Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Last Caesar

Author's Note : The following story is completely fictional.
Edited on 2011-01-18 : Correction of certain grammatical errors found courtesy Sreejith and Akhil and factual error referring to date of Council of Nicaea

“The Empire must fall”, Crispus remarked looking at the notice for his arrest for treason, hanging at the Polensis town square. This puts a monkey wrench in his plans. He needed to remain hidden till he gained support from the nobles in Milan and Rome. Now, they will not even meet him. No one wants to be seen associated with an accused traitor.

He had planned everything perfectly up till then. It was always going to be difficult - to launch a rebellion against the powerful Constantine, but definitely not impossible. The Emperor had been ruling with an iron hand for a while now. There was discontent in the Italian cities over what they saw as their loss of glory to the Greek sections of the Empire. But they were not powerful enough to withstand the Emperor. That would have changed, once they realized that the Caesar was planning a rebellion.
With treason on his head, the same nobles would choose to betray Crispus and appease the Emperor than face his wrath. He had been traveling incognito in order to not raise any suspicion of Constantine. Perhaps it was that that raised the suspicions of the Emperor. Absence of news can be news, after all – News that his deputy was hiding from him.
It will be foolhardy for him to go to Rome now. Even with his disguise, the people of Rome are bound to recognize him, especially when they are on his lookout. It does not help when you have the most recognizable face in the world. Gaul will be the safer bet.
Gaul..... His wife and son were still in his base in Gaul. At least his deputies in Trevorum will keep them safe. For now.
He will need a fast steed. His horse was spent, running cross country from Ancyra to Polensis. He had planned to take a boat from Polensis. But now, he will need to travel by land to Gaul.
He could use some rest too....

Two hours went by as Crispus searched for a mount good enough to carry him to Gaul. By then the sun had departed the skies. It would be risky to travel now, alone in the dark, especially with a bounty on his head. It was while making arrangements for his stay for the night in a local tavern that he came across a rather curious sight.
“The elephant can move only in the diagonal”, announced a man who was dressed in the robes of a Christian cleric.
“Why? Is it drunk?” commented one of the onlookers. “A drunken elephant should be far deadlier on the battlefield than a wake one.” countered another.
It was a Christian cleric attempting to educate a group of the usual drunks of the drinking hole of the basics of the Persian game of shatrung. Crispus had learnt the game from his father, in his younger days, and was, in fact, quite good at it. The game was popular in the Iranian courts. Indeed, it is said that Ardashir, the first of the Sassanid rulers of Persia, was an expert of the game. From there it came to the courts of Emperor Diocletian. The Emperor, of course, was curious of the Persian ways. “Know your enemy”, he used to tell a young Constantine. There was talk of adding the game to the Greek festival of Olympics, but it seemed a game fit for the intellect of the palaces than the barbaric battles of the gymnasium.
But Crispus was more interested in the shatrung set, which, even in the palaces of the Roman Emperor, would have been a rare sight.
“Where did you get the shatrung set?” Crispus asked. “It belongs more in a palace of the Shahenshah of Iran, than in a drinking hole in a forgotten Roman town.”
The word “Iran” led to a lot of murmur among the audience. They had not realized the game was of the Persian, the bitterest enemy of the Empire. Perhaps there was some deceit involved in this simple looking presbyter.
“Indeed it did”, informed the cleric. “It was a gift from Prince Hormisdas himself, the noble brother of Shahenshah Shapur.” Unfortunately for the presbyter, this only confirmed the fears of the onlookers that their guest was indeed in collusion with their sworn enemies. Aware of the heightened tension among the onlookers, Crispus quickly intervened, “You mean the prince who had to flee from Persia in fear of his life and is now living in Anatolia as a guest of the Emperor.”
“Yes, I happened to be at his palace near Byzantium recently, as part of the Emperor’s entourage”, confirmed the cleric. The crowd backed off, with a sigh of relief, realizing they had almost lynched an acquaintance of the Emperor, something that would not have augured well for them.
Crispus, however, felt a touch of fear. It won’t take long for a person familiar with the Emperor to recognize him. His fear only doubled a second later, when the cleric asked,” Would you like to join me for a game then? It may be more entertaining for the audience.”
Crispus was stuck in two minds now. Not the one to run away from a challenge, he was reluctant to refuse the offer. The crowd also seemed intent on seeing them play as well. But if he was recognized, he would be deader than a dodo. Fortunately, it was getting dark and it was unlikely that he will be recognized.

The game started off well for Crispus with the group of onlookers cheering him. But as the game progressed, Crispus fell behind and the crowd lost interest. It wasn’t long before the players were left alone to carry on with their game.
Crispus was struggling as the presbyter proved to be a far formidable opponent than any he had ever encountered. He needed a different tact to overcome this opponent.
“You are a German, are you not?” enquired Crispus. He needed to distract his opponent off the game and for that he needed to strike up a conversation with him. But his opponent only nodded in confirmation and continued on with the game.
This is not going to be easy.
“Fancy that. A German, learning the religion of the East and the games of the enemies of Rome, traveling unhindered across the Empire. A true foreigner in these parts” said Crispus, stressing on his alien background. Spies from Persia were not entirely unheard of in these days.
“I am Arnulf, from Mediomatrix in Gaul. It is true that I am a German, belonging to the Franciscan tribe of Germania, but I was born in Gaul. I learnt the new religion of Rome from an Italian presbyter, Marinus of Arbe. You need not be concerned by my non Roman origins. I have been a Roman all my life.”
“Oh, I did not mean to offend. It was merely an observation”, defended Crispus secretly glad. He seemed to have struck a nerve. Good.
“Marinus of Arbe, eh? I am not familiar with that name. But then there are so many Christian “teachers” corrupting the teaching of Jesus for their own purpose, that half of them claim the other half to be heretic and vice versa. Was he in the council in Nicaea that was held a year ago?”, enquired Crispus, referring to the Council of the renowned scholars of religion held at the behest of the Emperor to, among other things, reach a consensus of what were the teachings of Christ. “Surely, only a teacher who had been at Nicaea can been considered a true Christian teacher.”
“I was at Nicaea, in fact”, replied Arnulf establishing his credentials as a recognized Christian theologian.
“Curious,” remarked Crispus surprised by the reply, but not wanting to back down, continued, “What do you think of Constantine’s views on Christianity then? It has not been long since an Emperor who supported Christians decided to kill them instead”. The former Emperor of the East, Licinius, was still fresh in everyone’s memories. He had supported the pro Christian reforms of his imperial colleague Constantine, before switching sides. A civil war was fought, which eventually led to Constantine becoming the sole Emperor of the Empire.
“And died for it, do not forget. Constantine is a true Christian, unlike Licinius who merely chose it in pretense, while it was to his advantage. Christianity is headed for a glorious new era”, countered Arnulf, ignoring the taunt realizing it was a ruse to take his mind off the game. Crispus had been slowly progressing in the game, in the meantime.
“Why wouldn’t it? Christianity just sold itself out to Rome. The gods of Rome have always been of the people of Rome and decided by them since the days of King Numa Pompilius, who ruled Rome after Quirinus and now headed by the Chief of the Pontiffs himself, your precious Emperor, Pontifex Maximus Constantine. It has always worked for the state of Rome spreading its propaganda across its vast multinational Empire, uniting and strengthening it.”
“I have news for you then. Christianity is not going to change on the whims and fancies of an individual, be it one as noble as the Emperor. The word of the Emperor is not above the Word of the Lord.”
“An idealist, aren’t you? Do not be naive in thinking your faith will be left untouched by the rulers of Rome. All gods bend itself to the Roman will, be it the Greek Zeus, the Etruscan Uni, the Egyptian Isis, the Persian Mithra or your Jesus”, continued Crispus with his taunts to incite Arnulf.
“But the Emperor hardly attempted to influence the council in Nicaea. If he wished to change Christianity, he would have at least attempted to do so”, defended Arnulf.
“Well, of course. He did not interfere because the entire council had been called at his behest. So long as Constantine got what he wanted – a singular religion united under one god, he had no reason to interfere,” explained Crispus.
“What do you mean? Christians have always been united and we have always believed in only one God”
“United? That is because you always deemed people who did not follow your beliefs, but still claimed to be followers of Christ, as heretics. Why was the Council called in the first place? What about the Donatist divide over the Episcopate of Carthage? Rome cannot afford to have its religion divided over such petty issues. Christianity will have to guide the Empire and preserve the Roman way of living from now on till its end and beyond, even more so after its inevitable end.”
[Similar to the Novatian schism of the earlier century, the Donatist schism was a result of the appointment of bishops who had recanted their faith in face of persecution. Many believed they have to be baptized again since their faith had lapsed when they recanted it, but others felt baptizing was only for the original sin and not for sins committed during one’s life. ]
“And you believe once a version of Christianity is endorsed by the Emperor, these heretics will finally see the Truth ... You may be correct about that”, admitted Arnulf. “But how will a unified Christianity serve the Emperor? You did say he wanted a united religion not for spiritual reasons, but for purely political ones”, queried Arnulf, leaving the mention of the inevitable end of the Empire for later.
“The last century has seen Rome submerged in chaos and civil war. The religion that Rome had so carefully controlled for a thousand years finally lost its way. Now we have strong cults of various gods – Sol, Isis, Mithra so on, spread across the Empire, waiting to be plucked by ambitious generals, ready to support them in exchange for being made Emperor. Aurelian tried to wrest back some control after he reunited the Empire, but he died too early before his plans could work. Diocletian wanted the same, so he tried to kill all those who resisted the religion of Rome, namely the Christians.”
“But these are all pagans. Constantine is different from them”.
“And so he is. He is smarter. That is why he adopted Christianity. Persecution was not the answer to check Christianity, because it grew with more death. But why pamper the many gods of Rome, when one can solve all your problems? By adopting Christianity, Constantine merely uncomplicated the religion of Rome, making it easier and simpler to control. ”
“But surely there will be detractors. Not everyone will be keen to become Christians.”
“They will be less keen to anger Constantine.”
“Even so, that still do not mean Christianity will change. We can still continue as we are, without imperial influence”, countered Arnulf.
“Perhaps, but I doubt it. It is still ill-suited for popular acceptance.”
“What do you mean?”
“Christianity is sad and gloomy. Pascha (Easter), your major festival, is ultimately a commemoration of the death of Jesus, his departure from the human world. Your view to greatness in faith is people who own up to their faith under Roman persecution and get killed for it. I can see how this can appeal to a downtrodden populace – a release from their miserable existence on earth and promise for a comfortable future in heaven. But a common Roman has much more to live for on earth. We are the greatest nation in the world. Life after death is just an afterthought. Christianity needs to give its people hope of a better future both on and off this world. It will also need more good Christians to emulate, now that martyrdom at the hands of the Romans is no longer an option.”
“How do you propose that be done?”
“Well, to start with you need to reduce the importance of pascha. Focus more on the life of Jesus; not his death and resurrection. Look at the gospels that were selected at Nicaea that can inspire the people and give them hope of a better future.”
Arnulf thought a while and said, “Perhaps the Emperor has already thought about that.”
“What do you mean?” Now Crispus became curious.
“The Emperor made an intriguing remark during the discussion of the pascha. He wondered aloud how heated the debate over ’when Jesus was born’ would be if we are arguing so much about His death. It seemed offhand at the time, but in light of what you have just said, it stands to reason that the Emperor would want to see the birth of Jesus celebrated in the same, if not in higher, light as pascha,” Arnulf explained.
“Exactly. His birth is something that can symbolize a positive message to the “Roman” Christians, the ones who have accepted the faith after its adoption by Rome. It is also something your Church will not be control, since they cannot go around telling Christians to not celebrate it.”
“Why would the Church not want the birth of Jesus celebrated?”
“Because it is a shift from the current practice. Like you said earlier, your religion cannot be changed on the whims and fancies of an individual. So, the Church will be reluctant to accept a change made by the people. But even if they refuse to acknowledge the celebration of the birth of Jesus, they cannot ban it. Eventually, it will gain popularity among Christians because of what it represents vis-a-vis pascha and demote pascha to a less important festival. The birth of Jesus will become a “Christian” festival while pascha will continue as a “Church” festival.”
“Will that be all? Do you expect any more changes to happen?”
“Only time will tell. The Church and the Christians will evolve with time, just as the Roman religion and the Roman people did. Only now, it cannot be forced on the people like before, because it will not have the authority of the Roman Emperor behind it. The Empire will not last long, once Constantine dies,” Crispus surmised.
Arnulf took his time taking in all that he had heard from Crispus, pondering over the future of his religion. The ruse seems to have worked. Finally, there seems to be an opening in the game. Crispus quickly removed Arnulf’s vizier from the board, but at the cost of his horse which Arnulf took in the next move. Still Crispus had gained from that battle. Oddly enough, Arnulf was smiling.

As the game meandered along, customers came and went through the tavern. Finally a group of curious onlookers gathered around, wondering what this odd couple were doing. Once a fair crowd had gathered, Arnulf decided it was time for him to make his move. Arnulf was still leading but only barely.
“What did you mean when you said that the Empire will not last long after the Emperor? Do you expect the Persians to attack us after the Emperor dies?”
“No. Not immediately after his death. But I am sure they will, eventually. No. I meant there will be war internally. After all, we have just seen a century of civil wars.” Crispus continued to focus on the game. He was not going to let Arnulf trick him with own trick.
“But who will instigate such a war? His sons?”
“No. Constantine will instigate it. That is why he is dividing the Empire,” Crispus continued on carelessly, not realizing there was now a crowd around them listening to what he was saying.
“What do you mean? The Emperor has spent his lifetime reuniting the Empire. Why would he divide it? How can you say such a traitorous thing?”
Crispus finally looked up from the game and realized there were a lot of people looking at him accusingly. He needed to pacify the crowd. “What I meant to say was that I believe that he plans to divide the Empire. That is why he is building a new capital near Byzantium – to divide the Empire into two. Besides, dividing the Empire can only make it stronger in unity. It is too big to be ruled by a single individual. It requires someone as capable as the Emperor. But even he will die and it is not necessary that another like him will follow immediately. So, the Emperor is only merely thinking ahead,” Crispus explained hoping his explanation would be enough for the crowd. But the crowd lingered.
But Arnulf continued, “But dividing the Empire could turn out to be disastrous, like what happened after the reign of Diocletian”.
“But during the reign of Diocletian it worked well. In fact it was the most peaceful period Rome had seen in the past century. Marcus Aurelius, when he became Emperor, chose Lucius Verus as his equal so that he can fight with the Persians in peace, not fretting over rebellion in Rome. That was also a worthwhile decision. Regrettably, he chose not to continue that arrangement after the death of his imperial colleague and after his death, the Empire plunged into chaos,” Crispus countered, but continued.”But you are correct. Dividing the Empire will eventually lead to wars between the divisions. However these can be predicted and hence controlled. Rebellions are bit more difficult to predict especially when the Emperor has to look over the vast Empire.”
“Still with the Empire divided, we will be weaker against Persians, especially if the divisions spend their time fighting each other. Though I expect even half the Empire will be good enough to withstand the Persians, I would prefer to have better odds. We may be a vast empire, but we have lost many in the excesses of the past century. We are not numerically as large as we were a century ago.”
“Yes, you are correct. And that is where your Church comes in. Even with the Empire divided, it will still be united by the Church. The Church will preserve the Roman way of living. Constantine believes that the Church will keep the Christian world together, thereby the whole Roman Empire, against any external threat.”
“And you don’t?” Arnulf wanted to see if Crispus had any other ideas.
“It is possible, but like you said earlier. I would prefer better odds. If the Empire repopulates itself to what it was a century ago, the odds will significantly be in our favour.”
“But how? We cannot double the population overnight,” Arnulf asked. It was also a problem that the Caesar had given considerable thought before he made the decision to rebel.
“Open the northern borders. The Germans have been waiting across the northern rivers for four centuries to enter the Empire, just like the Celts, a millennium ago, and the Dorians before them. They will be the new Romans. Rome has incorporated many people to itself from the days when it was just a small city – from the Latin to the Dacians. Bringing in the Germans will bring the odds in favour of the Empire.”
“And you expect the Emperor to open the borders?”
“No. He won’t. Such a large shift in population can also destabilize the society. He will not run that risk.”
“Then who would?” Arnulf knew the answer, even before Crispus answered.
“His son, Crispus. He will be able to garner support from the Germans against Constantine. With his loyal troops in Gaul and the unhappy Italian nobility, he will be able to divide the Empire, like Constantine intends to do, with him taking the west and Constantine the east, in the meantime allowing for a migration of the German people into the borders of the Empire,” Crispus concluded, summing up his plan for rebellion.
“Impressive. Most impressive. Shah mat! The king is dead,” said Arnulf complementing Crispus on his plan while he moved his elephant to dethrone his rival’s king. “Isn’t that so, Caesar?”
“Done in by a Persian war elephant. Or should I say a cunning Christian episkopoi? You knew who I was all along, didn’t you?” asked Crispus, realizing  that he has been recognized.
“Well, of course. Though we haven’t met before, your resemblance to your father was quite obvious. It is sad, I must say. You would have made a fine Emperor. These men around us are from the local magistrate. I had called on them before the game knowing fully well that I can keep you here. They will take you and carry out your sentence at dawn – Death by the Crucifix.”
“Then why the charade? You could have arrested me much earlier,” enquired Crispus resigned to the fact that his death was inevitable, but still seeking an explanation.
“It seemed only fair to hear you out before you died. Besides, I now have a confession of your plans for rebellion.”
“Then tell my father what I told you, especially about the Germans. They will be the key to our future.”
“I most certainly will. But Constantine knows that already,” said Arnulf.

An older Crispus winced when he saw the German assassin waiting for him. Constantine asked, “Tell me Rodolph, do you come with good news or bad.” Rodolph replied, “I must apologize, Augustus. I come with bad news. My associate found your son in Istria yesterday. He was executed at dawn.”
“And so it begins. The end of an Empire.” Constantine shed a tear for his son as he looked at his new capital. “The Empire must fall, if it is to survive.”

Note: Crispus, the eldest, perhaps illegitimate, son of Constantine was named Caesar (Junior Emperor) in 317. He was considered to be in his late teens then. He later took command of Gaul with his base in Trevorum (Trier) in the Roman province of Germania. He fought in the civil war against Licinius performing with credit. However, due to unknown reasons, he was executed in 326 on the orders of his father, Emperor Constantine.
Not much is known about Crispus’ life otherwise. Eusebius in his “The History of Church” mentions Crispus favorably but briefly in the last chapter. Constantine ordered a damnation memoriae on Crispus and this is evident in the lack of records regarding Crispus. Even in the later “Life of Constantine” by Eusebius, Crispus is absent. Various historians have speculated on the cause of treason stating an allegation of an affair with Fausta, Constantine’s wife and Crispus’ step mother to be the cause. Fausta was also executed not that long after Crispus.
The whereabouts of Crispus’ wife and son remained unknown, possibly due to the damnation memoriae.

I have credited both Constantine and Crispus with significant foresight in this story, though they were merely following the work of their predecessors – Marcus Aurelius, Aurelian and Diocletian, with respect to uniting the Roman religion and dividing the Roman Empire. Not long after Constantine’s death, the Empire gets divided into two – the West disappearing quickly in the German migration (with the Franciscans (Franks) settling in Gaul, Visigoths in Hispania, Ostrogoths and later Lombards in Italia and Anglo Saxons in Roman Britain), the East surviving the Hun onslaught by virtue of a tribute and by directing German power to the West (East will eventually fall in 1453 to the Ottomans with an interregnum during 1204-1261 when its capital, Constantinople, was occupied by Crusaders). Constantine has been credited with making the first agreements with various German tribes involving mercenaries in exchange for food (Ref: The Day of the Barbarians by Alessandro Barbero page 22) thereby initiating the German migration to the Empire.

The earliest record of Christmas and the related festival of Epiphany are after 350 AD (Source: Wikipedia. There is no mention of either in Eusebius’ The History of the Church). The debate over the timing of Easter is one of the well documented debates of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. It has been well attested that Christians celebrated Easter long before that (Eusebius provides records of similar debates in the latter half of second century AD). I doubt that Constantine made a comment about Christmas during the Council of Nicaea.

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