The Secret State by Peter Hennessy

Would Stonehenge survive a thermonuclear attack?

The intense heat of a direct hit would certainly be hot enough to melt solid rock, but Salisbury Plain is not a key military target.  It’s probably far enough out of the way to avoid the most severe consequences.


It would be unaffected by the ensuing gale force winds created by the enormous convection currents that would follow shortly after a nuclear attack.  It would not  be harmed by the nuclear winter caused by the clouds of dust the explosions had thrown into the sky blocking the sun.  Granite is impervious to the deadly radiation afterglow that would kill any living thing in an instant.  So, probably alone of all the man made artifacts in Britain, the chances are that it would indeed survive.  But everything else would be destroyed, destroyed so finally that barely a trace if anything at all would remain.

You really are a shining little ray of sunshine on this podcast, Colin, you are probably saying to yourself.  Well I am afraid that is the effect of reading the latest edition of The Secret State by Peter Hennesey.

Few countries can have made the transition from overwhelming strength to complete defencelessness so quickly and brutally as Great Britain in the early years of the twentieth century.  The turnaround in the country’s fortunes would have been felt by everyone, but particularly by those in the class used to governing it.

Take for example Winston Churchill.  In the early years of the twentieth century he was overhauling the Royal Navy to run on oil, making it not only the biggest but the most modern fleet in the world.  Britain’s unstated policy at that time was to have a fleet large enough to comfortably defeat the next two biggest fleets in the world combined.  With a formal empire that spanned the globe and an even larger informal empire based on trade and industry, it must have been inconceivable that the whole edifice would crumble.

But two world wars later, and above all thanks to completely unforeseen developments in military technology, by the 50s Churchill was presiding over a country unable to even defend itself against a deadly attack.  Nuclear weapons of huge destructive capacity were combined with missiles able to cross continents.  A densely populated country like Britain made an ideal target.   And its political position made it an inevitable one.

With the advent of bombs many thousands times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the realisation grew that the next world war would mean the total elimination of Britain as a civilised country and there would not be any survivors.

We find the one time bellicose warrior reading  to his cabinet an article by Donald Soper about the risks nuclear weapons posed.  Donald Soper was a leading Methodist minister and a leading light of CND.  He would have been astonished to learn that Churchill was taking him so seriously.

It’s often only when you start organising something that the reality of it sinks in.  I imagine this was how it was for the officials charged with preparation for nuclear war. The Secret State describes the procedures, necessarily highly secret, set up to cope with the possibility of an attack that in all probability would result in Britain’s  total destruction.  It must have really brought home to the people involved just how real the threat was.

A bunker was prepared under Box Hill in Wiltshire.   From here it would be attempted to maintain control of what was left of the kingdom.   It was planned in the age of austerity and was suitably Spartan.  Only the Prime Minister had a personal lavatory.   Deep under the sandstone hills, it would have been impossible to destroy.  But it would have been easy to detect once any communication was attempted, and its existence was in any case probably known to the Soviets.  An attack on the hill would have fused the rock trapping the inhabitants for the duration of the conflict.  Indeed, trapping them almost certainly for ever.

The Queen would be got onto the Royal Yacht which would be located in a loch somewhere in Scotland.  The mountains might afford some protection. So with an intact monarch and her Prime Minister still alive, although beyond reach, there was some slim hope of keeping the state intact.   It was necessary to plan for the possibility of the United Kingdom surviving a nuclear war.  The reality was that in the event of a Soviet attack within days the island would be rendered both uninhabited and uninhabitable.  Any survivors would survive only for as long as there supplies of food held out.

The nuclear deterrent was not in fact much more than a way of avenging any wrong done.  Nuclear powered submarines armed with nuclear weapons continually on patrol with a deadly payload to unload at Russia in the event that the Prime Minister ordered it.  If the Prime Minister was one of the victims of an attack?  There were two successors nominated by him.

The other people with their fingers potentially on the trigger were selected by the Prime Minister personally.  Harold Wilson for instance selected the dependable Dennis Healey rather than the often tired and emotional George Brown, who was the deputy leader of the Labour Party.

In the event of a total elimination of the government, the Prime Minister when he first gets into office writes ‘beyond the grave’ instructions to the captains of the nuclear submarines.  These are sealed, and are only to be opened in the event of a total breakdown of the state.  These are never opened and are destroyed when a new premier takes over.

And so the last act of the British state would be to unleash destruction on its last enemy.  A futile gesture in every way.

Suppose a thermonuclear war had broken out and these procedures put into place.  Europe would have been rendered uninhabitable.  Many centuries later when the radioactivity had died down and when natural selection had produced a breed of people able to cope with radiation levels that would kill us,  the continent might be slowly repopulated.

The newcomers would encounter the remains of a long vanished and long forgotten civilisation.  When they finally reached the northern island that had once been Britain and which had been the target of probably more nuclear missiles per square mile than any other the chances are that here even all remains would be gone.  But maybe, just maybe, the stones of what we know as Stonehenge would somehow survive, mute witnesses to the total destruction of a civilisation that had once strode the globe but which now was not even a memory.

Dirty Tricks in On Line History Reviews


Like a lot of others, I love Lord of the Rings.  The plot revolves around the incredible lure of the ring.  It is evil but almost irresistible.  Its offers temptation tailored to the particular individual’s desires.  Amazingly Tolkien came up with this notion without the inspiration of the internet.

The web offers so many ways we can fritter our time away or worse.  The opportunity to be someone online that we are not in real life is one.  This could be very sinister indeed,  but like most things there is a spectrum.  Posing as someone you aren’t to con people out of money or take advantage of them is one end of it, but there are less serious but probably a lot more common ways of deceiving people online.

Every internet forum has people who are being much more strident than they would be in real life. And no doubt not every fact quoted is rigorously checked.  Some people go further and plug products and services they are affiliated with without making clear their connection.  And the potential for deception takes many forms.  When you have been writing a blog like this one for several years and had almost no responses, the temptation to quickly create a new Google account and to start posting some comments is a very real one.  I have managed to resist it, but it has been touch and go some days.

The world has been watching agog as the mysterious affair of Orlando Figes has unfolded before our barely believing eyes.  We now know the whole sordid truth.  A tale of academic bitchiness that sickens the heart.  The short version is that Orlando Figes, a leading historian of 20th Century Russia, has been posting damning reviews of his rivals online anonymously, while lauding his own work.  When caught out, at first he tried to use his substantial personal fortune to hire lawyers to sue his accusers.   Then he tried to blame his wife.  But now the truth is out.  He is now known as Filthy Figes.

I think the reason that we all find this story so fascinating is that all of us have a little of the Filthy Figes in us. Okay we feel the temptation but we somehow resist it.  But like Gollum, Figes has gone down the path we have avoided.  It is also see easy to understand.  I am sure what Goldmann Sachs got up to was very bad, but I have only the haziest notion of what it is they are supposed to have done and no concept of what was going through the minds of the bankers involved.  But slagging someone off behind their back thinking I wouldn’t get caught?  Er yeah, I can sort of relate to that.

Still, History Books Review readers can rest assured that I at any rate review books honestly.  And I don’t write any, so you can be sure I am not biased. 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/23/historian-orlando-figes-amazon-reviews-rivals

Elagabalus: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 6 Part 3

With Caracalla dead, there was only one authority that could make an emperor, the army. Chance had it that most of the troops were gathered in Syria, so it was there and nowhere else that matters would be decided.

Continue reading Elagabalus: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 6 Part 3

Caracalla: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 6 Part 2


(Thanks to Wikipedia for the image of Caracalla and Geta 1907 by  Lawrence Alma-Tadema)

Mothers like their children to do well, and jobs don’t come much better than being emperor of Rome. Both Julia Damna’s sons became emperor.  It would have been perfect if only they hadn’t been emperor at the same time.   Or if they hadn’t hated each other.

It is very hard to see what Severus was thinking when he gave them both full and independent power.  This wouldn’t have worked particularly well with two brothers been filled with fraternal love. With a pair of fighting cocks it was obviously going to end badly.  The only question was how badly and when.  The answer was very and soon.

They demonstrated their animosity from the start.  On their journey back to Rome following their father’s death, they never ate together or stayed in the same house – and they continually attempted to kill each other.  In Rome they divided the palace, posting guards at all the joining doors.  The only point of contact between them was their mother.  The idea was hatched of simply dividing the empire between them.  This was hardly a solution.   War between the two halves would be inevitable. But even so the plans were drawn up in some detail.

It was certainly not a popular idea with the Romans.  To see an empire built up over such a long time with so much effort and blood split to accommodate a pair of childish overindulged princes must have been seen as a crazy notion.  It was a crazy notion. Over the centuries the empire had developed into a tightly interlocked economic system with extensive trade. In desperation Julia held a meeting to try and resolve the brothers’ differences.


And a resolution, of sorts, was indeed reached.  Caracalla sneaked in some centurions.  Once the meeting started, they appeared and killed the unfortunate Geta, despite his mother’s spirited attempt to defend him.  She piled into the fray with such gusto that her hand was cut in the struggle.   Caracalla then rushed to the Praetorian camp and claimed that it was he that had barely escaped from an attempt on his life perpetrated by Geta.

Geta had been the more popular brother with the troops.  To win over their loyalty Caracalla handed over an immense donative comprising virtually the entire accumulated treasure of his father’s reign.  Hard cash is one way of making sure people don’t give you any trouble.  Another is violence.  Some 20,000 of Geta’s supporters were killed in a ferocious purge of those Caracalla rightly or wrongly did not trust.

Even his mother felt the rage of Caracalla.  On finding her weeping for her dead son, Caracalla ordered her to stop on pain of death.  Some of her female entourage who had been joining her in her lamentations were killed instantly, including the last surviving daughter of Marcus Aurelius. A gruesome episode. 

And the deaths continued taking in one of the most trusted servants of Severus.  Papinian still held the post of Praetorian Prefect that Severus had appointed him to. Caracalla ordered him to come up with a justification for the killing of Geta.  Papinian, who must have known the character of Caracalla well, refused.  He was killed.  To his fame as a lawyer and his success as a politician, he added the rare distinction of showing himself to be a man who valued his honour above his life. Such men are rare enough in any era, but they will find them to be very thin on the ground as we watch the fabric of the empire disintegrate over the coming chapters.

And so Caracalla began his reign with a huge pile of corpses and an empty treasury.  He left Rome and headed East where he soon added another crime to his growing list.  In Alexandria a play was on that mocked his account of the murder of his brother.   He ordered his troops to sack Alexandria and to kill all the leading citizens, personally supervising the operation. It was a far cry from Vespasian, who had permitted criticism of himself with the comment that he didn’t kill a dog just for barking. Caracalla killed not just the dog, but any other dog who happened to be nearby.

After this he settled into extracting cash from his subjects to fund the huge cost of the army.

He was pretty much the worst combination from the point of view of the average inhabitant of the empire.  He needed to raise high taxes to fund his pampered troops.  An emperor sitting in Rome spending your taxes is one thing.  An emperor turning up in your province surrounded by armed men another. Especially given the risk of losing your life purely because of what is on at your local playhouse.

But he was secure for as long as the army was behind him, and given the treasure he lavished on them why shouldn’t they be?

In the end it was the most convoluted series of events that brought and end to his reign.  The role of Praetorian Prefect had been split between two men.  The military side of things was looked after by an unambitious  plodder called Adventus.  Good choice.   The civil business, the less risky of the two, was in the hands of a successful businessman called Opilius Macrinus.  This seemed a reasonable arrangement from the emperor’s point of view.  Macrinus could handle the tricky stuff but having no military background was not a threat.  This is how this seemingly sensible set up came apart.

In Africa a soothsayer started predicting that Macrinus was destined to become the emperor and to found a dynasty.  The man had a good track record and his claim became widely believed.  The Romans took this sort of thing fairly seriously, but they weren’t completely credulous. So they investigated thoroughly.  They had the guy sent over to Rome in chains and tortured him.   But he stuck by his prediction.  With everything checking out it seemed like the prudent course of action would be to kill Macrinus.  You can’t be too careful I suppose.  A message was sent to Caracalla who at the time was in Syria with Macrinus.

The post arrived while Caracalla was enjoying some chariot racing.  He delegated opening the mail by handing the bundles to Macrinus to sort out.  So Macrinus learnt his fate before the emperor: anyone who has picked up a bombshell in their e-mail inbox will know the feeling.  But what to do?  There was nowhere to run to and no court of appeal. It was only a matter of time before the story got to Caracalla.

In desperation he hatched a plot to get Caracalla before Caracalla got him. He teamed up with a disillusioned soldier passed over for promotion.  An opportunity soon arose.  Caracalla had decided to visit the temple of the Moon at Carrhae in Turkey accompanied only by a light guard. Macrinus and his accomplice also joined the trip.  Even emperors have to answer the call of nature.  This gave the assassin his chance to get close to the emperor and stab him. Caracalla died instantly, as did his murderer as soon as the guards realised what was happening.  This had the effect of preventing any suspicion of the involvement of Macrinus arising.

And so ended the short lived dynasty of Severus.  A strong dynasty was the only practical solution to the selection of the emperor that did not involve a ruinous civil war.  The early death of Caracalla destroyed this possibility.  There was now a power vacuum. Somebody had to fill it.  Could it be that the African’s prediction would become self fulfilling?

The Legend of Ossian: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 6 Part 1

Severus had two sons, Caracalla and Geta.  Their mother was his second wife, Julia Domna. She was a great beauty and also a friend and patron of artists and writers.  She wasn’t the kind of woman I would have picked out for the soul mate of a dour professional soldier.
  And maybe she wasn’t.  Severus had chosen her on the basis of some favourable astrological omens.  It may have been a marriage of convenience.

It must have been really painful to a hard working self made man that his sons grew up into a couple of spoiled brats who spent all their energy either enjoying themselves or indulging in one of history’s classic cases of sibling rivalry.  The two brothers hated each other with a passion. Severus tried to calm this down by treating them with strict equality.  Anyone with kids will sympathise with his plight on this one.  You may be emperor of the world but even so,  how do you cope with your offspring bickering? Families eh, who’d have ’em?

But of course Severus wasn’t just another guy, and the strife in his household had ramifications.  Both sons gathered factions.  It is easy enough to see how people  might stir things up in the hope of some gain at a later date.  Severus unwittingly made things worse.  He made both his sons co-emperor, which inflamed the factionalism still further.

Imagine the delight with which Severus must have received the news that the frontier of Britain was under attack from the unruly natives of Caledonia, modern day Scotland.  It gave him a chance to get his sons out into the field and give them a bit of an idea about how the world worked.  Marching, camping, facing danger.  That should sort them out.

The people living beyond Hadrian’s wall were not at that stage civilised and didn’t leave any written records.  So we don’t know what their reaction was to the news that not one, but three emperors were on their way sort them out. This was probably a bigger reaction than they were expecting.

They should have been worried. Lets see what the two sides in this conflict had going for them.  The Romans had highly trained and veteran legions led by one of the most able of generals with many years of experience and success behind him.  The Caledonians top card was rather scary warpaint.

The Romans were able to push right up into Caledonia.  With no effective means of resistance available to them, the tribesmen sued for peace and surrended their arms.  The legions left.  As soon as they were gone the Caledonians broke out into open revolt again.

This wasn’t the shrewdest move given that Severus was still in Britain and given his track record of treatment of people who got on the wrong side of him.  He decided to wipe the tribes out once and for all.  Severus did not make idle threats.  Things looked grim.  But the planned massacre never took place.  Severus died suddenly in York.

This last campaign of Severus was only a success in the most limited respects.  Britain was defended from attack, but it was never really in that much danger in the first place.  The local legions could have handled it. The terrain in Caledonia hadn’t really suited the legions and they suffered heavy unnecessary losses.  But the career of Severus makes his reputation as a soldier secure, and military glory wasn’t really what he was after this time.

He was 65 and suffering so badly from gout that he had to be carried around in a litter.  He had reigned for 18 years.  Gibbon thought that by the end he was longing for death.   This trip to Britain had been intended purely to instil some sense into his  offspring to make them ready to continue his legacy.  There wasn’t much sign that it had had any effect.  Their first action on jointly gaining the throne was to rush back to Rome to continue their feud, undoing what little had been achieved in the province.

But before we follow them a brief digression.  I know that this is a long book, and that we are only on Chapter 6 and that I skipped Chapters 1 and 2 because they were too difficult, but Gibbon makes an allusion to something too interesting to disregard. A few years before Gibbon published his book the cultural world of Europe had been captivated by some publications made in Scotland by a man called James MacPherson.

He claimed that these were traditional epic poems that he had recorded and translated from the Gaelic – the language that the Caledonian tribes spoke. They were supposed to have been composed by an ancient bard called Ossian.  The main action in the poems was the fight between tribal chiefs Finbar and Fingal and the Romans led by Severus.  Although hardly heard of nowadays, at the time Ossian was a sensation.  He was translated into all the main European languages.  Goethe was a fan.  So was Napoleon. Ossian inspired some of Schubert’s songs.  The most remarkable example of their influence is the name Fingal’s cave attributed to a rock formation in the Hebrides Islands.  Mendelssohn wrote a piece of music inspired by it.  But the name is not ancient.  It got its name in the  Victorian era in a reference to the Ossian poems.

There is something very appealing about the idea of an oral tradition preserving historical events for centuries.  And what patriotic Briton wouldn’t want to have a native grown Homer?  Europeans of Gibbons time were as far removed from their tribal roots as we are today, and like us lived lives that were ordered and not particularly heroic.  Being able to read romantic stories from a time before civilisation just hit the spot.

The authenticity of the poems of Ossian was controversial from as soon as they were published.  Dr Johnson was particularly rude about them.  He refused to take them seriously because they were badly written and because MacPherson despite much needling, could not produce the manuscript from which he had translated them.

Gibbon is a wiley fox, rarely caught out by history.  He keeps the question of whether or not the poems are genuine open. He sounds suspicious of them.  But he can appreciate the appeal.  He can contrasts the  heartless behaviour of the Roman with the nobility of  the Finbar of the poems regardless of whether or not he is factual.

With the benefit of hindsight we now know them to be frauds.  While MacPherson might have had some contact with some gaelic folk tales and songs, he basically made up most of the work he attributed to Ossian who certainly never existed. Ossian has still got a few fans who claim it to be a great work of literature despite its being a hoax.

But I  have to say that Ossian isn’t on the list of works for review by the History Books Review blog.  I had a go but I found it unreadable.  Some things are just of their time and don’t survive I suppose.

But back to reality.  It was obvious that the rivalry between the brothers would lead to trouble sooner or later.  Probably sooner.  Definitely sooner. In fact things started straight away with an unsuccessful attempt by Caracalla to get the legions to declare himself the sole emperor.   Geta was popular with the troops, and they refused to disobey the clear instructions of Severus that the throne should be shared.  The brothers obviously had some work to do on their relationship.  They needed to get back to Rome.  The Gaels were left in peace. They didn’t produce a northern Homer but they did survive and unlike Latin, their language is still spoken today.

Severus: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 5 Part 3


Right click on the link to download Severus Podcast (Control Click on the Mac) or just click it to listen now.

 
Sending a severed head is rarely a sign of affection.  Severus did not hold much truck with the Senate, or anyone else who might get in his way either. 

He brought to his reign the kind of casual brutality that was perhaps appropriate to leading troops but wasn’t the norm even in the violent atmosphere of Rome. He was no psycopath.  He used force to achieve his ends rationally.  But force rather than persuasion was his preferred means.

He did not really go in for mercy or forgiveness, but he did go in for calculation.  On taking control of Rome the children of Albinus fell into his hands.  This may have been one of the reasons, possibly the only reason, Albinus was so accomodating to a rival.  Initially, they were kept in the household of Severus with his own children.  When the war broke out they were exiled. When Albinus was killed, so were they.

Rough treatment of defeated enemies was one the signatures of Severus. When famine finally forced  Byzantium to surrender, the town officials and the defending soldiers were all killed.  The walls were demolished and the city was put under the jurisdiction of nearby Perinthus. This was considered unwise even at the time.  Byzantium occupied a key strategic point between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. 

But to be fair to Severus, he rarely let his desire for revenge go so far as to actually weaken the Empire.  He mainly used violence simply as a means of maintaining power.  He was a military man.  He had come to power as a result of the military.  He maintained his position as a result of the military. 

Rome, it is true, had in reality been simply a military dictatorship since the time of  Augustus.  But where that artful tyrant had hidden reality, Severus simply saw no need to do so.  He was a wily enough character: he could have played along with the Senate if he had wanted to.  But he knew where his true power lay.  After defeating Albinus he purged the Senate of suspected supporters of his opponent.  Forty one of them were killed along with their families and retainers.  A similar fate was meted out to the officials in Gaul and Spain who had backed the wrong horse.

Severus did not keep this up.  It was just a sign of the kind of emperor he intended to be, i.e, a tough one.  He intended to rule effectively.  Corruption was stamped out in civil affairs.  But he indulged the army, raising their regular pay to hitherto unheard of levels and dishing out lavish donatives whenever a suitable occasion arose.  He created a new Praetorian Guard four times larger than the one he had dismissed.  I imagine his reasoning was that with 50,000 men under his direct control in the capital it would be difficult for one of the border generals to launch a strike at Rome and take control quickly, as he himself had done.

Up until now the Praetorian Guard had been recruited exclusively in Italy.  Severus reversed this policy, and instead picked the best troops from the legions on the borders.  These legionaries hadn’t been Italian for a long time.  So now the capital of the Roman empire was guarded  by non-Romans.  Severus himself was an African of Berber extraction.  What was nominally a Roman republic had not in reality been a republic for some time.   Increasingly, it was becoming less Roman.  And the Italians were increasingly excluded from the army, the only source of power.

The Praetorian Prefect was now the effective day to day manager of the government.  He was responsible not only for the guards themselves, but also the legal system and the treasury.   Senators were appointed from the Eastern half of the empire, where the days of the republic were not even a distant memory and where absolute monarchy was the default governing system.  The idea that the emperors themselves should be subject to the law was fading.

The first Praetorian prefect to wield these powers was Plautianus – one of the comrades in arms of Severus.  He held the post for ten years. His daughter married the eldest son of Severus. This could have been the basis for a new dynasty, but Plautianus got caught up in some internal palace politics and Severus, apparently reluctantly ordered him beheaded.

Plautianus was succeeded by Papinian.  Papinian was a lawyer.  He was quite a famous lawyer in fact.  It is interesting how often lawyers end up in this sort of position throughout history, but that is probably a subject for another podcast.  Why should a lawyer be in charge of a section of the army?  Well given that the Praetorian prefect was in charge of justice it did make some sense.  But I think the real reason was that ambitious people like Papinian had worked out that the army was now the only  game in town.

Severus was exceptionally indulgent of his soldiers.  I have already talked about the pay. On top of that discipline was relaxed.  Personal jewellery was permitted.  They were allowed to live with their wives.  What the citizens of Rome made of these highly paid and pampered foreigners lording it over them we can only imagine.  A letter has survived from the end of his reign where Severus laments the loosening of discipline and calls for a tightening up.  But an absolute ruler cannot avoid the full responsibility for the conduct of his most favoured servants.

To his contemporaries Severus would have seemed to be a success.  He fought several successful campaigns and eliminated corruption.   But his emphasis on the army at the expense of everything else must have had a harmful effect on the development of the economy.  All those well paid troops had to be paid for out of taxes.  And anyone of ability would realise that the only way to get on was to get a command in the forces. 

The shortcomings of the approach taken by Severus would not become apparent until long afterwards. But the removal of the fig leaf of the constitution was to weaken the state by concentrating even more power into the hands of an already over mighty office. Gibbon concluded:

The contemporaries of Severus in the enjoyment of the peace and glory of his reign, forgave the cruelties by which it had been introduced. Posterity, who experienced the fatal effects of his maxims and example justly considered him as the principal author of the decline of the Roman empire.

Civil War: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 5 Part 2


Right click on the link to download Civil War Podcast (Control Click on the Mac) or just click it to listen now.

 

Augustus had discovered that you could get away with murder so long as you dressed it up in the right way. And when I say murder I mean that quite literally – actually killing people.

Generally speaking the Romans at this time were not highly motivated by either political or religious principles. Money was the big thing. So it might be supposed that the killing of the emperor and the selling of his throne would be met with indifference.

But it turned out that even the Romans had their limits. The citizens reacted badly to Julian’s coup. It was dishonourable to have a leader who had simply bought his position. The senators had property to lose, so kept their mouths shut. But the ordinary people had no inhibitions and expressed their disapproval vocally. But given the existence of the Praetorian Guard there was nothing that they could do about it.

There were only three men in the empire who could do something about it. These were the three leaders of the armies of Britain, the Danube and Syria. None of them recognised the change of regime and all three prepared to seize the throne for themselves. All had roughly the same sized forces at their disposal. The chaos that had followed the death of Nero was playing itself out once again. War among the Romans was now inevitable.

The best connected of the contenders was Clodius Albinus, the governor of Britain. He came from an ancient family, though one that had not been particulary notable for a while. He had been appointed by Marcus but had kept in well with the very different Commodus. This, Gibbon thought, showed that he was flexible. He had turned down an offer of the role of Caesar. This was good politics. It marked him out as lacking ambition – a good point in the eyes of a tyrant.

But there was a bit more to Albinus than simply a yes man. On receiving a false report of the death of Commodus he made a speech to his men denouncing the tyrant and calling for the re-establishment of the republic. This proved to be a little embarrassing when it was discovered that Commodus was still alive after all and heard all about it. But Commodus seems to have failed to get him relieved of his command. It doesn’t seem very likely that Albinus was a true republican. The republic had not existed for 200 years. He was probably taking a position to gain favour with members of the Senate rather than actually trying to restore the long lost golden age of popular democracy. So, a wily political operator.

At the other end of the empire the governor of Syria, Pescennius Niger had risen from obscurity to one of the major jobs in the empire. He was popular with the people of his jurisdiction and was urged on to take the empire by everyone around him. In a long run struggle the eastern provinces had the advantage of having more resources available to keep the fight going. But Niger seems to have hesitated to seize the initiative.

Nearest to Rome was Septimus Severus who commanded the legions on the Danube. He had the advantage that he could get to Rome itself first. Indeed, with luck he could get to Rome before his rivals were even aware of what he was doing. He got started straight away and brought his army round for the march on the capital.

Julian soon learnt of what was going on on the Danube and started to do everything in his power to defend his own position. He sent high ranking ambassadors to negotiate with a generous offer to associate Severus with the empire. He sent assassins to try and kill him. He even proposed sending out the vestal virgins to bring to bear the power of the Gods against his enemy. The defences of Rome were built up. But every day the news got worse. The ambassadors defected to Severus. As his troops advanced through Italy towns and cities went over to his side without a struggle. And every day he got closer to Rome itself.

Severus knew how to lead an army. He shared the hardships of the common soldiers – though marching through Italy unopposed was probably not the most rigorous campaign in military history. He slept fully armed surrounded by six hundred hand picked guards who themselves were never out of armour. This precaution frustrated Julian’s assassination attempts. He also promised a huge donative – four times larger than the one on offer from Julian. In an age where you chose your leader by a calculation of what you were likely to get from him balanced by his likelihood of success, following Severus was a no-brainer.

As he closed in on Rome there was no doubt who the eventual winner was going to be. The only question was whether the ferocious Praetorians would make it a battle worth remembering. Despite being outnumbered, they had the advantage of defending a strong fortress. They could hold out for a long time and with courage and determination they could make Severus pay dearly for his prize. They would go down in history as men who lacked morals and disregarded the dignity of the empire, but who defended a bargain that they had made to the end of their strength and to the last drop of their blood.

Alternatively, they could just surrender. This was the option they went for. Severus made it easy for them by offering terms. Only the actual murderers of Pertinax would be held responsible. The guards could therefore wriggle out of the tricky position they had got themselves into by simply betraying their comrades. Once the soldiers had abandoned the cause, the Senate quickly followed suit. Julian was bundled into a bathroom and beheaded. He had been emperor for only 66 days. Severus occupied the city without a fight and was acclaimed by everyone.

The Senate had dealt with Julian, so the first item on the agenda was the Praetorians. They were ordered to assemble in full uniform but without their weapons on a plain outside the city. Severus adressed them and castigated them for their treachery. The soldiers stripped them of their fine uniforms. Another detachment occupied their camp. They were all banished on pain of death to more than a 100 miles from the capital. I think they get off lightly. They can’t have thought it through. With their track record, who would trust them to guard anything?

The other matter was dealing with the memory of Pertinax. Most incumbents have a bit of a honeymoon period when they take over. Taking over from a tyrant means you compare well with your predecessor. Getting killed before you make any mistakes is another good way to keep a high reputation. And to top it all, Pertinax had showed courage in the face of an unjust death. He must have been remembered with affection.

Severus was too much of a politician to fail to notice the opportunity. He made a belated funeral oration praising the memory of Pertinax – a golden opportunity to look good by association with someone who could not be a threat.

Of the three contenders Severus was now in the strongest position. By occupying Rome and getting the endorsement of the Senate he was sending the right mood music out. His deft handling of the legacy of Pertinax helped as well. You might have thought that given the Senate’s spineless behaviour over the previous couple of months, there wasn’t much prestige to be gained from bullying them into complying with yet another regime change. But appearances count for more than we like to think and this extra legitimacy did strengthen his position.

But nonetheless, on paper he was still vulnerable. If his two enemies had combined they had the numbers to defeat him. Luckily for Severus, Albinus was willing to settle for the post of Caesar with the hint that he would succeed Severus.

This freed Severus to attack Niger. He must have been a good general because what might easily have been a long and bitter campaign was dealt with very quickly. Niger was defeated in only two battles, both in Turkey. How serious the war could have been was shown by Byzantium which held out for three years. We don’t know why they were so determined.

Severus was now free to turn his attention to Albinus. He tried to get him the easy way. Some messengers were sent with secret instructions to kill him. The plot was discovered prompting Albinus to lead his legions across the Channel to march on Rome. Severus intercepted him at Lyons where a huge battle involving 150,000 men took place. The outcome was narrow, but Severus was victorious. Severus sent message to the Senate that he was now undisputed ruler of the Roman world. Accompanying the note was the head of Albinus.

Praetorians: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 5 Part 1



One of the things I love about the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the artful way analysis and commentary are slipped in just where they seem to belong. A good example is found at the start of Chapter Five where we are treated to an explanation of the role of the army and in particular of the Praetorian Guard in Roman politics.

Gibbon was a member of parliament and counted among his friends the leading statesman of his day. I imagine that it was during some smoky late night port drinking session that he picked up this interesting observation.

Political scientists had concluded that it was impossible for a state to keep more than one percent of its population under arms for any length of time. This would be a handy rule of thumb to keep in mind if you were a foreign minister negotiating a treaty or forming an alliance to further your ends in the devious melange of seventeenth century international relations.

But Gibbon, the enlightenment thinker and historian could see another use for this tit bit of information.
The figure could be applied to the Roman Empire. Europe was still pre-industrial and despite some technological progress basic food production was still done in much the same way as it had been in the time of the Romans. He goes on to point out that although the proportion of men under arms in any state might be the same, the size of the state makes a huge difference. One man on his own, no matter how strong or well armed, cannot overwhelm another hundred. In a small settlement, a hundred armed men could not hope to defeat ten thousand peasants. But an army of one hundred thousand would be, if well organised and well led, easily capable of holding down a population of ten million.

In the second century the Roman Empire had a population of about 50 million and about 440,000 troops, very close to the one percent estimate. These troops were intended mainly to enforce the power of the emperor over the citizens rather than to defend the empire against external threats. The Praetorian guard, the most elite soldiers, were stationed not in the most precarious section of the frontier but in the capital.

The Praetorian Guard dated back to the time of Augustus, although he had been discrete enough to keep most of them near Rome rather than in the city itself. Tiberius moved them into a camp high on one of the hills over the city near the imperial palace. This brought them directly into the politics of the empire and their leader, the Praetorian prefect began to assume more and more significance. But even so, their summary removal of Pertinax from the head of the government was unusual. The removal of his head from his body even more so. The guards were powerful and arrogant, but they usually did their business behind closed doors.

Normally, a veneer of respectability was maintained. On the accession of a new emperor, he was expected to provide a donative in the form of hard cash – a large one off payment to every soldier. The name makes it sound like a generous gift from a monarch to a faithful servant. Protection money would have been a more accurate description. Any emperor who didn’t get the troops on his side on day one had much less chance of getting to day two and beyond. Decorum was usually maintained, but the example of Pertinax showed the reality of where power came from.

On the day of his death, rumour got out that something was up and the crowds came out onto the streets in some disorder. Sulpicianus the governor of the city was attempting to restore the situation when news came from the palace. The news took the form of a group of troops bearing the head of Pertinax on a pike. This would be a gruesome enough sight for anyone, but Sulpicianus was the father-in-law of Pertinax. Despite this, he rushed to the palace to start negotiating to take over the now vacant post.

This was not in the best possible taste given that his son-in-law’s headless body was still warm. But it was pragmatic. As a prominent figure in the regime, and one with a claim to succession, he would be at considerable risk if someone else took over.

For the Praetorians, Sulpicianus was as good a choice as anyone. The sticking point though seems to have been the size of the donative. The Praetorians may have been disloyal but you couldn’t accuse them of having a poor head for business. To make sure that they got the best possible price they decided to introduce some healthy competition to the process. They shouted from the battlements for anyone interested in the throne to come forward with an offer. The empire was openly up for public auction.

And a bidder duly appeared. It is after all a rare opportunity to be able to buy the world. An elderly senator called Didius Julianus had both the money and the inclination. Sulpicianus had offered a donative of 5,000 drachmas per man. But Julian outbid him with an offer of 6,500 drachmas.

He was declared emperor and marched through the city by troops in close combat formation. They swore their allegiance to him and then the Senate was assembled and was addressed by its new leader – surrounded by troops. Nobody dared oppose the selection.

He then entered the palace. In the excitement, nobody had thought to remove the headless body of Pertinax. The frugal supper intended for the former emperor was still on the table. Julian ordered a splendid feast and spent the evening enjoying a dancing show and playing dice.

But Gibbon supposed that he spent a sleepless night reflecting on the folly of assuming the throne with so little support. He now had to hold on to an empire that had ‘not been acquired by merit, but that had been purchased by money.’

Follow the next episode of the review of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Civil War.

Pertinax: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 4 Part 3

Away from Rome things were going badly. In Gaul and Spain troops deserted and set up in bands to make a living by raiding the cities.
When a belated crack down came Maturnus, the leader of the bandits ordered his followers to split into small groups, and make their way to Rome. They would regroup at the feast of Cybele in March. Then they would overthrow the emperor and place Maturnus on the throne. The plot was betrayed at the last moment, but even the attempt was a sign that something was wrong. Probably it was as simple as funding. The lavish lifestyle of the Emperor had to be paid for from taxes. Money spent on circuses could not be spent on the army. If you don’t pay the troops properly you will have problems.

Commodus is the emperor who features in the Russell Crowe film Gladiator. It’s a great film. Nobody expects Hollywood to let the historical facts get in the way of a good story, and the history in the film bears only a passing resemblance to what actually happened. The interesting thing is that, if anything, the historical Commodus was worse than the one we see in the film. And, the real events were in the ‘you couldn’t make them up’ category. A plot to join up in Rome under cover of a religious festival and overthrow the emperor sounds more like a movie script than an actual piece of history. It’s a shame the plot was foiled before it got to the fight scene.

Machiavelli asserted that it was better to be feared than loved. Well, up to a point. Commodus went beyond that point. He showed no loyalty to those close to him. It must have been obvious to his favourites that as long as Commodus lived their days were numbered. They made the calculation that the only course of action open to them was to get him first. The plotters were Marcia, his favorite concubine who had saved the day when Cleander fell, Eclectus, his chamberlain, and Laetus, his Praetorian prefect. Marcia drugged his wine after he got back tired from a hunting trip. As he slept a wrestler was sent in to strangle him.

Now the drama began. They had settled on a respected senator called Pertinax as the replacement for Commodus, but he knew nothing about it yet. Senators were living under a reign of terror. Pertinax must have mentally prepared himself for the knock on the door in the middle of the night. When it came, there was some difficulty in getting over the idea that they had arrived not to kill him but to offer him the Empire.

When he finally understood what was happening he managed to assume power with great speed. He was able to win around the Senate and took control of the government quickly and effectively. By the next day Rome had a new emperor.

There were a host of pressing problems. Finance was the main one– Commodus had emptied the coffers. Discipline needed to be re-established in the army. Financing the army was another issue. The tax burden had become unsupportable thanks to the huge cost of the court.

He seems to have set out to tackle things with skill and energy. Frivolous spending was cut and taxes were reduced. Unfortunately his reign was to last only 68 days. The Praetorian Guard had had no hand in either the removal of Commodus or the elevation of Pertinax. This was not at all to their taste, and they murdered him. Pertinax faced his attackers and tried to overawe them with the power of his personality and the office he held. He was a brave man and met his end with courage. He could have been another great emperor but became instead a footnote to the reign of one of the worst.

Gibbon chose well in selecting this point as the start of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The flaws in the character of a spoiled young man handed absolute power had disastrous consequences. The decline of discipline in the army was lamentable. But the growing prominence of the Praetorian guard was even worse.

More subtle was the erosion of the rule of law. In an ordered society your rights to your property are respected. This is something that we appreciate in its own right, but also gives people the incentive to improve things for themselves which works to make society stronger and more productive. When all that you have worked for can be lost at the whim of an arbitrary autocrat this is not the case.

The career of Pertinax himself is a good illustration. He was a self made man who under Marcus had raised himself into the top rank of the citizens by hard work and merit. He came from the same mould as a Vespasian or a Trajan. It was men like this that really built the empire. We will be hearing less about this kind of person our story unfolds.

A tyrannical government leads, sooner or later, to a weak state. As we finish Chapter Four, Rome was still so strong, and its enemies relatively so weak, that it was not yet inevitable that the empire was doomed to decay still further. The resources at the disposal of Rome were still enormous. Bad as the reign of Commodus had been, decline was not yet embedded. Another run of good emperors could still restore its fortunes. It is early in 193AD. We leave the choice of the next emperor in the hands of the Praetorian guard, hoping that they will come up with some dignified way of choosing a worthy successor of Augustus, Trajan and Marcus.