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

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his personal courage suspected; a whisper that circulated in the camp,

disclosed the fatal secret of the conspiracy against the late emperor,

aggravated the guilt of murder by the baseness of hypocrisy, and

heightened contempt by detestation. To alienate the soldiers, and to

provoke inevitable ruin, the character of a reformer was only wanting;

and such was the peculiar hardship of his fate, that Macrinus was

compelled to exercise that invidious office. The prodigality of

Caracalla had left behind it a long train of ruin and disorder; and if

that worthless tyrant had been capable of reflecting on the sure

consequences of his own conduct, he would perhaps have enjoyed the dark

prospect of the distress and calamities which he bequeathed to his

In the management of this necessary reformation, Macrinus proceeded with

a cautious prudence, which would have restored health and vigor to the

Roman army in an easy and almost imperceptible manner. To the soldiers

already engaged in the service, he was constrained to leave the

dangerous privileges and extravagant pay given by Caracalla; but the new

recruits were received on the more moderate though liberal establishment

of Severus, and gradually formed to modesty and obedience. [45] One

fatal error destroyed the salutary effects of this judicious plan. The

numerous army, assembled in the East by the late emperor, instead of

being immediately dispersed by Macrinus through the several provinces,

was suffered to remain united in Syria, during the winter that followed

his elevation. In the luxurious idleness of their quarters, the troops

viewed their strength and numbers, communicated their complaints,

and revolved in their minds the advantages of another revolution. The

veterans, instead of being flattered by the advantageous distinction,

were alarmed by the first steps of the emperor, which they considered

as the presage of his future intentions. The recruits, with sullen

reluctance, entered on a service, whose labors were increased while

its rewards were diminished by a covetous and unwarlike sovereign. The

murmurs of the army swelled with impunity into seditious clamors; and

the partial mutinies betrayed a spirit of discontent and disaffection

that waited only for the slightest occasion to break out on every side

into a general rebellion. To minds thus disposed, the occasion soon

presented itself.

[Footnote 45: Dion, l. lxxxiii. p. 1336. The sense of the author is

as the intention of the emperor; but Mr. Wotton has mistaken both, by

understanding the distinction, not of veterans and recruits, but of old

and new legions. History of Rome, p. 347.]

The empress Julia had experienced all the vicissitudes of fortune. From

an humble station she had been raised to greatness, only to taste the

superior bitterness of an exalted rank. She was doomed to weep over the

death of one of her sons, and over the life of the other. The cruel fate

of Caracalla, though her good sense must have long taught' er to expect

it, awakened the feelings of a mother and of an empress. Notwithstanding

the respectful civility expressed by the usurper towards the widow of

Severus, she descended with a painful struggle into the condition of

a subject, and soon withdrew herself, by a voluntary death, from the

anxious and humiliating dependence. [46] [461] Julia Maesa, her sister, was

ordered to leave the court and Antioch. She retired to Emesa with an

immense fortune, the fruit of twenty years' favor accompanied by her two

daughters, Soaemias and Mamae, each of whom was a widow, and each had

an only son. Bassianus, [462] for that was the name of the son of Soaemias,

was consecrated to the honorable ministry of high priest of the Sun;

and this holy vocation, embraced either from prudence or superstition,

contributed to raise the Syrian youth to the empire of Rome. A numerous

body of troops was stationed at Emesa; and as the severe discipline of

Macrinus had constrained them to pass the winter encamped, they were

eager to revenge the cruelty of such unaccustomed hardships. The

soldiers, who resorted in crowds to the temple of the Sun, beheld

with veneration and delight the elegant dress and figure of the young

pontiff; they recognized, or they thought that they recognized, the

features of Caracalla, whose memory they now adored. The artful Maesa

saw and cherished their rising partiality, and readily sacrificing her

daughter's reputation to the fortune of her grandson, she insinuated

that Bassianus was the natural son of their murdered sovereign. The

sums distributed by her emissaries with a lavish hand silenced every

objection, and the profusion sufficiently proved the affinity, or at

least the resemblance, of Bassianus with the great original. The young

Antoninus (for he had assumed and polluted that respectable name) was

declared emperor by the troops of Emesa, asserted his hereditary right,

and called aloud on the armies to follow the standard of a young and

liberal prince, who had taken up arms to revenge his father's death

and the oppression of the military order. [47]
[Footnote 46: Dion, l. lxxviii. p. 1330. The abridgment of Xiphilin,

though less particular, is in this place clearer than the original.]

[Footnote 461: As soon as this princess heard of the death of Caracalla,

she wished to starve herself to death: the respect shown to her by

Macrinus, in making no change in her attendants or her court, induced

her to prolong her life. But it appears, as far as the mutilated text of

Dion and the imperfect epitome of Xiphilin permit us to judge, that she

conceived projects of ambition, and endeavored to raise herself to the

empire. She wished to tread in the steps of Semiramis and Nitocris,

whose country bordered on her own. Macrinus sent her an order

immediately to leave Antioch, and to retire wherever she chose. She

returned to her former purpose, and starved herself to death.--G.]

[Footnote 462: He inherited this name from his great-grandfather of the

mother's side, Bassianus, father of Julia Maesa, his grandmother, and

of Julia Domna, wife of Severus. Victor (in his epitome) is perhaps the

only historian who has given the key to this genealogy, when speaking

of Caracalla. His Bassianus ex avi materni nomine dictus. Caracalla,

Elagabalus, and Alexander Seyerus, bore successively this name.--G.]

[Footnote 47: According to Lampridius, (Hist. August. p. 135,) Alexander

Severus lived twenty-nine years three months and seven days. As he was

killed March 19, 235, he was born December 12, 205 and was consequently

about this time thirteen years old, as his elder cousin might be about

seventeen. This computation suits much better the history of the young

princes than that of Herodian, (l. v. p. 181,) who represents them as

three years younger; whilst, by an opposite error of chronology, he

lengthens the reign of Elagabalus two years beyond its real duration.

For the particulars of the conspiracy, see Dion, l. lxxviii. p. 1339.

Herodian, l. v. p. 184.]

Whilst a conspiracy of women and eunuchs was concerted with prudence,

and conducted with rapid vigor, Macrinus, who, by a decisive motion,

might have crushed his infant enemy, floated between the opposite

extremes of terror and security, which alike fixed him inactive at

Antioch. A spirit of rebellion diffused itself through all the camps and

garrisons of Syria, successive detachments murdered their officers, [48]

and joined the party of the rebels; and the tardy restitution of

military pay and privileges was imputed to the acknowledged weakness of

Macrinus. At length he marched out of Antioch, to meet the increasing

and zealous army of the young pretender. His own troops seemed to take

the field with faintness and reluctance; but, in the heat of the battle,

[49] the Praetorian guards, almost by an involuntary impulse, asserted

the superiority of their valor and discipline. The rebel ranks were

broken; when the mother and grandmother of the Syrian prince, who,

according to their eastern custom, had attended the army, threw

themselves from their covered chariots, and, by exciting the compassion

of the soldiers, endeavored to animate their drooping courage. Antoninus

himself, who, in the rest of his life, never acted like a man, in this

important crisis of his fate, approved himself a hero, mounted his

horse, and, at the head of his rallied troops, charged sword in hand

among the thickest of the enemy; whilst the eunuch Gannys, [491] whose

occupations had been confined to female cares and the soft luxury of

Asia, displayed the talents of an able and experienced general. The

battle still raged with doubtful violence, and Macrinus might have

obtained the victory, had he not betrayed his own cause by a shameful

and precipitate flight. His cowardice served only to protract his life a

few days, and to stamp deserved ignominy on his misfortunes. It is

scarcely necessary to add, that his son Diadumenianus was involved in

the same fate.
As soon as the stubborn Praetorians could be convinced that they fought

for a prince who had basely deserted them, they surrendered to the

conqueror: the contending parties of the Roman army, mingling tears

of joy and tenderness, united under the banners of the imagined son of

Caracalla, and the East acknowledged with pleasure the first emperor of

Asiatic extraction.

[Footnote 48: By a most dangerous proclamation of the pretended

Antoninus, every soldier who brought in his officer's head became

entitled to his private estate, as well as to his military commission.]
[Footnote 49: Dion, l. lxxviii. p. 1345. Herodian, l. v. p. 186.

The battle was fought near the village of Immae, about two-and-twenty

miles from Antioch.]
[Footnote 491: Gannys was not a eunuch. Dion, p. 1355.--W]
The letters of Macrinus had condescended to inform the senate of the

slight disturbance occasioned by an impostor in Syria, and a decree

immediately passed, declaring the rebel and his family public enemies;

with a promise of pardon, however, to such of his deluded adherents as

should merit it by an immediate return to their duty. During the twenty

days that elapsed from the declaration of the victory of Antoninus, (for

in so short an interval was the fate of the Roman world decided,) the

capital and the provinces, more especially those of the East, were

distracted with hopes and fears, agitated with tumult, and stained with

a useless effusion of civil blood, since whosoever of the rivals

prevailed in Syria must reign over the empire. The specious letters in

which the young conqueror announced his victory to the obedient senate

were filled with professions of virtue and moderation; the shining

examples of Marcus and Augustus, he should ever consider as the great

rule of his administration; and he affected to dwell with pride on the

striking resemblance of his own age and fortunes with those of Augustus,

who in the earliest youth had revenged, by a successful war, the murder

of his father. By adopting the style of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, son

of Antoninus and grandson of Severus, he tacitly asserted his hereditary

claim to the empire; but, by assuming the tribunitian and proconsular

powers before they had been conferred on him by a decree of the senate,

he offended the delicacy of Roman prejudice. This new and injudicious

violation of the constitution was probably dictated either by the

ignorance of his Syrian courtiers, or the fierce disdain of his military

followers. [50]
[Footnote 50: Dion, l. lxxix. p. 1353.]
As the attention of the new emperor was diverted by the most trifling

amusements, he wasted many months in his luxurious progress from Syria

to Italy, passed at Nicomedia his first winter after his victory, and

deferred till the ensuing summer his triumphal entry into the capital.

A faithful picture, however, which preceded his arrival, and was placed

by his immediate order over the altar of Victory in the senate house,

conveyed to the Romans the just but unworthy resemblance of his person

and manners. He was drawn in his sacerdotal robes of silk and gold,

after the loose flowing fashion of the Medes and Phoenicians; his head

was covered with a lofty tiara, his numerous collars and bracelets were

adorned with gems of an inestimable value. His eyebrows were tinged with

black, and his cheeks painted with an artificial red and white. [51]

The grave senators confessed with a sigh, that, after having long

experienced the stern tyranny of their own countrymen, Rome was at

length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism.
[Footnote 51: Dion, l. lxxix. p. 1363. Herodian, l. v. p. 189.]
The Sun was worshipped at Emesa, under the name of Elagabalus, [52] and

under the form of a black conical stone, which, as it was universally

believed, had fallen from heaven on that sacred place. To this

protecting deity, Antoninus, not without some reason, ascribed his

elevation to the throne. The display of superstitious gratitude was the

only serious business of his reign. The triumph of the god of Emesa over

all the religions of the earth, was the great object of his zeal and

vanity; and the appellation of Elagabalus (for he presumed as pontiff

and favorite to adopt that sacred name) was dearer to him than all the

titles of Imperial greatness. In a solemn procession through the streets

of Rome, the way was strewed with gold dust; the black stone, set in

precious gems, was placed on a chariot drawn by six milk-white horses

richly caparisoned. The pious emperor held the reins, and, supported by

his ministers, moved slowly backwards, that he might perpetually enjoy

the felicity of the divine presence. In a magnificent temple raised on

the Palatine Mount, the sacrifices of the god Elagabalus were celebrated

with every circumstance of cost and solemnity. The richest wines, the

most extraordinary victims, and the rarest aromatics, were profusely

consumed on his altar. Around the altar, a chorus of Syrian damsels

performed their lascivious dances to the sound of barbarian music,

whilst the gravest personages of the state and army, clothed in long

Phoenician tunics, officiated in the meanest functions, with affected

zeal and secret indignation. [53]
[Footnote 52: This name is derived by the learned from two Syrian words,

Ela a God, and Gabal, to form, the forming or plastic god, a proper, and

even happy epithet for the sun. Wotton's History of Rome, p. 378 Note:

The name of Elagabalus has been disfigured in various ways. Herodian

calls him; Lampridius, and the more modern writers, make him

Heliogabalus. Dion calls him Elegabalus; but Elegabalus was the true

name, as it appears on the medals. (Eckhel. de Doct. num. vet. t. vii.

p. 250.) As to its etymology, that which Gibbon adduces is given

by Bochart, Chan. ii. 5; but Salmasius, on better grounds. (not. in

Lamprid. in Elagab.,) derives the name of Elagabalus from the idol

of that god, represented by Herodian and the medals in the form of a

mountain, (gibel in Hebrew,) or great stone cut to a point, with marks

which represent the sun. As it was not permitted, at Hierapolis, in

Syria, to make statues of the sun and moon, because, it was said, they

are themselves sufficiently visible, the sun was represented at Emesa

in the form of a great stone, which, as it appeared, had fallen from

heaven. Spanheim, Caesar. notes, p. 46.--G. The name of Elagabalus, in

"nummis rarius legetur." Rasche, Lex. Univ. Ref. Numm. Rasche quotes

[Footnote 53: Herodian, l. v. p. 190.]

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

To this temple, as to the common centre of religious worship, the

Imperial fanatic attempted to remove the Ancilia, the Palladium, [54] and

all the sacred pledges of the faith of Numa. A crowd of inferior deities

attended in various stations the majesty of the god of Emesa; but his

court was still imperfect, till a female of distinguished rank was

admitted to his bed. Pallas had been first chosen for his consort;

but as it was dreaded lest her warlike terrors might affright the soft

delicacy of a Syrian deity, the Moon, adorned by the Africans under the

name of Astarte, was deemed a more suitable companion for the Sun. Her

image, with the rich offerings of her temple as a marriage portion, was

transported with solemn pomp from Carthage to Rome, and the day of these

mystic nuptials was a general festival in the capital and throughout the

empire. [55]
[Footnote 54: He broke into the sanctuary of Vesta, and carried away a

statue, which he supposed to be the palladium; but the vestals boasted

that, by a pious fraud, they had imposed a counterfeit image on the

profane intruder. Hist. August., p. 103.]

[Footnote 55: Dion, l. lxxix. p. 1360. Herodian, l. v. p. 193. The

subjects of the empire were obliged to make liberal presents to the

new married couple; and whatever they had promised during the life of

Elagabalus was carefully exacted under the administration of Mamaea.]

A rational voluptuary adheres with invariable respect to the temperate

dictates of nature, and improves the gratifications of sense by social

intercourse, endearing connections, and the soft coloring of taste and

the imagination. But Elagabalus, (I speak of the emperor of that name,)

corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune, abandoned himself

to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury, and soon found disgust

and satiety in the midst of his enjoyments. The inflammatory powers of

art were summoned to his aid: the confused multitude of women, of wines,

and of dishes, and the studied variety of attitude and sauces, served

to revive his languid appetites. New terms and new inventions in these

sciences, the only ones cultivated and patronized by the monarch, [56]

signalized his reign, and transmitted his infamy to succeeding times.

A capricious prodigality supplied the want of taste and elegance; and

whilst Elagabalus lavished away the treasures of his people in the

wildest extravagance, his own voice and that of his flatterers applauded

a spirit of magnificence unknown to the tameness of his predecessors.

To confound the order of seasons and climates, [57] to sport with the

passions and prejudices of his subjects, and to subvert every law of

nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements.

A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom

was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, [58] were

insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the

Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex,

preferred the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonored the principal

dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers;

one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the

emperor's, or, as he more properly styled himself, of the empress's

husband. [59]

[Footnote 56: The invention of a new sauce was liberally rewarded; but

if it was not relished, the inventor was confined to eat of nothing else

till he had discoveredanother more agreeable to the Imperial palate

Hist. August. p. 111.]

[Footnote 57: He never would eat sea-fish except at a great distance

from the sea; he then would distribute vast quantities of the rarest

sorts, brought at an immense expense, to the peasants of the inland

country. Hist. August. p. 109.]

[Footnote 58: Dion, l. lxxix. p. 1358. Herodian, l. v. p. 192.]
[Footnote 59: Hierocles enjoyed that honor; but he would have been

supplanted by one Zoticus, had he not contrived, by a potion, to

enervate the powers of his rival, who, being found on trial unequal

to his reputation, was driven with ignominy from the palace. Dion,

l. lxxix. p. 1363, 1364. A dancer was made praefect of the city, a

charioteer praefect of the watch, a barber praefect of the provisions.

These three ministers, with many inferior officers, were all recommended

enormitate membrorum. Hist. August. p. 105.]

It may seem probable, the vices and follies of Elagabalus have been

adorned by fancy, and blackened by prejudice. [60] Yet, confining

ourselves to the public scenes displayed before the Roman people, and

attested by grave and contemporary historians, their inexpressible

infamy surpasses that of any other age or country. The license of an

eastern monarch is secluded from the eye of curiosity by the

inaccessible walls of his seraglio. The sentiments of honor and

gallantry have introduced a refinement of pleasure, a regard for

decency, and a respect for the public opinion, into the modern courts of

Europe; [601] but the corrupt and opulent nobles of Rome gratified every

vice that could be collected from the mighty conflux of nations and

manners. Secure of impunity, careless of censure, they lived without

restraint in the patient and humble society of their slaves and

parasites. The emperor, in his turn, viewing every rank of his subjects

with the same contemptuous indifference, asserted without control his

sovereign privilege of lust and luxury.

[Footnote 60: Even the credulous compiler of his life, in the Augustan

History (p. 111) is inclined to suspect that his vices may have been

[Footnote 601: Wenck has justly observed that Gibbon should have

reckoned the influence of Christianity in this great change. In the most

savage times, and the most corrupt courts, since the introduction of

Christianity there have been no Neros or Domitians, no Commodus or

The most worthless of mankind are not afraid to condemn

in others the same disorders which they allow in themselves; and can

readily discover some nice difference of age, character, or station, to

justify the partial distinction. The licentious soldiers, who had

raised to the throne the dissolute son of Caracalla, blushed at their

ignominious choice, and turned with disgust from that monster, to

contemplate with pleasure the opening virtues of his cousin Alexander,

the son of Mamaea. The crafty Maesa, sensible that her grandson

Elagabalus must inevitably destroy himself by his own vices, had

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