Monday, March 19, 2018

Guest Post: Rise of the Sixth Good Emperor of Rome

This post originally appeared on Today In Alternate History

"[Marcus Aurelius] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire. Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son [Commodus] in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him. This matter must be our next topic; for our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day". ~ Cassius Dio 71.36.3-4

On March 17, 175, troops stationed on the River Danube declared their former commander in the Marcomannic War, Gaius Avidius Cassius, the new Emperor.

The soldiers had just heard the tragic news that Marcus Aurelius Antoninus had perished from the Antonine Plague. This pandemic was associated with his family name having been caused by the East-West movement of troops ordered by Aureleius and his late co-ruler Lucius Verus who had died of the same cause. Of course this association was cruel because it was Cassius that had led those troops whereas it was Marcus Aurelius himself who had famously declared "Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart," a statement of his profound belief in the philosophy of stoicism.

Cassius received the opportunistic tidings from the widow Faustina but he was based in the Near East, serving in his current back-water position as the Governor of Syria. This was something of an under-utilisation of his many talents and he knew it. But fate would have to intervene for him because he was of low birth from the north Syrian town of Cyrrhus. Promoted to legatus for his service under Antonius Pius, he had distinguished himself during the Parthian War. His reward was elevation to the Senate and subsequently Imperial legate. He was then given Imperium over all of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire serving under the extraordinary title of Rector Orientis during the Bucolic War.

War had made-up Cassius but frustratingly his military career had peaked at the relatively young age of forty-five. And so shortly thereafter hearing of Marcus Aurelius passing, he received support from Egypt and that emboldened him to launch his bid to seize the throne. The timing was auspicious, Aurelius son Commodus had been born in "the purple" and would have otherwise become the first son to succeed his biological father since Titus succeeded Vespasian in 79. But Commodus was only fourteen and his mother Faustina feared for him; and Cassius had the good sense to name Commodus his co-ruler and effectively replace Aurelius with himself as a strong general in the style of Lucius Verus.

Marcus Aurelius had been a remarkable ruler during difficult times but he had been carried away by his own stoicism. Perhaps he realized that disaster was around the corner or maybe he feared another Civil War. It was a pity that he did not see Cassius lack of progression as a solution. But his failure to replace Lucius Verus certainly put the succession in jeopardy. And the timing was also delicately posted, because Cassius would continue Marcus Aurelius strategies sharing the same focus on the frontier. In the next five years he would annex Moravia and West Slovakia and ensure his own clients were protected from incursive threats such as the Huns that might drive them towards Italy and even turn them from allies into belligerents. And there must be doubt as to whether the young Commodus would have pursued these objectives so aggressively, his heart was not in the same place and his late father was much older and in weak health.

As events were to transpire, Commodus would not live to see twenty. An orderly succession of command of the Danubian armies ensure that hard fought victories were carried through to its conclusion and the frontier expanded to the Carpathians. The reconquest to the Elbe would then follow. In time Cassius would be recognised as the Sixth Good Emperor and the Pax Romana would continue. This continued strengthening of the Emperor prepared it for the much greater challenges four hundred years later when it managed to survive invasions from both the Maygars and the Vikings.

Author's Note in reality the reports were false and while Aurelius was amassing a force to defeat Cassius, a centurion of one of Cassius' legions murdered Cassius, sending his head to Aurelius as proof.

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