Saturday, May 3, 2014

York - If Walls could talk

"During a happy period (AD 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the two Antonines."

So says Edward Gibbon on the first page of his classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  He idealizes the time of the so-called Adoptive Emperors, and spends most of the massive tome describing how things went wrong in a Fall that was "still felt by the nations of the earth."

The Adoptive Emperors were known for three things.  They had long reigns.  They died peacefully. And with the tragic exception of Marcus Aurelius, they chose their successor by merit instead of by family line.

After Marcus came his son Commodus, a nasty piece of work.  He was assassinated, triggering a civil war from which Septimus Severus emerged victorious.

Septimus was a harsh master of the Empire.  Individuals and cities who resisted him paid dearly.  But he had something of a soft spot for his two dissolute sons, Caracalla and Geta.  According to the contemporary historian Cassius Dio, they:

"..outraged women and abused boys, they embezzled money, and made gladiators and charioteers their boon companions..."

They were also jockeying for power, and Septimus could see that upon his death there would be war.

So hobbled with gout and age he took his army and his sons to the northern frontiers of Britannia.  He thought that a vigorous campaign against the vile Caledonians would distract his sons from their destructive life styles and their plotting.

But the campaign was inconclusive and Severus fell ill.  He spent his final days in York (then called Eburacum), probably here, in the headquarters building of the legionary fort.

If stone walls could repeat what they had long ago heard, this is what they would say:

(to his sons):  "Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men." - from Cassius Dio

An in site column in the Roman headquarters building, deep beneath the York Minster
If walls could talk....

Septimus knew the character of his sons, especially the more violent Caracalla.  Cassius Dio reports that he would often muse upon how much better off the Empire would have been had Marcus Aurelius quietly dispatched his disastrous offspring Commodus. As he lay ill here, he supposedly wondered if he should not have had Caracalla assassinated.

But in the end Septimus died, commending both his sons to each other and to the assembled troops. These walls echoed with the shouted accolades to the heirs of Empire.

But of course it ended badly, very badly indeed.  Caracalla had Geta and his adherents killed.  And the Roman Empire entered a dark and destructive era.  After Septimus Severus died in 211 AD it was exactly 100 years before another Emperor (Diocletian) would pass away of natural causes after a long reign.  The woeful tally:

23 Emperors died violently, either by assassination or in battle.
2 Emperors died of plague after brief reigns.
1 was struck by lightning while on campaign.

The closest any of them would come to living long and prospering was a fellow named Valerian.  He was captured in battle by the Persians.  Permitted to live as a captive in the court it is said that the Persian king sometimes used him as a footstool.

Here at York the long descent from "virtue and ability" began.

A bit of painted plaster from the walls.   Looking dimly to the future.

No comments: