Back to Chapter Listing
The last years of Galerius
were less shameful and unfortunate; and though he had filled with more glory the subordinate
of Caesar than the superior rank of Augustus, he preserved, till the moment of his death, the first place among the princes of the
Roman world. He survived his retreat from Italy about four years; and wisely relinquishing his views of universal empire, he
devoted the remainder of his life to the enjoyment of pleasure, and to the execution of some works of public utility, among
which we may distinguish the discharging into the Danube
the superfluous waters of the Lake Pelso
, and the cutting down the
immense forests that encompassed it; an operation worthy of a monarch, since it gave an extensive country to the agriculture of
his Pannonian subjects. 36
His death was occasioned by a very painful and lingering disorder. His body, swelled by an
intemperate course of life to an unwieldy corpulence, was covered with ulcers, and devoured by innumerable swarms of those
insects which have given their name to a most loathsome disease
but as Galerius
had offended a very zealous and
powerful party among his subjects, his sufferings, instead of exciting their compassion
, have been celebrated as the visible
effects of divine justice. 38
He had no sooner expired in his palace of Nicomedia, than the two emperors who were indebted
for their purple to his favors, began to collect their forces, with the intention either of disputing, or of dividing, the dominions
which he had left without a master. They were persuaded, however, to desist from the former design, and to agree in the latter.
The provinces of Asia fell to the share of Maximin, and those of Europe augmented the portion of Licinius. The Hellespont
the Thracian Bosphorus
formed their mutual boundary, and the banks of those narrow seas, which flowed in the midst of the
Roman world, were covered with soldiers, with arms, and with fortifications. The deaths of Maximian
and of Galerius
the number of emperors to four. The sense of their true interest soon connected Licinius
and Constantine; a secret alliance was
concluded between Maximin and Maxentius, and their unhappy subjects expected with terror the bloody consequences of their
inevitable dissensions, which were no longer restrained by the fear or the respect which they had entertained for Galerius
Footnote 36: Aurelius Victor, c. 40. But that lake was situated on the upper Pannonia, near the borders of Noricum; and the
province of Valeria (a name which the wife of Galerius gave to the drained country) undoubtedly lay between the Drave and the
Danube, (Sextus Rufus, c. 9.) I should therefore suspect that Victor has confounded the Lake Pelso with the Volocean
marshes, or, as they are now called, the Lake Sabaton. It is placed in the heart of Valeria, and its present extent is not less than
twelve Hungarian miles (about seventy English) in length, and two in breadth. See Severini Pannonia, l. i. c. 9.
Footnote 37: Lactantius (de M. P. c. 33) and Eusebius (l. viii. c. 16) describe the symptoms and progress of his disorder with
singular accuracy and apparent pleasure.
Footnote 38: If any (like the late Dr. Jortin, Remarks on Ecclesiastical History, vol. ii. p. 307 - 356) still delight in recording
the wonderful deaths of the persecutors, I would recommend to their perusal an admirable passage of Grotius (Hist. l. vii. p.
332) concerning the last illness of Philip II of Spain.
Footnote 39: See Eusebius, l. ix. 6, 10. Lactantius de M. P. c. 36. Zosimus is less exact, and evidently confounds Maximian
Among so many crimes and misfortunes, occasioned by the passions of the Roman princes, there is some
pleasure in discovering a single action which may be ascribed to their virtue.
In the sixth year of his reign, Constantine visited the
city of Autun, and generously remitted the arrears of tribute, reducing at the same time the proportion of their assessment from
twenty-five to eighteen thousand heads, subject to the real and personal capitation
Yet even this indulgence affords the
most unquestionable proof of the public misery. This tax was so extremely oppressive, either in itself or in the mode of
collecting it, that whilst the revenue was increased by extortion, it was diminished by despair: a considerable part of the territory
was left uncultivated; and great numbers of the provincials rather chose to live as exiles and outlaws, than to support
the weight of civil society
. It is but too probable, that the bountiful emperor relieved, by a partial act of liberality, one among the
many evils which he had caused by his general maxims of administration. But even those maxims were less the effect of choice
than of necessity. And if we except the death of Maximian
, the reign of Constantine in Gaul seems to have been the most
innocent and even virtuous period of his life.
The provinces were protected by his presence from the inroads of the barbarians
, who either dreaded or experienced his active
valor. After a signal victory over the Franks and Alemanni, several of their princes were exposed by his order to the wild beasts
in the amphitheatre of Treves, and the people seem to have enjoyed the spectacle
, without discovering, in such a treatment of
royal captives, any thing that was repugnant to the laws of nations or of humanity
. 41 *
Footnote 40: See the viiith Panegyr., in which Eumenius displays, in the presence of Constantine, the misery and the gratitude
of the city of Autun.
Footnote 41: Eutropius, x. 3. Panegyr. Veter. vii. 10, 11, 12. A great number of the French youth were
likewise exposed to the same cruel and ignominious death.
Footnote *: Yet the panegyric assumes something of an apologetic tone. Te vero Constantine, quantumlibet oderint hoses,
dum perhorrescant. Haec est enim vera virtus, ut non ament et quiescant. The orator appeals to the ancient ideal of the republic.
The virtues of Constantine were rendered more illustrious by the vices of Maxentius. Whilst the Gallic provinces enjoyed as
much happiness as the condition of the times was capable of receiving, Italy and Africa groaned under the dominion of a tyrant,
as contemptible as he was odious. The zeal of flattery and faction has indeed too frequently sacrificed the reputation of the
vanquished to the glory of their successful rivals; but even those writers who have revealed, with the most freedom and
pleasure, the faults of Constantine, unanimously confess that Maxentius was cruel, rapacious, and profligate. 42
He had the
good fortune to suppress a slight rebellion in Africa. The governor and a few adherents had been guilty; the province suffered
for their crime. The flourishing cities of Cirtha
, and the whole extent of that fertile country, were wasted by fire
and sword. The abuse of victory was followed by the abuse of law and justice. A formidable army of sycophants and delators
invaded Africa; the rich and the noble were easily convicted of a connection with the rebels; and those among them who
experienced the emperor's clemency, were only punished by the confiscation of their estates. 43
So signal a victory was
celebrated by a magnificent triumph, and Maxentius exposed to the eyes of the people the spoils and captives of a Roman
. The state of the capital was no less deserving of compassion than that of Africa. The wealth of Rome supplied an
inexhaustible fund for his vain and prodigal expenses, and the ministers of his revenue were skilled in the arts of rapine. It was
under his reign that the method of exacting a free gift from the senators was first invented; and as the sum was insensibly
increased, the pretences of levying it, a victory, a birth, a marriage, or an imperial consulship
, were proportionably multiplied.
Maxentius had imbibed the same implacable aversion to the senate, which had characterized most of the former tyrants of
Rome; nor was it possible for his ungrateful temper to forgive the generous fidelity which had raised him to the throne, and
supported him against all his enemies. The lives of the senators were exposed to his jealous suspicions, the dishonor of their
wives and daughters heightened the gratification of his sensual passions. 45
It may be presumed, that an Imperial lover was
seldom reduced to sigh in vain; but whenever persuasion proved ineffectual, he had recourse to violence; and there remains one
memorable example of a noble matron, who preserved her chastity by a voluntary death. The soldiers were the only order of
men whom he appeared to respect, or studied to please. He filled Rome and Italy with armed troops, connived at their tumults,
suffered them with impunity to plunder, and even to massacre, the defenceless people; 46
and indulging them in the same
licentiousness which their emperor enjoyed, Maxentius often bestowed on his military favorites the splendid villa, or the
beautiful wife, of a senator. A prince of such a character, alike incapable of governing, either in peace or in war, might purchase
the support, but he could never obtain the esteem, of the army. Yet his pride was equal to his other vices. Whilst he passed his
indolent life either within the walls of his palace, or in the neighboring gardens of Sallust
, he was repeatedly heard to declare,
that he alone was emperor, and that the other princes were no more than his lieutenants, on whom he had devolved the defence
of the frontier provinces, that he might enjoy without interruption the elegant luxury of the capital. Rome, which had so long
regretted the absence, lamented, during the six years of his reign, the presence of her sovereign. 47
Footnote 42: Julian excludes Maxentius from the banquet of the Caesars with abhorrence and contempt; and Zosimus (l. ii. p.
85) accuses him of every kind of cruelty and profligacy.
Footnote 43: Zosimus, l. ii. p. 83 - 85. Aurelius Victor.
Footnote 44: The passage of Aurelius Victor should be read in the
following manner: Primus instituto pessimo, munerum specie, Patres Oratores que pecuniam conferre prodigenti sibi cogeret.
Footnote 45: Panegyr. Vet. ix. 3. Euseb. Hist Eccles. viii. 14, et in Vit. Constant i. 33, 34. Rufinus, c. 17. The virtuous matron
who stabbed herself to escape the violence of Maxentius, was a Christian, wife to the praefect of the city, and her name was
Sophronia. It still remains a question among the casuists, whether, on such occasions, suicide is justifiable.
Praetorianis caedem vulgi quondam annueret, is the vague expression of Aurelius Victor. See more particular, though somewhat
different, accounts of a tumult and massacre which happened at Rome, in Eusebius, (l. viii. c. 14,) and in Zosimus, (l. ii. p. 84.)
Footnote 47: See, in the Panegyrics, (ix. 14,) a lively description of the indolence and vain pride of Maxentius. In another
place the orator observes that the riches which Rome had accumulated in a period of 1060 years, were lavished by the tyrant
on his mercenary bands; redemptis ad civile latrocinium manibus in gesserat.
Though Constantine might view the conduct of Maxentius with abhorrence, and the situation of the Romans with compassion,
we have no reason to presume that he would have taken up arms to punish the one or to relieve the other. But the tyrant of Italy
rashly ventured to provoke a formidable enemy, whose ambition had been hitherto restrained by considerations of prudence,
rather than by principles of justice. 48
After the death of Maximian
, his titles, according to the established custom, had been
erased, and his statues thrown down with ignominy
. His son, who had persecuted and deserted him when alive, effected to
display the most pious regard for his memory, and gave orders that a similar treatment should be immediately inflicted on all the
statues that had been erected in Italy and Africa to the honor of Constantine.
That wise prince, who sincerely wished to decline a war, with the difficulty and importance of which he was sufficiently
acquainted, at first dissembled the insult, and sought for redress by the milder expedient of negotiation, till he was convinced
that the hostile and ambitious designs of the Italian emperor made it necessary for him to arm in his own defence. Maxentius,
who openly avowed his pretensions to the whole monarchy
of the West, had already prepared a very considerable force to
invade the Gallic provinces on the side of Rhaetia
; and though he could not expect any assistance from Licinius
, he was flattered
with the hope that the legions of Illyricum
, allured by his presents and promises, would desert the standard of that prince, and
unanimously declare themselves his soldiers and subjects. 49
Constantine no longer hesitated. He had deliberated with
caution, he acted with vigor. He gave a private audience to the ambassadors, who, in the name of the senate and people,
conjured him to deliver Rome from a detested tyrant; and without regarding the timid remonstrances of his council, he resolved
to prevent the enemy, and to carry the war into the heart of Italy. 50
Footnote 48: After the victory of Constantine, it was universally allowed, that the motive of delivering the republic from a
detested tyrant, would, at any time, have justified his expedition into Italy. Euseb in Vi'. Constantin. l. i. c. 26. Panegyr. Vet. ix.
Footnote 49: Zosimus, l. ii. p. 84, 85. Nazarius in Panegyr. x. 7 - 13.
Footnote 50: See Panegyr. Vet. ix. 2. Omnibus fere
tuis Comitibus et Ducibus non solum tacite mussantibus, sed etiam aperte timentibus; contra consilia hominum, contra
Haruspicum monita, ipse per temet liberandae arbis tempus venisse sentires. The embassy of the Romans is mentioned only by
Zonaras, (l. xiii.,) and by Cedrenus, (in Compend. Hist. p. 370;) but those modern Greeks had the opportunity of consulting
many writers which have since been lost, among which we may reckon the life of Constantine by Praxagoras. Photius (p. 63)
has made a short extract from that historical work.
The enterprise was as full of danger as of glory; and the unsuccessful event
of two former invasions was sufficient to inspire the most serious apprehensions. The veteran troops, who revered the name of
, had embraced in both those wars the party of his son, and were now restrained by a sense of honor, as well as of
interest, from entertaining an idea of a second desertion
. Maxentius, who considered the Praetorian guard
as the firmest
defence of his throne, had increased them to their ancient establishment; and they composed, including the rest of the Italians
who were enlisted into his service, a formidable body of fourscore thousand men. Forty thousand Moors
been raised since the reduction of Africa. Even Sicily furnished its proportion of troops; and the armies of Maxentius amounted
to one hundred and seventy thousand foot and eighteen thousand horse. The wealth of Italy supplied the expenses of the war;
and the adjacent provinces were exhausted, to form immense magazines of corn and every other kind of provisions.
The whole force of Constantine consisted of ninety thousand foot and eight thousand horse; 51
and as the defence of the
required an extraordinary attention during the absence of the emperor, it was not in his power to employ above half his
troops in the Italian expedition, unless he sacrificed the public safety to his private quarrel. 52
At the head of about forty
thousand soldiers he marched to encounter an enemy whose numbers were at least four times superior to his own. But the
armies of Rome
, placed at a secure distance from danger, were enervated by indulgence and luxury. Habituated to the baths
and theatres of Rome, they took the field with reluctance, and were chiefly composed of veterans who had almost forgotten, or
of new levies who had never acquired, the use of arms and the practice of war. The hardy legions of Gaul had long defended
the frontiers of the empire against the barbarians of the North; and in the performance of that laborious service, their valor was
exercised and their discipline confirmed. There appeared the same difference between the leaders as between the armies.
or flattery had tempted Maxentius with the hopes of conquest; but these aspiring hopes soon gave way to the habits of
pleasure and the consciousness of his inexperience. The intrepid
mind of Constantine
had been trained from his earliest youth to
war, to action, and to military command.
Footnote 51: Zosimus (l. ii. p. 86) has given us this curious account of the forces on
both sides. He makes no mention of any naval armaments, though we are assured (Panegyr. Vet. ix. 25) that the war was
carried on by sea as well as by land; and that the fleet of Constantine took possession of Sardinia, Corsica, and the ports of
Footnote 52: Panegyr. Vet. ix. 3. It is not surprising that the orator should diminish the numbers with which his sovereign
achieved the conquest of Italy; but it appears somewhat singular that he should esteem the tyrant's army at no more than
Back to Chapter Listing
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. 417-423.