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Volume 18, Number 6November/December 1967

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Emperors From The East

From ancient Syria they came—to Rome and the seat of power...

Written by John Anthony
Illustrated by Don Thompson

The Orontes of Syria has long flowed into the Tiber, bringing language and manners in its flood."

These words were written by Juvenal, the Roman satiric poet, near the beginning of the second century after Christ. Syrian fashions, religions and arts were popular in Rome, and the streets of the imperial city were familiar to Syrian merchants, artisans, slaves, and philosophers. For when Rome conquered the East, it was not a case of bringing civilization to the barbarians, as she had done in western Europe. The countries of the East—Egypt, Syria, Babylonia—looked back on histories much longer than Rome's and civilizations stretching back unbroken for as much as three thousand years. Rome in fact borrowed as much from the East as the East took from her. But even Juvenal might have been surprised to know that in the following centuries the Roman Empire itself would be ruled at times by Syrian and Arab emperors.

The Syrians came into the picture in a rather roundabout way. At the end of the second century, the imperial throne fell vacant for four years while various contenders, each backed by different elements of the army, struggled to seize power. The victor was the commander of troops on the Danube frontier, Septimius Severus, a native of Libya who was married to a Syrian woman. He spoke Latin badly, preferring the language of his Phoenician ancestors. He was capable, intelligent, and ruthless, and he had a crystal clear idea of what he wanted to do: destroy the old ruling class of senators and seize autocratic power for himself and his descendants. With the help of the army he set out to do so, first by killing all who had fought against him for the throne, and then by launching a calculated campaign to de-Romanize the Empire.

To downgrade the status of Italy, Severus dismissed all Italians from the elite Praetorian Guard and filled it with soldiers from his own nearly-alien legions. To weaken the rich and powerful landowners, he either imposed confiscatory taxes or requisitioned property outright—then gave money and goods to the army. He showered favors on Leptis Magna in Libya, on Syria as his wife's home, and on the Danubian provinces, the home of his soldiers. On his coins he proudly displayed Africa as his place of birth.

To achieve all this safely he required the loyal support of the army, and this Severus secured by lavishing privileges upon it and making it the most powerful class in the Empire. He increased the number of troops, raised the soldiers' pay, allowed them to marry, and gave them generous benefits on discharge. Officers were promoted from the ranks, and the path to important government posts was through the army. Furthermore, he remained a commander of troops throughout his 18-year reign, and personally led campaigns against the savage Scots in the north and the Parthians in the east. He built roads and fortifications in the frontier provinces and added another province in the East, Mesopotamia, to the Empire.

As a result of such favored treatment the soldiers naturally worshipped Severus and since they came from the poorer classes, he won the support of the peasants and proletariat as well—a fact reflected in the laws enacted during his reign, laws that favored the poor and weak over the rich and strong, and that developed an ideal which we still cherish: the equality of persons before the law. In gratitude the common people raised statues of Severus and of his wife and sons.

Julia Domna, his wife, was princess of the native dynasty of Emesa (the modern town of Horns in Syria). Strong-minded, intelligent, and highly educated, she supported Severus in his programs and traveled with him on his expeditions. It was at Antioch, capital of the Roman province of Syria, that they celebrated the coming of age of their elder son, later to be called Caracalla, who from then on was associated with his father in the government. Their younger son, Geta, was given the title of Caesar, which at that time meant that he was also heir to the throne. By such methods Severus hoped to insure that his sons would share the Empire and rule it together when he died.

Caracalla and Geta, however, hated each other intensely. Thus when Severus did finally die—the last emperor, incidentally, to die a natural death for many reigns to come—the brothers raced across Europe, each hoping to seize Rome first. On arrival they divided the city between them, forbidding any communication between the two parts. In trying to bring them together, Julia arranged a meeting in her apartments—at which two soldiers brought by Caracalla fell upon Geta and killed him in his horrified mother's arms. Caracalla put out the story that he had acted only in self-defense and was accepted as sole ruler by the army.

Caracalla continued his father's policies of militarization, but in exaggerated form. "Nobody," he said, "should have any money but me, and that to give to the army." So by extortion and confiscation he seized the wealth of the rich and gave it to the soldiers. He acted like a common soldier and tried to look like one, cutting his hair short and wearing, instead of the Roman toga, a long coat from Gaul called a caracal, from whence his nickname. His health was poor, undermined by debauchery, so Julia Domna had at times to rule in his name. He was nervous, suspicious, and a little mad. He thought that the ghosts of his father and brother came back to torment him; to erase reminders of his guilt, he ordered all images of Geta—statues, coins, or any other form—to be destroyed. Perhaps his greatest crime was the massacre of the entire youth of Alexandria, for some real or imagined slight to himself or to the army which was quartered there. In the fifth year of his reign he was murdered by an ambitious officer of the Praetorian Guard named Macrinus. Julia Domna died soon after of an illness—or suicide.

Macrinus did not last long. The legions refused to accept him and hankered for another Severus. At Emesa in Syria, a plot was hatched to give them one. Julia Maesa, a sister of Julia Domna, had a daughter, Julia Soemias, a widow with a 14-year-old son. The story was put out that the boy was in fact the illegitimate son of Caracalla; the legions rallied to him and soon disposed of Macrinus.

The new emperor was a priest at the temple of the Syrian sun god, Elagabalus. Although he was hastily given several Severan names, he preferred that of his god and is known to history as the Emperor Elagabalus. In fact he took his priestly duties more seriously than his imperial role, and transported to Rome the sacred conical stone representing the sun god, which he tried to install in place of the ancient state gods of Rome. Though young in years, Elagabalus was already accomplished in depravity, and while he immersed himself in idolatry and vice, his mother and grandmother, the two Julias, quietly ruled the Empire. After four years, even the broad-minded Romans were shocked and disgusted, and the Praetorians killed both Elagabalus and his mother.

But old Julia Maesa was not so easily beaten. She had another daughter, Julia Mammea, who also had a son. The word went out that he too was a bastard of Caracalla, and again the army rallied to the memory. Severus Alexander, as he was pointedly renamed, was of a completely different stripe from his cousin. Industrious and amiable, he was involved in no scandal. Still, he was not a strong emperor, allowing his mother and her advisors to rule for him even after he came of age. Their policy was to revive some of the power of the senate to counterbalance that of the army, and they were partly successful. The 13-year reign of the young Syrian was a return to sanity. But eventually the army had the last word again. When Severus Alexander tried to buy off some German tribes instead of fighting them, the Roman troops mutinied and killed him.

In the six years following the death of Severus Alexander, six emperors were created and then destroyed. The army was spoiled and soft, no match for the barbarians who battered at the frontiers, yet all-powerful in the business of making and unmaking emperors. Civil wars raged; the population declined, farms were abandoned, trade stagnated. When the Persians, a new power in the East, captured the province of Syria the loss jolted the Romans, and under the Emperor Gordian III they rallied and pushed the Persians back. At the moment of victory, the troops reverted to their usual behavior, murdering Gordian during a bread riot. History has not decided whether his successor had a hand in the assassination.

This man was Julius Verus Philippus, son of an Arab shaikh of the Hauran (now the Jebal Druze region in southern Syria), known to history as Philip the Arabian. After his acclamation by the troops, Philip negotiated with the Persians, granting them Mesopotamia but restoring Syria to the Empire. Then he hurried to Rome with his son and there sought and received acceptance by the senate. Philip had the makings of a good emperor for his times. Although he owed his elevation to the army, he tried to curb its power and to restore the authority of the senate. He won an armed victory over Danubian barbarians and shortly thereafter raised his son to the rank of Augustus to share in governing the Empire. Philip did not forget his native Hauran; the village of his birth was rechristened Philippopolis (today's Shahba) and adorned with temples, palaces, and a theater which can still be seen in graceful ruin.

The great event of Philip's reign was the thousandth anniversary, in A.D. 247, of the founding of Rome. Philip celebrated it in magnificent style, perhaps the more so because he was an alien. Religious and patriotic ceremonies were climaxed by circus games for which an unheard of number and variety of wild animals were imported from all over the world. The wealth and power displayed must have led Philip and the people of Rome to believe that the Empire would last another thousand years.

But hardly a year later the Goths invaded the northern frontier and rival pretenders appeared both on the Danube and in the East. Philip sent his ablest general, Decius, to quell the disturbance on the Danube, but the army, angered by Philip's attempts to control it, gave Decius the choice of being made emperor or being assassinated. He chose the former and, instead of heading his troops against the Goths, marched back into Italy. At the battle of Verona, where one part of the Roman Army fought against another, both Philip and his son were killed.

The lives of the Roman emperors have fascinated and amazed the world by their display of extreme emotions, of power unchecked by principle. The stories of the eastern emperors may seem a senseless repetition of hatred, treachery, butchery, and lust for power. But they are part of a historic process called the decline of the Roman Empire. As it declined from what it was, the Empire was also evolving into something else, and the reign of each emperor was part of the new development. The very elevation of these foreigners to the imperial purple showed that the Empire was no longer merely Roman but universal, and that its base was no longer the subjugation of other peoples but the freely accepted patrimony of all. More specifically, the origin of these men was part of that eastward drift of the center of gravity of the ancient world, a drift that culminated in Constantine's removal of the capital to Constantinople and the transformation of the classical, pagan Roman Empire into oriental, Christian Byzantium.

John Anthony, a regular contributor to Aramco World Magazine, is currently working on a full-length book on Roman Syria.

This article appeared on pages 16-19 of the November/December 1967 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1967 images.