Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

From Marcus Aurelius to Diocletian

So wise a man as Marcus Aurelius must have seen that there were several reasons why the empire was not so strong as it had been in the earlier times. In the first place, there was a lack of citizens. Vast numbers had been slain in the wars, and the custom of casting infants out to perish had become so common that the places of these men had not been filled. Then, too, there was no stable government. If an emperor respected the senate, he deferred to its wishes; if not, he went very much his own way. It is hard to feel devotion to a country with an unstable government, and patriotism had almost disappeared.

Again, the Romans scorned work; and slaves had been so cheap that work had been left to them while the masters lived in idleness. Land was in the hands of the few rather than the many. Grain could be brought to Italy cheaper than it could be raised there, and the small farmers had gradually given up their farms and joined the crowds of idle folk in the city, doing no work, and depending upon the government for food and amusement. Everyone wanted luxuries, such as silks and spices; and they must be brought from the East. The chief manufactures of the Mediterranean countries were leather and wool, and the East did not care for these. In consequence, Rome had to pay in silver or gold for all her Eastern imports. Therefore, the silver and gold were going out of the country rapidly. More did not come in, for the wealth of Rome had come not from production, but from conquest, and now the conquests had ceased.

Taxes were high; there was no definite arrangement by which when one emperor died, the people could be sure who would succeed him. The conquered nations had small interest in Rome, and from the Romans themselves they had learned how to wage war to the death when they wished to rebel. Moreover, beyond this ring of conquered nations there were hordes of barbarians crowding nearer and nearer to the Roman boundaries, and the best strength of the empire was constantly called upon to check their advance. If there was a fire, a famine, or an earthquake with loss of people and property, there was no way to make the loss good.

A long succession of strong, wise rulers might have done much to make the empire strong and united; but the first one to follow the good Marcus Aurelius was his son Commodus, and a more unworthy son of a worthy man never lived. His chief pleasure was gladiatorial contests; and he was not satisfied with seeing bloodshed, he must cause it with his own weapons. More than seven hundred times the emperor of Rome degraded himself by entering the arena and contending with wild beasts, or with men armed with weapons of lead or tin. The senate meekly bestowed upon him various titles of honor, but the one that pleased him most was the "Roman Hercules."

He was followed by Pertinax, who would gladly have brought about many reforms; but the praetorians did not wish a ruler of that stamp, and they actually auctioned off the Roman empire. One wealthy man offered eight hundred dollars to each soldier of the guard; but a second offered a thousand dollars, and it was knocked down to him. Each of the armies in other parts of the realm declared its own general to be emperor. The strongest of all these candidates was Lucius Septimius Severus. He won the prize, and the purchaser of the empire was slain.

Much of the reign of Severus was spent in trying to thrust the barbarians back from the frontier. The deed by which he is most clearly remembered is his disbanding of the old praetorian guard of Italians and forming another. This new guard consisted of fifty thousand men, and they were of all nationalities. The chief power was held by these foreign soldiers; and therefore Rome was already in the hands of strangers, though no one realized it. A man might do whatever he chose if only he could win over the soldiers. It was easy to win them if one had gold enough, and taxing the people would bring in gold. The emperor Caracalla, son of Severus, was so in need of money for this purpose that to increase the taxes he admitted to citizenship all freeborn people throughout the empire.

Of the many men who sat on the imperial throne between 180 A. D. and 268 A. D., few are worthy of notice. One was a young boy from Syria; one an ignorant peasant; at one time there were actually thirty generals, the Thirty Tyrants, as they are called, each of whom claimed the right to rule. The soldiers put anyone in power who had made them gifts or whom they fancied for the moment; and when they were tired of him, they murdered him and put in some one else. The better an emperor was, the sooner he was put to death. Alexander Severus did all that a man could do to control the soldiers and rule the country well; but of course in such a condition his reign was short.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Matters began to look darker and darker. The army was the only power in the empire. A soldier's first duty is to obey; and as this army had no idea of obeying anything but their own will, they were not valuable soldiers. Unfortunately for Rome, her enemies grew strong as her soldiers grew weak, and the Romans were defeated in battle after battle. Rome never needed loyal defenders worse, for the Germans on the Rhine and the Danube were pushing into the Roman lands; and Persia, on the east, had become a powerful kingdom. In Rome itself there was no government at all, for no one could hope to become emperor who was not a general of one army or sat another, and no army would recognize any general but its own. The whole empire was in confusion. It did not seem as if order could be restored for even a moment; but it came about that once more five good men in succession held the throne and ruled so wisely and with so strong a hand that for a few years the fate of the empire seemed more hopeful.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Aurelian, one of these five, made the famous capture of Palmyra. This was a wealthy city on an oasis in the Syrian desert. Its ruler was Zenobia, a woman who was every inch a queen. She was finely educated; she could ride or walk at the head of the troops; and she could command them. It was said that several of her husband's victories were due to her excellent generalship. Some of these victories had been won over the Persian king, and the Romans had shown much gratitude. At her husband's death, she took the throne. The Romans objected and sent an army against her, which she promptly defeated. It was thought that she was planning an empire that should rival Rome, and Aurelian himself took up arms to overthrow Palmyra. He wrote home, "The Roman people speak with contempt of the war which I am waging against a woman. They are ignorant both of the character and of the power of Zenobia." After a siege Palmyra surrendered and was destroyed. Zenobia was captured and taken to Rome. There she was sumptuously dressed, bound with golden fetters, and loaded with glittering jewels of many colors. About her neck was wound a golden chain so heavy that a slave had to help her carry it; and in these trappings she walked through the streets of Rome in the triumph of Aurelian. After this, Aurelian gave her a handsome residence twenty miles from the city, and there she and her children lived.

The end of the reign of the five emperors came in the year 284 A. D. The throne fell next to Diocletian, who made so many changes that he seemed almost the "founder of a new empire."


The empire was becoming weak from loss of citizens, lack of stable government, idleness, love of luxury, and cessation of conquests. Marcus Aurelius was followed by his gladiator son Commodus. The empire was sold at auction. Severus formed a new praetorian guard of foreign soldiers. Caracalla admitted to citizenship all freeborn people in the empire. The soldiers made emperor whomever they chose. The empire was in confusion. Aurelian captured and destroyed Palmyra in 273 A.D.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • A Roman tells why the empire is becoming weak.
  • Why was it an especial shame for an emperor to be a gladiator?
  • Why was it unwise to admit all freeborn people to citizenship?