By Alan Stedall
Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd Copyright © 2005 Alan Stedall
All rights reserved.
The Death of an Emperor
HIS BREATH came now raspingly and, although the fever had left him for some hours, his face was ashen and clammy with cold sweat. With what seemed superhuman effort he turned on the narrow field bed and called out to me, 'Rufus, why has night fallen so suddenly?' The evening light, however, continued to filter unchanged almost horizontally through the window of his sparsely furnished bedroom, lighting his bed and the wall against which it stood. The darkness that had fallen on him spoke more of his rapidly weakening condition than that of the northern sun setting outside in a reddish glow.
His son had left him several hours before, despite his father's vain pleading for him to remain until the end, now that this was so imminent. Commodus had been unheeding and had made his departure, his stated concern being that he should not contract his father's disease. Now only his first-line army officers stayed with Marcus to accompany his final hours. It was not that we were unafraid of contracting the pestilence that consumed him, but how could we abandon the man who had led us so selflessly, and given his all in the interests of Rome?
I took his hand, the hand that for the moment still ruled the greatest empire the world had ever known but which was now so weak that it had lost the strength even to grip. He looked at me, his eyes still blue and observant, but with a gaze that seemed to look through me to a world beyond. His voice was barely a whisper and I leant forward to hear him.
'Tell Commodus to lead the Danube legions forward and well. Their loyalty to me has been unswerving and they deserve the best of leaders. Only by moving our armies forward to secure our borders can we hope to preserve all that is great and noble that is Rome.' It was clear that his thoughts, now even at the very end, remained focused on his great task: to preserve and defend the empire he had inherited.
He hesitated, closing his eyes for a moment only to open them again. 'And tell the army, if they love me, to protect and safeguard my son.'
This, then, was the father's dying concern, that we should protect his only living son, Commodus. Commodus, who at that very moment was hastening back to Rome in anticipation of his father's death, to claim sole command of the Empire.
I nodded, hoping he could still see me. Then my head sagged and to my embarrassment a lone tear trickled down my right cheek. He saw it and gave a faint smile. Weep not for me, think rather of the general pestilence and the deaths that have befallen so many others.' With these characteristic, self-effacing words, he fell silent for the last time. He turned over and covered his head with his bed sheet, as if to sleep, and we left him in peace.
In the morning we found what we grimly expected: the Emperor lay dead. We laid his left hand upon his chest and crossed it with the right, as is customary. We closed his eyes and placed a coin on each to hold the eyelids in place until final rigor mortis had set in, rendering the coins unnecessary.
So died Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, Emperor of the Roman Empire, commander-inchief of our armies, statesman, sage and philosopher, the greatest and best of all the Roman Emperors. Worn out at the age of fifty-eight, for nineteen long years he had tirelessly held back the barbarians from the furthermost reaches of our Empire, leading our armies to fight them in northern forests and eastern plains and deserts.
More importantly he had ruled the Empire with justice, humility and wisdom. Beloved by all, but especially by his loyal Danubian legions, his loss was to be grieved universally. Now the Empire would pass to Marcus's only surviving son, Commodus. In stark contrast to his father, Commodus was to lead us into confusion, strife and eventual civil war. But this was of course unknown to us at the time - and anyway this narrative concerns my Lord and friend, Marcus Aurelius, not his worthless, eventually insane, son.
I had first met Marcus when I was promoted to Prefect of the Praetorian Guard twelve years earlier. My background was humble indeed; I was a son and grandson of soldiers descended from ancient farming stock of Falerii, north of Rome. I had joined the army twenty years before and had risen to the rank of Legatus when, in the seventh year of Marcus's reign, I was promoted first to Prefect of the City Police of Rome, then to Prefect of Egypt and finally to Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, the ultimate military rank - and all within the same year!
However, it must be said that my rapid ascendancy was only partly a reflection of my qualities as a capable and loyal soldier. The situation of the Empire was desperate. Enemies of Rome on our eastern and northern boundaries threatened both Greece and Italy with invasion. At the same time a curse had fallen upon the Empire that weakened our capability to defend ourselves as never before.
Under Senator Avidius Cassius, our eastern army had vanquished the mighty Parthian enemy who had threatened us in Mesopotamia and driven him back beyond the Tigris River. Unfortunately Cassius had then permitted his army to sack the friendly Hellenic city of Seleucia, an ancient city that had opened its gates to him and welcomed him as liberator. In retribution for Cassius's act, the gods imposed a deadly curse on his army in that far off province. When Rome welcomed the returning army of Cassius as heroes, they did not see the grim spectres riding alongside each charioteer and marching within the ranks of his legions: harbingers of the plague.
Within weeks of the army's return, thousands of the Romans who had celebrated the victory lay dead in the streets. The numbers of dead were so great that carts and wagons were used to collect this grim cargo. Cemeteries became so crowded that edicts had to be issued to forbid the burying of bodies in graves owned and already occupied by others. In the months that followed, whole farms in nearby provinces became deserted, their fruit rotting on the vines because those who would have harvested it had themselves been plucked from life. This undermined the economy and tax revenues collapsed. The state struggled to find the money it needed to pay its armies and subsidise the friendly states on our borders that were our buffers against barbarian invasion.
The deadly pestilence not only snatched away vast numbers of citizens, farmers and senators, but also slew through the ranks of our legions so that some almost ceased to exist other than in name. No mortal enemy ever inflicted such losses on the military might of Rome. One of the many thousands who fell to the pestilence was Furius Victorinus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard - hence my urgent appointment as his successor.
This then was the situation that faced me when I rose to the highest military rank Rome had to offer. It fell to me to provide the bodyguard for the Emperor both in Rome and on his field campaigns. The Praetorian Guard was an elite military unit, the final line of defence for the Emperor. Were we to prove unable to protect him, we would be honour bound to fall in battle where we fought, since the Guard chose death before flight or surrender in the protection of the Emperor. It was also my dubious privilege to extend this same protection to the sixteen-year-old Commodus when Marcus made him joint emperor at the outset of his last Danubian campaigns. What a shame we failed to fail in our duty in his respect! Had we allowed a foraging band of barbarians to steal away the young wretch at that time how many good Roman lives would have been saved!
As Praetorian Prefect I had necessarily stayed close to Emperor Marcus, constantly alert for threats to his life. It was during our years of companionship in city, field and strife that I grew to understand and admire him. It is my privilege to commit some of our conversations to paper, as honestly as my memory allows.
The Philosopher King
BEFORE I MET Emperor Marcus I heard many stories about him. 'A living philosopher of the first order, a true Stoic,' some said. 'A great general, a strategist, a leader, a real soldier who leads his men from the front and is therefore well beloved by them,' said others. 'A great Roman, true to the principles of honour and justice and the gods of Rome,' said yet others.
But Marcus Aurelius was, in style and actions, strikingly different from earlier emperors, and certainly different from those who were to follow.
I had once been told the story of how Marcus had presided over a set of arena games in which a lion-trainer demonstrated an animal whose nature he had so brutalised that it devoured its victims with spectacular ferocity. The Roman crowd had roared in ecstatic pleasure at the bloodthirsty attacks of the animal and the tortured screams of its victims trapped in the arena below. When the final Christian was torn to pieces the spectators clamoured for the Emperor to reward the trainer for the lion's gory performance. Marcus, however, had sat silently throughout. Ignoring the baying mob, he now refused to provide any such reward for the trainer. Later, asked why he had resisted the clamour of the populace, he replied simply that he 'failed to see that the man concerned had done anything deserving of a reward'. Marcus subsequently decreed that gladiators fight with blunted swords so that blood was not spilt for common entertainment.
In stark contrast, it was this same emperor who led our legions in bold and vigorous campaigns against the enemies of Rome that crowded on our borders! Here was indeed a new type of emperor, one who followed his own precepts, who had the courage to lead our armies from the front and the even greater courage to deny the carnal appetites of the infamous Roman mob.
My first meeting with Marcus was in the fine and long-established settlement of Aquileia on the Adriatic coast. Here he and his co-Emperor and adopted brother Lucius planned to counter-attack the Germanic tribes, including the Marcomanni, the Victuali and the Quadi, who threatened to invade our northern borders along the Danube. I had travelled north from Rome, having arrived there only days earlier from Egypt. The roads running north to Aquileia were of good metal, but they passed through wild forests and plains drenched with spring rain.
As my chariot entered the city gates, I felt excitement tinged with trepidation. It was much easier to fall from high office than to gain it: so many sought to replace you. We drew up outside the military headquarters and I climbed the stone steps, ascending from the sunlit parade ground, noisy with drill practice, into the cool dark offices of the Emperor. I passed sentries of my own Praetorian order who recognised and saluted me, allowing me access to the innermost room of the state apartments.
I found Marcus Aurelius sitting at a table studying a map of the Alps. He was a well-built man, with pronounced handsome features and neatly trimmed beard. His curly hair and beard, once dark, were now streaked with grey. His features reflected the weight of the great responsibilities on his shoulders.
I coughed to make my presence known and he looked up at me, not unkindly. I saluted in return, the steel armour of my right arm ringing on my breastplate. He had large expressive blue eyes that gave the impression of observing rather than pointedly looking at you. His mood seemed to lighten at the sight of me: he cast off the weary expression he had unconsciously held when I first caught sight of him.
'Ah, Rufus, I'm glad to see you. Pour us each a glass of wine and take a seat over here.'
I did as I was bidden and handed the glass of red wine to him. He had gestured me to sit on a bench-seat at right angles to his own. He took a long sip of the wine, rolling it over his tongue to savour it. He once again looked troubled.
'We lost Victorinus a month ago to the pestilence, together with half of the entire Guard. Some of the army legions here have suffered yet worse losses. Even though Stoic philosophy would have it otherwise, it's always a terrible business to lose one's comrades, and even worse when it's not in the heat of battle, furthering the cause of Rome, but simply to disease. But come now, Rufus, tell me more about yourself.'
I told him of my simple, rural upbringing in Falerii, how both my father and grandfather had served as soldiers of Rome, and how I had always aspired to serve the State myself. I described my promotion through the ranks, promotion won not in courts as a politician, but on the battlefield as a hardened soldier. Marcus listened to me intently, now and then giving nods of agreement and encouragement.
Coming to the end of my story, I said how much I looked forward to serving him in my new capacity. I assured him of my unswerving loyalty - to death, if that were demanded of me. Marcus then gazed at me thoughtfully in silence for more than a few seconds.
'All of this I already knew of you Rufus. My agents have spent weeks looking into your background and it is indeed without blemish. You are a loyal soldier of Rome and a great captain of your troops. I would not have agreed to your appointment had it been any less so. But tell me, what sort of man are you?'
I looked at him in puzzlement, at which he smiled.
'My Lord, I am a true soldier of Rome.'
Marcus nodded. 'Yes, I can see that. But tell me, for instance, which gods do you serve and worship?'
I felt my face grow heated, feeling this was some kind of trap. Surely it was obvious I worshipped the city gods of Rome? To do less would be treasonable. Was he seeking a means to be rid of me before I even took office?
'My Lord, I worship the state gods of Rome. Every morning without fail, when in Rome, I attend the Temple of Venus. In the field I worship at the icons of regimental gods our cohort carries with it.'
Marcus was smiling at my embarrassment. 'So, you are not a follower of Mithras, then, or', and here his smile became yet broader, 'a Christian?'
'No, my Lord. Some of my best officers are indeed followers of Mithras - it is a religion well suited to the manly duties of a legionnaire - but none of my regiment is Christian. How could they be? Life in the Roman army is unsuitable for a pacifist, let alone one subversive to the state of Rome. As the Christians themselves say, a man cannot have two masters.'
Simply admitting to be a Christian carried a death sentence, and a dishonourable death at that - being thrown to wild beasts in the arena to be torn to pieces for the entertainment of the crowd. I knew now the Emperor was jesting with me.
He nodded approvingly. 'Fear not, Rufus, I am not trying to trick you into declaring yourself a traitor. I am merely trying to understand the spirit within the inner man that drives you. Such things interest me and, if we are to spend much time together, it would be useful to be able to discuss matters outside of campaign tactics, troop dispositions and logistical problems.'
This was not the conversation I had expected to have with the Emperor. I was still cautious, however: Rome swirled with intrigue; to reveal one's beliefs too nakedly could be to expose oneself to great risks. But Marcus seemed relaxed and genuine, without guile or malevolence. He leaned back with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
'For instance, Rufus, do you consider the gods as benevolent or malicious?'
'Why, if entreated appropriately, with due ritual and respect, benevolent of course.'
I did not understand where this was leading. He nodded at my answer, the glint still in his eye.
'Yes, benevolent - of course,' he repeated, nodding. 'And would you say they are all-powerful?'
'Yes, my Lord, for that is what makes them gods.'
'And all-knowing?' Marcus watched me intently.
'Yes, being all-powerful, they must be all-knowing.'
Marcus paused for a moment, then continued, 'But would you say, Rufus, that there is great evil in the world?'
'At certain times and places, it is true, there is such evil.'
'And does it fall upon the innocent as well as the guilty?'
Yes, being innocent of sin it seems is no protection against evil.'
Marcus smiled amiably. 'If there is such evil, and it falls upon good and bad alike, how can it be that the gods are benevolent?'
He had me trapped with his logic, but it was not a political trap. I realised it was a trap of the dialectic, beloved of Greek philosophers, and smiled in acknowledgement of the cunning of his approach. He smiled back, openly, in return.
'There you have me, Lord. But are you saying that the gods are not benevolent?' (Continues...)
Excerpted from Marcus Aurelius by Alan Stedall. Copyright © 2005 Alan Stedall. Excerpted by permission of Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd.
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