Back to Chapter Listing
The good sense of Vespasian engaged him indeed to embrace every measure that might confirm his recent and precarious elevation. The military oath, and the fidelity of the troops, had been consecrated, by the habits of a hundred years, to the name and family of the Caesar
s; and although that family had been continued only by the fictitious rite of adoption, the Romans still revered, in the person of Nero, the grandson of Germanicus, and the lineal successor of Augustus
. It was not without reluctance and remorse, that the praetorian guards had been persuaded to abandon the cause of the tyrant. 34
downfall of Galba, Otho, and Vitellus, taught the armies to consider the emperors as the creatures of their will, and the instruments of their license. The birth of Vespasian was mean: his
grandfather had been a private soldier, his father a petty officer of the revenue; 35
his own merit had raised him, in an advanced age, to the Empire
; but his merit was rather useful than
shining, and his virtues were disgraced by a strict and even sordid parsimony. Such a prince consulted his true interest by the association of a son, whose more splendid and amiable character
might turn the public attention from the obscure origin, to the future glories, of the Flavian house. Under the mild administration of Titus, the Roman world enjoyed a transient felicity, and
his beloved memory served to protect, above fifteen years, the vices of his brother Domitian
note 34: This idea is frequently and strongly inculcated by Tacitus. See Hist. i. 5, 16, ii.
note 35: The emperor Vespasian, with his usual good sense, laughed at the genealogists, who deduced his family from Flavius, the founder of Reate, (his native country,) and one of the
companions of Hercules Suet in Vespasian, c. 12.
Nerva had scarcely accepted the purple from the assassins of Domitian
, before he discovered that his feeble age was unable to stem the torrent of public disorders, which had multiplied under
the long tyranny of his predecessor. His mild disposition was respected by the good; but the degenerate Romans required a more vigorous character, whose justice should strike terror into the
guilty. Though he had several relations, he fixed his choice on a stranger. He adopted Trajan
, then about forty years of age, and who commanded a powerful army in the Lower Germany; and
immediately, by a decree of the Senate
, declared him his colleague and successor in the Empire
It is sincerely to be lamented, that whilst we are fatigued with the disgustful relation of
Nero's crimes and follies, we are reduced to collect the actions of Trajan
from the glimmerings of an abridgment, or the doubtful light of a panegyric. There remains, however, one panegyric
far removed beyond the suspicion of flattery. Above two hundred and fifty years after the death of Trajan
, the Senate
, in pouring out the customary acclamations on the accession of a new
emperor, wished that he might surpass the felicity of Augustus
, and the virtue of Trajan
note 36: Dion, l. lxviii. p. 1121. Plin. Secund. in Panegyric.
note 37: Felicior Augusto, Melior Trajano. Eutrop. viii. 5.
We may readily believe, that the father of his country
hesitated whether he ought to entrust the various and doubtful character of his kinsman Hadrian
with sovereign power. In his last moments the arts of the empress Plotina either fixed the
irresolution of Trajan
, or boldly supposed a fictitious adoption; 38
the truth of which could not be safely disputed, and Hadrian
was peaceably acknowledged as his lawful successor. Under
his reign, as has been already mentioned, the Empire
flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in
person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy
. But the ruling passions of his soul were curiosity and vanity. As
they prevailed, and as they were attracted by different objects, Hadrian
was, by turns, an excellent prince, a ridiculous sophist, and a jealous tyrant. The general tenor of his conduct deserved
praise for its equity and moderation. Yet in the first days of his reign, he put to death four consular senator
s, his personal enemies, and men who had been judged worthy of Empire
; and the
tediousness of a painful illness rendered him, at last, peevish and cruel. The Senate
doubted whether they should pronounce him a god or a tyrant; and the honors decreed to his memory were
granted to the prayers of the pious Antoninus. 39
note 38: Dion (l. lxix. p. 1249) affirms the whole to have been a fiction, on the authority of his father, who, being governor of the province where Trajan died, had very good
opportunities of sifting this mysterious transaction. Yet Dodwell (Praelect. Camden. xvii.) has maintained that Hadrian was called to the certain hope of the Empire, during the lifetime of
note 39: Dion, (l. lxx. p. 1171.) Aurel. Victor.
The caprice of Hadrian
influenced his choice of a successor. After revolving in his mind several men of distinguished merit, whom he esteemed and hated, he adopted Aelius Verus a gay and voluptuous nobleman, recommended by uncommon beauty to the lover of Antinous. 40
But whilst Hadrian
was delighting himself with his own applause, and the acclamations of the soldiers, whose consent had been secured by an immense
donative, the new Caesar 41
was ravished from his embraces by an untimely death. He left only one son. Hadrian
commended the boy to the gratitude of the Antonines. He was adopted by
Pius; and, on the accession of Marcus, was invested with an equal share of sovereign power. Among the many vices of this younger Verus, he possessed one virtue; a dutiful reverence for his
wiser colleague, to whom he willingly abandoned the ruder cares of Empire
. The philosophic emperor dissembled his follies, lamented his early death, and cast a decent veil over his
note 40: The deification of Antinous, his medals, his statues, temples, city, oracles, and constellation, are well known, and still dishonor the memory of Hadrian. Yet we may remark,
that of the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct. For the honors of Antinous, see Spanheim, Commentaire sui les Caesars de Julien, p.
note 41: Hist. August. p. 13. Aurelius Victor in Epitom.
As soon as Hadrian
's passion was either gratified or disappointed, he resolved to deserve the thanks of posterity, by placing the most exalted merit on the Roman throne. His discerning eye easily discovered a senator
about fifty years of age, clueless in all the offices of life; and a youth of about seventeen, whose
riper years opened a fair prospect of every virtue: the elder of these was declared the son and successor of Hadrian
, on condition, however, that he himself should immediately adopt the
younger. The two Antonines (for it is of them that we are now peaking,) governed the Roman world forty-two years, with the same invariable spirit of wisdom and virtue. Although Pius had
two sons, 42
he preferred the welfare of Rome
to the interest of his family, gave his daughter Faustina, in marriage to young Marcus, obtained from the Senate
the tribunitian and Proconsul
powers, and, with a noble disdain, or rather ignorance of jealousy, associated him to all the labors of government. Marcus, on the other hand, revered the character of his benefactor, loved him
as a parent, obeyed him as his sovereign, 43
and, after he was no more, regulated his own administration by the example and maxims of his predecessor. Their united reigns are possibly the
only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.
note 42: Without the help of medals and inscriptions, we should be ignorant of this fact, so honorable to the memory of Pius. Note: Gibbon attributes to Antoninus Pius a merit which
he either did not possess, or was not in a situation to display.
1. He was adopted only on the condition that he would adopt, in his turn, Marcus Aurelius and L. Verus.
2. His two sons died children, and one of them, M. Galerius, alone, appears to have survived, for a few years, his father's coronation. Gibbon is also mistaken when he says (note 42) that
"without the help of medals and inscriptions, we should be ignorant that Antoninus had two sons." Capitolinus says expressly, (c. 1,) Filii mares duo, duae-foeminae; we only owe their
names to he medals. Pagi. Cont. Baron, i. 33, edit Paris. - W.
note 43: During the twenty-three years of Pius's reign, Marcus was only two nights absent from the palace, and even
those were at different times. Hist. August. p. 25.
Titus Antoninus Pius has been justly denominated a second Numa. The same love of religion, justice, and peace, was the distinguishing characteristic of both princes. But the situation of
the latter opened a much larger field for the exercise of those virtues. Numa could only prevent a few neighboring villages from plundering each other's harvests. Antoninus diffused order and
tranquillity over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the
crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. In private life, he was an amiable, as well as a good man. The native simplicity of his virtue was a stranger to vanity or affectation. He enjoyed
with moderation the conveniences of his fortune, and the innocent pleasures of society; 44
and the benevolence
of his soul displayed itself in a cheerful serenity
note 44: He
was fond of the theatre, and not insensible to the charms of the fair sex. Marcus Antoninus, i. 16. Hist. August. p. 20, 21. Julian in Caesar.
The virtue of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was of severer and more laborious kind. 45
It was the well-earned harvest of many a learned conference, of many a patient lecture, and many a
midnight lucubration. At the age of twelve years he embraced the rigid system of the Stoics, which taught him to submit his body to his mind, his passions to his reason; to consider virtue
as the only good, vice as the only evil, all things external as things indifferent. 46
His meditations, composed in the tumult of the camp, are still extant; and he even condescended to give
lessons of philosophy, in a more public manner than was perhaps consistent with the modesty of sage, or the dignity
of an emperor. 47
But his life was the noblest commentary on the
precepts of Zeno
. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind. He regretted that Avidius Cassius
, who excited a rebellion in Syria,
had disappointed him, by a voluntary death, *
of the pleasure of converting an enemy into a friend;; and he justified the sincerity of that sentiment, by moderating the zeal of the Senate
against the adherents of the traitor. 48
War he detested, as the disgrace and calamity of human nature; !!
but when the necessity of a just defence called upon him to take up arms, he readily
exposed his person to eight winter campaigns, on the frozen banks of the Danube, the severity of which was at last fatal to the weakness of his constitution. His memory was revered by a
grateful posterity, and above a century after his death, many persons preserved the image of Marcus Antoninus among those of their household gods. 49
note 45: The enemies of Marcus charged him with hypocrisy, and with a want of that simplicity which distinguished Pius and even Verus. (Hist. August. 6, 34.) This suspicions,
unjust as it was, may serve to account for the superior applause bestowed upon personal qualifications, in preference to the social virtues. Even Marcus Antoninus has been called a hypocrite;
but the wildest scepticism never insinuated that Caesar might probably be a coward, or Tully a fool. Wit and valor are qualifications more easily ascertained than humanity or the love of
note 46: Tacitus has characterized, in a few words, the principles of the portico: Doctores sapientiae secutus est, qui sola bona quae honesta, main tantum quae turpia; potentiam,
nobilitatem, aeteraque extra... bonis neque malis adnumerant. Tacit. Hist. iv. 5.
note 47: Before he went on the second expedition against the Germans, he read lectures of philosophy to the Roman people, during three days. He had already done the same in the
cities of Greece and Asia. Hist. August. in Cassio, c. 3.
note *: Cassius was murdered by his own partisans. Vulcat. Gallic. in Cassio, c. 7. Dion, lxxi. c. 27. - W.
note 48: Dion, l. lxxi. p. 1190. Hist. August. in Avid. Cassio. Note: See one of the newly discovered passages of Dion Cassius. Marcus wrote to the Senate, who urged the execution of
the partisans of Cassius, in these words: "I entreat and beseech you to preserve my reign unstained by senatorial blood. None of your order must perish either by your desire or mine." Mai.
Fragm. Vatican. ii. p. 224. - M.
note !!: Marcus would not accept the services of any of the barbarian allies who crowded to his standard in the war against Avidius Cassius. "Barbarians must not become acquainted with the dissension of the Roman people." Mai. Fragm Vatican l. 224. - M.
note 49: Hist. August. in Marc. Antonin. c. 18.
If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that
which elapsed from the death of Domitian
to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman Empire
was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.
The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority
commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were
carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan
, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty
, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the
laws. Such princes deserved the honor of restoring the Republic
, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.
The labors of these monarchs were overpaid by the immense reward that inseparably waited on their success; by the honest pride of virtue, and by the exquisite delight of beholding the
general happiness of which they were the authors. A just but melancholy reflection embittered, however, the noblest of human enjoyments. They must often have recollected the instability of
a happiness which depended on the character of single man. The fatal moment was perhaps approaching, when some licentious youth, or some jealous tyrant, would abuse, to the destruction,
that absolute power, which they had exerted for the benefit of their people. The ideal restraints of the Senate
and the laws might serve to display the virtues, but could never correct the vices,
of the emperor. The military force was a blind and irresistible instrument of oppression; and the corruption of Roman manners would always supply flatterers eager to applaud, and ministers
prepared to serve, the fear or the avarice, the lust or the cruelty, of their master. These gloomy apprehensions had been already justified by the experience of the Romans. The annals of the
emperors exhibit a strong and various picture of human nature, which we should vainly seek among the mixed and doubtful characters of modern history. In the conduct of those monarchs we
may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted perfection, and the meanest degeneracy of our own species. The golden age of Trajan
and the Antonines had been preceded by
an age of iron. It is almost superfluous to enumerate the unworthy successors of Augustus
. Their unparalleled vices, and the splendid theatre on which they were acted, have saved them from
oblivion. The dark, unrelenting Tiberius
, the furious Caligula
, the feeble Claudius
, the profligate and cruel Nero, the beastly Vitellius, 50
and the timid, inhuman Domitian
, are condemned
to everlasting infamy. During fourscore years (excepting only the short and doubtful respite of Vespasian's reign) 51 Rome
groaned beneath an unremitting tyranny, which exterminated the
ancient families of the Republic
, and was fatal to almost every virtue and every talent that arose in that unhappy period.
note 50: Vitellius consumed in mere eating at least six millions of our money in about seven months. It is not easy to express his vices with dignity, or even decency. Tacitus fairly
calls him a hog, but it is by substituting for a coarse word a very fine image. "At Vitellius, umbraculis hortorum abditus, ut ignava animalia, quibus si cibum suggeras, jacent torpentque,
praeterita, instantia, futura, pari oblivione dimiserat. Atque illum nemore Aricino desidem et marcentum," &c. Tacit. Hist. iii. 36, ii. 95. Sueton. in Vitell. c. 13. Dion. Cassius, l xv. p.
note 51: The execution of Helvidius Priscus, and of the virtuous Eponina, disgraced the reign of Vespasian.
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. 75-81.