decree of the senate, "that he was better

satisfied to administer a poor republic with innocence, than to acquire

riches by the ways of tyranny and dishonor. Economy and industry he

considered as the pure and genuine sources of wealth; and from them he

soon derived a copious supply for the public necessities. The expense of

the household was immediately reduced to one half. All the instruments

of luxury Pertinax exposed to public auction, [51] gold and silver plate,

chariots of a singular construction, a superfluous wardrobe of silk

and embroidery, and a great number of beautiful slaves of both sexes;

excepting only, with attentive humanity, those who were born in a

state of freedom, and had been ravished from the arms of their weeping

parents. At the same time that he obliged the worthless favorites of

the tyrant to resign a part of their ill-gotten wealth, he satisfied

the just creditors of the state, and unexpectedly discharged the long

arrears of honest services. He removed the oppressive restrictions which

had been laid upon commerce, and granted all the uncultivated lands

in Italy and the provinces to those who would improve them; with an

exemption from tribute during the term of ten years. [52]


[Footnote 50: Decies. The blameless economy of Pius left his successors

a treasure of vicies septies millies, above two and twenty millions

sterling. Dion, l. lxxiii. p. 1231.]
[Footnote 51: Besides the design of converting these useless ornaments

into money, Dion (l. lxxiii. p. 1229) assigns two secret motives of

Pertinax. He wished to expose the vices of Commodus, and to discover by

the purchasers those who most resembled him.]


[Footnote 52: Though Capitolinus has picked up many idle tales of the

private life of Pertinax, he joins with Dion and Herodian in admiring

his public conduct.]
Such a uniform conduct had already secured to Pertinax the noblest

reward of a sovereign, the love and esteem of his people.


Those who remembered the virtues of Marcus were happy to contemplate in

their new emperor the features of that bright original; and flattered

themselves, that they should long enjoy the benign influence of his

administration. A hasty zeal to reform the corrupted state, accompanied

with less prudence than might have been expected from the years and

experience of Pertinax, proved fatal to himself and to his country.

His honest indiscretion united against him the servile crowd, who found

their private benefit in the public disorders, and who preferred the

favor of a tyrant to the inexorable equality of the laws. [53]
[Footnote 53: Leges, rem surdam, inexorabilem esse. T. Liv. ii. 3.]
Amidst the general joy, the sullen and angry countenance of the

Praetorian guards betrayed their inward dissatisfaction. They had

reluctantly submitted to Pertinax; they dreaded the strictness of

the ancient discipline, which he was preparing to restore; and they

regretted the license of the former reign. Their discontents were

secretly fomented by Laetus, their praefect, who found, when it was

too late, that his new emperor would reward a servant, but would not be

ruled by a favorite. On the third day of his reign, the soldiers seized

on a noble senator, with a design to carry him to the camp, and to

invest him with the Imperial purple. Instead of being dazzled by the

dangerous honor, the affrighted victim escaped from their violence, and

took refuge at the feet of Pertinax. A short time afterwards, Sosius

Falco, one of the consuls of the year, a rash youth, [54] but of an

ancient and opulent family, listened to the voice of ambition; and a

conspiracy was formed during a short absence of Pertinax, which was

crushed by his sudden return to Rome, and his resolute behavior. Falco

was on the point of being justly condemned to death as a public enemy

had he not been saved by the earnest and sincere entreaties of the

injured emperor, who conjured the senate, that the purity of his reign

might not be stained by the blood even of a guilty senator.


[Footnote 54: If we credit Capitolinus, (which is rather difficult,)

Falco behaved with the most petulant indecency to Pertinax, on the day

of his accession. The wise emperor only admonished him of his youth and

in experience. Hist. August. p. 55.]


These disappointments served only to irritate the rage of the Praetorian

guards. On the twenty-eighth of March, eighty-six days only after the

death of Commodus, a general sedition broke out in the camp, which the

officers wanted either power or inclination to suppress. Two or three

hundred of the most desperate soldiers marched at noonday, with arms in

their hands and fury in their looks, towards the Imperial palace.

The gates were thrown open by their companions upon guard, and by the

domestics of the old court, who had already formed a secret conspiracy

against the life of the too virtuous emperor. On the news of their

approach, Pertinax, disdaining either flight or concealment, advanced to

meet his assassins; and recalled to their minds his own innocence,

and the sanctity of their recent oath. For a few moments they stood

in silent suspense, ashamed of their atrocious design, and awed by

the venerable aspect and majestic firmness of their sovereign, till at

length, the despair of pardon reviving their fury, a barbarian of the

country of Tongress [55] levelled the first blow against Pertinax, who

was instantly despatched with a multitude of wounds. His head, separated

from his body, and placed on a lance, was carried in triumph to the

Praetorian camp, in the sight of a mournful and indignant people, who

lamented the unworthy fate of that excellent prince, and the transient

blessings of a reign, the memory of which could serve only to aggravate

their approaching misfortunes. [56]


[Footnote 55: The modern bishopric of Liege. This soldier probably

belonged to the Batavian horse-guards, who were mostly raised in the

duchy of Gueldres and the neighborhood, and were distinguished by their

valor, and by the boldness with which they swam their horses across the

broadest and most rapid rivers. Tacit. Hist. iv. 12 Dion, l. lv p. 797

Lipsius de magnitudine Romana, l. i. c. 4.]


[Footnote 56: Dion, l. lxxiii. p. 1232. Herodian, l. ii. p. 60. Hist.

August. p. 58. Victor in Epitom. et in Caesarib. Eutropius, viii. 16.]

Chapter V: Sale Of The Empire To Didius Julianus.--Part I.



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