Ancient History & Civilisation

Part III

The Senate’s Revival

The Contestants of the Crisis of 238


Maximinus Thrax (235–238).


Balbinus (238). (Adobe Stock)


Pupienus (238).


Gordian II (238).

Senatorial Emperors


Gordian III (238–244).


Decius (249–251).


Philip the Arab (244–249). (Rabax63 via Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter Nine

The Crisis of 238

The position of the Senate in the reign of Maximinus Thrax was of an institution in a classic pre-revolutionary situation. After a lengthy period of declining influence and under increasing menace from the imperial power (Severus to Elagabalus), there came a period of relief and a return to the Senate’s ‘rightful’ scale of influence (during the reign of Alexander Severus), but this was then followed by a sudden, even brutal, return to a period of minimal influence and authority when even the person of the emperor was absent and he displayed only negligent contempt for it (reign of Maximinus Thrax), nor did he hesitate to execute senators or to threaten their position by aiming to impose taxation on them. This must be the moment of least senatorial influence since the murders of senators in the civil wars that ended the Republic. Revolutionary theory now points to the dashing of mounting or reviving hopes as the likeliest moment for a revolution to break out. It is perhaps too much to consider the Roman Senate as a revolutionary instrument, but it is nevertheless certain that in 238 the Senate instigated a series of measures that resulted in its revival as an effective organ of government for the next generation.1

The anger of the Senate at the Emperor Maximinus’ seizure of power, his failure to attend to the senators’ opinions and perhaps his failure to come to Rome for the award of the imperial powers was further fuelled by the ruthless way in which taxes were imposed and collected to pay the expenses involved in his campaigns. The collection fell heavily on those most able to pay; that is, merchants, landowners and the wealthy, of whom the senators themselves were a part. The injustice – senators were traditionally exempt from ordinary taxation – was widely felt among those whose wealth was therefore reduced.2 Maximinus’ policies thus marked a clear division between the two groupings in the state: the army and the senators, personifying the rich. The author hesitates to use the term ‘parties’, for they were scarcely well-organized or coherent. This separation is, nevertheless, the key to understanding the process of the selection and accession of emperors in the next half-century.

The resentment of the Senate was displayed very clearly in its reaction to the news from Africa that a man, a senator more than 80 years old, had been proclaimed emperor. He was M. Antonius Gordianus Sempronius Romanus, the governor of the province of Africa. A tax revolt had begun in Thysdrus (now El Djem), a prosperous town some distance south of Carthage, during which the procurator of the province was killed by a group of young men from local wealthy families. This could well have been a local reaction to the increased taxation of Maximinus’ government, though tax riots were hardly unusual. Having done this, the mobs of young men went to a house in the town where Governor Gordian was staying and persuaded him, without much difficulty or resistance on his part, to declare himself Augustus. He then set off to Carthage, where he was accepted as emperor.3

The place and the man are, to say the least, surprising. The province of Africa was senatorial. The governor was always appointed from the Senate and was a post to which senators arrived by rank and which they could expect to reach if they lived long enough. The province had no troops stationed within it other than a proconsular guard and the urban militia, though there was a legion next door in Numidia. Bearing in mind the method and the tradition of usurpations in the Roman Empire, it seemed to make no sense to launch such an attempt without getting armed backing first. Also the fact that Gordian was 80 and had had a fairly undistinguished career, though Herodian claims he had held many provincial commands, meant that the man himself was a most unlikely imperial candidate. However, the two other senatorial plotters of this reign, Petronius Magnus and T. Quartinus, were of no particular distinction either. In one way Gordian’s emergence as a challenger to Maximinus is of the same type as these two. Indeed, by staging his rising in a province with no armed forces, it might be said that it was an alternative to them; if their plots had failed because the army objected, try a plot where there is no army to oppose the attempt.

Yet there are also elements in all of this suggesting that the matter was not nearly as spontaneous as it is made to seem. It is more than curious that the tax revolt and the killing of the procurator should take place just at the time when the governor was also in the town, presumably with his official guard, and so a long way from the main provincial centre at Carthage. The procurator and the governor had rather conflicting offices and are unlikely to have been seen as colleagues. Apart from the governor’s own guard, which would have been with him, the procurator also had an armed guard, which was trounced by the clubs and fists of the young assassins and their followers. These ‘followers’ were in fact the clients and tenants of the organizers, who had been summoned to the town for the occasion. So the defeat of the procurator’s guard left the governor’s guard – which had not assisted in putting down the riot – in sole armed control of the province. Gordian’s resistance to his proclamation as Augustus is emphasized by the historian Herodian, but it was in fact little more than a gesture, of no greater moment than that of Maximinus three years before; a token resistance was part of the process of seizing power and was expected; it did not do to appear too eager to take power. This coup, in other words, looks to have been planned at this local level; the procurator had no doubt been identified as the main obstacle to the coup, quite apart from being detested for his tax-collecting activities. He was therefore removed first, and Gordian’s presence in the town, and therefore his availability to head the coup, was deliberate.

Gordian’s first action after having the purple robe put round his shoulders – it just happened to be handy, of course – was to send letters to several of his senatorial colleagues in Rome, supposedly asking for their support, and he activated the network of his friends and relations. The necessary manifesto was sent, setting out the reasons for his action – a condemnation of Maximinus and a promise of a restoration of good government and the righting of wrongs – and emphasizing that he had the unanimous support of his province. He appointed his son Gordian II as his fellow emperor and despatched his quaestor to Rome, no doubt with oral messages. Other men were also sent to the city; among them, it is said, P. Licinius Valerianus, who was a member of the governor’s staff and who fifteen years later became emperor himself. The messages included an instruction to see to the death of the ‘commander of the forces in Rome’, who Herodian calls Vitalianus,4 that is, the Praetorian Prefect P. Aelius Vitalianus. The main body of the Guard was with Maximinus on the frontier, but the prefect was in charge in Rome during his ‘continued’ absence. The City Prefect, named as Sabinus, was also a Maximinus loyalist; his removal would also be a priority.

All this – the local events, the instant messages to Rome, the plans to remove Maximinus’ key people in the city – looks to be rather too well thought out and organized to be quite as spontaneous as the account in Herodian suggests. (In the same way, the apparent spontaneity of the coup that removed Elagabalus and installed Alexander is belied by the speed and sequence of the subsequent events.) At Rome, indeed, coinage in the name of the Gordians was issued very quickly, and it seems that the dies might already have been prepared.5 This would imply that any senators, and the major part of the administration at Rome, had already been suborned, and that the revolt at Thysdrus had also been organized well in advance.

Consider further the sheer unlikeliness of the events in Africa. The governor was a man 80 years old or thereabouts, he had no military experience so far as we can see, and he had at his command no serious military forces; indeed, he was to be overwhelmed and suppressed in only three weeks. He was challenging a competent and experienced soldier who had the loyalty and support of the greater part of the Roman army. This is a sequence of events so unlikely to lead to success that it is necessary to investigate further. A senator would scarcely put himself in harm’s way so readily, with the probable consequence of a humiliating death for himself and his family and the confiscation of his property, if he was not both driven by strong emotions and, much more important, assured of wider support. The lack of distinction of Gordian in his previous career suggests a man content to obey any emperor who came along, and a man of little ambition; it would take a convincing conspiracy for such a man to take the actions attributed to him.

Several items combine to suggest that the coup was pre-planned on a much wider scale than Africa. The suggestion that the coin dies at Rome were produced in advance has been noted. Perhaps still more convincing is the fact that the Senate was always deeply impressed by age and by accumulated experience. A senator aged 80 merited respect from his fellows because of his age and descent (note the emperors Nerva and later Tacitus, both of them senatorial and aged emperors; the Augustan History claims that Gordian was descended from the Republican Scipios and from Marcus Aurelius6). If Gordian was prepared to take the lead, this could well have been the catalyst that brought the conspirators from expressions of discontent into the active phase of a plot. Supporting this is the fact that Gordian had an adult son, probably in his 40s. Like his father he had gone through the traditional sequence of elected offices – quaestor, aedile, praetor and consul – or so the unreliable Historia Augusta claims, though this is quite likely.7 His age would mean the elder Gordian as emperor would probably leave much of his work to his son, who was already acting as his legate in Africa, and that the son would inevitably succeed to the throne fairly soon.

There were also other prominent men with him, including at least one of consular rank, M. Licinius Valerianus: Gordian was able to use these men as his messengers to the Senate, where their rank would ensure them immediate attention. There was also still another generation of the family, Gordian I’s grandson, the son of his daughter. A series of Gordians placed on the throne and reigning for the foreseeable future and put there by the influence of the Senate would have been a most attractive notion to the senators who were especially resentful at the greedy, upstart and neglectful Maximinus, the Thracian; one can almost hear the contempt in the senatorial voices at such a description. (See Genealogical Table XII.)


So the plot in Africa was probably well-prepared, with the equal probability that the groundwork had been done in Rome in advance. The eruption at Thysdrus seems to have taken place early in 238, between January and March. Gordian I had become proconsul of Africa only during 237, so this was good going: the whole plot laid out and detonated within perhaps six months. The senatorial plots of Quartinus and Magnus had failed in the previous year or so, which will have indicated just what was likely to go wrong. It was clearly necessary to plan carefully and in detail, as well as, of course, secretly. Above all, it was necessary to have an emperor-candidate ready to assume power from the beginning. It was also necessary to keep clear of the army, which was generally loyal to Maximinus. Further, the conspiracy needed to be accomplished quickly to avoid leaks and betrayals. It is possible that the killing of the procurator was merely the accident that sparked the conspiracy into action. (If so, this argues all the more for detailed existing planning.) All those involved were assisted, of course, by the continued absence of the emperor from Rome and by his failure as a result to develop a group of senatorial supporters there, so one of the elements most causing resentment was one of those most helpful to the plotters.

The messages from Africa to Rome would have taken only about a week, perhaps less, to reach their recipients in the city. The messengers are described as killing the ‘commander of the forces’, Vitalianus; whether they did so or not – the Augustan History says he was killed at the Senate’s command – the news they brought certainly stimulated an immediate riot in the city. A meeting of the Senate was convened at which Maximinus was declared deposed. The two Gordians were then voted in as joint Augusti. The procedure was to vote that Maximinus’ authority as a magistrate was abrogated (that is, his tribunician and proconsular powers were withdrawn), and he was then declared a public enemy. The legal authority as emperors, the imperial powers, were then granted to the two Gordians, father and son.8

Here was a distinctive touch bringing reminiscences of the election of pairs of magistrates in the long-defunct Republic or, perhaps more relevantly, of the joint rule of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus; Gordian I had been born in the reign of Antoninus Pius and could presumably recall the joint rule of Marcus and Lucius in his childhood. Other instances also abounded, of Augustus and Tiberius, of Vespasian and Titus, of Nerva and Trajan, even of Septimius with Caracalla and Geta. (Maximinus had also associated his son with him as joint emperor.) The difference here was that the two Gordians were appointed simultaneously and so had equal authority, subject only to the deference that the younger man would naturally exercise towards his father. Yet both were Augusti, imperatores, and had tribunician and proconsular powers, and they were both nominated as consuls for the next year. It would no doubt be expected that Gordian II would reign alone fairly soon, so perhaps the nearest parallel was with Nerva, appointed by a vote of the Senate, and his adopted son Trajan, the legendary ‘best of emperors’. After two and a half centuries of imperial rule, not only was an emperor found to be necessary but there were plenty of precedents for almost any combination of rulers.

The other difference was in regard to the army. Neither the Gordians in Africa nor the Senate in Italy had much in the way of armed forces at their disposal. They certainly had nothing that would face the army, battle-hardened and loyal, commanded by Maximinus. At the time Maximinus was at Sirmium in Pannonia and about to launch an attack north over the Danube (shades of Domitian’s plan at his death).

This deliberate ignoring of the army seems on the surface to be paradoxical and even suicidal, but it may well be that the plot was actually predicated on avoiding any early contact with the army on the assumption – the hope, perhaps? – that the authority of the united Senate would prevail over that of the upstart military eques who had made himself emperor, that ‘Thracian’. After all, the two senatorial attempts to suborn Maximinus’ army had scarcely lasted a week. So, if opposition from the army seemed certain, then gaining time to make the troops have second thoughts, to impress them with the Senate’s resolve and authority, to summon help from other provinces, to rouse public opinion, to spread the word, and to remind the soldiers of Maximinus’ unpopularity outside the army was all to the good.

It seems that Maximinus was taken aback by what had happened. He heard the news in the camp at Sirmium and took two days to think through his response. Then, as he was bound to, he turned his army around and marched on Italy.9 The Senate, in a move that certainly once again looks pre-planned, now set up a committee of senior members, twenty in number, who took charge of affairs.10 This was a reminiscence of the committee that had existed to advise Alexander Severus only a few years earlier, which had been peremptorily disbanded by Maximinus three years before, and no doubt quite a few of the members of the earlier committee were on the new one. (The membership, other than the names of four men, is not known.) Preparations were made to defend Italy, and these preparations were apparently begun even before it was known that Maximinus was on his way.

The Senate sent out letters to the provincial governors, detailing the changes. No doubt Maximinus sent out letters of his own, refuting the Senate’s doings, but the Senate had a few days’ start and controlled the communications from Rome to the provinces, while Maximinus’ letters had to travel from the frontier. The result for all those so addressed in the provinces was most uncomfortable, especially since events in Italy and Africa moved so quickly. The decisions in all the provinces can be roughly estimated by a few comments in written sources, from coin issues, and from changes made to inscriptions. Since the Gordians were originally from Anatolia, it is not surprising to see the whole of that land cleaving to them without apparent hesitation. Egypt and Greece did so as well, as did, though by the evidence of only a single inscription, Syria-Palestine, but in the West and North it was Maximinus who prevailed. Spain, Numidia, Gaul and Britain, as well as Pannonia where Maximinus and his army were, all remained loyal. In Germany, however, at least some troops joined the Senate’s side and marched to Italy to resist Maximinus. The decisions in these latter areas were important since these provinces held all the armies that were capable of reaching Italy easily. It is noticeable that the provinces supporting the Gordians tended to be, like Africa, senatorial; that is, without legionary garrisons. In Moesia Inferior the governor declared for the Gordians, but one of his legions disobeyed him and had to be defeated in battle. The decision in each province technically lay with the governor, but governors of provinces containing elements of the army were clearly constrained by that fact, and it would seem that they supported Maximinus largely because their troops did.11

This division of the Empire, East against West, military against senatorial, was obviously dangerous for the Senate and its emperors, and threatened widespread civil war. For the emperors in Africa indeed, the danger turned out to be immediate and fatal. They were attacked by the troops of the III Augusta legion, commanded by the governor of Numidia, Capellianus. He was a personal enemy of the elder Gordian, if not both of them, and who was therefore, if for no other reason, a Maximinus loyalist. (This is perhaps the basic reason they did not try to bring him to their side or tamper with the loyalty to him of his legion.) Capellianus moved quickly, defeated and killed the younger Gordian in a battle; the elder one then committed suicide as a less unpleasant alternative to falling into Capellianus’ hands.12

The explanation for Capellianus’ actions – personal enmity – is difficult to accept as his sole motivation. He had to move out of his province to attack the Gordians, not a practice encouraged by emperors of any sort. On the other hand, there was just about enough time for an order to do so to go from Maximinus in Sirmium to Capellianus in Numidia; if the winds in the Adriatic were favourable, a ship could have reached Numidia in perhaps a week or so and Capellianus’ task, against the virtually unarmed emperors, would have been relatively straightforward. This might also help to explain the relatively slow response of Maximinus and his army, for if the Gordians were eliminated, it was reasonable to assume from previous experience (Alexander Severus, Quartinus and Magnus) that the revolt would rapidly collapse.

The reign of the two Gordians lasted only about three weeks; like their enemy Maximinus, they never reigned in Rome. They are counted as official emperors because of the votes in the Senate, and the brevity and geographical limitations of their rule means that they ought to be counted as ‘unsuccessful emperors’, or, like Maximus and Quartinus, as ‘usurpers’. For Maximinus was still in charge of much of the rest of the Empire and of almost all the army. The Senate, which had nailed its colours to the mast very publicly, was now faced by the need to replace its emperors quickly. The news of the deaths of the Gordians presumably did not arrive as too much of a surprise. The enmity of Capellianus, a senator, towards the Gordians was probably well-known, and messages about his attack would have gone to Rome, probably asking for armed help, very quickly, possibly even before he attacked. So when the news of their deaths arrived, the Senate would have had some advance warning that measures to replace them were going to be needed.

At any rate, action was taken at once. Two members of the Committee of Twenty, M. Clodius Pupienus Maximus and D. Caelius Calvinus Balbinus, were elected to replace the Gordians.13 Again, it was to be a joint reign, suggesting that the double investiture of the two Gordians had been a deliberate choice, and that this had been a decision of the Senate in the first place. The election of Pupienus and Balbinus is more evidence that the whole scheme was fully understood in advance, and that a large part of the Senate (perhaps the members of the Committee of Twenty, who might thus have been the original conspirators) was involved from the beginning. It cannot have been planned precisely in the way it happened, of course, but the general principles – the deliberate ignoring of the absence of military support, doubling the emperorship and the predominant role of the Senate – were clearly fully worked out, no doubt in private debates, before the event. The absence of the emperor from Rome for the last three years no doubt facilitated the conspiracy. His apparent contempt for the Senate also perhaps led him to underestimate its capacity for intrigue and planning.

Of course, the senators were relying on luck and for a time Fortuna smiled on them. Maximinus allowed himself to be distracted into besieging the city of Aquileia, perhaps hoping, or assuming, that the deaths of the Gordians would end the whole affair. This delay annoyed his troops, notably the men of the II Parthica legion, whose families were in the camp at Alba, near Rome. Maximinus had also taken a considerable time on his march, presumably on the other assumption that the mere threat of his army invading Italy would cause the opposition to crumble. However, by the time he reached northern Italy the Senate and its emperors had displayed unwonted activity, and had gathered considerable forces to oppose him. The people of Aquileia proved to be supportive of them as well, and were under the command of two consular senators, Rutilius Pudens Crispinus and Tullius Menophilus, both probably members of the Twenty, who had been sent there by the Senate. Maximinus’ siege of the city was resisted vigorously. After a fairly short time his forces began to go hungry and to suffer from disease.14

The Senate’s two emperors had by this time succeeded in gathering support from other armies. Pupienus was at Ravenna, the headquarters of the Adriatic fleet, which therefore presumably supported the Senate (and could bring supplies and troops into Aquileia), and he was about to receive reinforcements from the army in Germany, the very army that had put Maximinus on the throne in the first place. The source of these troops is not clear, for the German army generally seems to have been loyal to Maximinus; Pupienus had been governor in one of the provinces there and so the troops may have joined him for that reason; there may also have been some resentment at the killing of Alexander Severus.

Pupienus was in charge of the defence of Italy, while Balbinus, considerably the older of the two emperors, remained in Rome, where a pitched battle developed between the plebs and those of the praetorians who were present, which ended in destruction in the city but the defeat of the Guard.15 At Aquileia, equally, the citizen militia managed to hold off the professionals of Maximinus’ army. All this surely came as something of a shock to the soldiers, whose self-image was of defenders of the prestige and the people of the Empire. To find that they were hated by those very people was surely an unpleasant surprise. They had already been discouraged by the fact that the inhabitants of Emona, which lay on their route from Sirmium, had evacuated their city rather than receive the army. Herodian says the army was annoyed at the consequent lack of food, but it must have been even more unpleasant to find that their own people, in a loyal province, feared the Roman army even more than their barbarian enemies, and the local hostility also contributed to the shortage of supplies.

No doubt the moving spirits in Aquileia were those who detested Maximinus’ tax policies; that is, the merchants and the landowners. The knowledge that the Senate was conducting the war against them – two of the Twenty were in command in Aquileia, one of the emperors was at Ravenna, another of the Twenty was recruiting troops in Milan, and the senior emperor was in control of Rome – would have led some of the men in Maximinus’ army to question their purposes in besieging an Italian city rather than fighting barbarians. The news of the defeat of the Guard by the citizens in Rome meant that the threat to their families felt by the men of II Parthica was now all the greater, and the news of fighting at Rome would have surely bothered the rest of the soldiers as well. The longer the fighting in the north of Italy went on, the more politically isolated Maximinus became.

It cannot have been unknown to the soldiers that Maximinus was disliked by the Senate: the attempts by Quartinus and Magnus were not secret, nor that of the Gordians, and now the two emperors whom the Senate had publicly elected and was supporting made that clear enough. The soldiers had a sense of decorum in political matters, and to find the emperor at odds with the Senate was a distortion of what the soldiers felt was right. All through the third century, the soldiers displayed this attachment to correct constitutional practice, and Maximinus was one of its first victims. In the end, the soldiers of II Parthica and the detachment of the praetorians who were on duty at the emperor’s quarters turned on him, killed both him and his son, and then the men of their council as well, which was no doubt a group of senior officers.16

The soldiers were doing the same as had been done to the previous supporters of assassinated emperors. Maximinus’ son had been made Caesar, so he had to be killed to ensure that Maximinus’ regime ended; their advisers and ministers had to go too, as had those who had governed for Caracalla, Macrinus, Elagabalus and Alexander. However, this practice was exactly what the reassertion of senatorial authority was intended to stop, and it is a clear sign that the troops did not yet comprehend what the change meant; nor did they ever, in fact.

At Rome popular pressure compelled the Senate to make Gordian I’s grandson Caesar. This was a further sign that matters were not really under full senatorial control.17 There is no doubt that the senators, given the exercise of their free will, would not have made a 13-year-old boy the heir of Balbinus and Pupienus. Pupienus had a son who he may have wished to succeed him, though Balbinus seems to have had no direct descendants. The election by the Senate of the two emperors suggests that the intention was to maintain that doubling, but not to permit direct succession within a family without election. No doubt it was also expected that a further change would be accomplished, perhaps by adding a second Caesar to continue the doubling commenced by the first two Gordians. The two-Augusti-and-a-Caesar pattern prefigures in these ways the later more elaborate design by Diocletian.

The description of the elevation of Gordian in the collective biography of the three Gordians in the Historia Augusta is that the boy ‘was hurried to the Senate and then taken to an Assembly, and there they clothed him in the imperial garments and hailed him as Caesar’. Relying on the Historia is hazardous, but this would seem to be a description of either what did happen on the accession of an emperor or what was thought to have happened. That is, the author is describing in general terms the process of investing a new emperor at Rome: first at a meeting of the Senate where he would be voted into office with the specified imperial powers, then at a meeting of the citizens (the Assembly) where he was acclaimed, and finally being clothed in a purple robe. The significance of the purple robe is crucial, and donning it was the definitive moment in the acclamation of both Maximinus and Gordian I. The least likely event is the meeting of an Assembly. This is the only example of such a meeting that is known since the time of Nerva, though some sort of public presentation of the new ruler seems to have been required whenever the installation took place in Rome. Apart from the purple robe, the ceremony was not very different from that at the accession of Tiberius. The first essential, however, was the Senate’s approbation, indicated by a vote in the full House. This is what was missing for Maximinus, at least until sometime after he took the powers himself. The proclamation of emperors by the army had similar elements: the urging by the officers was followed by acclamation by the soldiers, an event that may have substituted for the popular Assembly; the soldiers, after all, were citizens (though this is hardly a meaningful distinction by the mid-third century). Then came the purple robe, which was now the ratifying moment.

The Guard had been thoroughly humiliated in all these events, and was now allied with II Parthica, which had originally been placed at Alba by Septimius in order to act as a control over the Guardsmen. It would also be clear to every soldier that the new regime, owing nothing to the soldiers, would be unfavourable to them, though Gordian I had promised a large donative and Pupienus promised one at Aquileia. The new rulers had also brought in a group described as ‘Germans’ to act as their bodyguard, which were presumably the men who Pupienus had summoned to his assistance from the Rhineland forces. This can only mean they were afraid of what the surviving Guard and the legionaries might do. This was an accurate fear, for the Guard in Rome invaded the Palace. The two emperors were murdered when the Germans attempted to come to their rescue.

This assassination was as well-planned as the Senate coup had been, for once in the history of the Guard’s politics. There was already a successor in place, once Gordian III had been installed. The Guard located the young Gordian, proclaimed him emperor and took him off to their camp. This was the only occasion on which the Guard successfully installed an emperor, but it will be noticed that he had already been selected and promoted by the plebs of Rome and the Senate before the Guard became involved.18

This was the final act of the political upheaval that took place in 238. Superficially the killings of Balbinus and Pupienus, following on that of the two Gordians in Africa, were defeats for the Senate by the Guard acting on behalf of the army and in revenge for Maximinus. Yet the events of the year had shown quite firmly and clearly that the influence and authority of the Senate was still very powerful. The reaction of Rome and Italy had been very strongly favourable to the Senate’s actions, as was that of the Eastern provinces and parts of the army, especially in Germany; the Pannonian army commanded by Maximinus had gradually come to realize this. The senatorial emperors Pupienus and Balbinus were widely accepted by other sections of the army and by many of the governors in provinces outside Italy. Also, despite the killing of four emperors of the senatorial group in only a few months, it was nevertheless a senatorial nominee for the throne who eventually emerged as the sole emperor. There were also, of course, good opportunities for senatorial influence in the enthronement of a teenage boy, as had been seen earlier with the reign of Alexander Severus.

Of the programme that the Senate seems to have followed, the idea of a double emperorship was discarded for the present, as was their preference for elderly men on the throne. In fact, it was partly the fact that the two emperors could not agree with each other that contributed to their deaths since their disagreement fatally delayed the summoning of Pupienus’ German guard to their defence when the Guard invaded the Palace. (Balbinus was suspicious that Pupienus would use his control of the German guard to seize sole power.) This sort of disagreement would ultimately have led to a political paralysis as, in the time of the Republic, it was intended to. It is also noticeable that the two oldest emperors of the year – Gordian I, who was about 80, and Balbinus, over 70 – left the more energetic work, such as commanding armies, to their younger colleagues.

This unexpected but clear revival of the Senate’s authority had led to the removal of an emperor whose sole support was his own army; support that had proved to be all too fragile. The events of 238 had shown, yet again, that it was necessary for an emperor to have substantial support in both the army and the Senate if he was to govern successfully and for a decent length of time. The year 238 was, in a sense, a counter-revolution, the undoing of some of the effects of the coups d’état that had put Septimius Severus on the throne almost half a century earlier, and had in effect been repeated by Maximinus. These coups had relegated the Senate to a distinctly secondary role in deciding who should be emperor, a reduction in influence that operated for much of the period following. It also undid part of the methods of succession that had operated from the time of Trajan. The plot to enthrone Gordian I and the elevation of Pupienus and Balbinus were in many ways similar to the Nervan conspiracy against Domitian. The great reduction in the Senate’s influence since 97, however, was not wholly reversed: 238 had proved that the army was not the absolute paramount influence in the State, and the actions of the Guard showed that it also had to be taken into account, though its actions were almost consistently negative. The balance of power had reverted, perhaps, to the condition of the first imperial century, but the army was not to forget its basic political power.

In an even longer context this was a new phase in tension that had been set up by the result of the civil war that had ended the Republic when Octavian, the controller of the only army left, tried to restore the Senate’s work without resigning his own position. By the mid-third century, two and a half centuries since Augustus, much of the damage inflicted on that system by Septimius and before him by Trajan was irreparable. It was the unpopularity engendered for Maximinus by the necessity of taxing harshly to fund the military establishment of the Empire that brought about his downfall; and that necessity was a direct result of Septimius’ extravagant favouring of and his and his son’s generosity to the army. Now the Senate had revived, and the next half-century would see the contest between them continue.

The Licinian Near-Dynasty


Trebonianus Gallus (251–253). (Sailko via Wikimedia Commons)


Gallienus (253–268).


Aemilianus (253).


Valerian (253–260).

The Gallic Empire


Postumus (260–269).


Victorinus (269–271).


Tetricus II (271–274). (CNG via Wikimedia Commons)

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