Ancient History & Civilisation

(b) Instability from AD 180: some of the ‘What Ifs’ of the period after 180 and how instability escalated. Bad luck or inevitable?

AD180–93. The start of serious political problems in Rome

As will be argued, the instability that afflicted Rome from the later second century onwards owed its beginnings to crucial events in 180. Firstly Marcus Aurelius died prematurely at the age of 58 during his Northern border campaigns against Marcomanni, leaving the throne to the weakwilled and inexperienced 18–year-old Commodus who proved a disaster as Emperor and opened his court to vicious in- fighting, favouritism and the most venal ministers seen since Nero’s reign. Commodus’ extravagance, divine pretensions, and fondness for performing as a gladiator had no serious political implications as far as government was concerned. However, his failure to listen to competent advice and his reliance from c.182 on men such as Saoterus, Cleander, and Perennis caused a mixture of heightened court intrigue, senior appointments of people who had openly bought office or were the personal nominees of the all-powerful favourite rather than experienced, a rash of executions that led to prolonged fear among the political classes in Rome, and a collapse in military discipline and morale (especially among the laxly-supervised Praetorians). The chaos in Rome in 193 was directly the responsibility of him and his ministers, and the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear at the ‘court’ at the time of his murder was as apparent as under Domitian (a similar victim of alarmed intimates fearing that they were about to be executed).

The run of good luck for Imperial successions that ended in 180: how it could easily have ended earlier

Once the situation at the centre of government had been allowed to decline like this for over a decade, it was hard to restore order without repression that created its own problems. The end of the system of orderly succession – either within a dynasty or by nomination of an heir by the Emperor before he died – also caused the return of the chaos and insecurity seen at the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in 68. But it should be said that orderly succession was always a matter of luck in Rome, and there was no ‘wise’ and ‘meritocratic’ policy of adopting the best man as heir in the period from Nerva’s adoption of Trajan (in 98) to 180. None of the emperors who adopted an heir had a son to succeed him, which the dynastically-orientated Guard seem to have preferred.

Galba, Nero’s childless successor who took over in June 68, tried to adopt a well-respected young noble called Piso. He was thwarted by a Guard plot egged on by an ambitious ex-Neronian courtier, Otho, whose own hopes had been disappointed, and killed. Nerva, childless and over 60, needed to adopt a tough and competent general to ward off the threat from his undisciplined Guard who had just defied him in a rampage hunting down Domitian’s killers in 97–8. Trajan adopted his nearest adult male relative, Hadrian, but the latter felt insecure enough to kill four ex-consuls on his accession in 117. Hadrian, third emperor in a row to have no children, initially adopted an unsuitable – and already ailing – candidate, Aelius Verus, who luckily died before him. He then selected his young protege and distant cousin, the teenage Marcus Aurelius (then ‘Marcus Verus’), and Aelius’ son Lucius as heirs for his new successor Antoninus ‘Pius’. Antoninus had no sons either, and his daughter was married off to Marcus who was also his wife’s nephew.1

The ‘What Ifs’ of 180 and of 31 December 192: no civil war in 193?

Had Marcus had no sons, he could have adopted an heir in this fashion and selected a better candidate than his surviving son Commodus. The latter could have fallen victim to one of the numerous plots against him and not spent twelve years misruling the Empire and allowing the Praetorians to become slack and arrogant. His first and probably most dangerous foe was his sister Lucilla, who was probably behind the attempt to stab him in a corridor at the amphitheatre in 182. The assassin, Quadratus, nephew of her husband Tiberius Pompeianus’, stopped to declare ‘The Senate sends you this!’ as he waved his sword and was seized by bodyguards.2 Either he or Prompeianus would have been the new ruler, as Lucilla’s candidate, with her as power behind the throne like Agrippina ‘the Younger’. Thereafter, the Emperor was on his guard and rounds of killings put off plotters until the Household and the current Praetorain Praefect turned on Commodus. Pompeianus, in exile but suspiciously back in Rome in time for the coup, was considered for the throne when Commodus was killed on 31 December 192. He turned down the offer of the throne from the assassins’ choice: Pertinax, 66–year-old disciplinarian ex-governor of Britain. Had Pompeianus accepted, he might have avoided Pertinax’s fate of being murdered by sulky and exasperated Guardsmen annoyed at the reimposition of strict military discipline on 28 March 193.

The coup may have been instigated by Praefect Laetus, who had fallen out with Pertinax, but the Emperor gave the troops enough reason to listen to such suggestions.3 The civil war which followed took the form of refusal to recognise the next Emperor by three senior provincial governors – Septimius Severus on the upper Danube, Clodius Albinus in Britain and Pescennius Niger in Syria. All had recognised Pertinax, so, unless that had been a short-term expedient to cover intended later revolt, the civil war resulted from the second, not the first, coup. By that reasoning, had Laetus been exposed and removed or Pertinax been less personally abrupt to the troops, civil war would have been unlikely. Moroever, he had a son to succeed him if he could have stayed on the throne successfully.

What if Commodus’ brothers had not died young?

From the events of 180–92 arose both the murder of the insecure new ruler, Pertinax, and the humiliating sale of the Imperial title that followed the murder. This led to civil war against the successful bidder, Didius Julianus. But it should be pointed out that Commodus happened to be the only survivor among Marcus’ three sons, and if the other two (one his twin) had not died young in the 160s one of them would have been the beneficiary of Commodus’ murder.4 There would possibly have been two Emperors – brothers – ruling after Marcus, who had himself had a co-ruler, Lucius Verus, in 161–9. If both twins had survived, appointing both as Emperor was logical – not least if Commodus was already showing signs of poor judgement and laziness. Given Commodus’ fondness for gladiatorial combat and parties, he could well have left politics and adminstration to his brother – until his ambitious courtiers encouraged him to demand more power? Lucius Verus, reputedly lazy and spendthrift, had left government to Marcus in the 160s without any apparent tension. If the jealous Commodus had attempted to kill his brother(s), there is no guarantee that he would have succeeded and not been killed instead.

In the second place, the evacuation of troops from the territories of modern Bohemia and Moravia aborted the attempt to create a new province there and ‘Romanise’ the local tribes. If they had been at least partially tamed by occupation from c.180 to 250, and sending their menfolk into the Roman army, they would not have been in a position to raid the Empire when it was weakening. Their war-leaders, who launched the attacks, would have been Roman officers and possibly been moved from the region. The attacks of the Germanic tribes across the Rhine and the Danube – the centrepiece of the ‘third-century crisis’ – would have been easier to contain by the available troops. (This is dealt with later.)

The Severans, 193–235 – part of the solution or part of the problem? Did Septimius Severus make Rome’s instability worse, and could he have avoided this?

Septimius Severus, the victor in the civil war of 193–7, proved to be a competent Emperor and in particular a much-needed success as a general, defeating both the Parthians and the Caledonians and restoring Rome’s prestige after the civil war. He could not claim convincingly to have been the choice of Pertinax as his successor, though he did his best by arranging a retrospective ‘adoption’ and stressing his role as the late Emperor’s ‘son’ and avenger in his propaganda,5 and it is clear that a substantial part of the Senate hoped that his rival Clodius Albinus would win their confrontation in 197.6 The repressive measures that he carried out in Rome were notably harsher after this, once he had faced the danger of revolt among people who had supposedly accepted him as their ruler in 193 but had proved to be potentially disloyal.

Severus’ reliance on a small clique of his ‘trusties’ from his home province of Tripolitania, most notably the ruthless, venal, and arrogant Praefect Plautianus, was an inevitable result of his being a provincial outsider who faced potential disaffection in his capital and had no established networks of eminent friends to rely on there. (Albinus, by contrast, was an Italian.) He was not the only Emperor to impatiently flaunt traditional civilian mores in his the capital, enter the Senate in armour (though more circumspect rulers had worn it under a toga), and treat Senators with open anger as potential enemies, carrying out mass executions without due care to see that only the obviously guilty suffered

It was said in mitigation that at least he did not kill people for their money.7 Nor was he the only Emperor to rely on a ruthless and unhindered Praefect to keep order and terrorise his potential opponents into submission, Sejanus being the most obvious example (though Tiberius had more excuse in view of his age and his desire to retire at the time).

Severus had more excuse for running an effective ‘reign of terror’ against the civilian nobility than Tiberius or Domitian had, on account of the political situation. Augustus had been just as ruthless at purging the nobility, and both duly built up Senate inflitrated by their loyalists.8 However, his attitude towards the centre of power and its traditions was markedly more contemptuous than any except the more eccentric of his predecessors, and sat ill with his claims to be restoring order and good government – Caligula, Nero, and Commodus had been openly determined to satisfy their whims. Apocryphal or not, there is a ring of truth to his supposed advice to his sons on his death-bed to keep the peace with each other, give the soldiers what they wanted, and ignore everybody else.9 In his naked and cynical realpolitik, only Imperial Family unity and a loyal army counted as they alone could affect the holding of power.

Severus’ reputation suffered on account of his lack of concern for preserving the appearance of traditional government. He was nicknamed the ‘Punic Sulla’, stressing both his foreign origins (and that he came from the same area as Hannibal) and his harshness.10It is probable that this sort of contemptuous remark about his origins made him even more suspicious of the Italian nobility. The excessively trusted Plautianus was an old crony from his home town, who was rationalised by one story as his ex-lover.11As with Sulla’s ruthless re-establishment of the rule of the traditional oligarchy of senior patrician families by massacring all possible opposition, the façade of government was restored but the main lessons that future political and military leaders learnt was from the methods used to do it. Naked military power and the destruction of opposition rather than conciliation were effective in succeeding in restoring stability in the aftermath of 193 as they had been after 82 BC. But in both cases the regime established by the victor of a civil war was not long-lasting and it was challenged by men using the same methods that they had excelled at. From the point of long-term stability, it is possible that the Empire may have been better off if Albinus had defeated Severus in their final battle outside Lyons in February 197. This was a very real possibility as Severus’ army blundered into a series of hidden pits and their Emperor was thrown off his horse.12

Severus’ weak position as an outsider and the extent of instability and real or potential plotting and military mutiny seen since 180 partially explain his ruthless – and effective – reaction to the situation that faced him. He was in a weaker position than Vespasian, a similar victor of civil war but an insider from the capital’s political classes (if only a marginal member of the elite), and unlike Vespasian he lacked an adult and competent son to act as his effective deputy. Titus was 29, a battle-hardened general, and the respected conqueror of Jeruslaem in 70; Severus’ eldest son Caracalla was only 5 in 193 (and 9 in 197) and half-Syrian as well.

It is unthinkable that Vespasian could have tolerated the sort of arrogance and presumption that Plautianus displayed, for example, in erecting statues of himself in company with those of the Imperial Family, whether or not the story is true that when Plautianus was ill he would not let even Severus into his bedroom without the customary body-search. 13 Whether or not Plautianus coveted the throne, and however justified his son-in-law Caracalla was in killing him, it is clear that Severus allowed him incredible license and was reluctant to act against this supposedly loyal lieutenant despite evident abuse of his position. Plautianus’ behaviour was diminishing the Emperor’s own position (and majesty if the story about his securityarrangements is true), however useful he was in terrorising potential opponents. The supposed heir of Marcus Aurelius and Pertinax as a good ruler was putting himself in the same league of Emperors who let a favourite get out of control as Tiberius, Caligula (with Praefect Macro), Nero (with his freedmen and Praefect Tigellinus), or Commodus. But even today statesmen can find it useful to allow remarkable license to over-powerful ‘hard men’ in terrorising domestic opposition. Plautianus was the Beria or the Himmler of his day, or in modern British terms a sort of Prime Minsterial ‘enforcer’ ( New Labour ‘Director of Communications’?). It was Caracalla who eventually had to act to deal with the problem, unlike Tiberius had done in facing up to Sejanus, even if his father evidently allowed him to do so. 14

Severus showed a similar personal indulgence in refusing to do anything about the signs that Caracalla could turn into a poor and/or tyrannical ruler after his death, ignore his arrangments for the succession by killing his brother Geta, and endangering the dynasty’s continuance and the stability of the Empire. The sources should be treated with some caution as they may suffer from hindsight in projecting clear signs of Caracalla’s later character back into his father’s reign and relating apocryphal stories, such as that he was suspected (including by Severus) of plotting to use his favour with the army during the Caledonian campaign to carry out a coup against his ailing father.15 But it is apparent that the chosen senior heir, already a grown man of nearly 23 by the time of his accession in 211, had shown signs of his violent and impulsive nature and in particular that he and Geta loathed each other and could barely be restrained from personal violence.

Severus supposedly chose to take them on campaign to Britain to teach them some discipline after they had shown signs of getting out of hand in peacetime in Rome, and was aware that his death could well lead to fratricide.16 It is apparent that, unlike the case of Marcus and Commodus who was younger (18) at the time of his accession, the Emperor had had adequate warning of what his son was capable of doing but had chosen to evade the issue. The solution he chose, of making both his sons joint heirs, was unlikely to do anything but postpone a violent resolution to the conflict. If he had been properly concerned for the State’s welfare rather than that of his family, he had every excuse at least by 210 to have Caracalla executed (especially if he had been heard contemplating a coup during the Caledonian campaign) and to secure the succession of the more amenable (though still apparently headstrong ) Geta.

The results of Severan repression, naked reliance on military power, and indulgence for the likes of Caracalla and Plautianus were such as to negate the Emperor’s good work in restoring political and military stability. The worst threat facing Rome from 193 was political instability at the summit of power rather than any foreign enemy, together with that of the success of provincial governors in seizing power in Rome proving infectious and tempting one general after another to try his chances. But the danger of this occurring from 69 had been averted, and there is no reason why wise policies (and luck) could not have restored stability in a similar manner after 193. The essential lesson of both 68–9 and 193 had been to avoid a powervacuum or disputed succession in the capital. The arrogant and mutinous Praetorian Guard of 193 that had been indulged by Commodus, murdered his disciplinarian successor and sold its services to the highest bidder, had been broken up and replaced with a new Guard of loyal Severan provincialtroops.17 If a succession of able and firm Emperors had continued to inspire confidence and obedience among their soldiers there is no reason that the crisis of 193 should have been resumed – until the next disputed succession

Military rule and instability: would it have been better for Rome if Caracalla had been killed or exiled by his father and Geta had succeeded alone?

The appearance that Severus created of a military despot relying on brute force was unfortunate for his reputation and for his relations with the Senate. But it mattered far less than allowing his unstable elder son to succeed him. Geta had shown no signs of being a better statesman or particularly mature, but at least he had a competent and trustworthy fatherin- law and probable chief minister in Praefect Papinianus; his reign should have posed less danger of bloodshed and eventual regicide than his brother’s.18 The lesson of Commodus’ reign should have been clear: any unstable ruler did not only cause alienation within the political classes (which Severus clearly discounted) but raised the risk of violent overthrow, another civil war, and a succession of copycat revolts by ambitious provincial generals. Severus dismissed the risks of the alienation of an erratic Emperor from the civil establishment as posing no risk to the throne, unlike military discontent. But it did not take a military revolt to have an Emperor murdered and a power-vacuum at the centre causing civil war. Pertinax was killed by his Guard but Domitian and Commodus were killed by potential victims of their paranoia within the Imperial Household and Caracalla was to be killed in a roadside attack during his Parthian campaign in 217 by a lone assassin (probably incited by the worried Praetorian Praefect).19

Severus drew inadequate conclusions of the measures needed to secure stability, though his reasoning about the Army and the Imperial Family disunity being most crucial was true as far as it went. Similarly, his failings as a conciliator increased the alienation of his family-based regime from the civilian leadership in Rome and decreased the chances of general reconciliation (though the necessary rise in military pay would have entailed higher taxes and some confiscation of suspects’ property to pay for it in any case). All this helped to make the chances of Caracalla’s overthrow and a new round of civil war more likely – and with each successful revolt the chances that long-term stability could be achieved diminished. As it happened, the brief non-dynastic interlude under Macrinus, in 217–18 after Caracalla’s murder, was followed by the swift return of the Severan dynasty.

The latter drew a flimsy ‘legitimacy’ from the pretence that Elagabalus, the great nephew of Severus’ Syrian wife, was really Caracalla’s son and then by Elagabalus’ adoption of his cousin Alexianus (only four years his junior) as his son. If Severus had seemed to be a ‘Punic’ alien in Rome, the Syrian bisexual transvestite High Priest Elagabalus, a bizarre and feckless spendthrift, was ten times worse. More importantly, the relaxation of strict discipline over the Praetorians after 211 by weak or indulgent regimes led to a recurrence of that arrogance and indiscipline that they had showed in 193.

‘Out-of-control’ Praetorians: the most dangerous legacy of Severus’ reign?

Severus’ open reliance on military power encouraged the Guards’ selfconfidence and made a return to the fatal indiscipline that they had shown in 193 more likely. A cynically pragmatic policy of favouring the soldiers may have helped to preserve the Severan dynasty in the short term but was no good for long-term stability. Vespasian, in a comparable position and equally ruthless with dissent, had emphasised his traditional methods of government and use reliable elements of the capital’s elite. Severus did not use ‘acceptable’ figures in positions of real power and chose to rely on an overbearing and over-indulged Praefect from among his own small clique of fellow-Africans. This was a reflection of reality, but arguably made the Guards too arrogant and contemptuous of civilian control. By Alexander Severus’ reign, in 227, they could murder a disciplinarian Praetorian Praefect (Ulpianus) and get away with it.

As with the Janissaries of Ottoman Constantinople, the Mameluke regiments of pre-Ottoman and Ottoman Cairo, and the Guards-regiments of eighteenth-century St Petersburg (or London under the ‘New Model Army’ in 1659), an arrogant and mutinous military force in the capital could be the Achilles heel of a great military power even if there was no revolt in the provinces. The Guards, having according to the (later) biographical evidence despised the insecure Macrinus, intimidated Elagabalus into removing his worst cronies in 221 and then murdered him in 222.20 They seem to have been beyond the control of the weak government of Mammea, mother of Alexianus/Alexander, rejecting or murdering Praefects and fighting with the populace. After the interlude of military rule by Maximin in 235–8 they lynched the new civilian rulers, Balbinus and Pupienus, though from this point provincial military revolt returned to being the main challenge to stability. The Guards may not have been the only cause of returning instability after 211, but they played a crucial role in creating a wave of revolts each of which made it less likely that the Empire could return to the political stability of the second century,as any ruler – even an able one – who attempted to secure stability would cause resentment among the military and touch off new revolts.

The caveat in this argument is the fact that the Guards’ power was helped immensely by the uncertainty in Rome after 217, no Emperor being adult, experienced, secure, or dynastically legitimate. Macrinus was a Mauretanian outsider suspected of involvement in Caracalla’s killing; Elagabalus and his ‘brother’ Alexianus/Alexander were under-age Syrians; Maximin was a low-ranking soldier without civilian backing; Balbinus and Pupienus were Senatorial candidates without recent military experience or connections; and Gordianus III was a teenager chosen for the connection to his late relatives. The frequency of coups had given both Guards and provincial troops (and commanders) hope for the success of revolts, and made the latter endemic. By the time of the rule of the competent and experienced adults Praefect Timisetheus (for Gordian III) and Philip in the 240s, revolt had become a habit and did not need an Imperial defeat to touch it off; Philip resorted to giving his principal military command to his loyal brother, Priscus, but could not prevent another army revolting in 249. If Septimius had been succeeded by a ruthless but less tyrannical son – hopefully, Geta – and a line of adult Severan dynasts been established into the 230s and 240s, Septimius’ reliance on the soldiers would have been less likely to result in a series of revolts that could be blamed on his ‘Sullan’ tendencies.

‘Knock-on’ effects of military coups on the Empire’s frontiers

This round of continuous crises made the Empire less likely to be able to deal with external threats, and more likely to break up if facing disaster on the frontiers as a struggling Emperor faced revolt in his rear and could not concentrate on the foreign enemy. The ability of Emperors to deal with serious external threats was seriously reduced if they were liable to face opportunistic military revolt the moment their military power faltered, and the potential of the invaders to do serious damage accordingly increased. The Empire’s brief success on the threatened Danube frontier in the later 240s only led to the victorious troops (allegedly) forcing their triumphant commander Decius to revolt against the unpopular Emperor Philip.

Decius, a stern moralist and energetic ruler and accepted by the Senate as an aristocrat, called himself ‘Trajan’ to echo past glory and was probably the most capable Emperor since Severus. He undertook an energetic programme of reform and also had two sons who lacked the fratricidal tendencies of Severus’sons. But by now any military setback could lead to an ambitious provincial general revolting, and the German attacks across Rhine and Danube began to escalate. He was thus in a more dangerous position than Severus, and needed to win his campaign against a massive Gothic crossing of the lower Danube into Thrace in 250–1. Unfortunately, he was killed in battle in the Danube delta.22 This damaged Rome’s military reputation and led to copy-cat attacks by emboldened Germanic neighbours, including seaborne attacks across the Black Sea.

After Decius’ death in battle in 251, two crucial years of Germanic incursions across the Balkans saw Gallus, Aemilianus, and Valerian fighting over the throne instead of a concerted Roman counter-attack. In 260, Valerian’s capture by the Persians touched off a series of revolts by provincial military commanders that temporarily broke the Empire into pieces, resulting in loss of both manpower and treasure on fighting civil wars and economic damage from roaming armies of Germanic and Persian invaders. (The exact numbers of invaders and extent of damage is unclear from the fragmentary sources, but it is clear that the overall results on Roman resources were catastrophic; the decline in size of the towns and numbers of walls erected around them are good indications.23)

What if Geta had been sole Emperor from 211?

It would be excessive to blame Severus’ priorities as the main reason why this chain of disasters was touched off. Had either Caracalla or Geta proved an adequate and long-lasting ruler, the disruption of the period of 180–97 would not have resumed until the next crisis of succession, particularly if they had ruled in a more self-disciplined manner. Geta, if his government had been stabilised by Papinian to make up for his youth and apparent lack of interest in business before 211, would have retained the loyalty of the troops to a greater extent than the non-dynastic disciplinarian and poor general Macrinus, the eccentric Elagabalus, or the ineffective Alexander did. He was less likely to be murdered than his brother unless he had developed similar paranoid tendencies and so invited a pre-emptive ‘strike’ by a potential victim (the fate of Caracalla, Commodus, and Domitian).

Given his military training by his father, he could have handled a Parthian war in Mesopotamia better than Macrinus did in 217, though the collapse of Parthia into decentralised anarchy and the takeover by the Sassanids in the mid-220s would have invited a risky large-scale Roman attack by an overconfident ruler. Roman conquest as far as the Persian Gulf might have been possible given the resources available to a contemporary Roman ruler, the ease with which Septimius had recently reached Ctesiphon, and the disorder in Parthia, encouraging the (half- Syrian) Geta to think of himself in terms of a Hellenistic conqueror. He as well as Caracalla could have been tempted by Parthian collapse to play Alexander the Great. The 220s could have seen Rome ruling Mesopotamia as in 115–17. But once the Sassanids had unified Parthia again Rome would have faced a strong attack from the Persian heartland c.232, requiring a determined effort to hold the new acquisitions. (Unlike Trajan, however, Geta would not have had to face a Jewish revolt to his rear.) If Geta had matured into a capable ruler, relying on able ministers, his regime could have lasted for decades and restored Roman stability until the major Danube attacks of the 240s.

Did any Emperor after 217 stand a chance of stabilising the Empire? The ‘what ifs’ of their surviving longer in power

Given the evident attachment of the Praetorians to the reigning Imperial family and a principle of dynastic rule where possible (as shown by the attempts of Elagabalus’ and Alexander’s ministers to declare their links to Caracalla), it is possible that Alexander as an adult, if not his eccentric and self-indulgent cousin, had a chance to stabilise the situation. Elagabalus never showed any interest in military matters or government, leaving the latter to his grandmother, Julia Maesa, and her minister, Eutychianus. Having alienated Rome by his bizarre behaviour (and probably caused fears of bad luck arising from his marrying a Vestal Virgin), he was induced to name his cousin Alexander as his heir – probably by his nervous advisers so they had a replacement handy. He tried to have Alexander killed to safeguard himself but the Guards refused to do it and turned on him; he saved himself on that occasion but was soon killed in a second mutiny (March 222).24 The hand of Maesa, anxious to save the dynasty, was probably behind the act; and Alexander proved a more biddable and respectable ruler. Both youths had been passed off as Caracalla’s illegitimate sons to improve their dynastic claims, though Alexander and his mother Mammea (effective chief minister after Maesa died) could not stop sporadic military mutinies. Had he proved an adequate general in Mesopotamia in the early 230s and subsequently on the Rhine and shown less attachment to having his domineering Syrian mother at his headquarters, he ran less risk of being despised by the troops as her puppet. A coup to depose him would have been less likely.

Given the creation of new senatorial dynasties and appointment to provincial governorships of Severan ‘trusties’ after 193, he did have alternative advisers to rely on. The execution of his first wife’s father Seius Sallustius, Praetorian Praefect and ‘Caesar’ so effectively his deputy, around 228 seems to have been a power-struggle with Mammea whether or not the charge of attempted revolt was justified. He could have been a viable senior civilian minister, a ‘strong man’ able to preserve the government, and averted the military rebels’ charge in 235 that Alexander was an incompetent dominated by female control – provided he did not annoy the restless Guard. Another, demonstrably competent, senior minister, Praefect Ulpianus (a distinguished lawyer), was murdered by the Guard (c. 224) for excessive strictness – a return to the defiance their predecessors had shown in killing Pertinax. With a vague story in the (inadequate) sources about the Guard fighting the Roman populace for three days circa 223, it is clear that skill, charisma, or bringing in provincial troops to disband the mutineers (Severus’ solution) was needed. Alexander lacked this ability, and his long survival would have been problematic even if he had not had to campaign – possibly not as feebly as subsequently believed – against the new Sassanid dynasty that had seized power in Persia. He ended up despised by his troops as his mother’s puppet and an ineffective commander, and was killed in a mutiny at Mainz.25

Maximin, a popular choice to lead the uprising of 235 and a capable general on the Northern frontier, had more of a problem as an ex-‘ranker’ and a Thracian soldier who had no civilian connections in Rome. Relying on his trusted military associates to control the turbulent capital, he was bound to spark off resentment as a ‘tyrant’ relying on non-senators. Even the equally non-aristocratic ‘outsider’ Macrinus, a Mauretanian, had come up through the Imperial bureaucracy to be Praetorian Praefect. Maximin was vulnerable to a revolt within the Severan Imperial ‘clientele’, as seen by the plots on behalf of Alexander’s friends, in the capital, or by senior governors and generals, and the unpopular rule in the capital by his trusted military associates was inevitable, as was Senatorial disdain. He could have saved his throne by prompter action in 238 or a wiser choice of deputy in Rome; his choice was a harsh general who sparked off the revolt in favour of the Gordians in 238.26

The elderly Gordian I was clearly not going to reign long even if his army had defeated Maximin’s troops in Africa and enabled him to reach Rome in safety to benefit from the Senatorial rebels’ defeat of the ‘despot’. But he had a son to succeed him, though the sources are too muddled to make it clear how competent the latter was. The capable Praefect Timisetheus could have preserved the young and inexperienced Gordian III’s regime beyond 244 had he lived, or the competent and ruthless Decius defeated the Goths in 251 and led his armies against the next waves of invaders. Decius was a harsh but capable ruler, promoting himself as a second Trajan and ‘restorer’ of ancient values, and had the energy to be a second Vespasian or a luckier Pertinax – and his military capabilities would have given potential rebels pause for thought before revolting against him. He had one adult son, Herennius Etruscus, so he could have safely left the latter in Rome to govern while he fought the attackers on the Danube. Herennius was killed with him in battle against the Goths; a younger son, Hostilianus, was titular ruler in 251–2 but only a teenager and so at risk of overthrow by his senior general, Gallus. As it was, Hostilianus died in the plague of 251–2 and the throne was up for grabs to any well-supported general; chaos duly followed.

The violent overthrow of none of these men – except arguably Alexander – was inevitable, and a successful reign of one or two decades by one of them would have discouraged would-be rebels. It would have aided stability despite the events of 193 encouraging potential provincial army rebels to take a chance. Maximin, Gordian I and Decius had heirs to hand – adult heirs for the latter two – as had the less successful Philip, meaning the potential for a dynasty lasting several decades, although the young and childless Alexander and Gordian III would have had to rule for decades to leave an adult heir. It was the endless round of successful revolts from 235 that prompted further military disobedience and opportunistic rebellions, leaving the Roman government critically unstable when the first major Germanic challenge since the 160s and the first Eastern threat since the 40s BC combined in the 240s and 250s; this vulnerability, no doubt, emboldened Rome’s enemies to attack. Had a stronger ruler, in power for decades without a successful challenge, and a long-lasting dynasty faced this challenge instead of a succession of ephemeral sovereigns facing imminent revolt, the threat of the crisis breaking up the Empire and undermining its economy would have been far less.

Disaster and recovery from 253. The added burden imposed by Persian attack: the inability of the Empire to fight on two fronts

Even in the 250s, when the Empire faced multiple attacks and the effects of plague on the available manpower to fight them, it could have survived intact with mutually trustworthy commanders fighting in each area. This is what Valerian, the victor of the civil wars of 252–3, attempted to do after 253. He used his adult son Gallienus as co-ruler to campaign on one frontier (the Rhine) while he was occupied elsewhere. Furthermore, Gallienus was lucky enough to have a teenage son available to rally loyalty too. The first geographical division of the Empire probably followed . But by that point revolt had become a habit as soon as the current ruler faced a setback. Crucially, Valerian could not concentrate on both the Germanic attacks over the lower Danube and the seaborne raids across the Black Sea into the Aegean, leaving the latter to spread unchecked and humiliate the Empire. It was at this point that Athens appears to have been sacked, as well as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ (the temple of Artemis at Ephesus) burnt.

Imperial failure – probably helped by loss of manpower to the plague – then encouraged Persia to attack on the Euphrates. Without this, the Empire could still have held out; by this reckoning the replacement of the decentralised and coup-prone Parthian monarchy by the aggressive Sassanid dynasty in 224/7 provided one foe too many for Rome. The Sassanid monarchs constantly harped back to the glorious days of the Achaemenid empire in their propaganda, which meant reclaiming all its old territories – as far as the Bosphorus. The biggest ‘What If ?’ of the disasters which hit the Empire in the 250s is probably the question of the Sassanids’ overthrow of Parthia. Plague-weakened Rome had faced massive Germanic incursions over the upper Danube in the late 160s, though not on so wide a front, and survived. This time there was a major Persian invasion on the Euphrates as well. Valerian had to take an army to Syria and leave the Balkans alone. Had he not had to march East, the presence of both him and Gallienus on the Northern frontier would have deterred too many local rebellions as long as they were winning against the Germans.

The capture of Valerian by the Persians near Edessa in 260 duly opened the floodgates to a mass of rebellions, not to mention the humiliation. (‘Great King’ Shapur is said to have used Valerian as his footstool when he wanted to mount a horse, and when Valerian died he stuffed his skin as a trophy.)27 As Gallienus had to leave the Rhine to return to Italy the troops there revolted and murdered his son. The North-West of the Empire broke away under a usurper, Postumus, in 260 and was not regained until 273, with Gallienus unable to spare the time to reconquer it as he had to save Italy and the Balkans.

An escalating cycle of Roman civil war and external defeats thus led to catastrophe in the 260s, with a multitude of Emperors who all lacked the military resources to overwhelm their rivals. With the surviving Roman army in the East too busy driving raiders out of Asia Minor and backing its own Emperors (the two Macriani), the Persian invasion of Syria had to be halted by the local Greco-Arab ruler of the desert trading-post of Palmyra, Odenathus. His widow Zenobia then became unofficial ruler of the East around 267, and had to be deposed before the Empire could reassert its authority there.

Luckily, the leadership and resources available to the ‘central region’ of the Empire, based on Italy, enabled its rulers – Gallienus to 268, then Claudius II to 270, and finally Aurelian – to hold out and defeat all their rivals, Roman and invaders. The Empire was reunited by Aurelian in 270–4, defeating Postumus’ heirs and Zenobia. His surprise assassination late in 275 did not halt the recovery, which continued under his equally competent successors, Probus (276–82) and Carus (283–4). The civilian Greek outsider, Diocletian (284/5–305), then created a whole new bureaucratic and military apparatus to run a stabilised Empire as an efficient – but hugely costly – hierarchy. His attempt to stabilise the succession by introducing a regular system of deputies was however a disaster. He divided the Empire into two geographical halves, with himself in the East and his friend Maximian in the West, and from 293 they had deputy rulers (‘Caesars’), Galerius in the East and Constantius I in the West. The plan was that they would then retire together (305) and let these men take over, with two new ‘Caesars’ then being appointed. Inevitably, personal ambition overturned the neat system, as Diocletian’s plans to nominate the most competent (or loyal) officers to Imperial office was wrecked by men who had their own relatives to promote. Prolonged civil wars from 306 ended in the triumph of Constantius’s son, Constantine ‘the Great’, the first to challenge the system, in 324 as sole Emperor.

The crisis is unlikely to have commenced had Decius not been defeated by the Goths at Abrittus in 251, as it was that which emboldened the Germans to invade across both Rhine and Danube at a time of Roman civil war. Decius was a vigorous and competent general, with two sons who would have been adult and available for command in the 250s. A crushing Roman victory in 251 would have discouraged some of the tribal attackers beyond the Rhine and Danube from invading at all, though the plague of 251–2 would still have reduced Roman manpower.

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