Tuesday 19 March 2019

The Terminators Part Two By L.J. Trafford

Last month I looked at the assassinations of three Romans: Julius Caesar, Caligula and Domitian. I examined the How, the Who and the Why of those murders and in doing so uncovered high principles, self preservation and wholesale revenge.
This month I'm examining three more assassinations and seeing if there are any linking themes.

1) Commodus 
© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0
Prior to Commodus there had been a run of, what Edward Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire likes to call, The Five Good Emperors. These were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius. This is what Gibbon sees as the height of Roman power and good governance. Commodus succeeded his father Marcus Aurelius in the year 180 AD at the age of 18 to a system that had been run extremely well for over 70 years.

The big question here, and I know you’re all thinking it: how did he cock it all up?
We shall see.... but before that let’s skip ahead for a look at Commodus’ final moment.

The How
If you’ve seen Gladiator and are now yelling “I know this! In the arena by that Australian dude!”, you are in for a rude awakening. For history has a very different tale.
Firstly Commodus’ wife Marcia served him up a dish of poisoned beef. However, the Emperor vomited the beef and the poison up. As Commodus recuperated in a nice restorative hot bath, a wrestler named Narcissus was sent into the bathroom. Narcissus proceeded to strangle the Emperor.

The Who
Well two are named above. His wife and the wonderfully named wrestler Narcissus. But there were more involved. Cassius Dio names Laetus and Eclectus. Laetus was the Praetorian Prefect. Which is interesting given Laetus had a whole guard at his command to undertake the assassination, which he didn’t use.

The Why
Commodus had reigned 12 years when he was assassinated. We are extremely lucky in that we have an actual eye witness, in the shape of Cassius Dio, as to what living under Commodus was actually like. I make no apologies for posting this long extract. Because it is so worth it and gives you an insight into what those 12 years of Commodus' rule had been like:

And here is another thing that he did to us senators which gave us every reason to look for our death. Having killed an ostrich and cut off his head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and in   his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our armies we might conceal the fact that we were laughing. 

Commodus was very fond of playing in the arena, as again Cassius Dio, who was actually there informs us:
On the first day, then, the events that I have described took place. On the other days he descended to the arena from his place above and cut down all the domestic animals that approached him and some also that were led up to him or were brought before him in nets. He also killed a tiger, a hippopotamus, and an elephant. Having performed these exploits, he would retire, but later, after luncheon, would fight as a gladiator. 

Obviously performing as a Gladiator and as a wild beast hunter is very un-emperory. Even when you are extremely good at it: 

Such was his prowess in the slaying of wild beasts, that he once transfixed an elephant with a pole, pierced a gazelle's horn with a spear, and on a thousand occasions dispatched a mighty beast with a single blow 
Historia Augusta 
A young Commodus

And forcing the Senate and the people to watch it is a bit annoying, especially if they had a much better event to go to. But is it justification for murder? Probably not. However, we do have a long list of Commodus' other offences:

  • Letting unpopular favourites such as Praetorian Prefect, Cleander run Rome whilst he ran around shooting ostriches and head waggling intimidation of Senators.
  • Full scale eye popping debauchery. Which included collecting 300 beautiful concubines for his pleasure from across the Empire, whether they wanted to be collected or not.
  • Megalomania on an epic scale. Which involved renaming Rome, Commodiana after himself. He also renamed the months of the year to  Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius,Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius. And he even renamed himself to this far from catchy title: The Emperor Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus, Pacifier of the Whole Earth, Invincible, the Roman Hercules, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of the Tribunician Authority for the eighteenth time, Imperator for the eighth time, Consul for the seventh time, Father of his Country.
  • Horrific cruelty, including: "One corpulent person he cut open down the middle of his belly, so that his intestines gushed forth.  Other men he dubbed one-eyed or one-footed, after he himself had plucked out one of their eyes or cut off one of their feet." Historia Augusta. 
  • And err this: "It is claimed that he often mixed human excrement with the most expensive foods, and he did not refrain from tasting them, mocking the rest of the company, as he thought." Historia Augustua
All in all I think the question we need to ask regarding the assassination of Commodus is not Why? But rather, why not?

The Aftermath
Our friend Cassius Dio sums the aftermath up nicely “After this there occurred most violent wars and civil strife.”
Indeed there was. The year following Commodus’ assassination is known as the year of the 5 emperors. So you can imagine what a bloody mess that was.

Was it a success?
As with last month’s look we have to look at the key aims before we can evaluate the success rate. Despite our eye witness of the times, Cassius, the detailed motives of Laetus and Eclectus are kind of vague. Which actually makes sense, there was no cataclysmic one thing that pushed them over the edge rather 12 whole, long years of Commodus’ erratic and strange behaviour.
It was successful therefore in the fact that the Senators who’d been worn down from this behaviour were freed from the tiring, depravity of it all.
So yes. We’ll call it a success despite a civil war later breaking out.

Aurelian. Originally produced
in the Nordisk familjebok.
2) Aurelian

Aurelian ruled for only 5 years from 270-275 AD. Which might not sound like much but it’s worth bearing in mind this was during the 3rd Century Crisis. A hundred years of turmoil that saw Emperors come and Emperors before they had a chance to get the posh purple clothing on. A century in which you had a whopping 82% chance of an unnatural death as Emperor. The average reign was only 3.6 years. So Aurelian was punching well above his weight to rule a whole 5 years and he packed a surprising amount into that half decade:

  • He expelled the Vandals, the Juthungi and the Sarmatians from Roman territory. 
  • He defeated the Goths. 
  • He defeated the Palmyrene Empire. 
  • He defeated the Gallic Empire.
  • He had a bit of a breather. Then reformed the monetary system, built some massive walls and generally made things better.

For this he declared himself Restorer of the World. Then somebody assassinated him.

The How
In 275AD Aurelian had decided that he just didn’t have enough victories to his name and started eyeing up the Persians. It was whilst he was in Thrace preparing for this campaign that it happened.
Compared to other assassinations the description we have is disappointingly brief.

Observing Aurelian to go out of the city with a small retinue, they ran out upon him and murdered him. 
OK. That’s the how dealt with. Given this is an era without firearms we’ll assume swords were involved. Perhaps daggers. Maybe a spoon.
Let us move on.

The Who
The Who in this case were his own Guards. But they had been egged on by a man named Eros or alternatively Mnestheus. Whatever his name was, he worked for Aurelian. Zosimus says he carried messages for the Emperor.

The Why
In a nut shell: Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up. We know not at what. But it was something big enough for him to fear Aurelian’s wrath. Though I guess this depends on how nervy Eros/Mnestheus was and how exacting Aurelian was. Possibly it was a slight misfiling of letters. Possibly he’d been nicking money on the side. Possibly he’d given the wrong message to the wrong person and that’s why they were going to war against the Persians. We shall never know. Which is bloody annoying.
Anyhow Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up in a way that apparently could only be resolved by killing the sole man who’d managed to restore the Empire, defeat all it’s enemies and bring stability to the region.
Rather than doing the deed himself Eros/Mnestheus went to the Guards and told them a:

Plausible story, and showed them a letter of his own writing, in the character of the emperor (which he had long before learned to counterfeit), and persuading them first that they themselves were to be put to death, which was the meaning expressed by the letter, he endeavored to prevail on them to murder the emperor. 

Firstly, being able to counterfeit the Emperor’s handwriting is quite a suspicious talent and one that makes you wonder whether that is at the bottom of Eros/Mnestheus’ screw up.
Secondly, let’s be impressed not only by Eros/Mnestheus’ counterfeiting skills but also by his ability to spin a yarn to the Guards. Because they swallowed this whole. Which suggests three possibilities:

1) The Praetorian Guard were a particularly gullible lot who unfortunately had been allocated swords.
2) Aurelian was the sort of boss that you could most easily would order your death on a whim. Or as the Historia Augusta puts it “Aurelian — it cannot be denied — was a stern, a savage, and a blood-thirsty prince.”
3) The Guard were somehow involved/implicit in Eros/Mnestheus’ screw up/possible corruption/maybe counterfeiting ring.

The speed at which the conspiracy formed and was executed suggests that it was deemed very necessary. As does the fact that the Guards had no successor in mind. Which is highly unusual in an era where rival legions propelled forward their own candidates for Emperor.

The Aftermath
It went as well as can be imagined when a hasty conspiracy murders an extremely capable emperor who had only just restored stability after decades of bloody instability.
Surprisingly as mentioned above, the Guards did not appoint a successor. They handed that honour over to the Senate. There even seems to have been a bit of regret at their hasty actions.

After he was slain and the facts became known, those very men who had killed him gave him a mighty tomb and a temple. 
Historia Augusta

The Senate gave it eight months thought and came up with Marcus Claudius Tacitus as the new emperor. He lasted 8 months.
His successor Florian didn’t even last that long.
And so the crisis of the 3rd century continued.

The big walls of Rome that Aurelian built at Porta Asinaria
Photo by MrPanyGoff

Was it a Success?
Given the original motivation was to prevent Aurelian finding out about whatever it was that Eros/Mnestheus had screwed up, well yes it was a success. Aurelian never did find out about the cock up.
But this was his fate:
Mnestheus, however, was afterward hauled away to a stake and exposed to wild beasts. 
Historia Augusta 

Eeek. One can’t help feel that Eros/Mnestheus might have been able to use those magnificent counterfeiting and smooth oratory skills on more usefully escaping Aurelian’s wrath.

3) Valentinian III

Possible diptych of Aetius. Historian Ian Hughes in his book
Aetius: Attila's Nemesis suggests that this may very well be Aetius.Photo credit Tatarrn

Valentinian III became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire at the age of only 6 after showing prodigious talent in drawing, colouring and ruining furniture by jumping on it.
Just kidding. He, of course, inherited the title. An early start meant he ruled for 30 years. Or rather other people ruled on his behalf. First up his mother Gallia Placidia, followed by the top general Aetius.

During this period the Western Empire was continually menaced by troublesome and fearsome sounding tribes like the Visigoths and the Vandals and *cue dramatic music* Attila and his horrifying Huns.

Luckily for Valentinian he had a trusty and talented general in the shape of Flavius Aetius. Aetius was happily fighting off the Franks, the Burgundians and the Bagaudae, in addition to everyone else in this fighty happy period.

The How

Valentinian decided to go riding on the Campus Martius with a few guardsmen and the followers of Optila and Thraustila (Huns loyal to Aetius). When he dismounted from his horse and was walking off to practice archery, Optilla and his followers mad for him and, drawing the swords at their sides, attacked him. Optila struck Valentinian across the side of his head and, when he turned to see who struck him, felled him with a second blow to the face 
John of Antioch.

Ouchy. And clearly unexpected:

Whether those present were stunned by the surprise of the attempt or frightened by the warlike reputation of the men, their attack brought no retaliation. 
John of Antioch

The Who
We have the two names above. Optila and Thraustila. We also have one other bit of key information “Loyal to Aetius”.
To get to the why let us us rewind 6 months to September 21st 454 AD.

The Why
Attila the Hun, one of Rome's many enemies at the time.
Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

As we’ve seen above Flavius Aetius was the Western Empire’s greatest general at a time when they really needed great generals.
In 454 Aetius was at the height of his fighty-ness and success. His son was even betrothed to the Emperor’s daughter. He was basking in Imperial favour and general respect by all.
Then on the 21st September 454 Aetius was invited to a planning meeting with the Emperor. As Aetius went through the boring details of tax revenues and finances and budgets, the emperor suddenly jumped up from his throne and started yelling accusations at him.
The key accusation being that Aetius was a treacherous so and so (insert your own favourite term of abuse here) and was plotting to replace him as Emperor.
The historian Priscus picks up the story:

While Aetius was stunned by this unexpected rage and was attempting to calm his irrational outburst, Valentinian drew his sword from his scabbard, and together with Heraclius, who was carrying a cleaver under his cloak…for he was head chamberlain, fell upon him. They both rained down blows on his head and killed him, a man who had performed so many brave actions against enemies both internal and external. 

Yes, really. Valentinian jumped up and stabbed to death his employee during a particularly dull meeting. I mean clearly we’ve all been in meetings like that and possibly we’ve all imagined killing our colleagues just to end those types of meetings. But it’s still quite shocking is it not? The Emperor of the West jumping up and stabbing to death his most favoured general to death during a meeting on tax revenues, of all things.
So why did he do it? Was Aetius really plotting to take over? He had the popularity, the army, the capability to do so. But then his son had just got betrothed to Valentinian’s daughter. His grandchildren would be of Imperial birth. He had no need to push Valentinian out the way.

Valentinian clearly believed Aetius was planning to usurp him and we are told why:

Maximus, a powerful noble, who had been twice consul, was hostile to Aetius, the general of the forces of Italy. Since he knew that Heraclius, a eunuch who carried very great weight with the Emperor (Valentinian III), was extremely hostile against Aetius for the same reason….since they both wished to replace his sway with their own. The made an arrangement and they persuaded the emperor that if he did not act first and kill Aetius, Aetius would kill him.

John of Antioch

Back to Valentinian's murderers, Optila and Thraustila. Post bloody emperor murdering, we are told this:

Both of them took of the Emperor’s diadem and horse and rode off to Maximus. 


Yes the exact same Maximus who had persuaded Valentinian to murder Aetius. Funny that. Even funnier, guess who succeeded Valentinian as Emperor?

The Aftermath
What a magnificent piece of treachery that was!  We are expecting high things of Maximus as Emperor now, aren’t we? After all he successfully played on the paranoia of Valentinian to remove the top general in all of the West, and then plied up feelings of revenge in the breasts of assassins Optila and Thraustila to remove Valentinian.
He probably ruled for decades playing off everyone against each other in a thoroughly schemey reign.
Err no.

His reign lasted only two months. Mostly because one of his earliest actions was to cancel the intended marriage of Valentinian’s daughter to the son of the Vandal King, Geiseric.
Geiseric did not take this well and launched an invasion into Italy. Given there was no highly successful Vandal repelling Aetius to sort out Geiseric, the civilians of Italy hit panic mode. As did Maximus, who sensing his scheming powers were of little use against the invading Vandals, legged it. Whilst fleeing he was set upon by an angry mob and killed. Meanwhile the thwarted Geiseric took out his frustrations on Rome, spending two weeks sacking the city.

Was it Successful?
By the Gods above it was. Maximus successfully murdered his way to becoming Emperor without getting his own hands bloody. It was inspired. It was just unfortunate that he wasn’t actually much good at being Emperor and had orchestrated the murder of the only man who could have saved his reign.

Having examined the assassinations of six ancient Romans can we find any common themes/links/similarities?

They all involved conspiracies of more than one person. Whether it be Brutus and his high minded gang, Caligula's staff turning their heads as Cassius plotted, or Laetus and Eclectus frantically improvising when their original plan to kill Commodus failed.
We also have some criminal masterminds who managed not to get their own hands bloody in the shape of Domitian's chamberlain Parthienus, Aurelian's nervy assistant Eros and of course the mega scheming Maximus.
Motivations wise we've had revenge (Caligula). We've had self preservation (Domitian, Aurelian and probably Commodus). We've had ambition (Valentinian). And we've had high minded principles (Julius Caesar).

All in all the key thing we've learnt is most definitely: Watch those closest to you.
Whether they be your own Guards (Aurelian, Caligula, Commodus), your wife (Commodus), your secretaries (Aurelian, Domitian) or your friends (Julius Caesar, Valentinian).

L.J. Trafford is the author of The Four Emperors Series of Books, which cover a whole series of bloody Emperor deaths that all took place in a single year. And available on Amazon

1 comment:

abigail brieson said...

Fascinating, though quite a bit to process first thing in the morning!

Was the removal of emperors 'accepted' by the population? To one day wake and find the man considered one step from Godhood (if not actually expecting to be treated as a god) was dead by the hands of his companions, and now we make way for another! Toss out your Valentneian images, clear space on your mantle for the next!