The Roman Principate: The Barracks Emperors
by: P. Dionysius Mus
PARS I | PARS II | PARS III | PARS IV | PARS V | PARS VI | PARS VII | PARS VIII | PARS IX | PARS X

Maximinus Thrax and the Gordiani (I and II): Under Severus Alexander (emperor 222-235), Maximinus held high command in the Army of the Rhine, and, when Severus was murdered, he was proclaimed emperor by the Rhine army. Maximinus spent most of his reign fighting invading tribes along the Danube and the Rhine. The numerous milestones displaying his name attest to his energetic reconstructions of the roads in these regions. When in 238 a group of landowners in Africa, discontented with imperial taxation, rebelled and killed their tax collectors, they proclaimed the aged Gordianus emperor, and the Senate recognized him. Gordianus, however, soon killed himself upon learning of the death of his son and co-ruler, Gordianus II, in a battle against the governor of Numidia. Maximinus Thrax quickly suppressed this African revolt; but he himself was soon deposed by the Senate at Rome. Maximinus and the army crossed the Alps and besieged Aquileia, in northeast Italy. The city resisted, and after several months of stalemate Maximinus was killed by his own soldiers. Gordianus' grandson, Gordianus III, emerged as Maximinus' successor.

Balbinus and Pupienus: A patrician, Balbinus was a Salian priest, twice a consul, and proconsul in Asia. In 238, when the Senate led a rebellion of the Italian cities against Maximinus (emperor 235-238), it placed the government in the hands of a board of 20, one of whom was Balbinus, and then chose Balbinus and Pupienus to be joint emperors. Pupienus, a former city prefect, was extremely unpopular with the people of Rome. When the enraged populace besieged the Senate and emperors in the Capitol, Balbinus and Pupienus extricated themselves by appointing as Caesar the young Gordianus, grandson of the original leader of the revolt. Balbinus remained in Rome while Pupienus advanced to defeat Maximinus. When Pupienus returned, Balbinus, fearing his colleague intended to make himself sole ruler, quarrelled with him. The Praetorian Guards in the city took advantage of the dispute to kidnap both emperors; the two were murdered as their captors tried to escape from the German guards. Gordianus III was thereupon proclaimed sole emperor.

Gordianus III: The people and imperial guards in Rome distrusted the Senate's nominees Balbinus and Pupienus and insisted on making the 13-year-old Gordianus III (grandson of Gordianus I and nephew of Gordianus II) Caesar and heir to the throne. After the defeat of the deposed emperor Maximinus, the guards rioted and killed Balbinus and Pupienus; in August 238 Gordianus III became sole emperor. The government was directed first by his mother and later by his father-in-law, the Praetorian prefect Timesitheus. In 242 Gordianus III accompanied Timesitheus on a campaign against the Persians. After successes in battle, the prefect died (243) of an illness and was replaced by Philippus Arabs. In the spring of 244 Gordianus III was murdered by the troops and succeeded by Philippus.

Iulius Philippus ("Philip the Arab"): A member of a distinguished equestrian family of Arab descent, he was Praetorian prefect when the emperor Gordianus III was killed in a mutiny (perhaps with Philippus' connivance). Philippus became emperor and quickly concluded a peace ending a war with Persia. After undertaking a series of campaigns against the Goths and other tribes on the Danube, he returned to Rome to celebrate in 248 the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the city. Philippus then faced a series of revolts by provincial army commanders, the last of whom, Decius, killed and succeeded him in the autumn of 249.

Decius: Although Decius' origins are not known, it is certain that he was a senator and a consul before acceding to the throne. About 245 the emperor Philip the Arab entrusted him with a command on the Danube; there, in 249, Decius was proclaimed emperor, allegedly against his will. After killing Philippus in battle near Verona, Decius took the field against the Goths, who had crossed the Danube and overrun Moesia and Thrace. The final engagement in this campaign, which took place on swampy ground in the Dobruja, June 251, ended in the defeat and death of Decius and his son. Before Decius' reign, persecution of the Christians in the empire had been sporadic and local, but about the beginning of January 250 he issued an edict ordering all citizens to perform a religious sacrifice in the presence of commissioners. A large number of Christians defied the government, for which the bishops of Rome, Jerusalem, and Antioch lost their lives and many others were arrested. The supression strengthened rather than weakened the Christian movement, for public opinion condemned the government's violence and applauded the passive resistance of the martyrs. Early in 251, a few months before Decius' death, the persecution of Christians ceased. Evidently, while absent from Rome, Decius had selected the future emperor Valerianus to direct the government, but Gallus (251-253) was his immediate successor.

Trebonianus Gallus and Hostilianus: Gallus came from an ancient family of Perusia (modern Perugia, Italy), whose ancestry could be traced to the pre-Roman Etruscan aristocracy. He served the emperor Decius with loyalty and distinction as legate of Moesia and was proclaimed emperor after the defeat and death (June 251) of Decius at the hands of the Goths. Gallus then concluded a treaty with the enemy. He adopted Decius' son Hostilianus as his co-ruler and at the same time made his own son, Volusianus, a secondary and later co-emperor. Hostilianus died of plague shortly after receiving his title. The Goths renewed their attacks early in 253, and the armies of Moesia proclaimed their commander, Aemilianus, emperor. Gallus summoned Valerianus, commander of the armies of the Upper Rhine, to his aid but was killed by his own troops before Valerianus arrived.

Aemilianus and Valerianus: Aemilianus was now the new emperor, but the armies of the Upper Rhine declared Valerianus as emperor. Before the two sides came to battle, Aemilianus was assassinated by his troops near Spoletium. Valerianus arrived too late to save Gallus but managed to avenge and succeed him. As emperor he vigorously renewed Decius' persecution of the Christians, executing, among others, Bishop Cyprianus of Carthage and Bishop Xystus (Sixtus II) of Rome. Recognizing that it was no longer possible for one emperor to control the whole empire, Valerianus appointed his son Gallienus to rule the West while he marched east to repel the Persian invasion. But he was captured by the Persian king Shapur I in June 260 and died in captivity.

Gallienus: Gallienus ruled an empire that was disintegrating under pressures from foreign invaders. The Senate proclaimed him co-emperor because it saw that no one man could run the vast military operations needed to defend the empire. Valerian took charge of the eastern frontiers, while Gallienus fought a series of campaigns against the Goths on the Rhine and defeated the Alemanni at Milan in 258. He next crushed the successive revolts of Ingenuus and Regalianus in Illyricum. At a time when independent rulers were asserting themselves across the empire, Odaenathus, prince of a Roman colony in the East, adhered to Rome, defeated Shapur, and quelled the usurping emperor Quietus at Emesa (now Homs, Syria). Gallienus subsequently named Odaenathus governor of all the East. The Persians devastated the East just as the Germanic tribes had recently plundered the Rhine and Danube provinces. Gallienus himself was left in control only of Italy and the Balkans.

Several developments during Gallienus' reign are of particular importance. There was a sharp reduction of civilian control over the military after Gallienus - breaking with a tradition of some seven centuries - transferred the command of the Roman armies from the senators to professional equestrian officers. At the same time, he expanded the role of the cavalry in warfare by creating a mobile cavalry reserve, which was to become the nucleus of the field army of the later empire. Finally, in the relatively peaceful years 262-267, Gallienus sponsored a vigorous intellectual renaissance at Rome. This revival is clearly discernible in the surviving art and the contemporary literature, notably that of Neoplatonist philosophers such as Plotinus. Toward the end of his reign, the Goths renewed their attacks, and the Emperor's defensive manoeuvres were interrupted by the revolt of a usurper, Aureolus. While besieging the insurgent general in Milan, Gallienus was murdered; his cavalry commander, Claudius, succeeded him as Claudius II.

Claudius II: Claudius was an army officer under the emperor Gallienus from 260 to 268, a period of devastation of much of the Roman Empire by invading tribes. Rising to the command of Gallienus' newly formed cavalry, Claudius succeeded to the throne upon the Emperor's assassination in 268. The new ruler speedily suppressed the rebellion of the usurper Aureolus and drove from Italy the Alemanni tribe, which had been summoned by the insurgents. During his brief reign, Claudius' authority was recognized only in the central territories of the empire. He made an unsuccessful attempt to recapture the allegiance of the western provinces, which obeyed the emperors of the Rhine. Nonetheless, in his own area, Claudius destroyed a vast Gothic migratory force near Naissus (modern Nis, Yugoslavia) in Moesia. While preparing a campaign against the Vandals, Claudius died of the plague and was succeeded by his cavalry commander, Aurelianus.

Quintillus and Aurelianus: Aurelianus, probably a native of the Balkan Peninsula, had established himself as an army officer when, about 260, from outside pressure and internal fragmentation of authority, the frontiers of the empire suddenly collapsed. With his compatriot Claudius, Aurelianus led the cavalry of the emperor Gallienus (253-268). After a reign of 18 months Claudius II died and his brother Quintillus, who ruled about three months, died or was killed. In May 270 Aurelianus succeeded as emperor. He quickly set about restoring Roman authority in Europe. He turned back invaders from Pannonia (in present-day central Europe) and after a series of battles expelled the Juthungi from northern Italy. Returning to Rome, he quelled a revolt at the imperial mint. For protection against tribal incursions, the emperor ordered the construction of a new city wall around Rome, much of which still stands.

In 271 Aurelianus marched to the east. He defeated the Goths on the Danube and withdrew Roman occupants from Dacia to an area south of the Danube. Evidently he recognized that the empire had overextended its resources and must contract if it was to survive. At the same time, he sought to recover the eastern provinces, which for 10 years had obeyed the rule of Septimia Zenobia, the Princess of Palmyra. He besieged Palmyra and captured Zenobia, regent for her young son Vaballathus; shortly afterward the capital surrendered. When Palmyra revolted a second time, Aurelianus recaptured and destroyed the city (273).

In 274 he returned west to confront Tetricus, the rival emperor, who controlled Gaul, Spain, and Britain. Beset by a German invasion and by internal conspiracies, Tetricus concluded a secret treaty with Aurelianus, deserting to him at the Battle of Châlons. The leaderless army of the Rhine was swiftly defeated, and Tetricus was rewarded with the governorship of Lucania. Thus the vast empire was again ruled by a central authority. Aurelianus was an outstanding general and a severe and uncompromising administrator. By increasing the distribution of free food at Rome, he did more for the plebeians than almost any other emperor. His attempt to reform the coinage, however, met with only limited success.

He sought to subordinate the divergent religions of the empire to the cult of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus). Early in 275, while marching to open a campaign against Persia, Aurelianus was murdered by a group of officers who had allegedly been misled by his secretary into believing themselves marked for execution. The government was continued in the name of Aurelianus' widow, Ulpia Severina, until, after six months, the Senate appointed the elderly Marcus Claudius Tacitus to the throne.

Tacitus and Florianus: In the 40 years before Tacitus assumed power the empire was ruled by a succession of usurpers and emperors who had been career army officers. On the murder of the emperor Aurelianus in 275, the army council invited the Senate to select a nobleman as head of state. The Senate delayed six months (to September 275) before choosing Tacitus, an elderly and wealthy senator who had served twice as consul. During his brief reign Tacitus was engaged in continual warfare with hostile tribes in the Eastern Empire. It is uncertain whether he was murdered by his soldiers or died of disease.

His successor was his half brother, Florianus, who at once seized power on the death of his brother. Although his action was tolerated by the Senate and the armies of the West, the legions in Syria promoted their own general, Probus. A civil war broke out but ended in the sudden death of Florianus, either at the hands of his own soldiers or by suicide.

Probus: The son of a Balkan military officer, Probus served with distinction in the army and apparently was Eastern Praetorian Prefect when his troops proclaimed him emperor in opposition to Florianus, who was soon killed by his own men. Probus' reign was spent in continual frontier warfare against hostile tribes on the Rhine and Danube, complicated by insurrections in Britain, Gaul, and the East. His policy of allowing outside tribes to settle within the empire proved dangerous.

Fourth-century writers attest to his intense interest in agriculture; he encouraged the planting of vineyards in Gaul, Spain, and Britain. He was evidently killed by troops who resented his strict discipline and their being detailed to agricultural reclamation work in the Balkans.

Carus, Numerianus and Carinus: Carus was probably from either Gaul or Illyricum and had served as prefect of the Guard to the emperor Probus (276-282), whom he succeeded. Like his predecessors, Carus adopted the name Marcus Aurelius as a part of his imperial title. After a brief Danube campaign he led his troops against the Sassanian Persians, penetrating beyond the Tigris, where he died suddenly and mysteriously, allegedly struck by lightning. His sons Numerianus and Carinus succeeded him.

Numerianus was emperor in the East, and his brother, Carinus, ruled the West. Numerianus led the army home but contracted a disabling eye disease. Late in 284, after the army had reached the Bosphorus, Numerianus was found dead. After a campaign on the Rhine, Carinus returned to Rome where, in September 284, he celebrated games in honour of Carus' victories in Persia the year before. Near Verona in the spring of 285, Carinus defeated Aurelius Iulianus, the governor of Venetia, who had proclaimed himself emperor. Shortly afterward Carinus was killed by his own troops during a battle against Diocletianus (who had succeeded Numerianus as emperor in the East) on the banks of the Margus River.
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