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.

Gladiator: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 4 Part 2

Commodus. Not a noble character. Gibbon thought that he was more weak than evil. But perhaps it isn’t very meaningful to make judgements. After all, the early life of Commodus could not have been more divorced from reality. Michael Jackson probably led a more normal life.

He showed little interest in the hard work of ruling. He happily delegated it to anyone who would leave him free to enjoy his leisure. And as a ruler of the Empire his leisure time was pretty good. He had a harem of 300 girls and 300 boys. He came to the throne young, but even so you have to at least admire his stamina.

He was also keen on sport, hunting and gladiators. He showed no interest in any of the arts. He used to have wild beasts brought to Rome from the far reaches of the Empire and beyond, so that he could kill them himself in the Circus in front of the people. This was a demeaning way for an emperor to behave. He began to style himself the Roman Hercules. This involved wearing a bearskin and carrying a club. It was a pretty ridiculous comparison. Hercules had sought out the Nemaean Lion that was strong enough to withstand arrows and fought it bare handed to save the people of Nemaea from being terrorised by it. Commodus was killing animals for fun while being well protected.

He didn’t restrict himself to lions. Ostriches, elephants and rhinoceros were also displayed and then killed. Whether the Romans got much in the way of entertainment value out of these displays we won’t ever know, but it does show the reach of the Empire at its height if it was able to lay hands on creatures from so far outside its borders.

But it got worse. He started dabbling in gladiatorial contests, and then started appearing in the Circus as a gladiator himself. This was behaviour definitely not consistent with the dignity of the Emperor of Rome. Gladiators could become wealthy but they were never respectable. The role he played was that of the Secutor, fighting against the Retianius. There were lots of variations of gladiatorial combat, but I think that this is the one that comes first to most people’s mind. As the Secutor, Commodus would be lightly armoured and armed with a small shield and short sword. His opponent would only have a net and a trident. If he could trap the Secutor with his net and dispatch him with his trident he would live. Otherwise the Secutor at close contact would have an obvious advantage.

Needless to say. Commodus always won. Mercifully, he rarely actually killed his opponent. But he did pick up the enormous prize money. He did this 735 times which meant that the prize amounted to such a huge sum of money that it was effectlvely a tax. He also adopted the name Paulus to associate himself with the most famous and successful gladiator of the day.

The Romans must have been appalled. One senator, Claudius Pompeianus, simply refused to attend. Prominent citizens were being killed routinely by this stage so he was well aware he was taking his life in his hands by doing so, and he prudently instructed his sons to continue to show up themselves. Mind you he did have other issues. He was the senator to whom Commodus’ sister Lucilla had been married – the one who had tried to kill him. He may well have decided he was due for the chop anyway. In the event, he got away with it.

Michael Foot RIP: The British Cicero

The whole History Books Review organisation was saddened to hear this week of the death of Michael Foot. In addition to his career as a politician he was of course also a historian of some note and his biography of Aneurin Bevan is on the list of books I intend to review. This particular book is interesting as an example of a history of his own time written by a participant in that history. This is quite a rare thing nowadays. Continue reading Michael Foot RIP: The British Cicero

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

Marcus Aurelius would probably have been remembered as a philosopher even if he had not gone into politics, a unique achievement.


At an early age, long before becoming the Emperor was even a remote possibility, Marcus embraced the philosophy of the stoics. It seems that from that time on he was first and foremost a philosopher and behaved accordingly even after he came to the throne. His Meditations, written in the winter campaigns on the Danube, are still popular today. Amazon offers several pages of differing editions of his work, all of which are frequently reviewed and which get almost universally positive ratings. He is quoted roughly once an hour on Twitter. Continue reading Marcus Aurelius: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 3 Part 4

Hadrian and Antoninus: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 3 Part 3

Hadrian had a tough act to follow, but he did hit the ground running. His only problem was that Trajan had never actually nominated him as his successor until he was on his deathbed – and even this was only witnessed by Plotina his pro-Hadrian widow.  Continue reading Hadrian and Antoninus: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 3 Part 3

Nerva and Trajan: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 3 Part 2

Whatever we may think of the model created by Augustus – it had staying power. Augustus reigned from 27BC. There was an emperor on the throne continually until 479AD – just over 500 years. Continue reading Nerva and Trajan: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 3 Part 2

Augustus Returns to Rome: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 3

Augustus Returns

Gossip must have been at fever pitch in Rome in 27BC, the year Augustus’ reign is generally held to have started. Whenever somebody new takes over, there is always a lot of speculation ahead of their arrival. But there can’t have been many situations where quite so many people had quite so little clue about what was going to happen next.


Augustus returned in victory to Rome after 20 years of civil war. With 44 legions behind him he could do whatever he chose. He could have declared himself a king, or a dictator or even a God. But publicly he was modest in his ambitions. An account has survived of his speech to the Senate. “He was now at liberty to satisfy his duty and his inclination. He solemnly restored the senate and people to all their ancient rights; and wished only to mingle with the crowd of his fellow-citizens, and to share the blessings which he had obtained for his country.” Continue reading Augustus Returns to Rome: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 3

V for Vendetta

I got in some beers and a pizza last Saturday night and stayed in to watch a DVD with my son – V for Vendetta. This was released in 2005, directed by James McTeigue and starring Hugo Weaving (masked throughout), Natalie Portman, John Hurt and Stephen Fry.

It is a good film, keeping you interested throughout and with good special effects and some very good actors performing very well. Although it is a cult film it has a very Hollywood feel to it with lots of action, a bit of love interest and building up to a satisfying ending with good basically triumphing over evil. Continue reading V for Vendetta