“That saying of Tully’s”

Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae: an account of the events of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. This one is when Ammianus, who was a lieutenant of the officer Ursicinus, hurried to the camp of Silvanus the Frank, who had just been proclaimed Augustus (emperor) by the troops.

Now in the days of the Roman Empire if you were a general you were in a dangerous position. On the one hand, the Germans were always trying to stab you, because they didn’t like you building forts in their forests and Rhineland hills. On the other, if you managed to beat the Germans, your danger lay in success, for your troops would decide that you were a better leader than the legitimate Emperor, and they would proclaim you emperor by shouting. This was the most radical democracy the world has ever known, in which the greatest number of citizens both had the ability to vote, and used it. It produced 14 emperors in about 33 years in the third century, and over a span of about 60 years in that period there were closer to 80.

Et quamquam optatissimum est perpetuo fortunam quam florentissimam permanere, illa tamen aequalitas vitae non tantum habet sensum, quantum cum ex miseris et perditis rebus ad meliorem statum fortuna revocatur.

And although it is most to be wished that fortune continue to remain as abundant as possible forever, yet that balance of life does not have such a desirable feeling as when fortune is recalled from wretched and lost circumstances to a better state.

Res Gestae 15.5.23.


Ammianus says that Cicero had said this, but it’s not in the extant works of Cicero.

So your troops just proclaimed you Augustus. What do you do now? Do you proclaim your loyalty to your legal superior, the Emperor (in this case Constantius), and refuse to accept the purple? If so, turn to page 37.

Or, do you take up the purple, and style yourself Emperor on the authority of popular sentiment?

If so, and you’re not as popular as you think, turn to page 93.

If you really are as popular as you seem to be, turn to page 172.

[Page 37] Constantius sends assassins, who kill you in your sleep.

[Page 93] Constantius sends assassins, who kill you in your sleep.

[Page 172] Constantius comes with his army. If your army is stronger than his, and you are a better general than he is, turn to page 61.

If Constantius is a better general, and/or his army is stronger, turn to page 29.

[Page 61] You defeat the Emperor in a civil war! Congratulations! You are now the Emperor! Turn to page 73.

[Page 29] Constantius defeats you in civil war, and kills you.

[Page 73] You enjoy a hearty victory party, then settle in to six months of rule before another general in another part of the Empire is declared Emperor by his troops. He comes with his army, which is sharp from constant fighting, and kills you and your army, who have been sitting around for six months listening to bad poetry about how great you are.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for not proclaiming anyone emperor.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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