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Chapter XXVII

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Rome
Tenney Frank

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter XXIX

 p528  Chapter XXVIII

The Age of the Severi

Commodus, 180‑193 A.D.. It may fairly be taken as a commentary on autocracy that while Rome had five excellent emperors in succession introduced to power by adoption, tyranny returned with the first incumbent born and bred in the palace. Our accounts of L. Aurelius Commodus given by two of the worst historians of Rome, Cassius Dio and Lampridius, are so confused and superficial that it is difficult to obtain any plausible explanation of his character. He was but nineteen at the death of Marcus Aurelius, and as Marcus had been exceedingly conscientious in choosing diligent officials to perform all the offices of state the young man had perhaps not been tried out in any responsible position under his father's supervision. At any rate it is clear that he had had leisure to acquire too keen a taste for horseracing and for gladiatorial shows.

The reign began badly. Commodus, against the advice of his father's generals, withdrew his garrisons from beyond the Danube, made peace on easy terms, and hurried home to enjoy himself. He grew impatient of the counsels given him by the strong men whom his father had gathered into high positions of state, and dismissed one after the other, resorting presently to charges of treason against those who were unwilling to yield. This led to a conspiracy against his life among some of the senators, a plot in which even his sister shared. She was married to one of Marcus Aurelius' most trustworthy advisers, Pompeianus, and as the deed of killing was allotted to Pompeianus' son, it is not at all unlikely that the father had been selected to be the new emperor. The would‑be slayer on  p529 drawing his sword for the deed paused long enough to shout, "The Senate sends you this." The delay was fatal. He was seized and was of course put to death, and his betraying words brought death to many of the senators. From that time Commodus acted like a man completely insane, and it is likely that the act had unbalanced his mind. It is not only that his cruelty overleaped all bounds, that almost all the men who had held positions of trust were murdered and their offices given to freedmen like Cleander and Eclectus, but his daily behavior becomes inexplicable. He would assume the garb of Hercules and walk up and down striking men with his club, or he would have his pate shaven and insist that he was a priest of Isis. He bought racing horses which he himself drove at the races, or he entered the arena fully armed and took the part of a gladiator. His own freedmen finally discovered that their lives also were in danger, and Marcia, his concubine, was induced to poison him. When the poison seemed not to prove effective a gladiator was brought in to strangle him.

Pertinax and Didius Julianus, 193 A.D. This deed only forestalled other plots, for the responsible men still at the head of Rome's armies had already been casting about for a better man. Pertinax, Septimius Severus, and Pescennius Niger were three of the generals who were being advocated for the position, and the armies had naturally come to think, as during Nero's abuse of power, that the sword would have to decide the issue.

The imperial freedmen who had slain Commodus, knowing that their lives were at stake, quickly sought out Pertinax and struck a bargain with him. He at once took charge of the praetorian cohort, and was then accepted by Senate. The state was heavily in debt. Pertinax had no funds with which to give the lavish donatives usual on such occasions, and the cohorts soon began to grumble. The new ruler was also less popular with the armies than several other generals. So the intrigues in the armies continued and  p530 there was continued talk of rebellions. In March, when Pertinax had been in power less than three months, the praetorian guard broke into the palace and killed him. Then it is said they invited bids for their support, and sold the throne to a foolish senator, Didius Julianus, for a promise of lavish gifts. This was an insult which the army could not endure. L. Septimius Severus, the governor of Upper Pannonia, who had the army that was nearest Rome, called upon his army to march with him to Rome. In six weeks he was at the capital; the Senate deposed Julianus and elected Septimius Severus in his place. The new emperor discharged the praetorian guard and chose Illyrians from his own trusted army in their place.

Septimius Severus, 193‑211 A.D. The new emperor was of Carthaginian blood, and the Punic language was the tongue of his childhood. He was a man of little learning, superstitious and gullible, and possessed, as the Romans said, the cruel and treacherous temperament of Hannibal. But it was unjust to the great Barcid to compare the two. Septimius, however, made the most of the memories of his race, of which he was very proud. He even rebuilt the tomb of Hannibal in Bithynia. He was not a great general, but he sufficed for the task at hand. Coarse and imperious, he knew how to control the barbaric troops that made up Rome's armies of that day, and even gained their good-will by his mixture of firmness and scorn for courtly manners. He married a woman not unlike himself, a Syrian by the name of Martha, a daughter of the priestly house that was once called royal in the temple-state of Emesa above Damascus. It was an ancestor of hers, by the name of Sampsigeramus, that Pompey had once to the amusement of Rome foolishly boasted of conquering. Septimius had apparently met her when, campaigning in Syria, he had visited the Eastern temples in search of fortune-telling oracles. As wife of a Roman general she assumed the name of Julia Domna.

 p531  Septimius had reached the throne without difficulty, but he knew his position would be challenged by men who despised his lineage. In fact Pescennius Niger in Syria had already been acclaimed emperor by his soldiers, and there was reason to think that Clodius Albinus, the legatus of Britain, would also seek the position. Septimius shrewdly offered to adopt the latter and give him the title of Caesar, a promise which had the intended effect, though the emperor, having two sons of his own, could hardly have intended to observe it. Now he set out on his long journey to settle scores with Niger, invested Byzantium, and proceeded with a part of his army to take Cyzicus and the "Cilician gates," the chief strongholds of his rival. Niger was defeated at Issus and soon after put to death. Septimius reëstablished the province of upper Mesopotamia, giving Nisibis the privileges of a colony. On his return he stormed Byzantium which was still replying, and foolishly razed its walls. It is difficult to understand what military insight an emperor could have had who deliberately destroyed one of the essential strongholds of the frontier. The Eastern campaign had consumed three years.

Meanwhile Clodius Albinus had declared himself Augustus and had concentrated his forces of Britain and Gaul near Lyons in order to support his claim. Septimius marched his army directly from the East over the Danube road to Gaul. The contest was largely between the army of the Danube and the army of the Rhine. The former, hardened by three years of warfare, won the desperate battle. An immense number of soldiers perished. Septimius let his barbarians take their pay in looting Lyons. The splendid old colony was a complete wreck when they had finished. He was not much more considerate of Rome when in 197 he returned to destroy those who had shown any sympathy with his rivals. Four years before he had taken the oath never to put any senator to death. Now twenty-nine were executed on the charge of treason. He  p532 confiscated their estates or rather he made them a part of his "private property."

He returned immediately to the East, since the Parthians had attempted to recover Nisibis. Like Trajan he marched down the Euphrates and took Ctesiphon. It is likely that this defeat was the death blow to the Arsacid kingdom which had troubled Rome for three centuries. Unfortunately for Rome, another dynasty, the Sassanid, arose to combine the Parthian and Persian tribes and continue the contest. It was on this campaign that Septimius recognized the oasis city of Palmyra as a "colony" and honored its noble family, the Odaenathi, with citizenship. Palmyra was rapidly growing to great wealth through its position on the Eastern caravan route.

Septimius Severus knew little of Roman history and cared less. As a non‑Roman he had no fondness for the Roman aristocracy and he disliked the favoritism that had usually been shown to Italy. One part of the empire seemed to him worth quite as much as the other. Italians had hitherto served in the praetorian guard on the theory that they alone could be trusted to protect the capital. Septimius replaced the old guard with soldiers picked out of the army, especially his own loyal Danube troops. Henceforth this powerful corps consisted mostly of Illyrian and Dacian mountaineers. He also placed an army legion on the Alban mount, stationing regular troops in Italy for the first time. The Senate received no consideration from him, and he regularly filled its number from his favorites in the army and in his personal staff. Henceforth it may be assumed that the majority in the Senate consists of Africans, Syrians, and Illyrians. He was naturally very liberal with the provincial cities of Asia and Africa, which had hitherto received less recognition than those of the Western provinces. Alexandria, a conglomerate of semi-Greeks, Egyptians and Jews, now received autonomy, and all its peoples were given an equal share in its government. Many eastern  p533 cities like Palmyra, Damascus, Tyre, and Laodicea were accorded citizenship and dignified with the privileges of honorary colonies.

Septimius seems to have adopted the old Ptolemaic policy of permitting soldiers to marry and have their homes outside of the barracks. This was in some measure accountable for the fact that in succeeding reigns the troops got out of hand more and more. His persecution of senators also affected economic conditions adversely. The large latifundia which he confiscated he set apart as a "private estate" of the emperor, which greatly increased the extent of the imperial lands and gave the emperor vast financial resources. The old public treasury (aerarium), under the control of the Senate, had now but an insignificant place in the finances of the empire.

For one act at least Rome could be grateful. Ignorant of law, though he insisted upon being considered the head of the judicial system, Septimius elevated Papinian, a very learned and keen jurist, into the highest office at his disposal, the prefecture of the praetorian cohort. As we have seen, this position had come to carry with it the chief seat at the imperial privy council. Papinian in his law studies had drunk deep in the great legal authorities of the Republic. He had the assimilative powers and clear intellect that made it possible for him to comprehend the tendencies of Roman law and to put his decisions into very brief and effective form, and he had the sincere sympathy for the provincials (he seems to have been a Syrian) that made it possible for him to adapt the old principles to the new needs of the empire at large. The civil code in its final form owed very much to Papinian and his two pupils, Ulpian and Paulus.

Septimius destined his two sons by Julia Domna to be his successors. Bassianus, later named Aurelius, now generally known by the nickname Caracalla, and Geta, soon slain by his brother. On the well-known Arch of Severus  p534 which still stands in the Roman forum in front of the old Senate-house the names of the father and the elder son appear with all the titles that they bore in the year 202. The name of Geta had also been inscribed at first but was erased at the command of Caracalla and the space filled in with harmless verbiage. The inscription now reads as follows:

Imp. Caes. Lucio Septimio M. fil. Severo Pio Pertinaci Aug. patri patriae, Parthico Arabico et Parthico Adiabenico, pontific. maximo, tribunic. potest. XI, imp. XI, cos. III, procos., et imp. Caes. M. Aurelio L. fil. Antonino Aug. Pio Felici, tribunic. potest. VI, cos. procos., (p.p. optimis fortissimisque principibus) ob rem publicam restitutam imperiumque populi Romani propagatum insignibus virtutibus eorum domi forisque, S. P. Q. R.

The chief function of the Senate, it appears, had now come to be the voting of honorary monuments with such fulsome inscriptions to hated emperors. It will be noticed that Septimius was eager to get the suggestion of a respectable pedigree into his name. It was for that reason that he adopted the cognomen Pertinax, that he called himself M. fil., as though he were a son of Marcus Aurelius, and that he changed the name of his son, Bassianus, a Syrian priestly title, to that of Rome's most honored emperor.

"Caracalla," (M. Aurelius Antoninus), 211‑217 A.D. Septimius died at Eboracum (York) in England in 211, while stemming a dangerous raid of Caledonians and superintending the rebuilding of the old wall. His sons were with him at the time, and he commended both of them to the army, though he knew that there was deadly hatred between the brothers, and that, since officials in the state were already dividing their support between them, a civil war was more than likely. Julia did her best to bring about harmony, but to no purpose. Caracalla, with a tiger's conscience, had his young brother cut down in his mother's arms. He proceeded to hunt down all those whom he suspected of having preferred Geta, and Dio, who lived  p535 through that reign of terror, vouches for the fact that 20,000 men were murdered.

It was in this same year of unsurpassed cruelty (212) that Caracalla took the step, which Severus had doubtless planned, of giving by the Constitutio Antoniniana citizenship to all free-born people throughout the vast empire. Had this remarkable gift to the provincials been made by any but the most brutal of all emperors, we might know how to gauge the state of general culture by it. But Caracalla certainly did not take the step after careful consideration of whether the people were ready for it, nor did he do anything toward making it a success. Indeed, he murdered in a fit of anger his one far‑seeing jurist, Papinian, in the very year when he most needed his aid. It was doubtless as the son of a Punic father and of a Syrian mother that he ordered all provincials to become Romans. It was his method of telling the Romans that he was as good as they. But, as Dio noted, the treasury benefitted not a little from the act, for it imposed upon all the world the inheritance tax (which he raised from 5 per cent to 10 per cent). This tax had originally been placed by Augustus upon citizens only, for unless they owned provincial tithe-land, they had been practically tax‑exempt. To impose this tax upon the provincials, who were already subject to the tithe, was to make Roman citizenship a burden.

The most important consequence of the new Constitutio was that it spread the application of Roman law. Roman governors, who held court for Roman citizens, henceforth had jurisdiction over nearly all the inhabitants of the empire, and the native courts of the cities must have quite generally disappeared. It therefore became necessary for all lawyers throughout this realm to study Roman law; and it was to meet this new need for legal equipment that Papinian's pupils, Ulpian, Paulus, and Modestinus, the last great jurists, wrote their excellent commentaries on all phases of Rome's old law.

 p536  Caracalla also tried to revise the coinage, but only succeeded in adding new confusion. Commodus had debased the silver coins to the point where they were at least one‑half alloy. The trick had, of course, been discovered and the value of the coins dropped accordingly. Septimius had done nothing to improve the situation. Indeed, it was impossible to bring the coins back to their old‑time weights, since the silver mines were exhausted, and silver was constantly going out of the empire to pay for Chinese, Indian, and Arabian ware. Caracalla at first attempted to reëstablish old ratios between gold and silver by issuing a new coin, the "Antoninianus," in the place of the debased denarius. It weighed about 50 per cent more than the denarius, but it also was immediately debased with alloy, so that it is difficult to see what he accomplished except temporarily to deceive the recipients. As it was, Rome now had two standard coins of uncertain content and varying value. Had the denarius been reduced honestly to meet the corresponding rise in the price of silver, and had the ratio been announced and kept stable, business need not have suffered. It was the deception on the part of the government that confused the world of trade, and finally drove out gold as well, since foreign trade, refusing to accept the deceptive silver coins, demanded gold in return for goods.

In 213 Caracalla had to go to the North to stem German attacks which were now coming on with ever greater frequency. We know little about this war except that the emperor succeeded in driving the invading Alamanni back from Raetia, and that the cowed Senate immediately gave him the cognomen Germanicus Maximus. In the next year he went to the East, where he paraded as a second Alexander the Great, supporting his boast by refashioning the legions into Macedonian phalanxes. While having his army trained for a projected expedition to the far East he visited Egypt. There he avenged himself on the  p537 Alexandrians in the most beastly fashion for their scorn of him. Thousands of youths were invited out to the parade grounds, surrounded by his soldiers, and massacred. He began his Eastern expedition by inviting the king of Armenia to a conference and having him treacherously arrested. But his end was not far off. Macrinus, his praetorian prefect, having discovered that he also was doomed, acted first and had one of his soldiers strike the emperor down. Macrinus, a Moorish soldier, who was not even a member of the Senate, was elected emperor by the army. Caracalla had mis‑ruled the empire for six years.

Macrinus had no children of former emperors to fear since Caracalla had destroyed all possible rivals, but knowing that Julia Maesa, the sister of Julia Domna, was an ambitious and domineering woman, he ordered her to depart from Rome. She went home to Emesa, where she was most able to create mischief; for there she had two daughters and by them two grandsons whom she proceeded to groom for the throne at Rome. The family tree appears thus:

[image ALT: A genealogical chart showing Bassianus (priest of Baal) at the top, and two children, Julia Domna and Julia Maesa. Julia Domna married Severus (reigned 193‑211) and had two children, Caracalla (reigned 211‑217) and Geta (reigned 211‑212). The younger sister, Julia Maesa, had two children, Julia Soaemias and Mamaea. Julia Soaemias had one child, Elagabalus (reigned 218‑222), and the younger child mamaea had one child, Alexander Severus (reigned 222‑235). It is a family tree of the severan emperors in ancient Rome.]

No one but Julia Maesa could have invented any claim to the Roman throne for either of these Syrian lads. Elagabalus (Heliogabalus), the older, was only sixteen years of age, and was now engaged in filling his inherited office as highpriest of the Sun God of Emesa, whose image was a  p538 shapeless meteoric stone, and whose cult was as wildly orgiastic as Arab imagination could make it. But Maesa longed to get back to the palace, and she had great wealth, procured in the days when her sister was empress. This she and Elagabalus used to bribe the Roman legion, more than half Syrian, which was stationed outside the city of Emesa. To establish an apparent claim to the throne Soaemias was induced to make the modest admission that Caracalla was the boy's father. Macrinus meanwhile was proving his unfitness for the throne which he had seized; for in his expedition against the Parthians he suffered defeat and disgusted his army by purchasing peace at great cost. He had not been emperor more than a year when Maesa induced the Roman legion at Emesa to revolt and declare in favor of Elagabalus. In the battle, which took place near Antioch, Maesa herself led the charge. The disgusted troops of Macrinus offered no great resistance when their leader proved a coward and ran. Thus the Syrian highpriest captured the throne of the Roman empire from the Moorish centurion.

Elagabalus, 218-222 A.D. The reign of the next four years was a variety show with an empire as stage. Any clown from a circus would have bettered the part of the chief actor. While the emperor assumed the name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus in support of the shameful claim of his mother, he continued to be known by name of the fetish he had worshiped, and which he now brought to Rome. For the black stone of Emesa he erected a temple on the Palatine; it became the supreme deity of the Empire and the emperor continued to be its priest. Knowing nothing about the affairs of state and distrustful of his own judgment, he took his grandmother with him as his adviser to the sessions of the Senate. His favorites became ministers of state. The highest praefectures of the city were filled by an actor, an acrobat, a charioteer, and a barber. There is no profit in rehearsing the tale of the  p539 preposterous festivals, the Oriental orgies in honor of the new god, the marriage of the black stone to the Palladium of Rome, and the emperor's own marriage to a vestal virgin. Even Rome and the barbarous praetorian guard were finally nauseated, and Maesa, to save her position, had to induce the emperor to adopt his cousin Alexander — then a boy of twelve — so that in case of a general revolt she might still have a descendant in power. Elagabalus, soon suspecting that Alexander was intended to supplant him, tried to have him murdered. This hastened the revolt. The guards stormed the palace, putting the fanatic to death with his mother, and raised the boy Alexander to the throne (222 A.D.).

Alexander Severus (222‑235 A.D.) was then but little over thirteen. The Senate, therefore, appointed a commission of sixteen of their number to act with Maesa as a kind of regency. For a few years there was some semblance of order. The great lawyer Ulpian was placed in charge of the guard and in that capacity became the first minister of state. In this position, which he held for five years, his influence could only have been beneficial. The guard, however, disliked him for his strictness and eventually put him to death.

It may be to him that Rome owed a new experiment in economic and social reform, the purpose of which was to set the clogged wheels of industry going by employing labor and industrial guilds directly in the service of the state. The evils that were to be remedied were innumerable. Commerce on the high seas and on the roads was threatened because of pirates and brigands. The lawless element was increasing not only because the state failed to provide police, but also because the disruption of society put an end to the usual mode of gaining a livelihood. Civil wars, tyranny, uncertainty of life and of private property, and the collapse of the currency stopped the outlay of money in building and in trade. In other words, industrial and social anarchy of  p540 a kind that we have recently seen in Russia was rapidly coming on. And the remedy that was tried seems — though on this point we have inadequate information — to have been not wholly unlike that tried in Russia. Instead of stabilizing the currency and reëstablishing law and order, for which the state had neither the gold nor the men, it was thought best to organize the trades by governmental edict, and compel each guild to do a definite amount of work gratis for the community. The germ of this idea lay in certain experiments of the Emperor Claudius, of Trajan, and of Septimius Severus, for these emperors had, by offering insurance and immunities, tried to induce shippers, grain and oil merchants, shipbuilders, and even bakers to take over regular service in Rome's bureau of food supply. Now the state applied this idea to several trades and crafts and ordered every man engaged in the craft to join his appropriate guild, and ordered the guilds to produce their regular commodities under the supervision of state officials. It is unfortunate that we do not know the details of the organization or the success of it. We only learn that all the guilds of the annona were attached to the state service directly, that all kinds of guilds of a private character — of builders, carpenters, lumbermen — as well as of such petty tradesmen as shoemakers, potters, grocers and innkeepers were to some extent involved. Within a hundred years this state paternalism had progressed to the point where all laboring men were practically serfs.

During the reign of Alexander the municipal governments also passed through a marked change which bore serious consequences during the following century. Since commerce and trade threatened to stop, land owners found their profits diminished and taxes dropped accordingly. The state, in crying need for funds, ordered the curiales (the members of the city councils) of the municipalities to assume responsibility for the taxes of their respective districts. In fulfilling these demands the curiales often had to make up  p541 the tax deficits out of their own pockets. The office became a grievous burden instead of an honor. The time came when men refused election, and then the state imposed the office on those deemed wealthy. Eventually the difficulty of finding curiales was so great that the state in some cases imposed the burden upon criminals!

The situation on the land was also precarious. The emperor's res privata, inherited from the confiscations of Nero, Domitian, Septimius Severus and Caracalla, was immense. The state had thousands upon thousands of tenants upon whom some emperor, probably Alexander, imposed the regulation that they could not surrender their contracts or go into any other occupation. Tenants must remain on their lands and produce for the benefit of the public. The obvious step, when the children of such coloni tried to escape compulsion, was to make this occupation also hereditary, and then the tenants of the state became serfs in a real sense. But the final change in this step was not taken for another century. Of Alexander's colonial regulations we only know that he made grants of lands to soldiers of the frontier on the basis of hereditary service in the army. In other words, the children of these soldier-coloni were also to be soldier-coloni. However, there was as yet no penalty attached to refusal to serve on the part of the children except the forfeiture of the land.

The reign of Alexander Severus also marks a great change in the East which was destined to have serious consequences upon Rome's history. The Arsacid house of the Parthians, so powerful in Hadrian's day, had for some time been losing its power. In 226 Ardashir (Artaxerxes) of the house of the Sassanids of Persia, who claimed descent from the ancient Persian kings of kings, threw off the Persian yoke, proclaimed himself king of all the ancient Persian realm, and announced himself the restorer of the true Zoroastrian religion. To Rome he announced that he was lord of all the realm as far as the Aegean, and he  p542 overran Armenia and Cappadocia before the Roman army had time to act. In 231 Alexander set out with his mother to meet his new foe, summoning the Danube legions to his aid. He advanced with three armies in 232, himself leading the central one. Ardashir met the southern army first. The battle resulted in the complete annihilation of the Roman force, but Ardashir had himself suffered such losses that he hesitated to move against the other two divisions. However, he did not need to do so, for Alexander, hearing of the fate of his southern division, retreated and called back the northern army as well. The latter suffered severely on its retreat from disease and lack of food. Alexander, despite his great losses, claimed a victory and returned home to celebrate a gorgeous triumph. The Sassanid kingdom might at that time have been checked. As it was, Alexander had merely shown the Persians how feeble Rome was. The neglect of the opportunity cost Rome dear.

Alexander had no sooner reached home than he was called North. The barbarians were breaking through along the whole line. On the Danube frontier the returning troops soon restored order. But Alexander made no progress on the Rhine until he bought peace with gold. This act disgusted his soldiers, and when they heard of the arrival of Maximinus "the Thracian," the Illyrian commander, who was called in to help, they hailed him as emperor and put the faint-hearted Syrian to death. He had held the throne, with the aid of his mother and grandmother, for thirteen years. Septimius Severus, his children, and his Syrian relatives, had ruled Rome for forty‑two years and left it wholly unfit to check the enemies now rushing in.

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