In This Chapter
● Why a Sun-God worshipper became an emperor
● How one soldier after another ruled the Roman Empire
● Why the Empire started splitting apart
● How Aurelian and Probus repaired the Roman world
Before the Severans of 193-235, the emperors had ruled with the Senate, generally treading carefully and going to a lot of trouble to try and maintain a semblance of the old Republican system. Many of them had a genuine sense of duty and a belief that they had a responsibility to the state and that the state came first.
Septimius Severus (refer to Chapter 18) changed all that. He was supremely in charge. The Roman Empire became a tool he used to advance himself and his family. Severus had enough personal prestige to hold the Empire together, but the soldiers knew they held all the trump cards. Macrinus, Elagabalus, and Severus Alexander were made emperor because of the soldiers; the Senate had no choice. In any case, the Senate was unrecognisable from the one Augustus had known. There were far more senators, very few were from Italy, and most spent little or no time in Rome. These days the emperor made the laws and the Senate just rubber-stamped them.
The decisive power in the Roman world was the army. It always had been, but now it was absolutely out in the open, and the soldiers knew it. The army made and broke emperors. Because the Roman army was never a single organisation but a collection of dozens of units scattered across the Empire, there was plenty of potential for rival claims on the throne. During the next 50 years, the Roman Empire tore itself apart.
The First Thug on the Throne: Marcus Opelius Macrinus
Marcus Opelius Macrinus came from Caesarea in Mauretania in North Africa. Not much is known about him because he came from such a modest background. Even so, he’d worked his way up from nowhere to equestrian status. Despite his obscure origins, he was a lawyer with a reputation for having a healthy respect for the law. This probably explains why he was given the prestigious job of procurator in charge of Caracalla’s private property (to read about Caracalla, go to Chapter 18). Macrinus was then promoted to prefect of the Praetorian Guard, a job he did so well he was more or less left to get on with it by himself.
How to take the throne
An African soothsayer announced that Macrinus and his son Diadumenian were destined to be emperors. This prophecy put Macrinus in a fright because it was inevitable Caracalla would have him killed if the story got out. So he promptly organised a conspiracy and had Caracalla murdered on campaign.
Macrinus had been clever enough to put it about that a conspiracy of soldiers had killed Caracalla, so that his own hands seemed clean. To cover his tracks even more, he made Caracalla into a god, though it’s hard to think of a less deserving candidate.
Despite murdering Caracalla, Macrinus took Severus as part of his own name, added Antoninus to his son Diadumenian’s name, and made him heir apparent.
Macrinus had achieved a first. Because he was an equestrian, he’d never served in the Senate, which means he’d never served in any of the posts all the other emperors had held at least some of. It was a major precedent. Many of the emperors who followed came from what would have seemed impossibly obscure origins a few years before.
How to lose popularity
Despite whatever talents he may have had, Macrinus didn’t secure his position as emperor very well. Already unpopular because of his modest origins, he made several mistakes and misjudgements:
● He lost Roman territory. After killing Caracalla, Macrinus carried on the campaign against the Parthians, but after losing two battles, knocked up a compromise peace and had to hand over Armenia. It was a bad move because it made him look like a loser and meant he lost any prestige he might have earned himself through murdering Caracalla.
● He failed to get rid of any other potential Severan candidates for the throne. Macrinus had forgotten that Septimius Severus’s widow, Julia Domna - who had committed suicide after Caracalla’s death - had a sister (see the next section, ‘How to lose the throne’).
● He made several unsuitable appointments. Macrinus promoted Adventus, a former imperial spy. Macrinus made Adventus into a senator, a consul, and even prefect of Rome, despite the fact that Adventus was old and blind, had no relevant experience, and was so uneducated he knew nothing about how the Roman administration worked. The idea seems to have been to divert attention from Macrinus’s obscure origins, but along with several other unsuitable appointments and acting high and mighty, all it did was provoke resentment.
● His behaviour alienated the soldiers. Macrinus had a curious taste for taking part in mime shows; he also liked walking about wearing brooches and a belt decorated with gold and jewels. As far as the soldiers were concerned, this was all too decadent and much too much like a barbarian’s taste for them. The fact that Macrinus lived in luxury while they were having a tough life in forts annoyed them, too. They added all these to their list of resentments and felt that killing him was totally justified.
How to lose the throne
Macrinus was eventually deposed by Julia Domna (Caracalla’s mother) and her daughter Julia Soaemias, who installed Julia Soaemias’s son Elagabalus as emperor. Although Macrinus sent some troops to get rid of Elagabalus, the troops promptly changed sides. At the battle that followed, even more soldiers went over to Elagabalus, and Macrinus was doomed. He and his son escaped but were soon caught and executed.
Elagabalus (AD 218-222)
Caracalla’s mother, Julia Domna, had a sister called Julia Maesa (who died in 225). Julia Maesa was massively ambitious. She was also boiling with rage that Macrinus had thrown her out of the palace when Caracalla was killed.
Julia Maesa did not let the fact that she was only related by marriage to Septimius Severus impede her (see Figure 19-1 to see the Severan family tree). She decided that her grandsons, Elagabalus and Severus Alexander, were the ideal candidates to replace Macrinus. There was also a handy rumour going about that Caracalla was the real father of Elagabalus (he looked like Caracalla, too), which Maesa encouraged because Caracalla’s popularity with the troops would help her cause.
Figure 19-1: The Severan family tree
Maesa used hard cash to buy the soldiers at Emesa in Syria, and they declared Elagabalus emperor in 218. Elagabalus took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus so that he could pretend to be part of the direct descent from the original Marcus Aurelius.
Thanks to all the spurious descents from Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius being claimed, Caracalla’s and Elagabalus’s coins bear similar names to those of their so-called illustrious forbearers. Thanks to realistic portraits, the coins can be distinguished, but with imperial inscriptions sometimes it really isn’t possible to tell the difference between those of Caracalla and Elagabalus.
The 14-year-old Elagabalus might have been Emperor, but the people who were really in charge were his grandmother Julia Maesa and his mother Julia Soaemias (Julia Soaemias was allowed to watch the Senate and even run her own women’s senate). What they’d established was a new eastern Severan dynasty at Rome. Initially, Rome welcomed Elagabalus because he was goodlooking and seemed a better bet than Macrinus, but from day one he took no notice of worrying about government. The Roman people were horrified at what followed.
Elagabalus’s real name was Varius Avitus Bassianus. He was a fanatical worshipper of the sun-god Heliogabalus (or Elah-Gabal) of Emesa, and that’s how he got his nickname.
The Sun-God Heliogabalus was worshipped at Emesa in Syria where there was a black conical stone, which was generally believed to have fallen from the sky and landed on the spot. It might, in fact, have been a meteorite. Once he became emperor, Elagabalus had the stone taken to Rome.
Elagabalus had only one serious agenda: imposing the worship of the Sun-God and preventing any other cults apart from that of the Great Mother (Magna Mater), another Eastern religion. To that end, he built a temple to the Sun-God.
Rumours started circulating about Elagabalus’s homosexuality, the way he posed as ‘Venus’ for the purposes of copulation, and his interest in well-endowed men to whom he gave all sorts of high-profile jobs. He made a barber, for example, the prefect of the grain supply and a mule-driver the collector of the inheritance tax. Elagabalus sold off any positions or privileges he could, purely to raise cash. His freedmen were made commanders of legions or governors of provinces. His favourite, whom he ‘married’, was an athlete called Zoticus who threw his weight about in the palace.
The difference between Elagabalus and, say, someone like Antoninus Pius (138-161), discussed in Chapter 17, is so colossal it’s sometimes hard to believe it’s the same Empire. Even more incredibly, Elagabalus actually took the official name ‘Antoninus Pius’ himself, and called himself that on his coins.
Elagabalus’s first wife in a marriage arranged by his grandmother Julia Maesa was Julia Paula, who was disgusted by him. Because she came from an old Roman aristocratic society, that’s no surprise. He divorced her in 220, and she retired into private life. (In the mayhem that followed, Julia Paula was one of the few lucky ones. She lived.)
His second wife was his lover and Vestal Virgin called Aquileia Severa. Their marriage caused such outrage, even though Elagabalus claimed to the Senate any children they might have were bound to be divine, he had to divorce her, too.
Wife number three was Annia Faustina, a descendant of Marcus Aurelius. This marriage was clearly an attempt to reinforce his crumbling regime. (During this marriage, Elagabalus went back to Aquileia, whom he seems to have really liked, though this just made him more unpopular than ever.)
Elagabalus devoted his life to pleasure. These are some (and only some - there are plenty more) of the things he liked:
● His pool had to be perfumed with saffron.
● He had couches made of silver and cushions stuffed with rabbit fur and partridge feathers.
● He had lions and leopards for pets.
● Presents at his banquets included eunuchs and four-horse chariots.
● He drove various chariots pulled by elephants, stags, tigers, dogs, and lions.
● He wore clothes made of pure silk - the first in Rome to do so - and never wore the same shoes twice.
● He sometimes invited eight men with the same disability to dinner, such as eight deaf men, eight one-eyed men, or eight bald men.
The end of Elagabalus
Elagabalus went too far when he decided to do in his cousin Alexianus (who succeeded as Severus Alexander, see the next section). Alexanius, adopted as Elagabalus’s heir in 221, was a decent young man who was loved by the soldiers. Elagabalus seems to have had a sudden whim to order Alexanius’s execution. The troops raced round, rescued Alexanius, his mother, and grandmother, and told Elagabalus that if he wanted to stay emperor he’d have to give up his favourites and all his degenerate activities.
Elagabalus pretended to make peace, but he was still hell-bent on killing Alexanius. On 6 March 222, the praetorians had had enough - Elagabalus and his mother Julia Soaemias were killed and their bodies dragged around Rome before being thrown in the Tiber. No emperor ever before, however degenerate, had been humiliated that way.
Severus Alexander (AD 222-235)
Despite the horrors of his cousin Elagabalus’s reign and the distinctly unpleasant family he seemed to come from, Alexianus was a thoroughly decent boy.
In fact, if he’d been born a century earlier into an altogether better time, he might have been one of the Five Good Emperors of the second century (refer to Chapter 17). But he wasn’t. He was only 13 when he was made emperor, changing his name from Alexianus to Alexander and becoming Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander.
A little stability in a sea of chaos
Back in the first century, Nero (54-68) had got sick of being dominated by his mother Agrippina and killed her (refer to Chapter 16). But Alexander didn’t do that - he put up and shut up. He was under the power of his grandmother Julia Maesa until she died in 226 and then his mother Julia Mamaea who even declared herself to be Augusta, as if she was empress in her own right.
Julia Mamaea was no idiot. Realising that her and Alexander’s lives would be at risk if another bout of military anarchy followed, she decided that a show of respect to the Senate would pay dividends. So 16 senators were appointed to the imperial council, and it was made possible for a senator to be Praetorian prefect. One of the greatest lawyers in Roman history, Domitius Ulpianus, was made Praetorian prefect, but in reality he ran the government of the Roman Empire under Mamaea’s supervision.
If that sounds bad, it wasn’t - at least, not all of it. The equestrian administrators under Ulpianus did a good job generally, and the Roman Empire was temporarily restored to stability and sanity. For a good ten years the frontiers were peaceful, hand-outs to the mob were maintained at a sensible level, cash was found to subsidise teachers, the special money (alimentia) for poor families was increased, and the imperial court went on an economy drive to pay for all this.
But not all is well
Despite the benefits of a more stable government, things were far from sorted. The praetorian prefect Ulpianus was murdered by his own Praetorian troops by 228. They also wanted to kill the historian Dio Cassius, consul in 229, on the grounds that he was too severe for them. Dio was saved when Alexander discharged him.
By AD 224, the Parthians had ruled Persia since 247 BC. In about AD 10, a Parthian king called Artabanos II threw off Greek cultural influence and restored old Persian traditions and religion. Ardashir, also known as Artaxerxes, was descended from a man called Sassan. He overthrew the last Parthian king, Artabanos IV, in AD 224, establishing the Sassanid dynasty and restoring the ancient Zoroastrianism religion. Zoroastrianism was one of the first ancient religions to teach monotheism, the idea of a resurrection after death, and eternal life for the reunited body and soul. It still exists today in the Middle East.
And then there were the frontiers. The Parthian Empire collapsed in 230, and into the power vacuum came a Persian dynasty called the Sassanids under a king called Ardashir, who was determined to recover all the land the Persians had once ruled - which meant much of the Roman Empire in the East. Alexander did defeat Ardashir, but it cost him dearly in men, which damaged his prestige. Meanwhile, the Alamanni tribe in Germany decided to take advantage of the Eastern war. Alexander headed for the German frontier in 234, but his troops mutinied and he had to bribe the Alamanni to hold off.
The end of Alexander and Julia
The frontier trouble was the chance Maximinus Thrax (‘Maximinus the Thracian’) needed. He’d served in Alexander’s Eastern war and was now one of the commanders in the German war. To the soldiers who were disappointed by Alexander’s lack of military skill, Maximinus looked a much better bet. Alexander and Julia Mamaea were murdered in their camp near Mainz in Germany.
Blink and you’ll miss them: A slew of emperors who followed Alexander
If it wasn’t for the coins of the soldier emperors we’d know a lot less about them. Coins provide names, portraits, and records of some of these rulers’ deeds and in a few cases are the only evidence we have at all. (But see Chapter 7 for the effect of all the instability on the coinage’s quality.) Portraits of emperors on coins from the years AD 235-284 tell the story. Almost to a man they show brutal, unshaven thugs because these were the men who appealed to the soldiers. Usually men who had risen from the ranks, they cared little or nothing for the Senate or traditional Roman virtues, though, of course, they pretended they did. Hardly a single one died in his bed. While they battled it out, Rome’s enemies on the borders started to move in for the kill.
● Maximinus ‘Thrax’ I (235-238): He set the pace. A huge man, he fought the Germans successfully, but he was ruthless and cruel and hated the Roman aristocracy. The Senate tried to get rid of him by supporting a coup in 238 led by the governor of Africa, Gordianus.
● Gordianus I and Gordianus II (238): The former Governor of Africa ruled briefly with his son, but Maximinus’s friends killed them.
● Balbinus and Pupienus (238): The Senate made these two senators into joint emperors in 238. The Praetorians killed them, but not before Maximinus’s own men had mutinied and killed him, too.
● Gordianus III (238-244): Gordianus I’s grandson was made emperor. He was killed on campaign against the Persians by the praetorian prefect, a soldier called Philip I the Arab who became the next emperor.
● Philip I the Arab (244-249): Philip defeated the Persians and celebrated the thousandth year of Rome with a vast festival of games. Philip sent the governor of Lower Moesia, Trajan Decius, to suppress a rebellion amongst the Danube legions. But the rebels made Trajan Decius emperor, and he defeated and killed Philip in a battle near Verona.
● Trajan Decius (249-251): Decius lasted two years, during which he famously started a ruthless persecution of Christians. Trajan Decius was killed fighting the Goths.
● Trebonianus Gallus (251-253): He replaced Decius and ruled jointly with Decius’s son Hostilian. Gallus made a humiliating peace with the Goths, but it was becoming difficult for any emperor to manage the various border threats. He also faced a devastating plague that swept across the Roman world and killed Hostilian. Gallus was killed in 253 by his own soldiers who preferred the idea of being ruled by a governor called Aemilian, who had succeeded in defeating the Goths.
● Aemilian (253): Aemilian only lasted about three months: He was murdered by Valerian, who had been gathering an army to help Gallus. Read more about Valerian in the next section.
Valerian I (AD 253-260) and Gallienus (253-268)
Valerian was a decent man, but he faced all the consequences of years of anarchy which had allowed frontier defences to fall to pieces. He ruled jointly with his son Gallienus, realising it was the only way to try and manage the frontier troubles and run the Empire. By 256, Valerian had set out to fight the Persian Sassanid king Shapur.
While his father Valerian was fighting in the East, Gallienus was supposed to be in charge of the western provinces of the Roman Empire; in reality, he was trying to rule an Empire rent by revolts, plagues, and famine. By 262, following hot on the heels of a catastrophic earthquake that wrecked cities in Asia and shook Rome, a plague reached Rome that, at its height, was said to be killing up to 5,000 people in a single day across the Empire. In the East Gallienus faced the rising power of the Palmyrenes, and in the West something unprecedented happened: Part of the Roman Empire broke away to create the Gallic Empire.
Valerian dies and a rebellion starts
Four years into the war against the Persians in 260, Valerian’s army was crippled by plague. During peace negotiations, Valerian was captured by Shapur and died in prison. It was a spectacular and unprecedented humiliation for a Roman emperor.
An officer called Macrianus in Valerian’s army promptly took his chance and proclaimed his two sons, Macrianus the Younger and Quietus, emperors in 260. The two Macriani headed west with an army to get rid of Valerian’s son Gallienus.
Events in the Palymrenes
Palmyra, an oasis on the great trade route into Mesopotamia and farther east, was one of the largest and richest cities in the Eastern Roman Empire. The people had nomadic origins, a tradition they put to good use when Mark Antony tried to capture Palmyra in 41 BC just to plunder its riches. Hearing he was coming, the people carted their goods across the Euphrates, and Antony’s men found the city empty. Later, Palmyra was given privileges by various Roman emperors, including being allowed to tax all traffic passing through, which made it even wealthier. Palmyra was made into a Roman colony by Septimius Severus (193-211; refer to Chapter 18). Publius Septimius Odaenathus was a member of the most important Palmyran family and declared himself King of Palmyra after Valerian I was killed in 260.
Actually, Odaenathus had done Gallienus a favour because this was the only way the East could possibly be held against the Sassanids and get rid of the usurper Quietus. Gallienus made Odaenathus ‘Duke of the East’ and commander of all Roman forces in the region. Odaenathus attacked and killed Quietus at Emesa in 261.
Under Odaenathus, Palmyra became the major force in the Roman East. Odaenathus recaptured Mesopotamia for the Roman Empire and was even given the title imperator. But Palmyra’s power was growing unchecked. Odaenathus was assassinated in 267 as part of a local dynastic plot. His son Vabalathus inherited the throne, but had to share power with his beautiful, highly intelligent, and ambitious mother Zenobia. But time was running out for the Palmyrenes.
The Gallic Empire breaks away
Valerian had made Marcus Cassianus Latinius Postumus commander of the Rhine garrisons. In 259, Postumus was declared emperor at Cologne by his
troops. Unlike a lot of other pretenders, he wasn’t stupid enough to think he could have the whole Empire to himself.
Postumus had control of Gaul, Spain, and Britain, and he ran it like a proper Roman Empire. Today it’s known as the Gallic Empire. It was truly astonishing because he adopted all the trappings of a Roman emperor and set up his own Senate with consuls and all the usual magistracies. He was a generally popular and sensible ruler who tried to reform the coinage and posed with all the proper Roman virtues. The only difference was that his empire wasn’t centred on Rome, but Trier.
Gattienus's death and the next emperor, Claudius II
Gallienus was educated, interested in Greek culture, and tolerant of Christians. He preferred men of ability, which was why he used experienced soldiers who had reached equestrian status to command his legions and relied increasingly on a crack body of mobile troops to reach trouble spots.
Gallienus beat off an invasion of Greece by a Germanic tribe called the Heruli. He had left a general called Acilius Aureolus in charge of the war against Postumus, but Aureolus took his chance and headed towards Rome. Gallienus caught him up and besieged him at Milan, where Gallienus was murdered in 268 by some of his own officers, who included the future emperors Claudius II and Aurelian. Gallienus’s death was a waste.
Claudius II Gothicus (268-270) was one of the conspirators involved in Gallienus’s death. He earned his title after winning a massive victory over the Goths in the Battle of Naissus. His reign was short-lived, however, because he caught the plague and died in 270, a rare instance of an emperor not being murdered during the third century.
Auretian (AD 270-275)
Succeeding Claudius II was a highly effective general called Aurelian. Aurelian was a rare instance of a Roman emperor in the third century who could control the army, put down rebels, hold the frontiers, and tackle domestic problems. As the sections ‘Annihilating Palmyra’ and ‘The end of the Gallic Empire’ explain, he settled the Palmyra dispute and reclaimed the Gallic Empire for Rome. During a great triumph held in Rome to celebrate his victories, he had both Tetricus of the Gallic Empire and Zenobia of Palmyra walk in the procession, but he pensioned both off and allowed them to live out their days in peace.
The ruins of Palmyra
Palmyra, which sits on top of an underground spring, means city of palms. Today, it's Syria's number one tourist attraction. Visitors today can see the Street of Columns, a triumphal arch, the remains of several temples, and other buildings scattered over an area of more than 6 square kilometres (2 square miles). The on-site museum has mosaics and paintings that testify to the huge wealth enjoyed by the Palmyrenes before Aurelian destroyed the city.
In Palmyra, when Vabalathus was declared emperor in 271, it was the last straw for Aurelian. Aurelian headed east and defeated the Palmyrenes at Antioch and Emesa. Next he crossed the desert and besieged Palmyra. During the siege, Zenobia was captured while trying to escape and hire Persian reinforcements. She was deposed, and a Roman garrison established. Aurelian headed to the Danube to deal with the frontier only to hear that a revolt in Palmyra had killed the whole garrison. Aurelian raced back to Palmyra and wiped the city out, totally destroying it. Palmyra wasn’t rediscovered until travellers from Europe made it there in the 1700s.
The end of the Gallic Empire
Everything started going wrong for the Gallic Empire in 268 when a revolt against Postumus was put down. Postumus refused the soldiers permission to sack Mainz as punishment. So they killed Postumus. A succession of very short-lived emperors followed, ending with Tetricus I (270-273) and his son Tetricus II. Aurelian, just back from wiping out the Palmyrenes, invaded Gaul in 273. The two Tetrici promptly (and wisely) surrendered, and that was the end of the Gallic Empire.
Aurelian at home
Aurelian tried to reform the coinage and end the skyrocketing inflation with modest success, but he used the money he had taken from Palmyra to pay for handouts of bread, meat, oil, and salt in Rome. He repaired the Tiber’s banks and started making food and shipping guilds into semi-official organisations to improve commerce and production.
The Aurelian walls of Rome
Although he was a brilliant general, Aurelian knew only too well how real the threat was to Rome from rebels and barbarians. He ordered the building of a massive new circuit of brick and concrete walls to protect the city. Nineteen kilometres long (12 miles), they were finished under Probus (276-282) and had watchtowers and massive gates all the way round. The walls were constantly improved over the next 200 years and eventually had 383 towers, 14 gates, and 116 latrines for the guards. Large stretches survive more or less intact and are one of the most impressive sights in Rome today.
Aurelian co-operated with the Senate and involved it in his reforms though he was always ready for trouble - his nickname was Manu ad ferrum which translates as ‘Hand on iron’, meaning he was always ready to draw his sword if necessary.
The death of Aurelian
In 275, Aurelian was in Thrace, heading off to deal with the Persians once more. Along the way, he was murdered by Praetorian officers who’d been told (falsely) by an imperial secretary that they were on the list of men to be executed. Thoroughly ashamed of their actions, the soldiers asked the Senate to pick the next emperor, the first time anything like that had happened probably since Nerva’s accession in 96.
Interest in monotheism (belief in one god) was becoming more and more common in the Roman world. Aurelian was especially keen on the god called the 'Unconquered Sun-God' (Sol Invictus) and had been impressed by Sun-God worship in places like Palmyra. He built a temple to Sol in Rome and created a college of priests to man it. He posed as a priest of Sol on his coins, which was a big step towards a world in which the emperor presented himself as a divinely appointed representative of a god on Earth. Sol's feast-day was 25 December, later adapted to be the winter festival of the Christians. But Aurelian had no intention of getting rid of the old gods - he just wanted Sol to be the most important.
The Senate picked an elderly senator called Tacitus after a delay of six months. Tacitus successfully defeated the Goths in Asia Minor but died from old age after a reign of only about seven months in the summer of 276. His half-brother Florianus, the praetorian prefect, declared himself to be emperor. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t the only candidate. Probus, Aurelian’s former general in the East, was also declared emperor. Florianus’s troops decided Probus was the better bet and killed Florianus.
Probus (AD 276-282)
Probus was young enough, wise enough, and capable enough to have restored the Roman world. He made his way to Rome, was approved by the Senate, and promptly set out on a war to defeat German tribes. He was successful and also put down rebellions in Britain, Gaul, and Germany; he even hired some of his prisoners-of-war as soldiers to strengthen his own forces.
Probus kept his soldiers busy with public building projects and even planting vineyards when they weren’t fighting. Word seems to have got out that Probus thought conditions were improving so much that soon the army, or large parts of it anyway, could be discharged. That didn’t go down well amongst an army already resentful at being made to work on building sites, and as a result, Probus was murdered by troops in the provinces of Raetia and Noricum. A waste of a potentially good emperor.
The End of the Principate
Things became chaotic again following Probus’s murder. The troops who murdered Probus proclaimed the praetorian prefect Carus emperor in 282. Carus (282-283) promptly appointed his sons Numerian and Carinus his heirs and set off with Numerian to finish off the Sassanid Persians. Carus defeated the Persians but had an amazing stroke of bad luck in his camp: He was struck by lightning and killed. At least that was the story put about. Another possibility is that he was killed by Numerian’s father-in-law, the praetorian prefect Aper, who fancied seeing his descendants on the throne more quickly. Either way, Numerian (282-284), who preferred writing poetry to fighting, set off back to Rome but was mysteriously murdered in his litter in 284, probably also by Aper. That left Carinus (282-285) in charge.
In the spring of 285, Diocles, head of the imperial bodyguard, was chosen by the army in the East to avenge the death of Numerian. Diocles headed west and met Carinus’s army near the Danube. Carinus, who was extremely unpopular, was killed by one of his own men, and his troops went over to Diocles.
Carinus’s death marked the end of the principate, the system established by Augustus 300 years earlier and which had evolved over the years. It’s pretty obvious it was in a very dodgy state, so it’s just as well that Diocles was something of a visionary. He realised that the Roman world had changed beyond recognition. It needed a new system, it needed it fast, and he decided he was the man to bring that about.