Posted by: ken98 | October 13, 2009

Aurelian, Tacitus, and the God Emperor of Dune

Day 32 – Ken here

We end Chapter 11, and begin Chapter 12

  • The Triumph of Aurelian
  • Aurelian’s treatment of Tetricus (former Gallic emperor), and Zenobia (Queen of Palmyra)
  • Gibbon on the revolt of the mint and its improbability
  • Aurelian marches for Persia (Oct 274)
  • Aurelian assassinated by generals(Jan 275)
  • 9 month peaceful interregnum (neither Senate nor army electing a successor)
  • Character of the Head of the Senate, Tacitus, and his election as emperor (9-25-275)
  • The Triumph
    Gibbon spends almost 3 pages describing the fabulous triumph of Aurelian in Rome as told by the primary sources.  As we are still relying upon the Augustan Histories, all the luscious details very likely spring from the imagination of the HIstories’ prankster-author.

    Gibbon (quoting the Histories) recounts Aurelian’s huge donation  to the temple of the Sun out of the spoils of his many successful wars – Alemanni, Gaul, Palmyra, Egypt etc. That’s an interesting detail because the sun was Constantine’s favorite deity before he chose Christ (although in Aurelian’s case both Aurelian and the sun deity were Syrian, so that could account for Aurelian’s spectacular tithing).

    It seems a little more than coincidental for a couple of reasons.  The Augustan Histories internally maintain that they were written about the time of Constantine (early 300’s).  Mentioning this very minor incident only reinforces that supposition:  it is a compliment to the ruling emperor (Constantine) that both a “good” emperor (Aurelian), and Constantine would worship the same deity.  However, modern scholarship has dated the Augustan Histories to the late 300’s (395 CE), so this is another instance of the intricate set of deceptions employed by the  comedian-author of the Histories to make the texts seem internally consistent.

    Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra, by Herbert Schmalz

    Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra, by Herbert Schmalz

    Tetricus, Zenobia, and Aurelian
    Gibbon relates how both Tetricus and Zenobia lived an unreal fairy tale life of happily ever after their defeats. Rather than being strangled immediately after their display in Aurelian’s Triumph, they are given expensive estates and allowed (in Tetricus’ case) to resume a public political life.  This is more Augustan History theater, it seems to me. It’s very strange to hear the story retold secondhand from as reputable a thinker/writer as Gibbon.  It’s also odd to hear him debating back and forth the reliability of the “different” authors texts: texts which we now believe to be the product of one author who created a credible story from lies by telling the same story 2 or 3 times in the words/styles of one of 6 “historians” who represent the “authors” of the Augustan Histories.

    God Emperor Of Dune by Frank Herbert book cover

    God Emperor Of Dune by Frank Herbert book cover

    In the Dune Series by Frank Herbert, when Paul becomes emperor and reigns for thousands of years, one of his hobbies is to write long, involved, conflicting accounts of his own reign’s history under different pen names. He would assert under one name, refute under another, expose evidence under a third, contradict with more evidence under a fourth, etc over the centuries. I don’t know why (maybe because I like history so much), but this disturbs me.

    The work of being a historian is hard enough to begin with, add to it the idea of conscious manipulation of the historical record and it becomes (esp. for the historian of Late Antiquity) an almost impossible task to complete.  All of  which is probably why the Augustan Histories irritate me so much, in such a fundamentally moral way.

    Coin of Aurelian's reign

    Coin of Aurelian's reign

    The Mint
    This is a very strange interlude in Gibbon and the Augustan Histories. Gibbon devotes 2 pages to it, and labors over its validity. Supposedly, the devaluation of the currency (the steady decrease in precious metal content over the years in coins minted by the empire) was the result of malicious mint employees, who, upon being ordered to cease by Aurelian, revolt, raise an army (in the middle of Rome) and kill 7000 soldiers before being brought under control.

    The Augustan History fascination with large indigestible numbers (7000? killed?) make it seem reliable and odd at the same time.  It seems to me this story is a strange parable trying to explain coin devaluation as a conspiracy theory (a few bad mint employees destroying the economic health of an entire empire – certainly not the EMPERORS fault).

    What is not funny about the story, is that this very line of reasoning (conspiracy theory, malevolent few, suffering millions) becomes the basis of the government policy for Rome under Diocletian just 10 years or so later.  Diocletian issues his famous edict on price controls, freezing wages, prices, and employment.   Inflation, to the imperial mind, was caused by the greed of a few at the expense of the many, rather than being systemic and the result of fewer dollars (or denarii) chasing more goods.  The result for Diocletian was a black market economy and a further collapse of money used a medium of exchange.  Eventually, even soldiers are paid in goods: olive oil, wheat, and wine, rather than coin to buy it.

    In point of fact, the devaluation of the currency by successive emperors for maintenance of the military, the horrible economic/political disruptions of the mid 200’s, depopulation from plague and war, precious metal drain to India and the East, and the concentration of wealth in a smaller and smaller “noble” class of immensely wealthy landowners, all were in the process of making the money economy irrelevant. The Middle Ages, feudalism, and the manor economy were being created, and there was nothing Diocletian could do to halt it.

    The 9 month Interregnum and Election of Tacitus
    When the Augustan History is pulled out of the footnotes and repeated in the main text as Gibbon does for the Interregnum and for Tacitus, it is almost embarrassing. I know I’ve commented on Gibbon’s reliance on the Augustan Histories a great deal, but that is because the majority of footnotes for the last 200 pages has begun with: “Hist. August.”, then the name of one of the fictitious “authors” as the source of the footnote. The Interregnum sounds so much like a fairy tale it is hard to credit it and Gibbon sounds appropriately incredulous, but relates it anyway (What choice does he have? We have almost no other sources to use for this period).

    The army and the senate bounce the nomination back and forth, (“you do it,  no, you do it,  no, really, you do it”). Could this have actually happened? Stranger things have occurred, I suppose. Then Tacitus, the Princeps Senatus head of the Senate, with sterling reputation, advanced age, and perfect manners is nominated. Just knowing the Augustan Histories you can relate the rest without reading it: he is reluctant (because he is such a good man), he reigns (for a very short time, and is assassinated by his troops for his honesty and “severity”.  That some of this actually happens (he does reign for only 6 months – we know from coins and other historical sources) shows why it’s so hard to dismiss the Augustan Histories entirely – there is truth at the center sometimes.

    Tacitus as Emperor

    Emperor Tacitus - an honest man, with a long political career during a very wild century, reigned 6 months (275 - 276)

    Emperor Tacitus - an honest man, with a long political career during a very wild century, reigned 6 months (275 - 276)

    This on Tacitus from Wiki:
    “He was born in Interamna (Terni), in Italia. He circulated copies of the historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus’ work, which was barely read at the time, and so we perhaps have him to thank for the partial survival of Tacitus’ work; however, modern historiography rejects his claimed descent from the historian as forgery. In the course of his long life he discharged the duties of various civil offices, including that of consul in 273, with universal respect.”

    see ya tomorrow

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