Chapter 16 of The Spirit of the Laws Volume 3

Considerations on the State of the Empire from Antoninus to Probus

September 30, 2021

IN this period, the Stoics propagated their doctrines in the empire with great popularity; and it seems as if nature herself had been industrious to produce this admirable sect, which resembled those plants the earth causes to spring up in places never visited by the sunbeams.

This sect furnished the Romans with their best emperors; none but Marcus Aurelius could extinguish the remembrance of the first Antonine who adopted him; and we find ourselves affected with a secret pleasure when we speak of this emperor. We cannot read his life without some impressions of tenderness, and grow inclinable to think better of ourselves, because the history of that prince makes us entertain a more favourable opinion of mankind.

The wisdom of Nerva, the glory of Trajan, the valour of Adrian, and the virtue of the two Antonines, gained them the veneration of the soldiers; but when a set of new monsters became their successors, the abuse of military government appeared in its full enormity; and the soldiers, who had exposed the empire to sale, assassinated the emperors for the sake of new gratuities.

It has been a conceived opinion that there is a certain prince in the world, who, for the space of fifteen years, has been endeavouring to abolish the civil government in his dominions, and to substitute the military in its room. I have no intention to make odious reflections on such a design, and shall only observe, that from the nature of things in general, two hundred guards may be a better security to a prince than four thousand; and besides, an armed people are of all others the most dangerous to be opposed.

Commodus succeeded his father Marcus Aurelius, and was a monster who gave a loose to all his own passions, and those of his courtiers. The persons who delivered the world from such a Barbarian, transferred the imperial dignity to the venerable Pertinax, who was soon assassinated by the prætorian bands.

The empire was then exposed to auction, and Didius Julian carried it by a number of magnificent promises. This proceeding exasperated the whole body of the people; for though the empire had been frequently bought, it had never been sold upon credit before. Pescennius Niger, Severus, and Albinus, were saluted [113] emperors; and Julian, not being in a condition to pay the immense sums he had promised, was abandoned by the soldiers.

Severus defeated Niger and Albinus= he was master of extraordinary qualities, but wanted that sweetness of disposition, which in princes is the most amiable quality they can possess.

The power of the Emperors might easily appear more tyrannical than that of modern princes; for as their dignity was a conjunction of the various authorities in the Roman magistracy, such as dictators, for instance, tribunes of the people, proconsuls, censors, supreme pontiffs, and sometimes consuls, they frequently assumed the dispensation of distributive justice, and it was easy for them to create suspicions that they had oppressed those whom they condemned; for the people usually judge of the abuse of power, by the greatness of its extent; whereas the kings of Europe, being legislators and not executors of the law, sovereign princes but not judges, are consequently discharged from the exercise of an authority that might prove odious; and have consigned the infliction of punishments to magistrates, whilst they reserved to themselves the distribution of pardons and other popular acts of mercy.

Few emperors have ever been more jealous of their authority than Tiberius and Severus, and yet they suffered themselves to be governed in a most dishonourable manner, the one by Sejanus, and the other by Plautian.

The unhappy custom of proscribing, introduced by Sylla, was still practised under the emperors; and the prince must have been distinguished by some virtue, if he discountenanced that severe proceeding; for as the ministers and favourites turned their thoughts to confiscations at the beginning of a reign, they were always representing to their sovereign the necessity of punishments, and the dangerous effects of clemency.

[114] When Severus gave full play to his proscriptions, a great body of Niger’s * army retired for safety to the Parthians † and perfected them in every part of military discipline wherein they were any way defective; they habituated them to the Roman weapons, and even taught their workmen how to make their martial equipage; in consequence of which, that people, who till then had usually limited their exploits to defensive wars ‡ , were generally aggressors for the future.

It is very remarkable, that in the long series of those civil wars that were continually raging, the chiefs, who were supported by the legions of Europe, generally defeated the leaders of the Asiatic legions ∥ ; and we read, in the history of Severus, that he could not take the city of Atra in Arabia, because the European legions having mutinied, he was obliged to employ those of Syria.

This difference became evident, when the levies were first made § in the provinces, and it appeared as considerable in the legions, as it did in the nations out of which they were raised, and who, by nature or education, were more or less formed for war.

Another unhappy consequence likewise ensued from these provincial levies; for the emperors, who were generally elected out of the soldiery, were for the most part strangers, and sometimes the worst of Barbarians. [115] Rome was now no longer mistress of the world, but received laws from the whole universe.

Each emperor brought with him some peculiarity from his own country, relating to fashions, manners, politics, or religion; and Heliogabalus had even formed a resolution to destroy every object of religious veneration in Rome, and to banish all the gods from their temples, that he might place his own in their room.

This circumstance, even considered as independent on the secret operations of the Deity, which are obvious to his omniscience alone, greatly contributed to the establishment of Christianity; for nothing was now strange in the empire, and the people were prepared to relish every new custom which the emperors were inclinable to introduce.

It is well known, that the Romans received the gods of other nations into their city; but then they received them with the art of conquerors, and carried them in their triumphal processions= but when strangers attempted to establish them by their own authority, they were immediately rejected. It is likewise notorious, that the Romans gave foreign deities the names of such of their own gods as were most conformable to the others, in their attributes= But when the priests of other countries would introduce the adoration of their divinities, under the proper names, among the Romans, they were not permitted to accomplish that design; and this was the greatest obstacle to the progress of Christianity.

Caracalla, who succeeded Severus, may be called not only a tyrant, but the destroyer of mankind. Caligula, Nero, and Domitian limited their barbarities to Rome; but this monster endeavoured to extend his fury through the world like a pestilence.

Severus amassed prodigious treasures by the exactions of a long reign, and his proscriptions of those who declared for his competitors in the empire.

Caracalla having commenced his reign with murdering his brother Geta with his own hands, purchased, with those riches, a connivance at his crime from the soldiers who had an extraordinary regard for Geta; but the liberalities of Caracalla had such an effect upon them, that they declared they had taken oaths to both the children of Severus, and not to one alone.

The immoderate treasures which have been gathered by princes have commonly produced fatal effects= they generally corrupt the successor, who grows dazzled with the lustre they diffuse; and if they happen not to prevent his heart, they misguide his mind, and cause him to form plans of mighty enterprizes, by the ministration of a power that is only accidental, always transitory and unnatural, and an empty inflation instead of a real grandeur.

Caracalla augmented the soldiers pay; Macrinus wrote to the senate, that this augmentation amounted to * seventy millions of drachms † . This prince seems to have magnified things; and if we compare our soldiers pay now-a-days with the rest of our public expences, and suppose that we kept the same proportion among the Romans we shall see that this sum was excessive.

Here we should enquire, what was a Roman soldier’s pay? We learn from Orosius, that Domitian raised ‡ it a fourth from what it was before. And it appears from a soldier’s speech in Tacitus, that ∥ at the death of Augustus it was ten ounces of brass per day. We find in Suetonius § , that Julius Cæsar doubled the pay of his time. In Pliny ** , at the second Punic war, it [117] was diminished one fifth. It was then in the Punic war * about six ounces of copper; in the second † , about five ounces; at ten, under Julius Cæsar; and thirteen and a third, under Domitian ‡ . I shall make here some reflections.

The pay which the republic might easily advance, when it was only a small state, when it engaged in a new war every year, and received the spoils of it as often; it was not able to raise, without running in debt, under the first Punic war, when it carried its arms beyond Italy, when it maintained a long war, and supported great armies.

In the second Punic war, the pay was reduced to five ounces of brass; and this diminution might be made without danger at a time when the most of the citizens were ashamed to receive pay, and were willing to serve at their own charge.

The treasures of Persia ∥ , and of so many other kings, which flowed into Rome, put an end to taxes there. In such public and private opulence, they had the prudence not to enlarge the former payment of five ounces of brass.

Though even from this pay they made a deduction for corn, cloaths, and arms; still it was sufficient, because they enrolled only those citizens who had patrimonies of their own.

Marius having enrolled people of no substance, and his example being afterwards followed, Julius Cæsar was obliged to augment the pay.

This augmentation having been continued after the death of Cæsar, they were obliged under the consulship of Hirtius and Pansa, to re-establish taxes.

The weakness of Domitian in adding one fourth to this pay, was a great blow to the state; the unhappiness of which was not that it brought in luxury in general, but infused it among people of that condition who ought to be supplied with no more than the bare necessities which nature requires. Lastly, by Caracalla’s final augmentation, the empire was thrown into such a condition, that, not being able to subsist without soldiers, it could not subsist with them.

Caracalla, to soften the horror of his fratricide, instituted divine honours to his brother Geta; and, what was very peculiar, he himself received the same deification of Macrinus, who after he had caused him to be stabbed, and was desirous of appeasing the prætorian bands, who regretted the death of a prince whose liberalities they had so often enjoyed, erected a temple, and established a priesthood of Flamens in his honour.

This preserved his memory from all degrading imputations, * and the senate not knowing to censure him, he was not ranked among the tyrants, like Commodus, who had not done more to deserve that title than himself.

As to the two great emperors Adrian and Severus † , one established and the other relaxed the military discipline, and the events exactly corresponded with their causes= the reigns which succeeded that of Adrian were a series of happiness and tranquility; but after the death of Severus, nothing was seen but a succession of calamities and horror.

Caracalla had confined himself to no limitations in his prodigality to the soldiers; and in that particular he acted conformably to the sentiments of his father, [119] who, on his death-bed, advised him to enrich the army and disregard all the rest of mankind.

But these politics could be only accommodated to one reign; for the successor being no longer able to continue those expences, was soon assassinated by the army; so that the emperors who were eminent for wisdom, were always murdered by the soldiers; and those whose lives were infamous, were destroyed either by the conspiracies or edicts of the senate.

When a tyrant suffered himself to be entirely influenced by the war, and left the citizens exposed to their licentious depredations, such injurious proceedings could not be extended beyond the period of one reign; because the soldiers, in consequence of their devastations, impoverished the people, and defeated themselves of their pay by that event. It therefore became necessary to reform the military discipline, which was a project always fatal to the persons who presumed to attempt it.

When Caracalla lost his life by the treachery of Macrinus, the soldiers, in despair at the death of a prince, whose liberality had been dispensed to them with an unlimited flow, elected Heliogabalus * ; and when he, by his prostitution to infamous pleasures, and the lawless extravagancies he suffered the army to commit, grew contemptible even in their eyes, they dispatched him by an assassination. The same sate attended Alexander, who was preparing to restore the true military discipline, and threatened to punish the soldiers for their misconduct † .

In this manner a tyrant, who instead of being solicitous for his safety, affected an ability to be criminal, perished with the fatal advantage of being murdered a few days before another who would willingly have been a better man.

After the death of Alexander, the imperial dignity was transferred to Maximin, who was the first emperor of Barbarian extraction, and had been distinguished by his strength and gigantic stature.

This prince and his son were likewise slain by the soldiers. The two first Gordians perished in Africa= Maximus, Balbinus, and the third Gordian were massacred= Philip, who had caused the young Gordian to be destroyed, was himself slain with his son; and Decius, who was chosen to succeed him, was murdered in his turn by the treason of Gallus * .

The Roman empire was improperly so denominated at that time, and might rather be called an irregular commonwealth, nearly resembling the Aristocracy of Algiers, where the militia, who are invested with the sovereign power, elect and depose the magistrate they called the Dey; and it may perhaps be taken for a general rule, that a military government is, in some respects, a republic rather than a monarchy.

But lest any one should imagine the soldiers had no other share in the government than what they extorted by their disobedience and insurrections, let it be asked whether the orations in which the emperors addressed themselves to the army, were not at last very correspondent to those which the consuls and tribunes formerly made to the people? And though the soldiers had no particular place to assemble in, nor were under the regulation of any certain forms; though the temper of their minds was not usually serene, their proceedings consisting of action rather than deliberation, did they not however dispose of the public fortune [121] with a sovereign authority? What was an emperor but the minister of a violent and tumultuous government, and did not the soldiers elect him for their own particular convenience?

When the army associated into the empire * , Philip, the prætorian prefect of the third Gordian, claimed the exercise of an undivided command, but did not succeed in his pretensions; he then requested the army to divide the power equally between them, but to as little effect; he next intreated them to leave him the title of Cæsar, and was still refused; he afterwards solicited them to create him prefect of the prætorian bands, and met with the usual repulse; till at last he was reduced to plead for his life. The army, in the instance before us, exercised the supreme magistracy in their several decisions.

The Barbarians were at first unknown to the Romans, and for some time afterwards only incommodious; but at last they became formidable to them, by an event altogether unparalleled at that time, and which perhaps may never be equalled hereafter. Rome had so effectually extinguished all nations, that when she at last was vanquished in her turn, the earth seemed to produce a new race of mankind, to accomplish her destruction.

Those princes who have large dominions, seldom find them bordered by any territories considerable enough to be the objects of their ambition; and should there be any such, they would naturally be swallowed up in a series of conquest. We will say they are bounded then by seas and mountains, and vast deserts, whose sterility rendered them contemptible. The Romans for this reason suffered the Germans to range in their forest and gloomy wilds, and let the northern nations shiver amidst the polar snow; and yet those inhospitable regions produced a people, who at last enslaved the conquerors of the world.

In the reign of Gallus, a mighty collection of nations, who afterwards became more celebrated, spread their ravages through all Europe; and the Persians having invaded Syria, abandoned their conquests only to preserve their booty.

We no longer see any of those swarms of Barbarians which the North formerly sent out. The violences of the Romans had made the people of the South retire into the North= while the force which confined them subsisted, they remained there= when it was weakened, they dispersed themselves into all parts * . The same thing happened some ages after. The conquest and tyrannies of Charlemagne had again forced the nations of the South into the North= as soon as this empire was weakened, they poured a second time from the North into the South. And if at present a prince made the same ravages in Europe, the nations driven into the North, with their backs to the limits of the universe, would maintain their ground, till the moment they should over-run and conquer Europe a third time.

The miserable disorders which had so long been springing up in the several successions of the emperors, were now come to their fatal maturity, and that period which was concurrent with the close of Valerian’s reign, and the duration of that of his son Gallienus, produced thirty pretenders to the empire, the greatest part of whom being swept away by their mutual contentions, their devastations were limited to a short reign; and they gained nothing durable but the appellation of the thirty tyrants.

Valerian having been taken prisoner by the Persians, and his son Gallienus neglecting the public affairs, the Barbarians penetrated into all parts, and the empire was now in the same condition it was afterwards [123] reduced to in the west * , at the close of another century, and it would then have felt its last convulsions, had not a happy conjunction of events interposed for its preservation.

The terrible confusion in succeeding to the empire being come to its height, we find at the end of the reign of Valerian, and during that of Gallienus, his son, no less that thirty pretencers to the throne, most of whom having got possession of it, and reigned for a very short time, were called the tyrants.

Odenatus, prince of Palmyra, and one of the Roman allies, dislodged the Pe sians, who had invaded the greatest part of Asia= Rome furnished an army of its own citizens, and they effectually delivered it from the Barbarians who came to pillage their city= an innumerable army of Scythians, who put to sea in a fleet of five thousand ships, entirely perished by storms, fatigue, and famine, and even by their formidable grandeur; and Gallienus being at last slain, Claudius, Aurelian, Tacitus, and Probus, who happily succeeded him, and were four extraordinary princes, snatched the empire from the verge of ruin.


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