The History, 30.8

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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8Thus have I rapidly run over the different actions of this prince. Now, relying on the certainty that posterity, inasmuch as it is free both from fear and from base flattery, is usually an honest judge of all past transactions, I will rapidly run over his vices, intending afterwards to relate his good qualities.

2Sometimes he put on an affectation of clemency, though the bent of his natural disposition inclined him more to cruelty: forgetful forsooth, that by a man who governs a vast empire extremes of every kind are to be avoided as rocks by a mariner.

3Nor indeed was he ever found to be contented with moderate punishments, but was continually commanding cruel tortures to be multiplied; so that many, after undergoing this murderous kind of examination, were brought to death’s door. And he was so eager to inflict injury, that he never once saved any one who had been condemned to death, by a milder sentence, though even the most inhuman of emperors have sometimes done so.

4And yet he might have reflected on many examples in former ages; and he might have imitated the many models of humanity and of piety which he could have found both among natives of the empire and among those of foreign extraction (and humanity and piety are defined by philosophers to be qualities nearly akin). Of such instances it will suffice to enumerate these which follow:—Artaxerxes, that very powerful king of Persia, to whom the great length of one of his limbs caused the name of Longhand to be given, wishing, through the natural lenity of his disposition, to reprove the varieties of punishment in which his nation, always cruel, had hitherto delighted, punished some criminals by taking off their turbans instead of their heads: and instead of the old royal fashion of cutting off people’s ears for their offences, he used to cut the tassels which hang from their caps. And this moderation and lenity made him so popular and respected that all the Grecian writers vie with each other in celebrating his many admirable actions.

5Again, when Prænestinus was prætor, and was brought before the court of justice, because, in the Samnite war, when ordered to march with all speed to reinforce the army, he had been very dilatory in his movements, Papirius Cursor, who at that time was dictator, ordered the lictor to get ready his axe; and when the prætor, having discarded all hope of being able to clear himself, seemed utterly stupefied at the order, he commanded the lictor to cut down a shrub close by; and having in this jocular manner reproved him, he let him go: without himself incurring any disrespect by so doing, since all knew him for a man who, by his own unassisted vigour, had brought long and dangerous wars to a happy termination; and had been the only man reckoned able to resist Alexander the Great if that prince had invaded Italy.

6Valentinian, perhaps, was ignorant of these models; and as he never considered that the mercy of the emperor is always the best comfort of persons in distress, he increased all punishments by his free use of both fire and sword: punishments which the merciful disposition of our ancestors looked upon as the very last resource in the most imminent dangers—as we may learn from the beautiful sentiment of Isocrates, who continually insists that we ought rather to pardon a king who is sometimes defeated in war, than one who is ignorant of justice.

7And it was under the influence of this saying of his that I imagine Cicero uttered that admirable sentence, in his defence of Oppius: “That indeed to have greatly contributed to the safety of one other person was an honour to many; but that to have had no share in injuring others had never been thought discreditable to any one.”

8A desire of increasing his riches without any regard to right and wrong, and of hunting out every kind of source of gain, even at the cost of other people’s lives, raged in this emperor to a most excessive degree, and never flagged. Some, indeed, attempted to excuse it by pleading the example of the Emperor Aurelian; affirming that as he, after the death of Gallienus and the lamentable disasters which the republic suffered at that time, finding his treasury totally exhausted, fell upon the rich like a torrent, so Valentinian also, after the losses which he sustained in his Parthian campaign, being reduced to want by the greatness of his expenses, in order to procure reinforcements for his army and pay for his troops, mingled with his severity a desire of collecting excessive wealth. Pretending not to know that there are some things which, although strictly speaking lawful, still ought not to be done. In this he was very unlike the celebrated Themistocles of old times, who, when strolling carelessly about after he had destroyed the Persian host in the battle of Salamis, and seeing a number of golden armlets and chains lying on the ground, said to one of his companions who was by—“You may take up these things because you are not Themistocles,” thinking it became a magnanimous general to spurn any idea of personal gain.

9Many examples of similar moderation abound in the Roman generals; and without stopping to enumerate them, since such acts are not indications of perfect virtue (for indeed it is no great glory to abstain from carrying off other persons’ property), I will just mention one single instance of the forbearance of people in general in this respect in ancient times:—When Marius and Cinna had given the Roman populace leave to plunder the wealthy houses of certain persons whom they had proscribed, the minds of the mob, who, however uncivilized they might be, were accustomed to respect the rights of men, refused to touch the produce of other men’s labours; so that in fact no one could be found so needy or so base as to be willing to profit by the miseries of the state.

10Besides these things the aforesaid emperor was a prey in his inmost heart to a devouring envy; and as he knew that most vices put on a semblance of virtue, he used to be fond of repeating, that severity is the inseparable companion of lawful power. And as magistrates of the highest rank are in the habit of thinking everything permitted to them, and are always inclined to depress those who oppose them, and to humiliate those who are above them, so he hated all who were well dressed, or learned, or opulent, or high born; and he was always disparaging the brave, that he might appear to be the only person eminent for virtue. And this is a vice which, as we read, was very flagrant in the Emperor Hadrian.

11This same emperor used to be continually abusing the timid, calling them sordid and base, and people who deserved to be depressed below the very lowest of the low; and yet he himself often grew pale, in the most abject manner, with groundless fears, and often from the bottom of his soul was terrified at things which had no existence at all.

12Remigius, the master of the ceremonies, knowing this, and also that Valentinian was used to get into furious passions at every trifling incident, spread a report, among other things, that some of the barbarians were in motion; and the emperor, when he heard this, became at once so broken-spirited through fear that he became as gentle and merciful as Antoninus Pius.

13He never intentionally appointed unjust judges but if he learned that those whom he had once promoted were acting cruelly, he boasted that he had discovered new Lycurguses and Cassiuses, those ancient pillars of justice; and he used to be continually exhorting them by his letters severely to chastise even the slightest errors.

14Nor had those who were under accusations, if any misfortune fell upon them, any refuge in the kindness of the prince; which ought to be, as it were, a desirable haven to those tossed about in a stormy sea. For, as wise men teach us, “The advantage and safety of the subject is the true end of just government.”

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