The Omnishambles (235–285)

The Roman Empire degenerated to a species of barbarity, and fell to decay.

Zosimus, New History 1.291

The Emperors of the ‘Time of Chaos’

Maximinus Thrax 235–238

Gordian I 238

Gordian II 238

Pupienus and Balbinus 238

Gordian III 238–244

Philip the Arab 244–249

Decius 249–251

Trebonianus Gallus 251–253

Aemilius Aemilianus 253

The Gallic Empire

Postumus 260–269

Laelianus 269

Marius 269

Victorinus 269–271

Tetricus 271–274

Gallienus 253–268      Valerian 253–260

Claudius II Gothicus 268–270

Quintillius 270

Aurelian 270–275

Tacitus 275–276

Florianus 276

Probus 276–282

Carus 282–283

Numerian 283–284

Carinus 283–285

With the accession of Maximinus the Thracian (‘Maximinus Thrax’), Rome embarked on five decades of what some historians see as ‘transition’, but most refer to as crisis, chaos, implosion, anarchy, or something similar. Amidst a seemingly endless list of Emperors, usurpers, rebels and outlaws, nearly all of whom were assassinated, the Empire faced dangerous challenges from barbarians outside its borders (see Map 5) and economic meltdown within them. In a sense, there was nothing new about these problems, and Rome was no stranger to dynastic infighting, civil wars, usurpations, rebellions, barbarian invasions, religious conflicts, military disasters, inflation, disruption of commerce, harsh and unfair tax-collection, plagues and an excessive influence by the army over politics: so far Rome had coped with them and had survived. Now, though, many of these problems happened at the same time, and everything fed into everything else in a deafening howl of feedback: the external, internal, military, political, social and economic problems all reinforced each other in unprecedented and very frightening ways.

Maximinus Thrax and the Year of the Six Emperors

If the Roman Empire thought it had had enough of a dynasty that gave them effete, under-age, religious fundamentalists who were dominated by their mothers, it now got what it wanted. Maximinus Thrax (ruled 235–238) was an absolute beast of a man:2 2.6 metres tall, naturally barbaric, brutal, handsome in a manly way, but very sweaty:

He would often collect his sweat and put it in wine cups [. . .] and in this way he could show off one or two litres of it.3

Some called him Hercules, others Cyclops.

But perhaps Rome should have been careful what she wished for. The new Emperor installed his son, also named Maximinus, as Caesar, and thereby laid bare his dynastic intentions. Rather than trying to negotiate with the German tribes, he launched a vigorous offensive against the Alemanni, and took up a position at Sirmium, from where he could keep an eye on the Dacians and Sarmatians. Yet this caused his undoing. The campaigns were expensive, particularly since he increased army pay, and he insisted on a draconian tax collection policy to pay for them.

One flashpoint came in Africa, where some wealthy young landowners from Thysdrus (modern El-Djem) murdered one of Maximinus’ procurators and proclaimed M. Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus Africanus (Gordian I), the octogenarian Proconsul of Africa, as Emperor. He then named his son, known as Gordian II, as co-Emperor. Gordian II had a taste for exotically flavoured wine and an eye for the ladies:

It is said that he had twenty-two concubines [. . .] from each of whom he left three or four children. He was nicknamed the Priam (Priamus in Latin) of his times, but often the crowd jokingly called him not Priamus but Priapus.4

For about three weeks the two Gordians became the focus for the insurgency against Maximinus, but at the instigation of Capelianus, the governor of Numidia who had a personal grudge against Gordian I, Legio III Augusta and their supporting Numidian cavalry turned against them and put an end to their ill-equipped and disorganized rebellion in a one-sided battle outside Carthage:

Shoving and trampling one another, more were killed by their own mass than by the enemy.5

Gordian II was killed in action and his grief-stricken father hanged himself.

Italy also turned against Maximinus. Unable to tolerate his barbarian origins, the Senate deposed him by proclaiming him an enemy of the state, mobilizing all the forces in Italy that they could muster, and devolving the govern ment onto the distinguished seventy-four-year-old soldier M. Clodius Pupienus Maximus and the pleasure-loving patrician D. Caelius Calvinus Balbinus as joint Emperors. However, neither the plebs nor the Praetorians liked Balbinus, and the new rulers were forced to make M. Antonius Gordianus (Gordian III), the nephew of Gordian II, Caesar.6

Maximinus marched on Rome, but, in the face of some tough opposition, his soldiers turned against him. In some traditions Maximinus took his own life after witnessing his son murdered by mutineers at Aquileia, whose citizens had reputedly resisted his siege operations to the extent of using their women’s hair for bow-strings. Other versions have both father and son butchered by disaffected soldiers, and their heads displayed on poles. In Rome Pupienus and Balbinus fell to quarrelling, presenting the Praetorians with an opportunity to kidnap and kill them, which was gleefully accepted.

Rome was now ruled by a thirteen-year-old. The exact course of events around this time is notoriously difficult to establish, but even though Gordian III (ruled 238–244) had been elevated to the purple by the military, he still seems to have commanded reasonable cross-constituency support: the Senate approved because he was one of them; the troops were happy because he was a young man and very much under the control of C. Furius Sabinus Aquila Timesitheus, the Praefectus Praetorio, whose daughter Tranquilliana he married; and the people called him their ‘darling’. Nevertheless, there were some serious challenges to be met. Pupienus and Balbinus had been on the point of confronting the Carpi from Dacia and the Goths, who were attempting to cross the Danube and attacking some Greek towns on the Black Sea.

The Goths, according to Jordanes’ Getica, were a Germanic people coming from what is now Sweden, although archaeologically the Gothic confederacy is associated with the Sîntana de Mureş-Černjachov culture, which spreads from Romania to the Ukraine. They spoke an east-Germanic language, used Germanic personal names, and were physically tall, sporting beards and long blond or red hair. They wore skins and furs, were adept horsemen, capable agriculturalists and stock raisers, and fought very effectively by forming their wagons into a defensive laager that protected their formidable cavalry strike force.

The Goths were driven back by Timesitheus in 238, and repulsed again in 242, the same year in which Gordian III set out with Timesitheus to fight the Persians. The Romans had some successes on the battlefield, but Timesitheus died of an illness. He was replaced as Praefectus Praetorio by M. Julius Philippus, aka Philip the Arab, who could well have connived in the assassination of Gordian III in the spring of 244 while he was at Dura-Europus on the Syrian front.

Dark Times for the Empire: 244–268

‘Philippus Arabs’, who came from an Equestrian family of Arab descent, was duly proclaimed Emperor and held the throne from 244 to 249. Ecclesiastical authors of the fourth and fifth centuries speak of him as the first Christian Emperor,7 but if he was he never professed his faith in public. Philip certainly seems to have been keen to establish a dynasty, though, and he associated his six-year-old son with himself, as well as delegating responsibility for Eastern affairs to his brother Priscus under the title Rector Orientis(Governor of the East). He also made the most of the PR possibilities of Rome’s millennium celebrations, which took place on 21 April 248.

In dealing with the problems on the Empire’s periphery, Philip tried to buy off the Persians with half a million denarii, in order to focus on other enemies, notably the Alemanni, who had made an incursion across the upper Rhine, and the Carpi and Goths, who were still making life difficult on the lower Danube. Unfortunately for Philip, his response was inhibited by having to deal with a series of usurpers: M. Silbannacus (Rhine region – known only from a unique coin in the British Museum); possibly Sponsianus (Danube – although he is known only from gold coins found in 1713, which could be forgeries); Ti. Claudius Marinus Pacatianus (Upper Moesia); M. Fulvius Rufus Iotapianus (Cappadocia and Syria, claiming descent from Alexander the Great); L. Julius Aurelius Sulpicius Uranius Antoninus (Syria); and the ex-Consul C. Messius Quintus Decius Valerinus, whom Philip had put in charge of the Danube forces facing the Goths. We are told that Decius was

clothed in purple and forced to undertake the government, despite his reluctance and unwillingness.8

But that didn’t stop him marching towards Rome and killing Philip in battle near Verona in September 249.

It would be entirely understandable if Decius really had been reluctant to become Emperor of Rome: recent history would suggest that if he survived more than two years he would have had a good innings. Initially he appears to have struggled with his image: he had already used three different permutations of his name, and now he opted for C. Messius Quintus Traianus Decius. The introduction of ‘Traianus’ allowed him to make use of the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle, which spoke of a king who

will rule mighty Rome, skilled in war, emerging from the Dacians, of the number 300.9

Three hundred is the numerical value of the Greek letter tau, the initial letter of Traianus; the Dacian reference is a little off-beam (Decius was born in Pannonia), although the Emperor Trajan had conquered Dacia at the beginning of the previous century.

In the belief that neglect of Rome’s traditional gods was having a deleterious effect, he sought to bolster their cults. At the beginning of 250 he issued a decree that all his subjects should perform a sacrifice to the ‘ancestral gods’, and do so in front of officials. In Egypt, Aurelia Belias and her daughter Kapinis complied:

In your presence, in accordance with the regulations, I have poured libations and sacrificed and tasted the offerings, and I ask you to certify this for us below. May you continue to prosper. [Then in a 2nd hand] We, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas saw you sacrificing. [In a 3rd hand] I Aurelius Hermas certify. [1st hand again] The first year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, 21 June 250.10

However, significant numbers of Christians refused to do this, and a persecution ensued. The Golden Legend (Aurea Legenda), compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in 1275, has it that St Agatha was tortured and had her breasts cut off (a defining feature of her later iconography – she is also the patron saint of breast cancer sufferers) and says that she ‘gave up the ghost, and rendered her soul, the year of our Lord two hundred and fifty-three in the time of Decius, the Emperor of Rome’. St Fabian, the Pope from 236 to 250, was another victim, and the Roman martyrology also puts the death of St Christopher (‘Christ-Bearer’ in Greek) during Decius’ reign, while some important escapees from the persecutions were a group of Christian soldiers known as the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (their names vary between the Eastern and Western traditions), who hid in a cave where they fell into a miraculous slumber, only awakening during the very Christian reign of Theodosius II.11 Nevertheless, it seems that the Christians remained extremely resilient, and Decius terminated the persecutions after just over a year.

Decius’ less spiritual problems centred on a plague that was sweeping across the Empire, the Goths who were flooding into it, and the plebs at Rome who were making an abortive attempt to replace him with a Senator called Julius Valens Licinianus. No rival could possibly hope to take the throne unless backed by an army, which Licinianus didn’t have, but Decius found that even possession of the army itself was no guarantee of safety. In 250 the Goths under King Cniva crossed into Moesia Inferior, overran Mace donia and Thrace, including Philippopolis (Modern Plovdiv in Bulgaria), and in the following July they inflicted a disastrous defeat on the Roman army at the Battle of Abritus (or Abrittus, and also known as the Battle of Forum Terebronii/Trebonii, close to Razgrad in modern Romania). The fourth-century Christian apologist Lactantius vividly described the death of the persecutor:

He was suddenly surrounded by the barbarians, and slain, together with great part of his army; nor could he be honoured with the rites of sepulture, but, stripped and naked, he lay to be devoured by wild beasts and birds, a fit end for the enemy of God.12

Decius had ruled for about the average length of time for this era. It seems that before he died Decius had selected the ex-Consul P. Licinius Valerianus, the future Emperor Valerian, to oversee the Empire’s administration, but it was his loyal, aristocratic legate of Moesia, C. Vibius Trebonianus Gallus, who was proclaimed as his successor. Gallus concluded a treaty with the Goths and adopted Decius’ younger surviving son Hostilianus (his other son Herennius died in or just before the battle of Abritus) as his co-ruler with the title Augustus, only for him to die of the plague soon afterwards. Gallus’ own son Volusianus partnered him for the rest of his reign, and again the Christians became scape goats for many of the Empire’s difficulties. There was certainly much to be concerned about, since in 253 some Franks (‘Fierce People’) and Alemanni managed to cross the Rhine and pillage Gaul and Spain before they went home, while the Goths refocused their attacks on Greece and Asia Minor. To make things even worse, M. Aemilius Aemilianus was proclaimed Emperor by his troops. He was a Moorish ex-Consul who had been successfully beating off the Goths as commander of the ‘Pannonian units’ or the ‘army in Moesia’,13 but in the summer of 253 he invaded Italy. Gallus ordered Valerian, who had command of the armies of the Upper Rhine, to come to his help, but his own soldiers murdered him before Valerian showed up.

Valerian’s forces decided that they now wanted their commander to be Emperor, but even before the armies could engage, Aemilianus found himself assassinated by his own troops near Spoletium (modern Spoleto):

Aemilius came from an extremely insignificant family, his reign was even more insignificant, and he was slain in the third month.14

If becoming Roman Emperor was now effectively a death sentence, Valerian’s stay on death row lasted from 253 to 260.15 His background made him acceptable to the Senate, who also ratified the installation of Valerian’s forty-year-old son, P. Licinius Egnatius Gallienus, as Augustus, rather than merely Caesar. The two men effectively divided the Empire between them, Valerian overseeing the Eastern half and placing Gallienus in charge of Rome and the West.

Gallienus’ assignment was to drive back assaults from the Goths who were constantly attacking Greece and Asia, the Franks and Alemanni who were pillaging Gaul again, the Saxons who were raiding the North Sea coastline, and see off a revolt by the Berber tribes of North Africa. There was also the small matter of Ingenuus, the governor of Pannonia Inferior, who had himself proclaimed Emperor. The Alemanni took the Agri Decumates, but otherwise Gallienus met these challenges very successfully, and he cemented the stability of the Danube area by making an alliance with King Attalus of the Marcomanni and taking his daughter Pipa as his concubine, despite being married to Cornelia Salonina.

Gallienus and his father didn’t sing from the same hymn sheet when it came to the Christians. Valerian reinstated Decius’ persecutions, which resulted in the martyrdom of Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, who had controversially evaded Decius’ persecution by going into hiding, but now changed tack and practised what he preached in his De Exhortatione Martyrii by refusing to sacrifice to the pagan deities. He was beheaded on 14 September 258. However, Eusebius says that Gallienus reversed Valerian’s policies and allowed the Christians freedom of worship.

In the East, Valerian was confronted by even greater problems. These are illustrated by the Res Gestae Divi Saporis, a trilingual inscription from the walls of the Cube of Zoroaster (Ka’ba-ye Zartosht) at Naqsh-e Rustam in Iran. It tells, in his own words, how King Shapur I of Persia raided the province of Syria:

We attacked the Roman Empire and we destroyed an army of 60 000 men at Barbalissus. Syria and its surrounding areas we burned, devastated and plundered. In this one campaign we captured of the Roman Empire 37 cities.16

One of these was Antioch. When Valerian tried to rescue the city of Edessa, which was besieged by the Persian army:

[Valerian] had with him [troops from] Germania, Raetia [plus the names of some 29 Roman provinces], a force of 70 000 men. Beyond Carrhae and Edessa there was a great battle between the Emperor Valerian and us. We made the Emperor Valerian prisoner with our own hands; and the commanders of that army, the Praefectus Praetorio, Senators and officers, we made them all prisoner, and we transported them to Persia. We burned, devastated and plundered Cilicia and Cappadocia [the names of 36 cities follow].17

Gallienus probably heard about his father’s capture in 260, but rather than asking for his return, he claimed the whole Empire as his own, even though the invasions and usurpations he faced were escalating at an alarming rate. Roman tradition speaks of pretenders dubbed the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ who sought power around this time (even though the Historia Augusta actually lists thirty-two, thirty of them from Gallienus’ reign, of whom only nine are authentic). Gallienus’ son, Valerian the Younger, was assassinated, while on the periphery of the Empire the Roxolani and Sarmatians attacked Pannonia, and an incursion by the Alemanni was only checked after it had reached northern Italy.

And it got worse. Later Christian writers could not conceal their Schadenfreude at the fate of their oppressor, which they saw as a lesson for future ‘adversaries of Heaven’:

[Valerian] wasted the remainder of his days in the vilest condition of slavery: for Shapur, the king of the Persians, who had made him prisoner, whenever he chose to get into his carriage or to mount on horseback, commanded the Roman to stoop and present his back [. . .] Afterward, when he had finished this shameful life under so great dishonour, he was flayed, and his skin, stripped from the flesh, was dyed with vermilion, and placed in the temple of the gods of the barbarians [. . .] as an admonition to the Romans.18

Shapur I commemorated his victories over Rome on various rock-reliefs: one at Bišâpur in Eastern Iran shows Gordian III prostrate and Shapur I holding Valerian by the wrist; another at Naqsh-e Rustam depicts Philip the Arab kneeling and Valerian standing; and the largest, also at Bišâpur, shows Shapur I with all three of the aforementioned Emperors, although Valerian is shown unfettered and in full Imperial regalia, and shows no sign of maltreatment.

Things were undoubtedly looking really grim for Rome. Hindsight suggests that this could have been the moment when Rome’s Empire imploded, but Gallienus clearly had other intentions. The Historia Augusta is not kind about him:

Gallienus, continuing in luxury and debauchery, gave himself up to amusements and revelling and administered the commonwealth like boys who play at holding power.19

This is unfair: he was a cultured and philhellenic individual, and his reign witnessed an end to the persecution of the Christians alongside some vibrant intellectual and artistic achievements, notably the activities of the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus. Gallienus also spent more time personally leading campaigns than he did at Rome, and he scored some significant victories.

These successes doubtless owed something to his reorganization of the army. This involved establishing a highly mobile independent cavalry force with its headquarters at Mediolanum (modern Milan), which was equidistant from the Rhine and the Danube, whose first leader was probably one Aureolus. This strategic rethink was as much to do with internal factors as external ones: providing logistical support to the armies became more efficient; potentially dangerous groups of soldiers came under more direct imperial control; banditry and brigandage could be more easily pre-empted; and mobile reserves could also confront any barbarian incursions on Roman territory from beyond Rhine and Danube frontiers. Gallienus also excluded practically all Senators from military posts, thereby clearing the way for the Equites to receive the majority of commands and provincial governorships. In terms of finance, he was aware that the needs of the army trumped everyone else’s, and, recognizing the need for more money, he embarked on a policy of quantitative easing by minting more coins and debasing the currency, which inevitably led to inflation.

Another set of problems for Gallienus was the formation of the ‘Gallic Empire’ under the governor of Germania Inferior, M. Cassianius Latinius Postumus, and events in Odenathus’ Palmyrene kingdom. Postumus declared his Imperium Galliarum (Gallic Empire) in 260. This comprised the three Gauls plus the two Germanies, and by 261 Britain and Spain were with him too. Postumus had no desire to be Emperor of Rome, though, and his breakaway was really an attempt to secure a level of local security that Gallienus couldn’t guarantee. Happy to be Emperor of his new realm, he established his own Senate, Consuls and coinage, and located the capital at Colonia Agrippina. Postumus lasted until he was murdered by his own troops in the summer of 269, but his breakaway empire would keep going until Aurelian brought it back into the fold in 274.20

In the East, Odenathus (also spelled Odenaethus or Odenatus or Odainath), the ruler of the great Syrian oasis caravan city of Palmyra, had been exploiting the weaknesses of Rome and Persia to make himself a major player in the region. Gallienus awarded him the title of dux and corrector totius Orientis (‘General and Regulator of the Whole East’) for his services against Shapur I and a usurper called Quietus. Odenathus led successful incursions into Persian territory, and was careful to acknowledge Rome’s supremacy, but he was murdered in suspicious circumstances in 267. His widow, Zenobia (Bath Zabbai in Aramaic), took control in the name of their young son, Vaballathus. She was one of the great female figures of antiquity:

Her face was dusky and of a swarthy colour, her eyes were black and unusually powerful, her spirit was divine, and she was unbelievably attractive.21

Morally unimpeachable, cultured, fond of hunting and drinking, and falsely claiming descent from Cleopatra VII, she had big ideas for the Palmyrene state, but for the moment, provided that she kept the East secure, Gallienus was prepared to tolerate her regime.

Internal threats were probably more to the forefront of Gallienus’ mind than exotic queens anyway. Aureolus, the commander of the cavalry force at Mediolanum, proclaimed himself Emperor while Gallienus was fighting off a massive invasion by Goths and a Germanic people called the Heruli in 268. They had sacked Athens, but although the official Emperor Gallienus defeated them in a significant engagement at Naïssus (modern Niš in Serbia), he had to turn back in order to defeat Aureolus and then besiege him at Mediolanum. And there Gallienus fell victim to a conspiracy, assassinated by the commander of the Dalmatian cavalry. Aureolus declared himself Augustus, but ultimately gave himself up to M. Aurelius Claudius (later Claudius II Gothicus), who had maintained the siege. Aureolus was executed; Gallienus was pilloried by later historians; and Rome acquired the first of its so-called Illyrian emperors.

The Fightback Begins: 268–275

Gallienus had been acutely aware of just how precarious the Roman Empire’s situation was, but had not been given the time to get to grips with it: at this stage in its history, with the constant menace of foreign invaders, the deep internal divisions, the lack of any principle of succession other than violence, and the army’s all-too-powerful role in politics, the Empire was still at risk of disintegrating. Yet in fact it still had a minimum of 200 years to go, and one of the reasons that it survived the immediate crisis was the responses of a series of very competent, highly energetic and extremely aggressive soldier-emperors.

The first of these was Claudius II Gothicus, born in Illyria, who reigned from 268 to 270. The ancient tradition about him is one of unadulterated hero-worship. The Historia Augusta describes him as a man of gravitas, purity and abstemiousness who was so strong that he could knock a horse’s teeth out with his bare fists, and concludes:

Both the Senate and people adored him so much both before, during and after his rule that it is universally agreed that neither Trajan, nor the Antonines, nor any other Emperor was so loved.22

On the credit side he smashed an invasion by the Alemanni near Lake Benacus (Garda) in 268 and liberated Illyria from the Goths in an engagement near to Naïssus, after which he took the nickname ‘Gothicus Maximus’. On the negative side the Goths won a victory in Thrace in 270, and Claudius failed to exploit a change of ruler in the Gallic Empire, despite the fact that Spain returned to its allegiance to Rome. He was also powerless to stop Zenobia moving into Asia Minor and Egypt, where she defeated the Roman garrison and threatened Rome’s grain supply. Fortunately for Claudius II, the Goths were smitten by plague; but unfortunately he contracted it as well and died at Sirmium in August 270. A tale grew up that his death was actually a voluntary scapegoat sacrifice on behalf of the Empire, prompted by a consultation of the Sibylline Books.

Claudius II Gothicus was deified and his brother Quintillus became Emperor, maybe for as little as seventeen days.23 The SPQR liked him, and a milestone in Mauretania proclaims his official titles as ‘Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Claudius Quintilus [sic], Unconquered, Pious, Happy, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, [Holder of] Tribunician Power, Father of his Country’,24 but the Danube legions had other ideas and threw their weight behind the cavalry commander L. Domitius Aurelianus (‘Aurelian’). As Aurelian bore down on Italy, Quintillus committed suicide by opening his veins.25

Having been recognized as Emperor in around September 270, Aurelian’s first job was to deal with a series of barbarian invasions, principally by some new Germanic intruders, the Vandali (‘Vandals’), who were beaten back after they had entered the Danube valley in concert with the Sarmatians, and the Alemanni and Iuthungi, who got as far as Placentia (modern Piacenza) before being repulsed in 271. He then went to Rome, saw off his political opponents, and was hailed as Germanicus Maximus. The image that he presented of himself was of a no-nonsense, bulletheaded soldier with a crew cut and designer stubble.

Aurelian left his mark on Rome by constructing the Aurelian Wall, which is still an impressive feature of Rome’s cityscape. The capital was enclosed by a wall of brick-faced concrete 4 metres thick, 6.5 metres high and 18.8 kilometres long. There were 381 projecting towers placed at intervals of 100 Roman feet (29.6 metres) except along the Tiber, and eighteen major stone gates, flanked by semicircular towers, plus at least half a dozen postern gates. It is symptomatic of Rome’s nervousness and shows signs of being built in haste, but because the goal of the potential invaders was not really total conquest it was designed to repel marauders rather than to withstand a siege. It was finally completed in the reign of Probus (276–282).

There were still enemies within – we hear of usurpers named Domitianus, Septimius and Urbanus – although these were quickly dealt with, and Queen Zenobia was becoming a serious menace in the East. On his way to sort her out, Aurelian smashed a Gothic force, but also came to the decision that the occupation of Dacia was more trouble than it was worth. So he ordered an orderly evacuation, before pressing on towards Palmyra.

By 272 Aurelian was in Syria with a force that included some new units raised specifically for or during this campaign, such as Legio I Illyricorum. Zenobia’s main military threat was her clibanarii (heavily armoured horsemen who get their name from the word for an iron bread oven), but when the two sides engaged at Immae near Antioch, the lighter Roman cavalry lured them into a chase before rounding on them when they had exhausted themselves and their steeds in the viciously hot sun. Zenobia evacuated Antioch, but pretended that she had won, and even claimed that Aurelian had been captured. So the populace was quite surprised when he turned up in person shortly afterwards. He then captured the fort at Daphne by adept use of the testudo formation, consolidated his position, and received reinforcements who included some Palestinians who fought with clubs.

Zenobia’s forces regrouped at Emesa, where Aurelian accepted the offer of battle. In the end, the issue was largely decided by his Palestinian clubmen, and Zenobia’s forces ended up besieged in Palmyra. When the queen, now calling herself Augusta, then left the city on a fast camel she was intercepted and captured by Aurelian’s men at the Euphrates. There are two accounts of what happened to her: a mundane one in which she perished en route to captivity in Rome, and a much sexier one in which she was paraded in Aurelian’s triumph:

She was decked out with gems that were so enormous that she struggled under the burden of her ornaments [. . .] Furthermore, her feet were bound with gold, her hands with golden chains, and not even her neck was without a chain of gold, the weight of which was supported by a Persian jester.26

While Zenobia was subsequently accommodated close to Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, her subjects rebelled again. They clothed Septimius Antiochus, who may or may not have been a son of Zenobia, in purple, but Aurelian responded instantly, and Palmyra was so savagely sacked and looted that it never really recovered. A revolt in Egypt by partisans of Zenobia was given similarly short shrift, and Aurelian took the title Restitutor Orientis (Restorer of the East).

Aurelian now had the opportunity to bring the breakaway Gallic Empire back under Roman control. C. Pius Esuvius Tetricus (Tetricus I) was on the throne, having been put there through the influence and bribery of Victoria, the mother of his precursor Victorinus. The rival commanders converged in February or March 274 near Châlons-sur-Marne. It was an odd battle: Tetricus I and his son Tetricus II surrendered, but their soldiers didn’t, which caused severe casualties on both sides. Some sources say that Tetricus I had made a deal with Aurelian to betray his army, making a nice quotation from Virgil in the process:

Redeem me from this doom, unconquered one!27

Aurelian did indeed spare Tetricus I and his son, although they were displayed along with Zenobia in his triumph.

Aurelian now sought to upgrade himself to Restitutor Orbis (‘Restorer of the World’), but his efforts didn’t meet with universal approval, as when he tried to improve economic confidence and curb inflation by reforming the silver coinage, only to provoke violent rioting by workers in the mints of Rome. He also sought to foster religious unity in a way that had echoes of Elagabalus, albeit in a more restrained manner. This centred around the cult of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), who was now officially recognized as the chief deity of the Roman state and received a magnificent temple on the Campus Agrippae. Further, Aurelian was the first Roman Emperor to assume the official title of Deus (God) in his lifetime: inscriptions refer to Deus Aurelianus (the god Aurelian), and coins struck to commemorate the re-unification of the Empire carry the legend DEO ET DOMINO NATO AURELIANO AVG on one side and RESTITUT ORBIS on the other. In other words, Aurelian is not just restorer of the world but born (nato) god (deo) and master (domino). He was turning the ‘Principate’ into the ‘Dominate’.

Rome’s living god was not immortal, though, and in 275 he was heading for Persia when he was killed in a plot instigated by his private secretary Eros that was carried through by the Praetorians. It may be that the conspirators feared that their lives were in danger, but the main consequence of their action was to put Rome itself into danger.

Into Danger Once Again: 275–285

Aurelian was quite a hard act to follow, and in any case he had no appointed successor. So the army asked the Senate to choose. They selected one of their own, the seventy-five-year-old M. Claudius Tacitus (no relation to the historian) who was in Campania at the time. It looks like he had to cope with threats from the Franks and the Alemanni in the north, and a major incursion by the Heruli from the region of the Sea of Azov, who overran Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia and Cilicia before Tacitus and his half-brother M. Annius Florianus routed them in the spring of 276. Tacitus gloried briefly in the title of Gothicus Maximus before he was slain at Tyana or Tarsus on his way back to Europe by disgruntled Syrian nobles.

Next up was Florianus:

Florianus, who had succeeded Tacitus, was in power for two months and twenty days and did nothing worth remembering.28

The reason for this was that M. Aurelius Probus had been put forward by the rival armies of Syria, Phoenicia and Egypt. Florianus’ soldiers, who were unaccustomed to the Eastern climatic conditions, became demoralized, instigated a coup, imprisoned him, and either killed him or strongly hinted that he should kill himself, once it was clear that Probus would be the new ruler.

Probus in Latin means ‘excellent in a moral sense’, and this is how the tradition presents him to us: ‘equal to, or better than, any [of Rome’s great leaders], if mad envy does not disagree’.29 He was also an adept warrior-Emperor out of the same mould as Aurelian, and he would need all of these skills, as the punning (and possibly fictitious) epitaph erected by his soldiers indicates:

Here lies the Emperor Probus, and indeed a man of probity, the victor over all barbarian tribes and also the victor over pretenders.30

The phrase ‘all barbarian tribes’ conjures up a rather misleading image of hundreds of thousands of them overwhelming Rome’s borders, but although they were very frightening and often destructive, their actual numbers were probably relatively small. The barbarians now needing Probus’ attention were the Franks and the Alemanni, who were devastating Gaul and the Rhineland, the Burgundiones (a Germanic people) and the Vandals, who were terrorizing Raetia, and the Goths, who needed to be expelled from the Danubian provinces. Probus rose manfully to the task and by 279 he could focus on Asia Minor, where a brigand called Lydius the Isaurian was pillaging Pamphylia and Lycia. Lydius was shot by a turncoat artillery expert, after which the final item on Probus’ agenda was a rebellion in Upper Egypt by the Blemmyae. By the end of 279 he seemed to have a secure grasp of both the Eastern and the Western provinces.

One interesting decision that Probus took was to allow large numbers of Bastarnae from Scythia (roughly modern Moldova), Goths, Vandals, Alemanni and Franks to settle in Gaul and in the Danubian provinces, perhaps to rectify depopulation caused by warfare and plague. For their part, the barbarians probably felt that they would be better off inside the Roman frontiers: essentially they were looking for lands to farm, not to destroy Rome, and many of them served as recruits in the Roman army. Probus’ policy would cause difficulties later on, but for now he seemed pleased enough with himself to assume the title ‘Persicus Maximus’, although precisely why is not specified. The pleasure of the barbarians at being allowed to settle within the Empire is perhaps reflected in the name that some of them were given: laeti, ‘the Happy Ones’ in Latin (although the term may also be a Germanic one denoting serfs).

Securing the Empire was no guarantee of internal peace, though. The pretenders that Probus’ epitaph speaks of appeared in the persons of Proculus and Bonosus, who proclaimed themselves joint Emperors at Colonia Agrippina. Proculus hoped to bring the Franks onside, but instead they turned him in to Probus, while Bonosus hanged himself when his military situation became desperate. Another rebellion by ‘some other fellow in Britain’31 was swiftly quashed, but a more dangerous challenge came in the East, where the Moorish-born Iulius Saturninus, a one-time friend of Probus, started calling himself Imperator Caesar Iulius Saturninus Augustus. However, Probus was spared the need to take action when Saturninus was killed by his own soldiers.

Probus could now relax in true Roman style, and towards the end of 281 he celebrated a triumph: the Circus Maximus was turned into a temporary forest for a beast hunt where the people were allowed to take thousands of ostriches, stags, wild boars and other animals; 100 lions, 100 lionesses, 200 leopards and 300 bears made a spectacle ‘bigger than it was enjoyable’32 in the Colosseum; and many captive Blemmyae, Germans, Sarmatians and Isaurian brigands were made to fight as gladiators after being displayed in the triumph. However, by focusing on more peaceable measures, Probus would cause his own demise. As he turned to economic restoration he deployed his soldiers in drainage projects on the Nile and the Danube, constructing temples and bridges in Egypt, finishing off Rome’s Aurelian Walls and planting new vineyards in Gaul and the Danube area. But his peacetime boast that Rome would soon have no need of armies was not a message the soldiers wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, the following spring Probus was on the warpath again, intending to campaign against the Persians. He had reached the vicinity of his birthplace, Sirmium, when M. Aurelius Carus, the Praefectus Praetorio, proclaimed himself Emperor with the backing (or insistence) of the armies of Raetia and Noricum. Probus dispatched some men to suppress the uprising, but they simply joined up with Carus, and when news of this prompted further defections, Probus’ days were numbered. The Historia Augusta relates that the soldiers rebelled as a result of being made to work on civilian projects, and that they killed Probus as he took refuge in an iron-clad watchtower, after which they built him a ‘massive tomb on a high mound’ adorned with the epitaph quoted above.33

Carus now set a new precedent: he was Rome’s first Emperor not to seek the Senate’s endorsement for his accession. The Historia Augusta describes him as ‘a mediocre man’,34 but he had a good deal of military experience, and clearly harboured dynastic aspirations, giving the status of Caesar to his two sons, M. Aurelius Carinus and M. Aurelius Numerianus. Having subsequently promoted Carinus to Augustus, Carus detailed him to oversee the Western provinces and set off with Numerianus to complete his predecessor’s unfinished business with Persia. This can only have been a vanity project, since Persia under Vahram II was by now a shadow of what it had been under Shapur I. Having successfully engaged with Sarmatians and Quadi on the Danube as they marched east, the Roman battle group advanced through Mesopotamia and took Ctesiphon, and Carus assumed the title Persicus Maximus. But there, in July or August 283, both the vanity and the expedition stopped. Most of the ancient sources say that Carus was hit by a thunderbolt, although disease and assassination cannot be ruled out (or definitively ruled in).

Numerianus was a good orator and a decent poet, but whether he would have made a successful Emperor is hard to tell. He was swiftly made co-Augustus with Carus, but as he was overseeing an orderly withdrawal of the Roman troops from Persia it was said that he contracted a serious eye infection, which meant that he had to travel in a closed litter. No one thought any more about this until a hideous stench started to emanate from the litter and his rotting corpse was discovered. Whatever the cause of his death, and of the concealment of his body, suspicion fell onto his father-in-law, the Praefectus Praetorio Aper. On 20 November 284 a military assembly was convened at which the troops acclaimed the Dalmatian-born commander of the domestici (Imperial Guard), C. Aurelius Valerius Diocles, as Augustus. Diocles publicly eliminated his immediate opposition in a highly dramatic (and possibly very carefully choreographed) way:

When someone asked how Numerian had been slain, he drew his sword and pointing to Aper, the Praefectus Praetorio, he drove it through him, saying as he did so, ‘It is he who contrived Numerian’s death.’35

There is also a tale that Diocles followed this up with a wellchosen quotation from Virgil:

Well might you boast, Aper, ‘You die by the right hand of great Aeneas.’36

Diocles now took the name Diocletianus (‘Diocletian’), and if he was channelling Rome’s great hero Aeneas, his first job would be to get his followers back to Italy. But Carinus still controlled the Western provinces and was giving various recalcitrant barbarians a good kicking: the Germans on the Rhine, and the Quadi on the Danube succumbed to his military prowess, and he celebrated a triumph in 284. He also campaigned in Britain and took the title Britannicus Maximus, and it was there that he heard news of his brother’s death.

Carinus is absolutely slated by the author of the Historia Augusta, which might well be an indication of the effectiveness of Diocletian’s propaganda:

When he found out that his father had been killed by lightning, that his brother had been done away with by his own father-in-law and that Diocletian had been hailed as Augustus, Carinus perpetrated even greater acts of vice and wickedness.37

We are presented with a staggering catalogue of this: tales of adultery, paedophilia, and the ‘evil use of the enjoyment of his own sex’; ‘unwonted vices and inordinate depravity’; murder; ‘debaucheries and lusts’; arrogance towards the Senate; the marriage and divorce of nine wives, some discarded while they were pregnant; and a palace full of ‘actors and harlots, pantomimists, singers and pimps’. He wore jewels on his shoes, hosted ridiculously opulent banquets, swam among apples and melons, and strewed his banqueting-halls and bedrooms with roses. His plunge-baths were always cooled with snow, and having once bathed in a naturally tepid pool he screamed at the bath-attendants, ‘This is water for a woman that you have given me’ (his most famous saying).38

If Carinus really was busy doing all this, it seems extraordinary that he found the time to see off a pretender who dubbed himself Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Sabinus Iulianus Pius Felix Augustus early in 285. However, the real danger was the imminent arrival of Diocletian and his powerful Eastern army. They met halfway at the River Margus (Morava, close to modern Belgrade). It would be winner takes all, including control of the historical tradition, and damnatio memoriae for the loser. The ‘authorized version’ that therefore comes down to us is that Carinus managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He looked likely to win the battle, but was thwarted at the crucial moment, either by the desertion of his army or as a consequence of his alleged depravity:

He put to death very many innocent men on false charges, seduced the wives of nobles, and even ruined those of his school fellows who had taunted him at school, even with trivial banter.39

One of his commanders was the husband of one of those unfortunate women, and he slew Carinus at his moment of triumph. Carinus’ own wife, Magnia Urbica, died at roughly the same time, and her memory, along with those of her husband, Carus and Numerianus, received the inevitable official condemnation. When their inscriptions were erased, Rome symbolically acquired a clean sheet on which to write its future history. A new era had just dawned.

1   Tr, Vossius, G. J., History of Count Zosimus, Sometime Advocate and Chancellor of the Roman Empire, London: Green and Chaplin, 1814.

2   Historia Augusta, The Two Maximini 9.2 uses the Latin word animal; see also, e.g., 2.2, 6.9, 28.8; cf. Herodian 6.8.1, 7.1.2.

3   Historia Augusta, The Two Maximini 4.3, tr. Kershaw, S.

4   Historia Augusta, The Three Gordians 19.3–4, tr. Magie, D., op. cit. The joke works nicely in Latin: in Greek mythology Priam had fifty sons (see Kershaw, S., op. cit., 2007, pp. 240–3); Priapus was a rustic god who looked after the produce of your vegetable garden, and was depicted with a huge penis, symbolizing both fertility and his power to ward off trespassers by sexually violating them. See Richlin, A., op. cit.

5   Herodian, 7.9.7, tr. Echols, E. C., op. cit.

6   In some sources (e.g., Aurelius Victor and Eutropius) there are only two Gordians, with II and III being combined, although the author of Historia Augusta, The Three Gordians regards these authorities as ‘uninformed’.

7   See Shahîd, I., Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs, Dumbarton Oaks: Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 65 ff.

8   Zosimus, New History 1.22, tr. Vossius, G. J., op. cit.

9   Orac. Sib. 13.81–83, tr. Potter, D. S., Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire: A Historical Commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

10   P. Mich. inv. 263, tr. Special Collections, the University of Michigan Library. See Potter, D. S., The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180–395, London and New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 241 ff.

11   See below, p. 397.

12   Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors 4.3, tr. Fletcher, A., in Roberts, A. and Donaldson, J. (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1886.

13   Zosimus, New History 1.28; Zonaras 12.21.

14   Eutropius, Breviarium 9.6, tr. Bird, H. W., op. cit

15   See, e.g., Meijer, F., Emperors Don’t Die in Bed, London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

16   The Inscription Of Shapur I At Naqsh-E Rustam In Fars, 4–5., tr. Maricq, A., ‘Res Gestae Divi Saporis’, Syria 35, 1958, pp. 295–360.

17   Ibid, 9 ff., tr. Maricq, A., op. cit., pp. 295–360.

18   Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors 5.2 ff., tr. Fletcher, W., op. cit.

19   Historia Augusta, The Two Gallieni 4.3, tr. Magie, D., op. cit.

20   See p. 283.

21   Historia Augusta, The Thirty Tyrants 30.15, tr. Kershaw, S.

22   Historia Augusta, Claudius 18.4, tr. Kershaw, S.

23   E.g. Historia Augusta, Claudius 12.5; Eutropius 9.12; Zonaras 12.26. Other sources give seventy-seven days or ‘a few months (or days)’, and there was at least time for most mints to strike coins.

24   ILS 573.

25   Historia Augusta, Aurelian 37.5–6; Zonaras 12.26. John of Antioch, fr. 154 FHG IV, p. 599, says that Quintillus had a physician open his veins. At Historia Augusta, Aurelian 16.1 we get contradictory information, namely that Quintillus was murdered.

26   Historia Augusta, Thirty Tyrants 30.24 ff., tr. Kershaw, S. Cf. Historia Augusta, Aurelian 34.3.

27   Virgil, Aenid 6.365, where the words are spoken by the ghost of Palinurus to Aeneas. Tr. Day Lewis, C., op. cit.

28   Eutropius, Breviarium 9.16, tr. Bird, H. W., op. cit.

29   Historia Augusta, Probus 22.1, tr. Kershaw, S.

30   Ibid. 21.4.

31   Zonaras 12.29, cf. Historia Augusta, Probus 18.5.

32   Historia Augusta, Probus 19.7, tr. Kershaw, S.

33   Ibid. 21.3.

34   Historia Augusta, Carus, Carinus and Numerian 3.8.

35   Historia Augusta, Carus, Carinus and Numerian 13.2, tr. Magie, D., op. cit.

36   Virgil, Aeneid 10.830, tr. Kershaw, S., where the words are spoken by Aeneas to Lausus as he kills him.

37   Historia Augusta, Carus, Carinus and Numerian 18.1, tr. Kershaw, S.

38   Ibid. 16–17.

39   Eutropius, Breviarium 9.19, tr. Bird, H. W., op. cit.

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