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Buying Power: The Sale of the Empire

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"But where was the Roman people to be found? Not surely amongst the mixed multitude of slaves and strangers that filled the streets of Rome; a servile populace, as devoid of spirit as destitute of property."

About 2,000 years ago, a hyper-militarized, authoritarian state dominated by professional soldiers, domestic security forces, and international financiers, publicly auctioned off their nation's most prestigious political office to the highest bidder.

This is something that most people were never taught in history class. Instead, anyone receiving a public education in the U.S.A. is told that the Roman Empire collapsed because it was attacked by barbarians and "sacked." This supposed "sacking" did take place, but it happened about 500 years after the Praetorian guards sold the empire to a senior Senator, convinced by his wife and daughter "and his parasites...that he deserved the throne."

While "the Barbarians at the Gate" is an easy kind of catch-all term used by historians to describe the events leading to the collapse of Rome, it is nothing short of misleading and false.

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In the days after the "Sale of the Empire" as it was called by historian Edward Gibbon, and long before any barbarians were at any of Rome's multiple gates, the majority of the Roman citizenry, distracted by their simultaneous poverty and the never-ending entertainment spectacles provided for them by prominent public leaders, almost failed to notice the auction of the office by the Praetorian guards, though they understood the depravity of the situation a few weeks later and demanded action.

Although the quest for leadership within the Roman government had long been a brutal and oftentimes fatal power struggle between political dictators, limited to those who commanded armies and accumulated wealth pillaging foreign territories and skimming funds from the public treasury, never before had the sanctity of public office been so blatantly exposed to the citizens as an illusion, a theatrical front for those who really wielded power within their society, the Praetorians, the professional soldiers who were first employed by Augustus to secure the capitol and quell any opposition through coercion and force, only to become an independent political force a century after the death of that clever tyrant .

It was clear that the military establishment, the Praetorians, who were first utilized by ambitious would-be dictators to gain control of the state, had since become acutely aware of themselves and the power they wielded as an independent entity above civil law and civilian politics. The Praetorian leaders realized that they could appoint civilian leadership in accords with their own interests, which demanded perpetual conquests abroad to keep the official Army away from the capital and occupied as well as intermittent periods of instability and lawlessness on the streets of the capital, to justify the presence of a permanent, domestic security force.

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Two ambitious and extremely wealthy candidates approached the Praetorian camp after they murdered an emperor who, by all accounts, was virtuous and wise, solely because he sought to impose discipline on the Praetorian camp and restore them to their traditional role as protectors of a civilian government.

On the night of his death, each candidate began pledging huge bonuses to the guards in hopes of purchasing Imperial privileges, as it was understood that the title could only be granted with the consent of the Praetorian leaders.

In the end, a well-respected and virtuous Senator "purchased" the Empire after drastically outbidding his opponent. Though the winning Senator seemed incorruptible, well-qualified, and even entitled to the office, nonetheless the means by which he acquired his position was simply too much for popular Roman sensibilities and 66 days later he was killed by soldiers who feared retribution from the populace and under the threat of an approaching general who was charged with restoring the "majesty of the Roman empire."

The Emperor's last words are said to have been, "But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?"

Didius Julianus, the unfortunate and opportunistic Senator turned major shareholder of Rome Inc., was justifiably surprised at his grisly demise. Unlike his imperial predecessors, he hadn't poisoned any relatives to gain office. He hadn't murdered a great number of political opponents once he gained power or in order to ascend to the Imperial purple. He had paid the troops well and the palace guards more than they had ever been paid before. He wasn't especially belligerent or reckless, in that he hadn't waged war on any of Rome's peaceful, though "uncivilized" neighbors, although that was the surest way to gain position and power at the time.

According to contemporary standards, he was as virtuous and wise as any leader within memory and probably the most deserving of the office of Emperor. But in spite of all this, he was troubled by an uneasiness that kept him up at night, and, according to Gibbon:

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"...after the crowd of flatterers dispersed and left him to darkness, solitude, and terrible reflection, he passed a sleepless night; revolving most probably in his mind his own rash folly...and the doubtful and dangerous tenure of an empire which had not been acquired by merit but purchased by money."

As Julianus settled into his first month in office, the discontent in Rome was widespread and was being violently directed at the guards, and briefly, a great majority of Rome's citizens rightly perceived that their political leadership and their government was completely and totally corrupt, and that this was due to militarism and the supra-legal nature of the Office of Emperor.

Again, as Gibbon puts it:

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