An Alternative History of the Roman Empire: An Illness in Marcomannia

By Tim Venning

Bust of Marcus Aurelius. Picture taken by Pierre-Selim and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

The crucial events of 180 AD have inspired two major Hollywood films, the top-rated ‘Gladiator’ and the now largely forgotten 1964 ‘sword and sandals’ blockbuster ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ which starred Stephen Boyd, as the fictional ‘good guy’, Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius, and Sophia Lauren as the Emperor’s daughter Livilla. Guinness' character, Marcus Aurelius, was in reality the last of Machiavelli’s ‘Five Good Emperors’ and the last Roman Emperor in what later became known as the ‘Pax Romana’. In 180, at the age of 58, he died and was succeeded by his biological son Commodus, who would rule as a tyrant with a personality cult. 180 was thus seen by the historian Edward Gibbon as the major turning-point for the Roman Empire and the start of its decline and fall.

Let’s imagine however a timeline wherein the philosopher-ruler Marcus Aurelius does not die in his army’s winter headquarters at Vindobona (modern Vienna) during a lull in his campaigns to annex ‘Marcomannia, i.e. modern Bohemia and Moravia, on 17 March 180. And as a result Rome’s ‘era of the good Emperors’ would continue after 180. First let us look at the situation as it was upon Marcus Aurelius’ OTL death.

Marcus Aurelius had crossed the middle Danube with his army in 177 and since then he had been systematically fighting the local tribes and annexing their territory. He’d also been setting up a chain of Roman fortresses to supervise them and forcing them to live as peaceful farmers under Roman supervision and contribute food-supplies to his army and export agricultural products to the Empire in lieu of monetary taxes as ‘tribute’. The more recalcitrant tribes had their land seized for settlement by retired Roman soldiers who had reached the end of their military service and so were settled on new farms close to the new wooden-built Roman fortresses. Moreover, new roads were built along the major river-valleys and plains to connect the Roman positions on the Danube to strategic river-junctions and the main gaps in the Carpathian mountain chain, e.g. the Elbe’s exit North from Bohemia and the Ostrava Gap - which are the main centres of garrisons on the new Roman frontier. Fortified lines of wooden barriers studded with small forts plus long ditches would have been set up at these low-lying points to create a ‘limes’ frontier, as was done nearly two centuries earlier in South West Germany. This is a work that was only just started in 180 and will take years more to complete.

Small towns for Roman settlers, mostly troops and traders, were being founded at strategic points across ‘Marcomannia’, and experts in mining were locating likely sites with metals available to set up new mines which will be worked by prisoners-of-war and convicts from within the Empire and will produce coins to be used by the Empire. The local populace were ‘Romanised’ by means of the tribes’ younger menfolk being forcibly recruited into new regiments in the Roman army, which would serve well outside their home areas – some in Britain, some in Syria and Mesopotamia and some in Africa. This way they could not escape to head home or form bonds with potentially disaffected tribesmen speaking their own Germanic language and so plot rebellion. This forcible ‘Romanisation’ and politico-military neutralisation followed the pattern used in conquered tribal Gaul from the 50s BC, the Rhine and Danube valleys from the 10s BC, and Britain from AD 43 – but it would take several decades to take effect. Marcus, followed the pattern set by his military exemplar Trajan in the equally dangerous annexed tribal Dacia in the 100s, in ‘atomising’ local tribal society (i.e. not preserving its social and political structures as parts of the new Roman province) so as to disrupt those chains of loyalty that might be used for revolt later.

Existing tribes were to be broken up and moved around to new areas of settlement, both within the province and South of the Danube in areas denuded of farmers by Germanic pillaging or plague outbreaks in the crises of the 160s, and the existing tribal nobility had to be proven to be well-inclined to Rome to be allowed to stay on their lands. This was a major project of incorporation in the Empire, but in view of the seriousness of the Germanic attacks across the middle Danube in the 160s Marcus had been advised by his military lieutenants that it was essential to prevent a repeat of this. He had had to defeat the first major Germanic incursion across Pannonia and Noricum into NE Italy since Augustus’ time, so the danger had been seen to be as acute as that posed by the Dacians in the raids across the lower Danube in the 80s. A similar solution to Trajan’s wholesale annexation and Romanization of Dacia was seen as required, and the experience of the latter region since that annexation had shown that seizing hostile tribal lands as far as the Carpathian Mountains had produced a more secure frontier than the former riverine frontier of the lower Danube. The Empire was set to now rule directly in Marcomannia and use the Carpathians as its frontier all the way from the upper Danube (West Austria in modern nomenclature) round to the Iron Gates on the lower Danube below Singidunum. The only exception being the territory of Rome’s tributary allied tribe the Lazyges on the plains East of the Danube.

This major project of incorporation required years of work, hence why the Emperor was himself there to oversee it. In our time line, Commodus largely abandoned such efforts and retreated back to the Danube Limes. The tribes of Marcomannie were Romanised to some extent by trade and influence but the lands of Bohemia and Moravia were not directly Incorporated into the Empire. A longer ruling Marcus Aurelius would almost certainly complete this work.

Detail of a relief scene on the Column of Marcus Aurelius (in Rome, Italy), depicting a battle of the Marcomannic Wars. Picture shared under the CC BY 3.0 licence.

There was a problem, however, with his presence there as the harsh Central European winters did not suit the health of the always delicate Emperor who, as a dedicatee of stern Stoic philosophic values, had always been inclined to put duty above self-preservation and as a young man was a keen faster. His mentors such as Marcus Claudius Fronto, who had been Marcus’ tutor from 136 to 141, and was a highly regarded lawyer, orator, amateur philosopher, and constitutional writer though his provincial North African origins meant he was disdained by many senators, had however advised him to be careful to preserve his health once he became Emperor out of duty to his subjects. Despite this Marcus had been ill several times in the mid-170s, leading to fears that he might not survive until his surviving son Lucius Commodus (born in 161) reached his majority and so would leave an under-age heir who could be at the risk of a coup by disgruntled and far more experienced generals. Marcus’ own assumption, after his co-ruler and son-in-law Lucius Verus died in 169, was that one of his sons-in-law would be elected to succeed him by the Senate, and he had kept a sealed will, to be opened if he died, advising this.

However his sons-in-law and senior, semi-aristocratic ministers Lucius Antistius Burrus (husband of Vibia Sabina) and Petronius Sura Mamertinus (husband of Cornificia) both coveted this honour. So too did his sister Annia Cornificia’s son Quadratus (consul 167), son of his first cousin and 160s aide Ummius Quadratus who differed from Burrus and Mamertinus by being from an old and extensive senatorial dynasty rather than a 1st century AD ‘service nobility’ equestrian family. Quadratus and his senate allies ithus argued for the fulfilment of the old aristocratic ideal of a senate-appointed, aristocratic emperor as the ‘best man’ and no dynastic succession. All of these men were hostile to the idea of an untried youth, ie Lucius Commodus, succeeding to the throne but Marcus assumed that his son would be led and advised by his ministers and so would not be a threat to his principle of rule by the wise.

In 175 a false rumour that Marcus had died led to an abortive revolt in Syria by the respected senior general and local governor Avidius Cassius, commander of the main concentration of troops in the East facing Parthia, who was apparently hoping that the Empress Faustina would open negotiations as they had been on good terms, accepting him as co-emperor with her son to stabilise the Empire. The revolt collapsed as the rebel troops mostly gave up when they heard that Marcus was still alive and had sent an army to deal with them, and Cassius committed suicide rather than fight against overwhelming odds – but it was a warning for Marcus to take more care over his health. He was also embarrassed by rumours that when he was ill Faustina, fearing for his life and keen to stave off a rebellion by generals in the provinces hostile to her untried young son succeeding, had written secretly to Cassius asking him for help and offering him the role of co-emperor with Commodus if Marcus died. The Empress had then died suddenly during Marcus’ tour of the recently revolted Eastern provinces in 176, in semi-disgrace and under suspicion from various of the Emperor’s advisers who regarded her as a potential threat to their survival in power if Marcus died and she took over the reins of power for her weak-willed and lazy son.

Empress Faustina. Picture taken by Chris O and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Marcus’ wise mentor the Emperor Hadrian (d 138), who picked out this thoughtful and dutiful teenage distant relative of his as his intended successor-but-one in the 130s, had decided to entrust the Empire to a capable and proven competent adult heir with a second person lined up behind them, both of their positions ratified in advance by the Senate, in order to stabilise the succession and minimise the risk of civil war. The two heirs would then be linked by a marital alliance if not already related to each other. This was a return to the succession-arrangements of the revered founding Princeps, Augustus, and a compromise with the ideas of the revered ‘wisest of Emperors’, Nerva (ruled 96-98), that the senate should always elect the next ruler in the current one’s lifetime. The principle of dynastic rule had been sullied by the paranoid though competent Domitian (ruled 91-96), heir as brother to the more just and generous Titus (ruled 79-91), but, in fact, though the Senate had denounced it in 96 after Domitian was murdered and tried to ban it the fact that there had been no succession of a son or brother of a ruler since then. Mainly due to no Emperor having a living son or brother since 96.

In 136 Hadrian had initially selected his younger protégé Lucius Ceionius Commodus (renamed ‘Aelius Verus’) as his heir, with the teenage Marcus lined up behind him, but instead of succeeding his patron the already ailing Verus had died in his forties early in 138. His own health declining rapidly, Hadrian had chosen the respected – and healthier - senator Arrius Antoninus, not related to him but married to Marcus’ aunt Faustina (I), as his next heir; this had worked out better and Antoninus (Pius, the ‘Dutiful’) had succeeded as Emperor later in 138, reigning to 161 and much more appreciated by the socially conservative, tradition-loving senators than the quirky, hot-tempered homosexual Hadrian who had preferred Greek culture to stern Roman tradition and spent much of his reign outside Rome on tour. Antoninus’ daughter Faustina (II) had been married off to her first cousin Marcus, though he had had to abandon his existing fiancee Ceionia Fabia for a strong-willed, ambitious, and worldly young woman with whom he had had little in common.

The marriage of cousins might also have been unwise as, although their six daughters were healthy enough, two of their three sons, firstly Titus Antoninus (twin to Marcus current heir Lucius Commodus) in 167 and then youngest son Marcus in 169, had died as small children. As per Hadrian’s promise to his abortive heir, Aelius Verus, the latter’s own son Lucius Verus, several years younger than Marcus and wayward, high-living, and extravagant as an adult in contrast to him, had been adopted as co-heir with Marcus by Antoninus Pius in 138. He had succeeded as co-emperor in 161 and left most business to Marcus, preferring a life of wild parties and public entertainments that had undermined his health, but he had proved a competent if not very imaginative commander on his Eastern expedition of 164 when he had invaded Parthia and marched his army across Mesopotamia to sack the capital Ctesiphon. Married off to Marcus’ ambitious and self-willed second daughter Lucilla, he had died young in 169 and Marcus had reigned alone since then, though nominally he had named Commodus as his co-ruler aged sixteen in early 177 before he set off for the Northern expedition.

Lucilla (born 149), over a decade older than the self-indulgent Commodus and also older than her sisters Cornificia and Vibia Sabina (and regarding herself as far better qualified and suited to rule than her brother), had been married off again in 172, to the rising general Tiberius Pompeianus. He was one of the more outstanding of Marcus’ protégés in the wars of the 170s but he was from the lower legal social ranking of the ‘equites’ class, wealthy but not of ancient family, and was the first of his family to be named as a senator so both his wife and assorted senators of ancient family close to the court looked down on him. He was capable of ruling as an older and wiser co-emperor with Commodus if Marcus died before the boy grew up, but was he acceptable to enough of the senate and the Emperor’s own household? Fearing their hostility, he refrained from pushing himself forward, much to his wife’s exasperation.

The Emperor’s senatorial cousins from more respectable older families, Quadratus and the Quinctilli brothers, preferred themselves as potential Imperial nominees and argued that they would have backing from their many senatorial connections and so keep up the respectable ‘old family rule’ tradition; and so, to a lesser extent, did Lucilla’s sister Cornificia’s husband, the ‘service family’ senator Petronius Sura Mamertinus. Mamertinus’ grandfather Marcus Mamertinus had been Praetorian Praefect and senior adviser to Emperor Antoninus Pius in the 140s and been elevated to the senatorial order on that account from the ‘equestrians’. He was also a kinsman of Marcus’mentor Fronto so he had a special link to the Emperor on that account and was personally closer to him than his other senior son-in-law Burrus, a military bureaucrat who was to be made Praetorian Praefect in the late 170s and consul in 182.

Commodus as Hercules. Photo taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen .

Marcus had had his surviving son given as comprehensive and rigorous an education as he had received himself and had employed the Empire’s top philosophers, orators and rhetoricians for the purpose of moulding him into a morally rigorous and skilled public speaker. But he soon had had to face the problem that Commodus had limited brains, a short attention-span, and no interest in philosophy such as he had shown himself at the boy’s age. Training his son to be a philosopher as a boy so he had the right morals and ideals and then teach him how to rule wisely had seemed to Marcus as the way to keep the principle of dynastic rule (favoured by the Guards and the army as a whole as they focused their loyalties on the Imperial family) and the senatorial ideal of rule by the ‘best man’ advised by themselves, the two melded into one, but he forgot that the chosen vessel of this programme might not be up to the task. Nor did he take much notice of the warnings of his son’s tutors in the early-mid 170s, as he thought that the boy would learn; and he was keen enough to learn ancient Greek athletics and the aristocratic sport of riding and he was brilliant at sword-play so the Praetorians were impressed at his abilities to disarm his companions in practice-bouts.

Restless, easily bored, and only interested in sport and entertainments and also keen to lap up flattery, Commodus had given his prosy tutors the ‘run-around’ and in his middle teens had started to become interested in alcohol and women. He seemed likelier to take after Lucius Verus than after his own father, and his evident lack of interest in his future role as ‘Princeps’ - especially the business of governing wisely and choosing honest ministers – had given concern to senior Imperial advisers. Marcus, either busy with his duties in Rome or on campaign, had shrugged it off as normal behaviour for a teenage boy and assumed he would grow into his role. Commodus was indulged by his mother, treated with loathing by his jealous sister Lucilla, who had wished that women like her could lead armies and rule openly, and undermined by worried Imperial advisers like Mamertinus and Burrus who felt he should be side-lined and reigned in. Moreover he had largely been left to his tutors until Marcus was forced to consider the situation after his illness and the Cassius revolt in 175.

He had had to accept that the prince had just not responded either to his tutors’ coaxing or to punishment, brooding sulkily at any restraint rather than seeing that his future role would necessarily bring great responsibilities. The boy was after all well-intentioned and so far of a pleasant nature, and Marcus and his tutors had worked hard to rein in his natural arrogance as the destined next ruler of Rome who would be able to do what he wanted and banish those who criticised him. But now Marcus’ own health was precarious he had to accept that he might not live until his son had matured, which might be well into his twenties and given the boy’s weakness to the praise of flatterers and fondness for wild parties the Empire might end up with a repeat of the loathed tyrant Nero if he fell into the hands of the wrong advisers. It was Marcus’ duty, as both a strict Stoic who had spent his life labouring for self-control and moral virtue (and done his best to choose men to advise him who had similar values) and a devotee of Plato who had believed in the rule of the virtuous to given the world wisely, to see that his son’s faults of character did not ruin the Empire. He could not set his son aside and in any case it was likely that the troops, who had a sentimental fondness for the idea of an Imperial Family and hereditary rule, would resist this and revolt against any replacement to his son as Emperor – but Commodus could be watched carefully and surrounded with a loyal corps of those who shared Marcus’ values. In 176-8 both Lucilla (on behalf of the not that keen Pompeianus, who was more modest than her) and Mamertinus urged Marcus to name a son-in-law as ‘Caesar’ at once but were unsuccessful.

Hoping to stir up some enthusiasm for military campaigning and perhaps even awake a degree of military competence and flair such as the rakish Lucius Verus had unexpectedly shown in the Parthian campaign, Marcus took Commodus (as the new nominal co-emperor) with him on campaign in ‘Marcomannia’ in 178-9. The good-looking and charismatic young man proved a ‘hit’ with the troops though he preferred showing off at parades, riding at the head of his troops, and improving his sword-play in mock-combats with his young officer aides to actually learning military strategy. He was kept away from battles and so spent a lot of his time hunting wild animals with his officers in ‘safe’ areas of the new province and grumbling about the harsh climate. Commodus was certainly popular with the troops and Marcus could hope that, like Lucius, he would turn out to be a competent if not first–class general. But he still liked his comforts and lived as lavishly as his father would allow, he did his best to escape those tutors who Marcus had brought along to keep up his training in philosophy and statecraft, and he was found carousing with other young officers or with ‘camp-follower’ women in his tent rather too often for comfort.

Having married him off to Crispina, the dull but sensible and ladylike daughter of Marcus’ highly competent senior general and current Praetorian Praefect (in office from 174) Bruttius Praesens before they left Rome, Marcus now comforted himself that a wife would settle his son down – and if anything untoward happened to him, Praesens (made consul for 179 as a mark of his new ranking close to the Imperil Family) would guide his new son-in-law on the throne into being a competent if not first-class ruler. He could elevate one of his sons-in-law into being co-emperor at once and so guarantee a repeat of the ‘safe’ double rule of a capable administrator and a charismatic younger ‘showman’ as he had ruled with Lucius in 161-9, but neither the nonmilitary Mamertinus or the more versatile (and militarily experienced) but socially insecure Pompeianus, both now in their early fifties, were now insistent on that. Lucilla wanted to be ‘Augusta’ as her mother had been, with her husband as her necessary ‘front-man’, but Marcus had doubts over the wisdom of promoting his daughter who he felt was rather too keen on gaining power for its own sake for his comfort.

Marcus’ philosopher friends had been worried about the danger of his dying on campaign and leaving the Empire to an inexperienced, nonintellectual and easily influenced teenage ruler since 177, but in the event he only suffered one serious illness, at Vindobona in March 180. In OTL he died from that illness and Commodus became sole Emperor, but he might have recovered and in the next Article we will discuss what he might do with the extra ten years he might gain.

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Timothy Venning is a respected Historian who won the London University History Prize in 1979 and whose latest straight history book is Cromwell's Failed State. He has also written multiple books of counter factual essays including Caesars of the Bosphorus, Eternal Caesars, King Charles or King Oliver and King Henry IX, all published by Sea Lion Press, and If Rome Hadn't Fallen.

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

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