Barbarian Emperor: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 7 Part 1

If you want to follow this series it starts with the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus.  The previous episode is covers the reign of Alexander Severus the last of the Severan dynasty to rule Rome.

Few reigns, even in the brutal world of Rome, had such an ugly start as that of Maximin. There is no record of the plotting that led up to his coup, but on the day appointed he was acclaimed by the troops in the camp as emperor.  Alexander, realising that his tenuous grip on the throne was now gone fled to his tent.  It was no protection, and pleading for mercy and blaming his mother, he was killed in short order. His crime was simply to stand in the way of someone determined to have the throne.

Maximin had no claim whatever to the throne. His father was a Goth and his mother an Alan. There was no way to dress it up.  Rome had its first barbarian emperor. Maximin got his big break from the emperor Severus. On a tour of the Balkans the emperor set up camp to celebrate the birthday of his son Geta. A wrestling contest was part of the show, and Maximin a tall and strong man had proved able to beat several Roman soldiers.  Severus was impressed and signed him up to his guards.  He showed both skill, leadership and intelligence and by the time of the reign of Alexander had got to be in charge of the 4th legion.

The discontent of the troops gave him his chance. His long and distinguished career in the army, including some training duties, gave him the contacts.  There doesn’t seem to have been any particular pretext or trigger – the driving force was simply the ambition of Maximin.

Having seized power in the most brutal way he proceeded to exercise that power with brutality.  His first pre-occupation was in keeping the barbarians pressing on the borders out. In this he was, as might be expected given his background, successful.  But the civil administration was dealt with in the same manner. Enemies were simply killed.  Potential enemies were killed. And people who had know Maximin before his elevation were also targets – witnesses as they were to where he had come from.  There was a strong element of show to all this. Maximin knew that he could not rule through love or legitimacy.  The only option open was a reign of fear.  For instance a senator called Magnus was killed on suspicion of plotting against the emperor.  It doesn’t hugely matter if the accusation was true or false.  Along with Magnus himself another 4,000 were killed as co-conspirators. There was no semblance of a trial.  Many of the killings were carried out in ways that were both cruel and theatrical.  Victims were clubbed to death, or sewn into the skins of wild beasts, or thrown to animals.

There was a purpose-terrifying his new subjects into submission.  The other aspect was the need to keep the troops sweet.  This required cash.  Lots of it.  Taxes were raised with similar brutality to every other aspect of the reign.  But in addition temples were looted of their treasures.  The ordinary citizens could probably have lived with terror directed at the senatorial class.  When it hit their own pockets they got more concerned.  And to add sacrelige against the Gods – that was both wrong and risky. Many died defending their religious relics. 

Maximin’s aim was clearly to be feared rather than loved.  He succeeded only too well and came to be hated by the mass of his subjects.

It was only a matter of time before this discontent broke out.  In the event, the first place to try and resist was the peaceful province of Africa. The procurator of Africa was as rapacious as his master required and was in the process of exacting the entire fortune of a wealthy family.  Facing ruin, in despair they resisted.  Killing the procurator and forming their household into a makeshift army.  The standard of rebellion was raised in the small town of Thysdrus. But who to lead it?

As it happened, there was a highly eligible candidate right on hand. A stately old senator called Gordian, already in his eighties, was the possessor of immaculate connections. He was related to Trajan no less on his mother’s side and on his father’s  from the Gracchi – a notable family of the late republic. He had succeeded in keeping out of the way of successive tyrants by sticking in his comfortable African villa – once owned by Ceasar’s great rival Pompei – and showing no sign of ambition. His connections could easily have got him command of a province or an army earlier in life.  But given the way the empire was being run, keeping out of politics was probably a shrewd move.  But having accepted late in life the role of proconsul of Africa he now found himself, along with his 22 year old son, right in the thick of it.

The aristocratic Gordians must rank among the most unlikely rebels in history.  The older Gordian was cultured and amiable. He used some of his enormous fortune to put on elaborate games for the population. He also composed a huge poetical history of former days.  All in all a man who enjoyed life too much to risk it in the hazards of the pursuit of power. His young son was shaping up to be an equally appealing and unthreatening character.  He had a library of 62,000 books and a harem of 22 concubines, both designed as Gibbon notes wryly ‘for use rather than ostentation’.

They moved to Carthage and were acclaimed by the population.  But what to do next?  They were now in effective control of a province, but not of any troops. They knew that their situation was quite simply hopeless as it stood.  So they sent a message to the Senate asking to be recognised as the legitimate emperors.  The Senate now faced a choice.  To renounce the Gordian’s would in effect legitimise Maximin.  But to support them would inevitably bring down on their heads the wrath of the barbarian at the head of the legions.  They met in secret in the Temple of Castor to decide on their next course of action.

The meeting must have been a tense one. Gibbon translates a speech given by the consul Syllanus. “The two Gordians have been declared emperors by the general consent of Africa. Let us return thanks to the youth of Thysdrus, let us return thanks to the faithful people of Carthage, our generous deliverers from a horrid monster–Why do you hear me thus coolly, thus timidly? Why do you cast those anxious looks on each other? Why hesitate? Maximin is a public enemy! may his enmity soon expire with him, and may we long enjoy the prudence and felicity of Gordian the father, the valour and constancy of Gordian the son!”

His stirring speech roused the Senate. The sent some tribunes to seek out the Praetorian praefect Vitalianus – Maximin’s guard in the city.  He was killed and the assassins ran through the streets waving their blood stained daggers and calling out the people to support the insurrection. The statues  of Maximin were thrown down and the authority of Gordian proclaimed.  Where Rome led the rest of Italy followed.

The next episode covers the short lived dynasty of the Gordians.

Thanks to George Shulkin for use of image of Balbinus, and to Wikipedia for the rest of the images.

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