Gallus Caesar Almost Purged All Of The Leadership In His Senate On A Whim

Gallus was the cousin of Emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361) and was given the title of caesar by his royal kinsman, which came with the task of governing Rome’s eastern provinces. After receiving this new rank and its duties, Gallus set up his court in Antioch and oversaw the eastern empire from 351 until 354. Gallus quickly became unpopular during his short reign—the horrors of the Constantinian Dynasty’s prevalent assassinations and civil wars had left him a paranoid and cruel man, affecting the way he governed. The caesar’s distrust of his subjects was repaid by the people’s mistrust of him, as they perceived their ruler as a tyrant with spies around every corner. Such an atmosphere led to great tension and anxiety, eventually prompting Gallus’ own courtiers in Antioch’s senate to orchestrate a campaign of intrigue to undermine the relationship between the emperor and the caesar.

Gallus and his senate did not get along in times of prosperity, so their relationship understandably worsened exponentially when hardships hit the east. In particular, Gallus was forced to deal with a famine during his short reign and in the discussions and debates that ensued over how to deal with the disaster, tempers of the senators and their caesar flared. In the dark depths of anger, even the most peaceable people might every now and then wish that their rivals and naysayers would just disappear. For most average people who have such passing thoughts, their bitter whim could never come to fruition, or if they attempted to bring it about, there would be severe legal consequences for their actions. Gallus, however, was a Roman ruler with monarchical power, and his anger-driven wish that the pesky senators in Antioch would disappear was quite attainable for him if he committed himself to the grim task.

During one of the fiercest debates about the famine that occurred during his reign, Gallus reportedly came very close to enacting his gruesome dream of purging his senate of its most troublesome members. As the story goes, the senate in Antioch was only spared a massacre when a certain Honoratus was able to talk sense into the caesar. The story was recorded by Ammianus Marcellinus, a 4th-century Roman warrior and historian,  who had been born and raised in Antioch. He claimed that when Gallus was “maddened by an unwisely blunt answer to a suggestion by him of a sudden and ill-timed price freeze in the face of an impending famine, he issued a single decree for the execution of all the leading members of the senate of Antioch; and they would have perished to a man but for the inflexible resistance of Honoratus, at that time count of the East” (Ammianus Marcellinus, History, book 14, section 7). Such a powder keg of negative emotions was inevitable to erupt, and indeed, the Caesar ultimately met a violent death. In 354, Emperor Constantius II removed Gallus from power—largely because of intrigues by the caesar’s rivals—and had him executed.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Scene of Emperor Theodosius And Bishop Ambrose, by Bitschnau Otto (c. 1825-1905), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

 

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