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

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the three rivals; Optimus est Niger, [Fuscus, which preserves the

quantity.--M.] bonus After, pessimus Albus. Hist. August. p. 75.]

[Footnote 25: Herodian, l. ii. p. 71.]
The country of Pannonia and Dalmatia, which occupied the space between

the Danube and the Hadriatic, was one of the last and most difficult

conquests of the Romans. In the defence of national freedom, two hundred

thousand of these barbarians had once appeared in the field, alarmed

the declining age of Augustus, and exercised the vigilant prudence

of Tiberius at the head of the collected force of the empire. [26] The

Pannonians yielded at length to the arms and institutions of Rome. Their

recent subjection, however, the neighborhood, and even the mixture, of

the unconquered tribes, and perhaps the climate, adapted, as it has

been observed, to the production of great bodies and slow minds, [27]

all contributed to preserve some remains of their original ferocity, and

under the tame and uniform countenance of Roman provincials, the hardy

features of the natives were still to be discerned. Their warlike youth

afforded an inexhaustible supply of recruits to the legions stationed on

the banks of the Danube, and which, from a perpetual warfare against the

Germans and Sarmazans, were deservedly esteemed the best troops in the

[Footnote 26: See an account of that memorable war in Velleius

Paterculus, is 110, &c., who served in the army of Tiberius.]

[Footnote 27: Such is the reflection of Herodian, l. ii. p. 74. Will the

modern Austrians allow the influence?]

The Pannonian army was at this time commanded by Septimius Severus,

a native of Africa, who, in the gradual ascent of private honors, had

concealed his daring ambition, which was never diverted from its steady

course by the allurements of pleasure, the apprehension of danger,

or the feelings of humanity. [28] On the first news of the murder of

Pertinax, he assembled his troops, painted in the most lively colors

the crime, the insolence, and the weakness of the Praetorian guards,

and animated the legions to arms and to revenge. He concluded (and the

peroration was thought extremely eloquent) with promising every soldier

about four hundred pounds; an honorable donative, double in value to

the infamous bribe with which Julian had purchased the empire. [29] The

acclamations of the army immediately saluted Severus with the names of

Augustus, Pertinax, and Emperor; and he thus attained the lofty station

to which he was invited, by conscious merit and a long train of dreams

and omens, the fruitful offsprings either of his superstition or policy.

[Footnote 28: In the letter to Albinus, already mentioned, Commodus

accuses Severus, as one of the ambitious generals who censured his

conduct, and wished to occupy his place. Hist. August. p. 80.]

[Footnote 29: Pannonia was too poor to supply such a sum. It was

probably promised in the camp, and paid at Rome, after the victory. In

fixing the sum, I have adopted the conjecture of Casaubon. See Hist.

August. p. 66. Comment. p. 115.]

[Footnote 30: Herodian, l. ii. p. 78. Severus was declared emperor on

the banks of the Danube, either at Carnuntum, according to Spartianus,

(Hist. August. p. 65,) or else at Sabaria, according to Victor. Mr.

Hume, in supposing that the birth and dignity of Severus were too

much inferior to the Imperial crown, and that he marched into Italy

as general only, has not considered this transaction with his usual

accuracy, (Essay on the original contract.) * Note: Carnuntum, opposite

to the mouth of the Morava: its position is doubtful, either Petronel or

Haimburg. A little intermediate village seems to indicate by its name

(Altenburg) the site of an old town. D'Anville Geogr. Anc. Sabaria, now

Sarvar.--G. Compare note 37.--M.]
The new candidate for empire saw and improved the peculiar advantage of

his situation. His province extended to the Julian Alps, which gave an

easy access into Italy; and he remembered the saying of Augustus, That

a Pannonian army might in ten days appear in sight of Rome. [31] By

a celerity proportioned to the greatness of the occasion, he might

reasonably hope to revenge Pertinax, punish Julian, and receive the

homage of the senate and people, as their lawful emperor, before his

competitors, separated from Italy by an immense tract of sea and land,

were apprised of his success, or even of his election. During the whole

expedition, he scarcely allowed himself any moments for sleep or food;

marching on foot, and in complete armor, at the head of his columns,

he insinuated himself into the confidence and affection of his troops,

pressed their diligence, revived their spirits, animated their hopes,

and was well satisfied to share the hardships of the meanest soldier,

whilst he kept in view the infinite superiority of his reward.
[Footnote 31: Velleius Paterculus, l. ii. c. 3. We must reckon the march

from the nearest verge of Pannonia, and extend the sight of the city as

far as two hundred miles.]
The wretched Julian had expected, and thought himself prepared, to

dispute the empire with the governor of Syria; but in the invincible and

rapid approach of the Pannonian legions, he saw his inevitable ruin. The

hasty arrival of every messenger increased his just apprehensions. He

was successively informed, that Severus had passed the Alps; that the

Italian cities, unwilling or unable to oppose his progress, had received

him with the warmest professions of joy and duty; that the important

place of Ravenna had surrendered without resistance, and that the

Hadriatic fleet was in the hands of the conqueror. The enemy was now

within two hundred and fifty miles of Rome; and every moment diminished

the narrow span of life and empire allotted to Julian.
He attempted, however, to prevent, or at least to protract, his ruin.

He implored the venal faith of the Praetorians, filled the city with

unavailing preparations for war, drew lines round the suburbs, and

even strengthened the fortifications of the palace; as if those last

intrenchments could be defended, without hope of relief, against a

victorious invader. Fear and shame prevented the guards from deserting

his standard; but they trembled at the name of the Pannonian legions,

commanded by an experienced general, and accustomed to vanquish the

barbarians on the frozen Danube. [32] They quitted, with a sigh, the

pleasures of the baths and theatres, to put on arms, whose use they had

almost forgotten, and beneath the weight of which they were oppressed.

The unpractised elephants, whose uncouth appearance, it was hoped, would

strike terror into the army of the north, threw their unskilful riders;

and the awkward evolutions of the marines, drawn from the fleet of

Misenum, were an object of ridicule to the populace; whilst the senate

enjoyed, with secret pleasure, the distress and weakness of the usurper.

[Footnote 32: This is not a puerile figure of rhetoric, but an allusion

to a real fact recorded by Dion, l. lxxi. p. 1181. It probably happened

more than once.]
[Footnote 33: Dion, l. lxxiii. p. 1233. Herodian, l. ii. p. 81. There

is no surer proof of the military skill of the Romans, than their first

surmounting the idle terror, and afterwards disdaining the dangerous

use, of elephants in war. Note: These elephants were kept for

processions, perhaps for the games. Se Herod. in loc.--M.]
Every motion of Julian betrayed his trembling perplexity. He insisted

that Severus should be declared a public enemy by the senate. He

entreated that the Pannonian general might be associated to the empire.

He sent public ambassadors of consular rank to negotiate with his rival;

he despatched private assassins to take away his life. He designed that

the Vestal virgins, and all the colleges of priests, in their sacerdotal

habits, and bearing before them the sacred pledges of the Roman

religion, should advance in solemn procession to meet the Pannonian

legions; and, at the same time, he vainly tried to interrogate, or to

appease, the fates, by magic ceremonies and unlawful sacrifices. [34]

[Footnote 34: Hist. August. p. 62, 63. * Note: Quae ad speculum dicunt

fieri in quo pueri praeligatis oculis, incantate..., respicere dicuntur.

* * * Tuncque puer vidisse dicitur et adventun Severi et Juliani

decessionem. This seems to have been a practice somewhat similar to that

of which our recent Egyptian travellers relate such extraordinary

circumstances. See also Apulius, Orat. de Magia.--M.]

Chapter V: Sale Of The Empire To Didius Julianus.--Part II.
Severus, who dreaded neither his arms nor his enchantments, guarded

himself from the only danger of secret conspiracy, by the faithful

attendance of six hundred chosen men, who never quitted his person or

their cuirasses, either by night or by day, during the whole march.

Advancing with a steady and rapid course, he passed, without difficulty,

the defiles of the Apennine, received into his party the troops and

ambassadors sent to retard his progress, and made a short halt at

Interamnia, about seventy miles from Rome. His victory was already

secure, but the despair of the Praetorians might have rendered it

bloody; and Severus had the laudable ambition of ascending the throne

without drawing the sword. [35] His emissaries, dispersed in the capital,

assured the guards, that provided they would abandon their worthless

prince, and the perpetrators of the murder of Pertinax, to the justice

of the conqueror, he would no longer consider that melancholy event as

the act of the whole body. The faithless Praetorians, whose resistance

was supported only by sullen obstinacy, gladly complied with the easy

conditions, seized the greatest part of the assassins, and signified

to the senate, that they no longer defended the cause of Julian. That

assembly, convoked by the consul, unanimously acknowledged Severus as

lawful emperor, decreed divine honors to Pertinax, and pronounced a

sentence of deposition and death against his unfortunate successor.

Julian was conducted into a private apartment of the baths of the

palace, and beheaded as a common criminal, after having purchased, with

an immense treasure, an anxious and precarious reign of only sixty-six

days. [36] The almost incredible expedition of Severus, who, in so short

a space of time, conducted a numerous army from the banks of the Danube

to those of the Tyber, proves at once the plenty of provisions produced

by agriculture and commerce, the goodness of the roads, the discipline

of the legions, and the indolent, subdued temper of the provinces. [37]

[Footnote 35: Victor and Eutropius, viii. 17, mention a combat near the

Milvian bridge, the Ponte Molle, unknown to the better and more ancient


[Footnote 36: Dion, l. lxxiii. p. 1240. Herodian, l. ii. p. 83. Hist.

August. p. 63.]

[Footnote 37: From these sixty-six days, we must first deduct sixteen,

as Pertinax was murdered on the 28th of March, and Severus most probably

elected on the 13th of April, (see Hist. August. p. 65, and Tillemont,

Hist. des Empereurs, tom. iii. p. 393, note 7.) We cannot allow less

than ten days after his election, to put a numerous army in motion.

Forty days remain for this rapid march; and as we may compute about

eight hundred miles from Rome to the neighborhood of Vienna, the army of

Severus marched twenty miles every day, without halt or intermission.]

The first cares of Severus were bestowed on two measures the one

dictated by policy, the other by decency; the revenge, and the honors,

due to the memory of Pertinax. Before the new emperor entered Rome, he

issued his commands to the Praetorian guards, directing them to wait his

arrival on a large plain near the city, without arms, but in the habits

of ceremony, in which they were accustomed to attend their sovereign. He

was obeyed by those haughty troops, whose contrition was the effect of

their just terrors. A chosen part of the Illyrian army encompassed them

with levelled spears. Incapable of flight or resistance, they expected

their fate in silent consternation. Severus mounted the tribunal,

sternly reproached them with perfidy and cowardice, dismissed them with

ignominy from the trust which they had betrayed, despoiled them of their

splendid ornaments, and banished them, on pain of death, to the distance

of a hundred miles from the capital. During the transaction, another

detachment had been sent to seize their arms, occupy their camp, and

prevent the hasty consequences of their despair. [38]

[Footnote 38: Dion, l. lxxiv. p. 1241. Herodian, l. ii. p. 84.] The

funeral and consecration of Pertinax was next solemnized with every

circumstance of sad magnificence. [39] The senate, with a melancholy

pleasure, performed the last rites to that excellent prince, whom they

had loved, and still regretted. The concern of his successor was

probably less sincere; he esteemed the virtues of Pertinax, but those

virtues would forever have confined his ambition to a private station.

Severus pronounced his funeral oration with studied eloquence, inward

satisfaction, and well-acted sorrow; and by this pious regard to his

memory, convinced the credulous multitude, that he alone was worthy to

supply his place. Sensible, however, that arms, not ceremonies, must

assert his claim to the empire, he left Rome at the end of thirty days,

and without suffering himself to be elated by this easy victory,

prepared to encounter his more formidable rivals.

[Footnote 39: Dion, (l. lxxiv. p. 1244,) who assisted at the ceremony as

a senator, gives a most pompous description of it.]

The uncommon abilities and fortune of Severus have induced an elegant

historian to compare him with the first and greatest of the Caesars.

[40] The parallel is, at least, imperfect. Where shall we find, in the

character of Severus, the commanding superiority of soul, the generous

clemency, and the various genius, which could reconcile and unite the

love of pleasure, the thirst of knowledge, and the fire of ambition?

[41] In one instance only, they may be compared, with some degree of

propriety, in the celerity of their motions, and their civil victories.

In less than four years, [42] Severus subdued the riches of the East, and

the valor of the West. He vanquished two competitors of reputation

and ability, and defeated numerous armies, provided with weapons and

discipline equal to his own. In that age, the art of fortification,

and the principles of tactics, were well understood by all the Roman

generals; and the constant superiority of Severus was that of an artist,

who uses the same instruments with more skill and industry than his

rivals. I shall not, however, enter into a minute narrative of these

military operations; but as the two civil wars against Niger and against

Albinus were almost the same in their conduct, event, and consequences,

I shall collect into one point of view the most striking circumstances,

tending to develop the character of the conqueror and the state of the

[Footnote 40: Herodian, l. iii. p. 112]
[Footnote 41: Though it is not, most assuredly, the intention of Lucan

to exalt the character of Caesar, yet the idea he gives of that hero,

in the tenth book of the Pharsalia, where he describes him, at the same

time, making love to Cleopatra, sustaining a siege against the power of

Egypt, and conversing with the sages of the country, is, in reality, the

noblest panegyric. * Note: Lord Byron wrote, no doubt, from a

reminiscence of that passage--"It is possible to be a very great man,

and to be still very inferior to Julius Caesar, the most complete

character, so Lord Bacon thought, of all antiquity. Nature seems

incapable of such extraordinary combinations as composed his versatile

capacity, which was the wonder even of the Romans themselves. The first

general; the only triumphant politician; inferior to none in point of

eloquence; comparable to any in the attainments of wisdom, in an age

made up of the greatest commanders, statesmen, orators, and

philosophers, that ever appeared in the world; an author who composed a

perfect specimen of military annals in his travelling carriage; at one

time in a controversy with Cato, at another writing a treatise on

punuing, and collecting a set of good sayings; fighting and making love

at the same moment, and willing to abandon both his empire and his

mistress for a sight of the fountains of the Nile. Such did Julius

Caesar appear to his contemporaries, and to those of the subsequent ages

who were the most inclined to deplore and execrate his fatal genius."

Note 47 to Canto iv. of Childe Harold.--M.]
[Footnote 42: Reckoning from his election, April 13, 193, to the death

of Albinus, February 19, 197. See Tillemont's Chronology.]

Falsehood and insincerity, unsuitable as they seem to the dignity of

public transactions, offend us with a less degrading idea of meanness,

than when they are found in the intercourse of private life. In the

latter, they discover a want of courage; in the other, only a defect of

power: and, as it is impossible for the most able statesmen to subdue

millions of followers and enemies by their own personal strength, the

world, under the name of policy, seems to have granted them a very

liberal indulgence of craft and dissimulation. Yet the arts of Severus

cannot be justified by the most ample privileges of state reason. He

promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin; and however he

might occasionally bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience,

obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient

obligation. [43]
[Footnote 43: Herodian, l. ii. p. 85.]
If his two competitors, reconciled by their common danger, had advanced

upon him without delay, perhaps Severus would have sunk under their

united effort. Had they even attacked him, at the same time, with

separate views and separate armies, the contest might have been long and

doubtful. But they fell, singly and successively, an easy prey to the

arts as well as arms of their subtle enemy, lulled into security by the

moderation of his professions, and overwhelmed by the rapidity of his

action. He first marched against Niger, whose reputation and power he

the most dreaded: but he declined any hostile declarations, suppressed

the name of his antagonist, and only signified to the senate and people

his intention of regulating the eastern provinces. In private, he spoke

of Niger, his old friend and intended successor, [44] with the most

affectionate regard, and highly applauded his generous design of

revenging the murder of Pertinax. To punish the vile usurper of the

throne, was the duty of every Roman general. To persevere in arms, and

to resist a lawful emperor, acknowledged by the senate, would alone

render him criminal. [45] The sons of Niger had fallen into his hands

among the children of the provincial governors, detained at Rome as

pledges for the loyalty of their parents. [46] As long as the power of

Niger inspired terror, or even respect, they were educated with the most

tender care, with the children of Severus himself; but they were

soon involved in their father's ruin, and removed first by exile, and

afterwards by death, from the eye of public compassion. [47]
[Footnote 44: Whilst Severus was very dangerously ill, it was

industriously given out, that he intended to appoint Niger and Albinus

his successors. As he could not be sincere with respect to both, he

might not be so with regard to either. Yet Severus carried his hypocrisy

so far, as to profess that intention in the memoirs of his own life.]
[Footnote 45: Hist. August. p. 65.]
[Footnote 46: This practice, invented by Commodus, proved very useful

to Severus. He found at Rome the children of many of the principal

adherents of his rivals; and he employed them more than once to

intimidate, or seduce, the parents.]

[Footnote 47: Herodian, l. iii. p. 95. Hist. August. p. 67, 68.]
Whilst Severus was engaged in his eastern war, he had reason to

apprehend that the governor of Britain might pass the sea and the

Alps, occupy the vacant seat of empire, and oppose his return with

the authority of the senate and the forces of the West. The ambiguous

conduct of Albinus, in not assuming the Imperial title, left room for

negotiation. Forgetting, at once, his professions of patriotism, and the

jealousy of sovereign power, he accepted the precarious rank of Caesar,

as a reward for his fatal neutrality. Till the first contest was

decided, Severus treated the man, whom he had doomed to destruction,

with every mark of esteem and regard. Even in the letter, in which he

announced his victory over Niger, he styles Albinus the brother of his

soul and empire, sends him the affectionate salutations of his wife

Julia, and his young family, and entreats him to preserve the armies and

the republic faithful to their common interest. The messengers charged

with this letter were instructed to accost the Caesar with respect, to

desire a private audience, and to plunge their daggers into his heart.

[48] The conspiracy was discovered, and the too credulous Albinus,

at length, passed over to the continent, and prepared for an unequal

contest with his rival, who rushed upon him at the head of a veteran and

victorious army.

[Footnote 48: Hist. August. p. 84. Spartianus has inserted this curious

letter at full length.]

The military labors of Severus seem inadequate to the importance of his

conquests. Two engagements, [481] the one near the Hellespont, the other

in the narrow defiles of Cilicia, decided the fate of his Syrian

competitor; and the troops of Europe asserted their usual ascendant

over the effeminate natives of Asia. [49] The battle of Lyons, where one

hundred and fifty thousand Romans [50] were engaged, was equally fatal to

Albinus. The valor of the British army maintained, indeed, a sharp and

doubtful contest, with the hardy discipline of the Illyrian legions. The

fame and person of Severus appeared, during a few moments, irrecoverably

lost, till that warlike prince rallied his fainting troops, and led them

on to a decisive victory. [51] The war was finished by that memorable

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