Alexander Augustus, may the gods keep you! Persicus maximus, may the gods keep you! Parthicus in truth, Persicus in truth. We behold your trophies, we behold your victories too.
Thus, according to the Roman version of Fox News – the Life of Alexander in Historiae Augustae – the Senate acclaimed the imaginary victories of Severus Alexander. And this was followed, if The Life can be believed, by a triumph in September 233 AD, when Mamaea and her son were briefly back in Rome:
With the greatest glory and accompanied by the senate, the equestrian order, and the whole populace, with the women and children, particularly the wives of the soldiers, crowding about him on every side, he went up on foot to the Palace, while behind him four elephants drew his triumphal chariot. On the following day he gave games in the Circus and spectacles on the stage....
I would take this as the stuff of purest fantasy but for a handful of coins and medallions that vaunt the Emperor’s victories in the east: on one, Alexander is crowned by the goddess of Victory as he tramples on the Tigris and Euphrates; another (pictured left) shows Victory crushing a miniature captive under her shield. Even Mamaea seems to join in the celebration, with coins proclaiming Fortuna Redux (‘Fortune restored’). Given her good sense, I like to think that these coins were issued before 233 – a wish and her prayer, as it were. But I don't know....
No matter. Suspend disbelief, if you like. I’d like to focus instead on what Alexander did immediately after his triumph: in the most unmilitary action imaginable, he “founded an order for [destitute] girls and boys, to be called Mamaeanae and Mamaeani.”
This seemingly innocuous detail stopped me in my tracks.
Not because it’s a post-triumphal let-down. Nor that Alexander probably had nothing to do with it - an emperor is automatically credited with all good deeds done in Rome during his reign (tradition demands it): it was Mamaea, surely, who made the endowments herself. That's hardly surprising. No, what brought me to an abrupt halt is this: charitable institutions for poor children are almost unheard-of in the pagan world. The very words ‘the poor’ is particular to the vocabulary of Christians and Jews: paganism does not have this concept. In a nutshell, it was a very Christian thing to do.
The Poor are always with us.
Rare was the wise man, as Seneca wrote, “who will give a coin to a beggar without dropping it in a contemptuous manner.” Pagans did not give regular alms to the poor or to widows and orphans, but usually abandoned them to their fate without much sign of remorse; and, when they gave up the ghost, their bodies were not buried, but dumped on refuse heaps. Of course, pagan society was not always hard-hearted. Civic-minded rich men (and some women) came to the aid of fellow citizens in times of need, and many undertook public services at their own expense – this was the price of public honour.
The imperial Alimenta, which channelled money to poor boys in Italy, is often mistaken for a Roman charity, but that wasn’t really its purpose: although it spread a little relief to some lucky boys, it was a scheme to raise the low birth-rate and produce more citizens. Similarly, when an emperor ‘gave’ a building or an aqueduct or bread & circuses to ‘his’ people, it was meant to reflect his own glory, an act of self-aggrandizement that might have been useful (though often was not). Such aims are far from the Christian ideal of almsgiving out of pity for the disinherited or even the less lofty goal of saving one's soul for the next life – through alms a Christian could redeem a whole lifetime of sins.
In short, pagan benevolence did not run to endowing old people’s homes, orphanages, hospitals and so on – these are institutions that appear only with the Christian epoch.*
So what was Mamaea doing?
Two earlier ‘good emperors’, Antonius Pius and the sainted Marcus Aurelius had made endowments for destitute girls in the names of their wives, Faustina the Elder, who died in 141 AD and was deified, and Faustina the Younger, who joined her in the heavens in 175 AD. So, there was some tradition for ‘good’ Empresses having aided poor girls in Rome.
With two big differences:
1. The earlier endowments were not made by the Empresses themselves but after their deaths.
2. The funds were probably used to dower the lucky Puellae Faustininianae (Faustina’s Girls), the unfortunate daughters of citizens who lacked a patrimony. As a jurist wrote: “it is useful to the state that women should have dowries and so be able to marry” – the tacit agenda being ‘to have lots of children and increase the population’. Thus, these memorials, too, fall within the hoary tradition of civic munificence.
Mamaea, however, was still alive and as active as ever – and her charity was not restricted to the second sex. She was casting a wider net. And this, as far as I know, was unprecedented.
It seems natural to wonder if Mamaea's Girls & Boys reflects in any way her meeting with Origen in Antioch: had those talks with the great Christian teacher made her more sensitive to poverty? For Christians, charity was a moral duty and "the poor" covered anyone who needed alms. Remember that Bishop Eusebius had praised Mamaea as "a religious woman if ever there was one." Was she, in fact, copying Christian practice?
Or was she combatting it?
Did she intend to use her money to fight the Christians with their own weapons – to deny them “the credit they win for such practices,” as Julian the Apostate grumbled more than 100 years later? When he tried to revive the ancient rites, he found that, even then, the pagan priests still neglected and overlooked the poor. They had learnt nothing from the Christian success.
Was Mamaea that much sharper? In the 3rd century, it could still have gone either way. What did she plan for her Boys & Girls - a life as semi-Christians or as pagan religionists? I don't know. Perhaps she didn’t know herself and, now, there was almost no time left.
Make War, Not Love
Having declared victory and left the east, Alexander now had to defend the empire in the west. German tribes, particularly along the Rhine and Danube, had taken advantage of the withdrawal of Roman troops for the eastern war, crossed the rivers and invaded Roman territory.
Reluctantly and sadly (through sheer necessity) Alexander issued the proclamation of a new expedition ... and marched against the Germans.Mamaea again went with him. Marching northward hastily, the Romans crossed the Rhine on a bridge of boats. In 235, Alexander and Mamaea were in Moguntiacum (Mainz), the capital of Upper Germany. An ambitious offensive campaign was planned.
Either because of his natural docility or cleverly playing for time against just one of the many threats on the northern frontiers, he tried to buy off these barbarians rather than risk the chances of war.
He decided to send a mission to the Germans to discuss peace terms, with a promise to meet all their requirements and saying that he had plenty of money. This was the most effective bargaining counter with the Germans, who were avaricious and always ready to trade peace with the Romans in exchange for gold. But the soldiers bitterly resented this ridiculous waste of time. In their opinion Alexander showed no honourable intention to pursue the war and preferred chariot-racing and a life of ease....
What you see is what you get
In the army there was a man called Maximinus, from one of the semi-barbarous tribes of the interior of Thrace (nowadays Bulgaria): his father may have been a Goth, his mother of the Alani. In any case, he was of lowly origin, perhaps having started life as a shepherd-boy. When he came of age, he was drafted into the army, where, with the help of a bit of luck, he progressed through all the ranks in the army and was given charge of legions and commands over provinces.
As fighting flared up against the Germans, Maximinus was placed in charge of raising and training recruits. These young soldiers were fiercely loyal to Maximinus, whose four decades of harsh military service placed him in stark contrast to the tender, indecisive Alexander. The troops were ready to revolt, and Maximinus was ready to lead them.
... the young men, of whom the greater majority were Pannonians, admired Maximinus' courage and despised Alexander for being under his mother's control and for the fact that business was conducted on the authority and advice of a woman, while he himself presented a picture of negligence and cowardice in his conduct of the war.Regular readers of my blog can guess what Maximinus did next. Herodian tells us.
The soldiers found the current state of the empire annoying because of the length of Alexander's rule, and unprofitable now that all his munificence had dried up.... To assure his popularity and their enthusiasm, Maximinus doubled their pay [and] promised an enormous bonus of cash and kind.The mutiny came in early March 235. The end is really rather sad:
Going out on to the parade ground, Alexander mustered his troops and begged them to fight for him and protect the emperor whom they had brought up and under whose rule they have lived for fourteen years without complaint.... Maximinus' army was by now in sight and the young recruits began to call out, urging their fellow soldiers to desert their '[stingy] little sissy" or "their timid little lad tied to his mother's apron strings" and to come over to the side of a man who was brave ... and devoted to a life of military action.Trembling and terrified out of his wits, Alexander just managed to get back to his tent. There, the reports say, he waited for his executioner, clinging to his mother and weeping and blaming her for his misfortunes.
Start as you mean to go on
Maximinus didn't do the deed himself but sent soldiers who burst into the imperial tent and slaughtered the emperor, his mother and all those thought to be his friends or favourites. Some of them managed to escape or hide for a brief time, but Maximinus soon caught them and killed them all.
Alexander had reached the age of 26½ years and had been emperor for almost precisely half his life. Julia Mamaea was a little less than 55 years old and had been in or near the purple for most of her life.
I'm going to miss her.
With the accession of Maximinus Thrax, the Severan dynasty came to an end.
* My discussion of Christian versus pagan philanthropy is very much indebted to P. Veyne, Bread and Circuses (London 1976) Ch. 1.
The photographs of Maximinus and Julia Mamaea come from the excellent site of Bill Storage & Laura Maish