The History, 15.5

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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5After these unhappy circumstances, accompanied as they were with equal calamities in the provinces, a whirlwind of new misfortunes arose which seemed likely to destroy the whole state at once, if Fortune, which regulates the events of human life, had not terminated a state of affairs which all regarded with great apprehension, by bringing the dangers to a speedy issue.

2From the long neglect with which these provinces had been treated, the Gauls, having no assistance on which to rely, had borne cruel massacres, with plunder and conflagration, from barbarians who raged throughout their land with impunity. Silvanus, the commander of the infantry, being a man well suited to correct these evils, went thither at the command of the emperor, Arbetio at the same time urging with all his power that this task should be undertaken without delay, with the object of imposing the dangerous burden of this duty on his absent rival, whom he was vexed to see still in prosperity. . . .

3There was a certain man named Dynamius, the superintendent of the emperor’s beasts of burden, who had begged of Silvanus recommendatory letters to his friends as of one who was admitted to his most intimate friendship. Having obtained this favour, as Silvanus, having no suspicion of any evil intention, had with great simplicity granted what he was asked, Dynamius kept the letters, in order at a future time to plan something to his injury.

4Therefore, when the aforesaid commander had gone to the Gauls in the service of the republic, and while he was engaged in repelling the barbarians, who already began to distrust their own power, and to be filled with alarm, Dynamius, being restless, like a man of cunning and practised deceitfulness, devised a wicked plot; and in this it is said he had for his accomplices Lampadius, the prefect of the prætorian guard, Eusebius, who had been the superintendent of the emperor’s privy purse, and was known by the nickname of Mattyocopa, and Ædesius, formerly keeper of the records, whom this prefect had contrived to have elected consul, as being his dearest friend. He then with a sponge effaced the contents of the letters, leaving nothing but the address, and inserted a text materially differing from the original writing, as if Silvanus had asked, by indirect hints, and entreated his friends who were within the palace, and those who had no office (among whom was Albinus of Etruria, and many others), to aid him in projects of loftier ambition, as one who would soon attain the imperial throne. This bundle of letters he thus made up, inventing at his leisure, in order with them to endanger the life of this innocent man.

5Dynamius was appointed to investigate these charges on behalf of the emperor; and while he was artfully weaving these and similar plans, he contrived to enter alone into the imperial chamber, choosing his opportunity, and hoping to entangle firmly in his meshes the most vigilant guardian of the emperor’s safety. And being full of wicked cunning, after he had read the forged packet of letters in the council chamber, the tribunes were ordered to be committed to custody, and also several private individuals were commanded to be arrested and brought up from the provinces, whose names were mentioned in those letters.

6But presently Malarichus, the commander of the Gentiles, being struck with the iniquity of the business, and taking his colleagues to his counsel, spoke out loudly that men devoted to the preservation of the emperor ought not to be circumvented by factions and treachery. He accordingly demanded that he himself, his nearest relations being left as hostages, and Mallobaudes, the tribune of the heavy-armed soldiers, giving bail that he would return, might be commissioned to go with speed to bring back Silvanus, who he was certain had never entertained the idea of any such attempt as these bitter plotters had imputed to him. Or, as an alternative, he entreated that he might become security for Mallobaudes, and that their officers might be permitted to go and do what he had proposed to take upon himself.

7For he affirmed that he knew beyond all question that, if any stranger were sent, Silvanus, who was inclined to be somewhat apprehensive of danger, even when no circumstances were really calculated to alarm him, would very likely throw matters into confusion.

8But, although the advice which he gave was useful and necessary, he spoke as to the winds, to no purpose. For by the counsels of Arbetio, Apodemius, who was a persevering and bitter enemy to all good men, was sent with letters to summon Silvanus to the presence. When he had arrived in Gaul, taking no heed of the commission with which he was charged, and caring but little for anything that might happen, he remained inactive, without either seeing Silvanus, or delivering the letters which commanded him to appear at court. And having taken the receiver of the province into his counsels, he began with arrogance and malevolence to harass the clients and servants of the master of the horse, as if that officer had been already condemned and was on the point of being executed.

9In the mean time, while the arrival of Silvanus was looked for, and while Apodemius was throwing everything, though quiet before, into commotion, Dynamius, that he might by still more convincing proofs establish belief in his wicked plots, had sent other forged letters (agreeing with the previous ones which he had brought under the emperor’s notice by the agency of the prefect) to the tribune of the factory at Cremona: these were written in the names of Silvanus and Malarichus, in which the tribune, as one privy to their secrets, was warned to lose no time in having everything in readiness.

10But when this tribune had read the whole of the letters, he was for some time in doubt and perplexity as to what they could mean (for he did not recollect that those persons whose letters he had thus received had ever spoken with him upon private transactions of any kind); and accordingly he sent the letters themselves, by the courier who had brought them, to Malarichus, sending a soldier also with him; and entreated Malarichus to explain in intelligible language what he wanted, and not to use such obscure terms. For he declared that he, being but a plain and somewhat rude man, had not in the least understood what was intimated so obscurely.

11Malarichus the moment he received the letters, being already in sorrow and anxiety, and alarmed for his own fate and that of his countryman Silvanus, called around him the Franks, of whom at that time there was a great multitude in the palace, and in resolute language laid open and proved the falsehood of the machinations by which their lives were threatened, and was loud in his complaints.

12When these things became known to the emperor, he appointed the members of his secret council and the chief officers of his army to make further investigation of the matter. And when the judges appeared to make light of it, Florentius the son of Nigridianus, who at that time filled the post of master of the offices, having examined the writings carefully, and detecting beneath them some vestiges of the tops of the former words which had been effaced, perceived, as was indeed the case, that by interpolations of the original letter, matters very different from any of which Silvanus was author had been written over them, according to the fancy of the contriver of this forgery.

13On this the cloud of treachery was dispersed, and the emperor, informed of the truth by a faithful report, recalled the powers granted to the prefect, and ordered him to be submitted to an examination. Nevertheless he was acquitted through the active combination of many of his friends; while Eusebius, the former treasurer of the emperor’s secret purse, being put to the torture, confessed that these things had been done with his privity.

14Ædesius, affirming with obstinate denial that he had never known anything which had been done in the matter, escaped, being adjudged innocent. And thus the transaction was brought to an end, and all those who had been accused in the original information were acquitted; and Dynamius, as a man of exceeding accomplishments and prudence, was appointed to govern Etruria with the rank of corrector.

15While these affairs were proceeding, Silvanus was living at Agrippina, and having learnt by continual information sent to him by his friends what Apodemius was doing with the hope of effecting his ruin; and knowing also how impressible the mind of the feeble emperor was; began to fear lest in his absence, and without being convicted of any crime, he might still be treated as a criminal. And so, being placed in a situation of the greatest difficulty, he began to think of trusting himself to the good faith of the barbarians.

16But being dissuaded from this by Laniogaisus, at that time a tribune, whom we have already spoken of as the only person who was present with Constans when he was dying, himself serving at that time as a volunteer; and being assured by Laniogaisus that the Franks, of whom he himself was a countryman, would put him to death, or else betray him for a bribe, he saw no safety anywhere in the present emergency, and so was driven to extreme counsels. And by degrees, having secretly conferred with the chiefs of the principal legions, and having excited them by the magnitude of promised rewards, he tore for use on this occasion the purple silk from the insignia of the dragons and standards, and so assumed the title of emperor.

17And while these events are passing in Gaul, one day, a little before sunset, an unexpected messenger arrived at Milan, relating fully that Silvanus, being ambitious to rise above his place as commander of the infantry, had tampered with the army, and assumed the imperial dignity.

18Constantius, at this amazing and unexpected event, seemed as if struck by a thunderbolt of fate, and having at once summoned a council to meet at the second watch, all the nobles hastened to the palace. No one had either mind to conceive or tongue to recommend what was best to be done; but in suppressed tones they mentioned the name of Ursicinus as a man eminent for skill in affairs of war, and one who had been undeservedly exposed to most injurious treatment. He was immediately sent for by the principal chamberlain, which is the most honourable kind of summons, and as soon as he entered the council-chamber he was offered the purple to salute much more graciously than at any former time. Diocletian was the first who introduced the custom of offering reverence to the emperor after this foreign manner and royal pretension; whereas all former princes, as we read, had been saluted like judges.

19And so the man who a little while before, through the malevolent persecution of certain of the courtiers, had been termed the whirlpool of the East, and who had been accused of a design to aim at the supreme power for his sons, was now recommended as one who was a most skilful general, who had been the comrade of the great Constantine, and as the only man capable of extinguishing the threatened conflagration. And though the reasons for which he was sent for were honest, they were not wholly free from underhand motives. For while great anxiety was felt that Silvanus should be destroyed as a most formidable rebel, yet, if that object miscarried, it was thought that Ursicinus, being damaged by the failure, would himself easily be ruined; so that no scruple, which else was to be feared, would interpose to save him from destruction.

20While arrangements were being made for accelerating his journey, the general was preparing to repel the charges which had been brought against him; but the emperor prevented him, forbidding him in conciliatory language, saying that this was not an opportunity suitable for undertaking any controversy in defence of his cause, when the imminent necessity of affairs rather prompted that no delay should be interposed to the restoration of parties to their pristine concord before the disunion got worse.

21Therefore, after a long deliberation about many things, the first and most important matter in which consultation was held, was by what means Silvanus could be led to think the emperor still ignorant of his conduct. And the most likely manner to confirm him in his confidence appeared to be that he should be informed, in a complimentary despatch, that Ursicinus was appointed his successor, and that he was invited to return to court with undiminished power.

22After this affair was arranged, the officer who had brought the news to Milan was ordered to depart with some tribunes and ten of the Protectores and domestic guard as an escort, given to him at his own request, to aid him in the discharge of his public duty. And of these I myself was one, with my colleague Verrinianus; and all the rest were either friends or relations of mine.

23And now all of us, fearing mainly for ourselves, accompanied him a long distance on his journey; and although we seemed as exposed to danger as gladiators about to fight with wild beasts, yet considering in our minds that evils are often the forerunners of good, we recollected with admiration that expression of Cicero’s, uttered by him in accordance with the eternal maxims of truth, which runs in these words:—“And although it is a thing most desirable that one’s fortune should always continue in a most flourishing condition; still that general level state of life brings not so much sensation of joy as we feel when, after having been surrounded by disasters or by dangers, fortune returns into a happier condition.”

24Accordingly we hastened onwards by forced journeys, in order that the master of the horse, who was eager to acquire the honour of suppressing the revolt, might make his appearance in the suspected district before any rumour of the usurpation of Silvanus had spread among the Italians. But rapidly as we hastened, fame, like the wind, had outstripped us, and had revealed some part of the facts; and when we reached Agrippina we found matters quite out of the reach of our attempts.

25For a vast multitude of people, assembled from all quarters, were, with a mixture of haste and alarm, strengthening the foundations of Silvanus’s enterprise, and a numerous military force was collected; so that it seemed more advisable, on the existing emergency, for our unfortunate general to await the intentions and pleasure of the new emperor, who was assuring himself by ridiculous omens and signs that he was gaining accessions of strength. By permitting his feelings of security to increase, by different pretences of agreement and flattery, Silvanus, it was thought, might be relieved from all fear of hostility, and so be the more easily deceived.

26But the accomplishment of such a design appeared difficult. For it was necessary to use great care and watchfulness to make our desires subordinate to our opportunities, and to prevent their either outrunning them, or falling behind them; since if our wishes were allowed to become known unseasonably, it was plain we should all be involved in one sentence of death.

27However our general was kindly received, and (the very business itself forcing us to bend our necks), having been compelled to prostrate himself with all solemnity before the newly robed prince, still aiming at higher power, was treated as a highly favoured and eminent friend; having freedom of access and the honour of a seat at the royal table granted to him in preference to every one else, in order that he might be consulted with the more secrecy about the principal affairs of state.

28Silvanus expressed his indignation that, while unworthy persons had been raised to the consulship and to other high dignities, he and Ursicinus alone, after the frequent and great toils which they had endured for the sake of the republic, had been so despised that he himself had been accused of treason in consequence of the examination of some slaves, and had been exposed to an ignoble trial; while Ursicinus had been brought over from the East, and placed at the mercy of his enemies; and these were the subjects of his incessant complaints both in public and in private.

29While, however, he was holding this kind of language, we were alarmed at the murmurs of our soldiers who were now suffering from want, which surrounded us on all sides; the troops showing every eagerness to make a rapid march through the defiles of the Cottian Alps.

30In this state of anxiety and agitation, we occupied ourselves in secretly deliberating on the means of arriving at our object; and at length, after our plans had been repeatedly changed out of fear, it was determined to use great industry in seeking out prudent agents, binding them to secrecy by solemn oaths, in order to tamper with the Gallic soldiers whom we knew to be men of doubtful fidelity, and at any time open to change for a sufficient reward.

31Therefore, after we had secured our success by the address of some agents among the common soldiers, men by their very obscurity fitted for the accomplishment of such a task, and now excited by the expectation of reward, at sunrise, as soon as the east began to redden, a band of armed men suddenly sallied forth, and, as is common in critical moments, behaving with more than usual audacity. They slew the sentinels and penetrated into the palace, and so having dragged Silvanus out of a little chapel in which, in his terror, he had taken refuge on his way to a conventicle devoted to the ceremonies of the Christian worship, they slew him with repeated strokes of their swords.

32In this way did a general of no slight merit perish, through fear of false accusations heaped on him in his absence by a faction of wicked men, and which drove him to the utmost extremities in order to preserve his safety.

33For although he had acquired strong claims on the gratitude of Constantius by his seasonable sally with his troops before the battle of Mursa, and although he could boast the valorous exploits of his father Bonitus, a man of Frankish extraction, but who had espoused the party of Constantine, and often in the civil war had exhibited great prowess against the troops of Licinius, still he always feared him as a prince of wavering and fickle character.

34Now before any of these events had taken place in Gaul, it happened that one day in the Circus Maximus at Rome, the populace cried out with a loud voice, “Silvanus is conquered.” Whether influenced by instinct or by some prophetic spirit, cannot be decided.

35Silvanus having been slain, as I have narrated, at Agrippina, the emperor was seized with inconceivable joy when he heard the news, and gave way to exceeding insolence and arrogance, attributing this event also to the prosperous course of his good fortune; giving the reins to his habitual disposition which always led him to hate men of brave conduct, as Domitian in former times had done, and desiring at all times to destroy them by every act of opposition.

36And he was so far from praising even his act of diligence and fidelity, that he recorded in writing a charge that Ursicinus had embezzled a part of the Gallic treasures, which no one had ever touched. And he ordered strict inquiry to be made into the fact, by an examination of Remigius, who was at that time accountant-general to Ursicinus in his capacity of commander of the heavy troops. And long afterwards, in the time of Valentinian, this Remigius hung himself on account of the trouble into which he fell in the matter of his appointment as legate in Tripolis.

37And after this business was terminated, Constantius, thinking his prosperity had now raised him to an equality with the gods, and had bestowed on him entire sovereignty over human affairs, gave himself up to elation at the praises of his flatterers, whom he himself encouraged, despising and trampling under foot all who were unskilled in that kind of court. As we read that Crœsus, when he was king, drove Solon headlong from his court because he would not fawn on him; and that Dionysius threatened the poet Philoxenus with death because, when the king recited his absurd and unrhythmical verses, he alone refused to fall into an ecstasy while all the rest of the courtiers praised them.

38And this mischievous taste is the nurse of vices; for praise ought only to be acceptable in high places, where blame also is permitted when things are not sufficiently performed.

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