Constantius and Gallus – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 19 Part 1

When the sons of Constantine massacred all their close relatives, they spared a couple of their cousins. Gallus and Julian were too young to pose any immediate threat so they didn’t have to be killed straight away.  But as their parents had been killed something needed to be done with them, so they were held captive.  Was there a long term plan for them?  It is hard to say.   Given that they had an empire to run, probably their captors forgot all about them.  They were safely out of the picture and there were plenty of other things going on.

So all the while the sons of Constantine were fighting each other and the enemies of the empire, their closest living relatives were growing up in quite obscurity.  At the time of the uprising of Magnentius they were being held together in a castle in Cappadocia.  Gallus the older of the two boys – who were half brothers – was 25. Not much is known about their early life together but I imagine they were close.  Neither had anyone else much in the world to turn to and their grim situation must have made them comrades in adversity.  They were treated well apart from the lack of freedom, but that was poor compensation for the permanent risk of being executed without warning.

But all of a sudden their fortunes changed.  Constantius, struggling to manage a vast empire alone, decided he needed them and summoned them to the court.  Gallus was the main focus as he was old enough to be of use.  He was elevated to the rank of Caesar and given charge of the provinces of the East.  To cement the arrangement he was married to Constantina.  I breathed a sigh of relief at this point.  She has been showing up regularly in the story so far and was obviously an ambitious woman.  At last the daughter of Constantine has managed to get to be the empress she so desperately wanted to be.  Julian was also released and taken to the court of Constantius in Constantinople.

The court at Constantinople must have been a nightmare to manage.   Everything now revolved around the emperor.  His was the last word, so if you wanted something done that was where you had to go.  And as the administrative centre that was where all the money was spent. This inevitably made it the destination of choice for the ambitious and the talented, and also for chancers and hucksters.  It wouldn’t always be easy to tell which category a particular person fell into – indeed the difference is often a matter of perspective – but there must have been a legion of people trying whatever means they could to get attention for their pet project.

Inevitably the emperor had to surround himself with gatekeepers to stop himself from being overwhelmed.  Having the ear of the emperor gave a favourite or an official enormous power.  No doubt the favourites had favourites, so knowing where to turn for a particular function would have been an impossibility for an outsider.  Or an insider come to that.

The problem was staffing it.  If you are the guy right at the middle of this, how do you pick people who have your interests at heart?  This was what had motivated Constantius to turn to his family.  They at least had some common ground and interest.  Another solution to the shortcomings of the average subject was the extensive use of eunuchs.  A eunuch was not susceptible to a lot of the temptations of a regular official.  In particular they had no chance of founding a dynasty so that removed the biggest problem – the risk that they would replace the emperor altogether.  The bare minimum qualification for the role of emperor was having all your bits intact.

Castration does seem like an extreme response to time management issues to modern ways of thinking.  But when you think about it, the advantages were not to be despised.  It isn’t hard to think of modern politicians who could have simplified their career challenges if they had dispensed with their reproductive organs prior to running for office.  Reducing the total testosterone level around the emperor was probably a good idea and may well have increased the stability of the regime.

But it didn’t get rid of intrigue and plotting – far from it.  Eunuchs may not have been capable of the full range of human mischief, but they were still perfectly capable of jostling for power and position.  Gibbon expresses the prejudice of his time by assuming that eunuchs were effeminate, greedy and cowardly.  I don’t think that there is in reality any reason to believe that they behaved any worse than human beings in general.  But lets face it, that is bad enough.

So it isn’t hard to see the appeal to Constantius of setting up Gallus to help deflect some of the pressures landing on his desk.  Not everyone would have been pleased to see Constantius have more time and attention for day to day business. The eunuchs were well aware of the source of their power.  One of them was particularly influential. His name was Eusebius and he seems to have held particular sway over Constantius.   Gibbon records a joke from the time that mocks the pride and haughtiness of Eusebius by sarcastically observing that Constantius stood high in the approval of Eusebius.  Eusebius, from reasonably obvious motives, was an enemy of Gallus.

Gallus did not show immediate promise in his role as a Caesar.  Set up with his own court in Antioch, he immediately instigated a regime of extreme repression.  He set up torture chambers in his palace and recruited spies to keep an eye on his new subjects.  The Roman Empire wasn’t a cuddly place and the mildest of emperors transferred to our era would no doubt be dragged off to the court of human rights in the Hague within a fortnight, so to get a reputation for excessive cruelty in this era was something of an achievement.

But you can at least respect his willingness to walk the walk.  He undertook some spying activities himself personally, dressing up as a plebian to walk the streets hunting out sedition against, well against himself.  You don’t have to be a great psychology fan to wonder if his upbringing had something to do with this.  It is hard to know how living your life expecting death at any moment would affect you.  But it isn’t hard to imagine that it may have played some part in this enthusiasm for tight security measures.

Constantina also gets a bad press.  She is portrayed as both blood thirsty and avaricious.  She combined these two vices by accepting money in return for getting specified victims killed.  This isn’t particularly endearing behaviour at the best of times, but was made even worse by the relatively low tariff she charged.  Prices started at a pearl necklace for a nobleman’s life.  We all like a bargain, but for the victims it was just insulting.

The population of the east was soon crying out against their new leader.  On top of that, the overall situation in the region was getting a bit fraught.  There was a revolt in Palestine and preparations for the next stage of the war in Persia had led to an increase in grain prices.  Gallus had intervened in the food market – never an easy thing to pull off successfully – but had done so in such a way as to infuriate both buyers and sellers.

The eunuchs in the palace at Constantinople were studying the situation with interest.  The revenues diverted to the new court at Antioch were coming straight out of the pot they habitually used to play their games, so they had a vested interest in undermining this experiment in political pluralism.  Plots against Gallus were soon afoot.   And you can’t beat the court of an absolute monarch who happens to be fully occupied elsewhere  if you are looking for a breeding ground for a conspiracy.  Eusebius was, no doubt, in his element.

But Constantius was too pre-occupied to do much about it at first.  He was busy finishing off the revolt in Gaul and dealing with some trouble being posed by the Alemanni.   Freeing up time to deal with other matters was after all, the whole point of bringing Gallus into the administration in the first place.

But when things calmed down he had time to have his ear bent by advisors who no doubt had their own agendas.  His reaction was to send a praetorian prefect Domitian, and the palace quaestor, Montius, to bring Gallus back on track.  You can see what Constantius was thinking and it was sound enough reasoning.  The appointment of Gallus was working in the sense of relieving him of some of the pressures of ruling alone.  If he could just be brought in line with imperial best practice it could still become a successful partnership.  And it could well have done so if things had turned out a bit different.

In the event the delegation from the emperor didn’t handle things particularly wisely.  What should have been a quiet behind the scenes chat followed by some solid practical advice turned into a showdown.  Domitian played it hard from the beginning by threatening to withhold the allowance for the running of the palace.  Gallus took the view that he was an emperor and Domitian was a subject and so should not be talking to him like that.  So he proved his point by throwing him in prison.

This wasn’t a good start.  But things could still have been resolved if Montius had shown a bit of good judgement and persuaded Gallus to calm down and talk.  Instead he showed bad judgement. He pointed out that as Caesar Gallus wasn’t even entitled to dismiss a municipal magistrate, let alone bang up a direct representative of the Augustus.

One might have supposed that two such top ranking dignitaries would be well aware that threats and insults were unlikely to achieve what Constantius had mandated them to do.  Stupidity can never be totally eliminated as an explanation of human behaviour, but I wonder if we are seeing the hand of Eusebius behind this.  The last thing he wanted was a reconciliation between Gallus and Constantius.  Did he get at the envoys to ensure their mission was a failure?  We’ll never know, but if that was the case they overdid it.  In a final confrontation in the Senate the praefect attempted to assert his authority.  The response of Gallus was to call on his people to defend him.  And boy did they do so. The emperor’s men were torn to pieces by an angry mob and their dismembered bodies were thrown into the river.

On the whole, you don’t really endear yourself to an emperor by killing his emissaries.  If you are going to, at the least you need to be a bit discreet about it.  Doing it in public, indeed using the public, makes it that much worse.  Gallus had gone too far.  Constantius was going to sort him out.  The smart move would have been to simply declared himself an Augustus and hope to save himself by fighting.   But he didn’t realise this and carried on as before.

Constantius again showed that while he was never a match for his father in military matters, he did know how to implement a crafty political manoeuvre.  He quietly removed units from the East to weaken any rebellion should it arise.  He then invited Gallus and Constantina to a meeting with him in Milan, hinting strongly that it was time that he raised Gallus to the rank of Augustus.

And Gallus fell for it.  He set out from Antioch with a large retinue oblivious of the danger he was in.  At Constantinople he halted in his journey and put on some extravagant horse racing and sat in the imperial box as if he was already an Augustus.  Word of this would have got to Constantius who would have taken it as a gross insult.  Once again, are we seeing the result of some subtle manipulation going on here?  On the one hand, telling Gallus he was as good as an Augustus already is the kind of thing that he would have wanted to believe.  On the other, what better scare story for Constantius than ‘you should have heard how popular he was with the crowd at the games, sitting in your box and all.’

As he progressed towards his meeting with his cousin he found that the guards were starting to behave less like his retinue and more like his captors.  At Adrianople he received instructions to leave the bulk of his company behind him and to progress at speed to his meeting in Milan.  By now, even the poor political antennae of Gallus must have worked out that something was amiss.  But he must have been comforted by the thought that his wife Constantina was making her way separately to the meeting with her brother as well.  That ought to count for something.  He probably didn’t learn until he arrived that she had died unexpectedly on the journey.  This left Constantius as the last remaining direct descendant of Constantine.

The meeting in Milan did not go well.  On his arrival at court Gallus was imprisoned, and fell into the hands of Eusebius.  He was interrogated by the subtle courtier who succeeded in getting him to blame everything that had gone wrong on Constantina.

This was hardly noble behaviour on the part of Gallus, and in addition was extremely unwise.  Pointing the finger at his sister was going to enrage Constantius still further.  After a short captivity, the order came for his execution.  With his hands tied behind his back he was beheaded.  It was probably the end he always dreaded, but it was ironic that he should have gone to it with such initial high hopes.  And although he must have mentally prepared himself for death, he can’t have imagined that before he died he would himself kill his own reputation so effectively.

The wretched career of Gallus was not particularly significant in itself, but it does show how the empire now operated.  It was a despotism with all that that entailed.  Nobody, not even the grandson of an emperor and the nephew of another was safe. All rested on the whims of the main at the top, and a huge crowd around him devoted their whole lives to influencing him.  Courtiers, chamberlains, and palace dignitaries with bizarre titles can now be as important as generals and ministers.  Gallus had fallen foul not so much of the emperor himself but of the group of favourites around him.  Constantius lived in a bubble removed from reality.  This was a dangerous situation for an empire with enemies, but was the inevitable result of absolutism with any but the most able of rulers.

It is also worth remembering the stages in the downfall of Gallus.  Nobody can have been more interested in this episode than the one remaining member of the Constantine family aside from Constantius himself.  Julian was cut from a very different cloth to that of Gallus, but he was nonetheless his half brother and they had grown up together.  He was probably the only person Julian felt he could trust.  His death at the hands of his cousin must have been a bitter ending.

And Julian himself must have realised that his own fate was now on everyone’s lips.  With the death of Gallus, what would become of Julian?  The character and personality of Julian must have been the water cooler topic of choice in the courts.  In the next episode we’ll go back to Constantinople and pick up the story of Julian.  We’ll see that Eusebius was not the only person capable of plotting successfully.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Gibbon, Julian the Apostate

Leave a Reply