Selection from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


But while Roman society persisted in a state of peaceful security, it already contained within itself the seeds of dissolution. The long peace and uniform government of the Romans introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished and even the military spirit evaporated. The citizens received laws and covenants from the will of the sovereign, and trusted for defence to mercenaries. Of their ancient freedom nothing remained except the name, and that Augustus, sensible that mankind is governed by names, was careful to preserve.

It was by the will of the senate the emperor ruled. It was from the senate that he received the ancient titles of the republic; of consul, tribune, pontiff and censor. Even his title of imperator was decreed him, according to the custom of the republic, only for a period of ten years. But this specious pretence, which was preserved until the last days of the empire, did not mask the real autocratic authority of the emperor. The fact that he nominated citizens to the senate was proof that the independence of that body was destroyed; for the principles of a free constitution are irrecoverably lost when the legislative power is nominated by the executive.

Moreover, the dependence of the emperor on the legions completely subverted the civil authority. To keep the military power, which had given him his position, from undermining it, Augustus had summoned to his aid whatever remained in the fierce minds of his soldiers of Roman prejudices, and in interposing the majesty of the senate between the emperor and the army, boldly claimed their allegiance as the first magistrate of the republic. During a period of 220 years, the dangers inherent in a military government were in a great measure suspended by this artful system. The soldiers were seldom roused to that fatal sense of their own strength and of the weakness of the civil authority which afterwards was productive of such terrible calamities.

The emperors Caligula and Domitian were assassinated in their palace by their own domestics. The Roman world, it is true, was shaken by the events that followed the death of Nero, when, in the space of eighteen months, four princes perished by the sword. But, excepting this violent eruption of military licence, the two centuries from Augustus to Commodus passed away unstained with civil blood and undisturbed by revolution.

The Roman citizens might groan under the tyranny, from which they could not hope to escape, of the unrelenting Tiberius, the furious Caligula, the profligate and cruel Nero, the beastly Vitellius and the timid, inhuman Domitian; but order was maintained, and it was not until Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the philosopher, succeeded to the authority that his father had exercised for the benefit of the Roman Empire that the army fully realized and exercised the power it had always possessed.

During the first three years of his reign the vices of Commodus affected the emperor rather than the state. While the young prince revelled in licentious pleasures, the management of affairs remained in the hands of his father's faithful councillors; but, in the year 183, the attempt of his sister Lucilla to assassinate him produced fatal results. The assassin, in attempting the deed, exclaimed. 'The senate sends you this!' and though the blow never reached the body of the emperor, the words of his sister sank deep into his heart.

He turned upon the senate with relentless cruelty. The possession of either wealth or virtue excited the tyrant's fury. Suspicion was equivalent to proof, trial to condemnation, and the noblest blood of the senate was poured out like water. His ministers, Perennis and Cleander, were sacrificed in turn, the first to assuage the anger of the legions of Britain, who sent a deputation of 1,500 select men to lodge formally their complaint; the second to appease a sedition of the people, during a corn famine, which threatened the throne.

Every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of Commodus. He degraded himself not only by his immoralities, which exceed the decency of modern language, but by performing in public as a gladiator, a profession which the laws and manners of the Romans had branded with a just note of infamy. Seven hundred and thirty-five times the master of the world appeared in the amphitheatre to show his skill as a secutor, while the indignant senate and people watched and applauded. 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. A cup of drugged wine, delivered by his favourite concubine, plunged him in a deep sleep. At the instigation of Laetus, his Praetorian prefect, a robust youth was admitted into his chamber, and strangled him without resistance. With secrecy and celerity the conspirators sought out Pertinax, the prefect of the city, an ancient senator of consular rank, and persuaded him to accept the purple. A large donative secured them the support of the Praetorian guard, and the joyous senate bestowed upon the new Augustus the titles of imperial power. For eighty-six days Pertinax ruled the empire with firmness and moderation, but the strictness of the ancient discipline that heat tempted to restore in the army excited the hatred of the Praetorian guards, and the new emperor was struck down on March 28, 193.


THE Praetorians had violated the sanctity of the throne by the atrocious murder of Pertinax; they dishonoured the majesty of it with their subsequent conduct. They ran out upon the ramparts of the city, and with a loud voice proclaimed that the Roman world was to be disposed of to the best bidder by public auction. Sulpicianus, father-in-law of Pertinax, and Didius Julianus bid against each other for the prize. It fell to Julian, who offered upwards of pound 200 sterling to each of the soldiers, and the author of this ignominious bargain received the insignia of the empire and the acknowledgments of a trembling senate.

The news of this disgraceful auction was received by the legions of the frontiers with surprise, with indignation and, perhaps, with envy. Albinus, governor of Britain, Niger, governor of Syria, and Septimius Severus, a native of Africa, commander of the Pannonian army, prepared to avenge the death of Pertinax and to establish their own claims to the vacant throne. Marching night and day, Severus crossed the Julian Alps, swept aside the feeble defences of Julian and put an end to a reign of power which had lasted but sixty-six days, and had been purchased with such immense treasure. Having secured the supreme authority, Severus turned his arms against his two competitors, and within three years, and in the course of two or three battles, established his position and brought about the death of both Albinus and Niger.

Though he regarded the Roman Empire as his own private property, though he showed no little animosity towards the senate, Severus ruled with strictness, discernment and impartiality, favouring, perhaps, the cause of the poor and oppressed, not so much from motives of humanity as to humble the pride of greatness and to sink all his subjects to the same common level of absolute dependence. The prosperity of Rome revived, and a profound peace reigned throughout the world.

At the same time Severus was guilty of two acts which were detrimental to the future interests of the republic. He relaxed the discipline of the army, increased their pay beyond the example of former times, re-established the Praetorian guards, who had been abolished for their transaction with Julian, and welded more firmly the chains of tyranny by filling the senate with his creatures, who echoed his views of passive obedience and descanted on the inevitable mischiefs of freedom. At the age of sixty-five in the year 211, he expired at York of a disorder which was aggravated by the labours of a campaign against the Caledonians and the irritation caused by the quarrels of his sons, Caracalla and Geta.

In his last moments Severus recommended concord to his sons, and his sons to the army. The two youths were proclaimed jointly emperors of Rome, and the government of the civilized world was entrusted to the hands of brothers who were implacable enemies. A latent civil war brooded in the city, and hardly more than a year passed before the assassins of Caracalla put an end to an impossible situation by murdering Geta in the arms of the Empress Julia, his mother.

The crime went not unpunished. Consciousness of his guilt prompted Caracalla to remove from the world whatever would remind him of his murdered brother. Twenty thousand persons of both sexes suffered death under the vague appellation of the friends of Geta. Leaving Rome a year after the commission of this crime, he spent the remainder of his reign in the several provinces of the empire, each of which in turn became the scene of his rapine and cruelty. The fears of Macrinus, the controller of the civil affairs of the Praetorian prefecture, brought about his death in the neighbourhood of Carrhae in Syria on April 8, 217.

For a little more than a year his successor governed the empire, but the necessary step of reforming the army brought about his ruin. On June 7, 218, he succumbed to the superior fortune of Elagabalus, the grandson of Severus, a youth trained in all the superstitions and vices of the East.

UNDER this sovereign Rome was prostituted to the vilest vices of which human nature is capable. Corrupted by his youth and his fortune, Elagabalus abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury. To confound the order of seasons and climates, 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. The sum of his infamy was reached when the master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex. The shame and disgust of the soldiers resulted in his murder on March 10, 222, and the proclamation of his cousin Alexander Severus.

Again the necessity of restoring discipline within the army led to the ruin of the emperor, and, despite thirteen years of just and moderate government, Alexander was murdered in his tent on March 19, 235, on the banks of the Rhine, and Maximin, his chief lieutenant, a Thracian, reigned in his stead.


FEAR of contempt, for his origin was mean and barbarian, made Maximin one of the cruellest tyrants that ever oppressed the Roman world. Those who had spurned, and those who had protected the Thracian, were guilty of the same crime, the knowledge of his original obscurity; and for this knowledge thousands were put to death. During the three years of his reign he disdained to visit either Rome or Italy, but from the banks of the Rhine and the Danube oppressed the whole state and trampled on every principle of law and justice. The tyrant's avarice ruined not only private citizens, but seized the municipal funds of the cities and stripped the very temples of their gold and silver offerings.

Groaning under this oppression, the people of Africa rose in rebellion, and compelled Gordianus, their pro-consul, and his son to accept the purple and seek the confirmation of their election by the senate. The defeat and death of the two Gordians compelled the senate either to submit to the cruel anger of Maximin or to elect a new sovereign. In their despair they chose the latter course. Maximus and Balbinus, on July 9, 237, were declared emperors, and to appease the people the grandson of Gordian, a boy of thirteen, was invested with the ornaments and title of Caesar. The Emperor Maximus advanced to meet the furious tyrant, but the stroke of domestic conspiracy prevented the further eruption of civil war. Maximin and his son were murdered by their disappointed troops in front of Aquileia.

Three months later, Maximus and Balbinus, on July 15, 238, fell victims to their own virtues at the hands of the Praetorian guard and the younger Gordian remained sole emperor. At the end of six years, he, too, after an innocent and virtuous reign, succumbed to the ambition of the prefect Philip, while engaged in a war with Persia, and in March 244, the Roman world was compelled to recognize the sovereignty of an Arabian robber. Returning to Rome, Philip celebrated the secular games, on the accomplishment of the full period of a thousand years from the foundation of Rome. From that date, which marked the fifth time that these rites had been performed in the history of the city, for the next twenty years the Roman world was afflicted by barbarous invaders and military tyrants, and the ruined empire seemed to approach the last and fatal moment of its dissolution.

SIX emperors in turn succeeded to the sceptre of Philip and ended their lives, either as the victims of military licence, or in the vain attempt to stay the triumphal eruption of the Goths and the Franks and the Suevi. In three expeditions the Goths seized the Bosporus, plundered Bithynia, ravaged Greece and threatened Italy, while the Franks invaded Gaul and overran Spain and the provinces of Africa. Some sparks of their ancient virtue enabled the senate to repulse the Suevi, who threatened Rome herself, but the miseries of the empire were not assuaged by this one triumph, and the successes of Sapor, king of Persia, in the East, seemed to foreshadow the immediate downfall of Rome. Six emperors and thirty tyrants attempted in vain to stay the course of disaster. Famine and pestilence, tumults and disorders, and a great diminution of the population marked this period, which ended with the death of the Emperor Gallienus on March 20, 268.

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