“The crime of one man, and the error of many, have deprived us of the late emperor Aurelian. May it please you, venerable lords and fathers to place him in the number of the gods, and to appoint a successor whom your judgment shall declare worthy of the Imperial purple! None of those whose guilt or misfortune have contributed to our loss, shall ever reign over us.”
This was the message that the soldiers sent to the Senate after the untimely death of Aurelian. The circumstances of his death had been quickly established. The secretary whose deceit had led to the murder of the great emperor was killed, and his actual assassins were shamed. The circumstances of Aurelian’s life had been amazing enough. The situation created by his death was just as remarkable. From the death of Alexander Severus onwards, emperors had been acclaimed by soldiers with hardly a thought. Sitting emperors had been murdered with even less. From the time of Alexander Severus onwards not one emperor had died securely on his throne in his bed. Claudius had at least died of natural causes, but all the rest had been killed usually by their own guards. So nobody in Rome can have been surprised that Aurelian had been murdered by his soldiers. That was normal. What was distinctly abnormal was that they had not chosen a new emperor to replace him. In fact, they asked the Senate to pick the successor.
And not one senator was prepared to take up the opportunity. Even in the most desperate circumstances it is usually possible to find someone who will risk everything in the pursuit of ambition and glory. But the crisis of the third century had settled into such a predictable pattern that ascending the throne was tantamount to committing suicide. The senators were all wealthy comfortable men who could enjoy life on their estates. What was the appeal of putting your head on the line when there was a near certainty that no matter what kind of job you did, your head would end up being removed from your shoulders. It wasn’t so much that the senators did not possess a backbone. It was more a question that they did possess a neckbone and wanted to keep it in one piece.
And so for eight months the Roman Empire was without a Roman Emperor. And for a while it worked fine. Everyone stuck in the jobs that Aurelian had allotted them and carried on doing their normal duties. It does seem hard to believe that a state with a population of millions and an army of 400,000 could simply carry on with nobody in particular in charge and with nothing in particular going wrong. But that was what happened, and this strange vacuum was only filled when the Germans chose to invade Gaul and occupy some cities.
Faced with this new danger something had to be done. Somebody needed to take responsibility for the overall defence of the empire. The consul called a meeting of the Senate. He made it clear that it was urgent that an emperor be appointed. It wasn’t just the Germans. The Persians were also a threat and the Eastern provinces were looking rebellious. It was in any case only a matter of time before the army did something.
The Senate therefore settled on a distinguished member in his seventies with a name bound to impress Gibbon. He was called Tacitus, and he was a relative of the famous historian Tacitus who Gibbon admired so much. Looking at the particular case of Tacitus it is easy to see why the Senators were so reluctant to acquire the glory of the empire. He had a private income sufficient to keep him and his family in a very nice style of life. On becoming emperor he had to contribute his wealth to the public treasury. This in effect meant that his family’s well being now depended on keeping the imperial position going. And you didn’t have to have an historian whose reputation has survived for centuries in your ancestry to see what a precarious option that was.
But Tacitus was persuaded nonetheless to become emperor, and set out for Thrace to meet his army. He addressed the troops with eloquence and was well received. A lavish donative probably helped. He then had to face his first problem. Aurelian had come to an arrangement with a nomadic tribe of the steppes called the Alani as part of the projected war with Persia. It was a fairly simple arrangement. He was going to give them money and they were going to invade Persia and help themselves to whatever loot they could lay their hands on. The Alans turned up as planned to find that Aurelian was dead and the Persian project was on hold. They decided that this gave them the moral right to raid the Roman empire instead and set about burning and looting the provinces in the area.
Tacitus seems to have dealt with this first problem of his reign in a workman like way. Most of the Alans were paid off, and those that wouldn’t negotiate were sorted out by the army. But the old man obviously had some trouble keeping control and it is unclear whether he was killed six months later or whether he had simply died. Meanwhile back in Rome the five hundred or so senators were enjoying the sudden and unexpected revival in their position and influence. They were once again the power in the empire, able to appoint proconsuls, presidents and magistrates. They could hear appeals. After a long time of being a talking shop they were now pre-eminent. And it had been handed to them on a plate. You can see why they had their tails up.
It didn’t last long. When Tacitus died, which given his age can hardly have been an unanticipated event, the old pattern quickly re-established itself. The influence of the army had not gone away. They remained the decisive factor in the choice of an emperor. The brother of Tacitus, Florianus, instantly declared himself emperor without any reference to the Senate at all. But in the camps of the eastern legions, a general called Probus was acclaimed. He was able to use the lack of procedure by Florianus to portray himself as the avenger of the Senate.
Florianus had got control of the western legions and on paper should have easily beaten the less well armed eastern ones. In fact Probus chose not to contest the throne directly, so when Florianus marched in to quell the rebellion he was allowed to advance unopposed and was occupying the important city of Tarsus when his soldiers rebelled against him and killed him. He had been emperor for only 88 days. The motive for the assassination is not known, but it was probably no more complicated than that his supporters judged that Probus was more likely to win and the sooner they got transferred to the winning side the better. It wasn’t a noble motive, but it is hard to argue with the logic. And anything that avoids unnecessary shedding of blood has something to be said for it.
The families of Tacitus and Florianus were left in peace. They had lost their fortune when Tacitus signed it over to the state. And frankly, they weren’t much of a threat. The whole being emperor thing didn’t prove to be very good for the family in the event, but at least they didn’t get killed.