The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean

The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean by John Julius Norwich Page A

Book: The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean by John Julius Norwich Read Free Book Online
Authors: John Julius Norwich
Tags: History, European History,, Maritime History
again and again descended to levels of depravity which may occasionally have been matched elsewhere, but have certainly never been surpassed. The historian Suetonius tells us gleefully of the pederasty of Tiberius who, during his years of retirement in Capri, trained young boys to swim around him and nibble his most sensitive areas under the water; of the gluttony of Vitellius, who according to Gibbon ‘consumed in mere eating, at least six millions of our money in about seven months’; 28 of the brutality of Caligula–his nickname means ‘little boot’–who, not content with incest with one of his sisters, regularly offered the other two ‘to be abused by his own stale catamites’, 29 set up a public brothel in the imperial palace and had innocent men sawn in half to entertain him at lunch.
    But there were good Emperors too. The golden age of the Roman Empire extended from 98 to 180 AD , when ‘the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind.’ 30 It began with Trajan, who broadened the frontiers of the Empire to cover Dacia (embracing roughly the present territory of Romania) and Arabia Petraea, which extended from Phoenicia in the north down to the shores of the Red Sea. He also enriched his capital with some of its most magnificent buildings, and governed his vast empire with decency, firmness and humanity–qualities all too seldom seen in first- and third-century Rome. It continued with his successor and fellow-Spaniard Hadrian, 31 perhaps the most capable Emperor ever to occupy the throne, who spent much of his twenty-one-year reign visiting every corner of his vast empire–including Britain, where in 122 he ordered the construction of the great wall from the Solway to the Tyne which still bears his name. Then, with Hadrian’s death, came the Antonines: first Antoninus Pius, whose long, peaceful reign gave the Romans a welcome breathing space after the endless exertions of his two predecessors, and finally the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose
–written in Greek, probably during his long campaigns against rebellious German tribes–is the only work in existence which allows us an insight into the mind of an ancient ruler. 32 But alas, that golden age ended as suddenly as it had begun, with the succession of Marcus Aurelius’s son Commodus who, with his harem of women and boys–300 of each–returned Rome to the worst days of imperial degeneracy.
    The story of the Roman Empire in the third century makes unedifying reading. Historians tell of the blood-lust of Caracalla–declared Caesar at the age of eight–who in 215 ordered on a whim a general massacre in Alexandria in which many thousand innocent citizens perished, and of the sexual ambivalence of his successor, Elagabalus, who took his name from the Syrian sun god (with whom he identified) and who in 219 made his ceremonial entry into Rome rouged, bejewelled and dressed in purple and gold. He it was of whom Gibbon wrote:

A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions. The master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex, preferred the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonoured the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor’s, or as he more properly styled himself, of the empress’s husband.

    With rulers like these, the corruption inevitably spread downwards through Roman society, to the point at which law and order broke down almost completely and the government was in chaos. It is a sobering fact that the Emperor Septimius Severus, expiring at York in 211, was the last Roman Emperor for eighty years to die in his bed.
    Just ninety-five years later, that

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