Friday, March 17, 2017
The tides of March
It was on March 17th in 180AD that the emperor Marcus Aurelius died
Beware the XVI Kalends of April. No, that date doesn’t have quite the same ring as the Ides of March, although it was only two days later – ie March 17th – in the Roman calendar: as described by the strange custom of skipping ahead to the next milestone, the 1st (or kalends) of April, and then counting backwards, in this case by 16 days inclusive.
But however you arrived there, it was on March 17th, 180AD that the emperor Marcus Aurelius died, an event at least as ominous as the assassination of Caesar two centuries earlier.
If you’ve seen the film Gladiator, you know the story, roughly. As played by Richard Harris, the emperor is a sad but wise old man who sees too clearly how useless his son Commodus (Joaquín Phoenix) is. He wants a proper Roman general (Russell Crowe) to succeed instead. But before he can arrange this, death intervenes, with suspected assistance from the natural heir.
Aurelius brought the curtain down on an era that Gibbon believed had not been bettered anywhere before or since
So much for the opening scenes of the cinema version. As for history, the demise of Marcus Aurelius also provides the starting point – or more accurately, the end of the beginning – of one of the greatest books ever written: Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The last of the “Five Good Emperors”, Aurelius brought the curtain down on an era that Gibbon believed had not been bettered anywhere before or since. Thus he writes, early in his masterpiece:
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian [in 96AD] to the accession of Commodus.”
It was a time, Gibbon argued, when the absolute power with which Rome ruled a vast empire was in perfect balance with the “virtue and wisdom” of its leaders. Of the last two – Antoninus Pius and Aurelius – in particular, he added: “Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.”
When he wasn’t slaughtering human opposition, it was animals, including once – notoriously – a giraffe. And then there was his sex life, degenerate even by Roman standards
Commodus had no such object. He fancied himself as a gladiator, mainly. He fought hundreds of public fights, their outcomes presumably preordained, and further outraged public opinion by awarding himself from the general gladiators’ fund “a stipend so exorbitant” it required a new tax.
When he wasn’t slaughtering human opposition, it was animals, including once – notoriously – a giraffe. And then there was his sex life, degenerate even by Roman standards.
Here, as everywhere, Gibbon had done the research. “The ancient historians have expatiated on these abandoned scenes of prostitution, which scorned every restraint of nature or modesty,” he wrote, adding: “it would not be easy to translate their too faithful descriptions into the decency of modern language”. A little disappointingly, he left it at that.
Christians against lions
Mind you, getting back to gladiatorial sports, it should be noted that the wise old Aurelius had presided over them too. Indirectly or otherwise, his leadership also saw an upsurge in events that pitted Christians against lions. But then Gibbon might not have been unduly disturbed by this.
He blamed the new religion, largely, for the empire’s demise. There was also a more general decline of civic virtue, he lamented, in which citizens lost their willingness to live hard, soldierly lives. In the meantime, too many people were seduced by Christian promises of the better world awaiting them to make the necessary sacrifices in this one.
In any case, one small consequence of the Roman decline that set in from the 2nd century onwards was that a certain, mist-covered island west of Europe was never added to the imperial collection.
It would have been an “easy” job, Gibbon suggests, quoting the historian Tacitus, who was in turn quoting Gnaeus Julius Agricola, conqueror of Britain, to the effect that “one legion and a few auxiliaries” would take care of Ireland.
Not everyone agreed. “The Irish writers, jealous of their national honour, are extremely provoked on this occasion, both with Tacitus and with Agricola,” adds Gibbon in a footnote.
But the invasion plan was never tested. When a British Roman conquered Ireland two and a half centuries later, it was in the name of the new religion. And among the far-reaching results are that what used to be the XVI Kalends of April is now known, much more popularly, as Paddy’s Day.