Did she really look like Elizabeth Taylor? We will never know, but the odds are she did not – what we know from coins and ancient busts speaks against it. She may have had red hair, as in the famous picture, but most likely she shaved all her bodily hair, as it was Egyptian custom, and wore elaborate wigs. It seems clear, however, that she knew everything about ancient make-up, using belladonna to dilate her pupils and stibium (also called kohl, antimony sulphide) to colour her eyebrows. Very little, however, speaks against Cleopatra VII Philopator‘s force of personality, wits and political shrewdness.
Although she was, technically spoken, survived for a few days by her and Caesar‘s son Caesarion as sole ruler, she was in practical regards the last true pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, successor to the various Egyptian Empires in the lands of the Double Crowns.
Her descent features more than a few incestual, er, complications – within her last four patrilineal generations (father to father), there were three brother-sister marriages and the same number of uncle-niece marriages, so that in the end her family tree looks suspiciously like a vertical line – in fact, she only had two pair of (instead of four) great-grandparents – of which one was the son and daughter of the other!
From 81 BC on, mayhem, murder and very irresponsible financial planning within the royal family ended with the Romans’ – initially under Sulla – titular takeover of Egypt as collateral for outstanding loans. Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII succeeded as a client king of Rome hanging on to power – by his nails – from 80 to 58 BC and again from 55 to 51 BC with a small interruption when having been intermittently deposed by his daughter and Cleopatra’s elder sister Berenice IV.
After Berenice’s fall and subsequent beheading, Cleopatra was made co-ruler with her father some time in 52 BC, but faced serious problems after her father’s death in 51 BC. Irregularities of the Nile flooding had left the land in famine and a debt of 17,5 million drachmas to Rome (it is hard to assign a present-day value to the then-drachma, but for a long time in ancient Greek one drachma represented the daily wage of a skilled worker) petrified the state’s fiscus – aggravated by the lawless behaviour of the largely Germanic/Gallic-Roman garrison left by the financiers of the Empire.
Two factors further complicated Cleopatra’s new royal position – her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, whom she had initially rejected as co-regent but probably married for the sake of tradition – aspired to power and the ascendancy of the Roman civil war, which began to extend to Egypt.
By the summer of 49 BC, Cleopatra was fighting her brother and losing, when Pompey’s son Gnaeus Pompeius arrived from Greece with a request for military assistance against Caesar – which was granted by both Ptolemy and Cleopatra alike in their last concurrent decision. Eventually, she had to flee to Roman Syria, where she attempted to find troops for an invasion of Egypt. Yet the invasion soon stalled, and she was forced to camp outside the town of Pelousion in the Eastern Nile Delta over the winter.
Having lost the Battle of Pharsalus in August 48, Pompey decided to make Egypt the basis for his tactical retreat but was promptly murdered by agents of Ptolemy XIII soon after having made landfall near Pelousion. Ptolemy believed to have perfected nothing but a masterpiece – having removed Cleopatra’s supporter Pompey, thus weakening his sister, and simultaneously earning Caesar’s gratitude for the removal of his enemy.
Uh oh. Caesar was royally angry about the coward murder and ordered – from the royal palace – both Cleopatra and Ptolemy to stop the nonsense, end the war, kiss and make up. We know what happened then: Ptolemy decided on war and Cleopatra on love, arriving at Caesar’s quarters, as Plutarch recounts, in a rug or bed sack.
Caesar’s subsequent attempts to find a solution for Egypt momentarily fizzled, and he had to endure the famous siege of the palace – protected by 4000 guards and most likely in the arms of the queen – until reinforcements arrived in the spring of 47 BC. Ptolemy XIII, his sister Arsinoe IV (half-sister to Cleopatra) and their supporters were defeated quickly, but Caesar remained wary of the intricacies of Egypt and the preceding chaos of the sole-female-rulership of Berenice and proceeded to set up Cleopatra with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV as co-rulers. While his consulship had expired at the end of 48, Mark Antony had provided him the dictatorship of Rome until the end of 47, and thus he possessed the proper legal authority.
In April 47, Caesar departed for Rome, leaving three legions in Egypt, and his son Caesarion was born on June 23. In Rome, Caesar paid respect to his childless marriage with Calpurnia by keeping his mouth horkos odonton in public while Cleopatra blazoned forth the news of his paternity to everyone.
In late 46 followed the visit of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV to Rome which is so memorably depicted in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. The queen had to remain outside the pomerium, i.e., outside the holy precinct of the inner city, for no monarch was allowed to enter; she was put up in a villa in Caesar’s garden.
They were still in Rome – unpopular with most of the senators – when Caesar was assassinated at the Ides of March 44. Perhaps she hoped for Caesarion to be named the heir to Caesar, but when that honour fell to Octavian, she left for Egypt, had her brother killed by poison (it is said) and elevated Caesarion to co-ruler.
In the Liberators’ Civil War, forced by Mark Antony and Octavian against the assassins of Caesar, she was initially courted by both sides but quickly declared for Mark Antony. Alas, one of her own lieutenants, the governor of Cyprus, defected to the enemy and subsequently she had to attend a possibly dangerous confrontation with Mark Antony at Tarsus – which she, however, defused easily by a few lavish banquets and her considerable personal charms. Mark Anthony fell for her hook, line and sinker, and Arsinoe IV, who had only been banished before, and the treasonous governor were duly executed.
The lovely couple was fond of parties and even founded their own drinking club, the “Indestructible Livers” …
But the high life did not last long – trouble developed soon. After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian faced the task of simultaneously providing land for the retirement of the pro- and contracaesarian veterans of the civil war – most of the latter having been pardoned by Caesar before his death. The choice was either to enrage the citizens by confiscating the required land or enrage the veterans, who then might easily decide to support a possible opponent of the triumvirate. Octavian resolved in favour of the veterans by confiscating no less than eighteen towns and their hinterlands for the soldiers – driving whole populations out – which, of course, resulted in civil unrest.
Enter Fulvia Flacca Bambula, widow of two former supporters of Caesar and third wife of Mark Antony (from 47 or 46 BC until 40 BC). She was, through her family connections, by far the most powerful woman in Roman politics ever, and managed even during Antony’s absence in Egypt to raise eight legions – formally commanded by Lucius Antonius, Mark’s younger brother – in Italy for a civil war against Octavian and his veterans, the so-called Perusine War. She apparently committed, however, the critical mistake of not telling her husband of her campaign and Anthony’s supporters in Gaul – for the want of orders – did not come to her aid. The rebels subsequently lost the war and Fulvia fled to her husband in Athens. It would appear that the triumvir, upset with his dear wife, sent her into exile, where she dutifully died and sailed back to Rome to mend affairs within the triumvirate.
Antony thus had to return to Rome on urgent business and Cleopatra was absolutely not amused when he – in a scheme to lessen tensions within the triumvirate – not only married Octavia, the elder sister of Augustus, in Rome but also produced two daughters with her. Yet the Perusine War had critically lessened his subsequent political influence and Octavian gained the upper hand, first in Italy, and then in Gallia.
This was documented by a new agreement between the triumvirs in the Treaty of Brudisium, in which the West fell to Octavian and the East to Antony, while Lepidus received Africa Provincia as a sort of junior partner. In this context also fell the above mentioned marriage of Antony and Octavia.
Anthony then set out on his grand design, the war against the Parthian Empire – for which Cleopatra and Egypt had to chip in a most substantial contribution. The less is said about the campaign the better – there were a few successes but defeats as well and the “Endsieg” remained a chimaera. At least the campaign had a somewhat positive end when Anthony conquered Armenia in 35 BC.
Yet in the aftermath of this success, Anthony developed a clear case of megalomania – in addition to his infatuation, yes, besottedness with the queen. For a long time, he had followed a strategy to use the prestige and power of the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty to set up a Hellenistic follow-up state to the Seleucid Empire in Asia and in 36 BC had presented a plan of making pseudo-donations to titular Hellenistic rulers – client kings – which were to form buffer-states on the Parthian borders. At this time, Octavian had agreed and such donations were presented at Antiochia. In 34, however, as Jenny Hill describes …
These declarations – usually called the Donations of Alexandria – meant not only the end of the triumvirate but were an invitation to war – not because of the titular land grants but because of Antony’s claim of the Caesarian inheritance for Caesarion – not Octavian. This Octavian could not suffer. His claim to rulership was adoption by Caesar – through which he not only had inherited possessions and authority but also the loyalty of Caesar’s veterans and personal popularity. This status being called into question by a biological son of Caesar – by the richest woman in the world – he could, politically, not possibly survive. Antony’s declaration meant war – but it hadn’t yet begun.
Sparks began to fly in earnest and a full-fledged propaganda war began. Octavian basically argued – very much in public – that Anthony was not only giving away the spoils of the Armenian war but also possessions that legitimately belonged to Rome and had been paid for by the blood of the legions, that Antony was but the “slave” of a foreign queen, to whom he had bequeathed huge properties – and that to his children, a most non-Roman idea. By his giving away provinces he also deprived deserving senators of proconsulships and was starting wars, as against Parthia and Armenia, without the senate’s consent. The pro-Antony faction in the capital accused Octavian of unspeakable crimes in Gallia and Spain in addition to homosexuality and cowardice. Par for the course, one could say.
In the eyes of most Romans, Octavians arguments were better and thus the political battle developed very much to his advantage. He was also able to rouse the feelings of the citizens of the capital in regard to the various executions without trial that had become standard procedure in the East – and of course in Egypt.
In 32 BC, the senate formally deprived Antony of his powers and declared war on Cleopatra – not Anthony. It was very important for Octavius not to appear to start another civil war – thus Cleopatra – still very unpopular in Rome – was the perfect target. Yet the political majorities were not clear and almost half of the Senate left Rome and defected to Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.
War finally broke out, and the naval Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, decided emphatically against the fortunes of the couple. In the August of 30 BC, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa led an invasion of Egypt which the wrought-out country was powerless to resist.
Antony committed suicide in the mistaken belief that Cleopatra had done so already. When he, lethally wounded, was informed of the fact that she was still alive, he was brought to her and died in her arms.
Octavian captured Cleopatra but allowed her to bury Antony in the usual fashion. She was destined to be led through Rome in Octavians’ subsequent triumph and afterwards ritually murdered. Robby House writes:
Another prevalent form of execution was that of Strangulation. This was perhaps the most popular form of execution for Rome’s greatest enemies although in those cases it was usually referred to as ritualistic strangulation which would often occur after the vanquished and shackled enemy was paraded through the streets of Rome as part of a Roman Triumph. While many of the victims were publicly strangled in the Forum area, perhaps the most famous war trophy was that of Gallic Chieftain Vercingetorix, arguably Caesar’s greatest foe in the field of battle. Perhaps out of some sort of pity, Caesar had him strangled away from the eyes of Rome’s citizens inside the confines of his cell in the Tullianum Prison (a.k.a. the Mamertine Prison).
Cleopatra knew very well what Octavian intended, and hence, after a few failed attempts, she took her own life – either on August 10 or 12, 30 BC. The popular story goes that she died by the bite of an asp – an Egyptian cobra – but it is also quite possible that she took poison. Egyptian medicine knew many potent toxins, such as Hemlock, Opium, Belladonna or Aconitine, and combinations of them which yielded deadly potables or ointments. The snake story is, of course, the best copy, and hence it does not surprise that the subject was taken on by a plethora of painters and sculptors, of which we show a few below.
Valeria Messalina (AD 17-20? – 48) was the original Roman floozie and is immortalized in paintings, sculptures, stage productions, films and novels. As in the case of other scandalous women of the Roman world – Julia the Elder,Theodora and Cleopatra, it is hard to say how much in the historical reports is invective – slander for political gain – and how much is true, or, at least, probable.
The present author somewhat tends to see the political (in her case, that is, murderous) incidents as more likely than the sexual allegations – sexual defamation and innuendo were par for the course in ancient Roman political discourse. Accusations of sexual misconduct and in particular of adultery were indeed rather suitable political weapons – in particular because of the incongruity of official Roman morals as declared in many laws – e.g. Imperator Augustus’ own Lex Iulia de adulteriis – when compared to Roman reality, which in this respect resembled a gigantic bordello – given that prostitution was always legal in the empire and sex with slaves was essentially unregulated and common.
The main source behind the allegations was, perhaps, originally Agrippina the Younger, who followed Messalina on the throne and into the emperor’s bedchamber. It remains an open question whether she was worse than her contemporaries or not – the ladies of the Julio-Claudian dynasties are generally not remembered for chastity and restraint.
Ms. Agrippina was a busy bee in her own right, and was later rumoured – with the aid of the famous preparer of poisons Locusta – to have poisoned not only her husband Claudius but Britannicus as well, on Nero (her son’s) behalf. It did not help her much in the end – Nero had her eventually removed.
By all reports Messalina must have been quite the catch and a feast for the eyes. Her relation to the Imperial family was intimate. Her family, the gens Valeria, was one of the most ancient and honoured patrician families of Rome. She was the daughter of Domitia Lepida the Younger, a great niece of Augustus and her first cousin Senator Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus (the rest may be read on Wiki). Both her grandmothers had been not only half-sisters, but also nieces of Augustus Caesar.
We do not know much of her life before she became the third wife to heir presumptive Claudius – who was her own cousin (once removed) – in AD 38. If one reads a bit about the whole Julio-Claudian dynasty, one may easily get the impression that it was but one incestuous clan – and may not be far off the truth. She bore Claudius two children – Octavia (later Nero‘s wife) and Britannicus. When Caligula was murdered in AD 41, her husband was made Emperor and she found herself Empress.
She realized early that Claudius’ adopted son Nero was a main competitor for her son Britannicus in the imperial succession (although we must remember here that adoption might change the order of succession at any time). What she did about it and what followed is, however, largely conjecture – based on somewhat dubious historical reports.
In general, historians blame her in three regards: that she mingled in the imperial succession to advance her son Britannicus respectively her lovers, that she conspired against various senators for financial gain and, it seems, out of sexual motives, and that she was both adulterous and promiscuous – crimes for which exile was the normal sanction – but for an empress, the death penalty was far more likely. “Adulterium” respectively “Stuprum” – the shame – were crimes of the woman in question only, not the man – apparently the Romans concluded that no “Latin lover” could resist the ladies’ allures …
She is blamed for the executions of Claudius’ nieces Julia Livilla and Julia Livia, of the prominent senators Appius Silanus and Valerius Asiaticus – the former actually being married to Messalina’s mother Domitia Lepida but apparently desired by the daughter, whom he refused – the poisoning of Marcus Vinicius (Consul AD 30) – who is said to have resisted her advances as well – and the execution of the freedman Polybius, Claudius’ private secretary.
Julia Livilla seems to have been involved (AD 39) in a conspiracy to overthrow Caligula and replace him with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, both her and her elder sister Agrippina‘s lover. She was punished by exile but returned after Caligula’s assassination, only to get in trouble with Messalina in AD 41 and was charged by Claudius (who was her paternal uncle) with adultery, committed, it was said, with Seneca the Younger, She was exiled again and apparently starved to death on Claudius’ orders sometimes in AD 42.
Julia Livia, granddaughter of Tiberius, fell the same way to apparently false charges of immodesty and adultery reported on orders of Messalina to Claudius’ ears by her palace spies, mostly freedmen, and was executed around the same time as Livilla. In both cases there seemed to have been no evidence to the alleged crimes and no official investigation was carried out.
The case of Appius Silanus was different. It seems that Messalina herself desired the highly honoured senator, who, as remarked, was married to her mother Domitia Lepida. On his refusal, Messalina and the aforementioned Narcissus reported an assassination plot, which they claimed to have seen in their dreams, to the emperor and the poor man was promptly executed for treason.
Not lust but greed seemed to have been the driving force in Messalina’s persecution of Valerius Asiaticus. He was one of the richest and most prominent men in Rome, having been consul not once but twice, and had bought and further developed the already famous gardens of the legendary Lucius Licinius Lucullus. It would seem that Messalina brought the notorious senator Publius Suillius Rufus (Claudius’ favoured prosecutor) – by what means we do not know, but we can guess – to indict Asiaticus on capital charges – along the usual conspiracy against the state also a charge of adultery with Poppaea Sabina the Elder, mother of the current empress Poppaea Sabina. He was duly found guilty and committed suicide in AD 47. Messalina inherited the gardens when she followed Poppaea Sabina as empress.
Marcus Vinicius was not so easy to crack. He had been consul twice and was a highly decorated officer – apparently above reproach – so he was poisoned. About the reasons for the execution of Polybius we do not know much – gossip holds that Messalina was tired of him as a lover and sought a secretary to Claudius who was more, er, pliable – in her expert hands.
The interesting question is whether or not Claudius was clueless about his wife’s actions – he probably turned a blind eye since they were getting rid of his political enemies, and – simpleton that he was or seemed to be – he could later deny that he knew anything about her actions.
Executions for crimes against the state were everyday occurrences in Roman politics but as their occasions multiplied, senators fearing to share the fate of Silanus and Asiaticus seemed to have started their own smear campaign. A few juicy scandals might, perhaps, advance their designs.
Rumours and innuendo of sexual adventures was as common and prevalent in Rome as in any other place, but gossip about the orgies Messalina was reported to host privately and not-so-privately quickly spread everywhere. The story everyone recalls best is the one on the competition in regard to sexual stamina which Messalina reportedly fought out with the prostitute Scylla, to find out who could satisfy more men in twenty-four hours – which Messalina is said to have won with a score of twenty-five lovers – as Pliny the Elder‘sNatural History relates in Chapter 83, n. 237:
Messalina, the wife of Claudius Caesar, thinking this a palm quite worthy of an empress, selected, for the purpose of deciding the question, one of the most notorious of the women who followed the profession of a hired prostitute; and the empress outdid her, after continuous intercourse, night and day, at the twenty-fifth embrace.
Juvenal described her habits in Satire VI as follows:
Then look at those who rival the Gods, and hear what Claudius endured. As soon as his wife perceived that her husband was asleep, this august harlot was shameless enough to prefer a common mat to the imperial couch. Assuming night-cowl, and attended by a single maid, she issued forth; then, having concealed her raven locks under a light-coloured peruque, she took her place in a brothel reeking with long-used coverlets. Entering an empty cell reserved for herself, she there took her stand, under the feigned name of Lycisca, her nipples bare and gilded, and exposed to view the womb that bore thee, O nobly-born Britannicus! Here she graciously received all comers, asking from each his fee; and when at length the keeper dismissed his girls, she remained to the very last before closing her cell, and with passion still raging hot within her went sorrowfully away. Then exhausted by men but unsatisfied, with soiled cheeks, and begrimed with the smoke of lamps, she took back to the imperial pillow all the odours of the stews.
What seems to have broken her neck was a party she held on the occasion of a visit of her husband, Emperor Claudius, to the harbour and shipyards of Ostia he was building there. In his absence, his wife gave a lavish party. The freedman Tiberius Claudius Narcissus, another secretary and magistrate, decided to inform his boss about the licentious affair – he had his own reasons in regard to Britannicus, Messalina’s son (check the link, it is interesting).
We have reason to believe that, in his report, Narcissus took a few liberties with the facts or at least with what he could prove. He told his employer that his wife had indeed performed a wedding ceremony with a certain Gaius Silius, who happened to be a designated consul for the following year AD 49.
Whether it was true or not, we do not know. If true, it might have been a plot to tumble Claudius and install Silius as emperor – who might then adopt Britannicus as heir. Silius was not only popular with the people, but also the Praetorian Guard, which made him a true danger.
Claudius hesitated. Back on the way to Rome, he was met on the road by his wife and children in the company of the chief vestal virgin Vibidia who sought to arbitrate in the matter. Yet the horizon clouded when Claudius – while inspecting the house of Silius – found a number of Julio-Claudian family heirlooms that his generous wife had gifted to her lover.
It seems Claudius – still doubtful – lacked the willpower to do what was necessary in the interest of the empire, so Narcissus took it upon himself to order the execution of the empress. She had fled with her mother to the Gardens of Lucullus and was given the chance of an honourable suicide but could not bring it off. So a soldier ran his sword through her.
On hearing the news of his wife’s demise, the emperor is said not have shown a reaction but simply asked for some more wine. The senate, in a gasp of relief, ordered damnation memoriae, the removal of her name from all public places. Yet gossip remained through all those centuries and made her immortal.
The exercise of authority in Rome – at least during much of the Republic – things changed under the Principate and the Empire – was based, as were morals and religion upon the mos maiorum, the laws of the elder, and Roman society was very much a mirror image of its core, the family.
The family – which rather should be translated as “household” in the sense of an economic unit than referring to blood relatives only – was almost dictatorially headed by the pater familias, while the relations outside of the family were guided by the principles of patron (patronus) and client (cliens).
It surprises little that these two elements were largely mirrored within the legal concepts of civil and military authority.
The concept of potestas was applied, as we would say, in matters of the private law, within the family as the Patria potestas, and in civil law the power, or perhaps better the jurisdiction and responsibility, of a magistrate to promulgate the laws and arrange the workings of the state, i.e. rather an expression of socially recognized power than an executive function.
Auctoritas, however, was different in nature, not a matter of the law but a measure of the prestige a man (or, in Imperial times, a woman) enjoyed within the Roman society. Politically, it expressed itself predominantly in the Senate, in the auctoritas of the Princeps Senatus, the censors, and other outstanding personalities. (1) It was, naturally, a matter of charisma.
Imperium was a more serious matter. It was the legally prescribed formal power of command a citizen held over a civil or military entity – a military unit, a province, territory, campaign or special command (e.g. Pompey against the Cilician pirates in 67-66 BC). Imperium was held by the curule aedile, the praetor, the consul, the magister equitum, and the dictator, and such promagistrates (propraetors and proconsuls) which were appointed annually for the government of provinces.
Imperium was bestowed by a legal act of the Senate and originally limited to one year with the exception of the dictator’s term of six months and the rare imperium maius which could last as long as the underlying mandate. In the last century of the Republic, these rules were commonly broken – Marius‘ seven consulships, Caesar‘s five-year term in Gallia and his and Sulla‘s dictatorships. The emperors’ Imperium, naturally, ran for a lifetime.
Imperium sometimes included – at least for a dictator, or later the emperor – the power to command the death penalty for offenders (although various laws limited the death penalty for Romans citizens, which, however, tended to work better for the rich and famous than for the poor sods of Subura and the bottom of Esquilina, the two tribes reserved for the majority of the plebs).
Imperium was limited to geographical borders – see the praetor peregrinus outside of Rome but not inside; imperium over provinces ended on its borders. That is why Caesar crossing the Rubicon as the border river f Gallia cisalpina was technically high treason and was taken as the declaration of civil war.
The outside symbol of imperium was the prominence of lictors, guards accompanying the holder of office:
Dictator – 24 lictors outside the Pomerium and 12 inside; starting from the dictatorship of Lucius Sulla the latter rule was ignored.
Because the dictator could enact capital punishment within Rome as well as without, his lictors did not remove the axes from their fasces within the pomerium. (see Wikipedia)
Since many magistrates held Imperium, the question of overruling was a constant practical matter. Commonly it worked by seniority – an aedile could be overruled by a praetor, the praetor by the consul and so forth. Colleagues could overrule each other, i.e. veto – and frequently did, except for the dictator, whose orders were above the law and not subject to subsequent judicial proceedings.
In special cases – see Pompey above – the Senate could give out imperium maius (“greater”) to an official, usually for a closely defined task (dictators held it by definition). This proved such a desirable and effective method of office that it was quickly appropriated by the emperors and became their hallmark.
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, the two famous tribunes, by Eugene Guillaume
The last and rather different form of a command – being entirely a negative power – was the famous “Intercessio!” – ‘I step in!’, by which any Tribune of the Plebs (of which they were usually ten) could veto discussions, commands, trials and even laws. This being a most practical way of interference, every bigwig of the late republic – Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar and the like – made sure they always had one or two tame tribunes on their payroll which they could use for political sabotage.
This ability proved so useful and desirable that, from Augustus on, every emperor made sure to receive the tribunal character on the occasion of his ascension to the throne. Imperium maius and the tribunal power became the major instruments of Imperial reign.
Clemency could be obtained by appealing to a Vestal Virgin
(1) See Wiki: The 19th-century classicistTheodor Mommsen describes the “force” of auctoritas as “more than advice and less than command, a piece of advice which one may not safely ignore.” Cicero says of power and authority, “Cum potestas in populo auctoritas in senatu sit.” (“While power resides in the people, authority rests with the Senate.”)
Background: What really changed in these years after AD 476, which is commonly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire – a custom which seems to overlook the fact that the eastern part of it survived for another thousand years – was the basic structure of the western societies in favour of particularism – a fundamental change of structures.
But one could take any of the neighbouring decades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mistake to see Roman and Barbarians as either/or, when in reality the cultures mingled; in the words of Chris Wickham, “Crisis and Continuity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The most significant change was the end of the centralization of politics, economy and culture that the great empire had provided; particularism set in, perhaps necessarily.
The end of political unity was not a trivial shift; the whole structure of politics had to change as a result. The ruling classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diverging fast. The East was moving away from the West, too. It was becoming much more Greek in its official culture, for a start. Leo I was the first emperor to legislate in Greek; under a century later, Justinian (527-565) may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. But it is above all in the West that we find a growing provincialization in the late fifth century, both a consequence and a cause of the breakdown of central government. … Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalized, exchange became more localized. The fiscal system, the judicial system, and the density of Roman administrative activity in general, all began to simplify as well. (44)
The decisive challenge, and indeed the most “taxing” matter, for any community that would endeavour to follow the Roman example, was how to pay for a standing army, which had been the instrument of Rome’s expansion and maintenance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farmer was expected to perform military service if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or beyond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imperial decline and the decrease in political stability six hundred years later resulted in a corresponding shrinking of manufacture and commerce, which, at length, destroyed the Imperial tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emperor Justinian I in the East embarked on his Imperial reconquista (which depleted his own treasury, too), that is, at the time of Theodoric’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.
Beginning in the fifth century, there was a steady trend away from supporting armies by public taxation and towards supporting them by the rents deriving from private landowning, which was essentially the product of this desire for land of conquering elites. In 476, according to Procopius, even the Roman army of Italy wanted to be given lands, and got it by supporting Odovacar. Procopius may well have exaggerated; the Ostrogoths state in Italy certainly still used taxation to pay the army, at least in part, probably more than any other post-Roman polity did by the early sixth century. Overall, however, the shift to land was permanent. After the end of Ostrogothic Italy, there are no references in the West to army pay, except rations for garrisons, until the Arabs reintroduced it in Spain from the mid-eight century onwards; in the other western kingdoms, only occasional mercenary detachments were paid … .
The major post-Roman kingdoms still taxed, into the seventh century. But if the army was landed, the major item of expanse in the Roman budget had gone. The city of Rome, another important item, was only supplied from Italy after 439, and lost population fast, as we have seen. The central and local administration of the post-Roman states was perhaps paid for longer, but in most of them the administration quickly became smaller and cheaper. Tax still made kings rich, and their generosity increased the attractive power of royal courts. But this was all it was for, by 550 or so.
Tax is always unpopular, and takes work to exact; if it is not essential, this work tends to be neglected. It is thus not surprising that there are increasing signs that it was not assiduously collected. In ex-Vandal Africa after 534, the Roman re-conquerors had to reorganize the tax administration to make it effective again, to great local unpopularity; in Frankish Gaul in the 580s, assessment registers were no longer being systematically updated, and tax rates may only have been around a third of those normal under the empire. Tax was, that is to say, no longer the basis of the state. For kings as well as armies, landowning was the major source of wealth from now on. (45)
The differentiated Roman structures of administration and command could no longer be maintained. For centuries Rome had continued to grow by her arms while providing reasonable security and the general advantages to the annexes of being a province of the Imperium Romanum. The tax base that had provided for the maintenance of the legions was evaporating, and consequently no large standing armies could be maintained for the next thousand years. We will see in the following, that armies had to be assembled for each of Belisar’s and Narses’ campaigns, of varying size. Standing troops were too expensive, except for guards and border points.
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 lived along the plains of Pannonia at the middle Danube River. This duke, Theodoric, one day received an embassy from the Eastern EmperorZeno, 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. Theodoric’s gifts did not include much 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 [There 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 at 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 other emperor. … The administrative and fiscal system had changed little; the same traditional landowners dominated politics, besides 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 Theodoric’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 Theodoric’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 mournful occasion, was already sixty-eight, and since he had been 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 had long 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 dignities 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 counter-attacks 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 (ca. 5 tons) 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, strenuously 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 million 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 some 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 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 licence 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 physis – a “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 Theodoric’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 for a second time. The hero was recalled again 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, Theodoric’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 practised 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:
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 546].
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 paralysed 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 Gibbons’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 Theodoric and now widow of Totila’s predecessor 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. [FN1]
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.”
No happy end there was for the hero Belisar, as legends report – it is said that he was blinded by Justinian for the one or other infraction, and condemned to beg for alms at the Pincian Gate of Rome – while the story has long held to be apocryphal, Belisar’s biographer Philip Stanhope believed the story to be true based on some primary sources.
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.
[FN1] 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.