Majorian in the De Imperatoribus Romanis site

I have been reading the entry in the DIR website on Majorian (457-461 AD), the last effective western Roman emperor.  The article is by Ralph Mathisen, and is a model of what an online article should be.  The site is, indeed, invaluable.

Majorian is an attractive figure, and it is a pity that the main source for his reign is not online.  I refer here to the Panegyric for Majorian by Sidonius Apollinaris.  An English translation does exist in the Loeb edition, but this is in copyright.  I digitised the letters of Sidonius from an out-of-copyright source some time back.

Mathisen quotes a revealing passage, from one of Sidonius’ letters, from Majorian’s Gallic campaign, when he was attempting to conciliate the grandees of the region, soon to lose their independence and property to the Goths.  Majorian had issued an edict against informers.

In the reign of Majorian, an anonymous but very biting satire in verse was circulated at court; gross in its invective, it took advantage of unprotected names… its attack was above all personal… I came to Arles suspecting nothing…

The next day I paid my duty to the emperor… The emperor commanded my presence at the banquet he was giving on the occasion of the games…

When the dinner was well advanced… the emperor turned round to me and said, “It is news to me, Count Sidonius, that you are a writer of satires.” “Sire,” I replied, “It is news to me too.”

“Anyhow,” he replied with a laugh, “I beg you to be merciful to me.” “I shall spare myself also,” I rejoined, “by refraining from illegality.”

Thereupon the emperor said, “What shall we do, then, to the people who have accused you?”

“This, Sire,” I answered, “Whoever my accuser be, let him come out into the open. If I am proven guilty, let me suffer the penalty. But if, as is likely, I rebut the charge, I ask of Your Clemency permission to write anything I choose about my assailant, provided I observe the law.”

The emperor … replied, “I agree to your conditions, if you can put them in verse on the spot.” … I replied,

Who says I write satires? Dread soverign, I cry,
Let him prove his indictment, or pay for his lie.

Then the emperor proclaimed, “I call God and the common welfare to witness that in future I give you license to write what you please; the charge brought against you was not susceptible of proof. It would be most unjust if the imperial decision allowed such latitude to private quarrels that evident malice might imperil by obscure charges nobles whom conscious innocence puts wholly off their guard…

(Epist.1.11.2-15: Dalton trans., 1.26-33. and Hodgkin trans., 2.425).

It is telling that, in the last days of the Roman state, opinion was strictly regulated.  The state that was too feeble to defend its citizens was not too feeble to imprison them for voicing the opinion that its rulers were inept.


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