Pertinax, an aged senator of consular rank, and now Præfect of the city, was summoned by the conspirators, who came to his house late at night, after the murder of Commodus, to ascend the vacant throne. He was one of the few friends and ministers of Marcus Aurelius who yet survived, and, having filled many important offices, had always been distinguished for firmness, prudence, and integrity. The rumor was spread that Commodus had died of apoplexy, and that Pertinax had succeeded him; but the Prætorian Guards were dissatisfied at his election. The Senate, however, confirmed the choice of the conspirators, and Pertinax lived among his own order rather as an equal than a master. His manners were simple, his mode of life frugal, and he sought to revive the pleasing simplicity of the early Republic.
Pertinax administered justice with strictness, released those who had been left in prison by Commodus, reformed the finances and introduced economy, redivided the uncultivated lands among those who would till them, removed oppressive restrictions upon trade, and deserved the respect of the wiser portion of his subjects.
But the Prætorians were never reconciled to his rule, and on the 28th of March, A.D. 193, eighty-six days after his election, they broke into the imperial palace, and struck down the emperor with innumerable blows. His head was separated from his body, and, being placed upon a lance, was carried in triumph to the Prætorian camp, while the people silently lamented the death of this virtuous ruler.
The soldiers, meanwhile, proclaimed from the ramparts of their camp that the throne of the world would be sold at auction to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus, a wealthy Senator, whose age had not quenched his vanity and ambition, offered about a thousand dollars to each man for the possession of the prize. He was declared emperor, and, surrounded by the armed Prætorians, was carried to the Senate, who were forced to accept the selection of the soldiers. But the Senators and the people felt deeply the disgrace of their country, and even the Prætorians were ashamed of their unworthy choice. Julianus found himself on the throne of the world without a friend.
The armies in the provinces, when they heard of these transactions at the capital, rose in revolt, and refused to acknowledge the authority of Julian. Clodius Albinus commanded the legions in Britain, Septimius Severus those in Pannonia, and Pescennius Niger the army of the East. Severus, more active than his competitors, was saluted by his soldiers as emperor, and marched rapidly toward Rome. Julian, deserted by the Prætorians, was condemned to death by the Senate, and was executed as a common criminal after a reign of only sixty-six days. Severus was acknowledged as their lawful emperor by the Senate, June 2, A.D. 193, and his first act was to disarm the Prætorian Guards and banish them from the capital.
He next marched against Niger, and defeated him in two battles, while he was also successful in a severe contest with Clodius Albinus at Lyons. Both of his competitors were put to death, and Severus, now set free from fear of rivalry, began to show the native cruelty of his disposition. Forty-one Senators, whom he accused of having favored Albinus, were executed, with their wives and children; and many of the provincial nobles of Spain and Gaul shared their fate. Yet Severus was in many respects a useful ruler; strict in the administration of the laws, careful to correct abuses, and restraining his subjects with stern impartiality. Peace returned to the provinces, cities were repeopled, roads repaired, Rome abounded in provisions, and the people were satisfied. Severus changed the constitution of the Prætorian Guards, and filled up their ranks with the bravest soldiers of the legions of the frontier. These barbarians, he thought, would be able to suppress any rebellion that might arise; and he increased the number to fifty thousand men. The Præfect of the Prætorians, who had at first been a simple soldier, now became the chief minister of the emperor, and was at the head of the finances and even of the law. The celebrated lawyer Papinian was appointed Præfect after the fall of Plautianus; and several great jurisconsults, particularly Paulus and Ulpian, flourished under the reign of Severus or his family.
Severus, however, was a military despot, and, despising the feeble Senate, assumed both the legislative and the executive power. The jurisconsults, in fact, from this reign, begin to treat the emperor as the source of all law, the Senate and the people being no longer considered in the state. But this arbitrary rule, introduced by Severus, is thought to have tended more than any thing else to destroy the vigor of the Roman Empire, by leading the people to an abject dependence upon their rulers.
The wife of Severus, Julia Domna, a Syrian lady of great beauty and various accomplishments, became the mother of two sons, Caracalla and Geta, and the emperor hoped that they would prove worthy of the high office to which they were born. They soon, however, showed themselves incapable of any serious study or employment, and were chiefly remarkable for the hatred they bore toward each other. The court was already divided into two factions, composed of the adherents of either son; and the emperor, who in vain strove to remove their rivalry, foresaw that one must fall a victim to the hatred of the other.
In A.D. 208 a war broke out in Britain, and Severus, although now more than sixty years of age, and afflicted with the gout, so that he was carried on a litter, set out at the head of his army, attended by his two sons, and penetrated into the interior of Scotland. This was his last enterprise, for he died at York, February 4, A.D. 211. He left his empire to his two sons, who returned to Rome, and were acknowledged by the Senate and the army.
Their discord, however, still continued, and they planned a division of the empire, a measure which was then distasteful to all the Romans, and which was only prevented from taking place by the tears and entreaties of their mother, Julia Domna. Geta, the younger son, who was of a gentle disposition, soon after, in A.D. 212, February 27th, was murdered by the cruel and relentless Caracalla. Twenty thousand of his friends are said to have been put to death at the same time, and his unhappy mother, Julia Domna, was forced to receive her guilty son with feigned smiles and words of approbation. Remorse, however, fastened upon Caracalla, and the shade of Geta haunted him wherever he went. His cruelties now redoubled. He put to death Papinian, the Prætorian Præfect, the splendid ornament of the Roman bar; and his massacres filled every part of the empire with mourning and terror. In A.D. 213 he left the city of Rome, and never returned thither again; the rest of his reign was passed in the provinces, and wherever he came he indulged himself in endless murders, confiscations, and acts of violence. "He was," says Gibbon, "the common enemy of mankind" He directed a general massacre of the people of Alexandria, who had lampooned him, and viewed the scene from a secure post in the Temple of Serapis. To retain the affections of his army, he lavished upon them immense sums, the plunder of his empire; and he was at length assassinated, March 8, A.D. 217, at the instigation of Macrinus, one of the Prætorian Præfects, who had discovered that the tyrant had planned his own death.
Macrinus, Præfect of the Prætorian Guard, was elected emperor March 11, A.D. 217, and the Senate and the provinces submitted without a murmur. But the new emperor was disliked by the nobles on account of his humble origin, and soon offended his army by endeavoring to reform their discipline. The Empress Julia now withdrew by a voluntary death from the sorrow which surrounded her, and the family of Severus became extinct. A rebellion broke out in the Syrian army, who proclaimed Bassianus, the grandson of Julia Mæsa, sister of the late empress, and who assumed the name of Antoninus. He pretended that he was the natural son of Caracalla. A battle took place, in which Macrinus was defeated, and soon after put to death; and Elagabalus, for that is the name under which this monster is commonly known, ascended the throne.
He at once plunged into every vice. The sun was worshiped at Emessa under the name of Elagabalus, from whence the new emperor derived his surname, having been a priest in the temple; and he now introduced the lascivious rites of the Syrian deity into the capital of the world. A magnificent temple of the god Elagabalus was raised on the Palatine Mount, and the grave and dignified nobles of Rome were forced to take part in the ceremonies, clothed in long Phœnician tunics.
It would be impossible to describe the vices of this wretched being, who seems to have sunk to the very extreme of depravity. His cousin, however, Alexander Severus, as if to show that human nature had not wholly declined, was amiable, virtuous, and learned. Elagabalus was murdered by the Prætorians March 10, A.D. 222, and Alexander placed upon the throne.
Alexander Severus seems to have inclined toward the Christian faith, which was now very widely extended throughout the empire. He revoked all former edicts against the Christians, and ordered the words "Do unto others as you would have them do to you" to be inscribed upon his palaces and other buildings. The Persian Empire was now arising in new strength under the house of the Sassanides, and a war having broken out with them, Alexander marched against the Persians, and gained a considerable victory. He returned to Rome in triumph, and entered the city in a chariot drawn by four elephants. Soon after, the Germans having invaded Gaul, he led his army to the defense of the frontier; but, while attempting to reform the discipline of the Gallic legions, he was assassinated by a band of discontented soldiers, and Maximin, a Thracian peasant of great personal strength, who had risen to a high command in the army, was raised to the throne.
Maximin, A.D. 235, began his reign by massacring many of the friends of the late emperor, and even all those who showed any regret for his death. He was a fierce, ignorant barbarian, but was very successful in his wars against the Germans, having ravaged their country, and sent great numbers of them to be sold as slaves in Italy. He also defeated the Dacians and Sarmatians. But his severities produced a revolt in Africa, where the legions proclaimed their proconsul Gordian emperor, then in the eightieth year of his age. The Senate now revolted against Maximin, and ordered all his friends in Rome to be put to death. Maximin now made peace with the barbarians, and marched toward Italy, while, in the mean time, Gordian and his son were defeated and slain in Africa. The Senate immediately elected Papianus and Balbinus emperors, to whom, in order to gratify the people, they joined the younger Gordian, then only twelve years of age. Maximin entered Italy and besieged Aquileia, but his soldiers, weary of the length of the siege, put him to death, A.D. 238. The Goths on the Danube and the Persians in the East now assailed the empire, and at the same time the Prætorian Guards murdered his two associates, leaving Gordian sole emperor of Rome. Gordian was married to the daughter of Misitheus, Præfect of the Prætorians, an excellent minister and commander. Together they marched to the East, and defeated the Persians under their king Sapor, in various engagements. Misitheus now died, and Gordian appointed the Arab Philip his prime minister. Sapor was again defeated; but the Arab conspired against Gordian, his benefactor, who was assassinated in A.D. 244.
Philip, having made peace with the Persians, returned to Rome, where he won the favor of the people by his mild conduct. In his reign the secular games were celebrated, it being reckoned one thousand years since the foundation of the city. Philip ruled with mildness, and was an enemy to persecution. In A.D. 249, however, the Illyrian army revolted, and proclaimed their commander, Trajanus Decius, emperor, who defeated Philip near Verona, and put him to death. His son, who had remained at Rome, was slain by the Prætorian Guards.
In A.D. 250 the Goths invaded the empire. These fierce barbarians came from the north of Europe, and were among the chief instruments of the fall of Rome. Decius, who does not seem to have wanted skill and courage, was finally defeated and slain by them, together with his son. Decius is remembered as one of the most cruel persecutors of the Christians. The innocent victims of his rage were subjected to torture, driven to hide in the wilderness among rocks and forests, and were glad to live among the wild beasts, more humane than man. The Bishop of Rome, Fabian, the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria, and many more eminent in the Church, suffered from the unrelenting severity of this persecutor.
A son of Decius, Hostilianus, together with Gallus, an experienced soldier, were now made emperors. They concluded a disgraceful, but probably necessary peace with the Goths. But Hostilianus soon after died, and Gallus was defeated and slain by Æmilianus, who was himself assassinated, and Valerian, the Censor, in A.D. 253, was made emperor. A very high character is given of this ruler, whose reign, however, was filled with disasters. Having joined his son Gallienus with him, Valerian vainly sought to repel the attacks of innumerable enemies on every side of the empire - the Goths, the Franks, the Scythians, and the Persians. In a campaign against the latter Valerian was taken prisoner, and for nine years languished in captivity, his unnatural son making no effort for his liberation.
The Allemanni, meanwhile, had entered Italy, ravaged its northern territory, and even threatened Rome. They withdrew, loaded with plunder. To gain allies among the barbarians, Gallienus now married the daughter of the king of the Marcomanni. Every part of the empire seems now to have been laid open to the invaders. Greece was ravaged by the Goths; the famous Temple of Diana at Ephesus was burned by them, together with that fine city; and Sapor, king of the Persians, overran Syria and Asia. He was, however, finally repelled by the brave Odenatus, who, with his queen Zenobia, ruled at Palmyra.
Valerian died in captivity, while a crowd of usurpers rose in arms against the weak Gallienus. There were nineteen pretenders to the throne according to Gibbon, but this period is usually known as that of the Thirty Tyrants. This melancholy period was also marked by a pestilence, which raged for fifteen years in every province. Five thousand persons are said to have died daily at Rome for some time; cities were depopulated, and the number of the human species must have sensibly declined. A famine preceded and attended the pestilence, earthquakes were common, and the third century is, no doubt, the most melancholy period in the history of Europe.
Gallienus was murdered in A.D. 268, and was succeeded by Marcus Aurelius Claudius, who died of a pestilence which had broken out in his army in Egypt. Aurelian, a native of Pannonia, was the next emperor. His reign lasted four years and nine months, but was filled with remarkable events. He abandoned Dacia to the Goths, defeated the Alemanni, and drove them out of Italy. But he foresaw the danger of future invasions, and surrounded Rome with new walls about twenty-one miles in extent. In A.D. 272 he marched against Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, who ventured to defy the power of Rome. This illustrious woman was not only learned, beautiful, and an agreeable writer, but governed the East for five years with discretion and success. Aurelian was amazed at her warlike preparations upon the fall of Palmyra, and treated her beautiful city with lenity; but the Palmyrenians having rebelled, the city was taken by storm, and its people put to death. The ruins of Palmyra are still among the most remarkable of the ancient world.
Aurelian now returned to Rome to celebrate his triumph. The spoils of every climate were borne before him; his captives were from Germany, Syria, and Egypt, and among them were the Emperor Tetricus and the beautiful Zenobia, bound with fetters of gold. A whole day was consumed in the passage of the triumphal procession through the streets of Rome. But Aurelian, who was illiterate, unpolished, and severe, failed to win the regard of his people, and was plainly more at his ease at the head of his army than in the cultivated society of Rome. He returned, therefore, to the East, where he died, as was usual with so many of the emperors, by the hand of an assassin, in A.D. 275. He restored vigor to the empire, and preserved it from instant destruction.
The army, filled with sorrow for the loss of the emperor, revenged his death by tearing his assassin in pieces; and they then wrote a respectful letter to the Senate, asking the Senators to select his successor. The Senate, however, passed a decree that the army should name the new emperor. The soldiers, in their turn, refused, and thus for eight months an interregnum prevailed while this friendly contest continued. At last the Senate appointed the virtuous Tacitus, who claimed a descent from his namesake, the famous historian. Tacitus, however, who was seventy years old, sank under the hardships of his first campaign, and died A.D. 276, at Tyania, in Cappadocia.
His brother Florian then ascended the throne, but was defeated and put to death by Probus, the best soldier of the age, who, in six years, once more repelled the barbarians from every part of the empire. He delivered Gaul from the ravages of the Germans, pursued them across the Rhine, and every where defeated them. He suppressed, also, several insurrections, and employed his soldiers in various useful works. But at length, weary of these labors, they put Probus to death, A.D. 282.
Carus, the next emperor, was singularly frugal in his mode of life. When the Persian embassadors visited him in his tent they found him sitting upon the grass, clothed in a coarse robe, and eating his supper of bacon and hard pease. Carus gained many victories over the Persians, but died suddenly in A.D. 283. His two sons, Carinus and Namerian, succeeded him, but were soon assassinated, giving place to the more famous Diocletian.