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

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[Footnote 37: Eight Roman feet and one third, which are equal to

above eight English feet, as the two measures are to each other in the

proportion of 967 to 1000. See Graves's discourse on the Roman foot. We

are told that Maximin could drink in a day an amphora (or about seven

gallons) of wine, and eat thirty or forty pounds of meat. He could move

a loaded wagon, break a horse's leg with his fist, crumble stones in his

hand, and tear up small trees by the roots. See his life in the Augustan


It is easier to conceive than to describe the universal joy of the Roman

world on the fall of the tyrant, the news of which is said to have been

carried in four days from Aquileia to Rome. The return of Maximus was a

triumphal procession; his colleague and young Gordian went out to meet

him, and the three princes made their entry into the capital, attended

by the ambassadors of almost all the cities of Italy, saluted with the

splendid offerings of gratitude and superstition, and received with the

unfeigned acclamations of the senate and people, who persuaded

themselves that a golden age would succeed to an age of iron. [38] The

conduct of the two emperors corresponded with these expectations. They

administered justice in person; and the rigor of the one was tempered by

the other's clemency. The oppressive taxes with which Maximin had loaded

the rights of inheritance and succession, were repealed, or at least

moderated. Discipline was revived, and with the advice of the senate

many wise laws were enacted by their imperial ministers, who endeavored

to restore a civil constitution on the ruins of military tyranny. "What

reward may we expect for delivering Rome from a monster?" was the

question asked by Maximus, in a moment of freedom and confidence.

Balbinus answered it without hesitation--"The love of the senate, of

the people, and of all mankind." "Alas!" replied his more penetrating

colleague--"alas! I dread the hatred of the soldiers, and the fatal

effects of their resentment." [39] His apprehensions were but too well

justified by the event.
[Footnote 38: See the congratulatory letter of Claudius Julianus, the

consul to the two emperors, in the Augustan History.]

[Footnote 39: Hist. August. p. 171.]
Whilst Maximus was preparing to defend Italy against the common foe,

Balbinus, who remained at Rome, had been engaged in scenes of blood and

intestine discord. Distrust and jealousy reigned in the senate; and even

in the temples where they assembled, every senator carried either open

or concealed arms. In the midst of their deliberations, two veterans

of the guards, actuated either by curiosity or a sinister motive,

audaciously thrust themselves into the house, and advanced by degrees

beyond the altar of Victory. Gallicanus, a consular, and Maecenas, a

Praetorian senator, viewed with indignation their insolent intrusion:

drawing their daggers, they laid the spies (for such they deemed them)

dead at the foot of the altar, and then, advancing to the door of the

senate, imprudently exhorted the multitude to massacre the Praetorians,

as the secret adherents of the tyrant. Those who escaped the first fury

of the tumult took refuge in the camp, which they defended with superior

advantage against the reiterated attacks of the people, assisted by the

numerous bands of gladiators, the property of opulent nobles. The civil

war lasted many days, with infinite loss and confusion on both sides.

When the pipes were broken that supplied the camp with water, the

Praetorians were reduced to intolerable distress; but in their turn

they made desperate sallies into the city, set fire to a great number

of houses, and filled the streets with the blood of the inhabitants. The

emperor Balbinus attempted, by ineffectual edicts and precarious truces,

to reconcile the factions at Rome. But their animosity, though smothered

for a while, burnt with redoubled violence. The soldiers, detesting the

senate and the people, despised the weakness of a prince, who wanted

either the spirit or the power to command the obedience of his subjects.

[Footnote 40: Herodian, l. viii. p. 258.]
After the tyrant's death, his formidable army had acknowledged, from

necessity rather than from choice, the authority of Maximus, who

transported himself without delay to the camp before Aquileia. As soon

as he had received their oath of fidelity, he addressed them in terms

full of mildness and moderation; lamented, rather than arraigned the

wild disorders of the times, and assured the soldiers, that of all their

past conduct the senate would remember only their generous desertion of

the tyrant, and their voluntary return to their duty. Maximus enforced

his exhortations by a liberal donative, purified the camp by a solemn

sacrifice of expiation, and then dismissed the legions to their several

provinces, impressed, as he hoped, with a lively sense of gratitude and

obedience. [41] But nothing could reconcile the haughty spirit of the

Praetorians. They attended the emperors on the memorable day of their

public entry into Rome; but amidst the general acclamations, the sullen,

dejected countenance of the guards sufficiently declared that they

considered themselves as the object, rather than the partners, of the

triumph. When the whole body was united in their camp, those who had

served under Maximin, and those who had remained at Rome, insensibly

communicated to each other their complaints and apprehensions. The

emperors chosen by the army had perished with ignominy; those elected by

the senate were seated on the throne. [42] The long discord between the

civil and military powers was decided by a war, in which the former had

obtained a complete victory. The soldiers must now learn a new doctrine

of submission to the senate; and whatever clemency was affected by that

politic assembly, they dreaded a slow revenge, colored by the name of

discipline, and justified by fair pretences of the public good. But

their fate was still in their own hands; and if they had courage

to despise the vain terrors of an impotent republic, it was easy to

convince the world, that those who were masters of the arms, were

masters of the authority, of the state.

[Footnote 41: Herodian, l. viii. p. 213.]
[Footnote 42: The observation had been made imprudently enough in the

acclamations of the senate, and with regard to the soldiers it carried

the appearance of a wanton insult. Hist. August. p. 170.]
When the senate elected two princes, it is probable that, besides the

declared reason of providing for the various emergencies of peace and

war, they were actuated by the secret desire of weakening by division

the despotism of the supreme magistrate. Their policy was effectual, but

it proved fatal both to their emperors and to themselves. The jealousy

of power was soon exasperated by the difference of character. Maximus

despised Balbinus as a luxurious noble, and was in his turn disdained by

his colleague as an obscure soldier. Their silent discord was understood

rather than seen; [43] but the mutual consciousness prevented them from

uniting in any vigorous measures of defence against their common enemies

of the Praetorian camp. The whole city was employed in the Capitoline

games, and the emperors were left almost alone in the palace. On a

sudden, they were alarmed by the approach of a troop of desperate

assassins. Ignorant of each other's situation or designs, (for they

already occupied very distant apartments,) afraid to give or to receive

assistance, they wasted the important moments in idle debates and

fruitless recriminations. The arrival of the guards put an end to the

vain strife. They seized on these emperors of the senate, for such they

called them with malicious contempt, stripped them of their garments,

and dragged them in insolent triumph through the streets of Rome, with

the design of inflicting a slow and cruel death on these unfortunate

princes. The fear of a rescue from the faithful Germans of the Imperial

guards, shortened their tortures; and their bodies, mangled with a

thousand wounds, were left exposed to the insults or to the pity of the

populace. [44]
[Footnote 43: Discordiae tacitae, et quae intelligerentur potius

quam viderentur. Hist. August. p. 170. This well-chosen expression is

probably stolen from some better writer.]
[Footnote 44: Herodian, l. viii. p. 287, 288.]
In the space of a few months, six princes had been cut off by the sword.

Gordian, who had already received the title of Caesar, was the only

person that occurred to the soldiers as proper to fill the vacant

throne. [45] They carried him to the camp, and unanimously saluted him

Augustus and Emperor. His name was dear to the senate and people;

his tender age promised a long impunity of military license; and the

submission of Rome and the provinces to the choice of the Praetorian

guards, saved the republic, at the expense indeed of its freedom

and dignity, from the horrors of a new civil war in the heart of the

capital. [46]

[Footnote 45: Quia non alius erat in praesenti, is the expression of the

Augustan History.]

[Footnote 46: Quintus Curtius (l. x. c. 9,) pays an elegant compliment

to the emperor of the day, for having, by his happy accession,

extinguished so many firebrands, sheathed so many swords, and put an end

to the evils of a divided government. After weighing with attention

every word of the passage, I am of opinion, that it suits better with

the elevation of Gordian, than with any other period of the Roman

history. In that case, it may serve to decide the age of Quintus

Curtius. Those who place him under the first Caesars, argue from the

purity of his style but are embarrassed by the silence of Quintilian, in

his accurate list of Roman historians. * Note: This conjecture of Gibbon

is without foundation. Many passages in the work of Quintus Curtius

clearly place him at an earlier period. Thus, in speaking of the

Parthians, he says, Hinc in Parthicum perventum est, tunc ignobilem

gentem: nunc caput omnium qui post Euphratem et Tigrim amnes siti Rubro

mari terminantur. The Parthian empire had this extent only in the first

age of the vulgar aera: to that age, therefore, must be assigned the

date of Quintus Curtius. Although the critics (says M. de Sainte Croix)

have multiplied conjectures on this subject, most of them have ended by

adopting the opinion which places Quintus Curtius under the reign of

Claudius. See Just. Lips. ad Ann. Tac. ii. 20. Michel le Tellier Praef.

in Curt. Tillemont Hist. des Emp. i. p. 251. Du Bos Reflections sur la

Poesie, 2d Partie. Tiraboschi Storia della, Lett. Ital. ii. 149. Examen.

crit. des Historiens d'Alexandre, 2d ed. p. 104, 849, 850.--G.

----This interminable question seems as much perplexed as ever. The first

argument of M. Guizot is a strong one, except that Parthian is often

used by later writers for Persian. Cunzius, in his preface to an edition

published at Helmstadt, (1802,) maintains the opinion of Bagnolo, which

assigns Q. Curtius to the time of Constantine the Great. Schmieder,

in his edit. Gotting. 1803, sums up in this sentence, aetatem Curtii

ignorari pala mest.--M.]

As the third Gordian was only nineteen years of age at the time of his

death, the history of his life, were it known to us with greater

accuracy than it really is, would contain little more than the account

of his education, and the conduct of the ministers, who by turns abused

or guided the simplicity of his unexperienced youth. Immediately after

his accession, he fell into the hands of his mother's eunuchs, that

pernicious vermin of the East, who, since the days of Elagabalus, had

infested the Roman palace. By the artful conspiracy of these wretches,

an impenetrable veil was drawn between an innocent prince and his

oppressed subjects, the virtuous disposition of Gordian was deceived,

and the honors of the empire sold without his knowledge, though in a

very public manner, to the most worthless of mankind. We are ignorant by

what fortunate accident the emperor escaped from this ignominious

slavery, and devolved his confidence on a minister, whose wise counsels

had no object except the glory of his sovereign and the happiness of the

people. It should seem that love and learning introduced Misitheus to

the favor of Gordian. The young prince married the daughter of his

master of rhetoric, and promoted his father-in-law to the first offices

of the empire. Two admirable letters that passed between them are still

extant. The minister, with the conscious dignity of virtue,

congratulates Gordian that he is delivered from the tyranny of the

eunuchs, [47] and still more that he is sensible of his deliverance. The

emperor acknowledges, with an amiable confusion, the errors of his past

conduct; and laments, with singular propriety, the misfortune of a

monarch, from whom a venal tribe of courtiers perpetually labor to

conceal the truth. [48]

[Footnote 47: Hist. August. p. 161. From some hints in the two letters,

I should expect that the eunuchs were not expelled the palace without

some degree of gentle violence, and that the young Gordian rather

approved of, than consented to, their disgrace.]

[Footnote 48: Duxit uxorem filiam Misithei, quem causa eloquentiae

dignum parentela sua putavit; et praefectum statim fecit; post quod, non

puerile jam et contemptibile videbatur imperium.]
The life of Misitheus had been spent in the profession of letters, not

of arms; yet such was the versatile genius of that great man, that, when

he was appointed Praetorian Praefect, he discharged the military

duties of his place with vigor and ability. The Persians had invaded

Mesopotamia, and threatened Antioch. By the persuasion of his

father-in-law, the young emperor quitted the luxury of Rome, opened, for

the last time recorded in history, the temple of Janus, and marched in

person into the East. On his approach, with a great army, the Persians

withdrew their garrisons from the cities which they had already taken,

and retired from the Euphrates to the Tigris. Gordian enjoyed the

pleasure of announcing to the senate the first success of his arms,

which he ascribed, with a becoming modesty and gratitude, to the wisdom

of his father and Praefect. During the whole expedition, Misitheus

watched over the safety and discipline of the army; whilst he prevented

their dangerous murmurs by maintaining a regular plenty in the camp, and

by establishing ample magazines of vinegar, bacon, straw, barley, and

wheat in all the cities of the frontier. [49] But the prosperity of

Gordian expired with Misitheus, who died of a flux, not with out very

strong suspicions of poison. Philip, his successor in the praefecture,

was an Arab by birth, and consequently, in the earlier part of his life,

a robber by profession. His rise from so obscure a station to the first

dignities of the empire, seems to prove that he was a bold and able

leader. But his boldness prompted him to aspire to the throne, and his

abilities were employed to supplant, not to serve, his indulgent master.

The minds of the soldiers were irritated by an artificial scarcity,

created by his contrivance in the camp; and the distress of the army was

attributed to the youth and incapacity of the prince. It is not in our

power to trace the successive steps of the secret conspiracy and open

sedition, which were at length fatal to Gordian. A sepulchral monument

was erected to his memory on the spot [50] where he was killed, near the

conflux of the Euphrates with the little river Aboras. [51] The fortunate

Philip, raised to the empire by the votes of the soldiers, found a ready

obedience from the senate and the provinces. [52]
[Footnote 49: Hist. August. p. 162. Aurelius Victor. Porphyrius in Vit

Plotin. ap. Fabricium, Biblioth. Graec. l. iv. c. 36. The philosopher

Plotinus accompanied the army, prompted by the love of knowledge, and by

the hope of penetrating as far as India.]

[Footnote 50: About twenty miles from the little town of Circesium, on

the frontier of the two empires. * Note: Now Kerkesia; placed in the

angle formed by the juncture of the Chaboras, or al Khabour, with the

Euphrates. This situation appeared advantageous to Diocletian, that he

raised fortifications to make it the but wark of the empire on the side

of Mesopotamia. D'Anville. Geog. Anc. ii. 196.--G. It is the Carchemish

of the Old Testament, 2 Chron. xxxv. 20. ler. xlvi. 2.--M.]
[Footnote 51: The inscription (which contained a very singular pun) was

erased by the order of Licinius, who claimed some degree of relationship

to Philip, (Hist. August. p. 166;) but the tumulus, or mound of earth

which formed the sepulchre, still subsisted in the time of Julian. See

Ammian Marcellin. xxiii. 5.]
[Footnote 52: Aurelius Victor. Eutrop. ix. 2. Orosius, vii. 20. Ammianus

Marcellinus, xxiii. 5. Zosimus, l. i. p. 19. Philip, who was a native of

Bostra, was about forty years of age. * Note: Now Bosra. It was once the

metropolis of a province named Arabia, and the chief city of Auranitis,

of which the name is preserved in Beled Hauran, the limits of which meet

the desert. D'Anville. Geog. Anc. ii. 188. According to Victor, (in

Caesar.,) Philip was a native of Tracbonitis another province of


We cannot forbear transcribing the ingenious, though somewhat fanciful

description, which a celebrated writer of our own times has traced

of the military government of the Roman empire. What in that age was

called the Roman empire, was only an irregular republic, not unlike

the aristocracy [53] of Algiers, [54] where the militia, possessed of

the sovereignty, creates and deposes a magistrate, who is styled a Dey.

Perhaps, indeed, it may be laid down as a general rule, that a military

government is, in some respects, more republican than monarchical. Nor

can it be said that the soldiers only partook of the government by their

disobedience and rebellions. The speeches made to them by the emperors,

were they not at length of the same nature as those formerly pronounced

to the people by the consuls and the tribunes? And although the armies

had no regular place or forms of assembly; though their debates were

short, their action sudden, and their resolves seldom the result of

cool reflection, did they not dispose, with absolute sway, of the

public fortune? What was the emperor, except the minister of a violent

government, elected for the private benefit of the soldiers?
[Footnote 53: Can the epithet of Aristocracy be applied, with any

propriety, to the government of Algiers? Every military government

floats between two extremes of absolute monarchy and wild democracy.]
[Footnote 54: The military republic of the Mamelukes in Egypt would have

afforded M. de Montesquieu (see Considerations sur la Grandeur et la

Decadence des Romains, c. 16) a juster and more noble parallel.]
"When the army had elected Philip, who was Praetorian praefect to the

third Gordian, the latter demanded that he might remain sole emperor; he

was unable to obtain it. He requested that the power might be equally

divided between them; the army would not listen to his speech. He

consented to be degraded to the rank of Caesar; the favor was refused

him. He desired, at least, he might be appointed Praetorian praefect;

his prayer was rejected. Finally, he pleaded for his life. The army, in

these several judgments, exercised the supreme magistracy." According to

the historian, whose doubtful narrative the President De Montesquieu has

adopted, Philip, who, during the whole transaction, had preserved a

sullen silence, was inclined to spare the innocent life of his

benefactor; till, recollecting that his innocence might excite a

dangerous compassion in the Roman world, he commanded, without regard to

his suppliant cries, that he should be seized, stripped, and led away to

instant death. After a moment's pause, the inhuman sentence was

executed. [55]

[Footnote 55: The Augustan History (p. 163, 164) cannot, in this

instance, be reconciled with itself or with probability. How could

Philip condemn his predecessor, and yet consecrate his memory? How could

he order his public execution, and yet, in his letters to the senate,

exculpate himself from the guilt of his death? Philip, though an

ambitious usurper, was by no means a mad tyrant. Some chronological

difficulties have likewise been discovered by the nice eyes of Tillemont

and Muratori, in this supposed association of Philip to the empire. *

Note: Wenck endeavors to reconcile these discrepancies. He supposes

that Gordian was led away, and died a natural death in prison. This is

directly contrary to the statement of Capitolinus and of Zosimus,

whom he adduces in support of his theory. He is more successful in

his precedents of usurpers deifying the victims of their ambition. Sit

divus, dummodo non sit vivus.--M.]

Chapter VII: Tyranny Of Maximin, Rebellion, Civil Wars, Death Of Maximin.--Part III.
On his return from the East to Rome, Philip, desirous of obliterating

the memory of his crimes, and of captivating the affections of

the people, solemnized the secular games with infinite pomp and

magnificence. Since their institution or revival by Augustus, [56] they

had been celebrated by Claudius, by Domitian, and by Severus, and were

now renewed the fifth time, on the accomplishment of the full period of

a thousand years from the foundation of Rome. Every circumstance of the

secular games was skillfully adapted to inspire the superstitious mind

with deep and solemn reverence. The long interval between them [57]

exceeded the term of human life; and as none of the spectators had

already seen them, none could flatter themselves with the expectation

of beholding them a second time. The mystic sacrifices were performed,

during three nights, on the banks of the Tyber; and the Campus Martius

resounded with music and dances, and was illuminated with innumerable

lamps and torches. Slaves and strangers were excluded from any

participation in these national ceremonies. A chorus of twenty-seven

youths, and as many virgins, of noble families, and whose parents were

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