When Constantius II ordered the massacre of 337, he spared Constantius Gallus and his younger brother Julian due to their young age. For the next ten odd years, he kept his cousins under close guard, allowing them only to study. But in 351, Constantius summoned Gallus to see him. He was about to march west to crush the rebel Magnentius, who had usurped the throne. Since Constantius could not leave the east undefended against the Persians, he chose to make Gallus Caesar of the East. What Constantius did not expect was the need to remove Gallus a few years later. Find out why Constantius had to execute Gallus.
The Nature of Gallus
When Gallus became Caesar, he allowed his newfound wealth and power to go to his head. For ten odd years, he had been a prisoner, but now he was Caesar of the East. He was proud that he shared the same name as the emperor and was now a member of the imperial household. As Caesar, he viewed it as his right to do as he pleased. Worsening matters, he was quick to anger and had no mercy or compassion for his subjects. His reign soon degenerated into one of terror.
Gallus and Constantina
To assure Gallus’ loyalty to him, Constantius gave his younger sister Constantina to Gallus in marriage. Constantina was little better than her husband. As the proud sister of the emperor, she was born into a life of privilege. Naturally, she was also used to getting her way. Instead of restraining her husband, she encouraged and even helped him in his arbitrary rule. The couple cared little for the lives of their subjects and murdered as they pleased.
The Misdeeds of Gallus
The couple preferred to listen to rumours instead of verifying the facts. Against their enemies, they showed no mercy. Instead, they condemned innocent people to death on trumped up charges of black magic or for scheming to take the throne. Adding insult to injury, they made sure to take their victim’s possessions for themselves.
For instance, when a senator gave him well-meaning but blunt advice, Gallus flew into a petty rage. He went on to order the deaths of all the senators in Antioch. Then, when the people of Antioch asked him to deal with the famine, Gallus ignored their pleas. Instead, he blamed the famine on the incompetence of Theophilus, the Governor of Syria. The angry mob tore the innocent man to pieces.
To monitor his domains, the Caesar had spies in all parts of the land. These spies infiltrated the noble houses and brought back intelligence to keep him ahead of his perceived enemies. Through his spy network, the Caesar was privy to all kinds of private conversations. An atmosphere of distrust soon grew amongst the people. They had to watch their words and could not trust anyone, as they might be spies for the Caesar. Gallus even enjoyed travelling incognito amongst his people and asking them what they thought of the Caesar. A wrong answer would only lead to trouble for the unsuspecting victim.
Constantius Moves Against Gallus
When Constantius made Gallus Caesar, the threat Magnentius posed weighed heavily on his mind. So, he did not expect Gallus to rule as badly as he did. But when he heard reports of Gallus’ misrule and how he had alienated the people in the process, Constantius decided to act.
Firstly, he reduced Gallus’ power by taking away part of his troops. The excuse he gave was that too many restless troops would turn on Gallus himself. Secondly, he made Domitian Praetorian Prefect with orders to lure Gallus to Italy. But things did not go as planned. Domitian foolishly offended Gallus with his haughty speech and manner. In his anger, Gallus incited his troops to kill Domitian and Montius, a Quaestor who also angered the Caesar. The killings soon got out of hand and many innocent people lost their lives.
Constantius Executes Gallus
By now, Gallus was completely out of hand. Due to the way he alienated the people with his reign of terror, a revolt was imminent if he remained as Caesar. After careful discussions with his advisors, Constantius summoned Gallus to Milan under the pretext of urgent business. To allay the suspicions of Gallus, the emperor also sent for his sister. But Constantina died along the way before she could reach Milan.
Without his wife to shield him, Gallus became afraid that Constantius would kill him for his misdeeds. But Constantius managed to cajole Gallus with lies and sweet words into thinking he would forgive him for anything. When the Caesar had travelled far from his base of power, Constantius’ troops captured him without any trouble. During a quick trial, Gallus blamed his misdeeds on Constantina. Seeing that such an ungrateful and unrepentant person would only cause him trouble, Constantius executed him in 354.
Had Gallus been a better ruler, Constantius would have had no reason to order his death. But instead of ruling well, Gallus caused great unrest in the east with his reign of terror. An internal revolt would only leave the empire open to attacks from the Persians. Also, as Gallus became more bold and unhinged, he would one day challenge Constantius for the throne as well. With these matters weighing heavily on his mind, Constantius executed the cousin he had made Caesar.
Marcellinus, Ammianus. The Later Roman Empire: A.D. 354-378 (Penguin Classics). Translated by Walter Hamilton. England: Penguin Books, 2004.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.