Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Never was the encouragement of the gods more sure..." ~ The elevation of Honorius as Co-Augustus, January 23, AD 393

Image of Honorius from the consular diptych of Anicius Petronius Probus, AD 406.
January 23 is the anniversary of the elevation of Honorius as Co-Augustus of the Roman Empire by his father, Theodosius the Great. He was a mere boy of nine years-old at the time. Theodosius raised him in AD 393 on the eve of his great conflict with the Western usurpers, Eugenius and Arbogast which would culminate in the Battle of the River Frigidus. After winning the battle and reunifying the empire, Theodosius soon fell ill. On his deathbed, he bequeathed the empire to his two sons, dividing it between Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West.

Knowing that a boy of eleven could not possibly rule the Western Empire, Theodosius provided Honorius with a supremely capable protector – the half-barbarian general, Stilicho. It was well that he did so because even as he matured, Honorius proved to be among the most inept men ever to attain the imperial purple. In modern parlance, he seemed to be something of a doofus.

The late-Roman Latin poet and panegyricist, Claudian, has provided an obsequious, ridiculous, and unintentionally ironic description of the elevation of Honorius, followed by a stylized oration delivered by Theodosius to his young son offering advice. I will excerpt parts of it below, but when reading it, it is well to remember that Claudian was writing as much for Stilicho as he was for Honorius—if not more so. The poem was written as a Panegyric on the Fourth Consulship of Honorius in AD 398, a mere five years after his elevation. Honorius would have been fourteen at the time, having ruled the West in his own right for three years. Perhaps Claudian still had hope that the young prince would grow out of the indecisive fecklessness which was, no doubt, already beginning to show itself. 

First, we see that the elevation of Honorius was apparently accompanied by a strange astral phenomenon. The allusions to the pagan pantheon and heavenly omens would likely not have seemed strange to a Late Roman Christian prince like Honorius:
Thou, then Caesar, didst become emperor and wert straightway made equal with thy brother. Never was the encouragement of the gods more sure, never did heaven attend with more favoring omens. Black tempest had shrouded the light in darkness and the south wind gathered thick rain-clouds, when of a sudden, so soon as the soldiers had borne thee aloft with customary shout, Phoebus scattered the clouds and at the same moment was given to thee the sceptre, to the world light.…Even at midday did a wondering people gaze upon a bold star ('twas clear to behold) — no dulled nor stunted beams but bright as Boötes' nightly lamp. At a strange hour its brilliance lit up the sky and its fires could be clearly seen though the moon lay hid. May be it was the Queen mother's star or the return of thy grandsire's now become a god, or may be the generous sun agreed to share the heavens with all the stars that hasted to behold thee. The meaning of those signs is now unmistakable.
Then follows Theodosius’s lengthy speech as crafted by Claudian. It includes the following interesting passage which sounds almost didactic in nature as if intending to educate and overawe Claudian's audience who may not have been particularly well versed in Roman history:
“Show no scorn of thine inferiors nor seek to overstep the limits established for mankind. Pride joined thereto defaces the fairest character. They are not submissive Sabaeans whom I have handed over to thy rule, nor have I made thee lord of Armenia; I give thee not Assyria, accustomed to a woman's rule. Thou must govern Romans who have long governed the world, Romans who brooked not Tarquin's pride nor Caesar's tyranny. History still tells of our ancestors' ill deeds; the stain will never be wiped away. So long as the world lasts the monstrous excesses of the Julian house will stand condemned. Will any not have heard of Nero's murders or how Capri's foul cliffs were owned by an agèd lecher [that is, Tiberius]? The fame of Trajan will never die, not so much because, thanks to his victories on the Tigris, conquered Parthia became a Roman province, not because he brake the might of Dacia and led their chiefs in triumph up the slope of the Capitol, but because he was kindly to his country. Fail not to make such as he thine example, my son.”
Claudian goes on at length about the heroes of the Roman Republic, but then puts the following response into young Honorius’s mouth which, frankly, must have seemed absurd to his audience. One can almost hear the barbarian federate troops snickering:
"All this will I do, so God favor my attempts. The peoples and kingdoms committed to my care shall find me not unworthy of thee nor of my brother. But why should I not experience in action what thou hast taught in words? Thou goest to the wintry Alps: take me with thee. Let mine arrows pierce the tyrant's body, and the barbarians pale at my bow. Shall I allow Italy to become the prey of a ruthless bandit? Rome to serve one who is himself but a servant? Am I still such a child that neither power profaned nor just revenge for an uncle's blood shall move me? Fain would I ride through blood. Quick, give me arms. Why castest thou my youth in my teeth? Why thinkest me unequal to the combat? I am as old as was Pyrrhus when alone he o'erthrew Troy and proved himself no degenerate from his father Achilles. If I may not remain in thy camp as a prince I will come even as a soldier."
Returning to the present, Claudian declares that Theodosius’s prayers for his son have been answered in full...but not merely in the person of his son alone...
Behold now, great father, in whatsoever part of heaven thou shinest, be it the southern arch or the cold constellation of the Plough that has won the honour of thy presence; see, thy prayer has been answered; thy son now equals thee in merit, nay, a consummation still more to be desired, he surpasseth thee, thanks to the support of thy dear Stilicho whom thou thyself at thy death didst leave to guard and defend the brothers twain. For us there is nought that Stilicho is not ready to suffer, no danger to himself he is not willing to face, neither hardships of the land nor hazards of the sea.
The above excerpts were taken from here: Panegyric on the Fourth Consulship of Honorius.

There is much more to tell about the eventful but ultimately disastrous reign of Honorius, but let one anecdote recorded by Procopius in his Vandalic Wars about the sack of the city of Rome in AD 410 serve to indicate how sadly incapable he eventually proved to be:
Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Rome had perished. And he cried out and said, "And yet it has just eaten from my hands!" For he had a very large cock, Rome by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Rome which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: "But I, my good fellow, thought that my fowl Rome had perished." So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed. [Procopius: The Vandalic Wars, Book III, Chapter 2]
Honorius feeding his fowl in The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius
by John William Waterhouse (1883).

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