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Public Sale Of The Empire To Didius Julianus By The Praetorian
Guard - Clodius Albinus In Britain, Pescennius Niger In Syria, And
Septimius Severus In Pannonia, Declare Against The Murderers Of
Pertinax - Civil Wars And Victory Of Severus Over His Three
Rivals - Relaxation Of Discipline - New Maxims Of Government.
The power of the sword is more sensibly felt in an extensive monarchy
than in a small community
. It has been calculated by the
ablest politicians, that no state, without being soon exhausted, can
maintain above the hundredth part of its members in arms and
. But although this relative proportion may be uniform, the
influence of the army over the rest of the society will vary
according to the degree of its positive strength. The advantages of
and discipline cannot be exerted, unless a proper
number of soldiers are united into one body, and actuated by one soul.
With a handful of men, such a union would be ineffectual; with an
unwieldy host, it would be impracticable; and the powers of the machine
would be alike destroyed by the extreme minuteness or the excessive
weight of its springs. To illustrate this observation, we need only reflect,
that there is no superiority of natural strength
, artificial weapons, or
acquired skill, which could enable one man to keep in constant
subjection one hundred of his fellow-creatures: the tyrant of a single
town, or a small district, would soon discover that a hundred armed
followers were a weak defense against ten thousand peasants or citizens;
but a hundred thousand well-disciplined soldiers will command, with
despotic sway, ten millions of subjects; and a body of ten or fifteen
thousand guards will strike terror into the most numerous populace that
ever crowded the streets of an immense capital. The Praetorian
whose licentious fury was the first symptom and cause of the decline of
the Roman empire, scarcely amounted to the last- mentioned number
They derived their institution from Augustus
. That crafty
tyrant, sensible that laws might color, but that arms alone could
maintain, his usurped dominion, had gradually formed this powerful
body of guards, in constant readiness to protect his person, to awe the
senate, and either to prevent or to crush the first motions of rebellion. He
distinguished these favored troops by a double pay and superior
privileges; but, as their formidable aspect would at once have alarmed
and irritated the Roman
people, three cohorts only were stationed in
the capital, whilst the remainder was dispersed in the adjacent towns of
But after fifty years of peace and servitude, Tiberius
ventured on a decisive measure, which forever riveted the fetters of his
country. Under the fair pretences of relieving Italy from the heavy burden
of military quarters, and of introducing a stricter discipline among the
guards, he assembled them at Rome
, in a permanent camp,
which was fortified with skilful care, 4
placed on a commanding situation. 5
Footnote 1: They were originally nine or ten thousand
men, (for Tacitus and son are not agreed upon the subject,) divided
many cohorts. Vitellius increased them to sixteen thousand, and as far
as we can learn from inscriptions, they never afterwards sunk
much below that number. See Lipsius de magnitudine Romana, i.
Footnote 2: Sueton. in August. c. 49.
Footnote 3: Tacit. Annal. iv. 2. Sueton. in Tiber. c. 37.
Dion Cassius, l. lvii. p. 867.
Footnote 4: In the civil war between Vitellius and
Vespasian, the Praetorian camp was attacked and defended with all the
used in the siege of the best fortified cities. Tacit. Hist. iii.
Footnote 5: Close to the walls of the city, on the broad
summit of the Quirinal and Viminal hills. See Nardini Roma Antica, p.
Donatus de Roma Antiqua, p. 46.
Note: Not on both these hills: neither Donatus nor Nardini justify this
position. (Whitaker's Review. p. 13.) At the northern extremity of
this hill (the Viminal) are some considerable remains of a walled
enclosure which bears all the appearance of a Roman camp, and
therefore is generally thought to correspond with the Castra Praetoria.
Cramer's Italy 390. - M.
Such formidable servants are
necessary, but often fatal to the throne of despotism
. By thus
introducing the Praetorian guards as it were into the palace and the
senate, the emperors taught them to perceive their own strength, and the
weakness of the civil
government; to view the vices of their
masters with familiar contempt, and to lay aside that reverential awe,
which distance only, and mystery, can preserve towards an
imaginary power. In the luxurious idleness of an opulent city, their pride
was nourished by the sense of their irresistible weight; nor
was it possible to conceal from them, that the person of the sovereign,
the authority of the senate
, the public treasure, and the seat of
empire, were all in their hands. To divert the Praetorian bands from
these dangerous reflections, the firmest and best established
princes were obliged to mix blandishments with commands, rewards with
punishments, to flatter their pride, indulge their pleasures,
connive at their irregularities, and to purchase their precarious faith by a
liberal donative; which, since the elevation of Claudius
enacted as a legal claim, on the accession of every new emperor.
Footnote 6: Claudius, raised by the soldiers to the
empire, was the first who gave a donative. He gave quina dena, 120l.
Claud. c. 10: ) when Marcus, with his colleague Lucius Versus, took quiet
possession of the throne, he gave vicena, 160l. to each of
the guards. Hist. August. p. 25, (Dion, l. lxxiii. p. 1231.) We may form
some idea of the amount of these sums, by Hadrian's
complaint that the promotion of a Caesar had cost him ter millies, two
millions and a half sterling.
The advocate of the guards endeavored to justify by arguments the
power which they asserted by arms; and to maintain that,
according to the purest principles of the constitution, their consent was
essentially necessary in the appointment of an emperor. The
election of consuls, of generals, and of magistrates, however it had been
recently usurped by the senate, was the ancient and
undoubted right of the Roman people. 7
But where was the
Roman people to be found? Not surely amongst the mixed multitude of
slaves and strangers that filled the streets of Rome; a servile
as devoid of spirit as destitute
of property. The defenders of the
state, selected from the flower of the Italian youth, 8
trained in the exercise of arms and virtue
, were the genuine
of the people, and the best entitled to elect the military chief of the
republic. These assertions, however defective in reason, became
unanswerable when the fierce Praetorians increased their weight, by
throwing, like the barbarian conqueror
of Rome, their swords into
the scale. 9
Footnote 7: Cicero de Legibus, iii. 3. The first book of
Livy, and the second of Dionysiusof Halicarnassus, show the authority of
people, even in the election of the kings.
Footnote 8: They were originally recruited in Latium,
Etruria, and the old colonies, (Tacit. Annal. iv. 5.) The emperor Otho
compliments their vanity with the flattering titles of Italiae, Alumni,
Romana were juventus. Tacit. Hist. i. 84.
Footnote 9: In the siege of Rome by the Gauls. See
Livy, v. 48.
Plutarch. in Camill. p. 143.
The Praetorians had
violated the sanctity of the throne by the atrocious murder of Pertinax;
dishonored the majesty of it by their subsequent conduct. The camp was
without a leader, for even the praefect Laetus
, who had
excited the tempest, prudently declined the public indignation. Amidst
the wild disorder, Sulpicianus, the emperor's father-in-law, and
governor of the city, who had been sent to the camp on the first alarm of
mutiny, was endeavoring to calm the fury of the multitude,
when he was silenced by the clamorous return of the murderers, bearing
on a lance the head of Pertinax. Though history has
accustomed us to observe every principle and every passion yielding to
the imperious dictates of ambition, it is scarcely credible that,
in these moments of horror, Sulpicianus should have aspired to ascend a
throne polluted with the recent blood of so near a relation and
so excellent a prince. He had already begun to use the only effectual
argument, and to treat for the Imperial dignity
; but the more
prudent of the Praetorians, apprehensive that, in this private contract,
they should not obtain a just price for so valuable a commodity,
ran out upon the ramparts; and, with a loud voice, proclaimed that the
Roman world was to be disposed of to the best bidder by public
Footnote 10: Dion, L. lxxiii. p. 1234. Herodian, l. ii. p.
63. Hist. August p. 60. Though the three historians agree that it was in
auction, Herodian alone affirms that it was proclaimed as such by the
This infamous offer, the most insolent excess of military license, diffused
a universal grief, shame, and indignation throughout the city.
It reached at length the ears of Didius Julianus
, a wealthy senator, who,
regardless of the public calamities, was indulging himself in
the luxury of the table. 11
His wife and his daughter, his
freedmen and his parasites, easily convinced him that he deserved the
throne, and earnestly conjured him to embrace so fortunate an
opportunity. The vain old man hastened to the Praetorian camp, where
Sulpicianus was still in treaty with the guards, and began to bid against
him from the foot of the rampart. The unworthy negotiation
was transacted by faithful emissaries, who passed alternately from one
candidate to the other, and acquainted each of them with the
offers of his rival. Sulpicianus
had already promised a donative of five
thousand drachms (above one hundred and sixty pounds) to
each soldier; when Julian
, eager for the prize, rose at once to the sum
of six thousand two hundred and fifty drachms, or upwards of
two hundred pounds sterling. The gates of the camp were instantly
thrown open to the purchaser; he was declared emperor
received an oath of allegiance
from the soldiers, who retained
humanity enough to stipulate that he should pardon and forget the
competition of Sulpicianus. *
Footnote 11: Spartianus softens the most odious parts of
the character and elevation of Julian.
Footnote *: One of the principal causes of the
preference of Julianus by the soldiers, was the dexterity with which he
reminded them that Sulpicianus would not fail to revenge on them the
death of his son-in-law. (See Dion, p. 1234, 1234. c. 11. Herod.
ii. 6.) - W.
It was now incumbent on the Praetorians to fulfil the conditions of the
sale. They placed their new sovereign
, whom they served and
despised, in the centre of their ranks, surrounded him on every side with
their shields, and conducted him in close order of battle
through the deserted streets of the city. The senate was commanded to
assemble; and those who had been the distinguished friends of
Pertinax, or the personal enemies of Julian, found it necessary to affect a
more than common share of satisfaction at this happy
After Julian had filled the senate house with
armed soldiers, he expatiated on the freedom of his election, his own
eminent virtues, and his full assurance of the affections of the senate.
The obsequious assembly congratulated their own and the public
felicity; engaged their allegiance, and conferred on him all the several
branches of the Imperial power. 13
From the senate Julian
conducted, by the same military procession, to take possession of the
palace. The first objects that struck his eyes, were the
abandoned trunk of Pertinax, and the frugal entertainment prepared for
his supper. The one he viewed with indifference
, the other with
contempt. A magnificent feast was prepared by his order, and he amused
himself, till a very late hour, with dice, and the performances
, a celebrated dancer. Yet it was observed, that after the
crowd of flatterers dispersed, and left him to darkness, solitude,
and terrible reflection, he passed a sleepless night; revolving most
probably in his mind his own rash folly, the fate of his virtuous
predecessor, and the doubtful and dangerous tenure of an empire which
had not been acquired by merit, but purchased by money.
Footnote 12: Dion Cassius, at that time praetor, had
been a personal enemy to Julian, i. lxxiii. p. 1235.
Footnote 13: Hist. August. p. 61. We learn from thence
one curious circumstance, that the new emperor, whatever had been his
birth, was immediately aggregated to the number of patrician families.
Note: A new fragment of Dion shows some shrewdness in the
character of Julian. When the senate voted him a golden statue, he
preferred one of brass, as more lasting. He "had always observed,"
he said, "that the statues of former emperors were soon destroyed. Those
of brass alone remained." The indignant historian adds that
he was wrong. The virtue of sovereigns alone preserves their images: the
brazen statue of Julian was broken to pieces at his death.
Mai. Fragm. Vatican. p. 226. - M.
Footnote 14: Dion, l. lxxiii. p. 1235. Hist. August. p. 61. I
have endeavored to blend into one consistent story the seeming
contradictions of the two writers.
Note: The contradiction as M. Guizot observed, is irreconcilable. He
quotes both passages: in one Julianus is represented as a miser, in
the other as a voluptuary. In the one he refuses to eat till the body of
Pertinax has been buried; in the other he gluts himself with every
luxury almost in the sight of his headless remains. - M.
He had reason to tremble. On the throne of the world he found himself
without a friend, and even without an adherent. The guards
themselves were ashamed of the prince
whom their avarice
persuaded them to accept; nor was there a citizen who did not
consider his elevation with horror, as the last insult on the Roman name.
, whose conspicuous station, and ample
possessions, exacted the strictest caution, dissembled their sentiments,
and met the affected civility of the emperor with smiles of
and professions of duty. But the people, secure in their
numbers and obscurity
, gave a free vent to their passions. The
streets and public places of Rome resounded with clamors and
imprecations. The enraged multitude affronted the person of Julian,
rejected his liberality, and, conscious of the impotence of their own
resentment, they called aloud on the legions of the frontiers to
assert the violated majesty of the Roman empire. The public discontent
was soon diffused from the centre to the frontiers of the
empire. The armies of Britain
, of Syria
, and of Illyricum
the death of Pertinax, in whose company, or under whose
command, they had so often fought and conquered. They received with
surprise, with indignation, and perhaps with envy, the
extraordinary intelligence, that the Praetorians had disposed of the
empire by public auction; and they sternly refused to ratify the
ignominious bargain. Their immediate and unanimous revolt
to Julian, but it was fatal at the same time to the public peace, as
the generals of the respective armies, Clodius Albinus, Pescennius Niger,
and Septimius Severus, were still more anxious to succeed
than to revenge the murdered Pertinax
. Their forces were exactly
balanced. Each of them was at the head of three legions,
numerous train of auxiliaries; and however different in their characters,
they were all soldiers of experience and capacity.
Footnote 15: Dion, l. lxxiii. p. 1235.
, governor of Britain, surpassed both his competitors in
the nobility of his extraction, which he derived from some of
the most illustrious names of the old republic. 16
branch from which he claimed his descent was sunk into mean
circumstances, and transplanted into a remote province. It is difficult to
form a just idea of his true character. Under the philosophic
cloak of austerity
, he stands accused of concealing most of the vices
which degrade human nature. 17
But his accusers are those
venal writers who adored the fortune of Severus
, and trampled on the
ashes of an unsuccessful rival. Virtue, or the appearances of
virtue, recommended Albinus
to the confidence and good opinion of
Marcus; and his preserving with the son the same interest which
he had acquired with the father, is a proof at least that he was possessed
of a very flexible disposition. The favor of a tyrant
always suppose a want of merit
in the object of it; he may, without
intending it, reward a man of worth and ability, or he may find
such a man useful to his own service. It does not appear that Albinus
served the son of Marcus, either as the minister of his cruelties,
or even as the associate of his pleasures. He was employed in a distant
honorable command, when he received a confidential letter
from the emperor, acquainting him of the treasonable designs of some
discontented generals, and authorizing him to declare himself
the guardian and successor of the throne, by assuming the title and
ensigns of Caesar
The governor of Britain wisely
dangerous honor, which would have marked him for the jealousy, or
involved him in the approaching ruin, of Commodus.
power by nobler, or, at least, by more specious arts. On a premature
report of the death of the emperor, he assembled his troops; and,
in an eloquent discourse, deplored the inevitable mischiefs of
, described the happiness and glory which their ancestors had
enjoyed under the consular government, and declared his firm resolution
to reinstate the senate and people in their legal authority. This
was answered by the loud acclamations of the British
legions, and received at Rome with a secret murmur of
applause. Safe in the possession of his little world, and in the command
of an army less distinguished indeed for discipline than for
numbers and valor
Albinus braved the menaces of
Commodus, maintained towards Pertinax a stately ambiguous reserve,
instantly declared against the usurpation of Julian. The convulsions of
the capital added new weight to his sentiments, or rather to his
professions of patriotism. A regard to decency
induced him to decline
the lofty titles of Augustus and Emperor; and he imitated
perhaps the example of Galba
, who, on a similar occasion, had styled
himself the Lieutenant of the senate and people. 20
Footnote 16: The Posthumian and the Ce'onian; the
former of whom was raised to the consulship in the fifth year after its
Footnote 17: Spartianus, in his undigested collections,
mixes up all the virtues and all the vices that enter into the human
and bestows them on the same object. Such, indeed are many of the
characters in the Augustan History.
Footnote 18: Hist. August. p. 80, 84.
Footnote 19: Pertinax, who governed Britain a few
years before, had been left for dead, in a mutiny of the soldiers. Hist.
54. Yet they loved and regretted him; admirantibus eam virtutem cui
Footnote 20: Sueton. in
Galb. c. 10.
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To cite original text:
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
1st ed. (London : Printed for W. Strahan ; and T. Cadell, 1776-1788.), pp. 106-109.