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had now attained the summit of vice and infamy
. Amidst the acclamations of a flattering court, he was unable to
disguise from himself, that he had deserved the contempt and hatred of every man of sense and virtue
in his empire. His
ferocious spirit was irritated by the consciousness of that hatred, by the envy of every kind of merit
, by the just apprehension of
danger, and by the habit of slaughter, which he contracted in his daily amusements. History has preserved a long list of consular
senators sacrificed to his wanton suspicion, which sought out, with peculiar anxiety, those unfortunate persons connected,
however remotely, with the family of the Antonines, without sparing even the ministers of his crimes or pleasures. 43
cruelty proved at last fatal to himself. He had shed with impunity the noblest blood of Rome: he perished as soon as he was
dreaded by his own domestics. Marcia, his favorite concubine
, Eclectus, his chamberlain, and Laetus, his Praetorian praefect,
alarmed by the fate of their companions and predecessors, resolved to prevent the destruction which every hour hung over their
heads, either from the mad caprice of the tyrant
or the sudden indignation of the people. Marcia seized the occasion of
presenting a draught of wine to her lover, after he had fatigued himself with hunting some wild beasts. Commodus
sleep; but whilst he was laboring with the effects of poison and drunkenness, a robust youth, by profession a wrestler, entered
his chamber, and strangled him without resistance. The body was secretly conveyed out of the palace, before the least suspicion
was entertained in the city, or even in the court, of the emperor's death. Such was the fate of the son of Marcus
, and so easy
was it to destroy a hated tyrant
, who, by the artificial power
s of government, had oppressed, during thirteen years, so many
millions of subjects, each of whom was equal to their master in personal strength and personal abilities. 44
Footnote 43: The prefects were changed almost hourly or daily; and the caprice of Commodus was often fatal to his most
favored chamberlains. Hist. August. p. 46, 51.
Footnote *: Commodus had already resolved to massacre them the following night they determined o anticipate his design.
Herod. i. 17. - W.
Footnote 44: Dion, l. lxxii. p. 1222. Herodian, l. i. p. 43. Hist. August. p. 52.
The measures of he conspirators were conducted with the deliberate coolness and celerity which the greatness of the occasion
required. They resolved instantly to fill the vacant throne
with an emperor whose character would justify and maintain the action
that had been committed. They fixed on Pertinax, praefect of the city, an ancient senator of consular rank, whose conspicuous
had broke through the obscurity of his birth, and raised him to the first honors of the state. He had successively governed
most of the provinces of the empire; and in all his great employments, military as well as civil, he had uniformly distinguished
himself by the firmness, the prudence, and the integrity of his conduct. 45
He now remained almost alone of the friends and
ministers of Marcus
; and when, at a late hour of the night, he was awakened with the news, that the chamberlain and the
praefect were at his door, he received them with intrepid resignation, and desired they would execute their master's orders.
Instead of death, they offered him the throne
of the Roman world. During some moments he distrusted their intentions and
assurances. Convinced at length of the death of Commodus
, he accepted the purple with a sincere reluctance, the natural effect
of his knowledge both of the duties and of the dangers of the supreme rank. 46
Footnote 45: Pertinax was a native of Alba
Pompeia, in Piedmont, and son of a timber merchant. The order of his employments (it is marked by Capitolinus) well deserves
to be set down, as expressive of the form of government and manners of the age.
Herodian (l. i. p. 48) does justice to his disinterested spirit; but Capitolinus, who collected every popular rumor, charges him
with a great fortune acquired by bribery and corruption.
Footnote 46: Julian, in the Caesars, taxes him with being accessory to
the death of Commodus.
Laetus conducted without delay his new emperor to the camp of the Praetorians, diffusing at the same time through the city a
seasonable report that Commodus
died suddenly of an apoplexy; and that the virtuous Pertinax had already succeeded to the
. The guards were rather surprised than pleased with the suspicious death of a prince, whose indulgence and liberality
they alone had experienced; but the emergency of the occasion, the authority of their prefect, the reputation of Pertinax, and
the clamors of the people, obliged them to stifle their secret discontents, to accept the donative promised by the new emperor,
to swear allegiance to him, and with joyful acclamations and laurels in their hands to conduct him to the senate house, that the
military consent might be ratified by the civil authority. This important night was now far spent; with the dawn of day, and the
commencement of the new year, the senators expected a summons to attend an ignominious ceremony. *
In spite of all
remonstrances, even of those of his creatures who yet preserved any regard for prudence or decency
to pass the night in the gladiator
s' school, and from thence to take possession of the consulship, in the habit and with the
attendance of that infamous crew. On a sudden, before the break of day, the senate was called together in the temple of
Concord, to meet the guards, and to ratify the election of a new emperor. For a few minutes they sat in silent suspense, doubtful
of their unexpected deliverance, and suspicious of the cruel artifices of Commodus
: but when at length they were assured that
was no more, they resigned themselves to all the transports of joy and indignation. Pertinax, who modestly
represented the meanness of his extraction, and pointed out several noble senators more deserving than himself of the empire,
was constrained by their dutiful violence to ascend the throne
, and received all the titles of Imperial power
, confirmed by the
most sincere vows of fidelity. The memory of Commodus
was branded with eternal infamy
. The names of tyrant
, of gladiator
public enemy resounded in every corner of the house. They decreed in tumultuous votes, *
that his honors should be reversed,
his titles erased from the public monuments, his statues thrown down, his body dragged with a hook into the stripping room of
s, to satiate the public fury
; and they expressed some indignation against those officious servants who had already
presumed to screen his remains from the justice of the senate. But Pertinax could not refuse those last rites to the memory of
, and the tears of his first protector Claudius Pompeianus, who lamented the cruel fate of his brother-in- law, and
lamented still more that he had deserved it. 47
Footnote *: The senate always assembled at the beginning of the year, on the night of the 1st January, (see Savaron on Sid.
Apoll. viii. 6,) and this happened the present year, as usual, without any particular order. - G from W.
Footnote *: What Gibbon improperly calls, both here and in the note, tumultuous decrees, were no more than the applauses
and acclamations which recur so often in the history of the emperors.
The custom passed from the theatre to the forum, from the forum to the senate. Applauses on the adoption of the Imperial
decrees were first introduced under Trajan. (Plin. jun. Panegyr. 75.) One senator read the form of the decree, and all the rest
answered by acclamations, accompanied with a kind of chant or rhythm. These were some of the acclamations addressed to
Pertinax, and against the memory of Commodus. Hosti patriae honores detrahantur. Parricidae honores detrahantur. Ut salvi
simus, Jupiter, optime, maxime, serva nobis Pertinacem. This custom prevailed not only in the councils of state, but in all the
meetings of the senate. However inconsistent it may appear with the solemnity of a religious assembly, the early Christians
adopted and introduced it into their synods, notwithstanding the opposition of some of the Fathers, particularly of St.
Chrysostom. See the Coll. of Franc. Bern. Ferrarius de veterum acclamatione in Graevii Thesaur. Antiq. Rom. i. 6. - W. This
note is rather hypercritical, as regards Gibbon, but appears to be worthy of preservation. - M.
Footnote 47: Capitolinus gives us the particulars of these tumultuary votes, which were moved by one senator, and repeated,
or rather chanted by the whole body. Hist. August. p. 52.
These effusions of impotent rage against a dead emperor, whom the senate had flattered when alive with the most abject
servility, betrayed a just but ungeNero
us spirit of revenge.
The legality of these decrees was, however, supported by the principles of the Imperial
constitution. To censure, to depose, or
to punish with death, the first magistrate of the republic, who had abused his delegated trust, was the ancient and undoubted
prerogative of the Roman senate; 48
but the feeble assembly was obliged to content itself with inflicting on a fallen tyrant
public justice, from which, during his life and reign, he had been shielded by the strong arm of military despotism. *
Footnote 48: The senate condemned Nero to be put to death more majorum. Sueton. c. 49.
Footnote *: No particular law assigned this right to the senate: it was deduced from the ancient principles of the republic.
Gibbon appears to infer, from the passage of Suetonius, that the senate, according to its ancient right, punished Nero with
death. The words, however, more majerum refer not to the decree of the senate, but to the kind of death, which was taken from an old law of Romulus. (See Victor. Epit. Ed. Artzen p. 484, n. 7. - W.
Pertinax found a nobler way of condemning his predecessor's memory; by the contrast of his own virtue
s with the vices of
. On the day of his accession, he resigned over to his wife and son his whole private fortune; that they might have no
pretence to solicit favors at the expense of the state. He refused to flatter the vanity of the former with the title of Augusta; or to
corrupt the inexperienced youth of the latter by the rank of Caesar. Accurately distinguishing between the duties of a parent and
those of a sovereign, he educated his son with a severe simplicity, which, while it gave him no assured prospect of the throne
might in time have rendered him worthy of it. In public, the behavior of Pertinax was grave and affable. He lived with the
virtuous part of the senate, (and, in a private station, he had been acquainted with the true character of each individual,) without
either pride or jealousy; considered them as friends and companions, with whom he had shared the danger of the tyranny
with whom he wished to enjoy the security of the present time. He very frequently invited them to familiar entertainments, the
frugality of which was ridiculed by those who remembered and regretted the luxurious prodigality of Commodus
49: Dion (l. lxxiii. p. 1223) speaks of these entertainments, as a senator who had supped with the emperor; Capitolinus, (Hist.
August. p. 58,) like a slave, who had received his intelligence from one the scullions.
To heal, as far as I was possible, the
wounds inflicted by the hand of tyranny
, was the pleasing, but melancholy, task of Pertinax. The innocent victims, who yet
survived, were recalled from exile, released from prison, and restored to the full possession of their honors and fortunes. The
unburied bodies of murdered senators (for the cruelty of Commodus
endeavored to extend itself beyond death) were deposited
in the sepulchres of their ancestors; their memory was justified and every consolation was bestowed on their ruined and afflicted
families. Among these consolations, one of the most grateful was the punishment of the Delators; the common enemies of their
master, of virtue
, and of their country. Yet even in the inquisition of these legal assassin
s, Pertinax proceeded with a steady
temper, which gave every thing to justice, and nothing to popular prejudice and resentment. The finances of the state demanded
the most vigilant care of the emperor. Though every measure of injustice and extortion had been adopted, which could collect
the property of the subject into the coffers of the prince, the rapaciousness of Commodus
had been so very inadequate to his
extravagance, that, upon his death, no more than eight thousand pounds were found in the exhausted treasury, 50
to defray the
current expenses of government, and to discharge the pressing demand of a liberal donative, which the new emperor had been
obliged to promise to the Praetorian Guard
s. Yet under these distressed circumstances, Pertinax had the geNero
us firmness to
remit all the oppressive taxes invented by Commodus
, and to cancel all the unjust claims of the treasury; declaring, in a decree
of the senate, "that he was better satisfied to administer a poor republic with innocence, than to acquire riches by the ways of
and dishonor. "Economy and industry he considered as the pure and genuine sources of wealth; and from them he soon
derived a copious supply for the public necessities. The expense of the household was immediately reduced to one half. All the
instruments of luxury Pertinax exposed to public auction, 51
gold and silver plate, chariots of a singular construction, a
superfluous wardrobe of silk and embroidery, and a great number of beautiful slaves of both sexes; excepting only, with
attentive humanity, those who were born in a state of freedom, and had been ravished from the arms of their weeping parents.
At the same time that he obliged the worthless favorites of the tyrant
to resign a part of their ill- gotten wealth, he satisfied the
just creditors of the state, and unexpectedly discharged the long arrears of honest services. He removed the oppressive
restrictions which had been laid upon commerce, and granted all the uncultivated lands in Italy and the provinces to those who
would improve them; with an exemption from tribute during the term of ten years. 52
Footnote 50: Decies. The blameless
economy of Pius left his successors a treasure of vicies septies millies, above two and twenty millions sterling. Dion, l. lxxiii. p.
Footnote 51: Besides the design of converting these useless ornaments into money, Dion (l. lxxiii. p. 1229) assigns two secret
motives of Pertinax. He wished to expose the vices of Commodus, and to discover by the purchasers those who most
Footnote 52: Though Capitolinus has picked up many idle tales of the private life of Pertinax, he joins with Dion and Herodian
in admiring his public conduct.
Such a uniform conduct had already secured to Pertinax the noblest reward of a sovereign, the love and esteem of his people.
Those who remembered the virtue
s of Marcus
were happy to contemplate in their new emperor the features of that bright
original; and flattered themselves, that they should long enjoy the benign influence of his administration
. A hasty zeal to reform
the corrupted state, accompanied with less prudence than might have been expected from the years and experience of Pertinax,
proved fatal to himself and to his country. His honest indiscretion united against him the servile
crowd, who found their private
benefit in the public disorders, and who preferred the favor of a tyrant
to the inexorable equality of the laws. 53
Footnote 53: Leges, rem surdam, inexorabilem esse. T. Liv. ii. 3.
Amidst the general joy, the sullen and angry countenance of
the Praetorian Guard
s betrayed their inward dissatisfaction. They had reluctantly submitted to Pertinax; they dreaded the
strictness of the ancient discipline
, which he was preparing to restore; and they regretted the license of the former reign. Their
discontents were secretly fomented by Laetus, their praefect, who found, when it was too late, that his new emperor would
reward a servant, but would not be ruled by a favorite. On the third day of his reign, the soldiers seized on a noble senator, with
a design to carry him to the camp, and to invest him with the Imperial
purple. Instead of being dazzled by the dangerous honor,
the affrighted victim escaped from their violence, and took refuge at the feet of Pertinax. A short time afterwards, Sosius Falco,
one of the consuls of the year, a rash
but of an ancient and opulent family, listened to the voice of ambition; and a
was formed during a short absence of Pertinax, which was crushed by his sudden return to Rome, and his resolute
behavior. Falco was on the point of being justly condemned to death as a public enemy had he not been saved by the earnest
and sincere entreaties of the injured emperor, who conjured the senate, that the purity of his reign might not be stained by the
blood even of a guilty senator.
Footnote 54: If we credit Capitolinus, (which is rather difficult,) Falco behaved with the most petulant indecency to Pertinax, on
the day of his accession. The wise emperor only admonished him of his youth and in experience. Hist. August. p. 55.
These disappointments served only to irritate the rage of the Praetorian Guard
s. On the twenty-eighth of March, eighty-six days
only after the death of Commodus
, a general sedition broke out in the camp, which the officers wanted either power
inclination to suppress. Two or three hundred of the most desperate soldiers marched at noonday, with arms in their hands and
in their looks, towards the Imperial
palace. The gates were thrown open by their companions upon guard, and by the
domestics of the old court, who had already formed a secret conspiracy
against the life of the too virtuous emperor. On the
news of their approach, Pertinax, disdaining either flight or concealment, advanced to meet his assassin
s; and recalled to their
minds his own innocence, and the sanctity
of their recent oath. For a few moments they stood in silent suspense, ashamed of
their atrocious design, and awed by the venerable aspect and majestic firmness of their sovereign, till at length, the despair of
pardon reviving their fury
, a barbarian of the country of Tongress 55
levelled the first blow against Pertinax, who was instantly
despatched with a multitude of wounds. His head, separated from his body, and placed on a lance, was carried in triumph to the
Praetorian camp, in the sight of a mournful and indignant people, who lamented the unworthy fate of that excellent prince, and
the transient blessings of a reign, the memory of which could serve only to aggravate their approaching misfortunes. 56
Footnote 55: The modern bishopric of Liege. This soldier probably belonged to the Batavian horse-guards, who were mostly
raised in the duchy of Gueldres and the neighborhood, and were distinguished by their valor, and by the boldness with which
they swam their horses across the broadest and most rapid rivers. Tacit. Hist. iv. 12 Dion, l. lv p. 797 Lipsius de magnitudine
Romana, l. i. c. 4.
Footnote 56: Dion, l. lxxiii. p. 1232. Herodian, l. ii. p. 60. Hist. August. p. 58. Victor in Epitom. et in Caesarib. Eutropius, viii.
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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. 98-105.