Rome was at its lowest point during the rule of the Military Emperors (235-284 AD according to the Bible Timeline with World History). In a period of 49 years, fourteen people held the title of emperor, most of whom seized and consolidated their powers through their command of the military. The years of the soldier emperors were characterized by instability, civil war, political turmoil, and poverty. It was also a period when the Germanic tribes and Rome’s long-time nemesis, the Persians, stepped up their invasion of Roman territories.
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The rule of the Military Emperors and the weakness that came with it was the result of a combination of complex problems that hounded the empire for a long time. The population of Rome decreased after the repeated invasions of the Germanic tribes and Persians. At the same time, the bad financial policies the previous leaders imposed took its toll on the empire and its citizens. The rulers themselves depended on the military to keep them in power, but the high cost of maintaining a private army and the lack of available Roman soldiers pushed them to recruit men from the outlying provinces. This policy was problematic, as the new soldiers who were not of Roman descent, were not compelled to loyalty.
As Rome’s economy slowed down, trade also declined and many workers remained unemployed. Corruption, tax evasion, and inflation were also rampant. Farmers abandoned their lands and became tenants to larger ones instead. Others chose the life of banditry if being a tenant farmer did not work out.
The first of the soldier emperors was Maximinus Thrax who rose as emperor in 235 AD. He was chosen by the Praetorian Guard and confirmed by the Roman Senate. Maximinus was born in a village in Thrace from parents who were peasants. He started his career in the army during the reign of Septimus Severus. Coup attempts were frequent during his reign, but he was capable enough as an army commander as he helped drive back the Germans who invaded the Roman frontier.
Maximinus’ popularity plummeted when he increased taxes during his reign. He was so unpopular the Romans in the province of North Africa pushed the senate to proclaim the proconsul Gordian I as emperor. This was granted (with his son Gordian II as co-emperor because of his father’s advanced age). However, Capelianus, the governor of the province of Numidia and loyal ally of Maximinus, killed Gordian II in the Battle of Carthage. The elderly Gordian killed himself after hearing of the tragic end of his son.
After the death of Gordian and his son, the senate decided to give leadership to senators Balbinus and Pupienus while Maximinus was still emperor. Maximinus decided to return from Pannonia to confront the new “emperors.” Maximinus was killed by the soldiers of the Second Parthian Legion while he and his troops besieged the Roman city of Aquileia.
Balbinus and Pupienus were suspicious of each other from the start of their reign. It escalated into full-blown mutual hatred as the months passed. Both were unpopular with the Roman soldiers from the preferential treatment they gave to the German guards. Because of this, they were assassinated when the Praetorian Guard stormed the palace. This was only stopped when the German bodyguards decided to attack. Their antagonism of each other was so great that until the last minute, Balbinus and Pupienus argued on what they should do during the attack. Gordian III, the teenage grandson of Gordian II, replaced them and was approved by the Senate, the Roman soldiers, and the people.
The new Roman emperor Gordian III married the daughter of the prefect of the Praetorian Guard Timesitheus. She then ruled Rome on Gordian’s behalf. His father-in-law died years later and the young emperor was left to face on his own the Persian king Shapur I who invaded Mesopotamia. Philip the Arab, one of the prefects of the Praetorian Guard (the other being his brother Priscus, also an important official), led the battle in Mesopotamia as a regent of Gordian III. The young emperor died later on in Mesopotamia under questionable circumstances. It was said that Philip fabricated intrigue to have Gordian removed from the position of emperor. While in a foreign land, had him murdered, and sent a letter back to Rome that the previous emperor died of an illness. Philip had himself proclaimed by the Senate as emperor right after Gordian’s death and had the tragic boy emperor deified.
Philip proved himself a competent military leader when he negotiated peace with Shapur instead of an engagement in a long war that would have further strained the Roman economy. It was during Philip’s reign that Rome celebrated its 1,000th anniversary. However, the Germanic tribes invaded the Roman frontier in the north once again and Philip was forced to send Decius, a former senator, and consul, to counter the attacks. Decius was hailed as the emperor by the soldiers in the Danube front and he defeated Philip soon after to become the sole emperor.
Decius was known for two things: the bolder, more frequent invasion of Goths into the Roman territory and his persecution of Christians. He was killed in the Battle of Abritus against the Goths along with his son and co-emperor Herennius Etruscus. Decius was followed by his younger son, Hostilian, as emperor, but he would later die by the plague of Cyprian. Trebonianus Gallus, a general and co-emperor with Decius, took over. Gallus reigned only for a total of two years and he made his son, Volusianus, a co-emperor. His rule was marred by the invasion of the Persians in Armenia and the Goths in the Danube.
They were defeated by Aemilian, the governor of Moesia. He was proclaimed emperor soon after. Gallus was assassinated by his own troops while they stationed in the Upper Rhine. Then they proclaimed their commander, Valerian, as the new emperor. Aemilian reigned only for three months and he was killed by his own soldiers when they were on the brink of defeat by Valerian’s troops in a battle near Spoleto.
Valerian divided the responsibilities of the emperor between himself and his son, Gallienus. The father led the troops that fought successfully in the east while Gallienus became commander of the Roman legion in the west. But Valerian was forced to retreat and negotiate with Shapur when a plague cut off the size of his army. Unfortunately, Shapur decided to kill the bodyguards who went with Valerian and he became the first Roman emperor taken as captive.
While Valerian was a prisoner of war in Persia, the Germanic tribes that threatened Rome’s frontiers invaded once again and the perceived weakness of the empire pushed some provinces to declare their own independence. His son Gallienus was murdered by one of his soldiers and Valerian was killed in Persia soon after—a brutal punishment the third century Christians whom Valerian persecuted thought he rightfully deserved.
Claudius II Gothicus, another former soldier, took on the role as emperor after the death of Valerian and Gallienus. He reigned only for more than one year before he died of the plague and was replaced by his brother, Quintillus who reigned only for more than 100 days before he, too, died for unknown reasons. Another soldier, Aurelian, was declared as emperor by his troops. He brought a little of Rome’s former stability back by instilling discipline in the army. He also had a wall built around the city—an acknowledgment that Rome was not the secure city it once was. After a reign of five years, the Praetorian Guard assassinated Aurelian in Thrace.
Six more emperors (Tacitus, Florian, Probus, Carus, Numerian, and Carinus) followed Aurelian and all of them met violent deaths. The rule of the Military Emperors would be replaced by the Tetrarchy (leadership of four people) which started when emperor Diocletian ascended into power.
Picture By Vladimir Petkov – Атриума на Абритус // The atrium at Abritus, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14812199
Blois, Lukas De., and R. J. Van Der. Spek. An Introduction to the Ancient World. London: Routledge, 1997
Meijer, Fik. Emperors Don’t Die in Bed. London: Routledge, 2004
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