"Imperial Crime and Complicity In Ancient Rome and Modern America"
By Lew Rockwell
"The punishment of the criminal is measured by the degree of
astonishment of the judge who finds his crime incomprehensible."
- Friedrich W. Nietzsche
"You would think that if those in power are going to rule by the Machiavellian code, as outlined in the ‘The Prince,’ they would at least take to heart the admonition that "as princes cannot help being hated by someone, they ought, in the first place, to avoid being hated by every one, and when they cannot compass this, they ought to endeavor with the utmost diligence to avoid the hatred of the most powerful." That is unless they are convinced that all the dissention and anger is nothing more than the cries of the 'idiot du village'; which seems to be the case.
Just before he died, Herodian of Antioch reports that the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius cautioned his son, Commodus, and the young man’s advisors: "No amount of money is large enough to compensate for a tyrant's excesses, nor is the protection of his bodyguards enough to shield the ruler who does not possess the good will of his subjects. The ruler who implants in the hearts of his subjects not fear resulting from cruelty, but love occasioned by kindness, is most likely to complete his reign safely. It is not those who submit from necessity but those who are persuaded to obedience who continue to serve and to suffer without suspicion and without pretense of flattery. And they never rebel unless they are driven to it by violence and arrogance."
As most know the death of Marcus Aurelius transferred to his young son, Commodus, the full title of emperor. Dio Cassius tells us that Commodus was "not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature." Regardless of his character, Commodus had not heeded his father’s words. As such his unrestrained brutality aroused massive unrest resulting in, among other things, a civil war which aided in a continuing erosion of the empire’s stability and prosperity.
Herodian confirms for us that Commodus’ end came when it was discovered that he had sentenced his loyal, loving mistress, Marcia; his praetorian prefect, Laetus; his bedroom steward, Eclectus, and a long list of prominent senators to be put to death. Marcia "poured the poison into the cup, mixed it with a pungent wine, and gave it to him to drink. Since it was his practice to take a cup of friendship after his many baths and jousts with animals, he drained it without noticing anything unusual." Afraid that Commodus would somehow live, Marcia, Laetus and Eclectus also persuaded a young nobleman, by the name of Narcissus, to strangle the emperor, just to be sure he really died. The legacy of Commodus is fittingly coupled with his body being unceremoniously removed from the Imperial palace wrapped in bed linen as just another bundle of dirty laundry, then placed in a common wagon and taken to the outskirts of the city. It is what happened next that has a lesson for us today.
Wanting to save their lives, because they had murdered Commodus, but also desiring to place a man on the throne that would rule Rome justly, Laetus and Eclectus settled on the most venerated of Commodus’ advisors and native-born Italian by the name of Pertinax. Pertinax had never sought the purple robe and had had no part in any conspiracy against the emperor. Of Pertinax it can rightfully be said that he served both Marcus Aurelius and Commodus honorably. Even so, when Laetus came with Eclectus to Pertinax’s estate to offer him the position of emperor, his first reaction was to serenely accept the fact that Commodus had sent Eclectus and Laetus to kill him.
"For a long time now," Pertinax said, "I have been waiting for my life to end in this fashion, and I was surprised that Commodus was so slow to act against me, the sole survivor of the advisers his father appointed for him. Why do you delay? You will be carrying out your orders, and I will be relieved from degrading hope and constant fear." It took some time, but Laetus and Eclectus eventually convinced Pertinax they were not there to take his life, but rather to offer him the Roman throne. This, they argued, was because of his age, proven wisdom, distinguished service as a senator and his love for justice.
As word of Commodus’ death spread the Roman people reacted as if the Roman Empire had suddenly found itself translated upward into orbit in the empyrean. Herodian of Antioch explains: "When these events became known, the people milled about in a frenzy of joy, like men possessed, and everyone took delight in telling the news to his neighbors, especially if they happened to be men of wealth and position, for Commodus was particularly dangerous to such men. Rushing to the temples and altars, the people united in giving thanks to the gods, shouting all sorts of things: ‘The tyrant is dead!’ ‘The gladiator is slain!’ and other blasphemies more scurrilous. All the insults which had hitherto been left unsaid through fear were now voiced openly, with freedom and safety restored."
The Praetorian Guard was not nearly as easily swayed, but due to the passion of the people, the Praetorian Guard’s knowledge of Pertinax’s courage, his temperate life, his honorable military service, and his acceptance among the troops on the empire’s frontiers, they reluctantly accepted Pertinax as emperor. But first they had to be persuaded that Commodus’ death hadn’t been murder. It fell to the Praetorian Prefect, Laetus, to address the Praetorian Guard and put their suspicions to rest. Laetus did exactly that with these words: "Commodus, your emperor, is dead of apoplexy. In a case of this kind, the blame can be put on no one else. The emperor was responsible for his own death. He paid no attention when we urged him time and again to adopt a safer and saner course. You know the way he lived his life. Now he lies dead, choked by his own gluttony. The death he was destined for has overtaken him at last. As you are aware, the cause of death is not one and the same for all men. The most diverse causes bring us to life's inevitable outcome…"
It was a lie but it roused the people to the point that they accepted it as fact, and while the praetorians were still not convinced, they realized they were surrounded by a mass of the people, and the people had decided the issue by declaring Pertinax their new emperor. Even with the backing of the people, and the unenthusiastic consent of the Praetorian Guards Pertinax wasn’t sure that the Roman senators would be willing to confirm him as emperor. His concern resided not in his own safety but rather the "abrupt change from the autocracy of Commodus, and about the noble ancestry of certain of the senators. He suspected that these senators, after having been ruled by the most nobly born of all the emperors, would not be willing to let the reins of government fall into the hands of a man who came to the high office from humble and undistinguished antecedents."
Pertinax’s worries were put to rest when the senate enthusiastically accepted him, then conferred on him the full title of emperor along with "every honor and every token of respect." The senators then accompanied their new emperor to the temple of Jupiter and the rest of the shrines, subsequently completing their journey by ushering Pertinax into the imperial palace. What Emperor Pertinax did to try and right the Roman Empire in the next three months can only be described as extraordinary.
Pertinax’s first act was to curb the praetorian’s arrogant, cruel treatment of people. He outlawed their carrying of axes (probably the fasces) and their arbitrary striking of anyone they wished. This order "delighted the older people, and won the good will of the others without difficulty..." Pertinax’s sense of justice freed the people from the savage and oppressive tyranny of which they had become accustomed, allowing them to again live a relaxed, efficient life. The unique sense of justice exhibited by Pertinax included the banishing of informers who had been accustomed to stealing property by false witness. He even went to extraordinary lengths to see to it that no one could be threatened by false accusations, and to prosecute those who engaged in such practices.
On the domestic front the emperor also banned the unjust tolls; "fees collected at the banks of rivers, the harbors of cities, and the crossroads," allowing people the freedom of movement that had been restricted under Commodus. More importantly "Pertinax assigned all the land in Italy and the rest of the provinces not under cultivation, to anyone willing to care for it and farm it, to be his own private property; he gave to each man as much land as he wished and was able to manage, even if the land were imperial property. To these farmers he granted exemption from all taxes for ten years and freedom from government duties as well." The emperor would not allow "his name to be stamped on imperial property, stating that these effects were not the emperor's personal property but the common and public possessions of the Roman Empire."
Pertinax’s sense of justice also had international repercussions. Herodian confirms that "… the mildness of his rule became known everywhere, all nations subject to Roman rule or friendly to the Romans, and all the armies in the field as well, came to regard his reign as that of a god." Even the "barbarians who were formerly restless and rebellious mindful of his brilliant achievements in his previous campaigns, feared him and willingly submitted to him. They put their trust in his reputation for never purposely doing an injustice and always treating every man according to his deserts; improper conduct and savage violence were completely foreign to his nature. Embassies from all countries came to him, and everyone delighted in the rule of the Romans under Pertinax."
Certainly it doesn’t take much imagination to realize what effect the domestic and foreign policies of Pertinax would have on domestic and foreign markets. There must have been an unbridled joy, coupled with a new enthusiastic fervor that swept over the import businesses along with permeating every sector of economic endeavor. We will never know what Emperor Pertinax’s strategies would have had on the decaying Roman Empire. His sense of justice and sound fiscal plan had made his powerful enemies among the imperial bodyguard angry. Those who had habitually supplemented their income through lies, mugging and pillage were not to be denied. The praetorians "who, being accustomed to live licentiously under Commodus," writes Machiavelli, "could not endure the honest life to which Pertinax wished to reduce them; having given cause for hatred, to which hatred there was added contempt for his old age" one day they assaulted the Imperial palace and murdered Emperor Pertinax.
The life flowing from the old emperor is equally symbolic of the life ebbing from Old Rome. This one act doomed the empire to years of military despotism, massive inflation and economic failures only to be exacerbated, codified and finally culminated in the edicts of Diocletian. The instruction that can be gleaned from Pertinax’s short reign is almost legion. Beyond the obvious danger that is faced by all those good men and women who seek to reestablish justice and economic stability through government, there exists a far more ominous admonition.
For far too long we have allowed ourselves to be deluded into thinking that our fight resides with and is encompassed within the framework of political and social ideologies. As such we use labels such as right and left; liberal and conservative; or socialist and communist to define either foes or ourselves. It is time we realize that these labels are smoke screens designed to justify and persuade us as to why we should be plundered. Historically the real battle resides not in philosophical gibberish, but in the reality within society that there are powerful criminal elements that will always seek to justify their self-serving, selfish need to rob, maim, imprison and murder others. The conflict always has been between criminal action of the few and the resistance (and/or lack of it) by the mass of intended victims.
Pertinax is reported to have told the Roman senate on the day he was received as emperor, "Those who have grown accustomed to reveling in the extravagant excesses of a tyranny not only object to any change toward a more moderate and more economical way of life occasioned by a shortage of money, not terming it sensible economy or planned and judicious management, but they reject it as a mean and wretched way to live, oblivious to the fact that had it not been for the loot taken by pillage and plunder, they could never have enjoyed their luxurious way of life."
Until the people of this nation become enraged at the brutal illicit activities being forced on them, the human, social and legal condition of the United States will continue to be consumed by a voracious criminal element with the same rapaciousness which was experienced by Roman society after the death of Emperor Pertinax. In case you were wondering, the Roman people did riot for a few days after they learned of Pertinax’s murder, but the Praetorian Guard simply hid in their compound until the people settled down and accepted their fate. This took the Roman people from the state of victimization, to that of being complicit in their own destruction."