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

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the freedom and honors of Rome were successively communicated to the

provinces, in which the old government had been either unknown, or

was remembered with abhorrence, the tradition of republican maxims was

gradually obliterated. The Greek historians of the age of the Antonines

[70] observe, with a malicious pleasure, that although the sovereign of

Rome, in compliance with an obsolete prejudice, abstained from the name

of king, he possessed the full measure of regal power. In the reign of

Severus, the senate was filled with polished and eloquent slaves from

the eastern provinces, who justified personal flattery by speculative

principles of servitude. These new advocates of prerogative were heard

with pleasure by the court, and with patience by the people, when

they inculcated the duty of passive obedience, and descanted on the

inevitable mischiefs of freedom. The lawyers and historians concurred

in teaching, that the Imperial authority was held, not by the delegated

commission, but by the irrevocable resignation of the senate; that the

emperor was freed from the restraint of civil laws, could command by his

arbitrary will the lives and fortunes of his subjects, and might dispose

of the empire as of his private patrimony. [71] The most eminent of the

civil lawyers, and particularly Papinian, Paulus, and Ulpian, flourished

under the house of Severus; and the Roman jurisprudence, having closely

united itself with the system of monarchy, was supposed to have attained

its full majority and perfection.
[Footnote 70: Appian in Prooem.]
[Footnote 71: Dion Cassius seems to have written with no other view than

to form these opinions into an historical system. The Pandea's will

how how assiduously the lawyers, on their side, laboree in the cause of


The contemporaries of Severus in the enjoyment of the peace and glory

of his reign, forgave the cruelties by which it had been introduced.

Posterity, who experienced the fatal effects of his maxims and example,

justly considered him as the principal author of the decline of the

Roman empire.

Chapter VI: Death Of Severus, Tyranny Of Caracalla, Usurpation Of Marcinus.--Part I.

The Death Of Severus.--Tyranny Of Caracalla.--Usurpation

Of Macrinus.--Follies Of Elagabalus.--Virtues Of Alexander

Severus.--Licentiousness Of The Army.--General State Of

The Roman Finances.

The ascent to greatness, however steep and dangerous, may entertain an

active spirit with the consciousness and exercise of its own powers: but

the possession of a throne could never yet afford a lasting satisfaction

to an ambitious mind. This melancholy truth was felt and acknowledged by

Severus. Fortune and merit had, from an humble station, elevated him

to the first place among mankind. "He had been all things," as he said

himself, "and all was of little value." [1] Distracted with the care,

not of acquiring, but of preserving an empire, oppressed with age and

infirmities, careless of fame, [2] and satiated with power, all his

prospects of life were closed. The desire of perpetuating the greatness

of his family was the only remaining wish of his ambition and paternal


[Footnote 1: Hist. August. p. 71. "Omnia fui, et nihil expedit."]
[Footnote 2: Dion Cassius, l. lxxvi. p. 1284.]
Like most of the Africans, Severus was passionately addicted to the vain

studies of magic and divination, deeply versed in the interpretation of

dreams and omens, and perfectly acquainted with the science of judicial

astrology; which, in almost every age except the present, has maintained

its dominion over the mind of man. He had lost his first wife, while

he was governor of the Lionnese Gaul. [3] In the choice of a second, he

sought only to connect himself with some favorite of fortune; and as

soon as he had discovered that the young lady of Emesa in Syria had a

royal nativity, he solicited and obtained her hand. [4] Julia Domna (for

that was her name) deserved all that the stars could promise her.

She possessed, even in advanced age, the attractions of beauty, [5]

and united to a lively imagination a firmness of mind, and strength of

judgment, seldom bestowed on her sex. Her amiable qualities never made

any deep impression on the dark and jealous temper of her husband;

but in her son's reign, she administered the principal affairs of

the empire, with a prudence that supported his authority, and with a

moderation that sometimes corrected his wild extravagancies. [6] Julia

applied herself to letters and philosophy, with some success, and with

the most splendid reputation. She was the patroness of every art, and

the friend of every man of genius. [7] The grateful flattery of the

learned has celebrated her virtues; but, if we may credit the scandal of

ancient history, chastity was very far from being the most conspicuous

virtue of the empress Julia. [8]
[Footnote 3: About the year 186. M. de Tillemont is miserably

embarrassed with a passage of Dion, in which the empress Faustina,

who died in the year 175, is introduced as having contributed to the

marriage of Severus and Julia, (l. lxxiv. p. 1243.) The learned compiler

forgot that Dion is relating not a real fact, but a dream of Severus;

and dreams are circumscribed to no limits of time or space. Did M. de

Tillemont imagine that marriages were consummated in the temple of Venus

at Rome? Hist. des Empereurs, tom. iii. p. 389. Note 6.]

[Footnote 4: Hist. August. p. 65.]
[Footnote 5: Hist. August. p. 5.]
[Footnote 6: Dion Cassius, l. lxxvii. p. 1304, 1314.]
[Footnote 7: See a dissertation of Menage, at the end of his edition of

Diogenes Laertius, de Foeminis Philosophis.]

[Footnote 8: Dion, l. lxxvi. p. 1285. Aurelius Victor.]
Two sons, Caracalla [9] and Geta, were the fruit of this marriage, and

the destined heirs of the empire. The fond hopes of the father, and

of the Roman world, were soon disappointed by these vain youths, who

displayed the indolent security of hereditary princes; and a presumption

that fortune would supply the place of merit and application. Without

any emulation of virtue or talents, they discovered, almost from their

infancy, a fixed and implacable antipathy for each other.
[Footnote 9: Bassianus was his first name, as it had been that of his

maternal grandfather. During his reign, he assumed the appellation of

Antoninus, which is employed by lawyers and ancient historians. After

his death, the public indignation loaded him with the nicknames of

Tarantus and Caracalla. The first was borrowed from a celebrated

Gladiator, the second from a long Gallic gown which he distributed to

the people of Rome.]
Their aversion, confirmed by years, and fomented by the arts of their

interested favorites, broke out in childish, and gradually in more

serious competitions; and, at length, divided the theatre, the circus,

and the court, into two factions, actuated by the hopes and fears of

their respective leaders. The prudent emperor endeavored, by every

expedient of advice and authority, to allay this growing animosity. The

unhappy discord of his sons clouded all his prospects, and threatened to

overturn a throne raised with so much labor, cemented with so much

blood, and guarded with every defence of arms and treasure. With an

impartial hand he maintained between them an exact balance of favor,

conferred on both the rank of Augustus, with the revered name of

Antoninus; and for the first time the Roman world beheld three emperors.

[10] Yet even this equal conduct served only to inflame the contest,

whilst the fierce Caracalla asserted the right of primogeniture, and the

milder Geta courted the affections of the people and the soldiers. In

the anguish of a disappointed father, Severus foretold that the weaker

of his sons would fall a sacrifice to the stronger; who, in his turn,

would be ruined by his own vices. [11]

[Footnote 10: The elevation of Caracalla is fixed by the accurate M.

de Tillemont to the year 198; the association of Geta to the year 208.]

[Footnote 11: Herodian, l. iii. p. 130. The lives of Caracalla and Geta,

in the Augustan History.]

In these circumstances the intelligence of a war in Britain, and of an

invasion of the province by the barbarians of the North, was received

with pleasure by Severus. Though the vigilance of his lieutenants might

have been sufficient to repel the distant enemy, he resolved to embrace

the honorable pretext of withdrawing his sons from the luxury of Rome,

which enervated their minds and irritated their passions; and of inuring

their youth to the toils of war and government. Notwithstanding his

advanced age, (for he was above threescore,) and his gout, which obliged

him to be carried in a litter, he transported himself in person into

that remote island, attended by his two sons, his whole court, and

a formidable army. He immediately passed the walls of Hadrian and

Antoninus, and entered the enemy's country, with a design of completing

the long attempted conquest of Britain. He penetrated to the northern

extremity of the island, without meeting an enemy. But the concealed

ambuscades of the Caledonians, who hung unseen on the rear and flanks of

his army, the coldness of the climate and the severity of a winter march

across the hills and morasses of Scotland, are reported to have cost the

Romans above fifty thousand men. The Caledonians at length yielded to

the powerful and obstinate attack, sued for peace, and surrendered a

part of their arms, and a large tract of territory. But their apparent

submission lasted no longer than the present terror. As soon as the

Roman legions had retired, they resumed their hostile independence.

Their restless spirit provoked Severus to send a new army into

Caledonia, with the most bloody orders, not to subdue, but to extirpate

the natives. They were saved by the death of their haughty enemy. [12]
[Footnote 12: Dion, l. lxxvi. p. 1280, &c. Herodian, l. iii. p. 132,

This Caledonian war, neither marked by decisive events, nor attended

with any important consequences, would ill deserve our attention; but it

is supposed, not without a considerable degree of probability, that the

invasion of Severus is connected with the most shining period of the

British history or fable. Fingal, whose fame, with that of his heroes

and bards, has been revived in our language by a recent publication, is

said to have commanded the Caledonians in that memorable juncture, to

have eluded the power of Severus, and to have obtained a signal victory

on the banks of the Carun, in which the son of the King of the World,

Caracul, fled from his arms along the fields of his pride. [13]

Something of a doubtful mist still hangs over these Highland traditions;

nor can it be entirely dispelled by the most ingenious researches of

modern criticism; [14] but if we could, with safety, indulge the

pleasing supposition, that Fingal lived, and that Ossian sung, the

striking contrast of the situation and manners of the contending nations

might amuse a philosophic mind.
The parallel would be little to the advantage of the more civilized

people, if we compared the unrelenting revenge of Severus with the

generous clemency of Fingal; the timid and brutal cruelty of Caracalla

with the bravery, the tenderness, the elegant genius of Ossian; the

mercenary chiefs, who, from motives of fear or interest, served under

the imperial standard, with the free-born warriors who started to arms

at the voice of the king of Morven; if, in a word, we contemplated the

untutored Caledonians, glowing with the warm virtues of nature, and the

degenerate Romans, polluted with the mean vices of wealth and slavery.
[Footnote 13: Ossian's Poems, vol. i. p. 175.]
[Footnote 14: That the Caracul of Ossian is the Caracalla of the Roman

History, is, perhaps, the only point of British antiquity in which Mr.

Macpherson and Mr. Whitaker are of the same opinion; and yet the opinion

is not without difficulty. In the Caledonian war, the son of Severus was

known only by the appellation of Antoninus, and it may seem strange that

the Highland bard should describe him by a nickname, invented four years

afterwards, scarcely used by the Romans till after the death of that

emperor, and seldom employed by the most ancient historians. See Dion,

l. lxxvii. p. 1317. Hist. August. p. 89 Aurel. Victor. Euseb. in Chron.

ad ann. 214. Note: The historical authority of Macpherson's Ossian has

not increased since Gibbon wrote. We may, indeed, consider it exploded.

Mr. Whitaker, in a letter to Gibbon (Misc. Works, vol. ii. p. 100,)

attempts, not very successfully, to weaken this objection of the


The declining health and last illness of Severus inflamed the wild

ambition and black passions of Caracalla's soul. Impatient of any delay

or division of empire, he attempted, more than once, to shorten the

small remainder of his father's days, and endeavored, but without

success, to excite a mutiny among the troops. [15] The old emperor had

often censured the misguided lenity of Marcus, who, by a single act of

justice, might have saved the Romans from the tyranny of his worthless

son. Placed in the same situation, he experienced how easily the rigor

of a judge dissolves away in the tenderness of a parent. He deliberated,

he threatened, but he could not punish; and this last and only instance

of mercy was more fatal to the empire than a long series of cruelty.

[16] The disorder of his mind irritated the pains of his body; he wished

impatiently for death, and hastened the instant of it by his impatience.

He expired at York in the sixty-fifth year of his life, and in the

eighteenth of a glorious and successful reign. In his last moments he

recommended concord to his sons, and his sons to the army. The salutary

advice never reached the heart, or even the understanding, of the

impetuous youths; but the more obedient troops, mindful of their oath of

allegiance, and of the authority of their deceased master, resisted the

solicitations of Caracalla, and proclaimed both brothers emperors of

Rome. The new princes soon left the Caledonians in peace, returned to

the capital, celebrated their father's funeral with divine honors, and

were cheerfully acknowledged as lawful sovereigns, by the senate, the

people, and the provinces. Some preeminence of rank seems to have been

allowed to the elder brother; but they both administered the empire with

equal and independent power. [17]

[Footnote 15: Dion, l. lxxvi. p. 1282. Hist. August. p. 71. Aurel.

[Footnote 16: Dion, l. lxxvi. p. 1283. Hist. August. p. 89]

[Footnote 17: Dion, l. lxxvi. p. 1284. Herodian, l. iii. p. 135.]
Such a divided form of government would have proved a source of discord

between the most affectionate brothers. It was impossible that it could

long subsist between two implacable enemies, who neither desired nor

could trust a reconciliation. It was visible that one only could reign,

and that the other must fall; and each of them, judging of his rival's

designs by his own, guarded his life with the most jealous vigilance

from the repeated attacks of poison or the sword. Their rapid journey

through Gaul and Italy, during which they never ate at the same table,

or slept in the same house, displayed to the provinces the odious

spectacle of fraternal discord. On their arrival at Rome, they

immediately divided the vast extent of the imperial palace. [18] No

communication was allowed between their apartments; the doors and

passages were diligently fortified, and guards posted and relieved with

the same strictness as in a besieged place. The emperors met only in

public, in the presence of their afflicted mother; and each surrounded

by a numerous train of armed followers. Even on these occasions of

ceremony, the dissimulation of courts could ill disguise the rancor of

their hearts. [19]

[Footnote 18: Mr. Hume is justly surprised at a passage of Herodian, (l.

iv. p. 139,) who, on this occasion, represents the Imperial palace as

equal in extent to the rest of Rome. The whole region of the Palatine

Mount, on which it was built, occupied, at most, a circumference of

eleven or twelve thousand feet, (see the Notitia and Victor, in

Nardini's Roma Antica.) But we should recollect that the opulent

senators had almost surrounded the city with their extensive gardens and

suburb palaces, the greatest part of which had been gradually

confiscated by the emperors. If Geta resided in the gardens that bore

his name on the Janiculum, and if Caracalla inhabited the gardens of

Maecenas on the Esquiline, the rival brothers were separated from each

other by the distance of several miles; and yet the intermediate space

was filled by the Imperial gardens of Sallust, of Lucullus, of Agrippa,

of Domitian, of Caius, &c., all skirting round the city, and all

connected with each other, and with the palace, by bridges thrown over

the Tiber and the streets. But this explanation of Herodian would

require, though it ill deserves, a particular dissertation, illustrated

by a map of ancient Rome. (Hume, Essay on Populousness of Ancient

[Footnote 19: Herodian, l. iv. p. 139]
This latent civil war already distracted the whole government, when

a scheme was suggested that seemed of mutual benefit to the hostile

brothers. It was proposed, that since it was impossible to reconcile

their minds, they should separate their interest, and divide the empire

between them. The conditions of the treaty were already drawn with some

accuracy. It was agreed that Caracalla, as the elder brother should

remain in possession of Europe and the western Africa; and that he

should relinquish the sovereignty of Asia and Egypt to Geta, who might

fix his residence at Alexandria or Antioch, cities little inferior to

Rome itself in wealth and greatness; that numerous armies should be

constantly encamped on either side of the Thracian Bosphorus, to guard

the frontiers of the rival monarchies; and that the senators of European

extraction should acknowledge the sovereign of Rome, whilst the natives

of Asia followed the emperor of the East. The tears of the empress Julia

interrupted the negotiation, the first idea of which had filled every

Roman breast with surprise and indignation. The mighty mass of conquest

was so intimately united by the hand of time and policy, that it

required the most forcible violence to rend it asunder. The Romans had

reason to dread, that the disjointed members would soon be reduced by

a civil war under the dominion of one master; but if the separation

was permanent, the division of the provinces must terminate in the

dissolution of an empire whose unity had hitherto remained inviolate.

[Footnote 20: Herodian, l. iv. p. 144.]
Had the treaty been carried into execution, the sovereign of Europe

might soon have been the conqueror of Asia; but Caracalla obtained

an easier, though a more guilty, victory. He artfully listened to his

mother's entreaties, and consented to meet his brother in her

apartment, on terms of peace and reconciliation. In the midst of their

conversation, some centurions, who had contrived to conceal themselves,

rushed with drawn swords upon the unfortunate Geta. His distracted

mother strove to protect him in her arms; but, in the unavailing

struggle, she was wounded in the hand, and covered with the blood of

her younger son, while she saw the elder animating and assisting [21] the

fury of the assassins. As soon as the deed was perpetrated, Caracalla,

with hasty steps, and horror in his countenance, ran towards the

Praetorian camp, as his only refuge, and threw himself on the ground

before the statues of the tutelar deities. [22] The soldiers attempted to

raise and comfort him. In broken and disordered words he informed them

of his imminent danger, and fortunate escape; insinuating that he had

prevented the designs of his enemy, and declared his resolution to live

and die with his faithful troops. Geta had been the favorite of the

soldiers; but complaint was useless, revenge was dangerous, and they

still reverenced the son of Severus. Their discontent died away in idle

murmurs, and Caracalla soon convinced them of the justice of his cause,

by distributing in one lavish donative the accumulated treasures of his

father's reign. [23] The real sentiments of the soldiers alone were

of importance to his power or safety. Their declaration in his favor

commanded the dutiful professions of the senate. The obsequious assembly

was always prepared to ratify the decision of fortune; [231] but as

Caracalla wished to assuage the first emotions of public indignation,

the name of Geta was mentioned with decency, and he received the funeral

honors of a Roman emperor. [24] Posterity, in pity to his misfortune,

has cast a veil over his vices. We consider that young prince as the

innocent victim of his brother's ambition, without recollecting that he

himself wanted power, rather than inclination, to consummate the same

attempts of revenge and murder. [241]
[Footnote 21: Caracalla consecrated, in the temple of Serapis, the

sword with which, as he boasted, he had slain his brother Geta. Dion, l.

lxxvii p. 1307.]
[Footnote 22: Herodian, l. iv. p. 147. In every Roman camp there was a

small chapel near the head-quarters, in which the statues of the tutelar

deities were preserved and adored; and we may remark that the eagles,

and other military ensigns, were in the first rank of these deities;

an excellent institution, which confirmed discipline by the sanction of

religion. See Lipsius de Militia Romana, iv. 5, v. 2.]

[Footnote 23: Herodian, l. iv. p. 148. Dion, l. lxxvii. p. 1289.]
[Footnote 231: The account of this transaction, in a new passage of

Dion, varies in some degree from this statement. It adds that the

next morning, in the senate, Antoninus requested their indulgence, not

because he had killed his brother, but because he was hoarse, and could

not address them. Mai. Fragm. p. 228.--M.]
[Footnote 24: Geta was placed among the gods. Sit divus, dum non sit

vivus said his brother. Hist. August. p. 91. Some marks of Geta's

consecration are still found upon medals.]

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