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Chapter XXVIII

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 XXX

 p543  Chapter XXIX

Fifty Years of Anarchy

It would profit little to rehearse the story that late gossipy chroniclers have told of the brigands who murdered each other for the throne during the next fifty years. Their names are not worth remembering; and we are not informed about the general conditions of the empire, a matter of far more interest. Throughout the period Rome is not even the capital of the empire in any real sense. The armies are the potential centers of the empire, and the government is the general who for a season can get his particular army of barbarians to acclaim him emperor and in return for gold or loyalty whip every other army that dares support a rival. Needless to say the armies were meanwhile beating themselves to pieces.

Maximinus (235 A.D.) at least restored the northern frontier and kept it safe for three years. But he was hated and dreaded by all. Gordian, the proconsul of Africa was, therefore, recognized by the Senate, and his son was designated to be his successor, but the African army killed them both. Then the Senate recognized Pupienus, once general of the Rhine army, and Balbinus, an ex‑consul. Maximinus was killed by his own troops while marching down to suppress these interlopers; and they in turn were slain by the praetorian guard. The guard then chose Gordian III, a boy of fourteen, for the giant's task of stemming the dread Goths who, as well as the Persians, now appeared on the scene. A Syrian general succeeded in stopping the Goths; Gordian marched east against the Persians. His general here was Philip, the son of an Arab sheik, who  p544 put his emperor to death (244) and reigned in his stead. Four years later the Arab emperor led Rome in a magnificent celebration of her one‑thousandth anniversary, when the heralds proclaimed the return of the Golden Age. The very next year Decius, the Illyrian, revolted, put the Arabian to death, and took his place.

Now the Goths came down in hordes. They had long been moving southward from their Baltic homes. It seems indeed that it was pressure exerted by their movements that had thrown the frontier tribes into nervous commotion in the days of Marcus Aurelius. Meanwhile they had rested in lower Russia, where they had adopted some of the Iranian customs from the Sarmatian tribes which they absorbed. The eastern portions of the tribe (the Ostrogoths) now broke over the Danube, devastating much of Thrace and Macedonia. It is said, for instance, that when they took Philippopolis they put its 100,000 inhabitants to the sword. Decius tried battle with them twice, only to be defeated. In the second battle he was slain (251). Trebonianus, the Gaul, who was governor of Moesia, succeeded to the throne, and bought peace from the Goths by a pledge of a yearly tribute. Meanwhile the dread pestilence swept over the empire again, and it raged unchecked for fifteen years.

In 253 Aemilius, a Moorish general, defeated and slew the Gaul to claim his throne, but he in turn was slain by his own troops.

Then Valerianus, a general of Thracian descent, claimed the crown and called his son Gallienus to share his power with him. Their eventful joint-rule began in 253 when enemies were breaking into the empire at every point. That they lost more than half the empire was perhaps not their fault, for they received shattered and undisciplined armies from their predecessors, and the plague had weakened the morale of the remnant they had. Valerian left his son to care for the West while he marched to the  p545 East where Shapur (or Sapor), now king of kings, was advancing to the Aegean. Valerian arrived to find Antioch, the capital of Syria, in the enemy's hands. He forced Shapur to retreat, but was eventually defeated and taken prisoner (258 A.D.). All of Asia seemed now definitely lost, for Gallienus, already suffering similar defeats in the West, could not come to the rescue. Meanwhile the Ostrogoths seized all the ships on the Black Sea, invaded Bithynia and Pontus, plundering and burning the great cities of Nicomedia and Nicaea. There were no armies to send to the rescue, for Gallienus was hopelessly beaten back in the West. The Franks — we now hear of them for the first time — crossed the Rhine far to the North, and marched through Gaul and deep into Spain. The Gallic commander engaged them successfully once, but was compelled to let them stay for the present. All he could do was to fortify the Rhine to prevent new hosts from following. The Alamanni meanwhile took possession of the agri decumates, which were never again recovered, and advanced down the Rhone and into Italy. These at least Gallienus defeated near Milan (259).

While Gallienus was busy suppressing revolts in the Danube army, Postumus, the governor of Gaul, also rebelled, setting himself up as emperor, not of Rome, however, but of an Imperium Galliarum (259). Gallienus hastened back to recover the West, but was defeated. Postumus organized a full-fledged government on the Roman model, with senate, consuls, and all the useless apparatus. Though on his coins he recognized the Celtic Hercules as supreme deity, it is not to be supposed that his government was in any way an expression of Celtic nationalism. Such sentiments had long since ceased to be a vital force. Postumus had in fact only carved out a kingdom for himself which he thought could be held together without unreasonable effort, and he received the support of the natives because he was able to check barbarian invasions more  p546 successfully than the emperor. It can hardly be denied that his rule over Gaul and Spain during ten years of terrible invasions was beneficial to the empire, for he held the West together against a better day.

The East was ultimately saved for the empire by a similar act of treason. After the defeat and capture of Valerian, Shapur had proceeded to take city after city in Syria and Cilicia. Then it was that Odaenathus of Palmyra, the oasis city which Septimius had prospered, gathered the scattered fragments of the Roman armies together, built up a strong force and pounced upon the Persian army as it was peacefully marching homewards. Odaenathus was then recognized as Rome's "commander of the East," to which title he presently added those of "King of Palmyra" and "Imperator." Since Gallienus could not possibly assert Rome's position in the East, he acquiesced in the usurpation. And when Odaenathus was killed in 266, his wife, the far‑famed queen Zenobia, raised her son Vaballathus to the throne and presently sent her generals to sweep the province of Egypt into her great empire. All this was, of course, dark news for Rome, but it proved later to have been a blessing in disguise, since the Euphrates boundary was for the time being protected by a power which was able and willing to guard the social and economic interests of the region.

Gallienus had apparently lost more than half the empire and he could not even protect the Danube front which was still left to him. In his closing years the Goths again used the sea route, this time coming boldly out into the Mediterranean. They took Ephesus in 263 and even laid siege to Athens in 267. The Athenians, however, led by the historian Dexippus, were able to protect themselves. The Herulian chief who led the expedition was bought off from raiding Thrace by a high position in Rome's service, including the Roman consul­ship. Gallienus in fact advanced very far in the dangerous policy of buying the services of  p547 the chieftains he could not subdue. Perhaps it was the only way he had of building up the army again, weakened as it was by many defeats and by the plague. At any rate, he invested heavily in buying barbarian cavalry forces, which now began to predominate in the army and which his successor used with excellent effect. Of his internal policy there is but little known, except that he vigorously promoted autocracy at the expense of the Senate. Henceforth, senators were not chosen to lead armies or govern provinces; in fact, several of the preceding emperors had chosen whom they would, but had at least recognized the old custom by according senatorial rank as a preliminary step to the command. Now even this farce was dispensed with. Noble rank was henceforth recognized not by the name "senator," but by the title "protector divini lateris," "protector of His Divine Person."

Gallienus met his death, as had so many other emperors, through a mutiny in the army, which seemed weary of his futile campaigns. He was killed in 268 and Claudius, an Illyrian officer, was elevated to his place by the Danube army, the only army now in Rome's service.

Claudius began well with an extremely difficult task. He met the Alamanni who were again pouring into Italy over the Brenner Pass, defeated them and drove them back home. The Goths were again roaming over Macedonia with a horde estimated by a panegyrical writer at about 300,000. Claudius whipped them thoroughly at Nish in Servia, slew 50,000, it is said, and took a great many captives whom he planted as half-free colonists in the provinces. He well deserved the name Gothicus which the Senate and later history gave him, for it is not at all unlikely that, but for the victory at Nish, the Gothic conquests of Italy might have come a century too soon. It was while Claudius was thus occupied that the daring queen of Palmyra threw off the Roman yoke completely — Claudius had refused to recognize her state as independent — declared her son Emperor  p548 of the East, and took possession of Egypt. Before Claudius had time to answer this challenge as he desired he died, a victim of the plague. He was the only one of the twenty‑six emperors of this period of anarchy who escaped a violent death.

Aurelian, the son of an Illyrian peasant (270‑75), was chosen by the army, which for once did well. The new emperor, unable to go to the east, at once recognized most of Zenobia's claims on an agreement that she and Vaballathus in return recognize the sovereignty of the Roman emperor. Then he took in hand the boundary question, defeated the Juthungi, who had descended to Italy by the Brenner Pass, and the next year met the Vandals with equal success in Pannonia. While he was thus occupied the Juthungi secured the aid of the Alamanni and invaded Italy again. This time Aurelian was completely overwhelmed in a surprise attack by night. The defeat threw the state into a turmoil. Several rivals at once claimed the throne. Zenobia declared the complete independence of the East, and riots of the mint workers at Rome threw the city into confusion. Meanwhile the Germans plundered the rich cities of the Po valley and moved southward along the coast toward Rome. Aurelian was, however, equal to the occasion. He hurried to Rome and called upon all men of Italy to come to the rescue of their threatened homes. With this hastily raised army, chiefly of recruits, he beat back the barbarians at the river Metaurus, followed them up and annihilated them on the Ticinus River. Then he returned to Rome, called out all the guilds of the city and set them at the task of building that amazing brick wall about the city which still inspires the visitor with admiration. The riot of the freedmen employed in the mint was typical of conditions than prevailing. It had broken out when Aurelian, learning that the mint workers were robbing the treasury by issuing coins below standard, had closed the mint. The freedmen called upon their friends, took up  p549 arms and fortified themselves for the purpose of holding the treasury. It was only by the use of a strong force that the emperor could dislodge them. Thousands are said to have been slain in the riot.

Having saved Rome and secured the boundary he went to the East to bring Zenobia to terms. Egypt had already been restored to Rome by the efforts of its prefect. Aurelian met Zenobia's forces near Antioch, out‑maneuvered them and compelled them to retreat to Emesa. There he won a signal but costly victory. He must now invest Palmyra, protected by seventy miles of desert and a strong wall. One marvels how such large armies were so successfully moved in those days through the waterless wastes of Syria. After a long siege Zenobia tried to escape but was captured. The city then surrendered and Aurelian proved himself somewhat above the barbarian crew from which he had sprung by saving the city​1 as he saved the queen.

It was on this occasion also that Aurelian demonstrated his understanding of Roman traditions by undertaking to settle a dispute between two claimants to the bishop's chair at Antioch, each charging the other with heresy. The emperor, though no friend of Christianity, adopted the principle that the one who could prove that he was acceptable to the bishop at Rome should be recognized.

Aurelian was by no means inclined to be friendly to Christianity. On his return from the East he had erected a magnificent temple to Mithras, the sun god, and Mithraic worshipers were particularly hostile to the new religion. This dedication was probably more than a gesture of friendliness to the eastern soldiers of his army, for on his coins he stamped the legend Sol, Dominus Imperi Romani, which seems to imply that he meant to make Mithraism the official religion of the Empire. The secret of his adoption of this Oriental religion seems to be an inherited devotion to the cult, for his biographer tells us that his mother was  p550 a priestess of the temple of the sun in his native village. The tale is plausible, for, as we have seen, Trajan had settled many Orientals in Dacia. This religion would naturally make a strong appeal to an emperor like Aurelian who favored absolutism, since it preached the doctrine of the East that the ruler was the god's incarnation. It was, therefore, consistent with the tenets of this faith that he first insisted on being addressed as "Deus et Dominus." Such a claim must eventually have brought him into serious conflict with Christianity had he lived.

Before Aurelian celebrated his triumph he determined to win back the Imperium Galliarum also. The task was not difficult since Postumus had died, and his successors had proved incapable of holding the "Empire" together. It required only one battle, not very hotly contested, since the general opposing him had already agreed to desert his post. Now Aurelian could return to Rome and claim to have restored the empire. The coins struck on the occasion of his triumph (274) bear the legend "Restitutor Orbis." Zenobia was shown in the procession as a captive, but otherwise she was treated with the respect she deserved and allowed to spend the rest of her days as she liked in the beautiful city of Tibur.

In Aurelian's internal policies we find little to match the imagination he showed in military affairs. He was logical enough in centralizing the government in his own hands: the Senate was even deprived of the petty sign of participation in the government that was implied in their stamping S(enatus) C(onsulto) on the copper asses. But this act was perhaps more a consequence of his temper than of his reasoning. There was logic also in his abandonment of Dacia. Trajan's colonists were probably glad enough to leave their constantly devastated lands for others which the emperor allotted them south of the Danube.

What needed drastic remedies were the state budget and the currency. The standard coin, the denarius, had in the  p551 days of Augustus been worth in average modern metal values about 16 cents. Nero had debased it to about 12 cents in value. The century that followed had brought it to about 8 cents. Caracalla's denarius was seldom worth 5 cents, and as we have seen he had issued a new and larger coin, the Antoninianus, with which he was able to practise new tricks of deception. Then came the desperate period of revolutions which Aurelian did something to stop. This had played havoc with the denarius. Each new tyrant had promised lavish donations to the army in return for his position, and then finding the treasury empty and taxes on the decrease had resorted to the expedient of paying the promised amount in coins of about half the existing value. The result was that the denarius was now a thin plate of copper merely washed with silver, and in exchange for gold its value was less than half a cent. One can imagine what was the condition of finances, especially of credits and trust funds. For instance the original sixteen dollars worth of denarii payable annually to the poor children in Italian cities under the great trust fund of Nerva and Trajan were now worth about forty cents. One could not support a child very long on such a trifle. This will illustrate what had happened to credits. Aurelian did nothing of value to remedy the evil. He merely multiplied the taxes by eight on the plea that since the denarius was now worth only one‑eighth of what it had been twenty years before, the government, in order to run, must have eight times as many denarii. His calculation was correct, but since it was the government that had profited by the cheapening of the coin year by year and every cheapening had destroyed that much of the accumulated private capital, the government should at least have cut down its expenses and assured business of a somewhat sounder standard. The taxes on the new basis were confiscatory, and the people were in despair. It is from this time on that we hear of orders from the government that the municipal senates must make  p552 up the deficit of taxes levied on deserted farms, and also of general orders that land owners in the provinces must take up deserted farms that adjoin theirs (epibole) and produce enough to pay the taxes on them. Unfortunately Aurelian did not cut down imperial expenses. Laboring under the old vicious theory that the people of the capital must be kept from rioting at all costs (a theory that several European capitals adopted during the Great War), he spent more lavishly than ever on the annona. And having such trade-guilds as the bakers and butchers organized under state control, he had the distribution made not in the form of wheat, but in that of two‑pound loaves of bread, slices of pork, together with salt and oil.

Aurelian was murdered in 275 by his private secretary, a freedman whom he had offended, and another period of short-term rulers ensued for a while. Since his soldiers were devoted to him, they honored him by asking the Senate to choose a worthy successor. The Senate naturally selected an elderly and respectable senator who promised to restore their dignities to some extent, but this man, Claudius Tacitus, was also put to death shortly. The Syrian army then claimed the position for Probus, a sturdy Illyrian soldier, who succeeded in keeping the boundaries intact for several years, till he too was murdered (282) by his officers. Carus, another Illyrian, was elected by his army. On his early death he left his position to his two sons, but the army found (284) a more congenial man in Diocletian, the prefect of the guard, who accepted the honor and beat the armies of the two heirs of Carus into submission. Diocletian's reign marks a new epoch in Rome's declining career.

The Author's Note:

1 Palmyra revolted later and Aurelian then returned and destroyed it.

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