Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Eleven

The Consequences of Gordian (2): Unsuccessful Emperors

The problem of rebels and pretenders aiming to replace existing emperors has been touched on twice so far, in Chapters 6 and 8, in which one and nine cases respectively were commented on. This covered the period up to the death of Maximinus. In the following fifty years or so, there was a much larger number of such men: perhaps forty of them known in some way, and there were probably more. This is such a huge number, about four times the number of ‘legitimate’ rulers, that it is necessary to investigate them as a group and to separate them from those in power at the time.

The difficulty at the root of all this, as so often happens, is the source material. The most comprehensive source is the Historia Augusta, which is also probably the least reliable of all the ancient sources, except perhaps for the Chronicle of John Malalas. It has a chapter on the ‘Thirty Tyrants’, in which thirty-two are actually named, and another chapter on four other usurpers from the same period; much of the information it purports to purvey is inaccurate or simply invented. Further, the classification of men as ‘tyrants’ is very misleading: the word had lost its original meaning and now it really meant pretenders or usurpers. Several of them were actually simply rebels, with no pretensions to imperial power. It is therefore one of the purposes of this chapter to winnow the collection and remove those that were not pretenders to imperial power. Then the actual authenticated cases can be looked at for the purposes of classification, particularly in connection with how men became emperors.

Some of these have been considered already in the last chapter, especially those who ruled the ‘Gallic Empire’ from 260 to 274, whose length of time in power makes it impossible to regard them as pretenders at all, though if you stand at Rome, as most ancient historians do, they must be seen as rebels. In the same way this author prefers to distinguish between successful emperors, who clearly included Postumus and his Gallic Empire successors, and those who were unsuccessful; hence this chapter title. Their lack of success is also a judgement, of course; however, it is founded not on a subjective decision as to their ‘legitimacy’, but generally on their longevity as rulers. It is difficult to see a man such as the Gallic Emperor Postumus, who ruled a major portion of the Roman Empire for nearly a decade, as a pretender or even as a rebel. He was clearly a successful ruler, and to classify him as anything but a ruling emperor is to judge him from the viewpoint of his enemies. At this distance this seems both unfair and pointless. Also why do we accept Macrinus as a ‘legitimate’ emperor? He lasted only a year, was clearly unsuccessful in his policies, and fled the scene at the first sign of real opposition. So only the criteria of extreme localism and brevity of tenure are worth considering in classifying such men as pretenders, usurpers and rebels. The two together imply that they were quickly suppressed by someone stronger, as clear a mark of lack of success as can be devised.

It is worth noting that a large proportion of the third-century emperors who are counted as ‘legitimate’ were in fact rebels when they began. Gordian I and Decius both rebelled against the legally-constituted emperor of the time, to whom they had sworn an oath of obedience and loyalty: Claudius, Aurelian, Probus and Carus also began the same way, by rebelling and killing their predecessors, as did Diocletian. ‘Legitimacy’ therefore has little or no meaning in the context of Roman emperors; if a man claims to be emperor, all it takes for him to be ‘legitimate’ is for one man to obey him and call him emperor. There was no obvious mechanism, other than recognition by the Senate, for legitimizing a pretender and, as we have seen, several well-regarded ‘legitimate’ emperors were never given senatorial recognition.

Of the Historia Augusta’s thirty-six unsuccessful aspirants to empire between 238 and 284, one is a recognized emperor, Aemilius Aemilianus, though he lasted only three months, and six were the rulers of the ‘Gallic Empire’, four of whom must be regarded as successful. Of the remainder Trebellianus is classified by the historian as an ‘archipiratus’; he operated in the Isaurian Mountains of Anatolia and was in fact simply a brigand.1 Mariades was another brigand, who was chased out of the Empire and then joined the Persians in their invasion of Syria, guided them to the capture of Antioch and returned with them to Persia, no doubt enriched by his share of the loot of the city, which would have been his aim all along. He was hardly an aspirant to the imperial throne; if, indeed, the story is not simply a fiction.2 Felicissimus was the mint master at Rome, who mounted a rebellion in the city against Aurelian; he also was not aiming at the throne. Indeed, his name suggests that he may well have been a slave or perhaps a freedman; his rebellion was more in the nature of a labour dispute.3 These three may be discarded at once.

Table II: Rebels aiming at the Throne, 238–284.


Several men on the list are no more than names. The suspicion must be strong that the Historia author was so keen to make his number up to thirty (a number lifted from an episode in Athenian history) that he counted not only the rebels and brigands mentioned already, but filled out the total with inventions. Even if they existed, several of these – Celsus, Sponsianus, M. Silbannianus, Memor and Censorinus4 – are so unimportant that there is no point in considering them. The ingenious and fertile mind of the author betrays them by a complete lack of authenticating external references, by the sheer exuberance of his invention, and by the total lack of any accompanying worthwhile information. Silbannianus, however, minted coins, and appears to have operated in Gaul, and Sponsianus in the Balkans, but more than that is not known.

We are therefore left with twenty-one clear cases of actual rebellion; that is, of men who claimed the right to be called emperor, wore the purple and were obeyed for a time by their subjects. The chronological spread of these cases reflects the overall problems of the Empire, for they tended to appear in sets when the Empire also faced other troubles, often in exactly the same areas. There is one example in 240 in the reign of Gordian III, in Carthage; two in the reign of Philip the Arab; two in that of Decius, including the Palmyrene uprising; and one in 253 in Syria in response to the Persian invasion; five came in 259–260 (not counting the Gallic Empire of Postumus) when the Emperor Valerian was defeated and captured by the Persian army; one came at the end of Gallienus’ reign when there was much confusion over who should be emperor; five in Aurelian’s reign; and four in the early 280s. (These are tabulated in the chart, Table II.)

Their geographical distribution is equally a reflection of the distribution of power in the Empire, and a reflection of the most troubled regions. The most heavily garrisoned areas were the most likely to see rebellions, not surprisingly, since the first step to power was always to gain control of part of the army. It is also necessary to factor in the size of the external threat. The well-garrisoned provinces that were not under heavy threat saw few or no rebellions; Britain is notable, with no known attempts in this period. Syria, on the other hand, was the scene of at least five, to add to those noted already under the Severans (and that of Avidius Cassius even earlier); there was something more than simply men with an ambition to be emperor here. The Danube frontier was the scene of three attempts, and the wider Balkan area adds three more. These were always dangerous, since the Pannonian army was the closest of the major Roman forces to Rome; Vespasian, Septimius and Maximinus had all launched invasions of Italy from that province. The Rhine frontier was the basis of the Gallic Empire’s power, which began as a rebellion against Gallienus’ regime, and there were two later attempts in that area after the regime collapsed. Egypt and northern Italy saw two attempts each, though one of the latter could really be counted as Pannonian. Rome was the scene of just one. The complete absence of risings in Spain and Gaul and most of Anatolia is presumably due to the absence of sufficient forces in those areas to support an attempt at the throne, yet Greece was the scene of two of these events, and it was also virtually ungarrisoned.

However, these comments are only statements of the obvious. It is necessary to look more closely at the individual actions to see what it was that motivated the rebels in their attempts. It will be sensible to consider them in chronological order.

The first case, of Annius Sabinianus in about 240, is unusual in several respects: it took place in Carthage, it happened early in the sequence, and its leader is difficult to identify. He was probably M. Annius Sabinianus, governor of Africa, Gordian I’s successor. His rising took place only two years after the Gordians rose against Maximinus in the same province, and it is difficult to avoid concluding that there must be a connection. Gordian III’s government had disbanded the III Augusta legion which had defeated and killed his uncle and grandfather, but local forces were still available to put down Sabinianus; note that he was actually rebelling against the government of Gordian III. It all suggests a local affair without much wider significance; perhaps a rising by elements of the former legion, hoping to be reinstated.5

The rising of Iotapian took place in Syria in 248, a response, so the sources claim, to the heavy taxation imposed on the Eastern provinces by Priscus, the brother of the Emperor Philip, who had a wide responsibility over the whole region. Priscus may well have been an early casualty of the rising for he vanishes from all records about this time, and he would have been expected to contest Decius’ success against his brother in 249 had he been alive and in a powerful position. The name of the rebel, which is not known completely but is recorded as M.F.R. Iotapianus, is reminiscent of the queens and princesses called Iotape who were members of the defunct Commagenian dynasty. He claimed descent from Alexander the Great, which is part of the mythology of that dynasty, by way of its connections with the Seleukids. This may well have been seen as a helpful point in Syria, and it carried echoes of the ancestry of Avidius Cassius as well. Iotapian did not, however, last long, the forces in Syria being loyal to Philip, who was also a local boy, of course; he built up the village he came from into the city of Philippopolis, though it seems to have faded away soon after he died.6

In the same year in the Balkans the governor of either Moesia or Pannonia, or perhaps both, Ti. Claudius Marinus Pacatianus (mentioned earlier in connection with Decius’ rebellion) was disgruntled at the policies of the Emperor Philip towards the barbarians who were threatening his territory. He appears to have had himself proclaimed as emperor, and to have gained the support of at least some of the legions on the Danube frontier. This act led indirectly to the defeat and death of Philip (see Chapter 10), but Pacatian himself did not last more than a few weeks, being killed by his own soldiers when Decius arrived to suppress him. However, Pacatian was, like many of the other rebels in this section, a prominent man, the son of a senator. It took some effort in such a man to rebel, and is an indication of the scale of the problem faced by Philip. It was a reaction by Pacatian to his frontier problem that appears to have been his motive; that is, his rebellion was in favour of a more active frontier policy.7

Three years later the Emperor Decius found that one of his rear commanders, Licinius Priscus, was proclaimed emperor briefly in Thrace. This came in the midst of the war against the Goths that Decius had to wage as a result of his own seizure of power (this was, no doubt, Pacatianus’ problem). Priscus was governor of Macedonia. His elevation took place in very confused circumstances and was not necessarily voluntary. (He may be the same as T. Iulius Priscus, known from milestone from Serdica). He died soon, and his rising was of minor importance, though no doubt disturbing at the time. It came from the same basic cause as that of Pacatian, the dissatisfaction with the policies of the government in Rome towards the provinces, and it was a response to the temporary problem of the barbarian invasion, whose size is thus suggested.8 It is noticeable that both these Balkan rebellions took place after the brief super-governorship of Philip’s father-in-law Marcus Severianus. He is not mentioned in the events, and had possibly ceased to rule in the region before they took place. What effect his rule or its ending had is not known, but it is unlikely to have been without some effect.

In Rome, Valens – full name Iulius Valens Licinianus – had himself proclaimed emperor, also in 251. He was a senator, and he seems to have had some senatorial support in reaction to the military and austerity policies pursued by Decius; he is also said to have had some popular support. He was killed within a few days, but by who is not stated, though it was probably the Guard. Just as the support of a single legion of the army was often not enough to topple an active emperor, so support of the Senate alone was insufficient.9

Uranius Antoninus was a priest at the Emesa, who emerged in 253 at the head of a locally-recruited army with which he contested the Persian invasion of Syria. This force won a battle (later improved in one account to include his killing of the Persian king), and Uranius was proclaimed emperor by his troops as a result. He appears as ‘Imperator Caesar L. Iulius Aurelius Sulpicius Uranius Antoninus Augustus’ on coins minted in his name, but after his victory he is heard of no more. Later historians claimed he was connected with the Severan dynasty and/or with that of the old kings of Emesa (he was actually referred to as Samsigeramus, the name of the originator of that dynasty, by one source), but this is probably because he was, as they were, also the chief priest in that city.10 He bore the same name as an earlier rebel from the same region, unless the earlier story is his simply repeated for a different date. At least the ‘rebel’ of 253 is well attested outside the pages of the Historia Augusta.

Two curious events – it is difficult to classify them as rebellions, though that may be how the central government thought of them – with very local effects appeared about the same time. Two men issued coins bearing their names and images. Silbannianus’ coins turn up in Gaul, Sponsianus’ in Dacia, but, as already noted, nothing is known of either. It has been suggested that they were using their coinage to recruit help from the transfrontier peoples.11 Their coins do not suggest they were pretending to the throne, though coining was in theory an imperial monopoly. They are purely local and could only be made while the central government’s attention was directed elsewhere and at bigger problems.

This is a group of unsuccessful emperors whose only link is that they made their appearances within the space of five years (248 to 253). Otherwise, they seem to have nothing in common but that they were local men, acting as they did in order to defend their society or their city. The threats they faced were different: Iotapian was resisting the imposition of taxation which the central government clearly felt was necessary; it was thus the same reaction that the Senate had had to the same policy of Maximinus. Uranius Antoninus, Pacatian and Priscus were fighting foreign invaders; that is, they were defending both their communities and the Empire. These men’s rebellions were therefore the results of local problems and all of them were very brief. Decius is said to have commented on the debate in the Senate that Pacatian’s rising would not last long, and this was true of all of them. The usurpation of Valens, having taken place in Rome, might have been more serious, but he gained no armed support. His complaint was similar to that of Iotapian, about the policies of the ruling emperor.

These events may therefore be provisionally classified. Most were responses to local problems, notably invasions; others were essentially complaints about government policies at a time when it was clear that the emperor’s policies were being imposed without any consultation and without consideration of those local problems. They were pleas by neglected, troubled communities for help, which would have been forthcoming in earlier periods.

None of these rebels grasped at imperial power primarily for personal ambition, so far as can be seen, though no doubt it was part of their motivation. All were suddenly elevated, in the midst of crisis, invasions or threats to the concept of what they thought was right. None of them lasted more than a few days, weeks at the most. They were all prominent men, senators or similar, and all must have known that their proclamation as emperor was only the beginning of a long troubled road, even if they succeeded in negotiating the early and violent reply of the central government to their complaints.

There were both similarities and contrasts between this group and those that were noted earlier. The Syrian area was prominent again, Iotapian and Uranius Antoninus following on from Avidius Cassius, Seleucus, Taurinus and the earlier Uranius Antoninus, if he existed. Yet there were no direct attacks on the emperors in the manner of Sallustius, Magnus or Quartinus, and these later rebels do not seem to have been aiming at control of the whole Empire; Valens in Rome was the only possible exception. We need therefore to distinguish between these purely local crises and those that seem to be more serious, at least as seen by the imperial government. Note that the Pannonian example – Pacatian – was not regarded as serious in the Senate, and that Pacatian himself seems to have made no move towards Italy. His complaint was local to Pannonia.

These general conclusions are borne out by the next wave of rebellions. There was a gap of five years in the sequence after Uranius Antoninus, which suggests a distinct improvement in affairs, no doubt because of the stability brought by the Emperor Valerian. Most of the next set of rebels/pretenders/usurpers happened as a reaction to the capture of Valerian by the Persian King Shapur in 260. This triggered a crisis of empire-wide dimensions, despite the fact that he left an adult and vigorous son (Gallienus) as Augustus in office, and a number of male relatives, sons and grandsons, who were also in offices from which the government could be continued.

There had in fact been an earlier attempt against Valerian by a governor of Pannonia called Ingenuus in 258. His was apparently reacting to the installation of the junior emperor, Valerian II, Gallienus’ youngest son, as titular over-governor for Illyricum. This was the general name now being used for much of the Balkan Peninsula, and the arrival of the Caesar Valerian, only a child, may well have meant a closer supervision of Ingenuus than he was accustomed to or liked. The Caesar certainly died in 258, and had only been installed that year. Ingenuus did not actually claim the throne, so it looks to have been a personal problem. He was defeated in battle by Gallienus at Mursa and died.12

The Emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians in March 260, and several rebellions all seem to have followed from it. In the East the army led by the emperor was defeated and suddenly leaderless, and the Persians were invading Mesopotamia and Syria. General collapse is not surprising, but locally this was resisted. Two of the leaders of that resistance were high officers of Valerian’s army, and so they were endeavouring to reassert Roman imperial control over the invaded land. One man, Callistus (or Ballista, according to the Historia’s author’s sense of humour) is an example. He was working with another official, Fulvius Macrianus, who was rationibus Aegypti et praepositus annonae (a logistics official), and he gathered military support. Macrianus had his sons proclaimed as emperors: T. Fulvius Iunius Macrianus and T. Fulvius Iunius Quietus. Under this authority, he and Callistus were able to fight off the Persian forces, who by this time were heavily burdened by loot. He then set off with one son, presumably the eldest, Macrianus, to expand his reach into Anatolia and the Balkans, while the second son, Quietus, remained at Emesa, a curious choice of headquarters (but Antioch had been captured and sacked by the Persians, as had other cities in north Syria.) All three of the family soon died, Quietus at the hands of the Palmyrene prince Odaenathus acting (eventually) in the name of Gallienus, who awarded him the title corrector totius orientis. The other two, father and son, died after their defeat in battle by Gallienus’ cavalry general Aureolus in Pannonia.13

As the wars spread, other frontiers became active. On the Danube, damaged already by the rebellions of Pacatian and Ingenuus, the new governor of Pannonia, P.C. Regalianus, fought invading barbarians and for his success was proclaimed emperor by his soldiers.14 At much the same time, and for much the same reason, Postumus killed Gallienus’ son Saloninus at Colonia Agrippina and made himself emperor in Germany, Gaul, Britain and Spain.15

Postumus and his Gallic successors may be seen as either rebels or legitimate emperors but they, Regalian and Macrianus and his children were all acting from similar motives. They may well have proclaimed themselves emperors in apparent opposition to Gallienus, but they did so in order to defend their province or city, and so the Empire. Macrianus was in effect Valerian’s military successor in Syria, picking up the pieces after the defeat and capture of the emperor and resisting further invasion; Regalian was fighting to defend the Danube frontier, following Pacatian and the rest; Postumus was acting to defend Gaul and the Rhine frontier. Postumus and his successors on the German frontier were different from the others in that they organized a fully functional quasi-imperial system to back them up: Senate, consuls, mints and all. There is no sign that Macrianus or Regalian did this, and it was not just that Postumus had more time. Macrianus and his sons held power in the East for several months, maybe a full year, yet the only sign of their governing system is the production of coins to pay their troops; they also made a serious attempt to seize the whole Empire. Neither Postumus nor his successors apparently ever did, and since this was the proximate cause of Macrianus’ fall, Postumus’ decision was clearly sensible. Macrianus and his son took a substantial part of the army away from Syria to fight Gallienus; any professions they had made of defending Syria rang somewhat hollow once they were through the Cilician Gates and marching away through Anatolia. They had, of course, no chance, once it was clear that they were regarded as enemies by Gallienus.

The effect of the difference between the regimes of Postumus and Macrianus is seen by the reactions of their subjects to their defeat. Postumus was beaten by Gallienus but his regime survived; Macrianus and his son died in the battle in the Balkans when his forces gave up as soon as they were faced by a resolute opponent defending the throne of Gallienus, even though they had gained the additional support of the Pannonian army, still smarting from the defeat of the rebellion of Regalian (and perhaps those of Pacatian and Ingenuus). Macrianus’ regime, now headed by Quietus and supported by the capable Callistus/Ballista, was still in place in Syria, but it crumbled at once on the news of the deaths of the Macriani and the several cities they controlled (throughout the East from the Bosporus to the Nile) opted back into the regime of Gallienus. One result was that the Palmyrene Odaenathus was able to remove Quietus and Callistus without difficulty. There was, in other words, no political basis for the regime of Macrianus but his army, which is presumably why he was so keen to get to Italy, so as to acquire the legitimacy that only the Senate could bestow; having his own Senate and apparently strong local support, Postumus did not need Italy.

The Prefect of Egypt, L. Mussius Aemilianus, is listed as a usurper here and there, but it is not certain that he really was one. The authority of Macrianus and Quietus extended into parts of Egypt for a time, and Gallienus sent a fleet under one of his generals, Theodotus, to recover it. Mussius meanwhile would seem to have retired upriver in the face of Macrianus’ usurpation but remained loyal to Gallienus. The story in the Historia Augusta is a product of the author’s imagination and cannot be believed, though it seems that Mussius was later believed to have had himself proclaimed as emperor after Quietus’ death. This may have happened, in which case Theodotus had to recover Egypt from its legal prefect. Mussius did not issue any coins, though the Alexandrian mint was a huge and busy one and responded quickly to political changes. Mussius will have to be put into the doubtful category; even if he seized the imperial name and title, he survived as such only briefly.16

Another doubtful case is that of a second man called Valens, who, according to the Historia Augusta, was proconsul of Achaia. Apart from a passing reference by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus a century later, there is no other evidence for him and no reliable dating. This story is mixed in with that of another local governor named as ‘Piso Frugi’ and claimed as the descendant of the ancient family of those cognomina: serial plotters against Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. It may be that both were involved in Macrianus’ attempt, either by resisting him or by helping him. They were not successful, and their claims to the Empire are doubtful. That of Valens may be less doubtful than that of Piso, and it is worth noting that he was claimed to be related to the Valens who had tried a rising in Rome against Decius. The possibility must remain open that the ingenious author cobbled together the details and so invented another rebel to make up his targeted number of thirty, or possibly they were local governors who were on opposing sides in Macrianus’ adventure into the Balkans. Either way, in whatever aspirations they had, they were unsuccessful.17

The usurpations that followed the news of the capture of Valerian were all, once more and without exception, the products of local crises. That of Ingenuus, which preceded the emperor’s capture, is best seen as a personal matter and may perhaps best be seen as a rebellion rather than a usurpation. Regalian, Postumus, Macrianus and his sons were all reacting to threats to their provinces from outside the Empire; so also, if they existed, were Valens and ‘Piso Frugi’ and perhaps Mussius in Egypt, though the threats here came from within the Empire; they may, in fact, have been loyalists resisting rebels. Of these the only one who made any attempt to expand his authority beyond the original provincial base was Macrianus. His failure shows how very fragile his support was. Postumus in Gaul showed the most political sense by sticking to his proclaimed intention of defending Gaul, in refusing to make any attempt to expand, and in recruiting his own Senate to provide him with some legitimacy beyond those ideas. Regalian may have had similar intentions, but he died on the swords of his own troops during the barbarian invasion in which he had seized power to fight, so we will never know.

These rebels were thus all at base imperial loyalists, seeing the great imperial problems of the time through their provincial lenses. It is difficult to apply the term ‘usurpation’ successfully to their conduct, for, like many of the earlier groups, most of them showed no intention of combating the ‘legitimate’ emperors; perhaps ‘provincial emperors’ in the pattern of Postumus would be more appropriate. Most did not last very long, and the reason is that their subjects saw through their imperial pretensions and failed to provide any support; the exception as always is Postumus. The Roman army and the citizens of the Empire were loyal to the Empire as a whole, and were not to be easily gulled into anything less.

The Gallic Empire seemed stable while Postumus (260–269) and then Victorinus (269–271) ruled, but under Tetricus (271–274) it began to fail. Spain reverted to loyalty to the Italian regime of Aurelian when Tetricus became emperor. The Gallic emperors also suffered from their own rebels, by Ulpius Cornelianus Laelianus near the end of Postumus’ reign, and by at least two men who attempted rebellions against Tetricus: Domitianus, known only from a couple of coins and a brief reference; and Faustinus, who may or may not have claimed the imperial title. None of these attempts lasted long, but their activities certainly indicated unrest.18

Gallienus’ various attempts to suppress the Gallic regime failed, and this may be the background to the context in which his general Aureolus rebelled. Aureolus had been a successful commander and Gallienus’ instrument in the suppression of both Ingenuus and the Macriani. He was thus conspicuously loyal, until his rebellion. He was intercepted by Gallienus’ army as he was heading for Rome and was driven into Milan. He proclaimed his loyalty to Postumus, who did not respond. After Gallienus’ murder, Aureolus proclaimed himself emperor but died in the fighting soon after. It has always been difficult to account for Aureolus’ rebellion, though perhaps personal ambition was involved. The actions of generals in killing Gallienus suggest that Aureolus was only a little premature in his rising; discontent was clearly widespread among the generals. His appeal for help to Postumus also suggests that, even if he was a notable commander, his political sense was not of the best. His claim to the imperial title was clearly a last desperate hope rather than his original intention.19

The rise of the family of Odaenathus of Palmyra to prominence was a home-grown Syrian event, but also it partook of the same basic imperial loyalty as the other ‘rebellions’ of the time. The rise of the family to predominance and the appointment of the elder Odaenathus to authority over the whole Eastern part of the Empire by Gallienus was a good example of imperial loyalty rewarded. The elder Odaenathus gained his reputation by defeating Persian invaders and then by suppressing the usurper Quietus after the death of his father and brother. After the elder Odaenathus’ murder in a private quarrel, his son was promoted as emperor by the ambition of his mother Zenobia. Their success in briefly gaining control of the whole East from the Propontis to the Nile was, like that of Macrianus ten years before, merely momentary, being founded on sand. The Roman soldiers and the great cities were not really interested in a regime run by a woman from Palmyra in the name of a child. The victory of the Emperor Aurelian over Zenobia’s forces was easily gained. As a throw for the Empire, the Palmyran attempt was brief and spectacular, and almost any Western emperor could have suppressed it without any difficulty.20

The scene of these events was Syria, with extensions into Egypt and Anatolia. The agony of Syria in the third century is clearly the source of the frequency of the appearance of rebels there, from the time of Macrinus and Elagabalus onwards. They were, however, almost invariably loyal to the Empire as an idea; even Zenobia’s coins had Aurelian’s head on one side. Her husband had had much the same position as overseer of the Eastern provinces as a series of previous officials, going back at least to Agrippa and Germanicus under Augustus and Tiberius, and even to Pompey the Great. The East was simply too far from Rome to be governed directly with ease unless it was content, hence large responsibilities were regularly given to selected trusted men, whose loyalty at times broke down. The third-century problem arose because of the new aggressiveness of Persia under Sassanian kings; the local emperors, even Zenobia, grew out of that local problem and they were almost always basically acting in defence of the Roman Empire. Most of them stayed in Syria; only Macrianus and Zenobia strayed outside that land and both of them suffered rapid defeats as a result.

The disturbances in the East did not end with the capture of Zenobia and the defeat of her armies, but none of the subsequent troubles – Firmus’ suppression of riots in Alexandria, Antiochus and Achilleus’ rebellion in Palmyra21 – were serious attempts at seizing the imperial power, but rather local attempts to revive the Palmyrene regime. The leaders were men who had hitched themselves to Zenobia’s wagon and would suffer whether or not they continued in rebellion.

Unconnected with either the Western or Eastern crises was the rebellion of a man called either Septimius or Septiminus in Dalmatia, mentioned along with Urbanus and Domitianus by Zosimus and noted by another source as well. This juxtaposition implies an event late in Aurelian’s reign, but little more can be said. Dalmatia was not a province at this time severely threatened by barbarian invasions. Septiminus was killed by his own men, having clearly failed to appreciate their primary loyalties. A man called Urbanus who was linked with him is just as obscure – even his location is not certain – and he was just as rapidly suppressed. It has to be said that the occurrence of the attempt of Scribonianus in Dalmatia under Claudius and the similarity of ‘Urbanus’ to ‘Uranius’ gives rise to considerable suspicion of invention and duplication, though Zosimus is much less liable to such a practice than the author of the Historia Augusta.22

Syria and Gaul continued to be sources of trouble for the central government for the next decade after Zenobia’s suppression. Another appointment of a man to the wide authority in Syria by the Emperor Probus produced yet another attempted coup in that area. This was in 280, by Iulius Saturninus, said to have been a friend of Probus and whose attempt was suppressed by his own soldiers. Saturninus is identified by some sources as an appointee of Aurelian’s, which would mean he had been in office in the East for at least five years when his rebellion began. No doubt he had been there since the defeat of Zenobia, maybe even with the same responsibilities as Odaenathus. He was also connected with Egypt, and if he had authority over both Egypt and Syria his position was the same as that of Avidius Cassius, Macrianus or Zenobia.23 The extent of such authority could well breed ambitions in any man, and changes in the person of the emperor might then be seen as a personal threat, triggering a defensive putsch.

In the former Gallic Empire the suppression of Tetricus in 274 had not quietened the desire there for close and constant imperial attention to the frontier. Aurelian had brought the Gallic legions back into the army and had at once used them in a raid into the barbarian lands; a sensible move that no doubt killed off some of the men and at the same time employed them to do the work that had been the main justification for the Gallic Empire’s existence. Probus attended to the same frontier in 277–278, but found a problem arising in Britain, where a governor (probably of Britannia Superior, in the north) was thought to be contemplating trouble and was suppressed by the advisor of the emperor who had originally recommended him for the post, using German prisoners who had been enlisted after his German campaign; that is, without much difficulty.24 He clearly did not get far, but this might be seen as part of the aftermath of the suppression of Tetricus and as a precursor to the trouble Britain would cause in the next century or so. The British army had been the only force of some size that had not so far produced an emperor; the Syrian, the Pannonian and the Rhine armies had done so repeatedly.

Probus by the late 270s was in the East, where the tedious siege of Cremna in Pisidia took a long time and where Saturninus rebelled in Syria. While he was there, two men, Proculus and Bonosus, were successively proclaimed as Gallic emperors. The Historia Augusta tells us a long and strange story about Proculus (he was supposed to have been hen-pecked into rebellion by his wife, a virago) but it does imply that he had support in Gaul, at Lugdunum and at Colonia Agrippina, and that he conducted wars against the Franks and the Alamanni. His seizure of power was not, therefore, merely momentary, but must have lasted some time, at least a few months. Bonosus is said to have been the commander of the Rhine fleet before his seizure of power, so again we have a connection with the defence of the frontier.25 The example of Postumus and his successors would seem to have continued to have influence.

The last of the pretenders to be discussed here is M. Aurelius Iulianus Sabinus, already mentioned as the opponent of Carinus. He was given offices unknown at this time by later sources, but he did command a worthwhile army and minted coins at Siscia, the main centre for Illyricum. He is said to have had support in Italy also, and this can be interpreted as a reaction in the West to the deaths of Carus and Numerian in the East. Iulianus’ proclamation happened before the news arrived of the coup carried out by Diocletian; he lasted for some months, judging by the coinage, but he did not get to Rome for a senatorial installation, no doubt because he found himself threatened at once by the forces of Carinus, by which he was indeed defeated and killed in the spring of 285.26

This is best seen as an attempt to pre-empt the main army in the East by elevating a senatorial candidate to replace or discipline Carinus, who was certainly unpopular among the senatorial class. Yet Iulianus’ attempt was also in the tradition of local uprisings in the Pannonian region by Pacatian, Regalian, Ingenuus and others, and even by Septimius Severus, Trajan and Vespasian. This was one of the places that had repeatedly produced pretenders during the third century, the others being Syria, especially Emesa and Antioch, and the Rhine frontier, notably Colonia Agrippina. The source of antagonism in Syria probably goes back to the family of the Severi, if not to Avidius Cassius, that of Gaul certainly to Postumus and perhaps earlier, and the main Pannonian memory was surely the success of Septimius Severus himself in 193.

One of the most remarkable things about most of these disturbances is how easily they were suppressed. Some were certainly relatively long-lived and had spread widely – Postumus and his successors in Gaul and the West, Zenobia and Macrianus in the East – but the rest lasted from a day or two up to a month or two, and rarely extended beyond their own province, and it turns out that these brief attempts were frequently stopped by their own soldiers.

This is one contrast between those who aimed at the whole Empire (very few), and the majority who were reacting to a local problem. The other contrast is between the Gallic Empire and all the rest. The Gallic stability was due to the careful work of Postumus, who ensured that he had the support of his Rhine army and of a local Senate, and put out a propaganda effort that insisted on his role as the defender of his provinces and one which he then adhered to, even when tempted, as he surely was, to take advantage of Aureolus’ rebellion in northern Italy. The other pretenders regularly overestimated the support they could expect, particularly among their troops. If they were serious in their aim to seize the imperial power, they obviously believed that they could attempt to gain control of the whole Empire without a firm local political base and with only army support. As soon as they made a wider attempt, such local support as they had assumed failed them.

These rebels, therefore, were in most cases of only minor and local significance. They were, as noted earlier, normally local to a particular province or even a single city, and usually they were responding to a local problem. Above all, none of them made any attempt to damage or break up the Empire; they were seizing power in order to defend the Empire in the same way as the many ‘legitimate’ emperors of the time were eliminating their predecessors in the belief that their own abilities in command were required. In their aims, therefore, there is no essential difference between those considered as usurpers and rebels and those who are counted as legitimate emperors. It was one of the results of the autocracy imposed by emperors that every problem became an imperial problem and was expected to be solved by the emperor; if the recognized emperor would not or could not do anything, one solution was to erect an emperor of one’s own.

There is a paradox, therefore, in that local problems were the sources for rebellion in which the leaders claimed to be emperors, but as soon as they attempted to make that claim wider, they failed. However, they knew that by staying within their local area they would suffer attack and be defeated. Having claimed authority, their only solution was to impose it on everyone, and in this they normally failed. The basic tension was between local needs and imperial resources. Any politician in any age has confronted the same problem. At the same time those who put their local problems so high that they attempted a rising were also loyal to the Empire as a worldwide political entity. A real secession, even by Postumus and Zenobia, into independence and separation, was not a serious option, though expulsion, as with Dacia in Aurelian’s reign, certainly was. Attempts at reconciling these differing political concepts underlay much of the politics of the time.

There is, however, another aspect. Several of the legitimate emperors of the third century began in rebellion. Septimius, Elagabalus, Gordian I, Decius and Probus all began as rebels against an established emperor, while Macrinus, Maximinus, Gordian III, Valerian and Claudius became emperors by the device of accomplishing the murder of their predecessors. That is, enough men succeeded in seizing the imperial throne by violence and rebellion to make it a worthwhile target for others. Rebellion when it prospered became legitimate; only when it consistently failed would attempts cease. Once again, the absence of a legal succession framework, established by law and respected as such, was a basic cause of imperial instability.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!