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Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Category: Antiquity

Julia the Elder – the Julio-Claudian Game of Thrones

In many respects it is surprising that Hollywood has not yet identified the story of Julia the Elder (30 October 39 BC – AD 14), sole child of Emperor Augustus, and the House of the Julians as the subject of a production which easily might rival “Game of Thrones” or similar TV tomes.

Her family entanglements alone were manifold: she was not only (1) the sole child and daughter of the Emperor Augustus, but (2) the stepsister and second wife (yes!) of the Emperor Tiberius, also the (3) maternal grandmother of the Emperor Caligula and Empress Agrippina the Younger; she also was (4) grandmother-in-law of the Emperor Claudius, and last not least (5) maternal great-grandmother of the Emperor Nero.

Like other famous women of antiquity, Cleopatra or Theodora, the light she was painted in by her contemporary historians is fluctuating between invective and accolade. We must keep in mind though that invective, in particular of sexual nature, was par for the course in ancient politicising – especially in the Roman Empire which was characterised by public exhortations of virtue and chastity (countless laws were passed to fortify the public morals) , but in reality was but one big brothel – as pretty much all contemporary sources agree.

Her mother was Augustus’ second wife Scribonia, but as the Emperor had divorced her (to add insult to injury Augustus remarried on the day Julia was born), she grew up with her then-stepmother Livia.

It would appear that her father emphasised a good, if strict, education, and all sources agree on Julia’s knowledge of literature and culture. As it would be expected, at the age of 14, in 25 BC, she was married to a political favourite among Augustus’ assistants, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who, alas, died of an epidemic two years later.

His death in no respect came unwelcome to Marcellus’ great rival and second lieutenant to Augustus, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa , who proceeded – two years later – to inherit Julia. And here it gets complicated from the start. Although the marriage resulted in five children, rumours of Julia’s lax interpretation of the holy vows began immediately. Not only did she apparently begin a long time affair with a certain Sempronius Gracchus (who was later banned for the affair by Augustus and, it seems, executed by Tiberius after his becoming emperor in AD 14), but, so it was widely rumoured, developed a passion for the selfsame Tiberius, who was indeed her stepbrother by adoption.

Yet in 12 BCE, Agrippa suddenly expired as well, and Augustus, after the loss of the second heir presumptive quickly married off his daughter – after an only perfunctory period of mourning – to the next in line, Tiberius, in 11 BCE.

Yet the marriage seemed to have been blighted from the start. Nonwithstanding Julia’s earlier infatuation with Tiberius, he had since married Vipsania Agrippina, a daughter of  Marcus Agrippa, and was reported to be very fond of her. Yet by Imperial command a divorce and subsequent remarriage to Julia could not be circumvented. The union, however, produced no offspring and after a few years the non-lovers separated.

Now we get to the part where the story gets juicy. Nonwithstanding the rumours of her earlier infidelities (of which, at least in the case of Sempronius, the whole Empire was reasonably aware), in AD 2, she was actually arrested on her father’s orders for adultery and treason. But Augustus found himself in a bind he had created himself.

In 18 BC, he has passed, among some other bills sponsoring the moral superiority of the Roman race, the “Lex Iulia de adulteriis, which not only punished adultery with banishment, in which the two perpetrators were to be banned on two different islands and their property could be partially confiscated, but allowed fathers to kill guilty daughters and their lovers, if they could lay hands on them, and husbands, depending on the circumstances of the crime, to kill the culprits and required to divorce the wives. The responsibility for punishing a daughter lay with the paterfamilias, hence, in the present case, Augustus himself.

Now the Emperor had to prosecute the daughter, which he did. As Tiberius was absent from the capital, Augustus sent her a letter in his name, asserting that Julia had actually schemed against his life in addition to the sexual crimes and declared the marriage null and void.

Julia was sent to banishment on the tiny island of Pandateria (today’s Ventotene) , then a manless and wineless (for she was fond of wine) barren spot in the Tyrrhenian Sea. She was forbidden to receive visitors and spent her last years solely in the presence of her mother, who shared the exile. Later, two of her children were exiled as well, for various other offenses.

Augustus moved her back to the mainland after five years and granted her a small allowance, favours who were been taken away when her former husband, Tiberius, became Emperor in AD 14. She died in the same year – probably starved to death, a favourite method of Imperial providence.

Why was Augustus so harsh – harsher, actually, than the law prescribed? He was entitled to do whatever he saw fit – he might simply have ignored the whole affair. Clearly he did it for matters of state and his own image as self-proclaimed moral renovator of the Empire. The suspicion of modern historians is that there is, however, a greater context to observe – an offensive against the tendency of Roman women of the late Republic to emancipate themselves from the tight male reign they were held in. Like Sulla, Octavian was an arch-conservative and as some historians have assumed, may have followed no lesser target than to establish himself as the moral paterfamilias of the whole Empire – as the absolute authority.

What about Julia’s alleged behaviour in the first place? Various ancient historians have criticised her sexual behaviour. For reasons of convenience. I will cite here the respective Wikipedia summary ( which I not usually do):

‘Marcus Velleius Paterculus describes her as “tainted by luxury or lust”, listing among her lovers Iullus Antonius, Quintius Crispinus, Appius Claudius, Sempronius Gracchus, and Cornelius Scipio. Seneca the Younger refers to “adulterers admitted in droves”; Pliny the Elder calls her an “exemplum licentiae” . Dio Cassius mentions “revels and drinking parties by night in the Forum and even upon the Rostra“. Seneca tells us that the Rostra was the place where “her father had proposed a law against adultery”, and yet now she had chosen the place for her “debaucheries”. Seneca specifically mentions prostitution: “laying aside the role of adulteress, she there [in the Forum] sold her favours, and sought the right to every indulgence with even an unknown paramour.” Modern historians discredit these representations as exaggerating Julia’s behaviour.

Macrobius provides invaluable details of her witticisms and personality. Among the sassy ripostes he attributes to her is a retort to people’s surprise that all her children all resembled Agrippa – “I take on a passenger only when the ship’s hold is full.” On her character, he writes that Julia was extensively celebrated for her amiable, empathetic nature and studiousness despite her profligacy; “She was abusing her standing as fortune’s darling, and her father’s, though in other respects she gained a great deal of credit for her love of literature and extensive learning… and her kindness, fellow-feeling, and lack of cruelty.’

We must see the whole picture within the background of the incessant succession conflicts that were legendary during the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The early Empire was notably different from later forms of dynastic inheritance that the concept of primogeniture did not exist and adoption was a common and entirely legal and accepted alternative in succession issues. Neither existed a legally prescribed formula how to bequeath the Imperial succession. Since neither Augustus, Caligula or Nero fathered a legitimate son, adoption became the common way for the respective Emperor to manage his succession in the desired route.

Hence positive selection – usually adoption – and negative selection – murder by poison or execution for treason – competed in a certain balance of which every member of the court was only too accurately aware of. Because so few plain opportunities of genuine succession occurred – normal father-son or grandfather-grandson relations – it was almost normal behaviour of the family members to contemplate the murder of the heirs apparent to advance the chances of their own offspring, lovers or favourites.

In addition, the return to the Republic was never legally excluded – and always remained a bane to the Imperial family – hence the successively rising power of the magistri militum, who by the fifth century did reign in reality by using tame puppet Emperors.

Whether Julia played the succession game in earnest or became simply the victim of a gambit by her father, we do not know. Some historians have advanced the thesis that Julia supported a group of nobles who intended to replace Tiberius as heir apparent with Julius Antonius, who, as son of Marc Anthony, might have been a more popular candidate for Augustus’ succession. He had been a praetor before, and also proconsul for Asia.

The drawback of the theory is that Julius Antonius’ succession would have disadvantaged Julia’s own sons Gaius and Lucius Caesar, who had already been adopted by their grandfather Augustus and did have their own place in the pyramid of succession.

It remains a toss-up what the real reasons were for Julia’s downfall – Augustus certainly was a straight-laced sourpuss but a canny politician. What remains of Julia’s proverbial quick-wittedness remains the above-mentioned explanation she gave why all her children resembled Agrippa – her then-husband – so much, despite her alleged promiscuity.

“I take on a passenger only when the ship’s hold is full.” [Macrobius, Saturnalia, Book II, 5:9.)  

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

 

Sex and Poison in Ancient Rome

Messalina - painting by Joaquin Sorolla
Messalina – painting by Joaquin Sorolla

This post may endanger the continued existence of civilisation … we advocate utmost caution.

Poppea brings the Head of Octavia to Nero, by G. Muzzioli (1876)

Unbelievably, a most irresponsible internet website professing the noble purview of teaching the Latin language, has not shrunk from itemizing a list of female Roman scandals of the most heinous sort, menacing the eternal sanctity of holy matrimony and human decency. Sexual perversion, treason and poisoning are only a few example of their human fallacies. Beware!

Henryk Siemiradzkis – The Flame of Christendom

We include the following links with the urgent admonition to block them wholesale and forever – for the sake of morality and perhaps your eternal soul.

https://blogs.transparent.com/latin/the-top-ten-scandalous-women-of-ancient-romepart-i/

https://blogs.transparent.com/latin/the-top-ten-scandalous-women-of-ancient-rome-part-ii/

https://blogs.transparent.com/latin/the-top-ten-scandalous-women-in-ancient-romefinale/

The Death of Messalina by Georges Antoine Rochegrosse

Theodora

Empress Theodora - painting by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant
Empress Theodora – painting by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

Very little is factually known about Theodora, but the juicy stories of Procopius of Caesarea have secured her the attention of everybody who bears an interest in history or gossip. On the other hand, a grateful Orthodox Church has turned her into sainthood – whatever the truth, it is a darn good yarn – great copy, they would call it in New York.

She was probably born around AD 500. Procopius relates that her father Acacius was a bear-tamer in the employ of the “Green“, one of the circus parties, and her mother most probably some artist or acrobat. When the husband died, she was left destitute with three young children (Theodora and her two young sisters) to care for, and sought to obtain a livelihood at the circus with the Green party, on behalf of her deceased husband.

Her pleadings ignored by the Green, she found support with the competition, the Blue, of whom she and subsequently her daughter Theodora became fervent supporters. That in itself might not have mattered much in the greater scheme of Byzantinian life, had Theodora not been crowned Empress of the Realm by dint of her marriage in 527 to Emperor Justinian I, who himself had been a fan of the Blue for life.

The importance of the circus factions derived from the fact that these groups – far exceeding the scope of circus games – had become social, almost political gatherings. In the early days of the Republic, there had been four teams – the Red, White, Green and Blue. Yet at the time of Justinian, the Green had long since absorbed the Red, as the Blue had swallowed the White.

Various historians have advanced particulars in which the two great factions presumably differed outside of the racetrack. The Green have been labeled supporters of monophysitism – of which Theodora was a confessor – and, perhaps, the party of the small people, while the Blue professed the truth of orthodoxy and were murmured to be backed by the rich – which did not sound unlikely given that the Emperor was a fervent supporter of the Blue.

Other views have doubted this view by pointing out that the passions of the games alone were quite sufficient to cause havoc on the grandest scales one might imagine. It is reported that in AD 501 the Green ambushed the competition right in the capital’s amphitheatre and slaughtered three thousand of the Blue. Four years later the defection from the Blue and subsequent win of a race in Antiochia of the Green charioteer Porphyrius caused a public riot.

Be this as it may, in January 532 the kettle boiled over. Emanating from a stupid affair in 531 in which a minor riot had killed a few members of both parties, two of the last perpetrators to be hanged in early 532 – one Green and one Blue – escaped from custody and took refuge in a church, which was soon beleaguered by an angry mob.

Justinian found himself in a somewhat awkward situation. Another round of the eternal peace negotiations with the Persians was underfoot, and the equally perpetual angriness of the people over the suffocating taxes the fiscus of the treasurer, John of Cappadocia, exerted from the populace had reached an apex. To take pressure out of the situation which threatened to destroy the public peace, Justinian sponsored a 24 races day on January 13, to calm the ruffled feathers of the capital’s population.

It seems fairly clear that he intended to distract the crowds’ attention with the certain divisiveness of the show, but soon the partisan chants for the two parties gave way to emanations of popular discontent clearly addressed at the highest authority; both factions, Green and Blue alike, clamoured for the Emperor’s mercy for the two murderers until at length a unified cheer of “Nika!” (‘Victory!’, or ‘Conquer!’) arose, the populace rose from their seats and the astonished emperor suddenly realized he faced overthrow.

Scheming senators had long used the reckless tax hikes of the Imperial fiscus to foment discontent among the people. The irate multitudes laid the palace under siege – subsequent fires destroved much of the city in the next five days, even the Hagia Sophia. On January 19th, the crowds installed Hypatius, consul of the year 500 and nephew of the former emperor Anastasius on the Imperial throne.

Enter the famous story in which Justinian, considering flight, is humiliated by the iron will of Theodora, who emboldens the Imperial household with the winged words that she, herself, would not want to survive the loss of the crown, for “royal purple” she said, “makes for the noblest shroud.”

We do not know who then plotted the way out of the crisis, but the steel will of the Empress may well have played a role. The plot was based on the special talents of the generals Belisarius and Mundus, and the thespian and rhetoric skill of the eunuch Narses. It may not surprise anyone that the plan hatched was based on the metals of Imperial splendour – gold and iron.

Narses was sent, with a bag full of gold as heavy as he could carry, to the hippodrom to bribe or persuade the leaders of the Blue. He may have argued that Hypatius was a follower of the Green, while Justinian was and had always been their man, a Blue. We do not know what did the trick in the end – words or money – but when the Blue suddenly left the hippodrome and the troops of Belisar and Mundus moved in, killing every Green they could lay hands on, the rebellion was over. About 30,000 are said to have been slaughtered.

The outcome was fortitious in the sense that Justinian now had no problem to have Hypatius executed and all senators he suspected of having supported the revolt exiled and their fortunes confiscated – thereinafter his reign was never in doubt again, neither the political leverage of Theodora.

She was certainly of low birth, no matter what we think of the pornographic epithets she regularly receives in Procopius’ “Secret History“. Justinian himself, of whom we know much more, was quite a no-nonsense man, hence we may legitimately doubt inhowfar the erotic entanglements of Theodora indeed had the effect Procopius ascertains – but of course we do not know.

What seems more likely is – given the sultry athmospheres of oriental Imperial courts – that the Empress employed her interpersonal abilities in the perennial fights for influence amongst the court advisors.


It was rumoured that in her youth she had worked together with her sister Komito in a number of the better brothels of the capital, and later travelled with – adult entertainment groups, one might say – through Asia minor and Africa before she arrived – around AD 520 – in Constantinople, where she made the acquaintance of a Mr. Petrus Sabbatius, who was the nephew of Justin I, who two years ago had met the good fortune of being crowned Emperor of the Romans. Two or three years later she married Justinian – as Mr. Sabbatius now was called, being heir apparent to the empire – an act which necessitated the enactment of a special legal act of dispensation from the general proscription of senators marrying – hm – actresses.

We must keep in mind that invective writings for political purposes were par for the course in antiquity, one of the more famous examples or victims being Julia the Elder, sole child of Emperor Augustus, who stood accused of serial adutery, even prostitution, by half a dozen Roman historians. Lust and wickedness are ascribed to Theodora in great detail by the quill of Procopius – as Tom Holland relates (In the Shadow of the Sword, Doubleday Books 2012, ISBN 978-0-385-53135-1, pp. 188-9):

Even her bitterest critics – of whom there were many – grudgingly acknowledged that Theodora, consort and beloved of the emperor, was a woman of exceptional abilities. Shrewd, far-sighted and bold, she ranked, in the opinion of Justinian’s cattier critics, as more of a man than her husband ever did.

Rumour had it that at the height of the deadly riots of 532, Constantinople ablaze and Justinian twitchily contemplating flight, she stiffened the imperial backbone by declaring, with a magnificent show of haughtiness, that “purple makes for an excellent shroud.” ( supra)

Steel of this order, in a woman, was unsettling enough to the Roman elite; but even more so were the origins of the empress. Theodora, like an exotic bloom sustained by dung, had her roots, so it was darkly whispered, deep in filth. Dancer, actress and stand-up comic, she had also – long before puberty – been honing on slaves and the destitute a career even more scandalous.

Her vagina, it was said, might just as well have been in her face; and, indeed, such was the use to which she put all three of her orifices that “she would often complain that she did not have orifices in her nipples as well.” The gang-bang had never been held that could wear her out. Most notorious of all had been her trademark floor-show, which had seen her lie on her back, have her genitals sprinkled with grain, and then wait for geese to pick the seeds off one by one with their beaks. Such were the talents, so her critics sneered, that had won for her the besotted devotion of the master of the world. Yet, this sorely underestimated both husband and wife.

She had been promoted to “Augusta” and co-Emperor by her husband in AD 532 at the for Justinian most beneficial occasion of his own ascent to Emperor following his uncle’s death.

It is certain that until her death in AD 548 she remained her husband’s closest advisor, together with but far outshining Belisarius, Narses, and John of Cappadocia. About the relations of Belisarius and his wife Antonina, who was a dear friend of Theodora and was rumoured to be second only to the empress in carnal knowledge, Procopius also has to relate much.

As mentioned above, Theodora was a monophysite and hence the minority, which still exists in some Oriental Orthodox Churches, received protection as long as she lived.

The present author’s modesty prevents him from quoting directly the more juicy passages of Procopius’s scandalous defamations. Whosoever feels the need for further expedition into the salacious world of the “Secret History” may do so – at his/her own peril – hcheck out the blog entry on Procopius.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019, Paintings, except where noted, by
Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant)

The Gothic Wars

Large Scale Map (new window)

Battle on Mons Lactarius by Alexander Zick
Battle on Mons Lactarius by Alexander Zick

Clovis I (Chlodwig, Chlodowech), the first man resonably called “King of the Franks” (Rex Francorum) did not hesitate long in his desire for the geographic expansion of his realm. Chris Wickham relates (in The Inheritance of Rome, Viking Books 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, p.92) that “in 507 he attacked the Visigoths, defeating and killing Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé, and virtually drove them out of Gaul (they only kept the province of Languedoc, on the Mediterranean coast). The Burgundians held on for a time, but in the 520’s Clovis’s sons attacked them too, and took over their kingdom in 534.” Before long, Clovis accepted from Emperor Anastasius the honour of the Roman consulship, as a sign of Imperial support for his Catholic associates. But Clovis died soon, only four years after Vouillé [AD 511] and Italy remained beyond Frankish reach.

That particular trophy went to an initially obscure warlord, who governed the Ostrogoths, a people who numbered perhaps less than one hundred thousand heads and still lived along the middle Danube. This duke, Theodoric, one day received an embassy from the Eastern Emperor Zeno, Anastasius’ successor, who, at length, did want to punish the rebellious upstart Odovacar in Italy. In the missive, Zeno invited the Ostrogoths to subjugate Italy in his name and to destroy Odovacar’s regime of mercenaries. Theodoric accepted, and the greatest part of the nation set forth from their Pannonian pastures and Illyrian meadows in the direction of fabled Italia.

Zeno, however, got more than he had bargained for; belatedly he realized that the precious Italian provinces were now in hands much more capable than those of the comparatively simple soldier Odovacar. Theoderic’s gifts did not include literacy, but a keen sense of political feasibility, of justice and fairness, honour and honesty, and in the murderous centuries of the age of migration, his name is one of the very few for whom the appellation of “the Great” is perhaps justified. His Goths swiftly closed in on Odovacar, who had no choice but to gain the security of Ravenna, where he resisted the Gothic siege for almost three years.

Yet in the commission of his duty, Theodoric committed, with his own hand (it is said), the only crime of his life. When, in March of AD 493, the situation became unbearable for both besiegers and besieged, a diplomatic mission succeeded with the proposal that Odovacar and Theodoric were to govern Italy and some neighbouring provinces [Sicily, Dalmatia, Noricum and Bavaria] together, like the original consuls had ruled the early Imperium Romanum. Edward Gibbon reports on the outcome of the deal:

A treaty of peace was negotiated by the bishop of Ravenna; the Ostrogoths were admitted to the city, and the hostile kings consented, under the sanction of an oath, to rule with equal and undivided authority over the provinces of Italy.

The event of such an agreement may be easily foreseen. After some days had been devoted to the semblance of joy and friendship, Odoacer, in the midst of a solemn banquet, was stabbed by the hand, or at least by the command, of his rival.

Secret and effectual orders had been previously despatched; the faithless and rapacious mercenaries, at the same moment and without resistance, were universally massacred; and the royalty of Theodoric was proclaimed by the Goths, with the tardy, reluctant, ambiguous consent of the emperor of the East. The reputation of Theodoric may repose with more confidence on the visible peace and prosperity of a reign of thirty-three years, the unanimous esteem of his own times, and the memory of his wisdom and courage, his justice and humanity, which was deeply impressed on the minds of the Goths and Italians. [March 5, AD 493 – August 30, AD 526].

Zeno’s mounting anxieties were completely justified when, after the death of Alaric II at Vouillé, Theodoric was invested with the regency over the kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain, as the warden of Euric, Alaric’s eldest son [here seems to be some confusion, on Alaric’s sons see Amalaric]. Should Theodoric succeed to reunite the Goths and lead them against Constantinople, the continued existence of the Eastern Empire might well be in peril. Yet Theodoric did not strive at further conquests, which, he believed, could not be gainfully controlled with the limited number of troops available to him. Instead he emphasized in embassies who he directed to his German neighbours, the necessity of unity against their enemies; that is, against Byzantium.

Theodoric had diagnosed this enmity correctly, and it eventually resulted in unintended consequences for the Eastern Empire. Therefore we shall have a more detailed look at the events of the second quarter of the sixth century. Significant changes on the political map around the Mediterranean Sea in the generation after Zeno and Theodoric were provoked, in these decades, by Emperor Justinian and his Imperial reconquista, which, one might argue, ran against the Empire’s best interests. Theodoric had brought stability to the remaining core provinces of the West; stability that Justinian could have utilized instead of hazarding it. Chris Wickham explains:

Theodoric ruled Italy from Ravenna, the western Roman capital, with a traditional Roman administration, a mixture of senatorial leaders from the city of Rome and career bureaucrats; he was (as Odovacar had also been) respectful of the Roman senate, and he made a ceremonial visit to the city in 500, with formal visits to St. Peter’s, to the senate building, and then to the imperial palace on the Palatine, where he presided over games, like any emperor. …The administrative and fiscal system had changed little; the same traditional landowners dominated politics, beside a new (but partly Romanizing) Gothic or Ostrogothic military elite.

Ostrogothic Italy was the most “Roman” of all Germanic kingdoms in the West, and might have remained so. Tom Holland (In the Shadow of the Sword, Doubleday Books 2012, ISBN 978-0-385-53135-1) summarizes the effect of Theoderic’s long reign in that …

“…whether addressing crowds in the Forum, slaughtering armies of savages beyond the Alps, or building palaces, aqueducts and baths, he demonstrated to glorious effect just how Roman a king of foederati might truly be. By the time of his death in 526, he had ruled as the master of Italy for longer than any Caesar, with the exception of Augustus himself. As a result, it seems barely to have crossed the minds of most Italians that they might not still belong to a Roman Empire.”

Yet the emergence of new characters on the stage of Byzantium changed the political picture completely within a single year: in 527, one year after Theoderic’s death, the powers of the Empire were invested upon the new emperor Justinian, nephew of the previous emperor Justin, whose reign was long assisted by the famously wicked (says Procopius) Empress Theodora, the general Belisarius and the talented eunuch Narses.

Justinian, whom the dutiful laudations of his courtiers soon labelled “the Great”, was the son of a Bulgarian shepherd who nourished his flock on grazing grounds somewhere near today’s Sofia. The youth eventually headed to Constantinople, under the tutelage of his uncle Justin and two fellow villagers, the three of whom enlisted in the legions upon their arrival. The uncle proved an industrious if not exceedingly gifted soldier: but in an age when average performance, by the old standards, stood out as heroism had in days of yore, he was promoted steadily: to tribune, count, general, senator; finally to the command of the palace guard. He did not only retain his life and fortune at the delicate occasion of Anastasius’ death in AD 518, but emerged from the momentary confusion in possession of the diadem and purple that Anastasius had to relinquish the previous night.

Justin’s age, at this most important promotion of his life, was already sixty-eight, and since he was a brave but not an educated man and governed the realm without the benefit of literacy, he had to rely on the counsel of his quaestor Proclus in affairs of the empire, and groomed his nephew Justinian as heir apparent.

A few years passed without remarkable advents, and an old wound which persistently festered despite the mobilisation of all the doctors of the capital at length deprived Justin of his life. His last act of state was to affix, in the presence of the senators and excellencies of the realm, the diadem of the Imperial dignity upon his nephew’s head, who was forty-five years of age at the beneficial occasion. The subsequent reign of the emperor Justinian has been accounted for in copious detail by the quill of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who lived in Constantinople as a patrician and senator during Justinian’s government. He has provided us with comprehensive descriptions of his sovereign’s activities as legislator, builder, especially of churches, warlord – relating to the campaigns of his generals – and bane of mankind.

The latter particularity, described in his Secret History, Procopius attributes to a large degree to the nefarious influence of the famous Theodora, whom Justinian promoted from most popular ecdysiast of the theatre and most expensive strumpet of the capital to the ranks of First Lady, Empress, and, post-mortem, Saint. The story is simply too juicy to be disregarded, and here is Tom Holland’s take on it:

Even her bitterest critics – of whom there were many – grudgingly acknowledged that Theodora, consort and beloved of the emperor, was a woman of exceptional abilities. Shrewd, far-sighted and bold, she ranked, in the opinion of Justinian’s cattier critics, as more of a man than her husband ever did.

Rumour had it that at the height of the deadly riots of 532, Constantinople ablaze and Justinian twitchily contemplating flight, she stiffened the imperial backbone by declaring, with a magnificent show of haughtiness, that “purple makes for an excellent shroud.”

Steel of this order, in a woman, was unsettling enough to the Roman elite; but even more so were the origins of the empress. Theodora, like an exotic bloom sustained by dung, had her roots, so it was darkly whispered, deep in filth. Dancer, actress and stand-up comic, she had also – long before puberty – been honing on slaves and the destitute a career even more scandalous.

Her vagina, it was said, might just as well have been in her face; and, indeed, such was the use to which she put all three of her orifices that “she would often complain that she did not have orifices in her nipples as well.” The gang-bang had never been held that could wear her out. Most notorious of all had been her trademark floor-show, which had seen her lie on her back, have her genitals sprinkled with grain, and then wait for geese to pick the seeds off one by one with their beaks. Such were the talents, so her critics sneered, that had won for her the besotted devotion of the master of the world. Yet, this sorely underestimated both husband and wife.

In our context, the foreign policies and advantages and deficiencies of Justinian’s warlordship are of greater interest than his private pleasures. He had the fortune, yet, in hindsight, the empire perhaps the liability, to have at his command the military genius as well as the civil cowardice of the great general Belisarius.

It was Justinian’s desire to restore the lost provinces of the West to the imperial fold: Britannia, Gallia and Hispania, perhaps, later, but as soon as possible Africa, for its grain, and Italy, the original imperial treasure. But other business, that is, the perennial Persian wars, had to be dealt with first. The eastern border of the Empire had been fixed for centuries at the Upper Euphrates, but the boundless approaches through the Arabian Desert could not possibly be guarded effectively.

Parthian and Persian kings and their armies had overstepped the borders regularly, and sometimes with impunity. From the fourth century on, a time of military decay, the Romans had frequently replaced counterattacks with financial considerations for the peace-loving Persian kings; in the year AD 532, for example, following five years of borderline rapine, Justinian’s contribution to the Royal Persian Exchequer amounted to 11,000 pounds of gold; this quantity was to secure, as the treaty document specified, nothing less than a perpetual peace between the two empires.

As the future was to show, perpetuity had to be reinforced every decade or so by additional remunerations. But the peace secured in AD 532 (which held until AD 540) allowed Justinian his first move in the West. He was assured of the services of a general whose military deeds were to rank him with Caesar and Alexander, but whose civil timidity placed him among the meek and mendicant of this earth.

The soldier Belisarius was born, not far from where the emperor’s father had kept his sheep, on the plains of Thrace. His military career proceeded timely and peaked in the command of the private guards of prince Justinian. When the prince was elevated to the royal dignity, the soldier was promoted to general.

When Justinian sought a commander whom he could entrust with the first step in rebuilding the glory of the Empire, he was unable to find a suitable candidate. At length, perhaps for the intimate counsel Belisar’s wife Antonina retained with the empress Theodora, her husband was chosen to lead the glorious enterprise. Due to his sovereign’s unwillingness to spend substantial sums upon the renovation of the Empire, Belisar was given only a small fleet and a few legions, yet, nonetheless, commanded to wrest Africa from the Vandals.

Against the odds, the mission succeeded: it was the first occasion in which Belisarius proved exceptional generalship. But to replace the money in the imperial treasury that had been spent on Belisar’s army, a “rapacious minister of the finances closely pursued the footsteps of Belisarius” and the unhappy province not only had to pay the regular dues but a special liberation tax.

The Vandals had destroyed the old tax registers, and when new ones were created, the quaestors did not forget to add another fee, to secure a just compensation for their own labours. Financial ruin was followed by depopulation, and Edward Gibbon cites Procopius, who, upon his first landing in Africa with Belisar in AD 534 “admired the populousness of the cities and country, strenously exercised in the labours of commerce and agriculture. In less than twenty years, that busy scene was converted into a silent solitude; the wealthy citizens escaped to Sicily and Constantinople; and the secret historian [Procopius, ¶] has confidently affirmed that five millions of Africans were consumed by the wars and government of the emperor Justinian.”

Although Procopius was not above the common tendency of antiquity’s historians to exaggerate his numbers, the fact remains that the wealth of Africa Provincia from then on constantly declined and the area lost its former status as the empire’s grain chamber. Belisar was not a politician, and it may be doubted whether he was even aware of the dangerous side effects of his conquest. He had to contemplate a different distraction.

That a victory afar, in particular if not necessarily expected, may induce a measure of suspicion at the court of a doubting monarch is, perhaps, a quite common occurrence. Hardly had the news of the triumph over the Vandals reached Byzantium when the subaltern officers who had preferred to remain in the safety of the capital instead of courting the danger or the glory of the battlefield, informed the emperor that the reliable rumour had arrived that Belisarius was about to declare himself King of Africa.

When the distrustful monarch inquired of his general whether he was to return to Constantinople soon or whether urgent business would keep him in Africa, the general understood his master’s voice and recognized the portents of Justinian’s vindictiveness. He appeared in Constantinople tout de suite, where a grateful and elated Justinian sponsored a triumph for Belisar, the first for a non-emperor since the days of Tiberius.

An optimistic Justinian then planned his next stroke, and a somewhat bigger fleet and army were prepared for Belisar’s subsequent task: to deliver Italia and Dalmatia from the hands of the Arian, that is, heretic, Ostrogoths. That his predecessor Zeno had personally invited the Goths to Italy, well aware of their beliefs, Justinian resolved to overlook.

Indeed, it is hard to say, and the opinions of historians have clashed on the question whether the restoration of the Western Empire per se was Justinian’s aim or the destruction of the heretics, or whether both points of view happened to coincide. He had theological problems in his own house, for Theodora was a fervent Monophysite, and the emperor was driven to allow her, and hence her community, the license that his strong Catholic convictions would not have granted otherwise. A glimpse into these complications of Christian doctrine is here provided by Tom Holland:

In 451, a year after the death of Theodosius II, the largest ecumenical council that the Church had ever seen, attended by a full six hundred bishops, was held at Chalcedon, directly across the straits from the imperial palace, in a conscious effort to rein in this tendency [of Christian communities’ theological independence, ¶]. The new regime’s aim – just as Constantine’s had been at Nicaea – was to muzzle a taste for bickering that had come to threaten, in the opinion of the authorities, not only the unity of the Church but the very security of the Roman people.

At stake for the delegates, however, was no longer the relationship of the Son to the Father, an issue long since triumphantly resolved, but a no less awesome mystery: the identity of the Son Himself. How, Christians wanted to know, had His divine and human natures coexisted? Had they been wholly intermingled, like water and wine in a goblet, to constitute a mone physisa “single nature”? Or had the two natures of Christ in fact coexisted within His earthly body as quite distinct entities, like water and oil? Had both His human and His divine essence experienced birth, suffering and death, or was it the most repugnant blasphemy to declare, as some bishops did, that God Himself “was crucified for us”? Knotty questions – nor easily unpicked. The Council of Chalcedon, nevertheless, did its level best. A determinedly middle road was steered. Due weight was given to both the divine and the human elements of Christ: “the same truly God and truly man.” This formula, devised by a bishop of Rome and graced with the approval of the emperor himself, struck the Christians of both the West and Constantinople as eminently reasonable – so much so that never again would they attempt to revise or reverse it.

In practice, the result of the council worked against the Monophysites and in favour of a Catholic Church that, with the emperor’s support, intensified the prosecution of apostates. While the privacy of his palace allowed Justinian religious tolerance and urged him moderation in the matter of the Monophysite error, the public Arianism of the Goths and Vandals challenged not only his Catholic beliefs but, indirectly, his profane authority as well. Belisar was summoned and given a second command: not only to regain Italia, the glory of the Empire, and Rome, its seed, but to liberate millions of souls from religious oppression by their errant masters.

The target of the renewed offensive, Ostrogothic Italy plus its appendices, had suffered from dynastic complications since the great king’s death, and “infighting between Theoderic’s heirs in 526 – 36 led to a more serious alienation of some of the aristocratic elite from the Ostrogothic regime, many of whom ended up in Constantinople.” Belisar’s second western campaign, begun in AD 536, was another success, it would appear: the Gothic arms were defeated at three different occasions and their authority diminished quickly, although they remained in possession of a few strongholds.

The news of Belisarius´ recapture of Italy spread swiftly through the realm, and fed Justinian’s suspicions again. The hero was recalled a second time but brought with him, as his captives or guests, the royal pair of the Ostrogoths, who proceeded to sign a comprehensive treaty [Vitiges, a military man and his wife Matasuntha, Theodorich’s Granddaughter]. The agreement emphasized the Goths’ future and unconditional obedience to the emperor and introduced a great number of their youth to service in the legions. A delivery of Gothic hostages substantiated, as usual, the validity of the compact.

But since “the jealousy of the Byzantine Court had not permitted Belisarius to achieve the [complete] conquest of Italy … his abrupt departure revived the courage of the Goths [AD 540].” What happened next was much to Justinian’s chagrin. One thousand or so Gothic warriors, who had held the town of Pavia, received word from another small garrison, that still held Verona, and from another one that still controlled Teriolis (Tyrolia). The Byzantine army had been left, at the departure of Belisar, to the command of eleven equal-ranked generals, and the disaster this policy caused may easily be imagined.

Messengers from the Gothic garrisons remaining in Italy meanwhile had met, undisturbed, with their comrades that still guarded the northern borders of the Danube and the Alps, and before long the war the empire believed won was rekindled. The banner of the Gothic monarchy was resurrected by the young Baduila, called Totila, and the cause of the Goths profited greatly from the avarice and the appalling methods of Justinian’s fiscus. Edward Gibbon compares valour and corruption, in the tradition of Tacitus:

The rapid success of Totila may be partly ascribed to the revolution which three years’ experience had produced in the sentiments of the Italians. At the command, or at least in the name, of a Catholic emperor, the pope [Silverius], their spiritual father, had been torn from the Roman church and either starved or murdered on a desolate island.

The virtues of Belisarius were replaced by the various or uniform vices of eleven chiefs, at Rome, Ravenna, Florence, Perugia, Spoleto, etc., who abused their authority for the indulgence of lust and avarice. The improvement of the revenue was committed to Alexander, a subtle scribe long practiced in the fraud and oppression of the Byzantine schools, and whose name of Psalliction, the Scissors, was drawn from the dexterous artifice with which he reduced the size without defacing the figure of the gold coin. Instead of expecting the restoration of peace and industry, he imposed a heavy assessment on the fortunes of the Italians.

The subjects of Justinian who escaped these partial vexations were oppressed by the irregular maintenance of the soldiers, whom Alexander defrauded and despised; and their hasty sallies in quest of wealth or subsistence provoked the inhabitants of the country to await or implore their deliverance from the virtues of a Barbarian.

Totila was chaste and temperate; and none were deceived, either friends or enemies, who depended on his faith and clemency. To the husbandmen of Italy the Gothic king issued a welcome proclamation, enjoining them to pursue their important labours and to rest assured that, on the payment of the ordinary taxes, they should be defended by his valour and discipline from the injuries of war. … The Roman captives and deserters were tempted to enlist in the service of a liberal and courteous adversary; the slaves were attracted to the firm and faithful promise that they should never be delivered to their masters; and from the thousand warriors of Pavia, a new people, under the same appellation of Goths, was insensibly formed in the camp of Totila.

It is obvious where Gibbon’s sympathies lay, but indeed, “most of the non-Gothic Italians were at best neutral about Justinian’s armies.” The emperor now faced the pro-Belisar faction of the court, who argued that only the recall of the hero had made the renewed Gothic insurrection possible. There was not really a way to counter the postulation, and at length Justinian had no choice but to send Belisar back to Italy. The imperial frugality, however, restricted the general to such troops as he could support by his own means. Thus Belisar arrived at Ravenna with his personal guards, but little else. Procopius relates a letter the fettered hero wrote to his master:

“Most excellent prince, we are arrived in Italy, destitute of all the necessary implements of war, men, horses, arms, and money. In our late circuit through the villages of Thrace and Illyricum, we have collected with extreme difficulty about four thousand recruits, naked and unskilled in the use of weapons and the exercises of the camp.

The soldiers already stationed in the province are discontented, fearful, and dismayed; at the sound of an enemy, they dismiss their horses and cast their arms on the ground. No taxes can be raised since Italy is in the hands of the Barbarians; the failure of payment has deprived us of the right to command, or even of admonition. Be assured, dread Sir, that the greater part of your troops have already deserted to the Goths.

If the war could be achieved by the presence of Belisarius alone, your wishes are satisfied; Belisarius is in the midst of Italy. But if you desire to conquer, far other preparations are requisite: without a military force, the title of general is an empty name.It would be expedient to restore to my service my own veteran and domestic guards. Before I can take the field, I must receive an adequate supply of light and heavy armed troops; and it is only with ready money you can procure the indispensable aid of a powerful body of the cavalry of the Huns.”

Belisar’s own words reveal that, almost ninety years after the general retreat of the Huns following Attila’s death in AD 453, large bodies of their mercenaries still infested the continent. At length, the hero gathered some troops and supplies on the opposite coast of the Adriatic Sea, in Dalmatia, and launched an expedition to deliver Rome from the Goths. Rome and Ravenna were the last two places in Italy still held by Justinian’s troops and had consequently been blockaded and beleaguered for years. The Byzantine fleet landed at the port of Ostia, five leagues from Rome, but the news of Belisar’s reappearance reached the town too late to prevent the famished garrison’s release of Rome to the charity of the king of the Goths [December 17, AD 546j.

Totila’s soldiers requested permission to raze the walls and houses of the sinful city to the ground, but, swayed by a message from Belisar, who appealed, on Procopius’s counsel, to the king’s mercy for the eternal town, Totila spared Rome from devastation, on the condition of her future neutrality in the war and obedience to his and his successors’ directives, as a part of the new Romano-Gothic kingdom. The clemency of Totila forewent the institution of a garrison within the city: a single regiment of guards was stationed in a camp, perhaps five leagues away, epitomizing a protection of the town against pirates or meandering mercenaries rather than against a regular army.

The king’s leniency was ill rewarded, and Totila’s generosity became the cause of his downfall. The Gothic army had barely left Latium when Belisar assaulted and annihilated the Gothic sentinels and moved into Rome for the second time [February, AD 547]. Totila returned post-haste, but three successive attempts to take the city by storm failed and the newly formed Gothic and Italian army lost the flower of their men. Eventually, exhaustion paralyzed both sides, until Belisar was, once again, recalled to Byzantium and Totila, once again, conquered Rome in AD 459. During the Gothic wars, the town changed hands five times.

It had been Justinian’s policy to deny the Goths a formal peace, but not to burden the treasury with the expenses of war either, and for years the Gothic war boiled on a small flame. But his resolve was injured when Gothic raids invaded the provinces of Epirus and Macedonia, in the Balkans, and Constantinople itself seemed in the reach of the Barbarians. Justinian realized the urgency of the situation, and, belatedly, the treasury was opened, but not to Belisar’s support.

The emperor was not a father, but he had a niece, who had married the young prince Germanus, a nobleman of whom public opinion held that this marriage was his sole accomplishment.

[This is the way the story used to be told, somewhat of a cliché – and I repeated it for Edward Gibbos’s sake – in actuality Germanus was a nephew of Justin I and hence a cousin of Justinian. He was magister militum in various campaigns, with varying success, and before setting out to Italy had the amorously as well as politically most excellent idea of taking for his second wife – with Justinian’s blessing – the fabled beauty Matasuntha, granddaughter of Theoderich and now widow of Totila’s predecesssor Vitiges – a match that sought to entice Goth and Italians alike to switch sides).

The young man was promoted to the post of general-in-chief of the Gothic war, and put on a ship to Sicily, where he was to muster the troops assembling for the glorious enterprise of subduing Italy again. The solemn inspection, however, had to be postponed when the youth suddenly expired.

The empire awaited, naturally, the return of the Gothic command to Belisar, when “the nations were provoked to a smile by the strange intelligence that the command of the Roman armies was given to a eunuch,” the domestic Narses, who “is probably the sole representative of his peculiar sex in the annals of military history.” Narses was the complete opposite of Belisarius: weak of body and unfamiliar with the use of weapons, he was probably the only man, so to say, at the court of Constantinople, who dared to speak his mind.

He declined to accept a command without the means to enforce it, and “Justinian granted the favourite what he might have denied to the hero: the Gothic war was rekindled from its ashes, and the preparations were not unworthy of the ancient majesty of the empire. The key of the public treasure was put into his hand, to collect magazines, to levy soldiers, to purchase arms and horses, to discharge the arrears of pay, and to tempt the fidelity of the fugitives and deserters.”

The expedition of Narses [AD 552-554] was the last military effort of the Empire that stood up in comparison with the distinguished past. It is said that the Romans numbered 80,000 or more, mostly mercenaries, against which Totila, after the bloody losses at Rome between AD 546 and 549, could field probably less than twenty thousand.

At length, the Gothic arms were defeated: Totila died on the Battlefield of Taginae in July 552 and his successor Teja lead the remnant of the troops to a last stand at the Battle of Mons Lactarius on Mons Vesuvius. The remainder of the Goths from the northern garrisons retired past the Alps, where they reorganized and, with the assistance of a few mercenaries, attempted a return to Italy [AD 533]. They were defeated a second time by Narses, who, after a timely visit to Constantinople, was dispatched back to Italy to govern her, as Exarch, or lieutenant of the emperor, for the next about fifteen years [AD 554-568].

Yet something worse than the Vandal and Gothic wars was inflicted on the people around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. A horrific attack of bubonic plague was reported in Alexandria in the fall of AD 541, and the grain ships that emerged from its harbours in the spring of AD 542 spread the disease over the world. Constantinople was ravaged by the epidemic through which, as Procopius wrote, “the whole of humanity came close to annihilation.”

The emperor, too, was caught by Yersinia pestisbut recovered. The disease travelled from Constantinople, over the Bosporus, to Asia Minor, and from there to Syria and Palestine. There it reversed direction westward, and by AD 543 it had spread over the provinces of the West, Africa, Italy, Gaul and Spain. Two years later, it struck the Far East, and devastated the Persian Empire: large parts of Mesopotamia, Media and Persia were depopulated.[1]

Overall, the results of Justinian’s anachronistic efforts to rebuild the empire were not only short-lived, but, for the worse, a financial catastrophe.   

The destruction of Africa’s and Italy’s tax base in the wake of the military occupations meant that the monarchy never even recovered its expenses. And since the Eastern Empire could not make the step to replace an army paid for by taxes to that paid by a landed gentry, losses of revenue implied losses of military power. Justinian’s escapades had almost bankrupted the realm and the net result of Emperor Heraclius‘ [r.AD 610-641] war against the Persians between AD 610 and 628 was that, a decade later, he lost everything he had gained and more to the assault of the recent Islamic Caliphate, which, ironically enough, “was itself built on Roman foundations (as also Sassanian Persian foundations),” and “it arguably preserved the parameters of imperial Roman society more completely than any other part of the post-Roman world, at least in the period up to 750.”

Soon after Narses’ death Italy was taken over by the Lombards, who had, under their original name of Langobards, dwelt around the lower Elbe, near today’s Hamburg, before they joined the southward migration of the Germanic tribes. They had been employed, among other mercenaries, by Narses against the Goths, but in the aftermath of the Gothic war conquered most of rural Italy between AD 568 and 570, without encountering much resistance from the exhausted locals.

But the Gothic Wars were over.


[1] It was the effect of the plague of the 540s and its reoccurrence in much of Syria, Palestine, and Upper Mesopotamia from AD 600 on, and the eternal Romano-Persian border wars, that reduced the populations around the Eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent (and hence the availability of soldiers) to a degree which permitted the eventual expansion of the Arabian Caliphate in the seventh century.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18) [Quotes, except where noted, from Edward Gibbon]

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum …. Extended

Roman political procedures

Cicero indicts Catilina - Painting by Hans Werner Schmidt
Cicero indicts Catilina – Painting by Hans Werner Schmidt

In the first two hundred years or so, Rome was a monarchy: the names of seven kings are known, of whom the last, Tarquinius, possibly of Etruscan origin, was deposed in 509 BC and the republic proclaimed. From then on, Rome was socially and politically divided in two “classes”, ninety-one “centuries” and thirty-five “tribes”, each of these classifications counting for a different political purpose. The two “classes” were, for one, the common men or “plebs” [short ‘e’, rhymes with ‘pets’, adjective ‘plebeian’, ¶], and, second, the “patricians” [from Latin ‘pater’, i.e. father, ¶], the nobility. These ancient aristocrats professed to rule the plebs much like a stern but benevolent father rules his children – for their own benefit.

These two classes worked together, or, rather, against each other, in four different legislative and executive congregations: one “Senate“, which comprised only patricians (in the first centuries), and three “assemblies of the people“, which had different legislative authorities. Since the origins of all these bodies reached back into the mythical days when Rome had been a monarchy, these bodies had been created without the benefit of written laws; hence legislative competition was furious, and it took three centuries to iron things out.

Due to its seniority as the oldest political institution, the Senate did not limit itself with technical jurisdictional issues; its members viewed themselves as the natural leaders of the commonwealth due to their former status as the king’s advisors. Membership was for life unless a senator was expelled for pauperism, immorality or treason. Technically, the senators were limited to income from agrarian possessions, for they were legally forbidden to entertain plebeian businesses; but they knew everything about silent partnerships and employing straw men.

In ancient times, the Senate had been a purely patrician affair, consisting of one hundred members. Around 500 BC, plebeians gained access, and during the days of the republic the membership swelled to 300, and in imperial times to 600 and eventually 1,000 members. As it may be assumed, it took the plebs decades and sometimes centuries to effect changes in the elitist club. In the early days, the Senate could not pass laws binding all Romans, for its exclusive patrician membership, but this technicality was easily circumvented. A decision of the Senate was called a “consultum”, a decree, and was technically a request to one of the assemblies of the people to enact a law in the form suggested by the Senate. Despite vigorous plebeian opposition, the house succeeded in retaining sole jurisdiction in matters of the treasury or  fiscus, foreign affairs, including war, and the appointment of provincial governors.

The three assemblies of the people dealt, each in its own distinctive way and composition, with elections and the enactment of lesser laws. The “Comitia Centuriata”, the Centuriate Assembly, included both plebeians and patricians and was organized in “Centuriae”, i.e. “centuries” of one hundred men each, classified by wealth. The system of centuries hinted at the congregation’s original military character: a centuria of one hundred men was, of course, the basic unit of the legion. In the Comitia Centuriata, ninety-one centuries were represented, and each centuria had one vote.

This small number of votes reflects on the character of Roman voting rights, which were timocratic in nature, not democratic: based on wealth or status, not “one man -one vote”. Each centuria had one vote, which was decided by the relative majority of votes within it; the swindle in favour of the nobility lay in the fact that a centuria of patricians was indeed composed of one hundred men, while each centuria of the plebs was comprised of many thousand men. The following description of the political system of the Republic is much indebted to the late Colleen McCullough.

Since forty-six votes were needed for an absolute majority of 46 to 45 in the 91 “centuries”, the 4,600 wealthiest men, all nobles, organized in these 46 centuries, were automatically assured of a majority.

The business of the Centuriate Assembly was to elect consuls and praetors annually, and two censors every five years. In theory, the assembly could also pass laws, which happened seldom, and was the proper court to charge and try “Perduellio” – high treason. Such trials, however, became increasingly rare when the plebs realized that it was impossible to convict a nobleman against the votes of his fellow aristocrats.

The “Comitia Populi Tributa”, the Tribal Assembly or Assembly of the People, was also composed of both plebs and patricians but rigged in a different way. The “tribes” were based upon the ancient rural origins of Rome and centred on the old families: a “tribe” was the equivalent of a former territory, a village, perhaps, that had belonged to one of the old clans. Thirty-one of the total thirty-five tribes were made up from people whose ancestry related back to these ancient rural communities, and it made no difference if only three or five living members were left: they had one vote. The multitudes of the plebs, however, were assigned to two of the four “city” tribes, Esquilina and Subura, and hence these tens of thousands of men together only had two votes. The business of the Tribal Assembly was to elect lower magistrates, the curule aedile, the quaestors and the military tribunes, the apprentices for future generalships. It could pass laws and hear criminal and “civil trials.

The principal political instrument of the plebs was the “Comitia Plebis Tributa” or “Concilium Plebis”, the Assembly or Council of the People. It was the youngest of the legislative bodies, excluded patricians, and had earned its power by sheer and determined opposition against Senate and nobility. It could only be convoked by the peoples’ own elected officers, the “Tribuni Plebis“, Tribunes of the People, and could pass any law law [which were called “plebiscites”, an appellation still in use today, ¶]. The three assemblies, as mentioned, but not the Senate, elected public officials, some of which wielded “Imperium” while others did not.

The word “Imperium” is best translated as the “power of command” and is obviously the root for the words “emperor” or “empire”. It prescribed the degree of legal authority vested in the office, the execution of power that bound every Roman citizen, plebe and patrician alike. It was conferred by legal act of the respective comitia and lasted for one year. Every holder of “imperium” was preceded in public by lictors, bodyguards, who shouldered fasces. Fasces were bundles of birch rods tied together crisscross wise with red leather thongs; an ancient design, probably of Etruscan origin. The number of lictors preceding the magistrate depended on the office: an “Aedile” was preceded by two lictors, a “Praetor”, “Propraetor” or “Master of the Horse” by six, a “Consul” by twelve, and a “Dictator” by twenty-four.

Outside of Rome, axes were inserted in the birch bundles to indicate that the magistrate wielded power over life and death. Only a dictator was allowed to show axes inserted in his fasces within the pomerium (the religious borders of Rome), a reminder of his unconditional power that could not be gainsaid. The words fascism and fascist derive, of course, from fasces; after his takeover of Italy, Benito Mussolini reintroduced them as symbols of his power. The number of legislative bodies and magistrates makes the Roman government a complicated affair; the graphic at the bottom may be of assistance.

In order of ascending authority, the following were Roman public offices: The “Tribunes of the Soldiers” were two dozen aspiring men, more often than not from noble families, between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and were basically cadets, officer trainees: six of them were allotted to each of the four Roman legions that, together with four legions of allies, made up the standing army in the days of the republic. They should not be confused with the centurions, which were essentially Roman NCO’s, company commanders. These tribunes could have authority in the field, if the general so decided, but carried no imperium.

The “pomerium” were the sacred borders of the city, which ran essentially around the Capitol, Palatine and Aventine hills. To cross these borders from the outside meant to lose any imperium one possessed. This was essentially a precaution against military putsches, for the legions always assembled outside of the town and a general leading them in with designs on usurpation automatically lost his power of command. Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, which was the border from his province Gallia Cisalpina to Italia proper was the crossing of a similar legal border and thus amounted to a declaration of civil war against the Roman Republic.

The lowest rank of civil public servant was the “Quaestor”. They were also elected by the Tribal Assembly, usually six per year. This office was also considered the lowest rung of the “cursus honorum“, the acknowledged stations in the career of a full-time Roman politician. The quaestor’s duties were of financial nature: he was either seconded to a praetor or propraetor who governed a province, detailed to duty in the treasury, or consigned to one of the great ports. They did not carry imperium.

The next rank in the system was the “Aedile”, of which two varieties existed: two “Plebeian Aediles”, elected by the Assembly of the Plebs and hence not possessing imperium, and two “Curule Aediles”, which were elected by the Tribal Assembly and did wield imperium. Originally, the curule aediles had to be of patrician descent but this proviso was abandoned in the fourth century BC. The aediles governed the town itself: supervising construction and enforcing (or not) the building code, securing the supply of clean water flowing from the great aqueducts, and keeping roads, markets and other facilities in order.

The most important political part of the office was the aediles’ responsibility to arrange the ludi, the games, Rome’s favourite pastime. They provided the principal opportunity for a young politician to build a reputation; the more splendid the games, the higher the aedile’s prestige in the peoples´ esteem and his chances to be elected to more prestigious offices later.

There was a drawback: the state did not allocate funds for the games. The aediles were counted on to pay the expenses, which ran into the millions of sesterces, from their own purses. Not surprisingly, some aediles ruined their family fortunes in pursuit of sensational games and ended in exile, fugitives from their creditors. In most cases, however, the loan sharks were willing to wait until their candidate reached the rank of “Praetor” and was dispatched to govern a province. At such time, the recovery of the mostly modest principal plus interest, compounded, up to fifty per cent annually, took place, on the backs of the provincials. Exploitation was the normal and accepted course of business in the governance of a province: the governor could, for example, levy his own taxes, sell the Roman citizenship, forgive tax debts or issue exceptions, for a consideration, or create criminal indictments and then peddle their dismissal; treason was the favourite charge. He could also take advantage of the tax-farming system Rome implemented upon the provinces: contracts were let to businesses that paid the whole amount of taxes of, say, a town, an estate, or a whole province, in advance to the treasury and obtained, as compensation, the right to collect the imperial taxes on their own cognizance from the unhappy people. The tax rates they assigned were, alas, mysteriously high; higher than the amounts legally prescribed on some scroll in the treasury in Rome. The company, which belonged to the governor or his creditors, kept the difference. It was an excellent business, and for many politicians the only way to get rid of the debts they had incurred during their aedileship.

The second-highest rank in the hierarchy of Roman magistrates was the Praetor, as mentioned above. Initially entrusted with legal duties, the administration of justice and oversight of the courts, the number and duties of praetors varied in later years, when the government of provinces was added to their curriculum. Of the two praetors elected in ancient times, one, the Praetor Urbanus, as the word indicates, was responsible for lawsuits between Roman citizens or parties within the pomerium, while the second one, the Praetor Peregrinus, was deputized to litigate cases involving foreign entities. If both consuls were absent, chiefly during times of war, the praetor urbanus assumed the command over town and people. In the later days of the Republic, when more and more provinces were added to the Roman fold, additional praetors were elected as regents. They ruled either during their standard one-year term of office or in a subsequent year, in the case of which they were officiating as Propraetor [“in the stead of a praetor”, ¶). In the last century of the Republic, between six and eight praetors were elected annually. They did, of course, possess imperium.

The most senior regular officer owning imperium was the “Consul“, the executive head, or heads, of the Roman administration. It was one of Rome’s peculiarities to elect two persons to fill the highest office, so as to publicly and expressively deny any resemblance to a monarchy. The position of consul was also the zenith of the “cursus honorum”, but a popular or exemplary meritorious consul could be re-elected to a second term, provided that ten years lay between the first and second consulship.

Two plebeians could be consul at any one time, but not two patricians. A consul’s imperium eclipsed any other officer’s power, anywhere, unless a “Dictator” was in office. At the end of his term, the retired consul was given the honorific “consular”; he now was an elder statesman and enjoyed a privileged position in the Senate. Consulars were often deputized to govern provinces if no praetor was available, or were sent on special diplomatic or economic missions, the most important and recurring of which was to secure the annual grain supply from Sicily and Africa.

The office of Dictator was reserved for emergencies, most of which were of military nature. The office absolved the holder from any legal consequence of his actions or omissions, but was limited to six months. A dictator was appointed by the Senate, more often than not on the recommendation of the “Princeps Senatus”, the unofficial president of the Senate, or the consuls. Technically, the dictator’s title was “Magister Populi”, Master of the People; in this context “people” referred to the infantry he would presumably lead into the field. The first decision he had to undertake on the assumption of office was the appointment of a lieutenant called the “Magister Equitum” or Master of the Horse, that is, the cavalry. Dictators were appointed very infrequently.

The most senior of all Roman magistrates were the “Censors“, although they did not possess imperium. A candidate for censor must have absolved the complete “cursus honorum”, hence must have been a consul, and preferably one of the better ones. A team of two censors was elected by the Centuriate Assembly for a term of five years, which they, however, were at liberty not to complete. In general, they busied themselves with their tasks for a year or perhaps two, and then semi-retired. In addition to the duties mentioned above in the context of the elder Cato, they also administered the general economic classification which determined every citizen’s place in the proper centuria. On the outside of Rome, their duty was to perform a full census of all Roman citizens every five years, as mentioned in Luke 2:1.

The complete antithesis to all the offices and governmental functions enumerated above were the “Tribuni Plebis”, or Tribuni Populi, the tribunes of the plebs respectively the people (both terms were used). Their origin lies in the town’s early history, when political decision-making was more of a physical than verbal matter.

They were ten, elected annually by the Assembly of the People, and their task was the defence of the rights, the property and the lives of the common man against the machinations of the patricians, who in the days of yore had enjoyed a political monopoly. Since the tribunes of the plebs were elected by the plebs alone, they had no preconceived place within the fabric of Roman governance and thus carried no imperium. Their safety and authority lay in the oath the assembly took after election, to defend the inviolability of their representatives with their own lives.

The tribunal power was chiefly negative; although they could bring in and pass laws in the assembly of the people, the main authority lay in their what since has been called the “veto power” against the actions of any magistrate, officer or even fellow tribune; he could stop not only the passing of laws but even their discussion in the Senate or the assemblies with the magic word “intercessio” [“I step in”, ¶].

Such an ability to frustrate political action was not overlooked by the movers and shakers of the last century BC: it became common practice for Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar to have at least one or two tame tribunes whose election they had financed on the payroll, to counteract any designs their enemies came up with. Many parts of the Roman administrative machine became, often in only slightly different form, stock features of European political organization in the next two thousand years. The word “senator” comes to mind, as does “dictator” as a generic term for autocrats who, alas, only very seldom retire after six months. Consuls, albeit with different functions, work in every nation, and the word “patrician” still denotes a revered elder statesman. But it was the great concept of the “Imperium” that exerted the loftiest influence on the political designs of the next two thousand years: hegemony over the European continent became the treacherous ideal of many a ruler’s political daydreams.

Below an organizational diagram of Roman politics (inspired by Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series. Link for bigger version here.) (NB: “¶” in the text denotes a remark by the author. © John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

Roman Offices
Roman Offices

The Battle of Fontenoy – the Roots of Germany

Frankish Empire and Treaty of Verdun AD 843
Treaty of Verdun 843 – Lothar receiving the Kingdom of Italy; Louis the German the Kingdom of Bavaria; and Charles the Bald the Kingdom of Aquitaine (Grey Area: Patrimonium Petri – the Papal States) [The arrow indicates the original direction of Frankish settlement]

If we survey the map of the Carolingian Europe around AD 800, the evidence of Charles’s magnificence is plain to see. The Empire of the Franks extends from the Spanish Mark, north of the Ebro River, to the Channel at Calais, although the Bretagne could never be truly claimed; from the Gascogne and Aquitaine at the Atlantic Ocean eastward to the lands of the Saxons and the Bavarians and even to Pannonia, the plains of today’s Hungary; and from the Frisian Islands in the North Sea south through Thuringia, Alemannia and today’s Austria, the Alps up to Lower Italy. But, behold, from Ferrara in the delta of the PoRiver to Ancona on the western piedmont of the Apennines, and on the eastern side of the mountains, between the Duchies of Tuscia in the north and Spoleto and Beneventum in the south, embracing Rome, a new entity presents itself, the result of Charles’s pious donation: the Patrimonium Petri, the Papal State, by which the bishop of Rome became a prince in his own profane right.

[The “Donation of Constantine” which bestowed these lands on the pope, was a forged document, allegedly composed on behalf of Emperor Constantine, awarding Latium in the east and the Emilia in the west, plus neighbouring areas, to the pope as eternal secular possessions. It appeared out of thin air, mysteriously, around AD 750. The problem was to explain why the document had been found only 450 years later. Pope Hadrian I came up with some good excuses, and then petitioned Charlemagne to effect the donation, which the grateful emperor did. The Patrimonium Petri, the Papal State, existed well into the nineteenth century. [Article in the Britannica] [Latin Text from the Bibliotheca Augustana, Augsburg]

Yet some designs do not survive the architect for long, and such was the case with Charlemagne’s pride: on June 25, AD 841, twenty-seven years after the emperor’s death, his three grandsons and their respective armies met at a battlefield near Fontenoy, one hundred fifty miles southeast of Paris. One may argue, with caution, that the day of this battle may serve as the beginning of a history of the future “Germans”, although neither the name nor the country were to appear for centuries to come.

The day of Fontenoy saw Emperor Lothar, the eldest of the siblings, fight his brothers Ludwig, King of Bavaria, and Karl, King of what used to be called Neustria, western Franconia. Myth has it that 100,000 men perished on the field, although a figure of some 20,000 to 30,000 appears more realistic. The outcome of the melee was a strategic stalemate; no clear winner could be established.

Yet its consequences were enormous, a few years down the line : Charles’s empire broke apart, irreparably, the grandsons proceeding to divide the realm among themselves (which was not truly a surprise, for their fathers had done so as well) (Treaty of Verdun, 843, see Map above, Lothair receiving the Kingdom of Italy; Louis the German the Kingdom of Bavaria; and Charles the Bald the Kingdom of Aquitaine) .

Ludwig held on the eastern parts of the Franks’ dominions, which soon became known as the Kingdom of Eastern Franconia, the precursor of what much later would be called “Germany”. Technically, one might argue that the establishment of the kingdom was the first step in the direction of a “German” state, little though its people were aware of it. In this respect, the German ethnogenesis followed an inverted path. On most occasions, people form communities which slowly widen in scope, from the village of the clan to the town of the tribe to the capital of the nation; from counties to duchies to kingdoms. In the case of “Germany”, however, the political entity, the Kingdom of Eastern Franconia, existed first, while the notion of belonging to it as a fixed body politic evolved much later. Ludwig’s subjects would have been perplexed, or might have strongly objected, if one were to call them “Germans”: they thought of themselves as Franks [“Free Men”, ¶], Alemans [“All Men”, ¶], or Bavarians [“Bohemian Men”, ¶].

The word “Deutsch” for “German”, as in “Deutschland”, did only slowly emerge as a linguistic classification, in a process that required centuries. Its root, “theodiscus”, latinized from the Frankish “theoda”, for “volk”, i.e. “people”, was used to refer to any other language than Latin, the language of the church, the court and of diplomacy. “Theodiscus” was used to denote any vernacular language, Frankish, Thuringian, Bavarian, or even Normannic.

After a few decades of reposing in the bosom of the Eastern Franconian polity, the various tribes began to notice that they had, at least, one thing in common: the royal court, which was initially, as mentioned above, a moving affair. The court not only served as the primary legal institution, creating and employing, in due time, an Imperial, as opposed to Frankish or Saxonian, bureaucracy, it also was the centre of society and the arts; factors in creating the consciousness of belonging to a common culture. The second barrier-permeating institution of medieval life, in particular under Frankish hegemony, was the Catholic Church, which acted beyond the confines of tribal identities.

These first steps into the direction of a tentative communality were humbled, for a long time, by the absence of a common tongue. Many people had to learn a few words of Frankish to get by, which is the reason why we still call a trade language like, for example English in non-Anglophone countries, or Swahili in Eastern Africa, a “lingus franca”. The beginnings of what would one day become the “German” language, and its dialects (Dutch, English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian), were chaotic. It was only when basic communication was secured that the Germanic people realized that they had some things in common which differentiated them from, say, the Slays in the East or the far more Romanized people  of the lands west of the Rhine, and from a common tongue a common cultural identity developed, albeit slowly.

Shortly after the Battle of Fontenoy, in the year AD 850 or so, about 3,5 million souls lived in the assortment of territories which was commonly referred to as the kingdom of Eastern Franconia; between and around the three great German rivers Elbe, Danube, and Father Rhine. Three quarters of the land were still forest or swamp, or swampy forest, and only a single road, a leftover from Roman times, led from the mid-Rhine to northern Germany only to lose itself after a few dozen miles. Life was short and brutish; improved by the civilizing influence of agriculture only in the former Roman areas of Bavaria and Swabia and along the western bank of the Rhine. These were the only places where roads, chapels, shops or schools existed.

King Ludwig found himself the head of a state, but not of a nation; “Germany” did not yet exist. In geographic terms, his realm was an artificial construct without any natural borders, home to a variety of tribes who could not really understand each other’s language. Leftovers of the great battles that had raged between the legions and the natives in the first and second centuries AD, the tribes who had fought Germanicus and emperor Marcus Aurelius, had migrated through the woods and swamps for decades and at length coalesced into new tribal entities: Franks, Frisians, Saxons, Alemans, Hessians, Thuringians, and Bavarians.

It was, without doubt, Ludwig’s greatest achievement that the newborn state, a strange concoction of fiercely independent clans, did not disintegrate at the first opportunity. The lands east respectively west of the Rhine developed differently: in the West, Roman customs and language at length overpowered the Germanic element, while in the East, where the Roman leverage had always been moderate, the Germanic element dominated and survived.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

Rise and Fall of Rome in a single animated GIF

This I found free on giphy.com and thought instructive – Gibbon the quick way, so to say …..

Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire
Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire

The Heist of the Millennium

Temple, Water, Darkness

In the fall of 105 BC, a truly gigantic crowd of migrating German tribes arrived on Roman soil in southern France after they had wandered for ten years through the greater part of the continent. The multitudes were composed of the two large tribes of the Cimbri and Teutones and two smaller clans called the Tigurini and Ambrones. Forming a centipede perhaps a quarter million strong, they marched down the valley of the Rhone southward, until they touched Roman ground near Lugudunum, today’s Lyon. News of their presence was hastily delivered to Rome.

The sheer size of the throng persuaded the Senate to employ more than the usual precautions. The standing army of four Roman and four allied legions under the command of the plebeian consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus was ordered to find and shadow the enemy but not to risk battle until a second newly established corps under the patrician proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio (Consul 106 BCE, the year before) was able to meet and reinforce them.

In September, the Germans rested near the village of Arausio, on the Rhone River, about fifty miles northof Marseille; perhaps they did not know where to turn. Mallius’ legions had arrived in the meantime and built their standard camp about three miles downriver. As ordered, Mallius kept contact with the barbarians who did not move, awaiting Servilius Caepio.

Eventually Mallius discovered more about the intentions of the presumptive enemy. It would seem that the barbarians were inclined or might be nudged to move into the direction of western France or northern Spain and might thus no longer threaten Roman possessions. Negotiations were taken up and proceeded encouragingly.

When Caepio arrived with the ersatz corps a bit later, in early October, he viewed the machinations of his plebeian colleague with deep mistrust.  He declined to comply with the Senate’s instructions and submit his corps and his command to Mallius: nobody could expect him to defer to the authority of a plebeian blockhead, whether he was consul or not. He refused to cooperate with Mallius at all, and erected a camp of his own at a distance of about five miles from the enemy.

Soon the important news reached Caepio that Mallius was achieving a diplomatic breakthrough and a truce was about to be signed. In prevention of such an amateurish mistake by dunderhead Mallius, for the greater glory of Rome and to crown himself with the laurels of a military triumph, he ordered his legions to attack the Cimbri camp on the morning of October 6, 105 BCE.

Not only was the unmotivated attack brutally repulsed, Caepio´s legions were annihilated and the prospective hero barely saved his life by a quick retreat. Since the Cimbri had begun the day well, they did not mind extra work and destroyed Mallius´ camp as well, killing everyone they could lay hands on.

The combined losses exceeded that of Cannae: about 80,000 legionaries expired on the fields of Arausio; Servilius Caepio escaped. Yet even in a time famous for colourful characters like Julius Caesar and Pompey, Quintus Servilius Caepio was one cool customer.

One year before Arausio, during his own consulship, he had set out to clean up the vicinity of Tolosa, today’s Toulouse, from the inroads of a few minor Germanic tribes who supposedly had annoyed the Volcae Tectosages, the local Gallici nhabitants who were friends and allies of Rome. But when Caepio and his four legions arrived, he found the alleged Germans nonexistent and his army out of a job. Yet, being in Tolosa anyway, he began to think of the famous riddle of the town that had commanded the imagination not only of the locals for two centuries.

It was common knowledge that the Volcae Tectosages had been a part of the great Celtic migration that had brought them as far southeast as Macedonia about 170 years ago. From there, a part of the tribe had returned to Aquitania and their old capital, Tolosa, around 275 BC, carrying the accumulated spoils of hundreds of sacked towns and temples. What nobody remembered, however, was where the loot had been stored, although generations of treasurehunters had combed the hills around Tolosa for caves. Caepio, with lots of free time at his hands and after protracted divination, hatched the idea to investigate the lakes in Tolosa’s temple district, and struck gold, the famous Gold of Tolosa.

The Volcae Tectosages, it turned out, had melted down all the gold into handy bricks, and deposited them on the bottom of their temples’ lakes. The silver they had shaped into immense millstones, painted over, and sunk as well; pulling them up each year at harvest time for milling, and then submerging them again.

Having solved the riddle, a happy Servilius Caepio created a plan how to deliver the treasure into his personal property. The silver he was prepared to give up, but not the gold. When it was lifted from the waters, weighed and measured, the loot amounted to 10,000 talents or about 250 tons of silver and 15,000 talents, or 375 tons, of gold. The silver was taken to the nearest big port, Narbo, today’s Narbonne, and shipped to Rome, with Caepio’s greetings.

With the ships went a message to the treasury, in which Caepio explained that, due to security concerns, gold could not be transported in such a risky way: ships may sink, he cautioned. When the wagons returned from the Narbo job to Tolosa,they were reloaded with gold and safely escorted, by a cohort of Caepio’s own legions, on the slow but secure way to Rome by road. The trek was sent on its way south, but when it passed by the vicinity of the fort of Carcasso, the cavalcade was attacked by a very large band of robbers. The hoodlums attacked and slaughtered the escorts and took off with the wagons; the gold was never seen again.

Initially,the attack was regarded as a local affair, until a few people computed the probability that a group of criminals big and armed well enough to annihilate a whole cohort of experienced legionaries would meet the wagon train exactly at the moment in time when it passed through Carcasso, and did not like the numbers. Servilius Caepio, visibly saddened, blamed the raid on the enemies of Rome.

But when he came out of the massacre at Arausio with nary a hair missing, rumour control began to assert that not only had he lost the whole Roman army for his patrician arrogance but also had organized the raid on his own soldiers and wagons. He had shipped the booty in small portions, the story went, around theMediterranean Sea: from France to Spain to Africa to Syria to Smyrna, today’s Izmir on the Anatolian coast of Turkey, where it was deposited with local bankers who had a reputation of being discreet.

His greed being a prominent attribute of his character, second only to his arrogance, his guilt was considered a foregone conclusion. The theory of his guilt also explained why, a few years after the disappearance of the loot, the fortunes of the Servilii Caepiones skyrocketed from extensive to gigantic: the family literally bought a part of Gallia Cisalpina, lower Italy, complete town sand villages; imported the best iron ore from Noricum, today’s Austria, and invested in the foundation of a complete weapon and armour industry; a novelty for Rome which had until then custom-made each legionary’s gear.

Their wealth soon eclipsed that of Crassus and secured the dominance of the patrician Servilii Caepiones in Rome’s financial industry, particularly in usurious lending, up to and including the last heir, Marcus Junius Brutus, of the Ides of March.

Although his guilt could never be proven, the effect of nonstop gossip finally eroded Caepio’s position in Rome. It was true that he could not be tried, for lack of evidence, for the heist of more gold than Rome had in her treasury, but he could be and at length was tried for the disaster of Arausio by Gaius Norbanus, a tribune of the plebs, found guilty by the people, and sentenced to the harshest sentence available –banishment from Rome, loss of citizenship and a fine of 15,000 talents of gold(a talent was about 25 pounds), which of course could never be collected (at this time, the Lex Porcia practically forbade the execution of a Roman citizen). For the place of exile Caepio chose – Smyrna.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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