Your RDA of Irony

In This Sign Lose

Some people are famous only for losing: candidate Harold Stassen, explorer Robert Scott, alleged actress Susan Lucci. There is also Gen. George McClellan, who retreated even when he won a battle. This list probably starts with Abel. Archaeologists in Rome have just found the scepter of yet another of these unlustrious souls: the Emperor Maxentius.

Maxentius owes his dubious fame to his dramatic loss of battle, throne and life to his brother-in-law Constantine. (Yes, that Constantine!) Of course, the drama was all due to Constantine and his sudden change of sponsors on the eve of battle. The use of crosses as battle insignia was great product placement for a certain religion.

Constantine may have had friends in high places but he was also the greatest general of his time. Maxentius wouldn’t have even made the top fifty list. He had no qualifications to be an Emperor except for the fact that his father was one. However, even his father wasn’t impressed with Maxentius and had excluded him from the imperial succession. (The old man actually preferred his son-in-law Constantine.)

At the time, the growing threat of the barbarians and the chronic problem with the Persians (that certainly is chronic) had led to an administrative reform of the Empire. There were two co-Emperors, one ruling from Asia Minor and the other from Northern Europe. The Roman Empire had dispensed with Rome. Furthermore, to avert the bloodbaths that usually determined who would be the next emperor, the two co-emperors would appoint their successors.

As his successor in the West, the Emperor Maximian preferred the House of Constantine to his own dynasty. However, the overlooked Maxentius felt that nepotism had its rights and the snubbed 28 year-old used his allowance and trust fund to bribe the garrison of Rome. In 306, Maxentius was proclaimed Emperor–at least in Rome–but much of Italy embraced him. The country had grown tired of absent emperors, some of whom had even threatened to end Rome’s tax-free perks: its bread and circuses.

Galerius, the legitimate Emperor of the East, attempted to crush the revolt. Upon entering Italy, however, the imperial army founded itself ambushed with bribes. Unable to resist, the army left Italy. Galerius then decided that this was an issue for the Emperor of the West.

Constantine had the title but he needed Italy for the authenticity. In 312 he invaded. His army would not be susceptible to bribes. When Roman legionnaires adopt Christian insignia at the Emperor’s command, they evidently revered or feared him more than than the Gods. Maxentius commanded a far larger force but most of his soldiers’ experience of combat was shaking down shopkeepers. And Maxentius was not even that proficient. He wedged his army into a tactical disaster, stationed in front of a deep river with only one rickety bridge as an avenue for retreat.

Can’t you guess what happened? After sufficient mauling by Constantine’s veterans, Maxentius’ amateurs panicked, the weight of the chaotic retreat collapsed the bridge, and Maxentius was on it at the time. His body was fished out of the water the next day. Constantine was now the undisputed Emperor of the West; and now was free to promote his theological quirks. (He had to kill another brother-in-law before he ruled the entire empire.)

Of course, losing to Constantine is why anyone remembers Maxentius. Fourth century Rome was filled with rich mediocrities; they comprised the Senate. However, Maxentius was not content to enjoy his inadequacies. His ambition far surpassed his ability, but his amazing presumption and dramatic failure do entitle him to history’s sarcasm. And he would have preferred that to obscurity.

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