Saturday, March 31, 2012

Notes on this Blog – The Manifesto

What a ride.

It’s been over three years since this blog began so I decided to pause the history stuff for just one post and talk about my experience. I started the blog because I wanted to create an ancient history resource that was academically sound but also approachable for non-academics. Pure academic work is way too specialized to hold most people’s interest.

We all know that history is poorly taught in schools – names and dates rather than people and their interactions. What good is a survey course if it’s so boring no one is able to maintain their interest? I guess it fills in some bureaucrat’s check box that students are getting the history exposure they need. Ha!

People interested in antiquity need places to go that stimulate and inform – without being too boring or detailed.

Here’s an example of wrong emphasis. I was talking to someone the other day about the 2012 election and they commented how the south is Republican, and that it turned away from the Democrats when they decided to embrace civil rights in the sixties. I pointed out how race was controversial issue at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The delegates from the north sought to have slavery abolished in the new republic, while the delegates from the south flatly stated that they would not join the union if that happened. In the end a compromise was struck to allow slavery to continue but end the import of slaves after 1808. The delegates knew they were kicking the can down the road and that slavery could eventually damage the country.

After listening to my comment, the other person remarked, “Why didn’t I learn that in school?” I’m sure she learned some things -- just not the right things. To me, one of the key lessons of the Constitutional process was the effort it took to complete the document, and the fact that the framers knew it would have to be modified. Those facts are much more important than, for example, how many people signed it. This is the inform value of history.

With regard to stimulating the reader, let me create an analogy using disaster movies. What I mean is that most disaster movies before Titanic were awful. The reason they were awful is the script and the action were focused on the disaster as the center of the story rather than people. What Titanic did differently was make the relationship between two people the focus and put them in the context of a disaster. It wasn’t the ship that caused the movie to do so well at the box office.

History is the same. It’s about people trying to survive in a turbulent world – their interactions with each other within the context of their culture and political system. The most interesting stories are the ones that include details about people’s lives. Sometimes that detail is missing and we have to guess why they behaved as they did, but it’s still interesting to try and figure out what happened.

What study antiquity? Knowledge is a cumulative process that grows over time based on what came before. When Einstein unveiled his theory of relativity, he was the only one that understood it. Later, when I was an undergraduate student, I took relativity as a basic physics course.

The thing about the ancients is that they created the foundation of what we have today without having a foundation themselves. Why in 9000 B.C, for example, did someone decide to make a pottery wheel? I get that they wanted to transport liquids and had no practical container, but they still had to do the engineering.

So we have this gap between survey courses that lack content and academic work that is too detailed for the average reader applied to the underappreciated period of antiquity. That’s the gap I’m trying to cover. I think of myself as an evangelist for the ancient world – a secular missionary trying to unlock the subject for others to enjoy.

Who are my readers? Primarily students and those with an affinity for the subject matter, as far as I can tell. I can identify the students because they read the posts that one would consult for an essay or paper. My most widely read article is The Distribution of Wealth, Ancient Times and Now -- post number 15 out of 259 from early 2009. It has been read over 7000 times. My early posts were short, maybe half a page, and were focused on presenting a bit of history. But they got longer out of necessity because most interesting topics have to be presented AND analyzed.

I appreciate the loyalty of my readers. We have “the gang of 75” followers out front but also many others who check in frequently. There are about 450 people who have been to the site at least 10 times this year – more than 75 have visited at least one hundred times. That’s loyalty! Folks from one hundred and nineteen countries have visited.

What about my research? How does that work? I use a combination of books and journal articles as the basis for my posts. One always has to start with primary sources and work outward. I use an invisible college approach – something that was developed  in my Ph.D. thesis. The best way to learn a subject is to link authors. Start with the most respected author on a topic and see who he/she cites. Read those authors and see who they cite. A respected author will cite people he/she respects which is a validation of that author’s work. We call this an invisible college because the authors are not linked through some former institution like a college, but are instead linked to each other by subject matter and references. This “college” is invisible until it is uncovered.

Putting posts together is a journey – almost a random walk. Each topic leads me to another based on what it uncovers. I wish I had more input from my readers about what they would like to see presented because that would push me in new directions. A couple of years ago I added a box at the bottom of each post that says “want more of this topic?”. No one has ever answered that call, so I’m left with the statistics on number of times each post is read as my only system for measuring reader interest. Sometimes I write about a subject that is very interesting to me and no one reads it – sometimes people gravitate to an article and I’m surprised. So much for predicting human behavior.

So where do we go from here? More of the same and better, I hope. I’m having too much fun to slow this down.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rome and the Visigoths – Allies against the Huns

As I frequently note, real history is more interesting than fiction so you’re better off with reality than a made up version. As this post will show, you can’t make this stuff up.

In the last post we described the sack of Rome which occurred in 410 A.D. Now we jump forward 40 years to find Rome and the Visigoths allied against Attila and the Hunnic Empire. How did this happen? How did the destroyer of Rome, the tribe that fought the Roman army for 200 years, now become an ally?

Before getting to the action – the Battle of Chalons in 451 A.D. – we need to set up the preliminaries, which involve some intricate politics.

Circa 408 A.D, the Pyrenees were manned by a militia placed there to block barbarian incursions into Spain. But the militia was withdrawn to support the usurper Constantine who sought to oppose Honorius for the crown. With the militia gone, the Suevi, Vandals, and Alani poured down from Gaul into Spain, taking it over. They devastated the country before deciding to settle it and then put an administrative apparatus in place.

The king of the Goths at that time was Adolphus, who received the crown following the death of Alaric. Formerly a rival of the Visigoths, Adolphus was now embraced by them out of necessity – the need for a strong leader. And Adolphus had come to realize the merits of friendly co-existence. As Gibbon tells us:

In the full confidence of valor and victory, I once aspired (said Adolphus) to change the face of the universe; to obliterate the name of Rome; to erect on its ruins the dominion of the Goths; and to acquire, like Augustus, the immortal fame of the founder of a new empire.  By repeated experiments, I was gradually convinced, that laws are essentially necessary to maintain and regulate a well-constituted state; and that the fierce, untractable humor of the Goths was incapable of bearing the salutary yoke of laws and civil government.  From that moment I proposed to myself a different object of glory and ambition; and it is now my sincere wish that the gratitude of future ages should acknowledge the merit of a stranger, who employed the sword of the Goths, not to subvert, but to restore and maintain, the prosperity of the Roman empire.

Adolphus suspended his operations of war and negotiated a treaty with Rome. Once the treaty was complete, he marched his army to the southern provinces of Gaul and settled between the Mediterranean and the Ocean. Adolphus then cemented his relationship with Rome by marrying the daughter of emperor Theodosius, who was also sister to Honorius.

Peace being foreign to the mind of the king, he became convinced at the urging of Honorius to attack the barbarians in Spain. After seizing Barcelona, he was assassinated. Some intrigues followed and then the crown of the Visigoths passed to Wallia. The latter worked his way through Spain and upon reaching Gibraltar, contemplated crossing to Africa, but he changed his mind and decided to become an ally of Rome instead. Brought to the city and given a triumph, Wallia now carried the mantle as Rome’s great ally in the west.

Put to work by the Romans, he attacked Spain.

“He exterminated the Silingi, who had irretrievably ruined the elegant plenty of the province of Boetica.  He slew, in battle, the king of the Alani; and the remains of those Scythian wanderers, who escaped from the field, instead of choosing a new leader, humbly sought a refuge under the standard of the Vandals, with whom they were ever afterwards confounded.  The Vandals themselves, and the Suevi, yielded to the efforts of the invincible Goths.  The promiscuous multitude of Barbarians, whose retreat had been intercepted, were driven into the mountains of Gallicia; where they still continued, in a narrow compass and on a barren soil, to exercise their domestic and implacable hostilities.”

The year was 418 A.D.

With the Spanish war complete, the Visigoths established themselves in Aquitaine under the ecclesiastical control of Bordeaux. Their neighbors were the Burgundians who controlled upper Germany and the Franks who controlled lower Germany. After his death, Wallia was succeeded by Theodoric, a forward thinking man who had his six sons educated in Roman jurisprudence at the best schools in Gaul.

The other component of our Roman-Gothic alliance is the singular personality Flavius Aetius. Born in Moesia to a Scythian father and an Italian mother, Aetius served much of his childhood as a hostage: first with Alaric (405-408 A.D) and then with Rugila, king of the Huns. Those experiences aided Aetius in two ways: he developed a comfort with military life and he became friends with his adversaries.

When Honorius died in 423 A.D, Aetius attached himself to the usurper Johannes, who sent him to the Huns to ask for military assistance. He returned to Italy in 425 A.D. with an army only to find Johannes dead and the western empire in control of Valentinian III and his mother Galla Placidia. After some fighting, Aetius was able to forge a compromise with Galla which required that he send the Huns home in exchange for an appointment as general under the new emperor.

The list of Aetius military successes is a long one. Between 427 and 430 A.D. he defeated the Visigoths and Franks in Gaul. Between 433 and 450 A.D. he fought the Burgundians, the Suebi, and the Visigoths, treating with the latter in 439 A.D. He fought the Burgundians again in 443 A.D. and the Franks again in 448 A.D. Wherever he went, Aetius carried a Hunnic cavalry with him.

In 451 A.D, Attila was recruited to come to the aid of the Vandals and Franks who were under constant pressure from the Visigoths and Romans. His readiness to go to war is described by Gibbon in the following passage,

“The kings and nations of Germany and Scythia, from the Volga perhaps to the Danube, obeyed the warlike summons of Attila.  From the royal village, in the plains of Hungary his standard moved towards the West; and after a march of seven or eight hundred miles, he reached the conflux of the Rhine and the Neckar, where he was joined by the Franks, who adhered to his ally, the elder of the sons of Clodion.  A troop of light Barbarians, who roamed in quest of plunder, might choose the winter for the convenience of passing the river on the ice; but the innumerable cavalry of the Huns required such plenty of forage and provisions, as could be procured only in a milder season.

“But as the greatest part of the Gallic cities were alike destitute of saints and soldiers, they were besieged and stormed by the Huns; who practiced, in the example of Metz, their customary maxims of war. They involved, in a promiscuous massacre, the priests who served at the altar, and the infants, who, in the hour of danger, had been providently baptized by the bishop.”

…From the Rhine and the Moselle, Attila advanced into the heart of Gaul; crossed the Seine at Auxerre; and, after a long and laborious march, fixed his camp under the walls of Orleans.

Attila now began a siege of the city. The people put up a stubborn defense but were at the point of breaking when a messenger sent to the ramparts by the bishop returned with a report where he

“mentioned a small cloud, which he had faintly descried at the extremity of the horizon. The remote object, on which every eye was fixed, became each moment larger, and more distinct; the Roman and Gothic banners were gradually perceived; and a favorable wind blowing aside the dust, discovered, in deep array, the impatient squadrons of Aetius and Theodoric, who pressed forwards to the relief of Orleans.”

To avoid being trapped in the heart of Gaul, Attila broke the siege and retreated beyond the Seine near the plains of Chalon. There the plains extend for a hundred miles in each direction -- an ideal spot for battle.
Above is a map showing the location of Chalons. I thought it would be interesting to point out the locations of the World War I battle line and Hitler's attack point at the start of World War II as references.

As Attila retreated, the rear of his formation was harassed by the vanguard of the allies causing him some 15,000 casualties.

He asked for auspices to be taken and he was told, “your adversary will be killed, but you will lose the battle.” To avoid the negative connotation of the prophesy, Attila exhorted his troops, telling them he would lead them into battle.

The battle dispositions were as follows.

“At the head of his brave and faithful Huns, he occupied in person the centre of the line.  The nations subject to his empire, the Rugians, the Heruli, the Thuringians, the Franks, the Burgundians, were extended on either hand, over the ample space of the Catalaunian fields; the right wing was commanded by Ardaric, king of the Gepidae; and the three valiant brothers, who reigned over the Ostrogoths, were posted on the left to oppose the kindred tribes of the Visigoths.  The disposition of the allies was regulated by a different principle.  Sangiban, the faithless king of the Alani, was placed in the centre, where his motions might be strictly watched, and that the treachery might be instantly punished. Aetius assumed the command of the left, and Theodoric of the right wing; while Torismond still continued to occupy the heights which appear to have stretched on the flank, and perhaps the rear, of the Scythian army.”

After the initial discharge of missile weapons, cavalry from both sides engaged each other in close combat. The middle of the Hunnic line was able  to pierce the weak center of their opponents and quickly wheeled left to attack the Visigoth army. Theodoric, leading his troops, was struck by a javelin, knocked off his horse, and trampled to death. Soon the auspices would be fulfilled as the Visigoths restored their order of battle, routed the barbarian army, and forced Attila to retreat. The Hunnic army spent the night preparing to be attacked but the allies had suffered substantial casualties themselves and were in no shape to press them. Aetius' survey of the carnage proved to him that he had won the battle.

The following year Attila pressed a claim for Honoria, sister of Valentinian III, who he had previously married. Rebuffed, he vowed to destroy Italy. Beginning with Aquileia, Attila pressed a three month siege to conclusion and then leveled the city. One by one the other cities and towns fell like dominoes before him: Vicenza, Verona, and Bergamo were destroyed while Milan and Pavia paid tribute to avoid the fate of the others.

Desperate to stop the carnage, the bishop of Rome and others were sent to negotiate with Attila and a treaty was struck for the withdrawal of his army from the peninsula. Before it could be signed, however, Attila died suddenly of a burst artery. The year was 453 A.D.

Over the next few years, the Goths became more powerful: Visigoths in Gaul and the Ostrogoths in the Balkans – the latter now separated from the remnant Hunnic Empire. The Hunnic nation broke apart as a result of the poor leadership and infighting between the sons of Attila. Ellac, the eldest son, lost his life in the battle of Netad. Dengisich, another brother, was killed by his slaves. The youngest brother, Irnac, who was smarter than his siblings, retired to lesser Scythia, only to be overrun by new hordes from the east.

Most unfortunate of the threads of this story was the assassination of Aetius, who was intrigued against by Valentinian’s favorite eunuch Heraclius. Jealous of his reputation and power, the emperor decided Aetius was a threat to the crown, and stabbed him during a palace visit on September 21st 454 A.D. Less than a year later the emperor would be assassinated by two of Aetius’ lieutenants.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Visigoth Sack of Rome – 410 A.D.

The Visigoth sack of Rome in 410 A.D. was a milestone in the fall of the Empire. Not since Hannibal reached Rome in 218 B.C. had an invading force threatened the city. In the latter case, there was no attack because Hannibal knew he could not prevail. Alaric, king of the Visigoths saw a different vista – an impotent western empire without a future.

I’m going to let Gibbon set the stage.

“In the arts of negotiation, as well as in those of war, the Gothic king maintained his superior ascendant over an enemy, whose seeming changes proceeded from the total want of counsel and design.  From his camp, on the confines of Italy, Alaric attentively observed the revolutions of the palace, watched the progress of faction and discontent, disguised the hostile aspect of a Barbarian invader.

The pressing invitation of the malcontents, who urged the king of the Goths to invade Italy, was enforced by a lively sense of his personal injuries; and he might especially complain, that the Imperial ministers still delayed and eluded the payment of the four thousand pounds of gold which had been granted by the Roman senate, either to reward his services, or to appease his fury. His decent firmness was supported by an artful moderation, which contributed to the success of his designs.  He required a fair and reasonable satisfaction; but he gave the strongest assurances, that, as soon as he had obtained it, he would immediately retire. 

The modesty of Alaric was interpreted, by the ministers of Ravenna, as a sure evidence of his weakness and fear. They disdained either to negotiate a treaty, or to assemble an army; and with a rash confidence, derived only from their ignorance of the extreme danger, irretrievably wasted the decisive moments of peace and war.

While they expected, in sullen silence, that the Barbarians would evacuate the confines of Italy, Alaric, with bold and rapid marches, passed the Alps and the Po; hastily pillaged the cities of Aquileia, Altinum, Concordia, and Cremona, which yielded to his arms; increased his forces by the accession of thirty thousand auxiliaries; and, without meeting a single enemy in the field, advanced as far as the edge of the morass which protected the impregnable residence of the emperor of the West.  Instead of attempting the hopeless siege of Ravenna, the prudent leader of the Goths proceeded to Rimini, stretched his ravages along the sea-coast of the Hadriatic, and meditated the conquest of the ancient mistress of the world. 

His troops, animated by the hopes of spoil, followed the course of the Flaminian way, occupied the unguarded passes of the Apennine, descended into the rich plains of Umbria… A lofty situation, and a seasonable tempest of thunder and lightning, preserved the little city of Narni; but the king of the Goths, despising the ignoble prey, still advanced with unabated vigor; and after he had passed through the stately arches, adorned with the spoils of Barbaric victories, he pitched his camp under the walls of Rome.”

Alaric initiated a siege against the city by blocking the twelve gates to prevent any communication outside the city. He also took control of the Tiber to prevent commerce from being conducted.

“The first emotions of the nobles, and of the people, were those of surprise and indignation, that a vile Barbarian should dare to insult the capital of the world: but their arrogance was soon humbled by misfortune…”

As food supplies ran out, the people of Rome began to understand the pain of famine. The daily allowance of three pounds of bread was eventually reduced to nothing.

“…the progress of famine invaded the marble palaces of the senators themselves.  The persons of both sexes, who had been educated in the enjoyment of ease and luxury, discovered how little is requisite to supply the demands of nature; and lavished their unavailing treasures of gold and silver, to obtain the coarse and scanty sustenance which they would formerly have rejected with disdain.”

Thousands starved to death and bodies lay in the streets. 

Finally, the senate, acting as the supreme power of the government, sent ambassadors to treat with the Gothic leader. Their approach was in keeping with their position.

“When they were introduced into his presence, they declared, perhaps in a more lofty style than became their abject condition, that the Romans were resolved to maintain their dignity, either in peace or war; and that, if Alaric refused them a fair and honorable capitulation, he might sound his trumpets, and prepare to give battle to an innumerable people, exercised in arms, and animated by despair.”

His famous reply was "The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed," laughing at the gall of the Romans in their pitiable position. He set the ransom for breaking the siege at “all the gold and silver in the city, whether it were the property of the state, or of individuals; all the rich and precious movables; and all the slaves that could prove their title to the name of Barbarians”.

“The ministers of the senate presumed to ask, in a modest and suppliant tone, "If such, O king, are your demands, what do you intend to leave us?" "Your Lives!" replied the haughty conqueror: they trembled, and retired. 

Yet, before they retired, a short suspension of arms was granted, which allowed some time for a more temperate negotiation.  The stern features of Alaric were insensibly relaxed; he abated much of the rigor of his terms; and at length consented to raise the siege, on the immediate payment of five thousand pounds of gold, of thirty thousand pounds of silver, of four thousand robes of silk, of three thousand pieces of fine scarlet cloth, and of three thousand pounds weight of pepper.”

His terms were met in principle.

The gates were opened and the Roman people allowed to obtain the food they so severely required. Meanwhile the Goths moved north to set up winter quarters in Tuscany. But the administration in Ravenna did not trust Alaric, thinking he had some sinister purpose beyond their knowledge.

"Three senators, at his earnest request, were sent ambassadors to the court of Ravenna, to solicit the exchange of hostages, and the conclusion of the treaty; and the proposals, which he more clearly expressed during the course of the negotiations, could only inspire a doubt of his sincerity, as they might seem inadequate to the state of his fortune.  The Barbarian still aspired to the rank of master-general of the armies of the West; he stipulated an annual subsidy of corn and money; and he chose the provinces of Dalmatia, Noricum, and Venetia, for the seat of his new kingdom, which would have commanded the important communication between Italy and the Danube. 

If these modest terms should be rejected, Alaric showed a disposition to relinquish his pecuniary demands, and even to content himself with the possession of Noricum; an exhausted and impoverished country, perpetually exposed to the inroads of the Barbarians of Germany."

Amazingly, the chief minister of Honorius, Olympius, rejected the treaty and its alternatives. He ordered 6,000 troops to march from Ravenna to Rome to reinforce the city. This entire army was destroyed before it reached its destination.

"Yet Alaric, instead of resenting this act of impotent hostility, immediately renewed his proposals of peace; and the second embassy of the Roman senate, which derived weight and dignity from the presence of Innocent, bishop of the city, was guarded from the dangers of the road by a detachment of Gothic soldiers."

As a result of this calamity, Olympius was replaced by Jovius, the praetorian prefect. Initially, Jovius sought to craft a personal treaty with Alaric at Rimini. While he was away from Ravenna, Honorius drafted a letter negating the treaty. This missive fell into the hands of the King of the Goths.

“…the Goth, who in the whole transaction had behaved with temper and decency, expressed, in the most outrageous language, his lively sense of the insult so wantonly offered to his person and to his nation. 

While the emperor and his court enjoyed, with sullen pride, the security of the marshes and fortifications of Ravenna, they abandoned Rome, almost without defense, to the resentment of Alaric.  Yet such was the moderation which he still preserved, or affected, that, as he moved with his army along the Flaminian way, he successively dispatched the bishops of the towns of Italy to reiterate his offers of peace, and to congratulate the emperor, that he would save the city and its inhabitants from hostile fire, and the sword of the Barbarians.

These impending calamities were, however, averted, not indeed by the wisdom of Honorius, but by the prudence or humanity of the Gothic king; who employed a milder, though not less effectual, method of conquest.  Instead of assaulting the capital, he successfully directed his efforts against the Port of Ostia, one of the boldest and most stupendous works of Roman magnificence.”

Alaric threatened an immediate attack on the grain silos of Ostia if the treaty was not completed immediately. At Ravenna, a usurper, named Attalus, was named as co-emperor in an attempt to take matters in a different direction. The gates of Rome were thrown open to him and he was conducted in a procession to the senate. He spoke to them about how the glory of Rome would be restored by his hand and sent envoys to measure of the loyalty of the provinces of Africa and Egypt.

Honorius, under threat of assassination from every quarter, was blessed with a stroke of luck when a ship landed at Ravenna with a reinforcing army. The envoys of Attalus had been killed by a loyal count of Africa who sent money and men to the emperor. Attalus was stripped of his office. Now Alaric arrived within three miles of Ravenna intent on including the long delayed treaty, but the handlers of Honorius could not see their way to an accommodation. They received a rival Barbarian chief, who killed many Goths during a foray from the city and proceeded to ridicule Alaric in a subsequent parade.

In a matter of a few days, the Gothic king and his army appeared at the gates of Rome intent on revenge for the many slights given him. A conspiracy forged with slaves inside the city facilitated the gates being opened to his army.

“The proclamation of Alaric, when he forced his entrance into a vanquished city, discovered, however, some regard for the laws of humanity and religion. He encouraged his troops boldly to seize the rewards of valor, and to enrich themselves with the spoils of a wealthy and effeminate people: but he exhorted them, at the same time, to spare the lives of the unresisting citizens, and to respect the churches of the apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, as holy and inviolable sanctuaries. 

In the sack of Rome, some rare and extraordinary examples of Barbarian virtue have been deservedly applauded.  But the holy precincts of the Vatican, and the apostolic churches, could receive a very small proportion of the Roman people; many thousand warriors, more especially of the Huns, who served under the standard of Alaric, were strangers to the name, or at least to the faith, of Christ; and we may suspect, without any breach of charity or candor, that in the hour of savage license, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed, the precepts of the Gospel seldom influenced the behavior of the Gothic Christians.  The writers, the best disposed to exaggerate their clemency, have freely confessed, that a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and that the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies, which remained without burial during the general consternation. The despair of the citizens was sometimes converted into fury: and whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless.”

The Goths evacuated Rome on the sixth day. Weighted down by spoils, they proceeded south through Campania destroying everything in their path. Then, when Alaric reached Rhegium, he decided to cross to Sicily and see what he could find of value there. A crossing was arranged but a storm blew up during the passage that sank many ships. The plan was permanently abandoned when Alaric died unexpectedly.

The sack of Rome is a story of the pride of ages and its refusal to see reason. Oddly, it was the barbarian, Alaric, who was reasonable instead of the Romans. All he wanted for himself, and his people, was land within the empire that would protect them from the Huns. They respected what the Romans had accomplished and sought friendship and affiliation, but the Romans lacked the ability to see the world in its new form.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Interregnum - A Pause in the Fall of the Roman Empire

Interregnum is a word that refers to the period when the state has no leader – the previous leader has died or lost an election and the new leader has not taken office. In Roman law, interregnum was accompanied by the proclamation of justitium (a state of emergency) which was designed to deal with adverse public reaction upon hearing of the death of the sovereign.

I’m going to use interregnum in a different way -- to describe the Empire between 280 to 378 A.D. That period began with the reign of Diocletian, passed through Constantine, and ended with Valens. I’m calling it an interregnum because it was an interruption in the fall of the empire – made possible by strong leadership and a new form of governance.

Diocletian became emperor by a stroke of luck. He was losing a battle with the emperor Carinus, when several of Carinus’ officers, offended with his seducing of their wives, took revenge and killed him. Immediately they recognized Diocletian as their true emperor.

He was a strong leader who deserves first rank in the history of the empire, but also suffers from a bad reputation fostered by Christian writers who curse him for his persecution of their people.

Here’s what Gibbon had to say:

His abilities were useful rather than splendid; a vigorous mind, improved by the experience and study of mankind; dexterity and application in business; a judicious mixture of liberality and economy, of mildness and rigor; profound dissimulation, under the disguise of military frankness; steadiness to pursue his ends; flexibility to vary his means; and, above all, the great art of submitting his own passions, as well as those of others, to the interest of his ambition, and of coloring his ambition with the most specious pretences of justice and public utility.  Like Augustus, Diocletian may be considered as the founder of a new empire.  Like the adopted son of Caesar, he was distinguished as a statesman rather than as a warrior; nor did either of those princes employ force, whenever their purpose could be effected by policy.

Soon after taking power, Diocletian named a colleague, Maximian, Caesar and assigned him control of the western provinces. This act gave him free reign to deal with problems along the Danube – five years worth. The dual-emperor model worked well but did nothing to solve the problem of succession. Diocletian fixed that problem in 293 having Maximian and himself name their replacements – Julius Constantius and Galerius Maximianus.

All four of them had been participating in the wars starting in 286 A.D: a Berber revolt in Africa, a Persian seizure of Armenia, a pretender in Egypt declaring himself emperor, and a breakaway commander in Britain. These challenges took four years to clean up. The Goths and Germans were also troublesome during this time, but they were held back by a superior Roman effort and dedicated commanders. The Germans spent much of the time fighting among themselves.

Rome, the city, was now isolated and unimportant. Diocletian visited there only once because it was just too far from the action. The tetrarchs chose Trier, Milan, Thessalonica, and Nicomedia for their capitals.

By 304, Diocletian was old and sick. He decided to resign and convinced his partner to do likewise. The dual resignation date was May 1, 305. The two new emperors ascended to the throne and named their replacements as before, but the wrong people were passed over in the process. Severus and Maximinus were selected, but the sons of Constantius and Maximian – Constantine and Maxentius – were passed over. When Constantius died prematurely in 306, his army proclaimed Constantine as new emperor in the west. Before Galerius could elevate Severus in opposition, Maxentius proclaimed himself emperor in Rome. Ultimately, Constantine and Maxentius faced off in a battle at Milvian Bridge on October 28th, 312 with Constantine the winner. Maxentius drowned trying to cross the Tiber.

Now Constantine was in control of the western empire and Licinius was in control of the east. The latter had come to power in 308 A.D. as the nominee of Galerius to replace Severus in the west. But he was never able to defeat Maxentius so he had to be content to stay in the Balkans and control the eastern provinces. The uneasy partnership between Constantine and Licinius lasted for twelve years. Uneasy because Constantine’s temperament would not allow any compromise in his vision for Rome. That vision had two major components: making Christianity part of Roman life and becoming sole emperor.

Gibbon tells us of the man:

“The person, as well as the mind, of Constantine, had been enriched by nature with her choices endowments.  His stature was lofty, his countenance majestic, his deportment graceful; his strength and activity were displayed in every manly exercise, and from his earliest youth, to a very advanced season of life, he preserved the vigor of his constitution by a strict adherence to the domestic virtues of chastity and temperance.  He delighted in the social intercourse of familiar conversation; and though he might sometimes indulge his disposition to raillery with less reserve than was required by the severe dignity of his station, the courtesy and liberality of his manners gained the hearts of all who approached him.  The sincerity of his friendship has been suspected; yet he showed, on some occasions, that he was not incapable of a warm and lasting attachment.  The disadvantage of an illiterate education had not prevented him from forming a just estimate of the value of learning; and the arts and sciences derived some encouragement from the munificent protection of Constantine.  In the dispatch of business, his diligence was indefatigable; and the active powers of his mind were almost continually exercised in reading, writing, or meditating, in giving audiences to ambassadors, and in examining the complaints of his subjects. Even those who censured the propriety of his measures were compelled to acknowledge, that he possessed magnanimity to conceive, and patience to execute, the most arduous designs, without being checked either by the prejudices of education, or by the clamors of the multitude. 

In the field, he infused his own intrepid spirit into the troops, whom he conducted with the talents of a consummate general; and to his abilities, rather than to his fortune, we may ascribe the signal victories which he obtained over the foreign and domestic foes of the republic.  He loved glory as the reward, perhaps as the motive, of his labors. The boundless ambition, which, from the moment of his accepting the purple at York, appears as the ruling passion of his soul, may be justified by the dangers of his own situation, by the character of his rivals, by the consciousness of superior merit, and by the prospect that his success would enable him to restore peace and order to the distracted empire.  In his civil wars against Maxentius and Licinius, he had engaged on his side the inclinations of the people, who compared the undissembled vices of those tyrants with the spirit of wisdom and justice which seemed to direct the general tenor of the administration of Constantine.”

After a winning a battle against Licinius in 317 A.D. Constantine won concessions including most of the Balkans and the guarantee that his sons would be in line for the throne. Then, in a final showdown 324 A.D, Constantine defeated his rival at Hadrianopolis.

The emperor now turned his attention to the construction of a new capital at Byzantium (Constantinople) which took six years. Then, in the 330s A.D, he was engaged with the Germans along the Danube, defeating the Goths in 332 A.D. and the Sarmatians in 334. These victories brought back to Rome much of the Dacian territory originally won by Trajan.

Constantine died in 337 A.D. after being baptized as a Christian. His reign had marked two enormous changes in the empire: the embracing of Christianity and the move of the capital to Constantinople.

Before his death, Constantine devised a plan to divide the empire between his four sons, an attempt to re-create the tetrarchy he had dismantled years before. But the plan did not take root because the sons became rivals instead of partners. Constantine II was killed in battle in 340 A.D and Constans was over thrown and killed in 350 A.D. The remaining son, Constantius II, named an associate Julian in 360 A.D, who turned on his mentor and killed him in 361 A.D. Julian died suspiciously in 363 while fighting the Persians and his replacement Jovian died the next year when he was poisoned by carbon monoxide from a fire in his tent.

The death of Constantine left Rome with no heir to the throne, so the army chose a Pannonian officer of humble origin, Valentinian, to replace him. He assumed power as Valentinian I in the west and named his brother Valens to control the Balkans and points to the east. Valentinian spent his entire reign fighting the Germans: the Alemanni during the 360s A.D. and then the Quadi and Sarmatians in the 370s. He died of a stroke in 375 A.D.

Valens angered the Goths by mismanaging Rome’s relationship with them. That and the pressure they felt from the Huns on their eastern flank mobilized the Goths against Rome. They inflicted a crushing defeat on Valens at Hadrianopolis in 378 A.D, signaling the end of my interregnum. There would be no more pauses before the empire crumbled to dust.

This story shows how two great leaders were able to propel the Empire forward by strength of their will. Those who succeeded them were pale in comparison. The Goths saw this and knew the time had come to strike.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Beginning of the End – Barbarian Attacks at the Edge of the Empire

Significant barbarian attacks on the Empire began in the mid-third century A.D. and continued for more than a century before the empire lost the ability to protect itself. In this article we will describe those attacks, their genesis, and the impact they had on Rome.

Before proceeding, however, we need to review some background material on the Goths, once again relying on our friend Gibbon.

In the age of the Antonines, the Goths were still seated in Prussia. About the reign of Alexander Severus, the Roman province of Dacia had already experienced their proximity by frequent and destructive inroads. In this interval, therefore, of about seventy years, we must place the second migration of the Goths from the Baltic to the Euxine (Black Sea); but the cause that produced it lies concealed among the various motives which actuate the conduct of unsettled barbarians.  Either a pestilence or a famine, a victory or a defeat, an oracle of the gods or the eloquence of a daring leader, were sufficient to impel the Gothic arms on the milder climates of the south.”

The fame of a great enterprise excited the bravest warriors from all the Vandalic states of Germany, many of whom are seen a few years afterwards combating under the common standard of the Goths. The first motions of the emigrants carried them to the banks of the Prypec, a river universally conceived by the ancients to be the southern branch of the Borysthenes (Dneiper). As the Goths advanced near the Euxine Sea, they encountered a purer race of Sarmatians, the Jazyges, the Alani, and the Roxolani; and they were probably the first Germans who saw the mouths of the Borysthenes, and of the Tanais. 

The Goths were now in possession of the Ukraine, a country of considerable extent and uncommon fertility, intersected with navigable rivers, which, from either side, discharge themselves into the Borysthenes; and interspersed with large and leafy forests of oaks.  The plenty of game and fish, the innumerable bee-hives deposited in the hollow of old trees, and in the cavities of rocks, and forming, even in that rude age, a valuable branch of commerce, the size of the cattle, the temperature of the air, the aptness of the soil for every species of gain, and the luxuriancy of the vegetation, all displayed the liberality of Nature, and tempted the industry of man. But the Goths withstood all these temptations, and still adhered to a life of idleness, of poverty, and of rapine.

The Scythian hordes, which, towards the east, bordered on the new settlements of the Goths, presented nothing to their arms, except the doubtful chance of an unprofitable victory.  But the prospect of the Roman territories was far more alluring; and the fields of Dacia were covered with rich harvests, sown by the hands of an industrious, and exposed to be gathered by those of a warlike, people.”

Now we begin to tick the clock forward.

Lax enforcement of the border with Dacia emboldened to Goths to cross the frontier in 250 A.D. They threatened the city of Marcianopolis (Thrace), built by Trajan and named for his sister, forcing a ransom, and then retiring to the north. Decius, the Roman emperor, hearing of this, moved an army into position to pursue them. Weakened by their siege of Philipopolis, the Goths would have treated with Decius but he refused, choosing to push an attack against them as a lesson. Decius was killed and his army soundly defeated at Abrittus.

The successor, Gallus, treated with the Goths, allowed them to keep their booty, and embarrassed the Senate with his barbarian concessions, but the Goths broke that treaty and began to harass the borders once again. The Roman general in the area, Aemilius Aemilianus, pushed them back and was rewarded with the proclamation of emperor by his troops. He rushed to Rome, and killed Gallus but was assassinated himself 88 days later. It was 253 A.D.

Aemilianus’ successor, Valerian, spent his reign fighting in Syria, only to be captured and die in prison circa 260 A.D. His son, Gallienus, tasked with fighting along the Danube frontier, defeated the Juthungi tribe 259 A.D. at Milan after they crossed into Italy intent on attacking Rome.

By 268 A.D. a Gothic War was underway. The Goths had warmed up by attacking along the Danube in the 262-263 timeframe and then ravaging Asia Minor in 267. Joined by the Heruli tribe, they raced down the Balkans in 268 and sacked Athens. Gallienus blocked and defeated them at Naissus, but was recalled to Milan to put down an internal revolt. While there, he was assassinated.

The next emperor, Claudius II “Gothicus” made his living fighting the Germans. He defeated the Alemanni, after they crossed the Alps in 268 A.D, and then campaigned against them again, with success, the next year. The Goths achieved a partial victory against him in 270, but were laid low by the plague. The emperor also contracted the disease and died in August of 270.

Claudius was followed by Aurelian who also spent his time fighting the Germans. The Vandals attacked first in 271 but were successfully driven back across the Danube. While this was going on the Juthungi and the Marcomanni attacked northern Italy. The threat to Italy was so great Aurelian decided to construct a new wall around Rome to protect it from barbarian invaders. In 272 A.D, he made the decision to abandon Dacia because the Gothic presence there made the controlling the province impossible. Later, in 275 A.D, Aurelian suppressed an incursion by the Juthungi on his way to fight the Persians, but he was murdered as he prepared to cross the Bosphorus.

The last of our emperors in this segment is Probus, who ascended following the short reigns of Tacitus and Florianus. He first had to deal with an attack on Gaul by Franks, Vandals, and Burgundians in 277 A.D, which took two years to put down -- the most serious unrest in Gaul in 300 years. The remainder of his reign (three years) involved putting down insurrections among his own generals. In 283 A.D, they finally murdered him.

Here we reach an inflection point in the history of the empire. As the year 284 A.D. unfolded, a period of quiescence began which would last about eighty years. The driving forces behind this trend were two: strong leadership and a new model for managing the vast territory that was the Roman Empire.

The next post will pick up that story.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Goths – The Greatest of the German Tribes

Jornandes in his Getica (Gothic history) states that the Goths originated from Scandza, that place described by Ptolemy as shaped like a Juniper leaf with bulging sides that taper down to a point. Jornandes added more detail:

 “It lies in front of the river Vistula which rises in the Sarmatian Mountains and flows through it triple mouth into the northern ocean in sight of Scandza separating Germany and Scythia. Here also there are said to be many small islands scattered about. If wolves cross over to these islands when the sea is frozen by reason of the great cold, they are said to lose their sight. Thus the land is not only inhospitable to men but cruel even to wild beasts.”

The map above identifies the Gothic point of origin as Gotland, an island east of Sweden. It also marks the Gothic migration sequence to Sweden, eastern Poland, and then Scythia.

Again we let Jornandes explain:

“Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name. As soon as they disembarked from their ships and set foot on the land, they straightway gave their name to the place. And even to-day it is said to be called Gothiscandza. Soon they moved from here to the abodes of the Ulmerugi, who then dwelt on the shores of Ocean where they pitched camp, joined battle with them and drove them from their homes. Then they subdued their neighbors, the Vandals, and thus added to their victories. But when the number of the people increased greatly and Filimer, son of Gadaric, reigned as king--about the fifth since Berig--he decided that the army of the Goths with their families should move from that region. In search of suitable homes and pleasant places they came to the land of Scythia, called Oium in that tongue. Here they were delighted with the great richness of the country, and it is said that when half the army had been brought over, the bridge whereby they had crossed the river fell in utter ruin, nor could anyone thereafter pass to or fro”.

Historians have identified Gothiscandza as northern Poland. Note the similarity between the words Gothiscandza and Gdansk, the port city of modern Poland.

When was this migration? Extant data suggest that the Goths crossed the Baltic Sea circa 300 B.C. inhabited the Polish territory during the 1st century A.D, and then Scythia during the 2nd century A.D.

The Goths maintained their sub-tribe names from their time in Sweden: the Ostrogoths being the eastern tribe and the Visigoths the western. After the migration, he Ostrogoths occupied the area north of the Black Sea while the Visigoths occupied the area of the Balkans (Dacia).

With respect to Roman history, we first hear of the Goths when Maximinus became emperor. He was a Thracian with Gothic ancestry – father a Goth named Micca and mother a member of the Alani tribe named Ababa. We next hear of them when they ambush and defeat Decius in 251 A.D. at Abrittus, but we will save the wars between the Romans and Goths for a later post.

Tacitus wrote a treatise on the German people titled Germania which, despite its biases, provides useful information about the Germans including the Goths. Selected quotes below:

The people of Germany appear to me indigenous, and free from intermixture with foreigners, either as settlers or casual visitants. For the emigrants of former ages performed their expeditions not by land, but by water; and that immense, and, if I may so call it, hostile ocean, is rarely navigated by ships from our world. Then, besides the danger of a boisterous and unknown sea, who would relinquish Asia, Africa, or Italy, for Germany, a land rude in its surface, rigorous in its climate, cheerless to every beholder and cultivator, except a native?

I concur in opinion with those who deem the Germans never to have intermarried with other nations; but to be a race, pure, unmixed, and stamped with a distinct character. Hence a family likeness pervades the whole, though their numbers are so great: eyes stern and blue; ruddy hair; large bodies, powerful in sudden exertions, but impatient of toil and labor, least of all capable of sustaining thirst and heat. Cold and hunger they are accustomed by their climate and soil to endure.

The land, though varied to a considerable extent in its aspect, is yet universally shagged with forests, or deformed by marshes: moister on the side of Gaul, more bleak on the side of Norieum and Pannonia. It is productive of grain, but unkindly to fruit-trees. It abounds in flocks and herds, but in general of a small breed.

Even iron is not plentiful among them; as may be inferred from the nature of their weapons. Swords or broad lances are seldom used; but they generally carry a spear, called in their language framea, which has an iron blade, short and narrow, but so sharp and manageable, that, as occasion requires, they employ it either in close or distant fighting.

This spear and a shield are all the armor of the cavalry. The foot have, besides, missile weapons, several to each man, which they hurl to an immense distance. They are either naked, or lightly covered with a small mantle; and have no pride in equipage: their shields only are ornamented with the choicest colors. Few are provided with a coat of mail and scarcely here and there one with a casque or helmet. Their horses are neither remarkable for beauty nor swiftness, nor are they taught the various evolutions practiced with us. The cavalry either bear down straight forwards, or wheel once to the right, in so compact a body that none is left behind the rest. Their principal strength, on the whole, consists in their infantry: hence in an engagement these are intermixed with the cavalry; so well accordant with the nature of equestrian combats is the agility of those foot soldiers, whom they select from the whole body of their youth, and place in the front of the line.

In the election of kings they have regard to birth; in that of generals, to valor. Their kings have not an absolute or unlimited power; and their generals command less through the force of authority, than of example. If they are daring, adventurous, and conspicuous in action, they procure obedience from the admiration they inspire.

The Germans transact no business, public or private, without being armed: but it is not customary for any person to assume arms till the state has approved his ability to use them.

In the field of battle, it is disgraceful for the chief to be surpassed in valor; it is disgraceful for the companions not to equal their chief; but it is reproach and infamy during a whole succeeding life to retreat from the field surviving him.

During the intervals of war, they pass their time less in hunting than in a sluggish repose, divided between sleep and the table. All the bravest of the warriors, committing the care of the house, the family affairs, and the lands, to the women, old men, and weaker part of the domestics, stupefy themselves in inaction.

Their drink is a liquor prepared from barley or wheat brought by fermentation to a certain resemblance of wine.

It is well known that none of the German nations inhabit cities; or even admit of contiguous settlements. They dwell scattered and separate, as a spring, a meadow, or a grove may chance to invite them.

Remember that Germania was written in 98 A.D. during the Gothic migration so he had no sense of the Goths as a major adversary of Rome. To him they were a single member of the tribes who occupied northeastern Germany during his time. They would not reach Scythia until two centuries later.

In the next post we move on to the growing conflict between the Goths and Rome starting in the mid-third century A.D.

Footnote: Jornandes is the primary source of information about the Goths. He was a Goth himself who served as a Roman bureaucrat during the sixth century A.D. Jornandes began to write late in life and chose a history of Rome as his first subject. That task was interrupted when a friend asked him to write a summary of the six volume history of the Goths written by Cassiodorus (lost). Writing in Constantinople, he completed the text in 551 A.D.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Language translations now available

I just added the Google translate widget to my blog which will provide you with a real time translation into your preferred language. The widget is in the left hand column under my picture. Select your language and the translation will be displayed.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Germans – Rome's Greatest Adversary

The German people of antiquity stand out as Rome’s greatest adversary. Caesar never tried to conquer them, content to have them on the other side of the Rhine from his Gaul. Augustus designed a boundary to contain them using the natural boundaries of the Rhine and Danube rivers. After Drusus and Tiberius, Augustus’ stepsons, set up the southern boundary on the Danube in 15 B.C, Augustus put in place a plan to move the eastern boundary to the Weser river. Drusus accomplished that positioning by 11 B.C. and then pushed on to the Elbe in 9 B.C, before his death after falling off a horse. By the end of his life, and not long after the Teutoburg disaster, Augustus pulled the western boundary back to the Rhine and counseled Tiberius to leave it there.

But the Rhine would not be the problem. It was the Danube that would prove to be the sieve through which the Germans would attack Rome and its Mediterranean provinces over a three hundred year period and bring down the empire in the west.

Who were these Germans?

They were not one people but a group of tribes inhabiting Germany and points east to the north shore of the Black Sea. Our knowledge of them is sketchy and the facts missing or unreliable, so we have to piece together the history. We do have their names and maps showing where they lived.

Caesar spoke of the Chatten, Usipeter, and Friesen. But there were also larger tribes made up of absorbed  smaller groups. The Goths, for example, consisted of Ostragoths (eastern branch) and Visigoths (western branch) with varying numbers of smaller tribes included in them. Many times the smaller tribes would go to war with their larger brethren, but remain separate.

The map above shows the major tribes of Germany. Each of them would have a significant impact on the future of Europe. The Franks and Burgunder would occupy France, the Lombards northern Italy, and the Goths and Vandals would come to control most of Europe and beyond. I have indicated the location of the Rhine and Danube rivers in red to give the reader a sense of the Roman borders with the Germans.

In the next few posts we will describe the major tribes in more detail and show how they were able to destroy the western empire.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Stunning Defeat of Maximinus the Giant

Our chronology of the empire now skips forward to 235 A.D. and we pass over Macrinius, Elagabalus, and Severus Alexander in the process.

Macrinius, assassin of Caracalla, reigned for a year. His lack of military success against the Parthians caused dissatisfaction among the troops and that combined with his lack of pedigree caused the army to embrace the 14 year old grandson of the sister of Caracalla’s mother as emperor. His mother had put it out that he was Caracalla’s son. The boy called himself Elagabalus, the hereditary priest of the Oriental sun god and his behavior set new Roman standards for the bizarre and unconventional, recalling Caligula. Once his handlers divined where things were headed, they forced him to adopt his 13 year old cousin as backup. The boys quickly became rivals leading to Elagabalus order that Severus Alexander be put to death. No one would obey the order. He sought to punish the disobedient, but they killed him instead. Alexander ascended to the throne and reigned for 13 years before his youth and lack of fortitude convinced the army a change was needed. Maximinus was declared emperor by the troops and Alexander was killed.

Maximinus was a formidable physical specimen. Unreliable sources have him eight foot tall and though we don’t know for sure, he likely overshadowed his contemporaries in size and strength. Maximinus was the first true barbarian emperor, rising through the ranks as a common soldier. He got the attention of Septimius Severus when he wrestled seventeen men in one afternoon and defeated all of them.

Here is how Gibbon describes him:

He was conscious that his mean and barbarian origin, his savage appearance, and his total ignorance of the arts and institutions of civil life, formed a very unfavorable contrast with the amiable manners of the unhappy Alexander. He remembered that, in his humbler fortune, he had often waited before the doors of the haughty nobles of Rome, and had been denied admittance by the insolence of their slaves. He recollected too the friendship of a few who had relieved his poverty, and assisted his rising hopes. But those who had spurned, and those who had protected, the Thracian, were guilty of the same crime, the knowledge of his original obscurity. For this crime many were put to death; and by the execution of several of his benefactors Maximinus published, in characters of blood, the indelible history of his baseness and ingratitude.

The senate was unhappy with the elevation of Maximinus but gave approval because it had to. Immediately there were two plots against his life – both foiled. He spent the two years fighting the Germans, Dacians, and Sarmatians, exhausting the treasury and using extortion to refill it. The resulting financial condition of Rome stirred up serious opposition.

Now our story gets interesting.

Some wealthy young men in the African province were being forced to give up their estates to fund the emperor’s treasury when they incited a riot, resulting in the death of the money collector. The rioters seized the town of Thysdrus and designated it as the center of a new rebellion against the emperor. The proconsul of Africa, Gordian, was pressured to accept the crown of emperor even though he was eighty years old. Descended from Trajan and the Gracchi, Gordian was one of the most respected men in Rome.

He sent embassies to Rome where the senate, delighted  at the chance to reclaim the empire for the patricians, met secretly in the Temple of Castor and Pollux to consider the matter, and voted Gordian emperor. His son, Gordian II, was named co-emperor. To seal their authority the senate authorized the murder of the praetorian prefect, Vitalianus, a strong supporter of Maximinus.

The senate now sensed the return of their power and proceeded to govern in the old way. Twenty senators were selected to command the army in defense of Italy. Each was given unlimited authority to prepare for battle. At the same time dispatches were sent to the provinces begging the commanders to send help to the city.

Before the defense of Italy could begin, however, the Gordians were dead. A force from Mauritania, loyal to Maximinus, attacked them at Carthage. When the farther heard his son had been killed in battle, he committed suicide after a reign of thirty six days. It was the beginning of March 238 A.D.

Lacking an emperor, the senate was now forced to a war council. One of them, a descendent of Trajan, gave a stirring speech reminding his colleagues that the senate would prevail if they only could reassert their powers long lost. He nominated Balbinus and Maximus as the co-emperors who could lead Rome to victory. Opposite in style and skill -- Balbinus the intellectual and Maximus the soldier --  but complementary in purpose, the two men were elected to the throne.

But the people were not satisfied. They resented the new emperors as aged patricians who did not represent them. Crowds surrounded the Temple of Jupiter demanding that they have a say in the election of an emperor. They forced the senate to name Gordian III, grandson of the elder Gordian, as a third co-emperor. This was done partly out of respect for the sacrifice made by the elder Gordians in launching the rebellion.

Maximinus went wild with rage when he was told of the activities of the senate, and set his mind on the destruction of Italy.

As he began his march to Rome, Maximinus moved southwest out of the Balkans. After passing through the Julian Alps (see map), his army was shocked to see the landscape before them, as the locals had applied a scorched earth policy to the region. Villages had been burned, cattle driven away, and bridges destroyed. Maximinus did not realize it but the other aspect of the plan for defense was the fortification of selected cities to prepare them for the invasion.

 The first city in the army’s path was Aquileia (northeast of Venice). Eight miles from the Adriatic, Aquileia was settled in 181 B.C. as a frontier fortress designed to block entrance into Italy. It’s fortifications had been in disrepair, but the delay of Maximinus gave the city time to re-build the walls and stock the city for battle.

When Maximinus and his army arrived, they decided to pursue a siege strategy and proceeded to cut trees for the construction of siege engines. By the time he was ready, the two commanders of the town, Crispinus and Menophilus, were equally prepared for him. The council of twenty had arranged for all roads to Rome to be blockaded to prevent re-supply of the invaders. The army of Maximinus was repulsed in repeated attacks, his siege engines destroyed by flaming projectiles. The attacks went on from March to May of 238 A.D.

Then a stunning event occurred. I’ll let Gibbon explain.

Maximinus’ soldiers, exposed to the inclemency of the season, the contagion of disease, the horrors of famine, and the wasted land became dispirited and disaffected. Cut off from intelligence, they believed the whole empire had embraced the cause of the senate, and they were left as devoted victims to perish under the walls of Aquileia. The fierce temper of the tyrant was exasperated by disappointments which he imputed to the cowardice of his army; and his wanton and ill timed cruelty, instead of striking terror, inspired hatred, and a just desire for revenge.

A plot was formed between the Praetorian Guard and the second legion (Parthica) to murder the emperor and it was successfully carried out.

Upon hearing of Maximinus’ death, the Aquileians opened the gates of the city and invited their former adversaries to eat. Maximus, overseeing the battle from Ravenna,  returned to Rome in triumph and was greeted by his co-emperors as he entered the city.

It wasn’t long, however,  before Balbinus and Maximus were at each other’s throats. So focused on taking power from each other they ignored the dangerous power of the praetorians and paid with their lives  -- killed during the Capitoline games in July 238 A.D. The praetorians hoisted Gordian III to their shoulders and carried him to their camp, proclaiming him as the only legitimate emperor of Rome.

Young Gordian reigned for six years. When his praetorian prefect, Misitheus, died of the flux, the replacement, Philip, who aspired to the throne, had the boy murdered.

The events described here reflect the continuing rot of the empire. Power was concentrated in armies located far from Rome, commanded by provincials who had no connection to the mother city. In isolation, they rallied around their commanders, who, when they coveted the power of Rome, would move to take over. All of the factors that made the republic function: family history, a sense of culture, substantial political experience, and education were collapsed down to a remnant group of patricians and new men who had lost their authority forever.