Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

An Imperial Savage

We have now reached the period in which began the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Its story is crowded with events, but lacks those dramatic and romantic incidents which give such interest to the history of early Rome. Now good emperors ruled, now bad ones followed, now peace prevailed, now war raged; the story grows monotonous as we advance. The reigns of virtuous emperors yield much to commend but little to describe; those of wicked emperors repel us by their enormities and disgust us by their follies. We must end our tales with a few selections from the long and somewhat dreary list.

After Vespasian came to the throne, a period of nearly two centuries elapsed during most of which Rome was governed by men of virtue and ability, though cursed for a time by the reigns of the cruel Domitian, the dissolute Commodus, the base Caracalla, and the foolish Elagabalus. Fortunately, none of the monsters who disgraced the empire reigned long. Assassination purified the throne. The total length of reign of the cruel monarchs of Rome covered no long space of time, though they occupy a great space in history.

Marcus Aurelius


We have now to tell how the patrician families of Rome lost their hold upon the throne, and a barbarian peasant became lord and master of this vast empire, of which his ancestors of a few generations before had perhaps scarcely heard. The story is an interesting one, and well worth repeating.

Just after the year 200 A.D. the emperor Septimius Severus, father of the notorious Caracalla, while returning from an expedition to the East, halted in Thrace to celebrate, with military games, the birthday of Geta, his youngest son. The spectacle was an enticing one, and the country-people for many miles round gathered in crowds to gaze upon their sovereign and behold the promised sports.

Among those who came was a young barbarian of such gigantic stature and great muscular development as to excite the attention of all who saw him. In a rude dialect, which those who heard could barely understand, he asked if he might take part in the wrestling exercises and contend for the prize. This the officers would not permit. For a Roman soldier to be overthrown by a Thracian peasant, as seemed likely to be the result, would be a disgrace not to be risked. But he might try, if he would, with the camp followers, some of the stoutest of whom were chosen to contend with him. Of these he laid no less than sixteen, in succession, on the ground.

Here was a man worth having in the ranks. Some gifts were given him, and he was told that he might enlist, if he chose; a privilege he was quick to accept. The next day the peasant, happy in the thought of being a soldier, was seen among a crowd of recruits, dancing and exulting in rustic fashion, while his head towered above them all.

The emperor, who was passing in the march, looked at him with interest and approval, and as he rode onward the new recruit ran up to his horse, and followed him on foot during a long and rapid journey without the least appearance of fatigue.

This remarkable endurance astonished Severus. "Thracian," he said, "are you prepared to wrestle after your race?"

"Ready and willing," answered the youth, with alacrity.

Some of the strongest soldiers of the army were now selected and pitted against him, and he overthrew seven of them in rapid succession. The emperor, delighted with this matchless display of vigor and agility, presented him with a golden collar in reward, and ordered that he should be placed in the horse-guards that formed his personal escort.

The new recruit, Maximin by name, was a true barbarian, though born in the empire. His father was a Goth, his mother of the nation of the Alani. But he had judgment and shrewdness, and a valor equal to his strength, and soon advanced in the favor of the emperor, who was a good judge of merit. Fierce and impetuous by nature, experience of the world taught him to restrain these qualities, and he advanced in position until he attained the rank of centurion.

After the death of Severus the Thracian served with equal fidelity under his son Caracalla, whose favor and esteem he won. During the short reign of the profligate and effeminate Elagabalus, Maximin withdrew from the court, but he returned when Alexander Severus, one of the noblest of Roman emperors, came to the throne. The new monarch was familiar with his ability and the incidents of his unusual career, and raised him to the responsible post of tribune of the fourth legion, which, under his rigid care, soon became the best disciplined in the whole army. He was the favorite of the soldiers under his command, who bestowed on their gigantic leader the names of Ajax and Hercules, and rejoiced as he steadily rose in rank under the discriminating judgment of the emperor. Step by step he was advanced until he reached the highest rank in the army, and, but for the evident marks of his savage origin, the emperor might have given his own sister in marriage to the son of his favorite general.

The incautious emperor was nursing a serpent. The favors poured upon the Thracian peasant failed to secure his fidelity, and only nourished his ambition. He began to aspire to the highest place in the empire, which had been won by many soldiers before him. Licentiousness and profligacy had sapped the strength of the army during the weak preceding reigns, and Alexander sought earnestly to overcome this corruption and restore the rigid ancient discipline. It was too great a task for one of his lenient disposition. The soldiers were furious at his restrictions, many mutinies broke out, his officers were murdered, his authority was widely insulted, he could scarcely repress the disorders that broke out in his immediate presence.

This sentiment in the army offered the opportunity desired by Maximin. He sent his emissaries among the soldiers to enhance their discontent. For thirteen years, said those men, Rome had been governed by a weak Syrian, the slave of his mother and the senate. It was time the empire had a man at its head, a real soldier, who could add to its glory and win new treasures for his followers.

Alexander had been engaged in a war with Persia. He had no sooner returned than an outbreak in Germany forced him to hasten to the Rhine. Here a large army was assembled, made up in part of new levies, whose training in the art of war was given to the care of Maximin. The discipline exacted by Alexander was no more acceptable to the soldiers here than elsewhere, and the secret agents of the ambitious Thracian found fertile ground for their insinuations.

At length all was ripe for the outbreak. One day—March 19, 239 A.D.—as Maximin entered the field of exercise, the troops suddenly saluted him as emperor, and silenced by violent exclamations his obstinate show of refusal. The rebels rushed to the tent of Alexander and consummated their conspiracy by striking him dead. His most faithful friends perished with him; others were dismissed from court and army; and some suffered the cruelest treatment from the unfeeling usurper. Thus it was that the imperial dignity descended from the noblest citizens of Rome to a peasant of a distant province of barbarian origin. It was one of the most striking steps in the decline of the empire.

The new emperor was a man of extraordinary physical powers. He is said to have been more than eight feet in height, while his strength and appetite were in accordance with his gigantic stature. It is stated that he could drink seven gallons of wine and eat thirty or forty pounds of meat in a day, and could move a loaded wagon with his arms, break a horse's leg with his fist, crumble stones in his hands, and tear up small trees by the roots. His mental powers did not accord with his physical ones. He was savage of aspect, ignorant of civilized arts, destitute of accomplishments, and ruthless in disposition.

He had the virtues of the camp, and these had endeared him to the soldiers, but his barbarian origin, his savage appearance, and his rudeness and ignorance were the contempt of cultivated people, and had gained him many rebuffs in his humbler days. He was now in a position to revenge himself, not only on the haughty nobles who had treated him with contempt, but even on former friends who were aware of his mean origin,—of which he was heartily ashamed. For both these crimes many were put to death, and the slaughter of several of his former benefactors has stained the memory of Maxnmin with the basest ingratitude.

Rome, in the strange progress of its history, had raised a savage to the imperial seat, and it suffered accordingly. A scion of the despised barbarians of the northern forests was now its emperor, and he visited on the proud citizens of Rome the wrongs of his ancestors. The suspicion and cruelty of Maximin were unbounded and unrelenting. A consular senator named Magnus was accused of a conspiracy against his life. Without trial or opportunity for defence Magnus was put to death, with no less than four thousand supposed accomplices.

This was but an incident in a frightful reign of terror. The emperor kept aloof from his capital, but he filled Rome, and the whole empire, in fact, with spies and informers. The slightest accusation or suspicion was sufficient for the blood-thirsty tyrant. On a mere unproved charge Roman nobles of the highest descent—men who had served as consuls, governed provinces, commanded armies, enjoyed triumphs—were seized, chained on the public carriages, and borne away to the distant camp of the low-born tyrant.

Here they found neither justice nor compassion. Exile, confiscation, and ordinary execution were mild measures with Maximin. Some of the unfortunates were clubbed to death, some exposed to wild beasts, some sewed in the hides of slaughtered animals and left to perish. The worst enormities of Caligula and Nero were rivaled by this rude soldier, who, during the three years of his reign, disdained to visit either Rome or Italy, and permitted no men of high birth, elegant accomplishments, or knowledge of public business to approach his person. His imperial seat shifted from a camp on the Rhine to one on the Danube, and his sole idea of government seems to have been the execution of the suspected.

It was the great that suffered, and to this the people were indifferent. But they all felt his avarice. The soldiers demanded rewards, and the empire was drained to supply them. By a single edict all the stored-up revenue of the cities was taken to supply Maximin's treasury. The temples were robbed of their treasures, and the statues of gods, heroes, and emperors were melted down and converted into coin. A general cry of indignation against this impiety rose throughout the Roman world, and it was evident that the end of this frightful tyranny was approaching.

An insurrection broke out in Africa. It was supported in Rome. But it ended in failure, the Gordians, father and son, who headed it, were slain, and the senate and nobles of Rome fell into mortal terror. They looked for a frightful retribution from the imperial monster. With the courage of despair they took the only step that remained: two new emperors, Maximus and Balbinus, were appointed, and active steps taken to defend Italy and Rome.

There was no time to be lost. News of these revolutionary movements had roused in Maximin the rage of a wild beast. All who approached his person were in danger, even his son and nearest friends. Under his command was a large, well-disciplined, and experienced army. He was a soldier of acknowledged valor and military ability. The rebels, with their hasty levies and untried commanders, had everything to fear.

They took judicious steps. When the troops of Maximin, crossing the Julian Alps, reached the borders of Italy, they were terrified by the silence and desolation that prevailed. The villages and open towns had been abandoned, the bridges destroyed, the cattle driven away, the provisions removed, the country made a desert. The people had gathered into the walled cities, which were plentifully provisioned and garrisoned. The purpose of the senate was to weaken Maximin by famine and retard him by siege.

The first city assailed was Aquileia. It was fully provisioned and vigorously defended, the inhabitants preferring death on their walls to death by the tyrant's order. Yet Rome was in imminent danger. Maximin might at any moment abandon the siege of a frontier city and march upon the capital. There was no army capable of opposing him. The fate of Rome hung upon a thread.

The hand of an assassin cut that thread. The severity of the weather, the growth of disease, the lack of food, had spread disaffection through Maximin's army. Ignorant of the true state of affairs, many of the soldiers feared that the whole empire was in arms against them. The tyrant, vexed at the obstinate defence of Aquileia, visited his anger on his men, and roused a stern desire for revenge. The end came soon. A party of Prætorian guards, in dread for their wives and children, who were in the camp of Alba, near Rome, broke into sudden revolt, entered Maximin's tent, and killed him, his son, and the principal ministers of his tyranny.

The whole army sympathized with this impulsive act. The heads of the dead, borne on the points of spears, were shown the garrison, and at once the gates were thrown open, the hungry troops supplied with food, and a general fraternization took place. Joy in the fall of the tyrant was universal throughout the empire, the two new emperors entered Rome in a triumphal procession, people and nobles alike went wild with enthusiasm, and the belief was entertained that a golden age was to succeed the age of iron that had come to an end. Yet within three months afterwards both the new emperors were massacred in the streets of Rome, and the hoped-for era of happiness and prosperity vanished before the swelling tide of oppression, demoralization, and decline.