[Edited 11/21/14 and 11/15/16]


As Gibbon noted, history is often little more than the record of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.  Without such misfortunes, there’s not as much for the historian to talk about, and Gibbon says, with some justice, that the relative quiet of the period of Antoninus Pius makes for little to say.  Still, even the period of the Five Good Emperors was marked by occasional disasters and misfortunes: wars with Germans and Parthians, devastating plagues, and revolts by subject peoples like the Jews.

During the century following the death of Marcus Aurelius (AD 180—284), things were far worse.  This is not because the rulers of this period were all horrible.  Some of them were immensely competent.  But the problems facing the empire were almost too great for any man to solve—particularly the problems created by the fickle Roman army.


The problems began during the reign of Marcus Aurelius’ son Commodus (AD 180-192).  Commodus is easy to remember because he’s an awful lot like Nero—but without Nero’s artistic taste.  Like Nero, he lived for applause, but he sought that applause, not in the theater, but in the arena.  He dressed as if he were Hercules, and, apparently, he was fairly decent at athletic events.  On one occasion, he took 100 javelins to take on 100 lions.  He took out all 100 without a single miss.

His extravagant shows were popular enough, but they ruined the treasury, and Commodus chose to raise funds by selling public office—at one point, selling 25 consulships in a single day!  He also resorted to judicial murder in order to justify confiscating the estates of the wealthy.  Naturally enough, such a man would provoke antagonism, and there were a number of real plots against his life—and a bunch of plots he only imagined.

When Marcia, his concubine, warned him *not* to degrade his position by appearing as a gladiator, she ended up on a wax tablet list of those who intended to have executed.  When, by accident, she discovered the list, she and others conspired to kill Commodus, first trying poison, and then having him strangled.

 Another Year of Four Emperors

Commodus’ death led to another “Year of Four Emperors.”  Pertinax, a man with a distinguished senatorial background, was the senate’s choice, but, when he wouldn’t agree to increase their pay, the Praetorian Guard killed him.  The Praetorians essentially auctioned off the imperial title, and Didius Julianus held the throne briefly. But, unable to keep his promises, and without popular or senatorial support, Julianus found himself challenged by a number of rival generals Niger, Albinus, and Septimius Severus.  Niger was proclaimed emperor by his troops, but he didn’t head to Rome fast enough.  Severus got there first and took over with his troops.  He promised the Praetorians a suitable reward, and gathered them together.  He gave them a very suitable reward: he surrounded them with his troops, had the troops disarm them and strip them naked, and sent them away with nothing: they had betrayed Pertinax who they had been sworn to protect.

The Severans

Septimius Serverus (AD 193-211) was a respite for the Roman people.  He defeated his rivals (Albinus and Niger) and settled successfully wars with the Parthians and in Britain. His advice to his son: take care of the army, and you can despise everyone else.  He did take care of his army, raising their pay from 300 to 500 denarii.  But he also did some rather impressive reorganizational work, improving the postal service, providing free medical care, and building better roads—while at the same time replenishing the treasury.  He moved toward the elimination of the distinction between Italians and provincials in terms of citizenship.  In addition, there was a cultural revival.  Neoplatonism flourished with both Christian and pagan rediscovery of the great Athenian philosopher.  Ulpian did very impressive work in law, and Galen in medicine.

But what about succession?  Severus reverted to the hereditary principle, naming his sons Caracella and Geta as his heirs.

Caracella (AD 211-117) was very much his father’s son in many respects.  He raised the soldiers’ pay still further, to 750 denarii.  His “Edict of Caracella” gave citizenship rights to all free men within the empire.

Unfortunately, Caracella was a cruel man.  He murdered his brother Geta even as Geta was held in their mother’s arms.  He tricked the Parthians by pretending to be interested in marriage to a Parthian princess…and then, at what was to be a wedding/engagement party, turned on the unsuspecting Parthians and slaughtered them.

He carried grudges too.  Before Caracella had taken the throne, a song mocking him had been a brief popular hit in Alexandria—a city where making fun of prominent figures was pretty much a tradition.  When he became emperor, Caracella told the Alexandrians he was going to create an elite military unit and he wanted Alexandrian young me to appear for consideration.  They expected an honor—but found instead that they were surrounded and killed. 

Caracella’s cruelty cost him his life.  One of his officers, Macrinus, along with others whose families had suffered, cooked up a plot.  Taking advantage of Caracella’s need for a bathroom break (the one time his personal guard wouldn’t be immediately at hand) a centurion named Martialis (the man who Macrinus recruited for the purpose) killed the emperor.

The troops on the spot (near Ctesiphon), apparently unaware that Macrinus had been the instigator, proclaimed him emperor. Macrinus settles the war with the Parthians, and gets senate approval for his new title.  But troops in Syria set up a rival, the boy-priest Bassianus—using as justification the belief that Bassianus was an illegitimate son of Caracella!  Hearing that there was major money backing Bassianus and thinking they’d get well-rewarded, Macrinus’ troops deserted him: he dies, and Bassianus reigns.

Bassianus (AD 218-222) preferred to be called Elagabalus after the name of the sun-god he worshipped. He was hardly suitable for the job: effeminate in the extreme.  He supposedly offered half his empire to any physician who could give him female genitals, and he had a blond slave he referred to as his husband. 

Nevertheless, Rome was well-ruled.  Real power was in the hands of his grandmother, Julia Maesa.  Realizing that Elabablus was incorrigible and likely to end up dead, Julia Maesa secured her own continuation in power by making sure Elagablus named as heir another of her grandsons (Alexander Severus), supposedly the illegitimate son of Caracalla by her other daughter.  Sure enough, the Praetorians eventually turned in Elagabalus and slaughtered him…and Alexander Severus was emperor.

Alexander (AD 222-235) did a decent job—or (rather) the women that actually ruled did a decent job.  At first, Maesa was in control of the empire, and, when she died, Julia Mamea (her daughter) was, not just the power-behind-the-throne, but officially recognized by the senate as “Mother of Augustus, of the camp, and the senate, and the fatherland.”  Julia was frugal, accumulating enough extra money to subsidize scholars and teachers.  She remitted taxes for landlords who made improvements.  She restored the role of the senate in imperial governance. But what Julia could not do was control the troops.  The praetorian prefect was murdered by the praetorians when he tried to disciple them—and she found herself unable to do anything about it.

In the east, Parthian rule had collapsed, and a vigorous new power had taken control of Persia, the Sassanids.  Alexander and Mamea head east to deal with the renewed Persian threat, but the Allemani (a Germanic group) attack.  Mamea has to buy them off because the insubordinate troops to respond to orders to defend the border.

Fickle soldiers decide it’s time to have a military man in charge, and the proclaim one of Alexander’s staff officers (Maximinus) emperor.  Maximinus doesn’t really want to be emperor, but the troops tell him it’s either that or death.  Oh well, says Maximinus.  Why not?   Maximinus’ army sets out to attack.  Alexander’s troops won’t even fight.  Alexander dies, and Maximinus reigns—and life is about to get very interesting indeed in the Roman Empire.

Soldier Emperors

The years 235-284 in Roman history are called the time of the soldier (or barracks) emperors.  It is during this period in particular that the problems of the empire (particularly the problems with the fickle troops) get out of hand.  Depending on how one counts, there are approximately 26 emperors in this period, only one of whom dies a natural death.

The only people who know all the emperors of this period are graduate students preparing for their qualifying exams, so don’t worry if you don’t get all the details.  Instead, look at the general problems and examples of the way these problems get out of hand.

Problems include:

1.  Potential German invasion from groups like the Franks or the Allemani crossing over the Rhine or groups like the Goths and the Borani crossing the Danube.

2.  Assault from the revived and vigorous Persian Empire led by the Sassanids.

3.  Palmyra, a rich trading city in present-day Syria that, while typically aligned with Rome, rose up briefly during this period to challenge Roman authority—particularly during the rule of queen Zenobia.

4.  Mutinous armies and usurping emperors.

For no particularly good reason (or, rather, for the very good reason that there were 6 emperors in the year AD 238, the year of Maximinus’ death), I’ll pick up the story with the reign of Philip the Arab (AD 244-249).

Philip became emperor when the boy Gordian III (notice we’ve skipped Gordian I and II!) was killed by the army.  Philip inherited a mess.  There were barbarians poised to attack along both the Rhine and Danube while the Parthians were poised to attack in the east.  Roman troops were undisciplined and undependable, and the governmental bureaucracy, once capable of holding things together even under a poor emperor, wasn’t operating effectively at all.  Philip was energetic, but the problems were overwhelming.

In 249, one of his generals (Pacation), supposed to be guarding the Danube, instead begins to instead try to use his troops to grab the throne.  Philip panics and plans to resign his position, but one of his loyal generals, Decius, tells him not to worry: things will work out.

Sure enough, Pacatian’s troops decide they really don’t like him all that much and (I suppose to prove their loyalty to Philip) kill Pacatian. But now there’s another problem.  The Goths take advantage of the unguarded Danube and invade.  Philip sends Decius out to reorganize the army and stop the invasion.

Decius is successful, leading his troops to victory. The soldiers, pleased with themselves and their commander, decide to make Decius emperor. So—on to Rome: Philip dies, and Decius reigns.

Decius (AD 249-251) faced the same problems as Philip plus one more: a devastating plague.  The city of Alexandria was particularly hard hit, with perhaps half the population dead. 

Decius is energetic and competent, but no more successful than Philip.  The once-again-unguarded Danube is a problem, and Decius has to send and army—and, with it, a commander.  But that, of course, is dangerous: a successful commander at the head of a Danube army might decide to take his chances on getting the top job.

What to do?  Well, Decius is a more than decent commander, so he just leads the army himself.  He meets up with the Goths at Nicopolis and wins an impressive victory: 30,000 Goths are dead.  Decius tries to follow up his victory, but he moves too far and too fast and suffers a minor setback.  That’s not a problem, but Decius needs “W’s” to solidify his prestige and his ability to hold onto office.  But W’s are hard to chalk up without loyal subordinates.

Decius puts a man named Priscus in charge of the defense of Philippopolis, a city attacked by the Goths.  Priscus sells out to the Goths—and the defenseless city is sacked. 

But there’s worse to come.  Decius continues to track down the Gothic army in the Danube area.  The Goths divide into three units in their escape maneuvers.  Decius catches up to the first division and smashed it.  He catches the 2nd division and smashes that.  Two down. One to go, and with three straight W’s Decius just might have what he needs to secure his throne.  There’s just one major contingent of Gothic soldiers left, and Decius catches up to them.  His general Gallus knows the terrain, and Decius, naturally enough, asks his advice about the attack.  Full speed ahead, urges Gallus.  But he knows what Decius doesn’t that the land separating the Romans from the Goths is marshy: the kind of area were soldier get bogged down.  Decius attacks, his troops get stuck, and Decius and his men are cut down—while Gallus takes over as emperor.

Now why Gallus (AD 251-253) would want to be emperor is hard to guess.  The plague is raging.  The Sassinid king Shapur his stripped Armenia away from the empire—and the almost-defeated Goths spring back to cross the Danube again.

Gallus sends one of his best generals, Aemelian, to defend the Danube.  Aemelian and his troops win.  The troops are proud of themselves and their commander—and I suppose you can guess what happens next.  Aemelian and his men head toward Rome. 

Gallus needs are the support he can get, and he sends for Valerian, head of the army defending the Rhine.  But Valerian doesn’t arrive in time. Gallus troops don’t like the odds, and they don’t even bother to fight. Gallus dies, and Aemelian (AD 253-253!) reigns.  But not for long.  Valerian’s troops decide their guy would make a good king, and continue their march toward Rome.  Aemelian’s troops don’t even bother to fight. Aemelian dies, and Valerian reigns.

Valerian (AD 253-260) lasts longer than his three predecessors, but his seven years are a comedy of errors: every decision he make (except one) turns out badly.  The one thing he does right is to choose his very able son Gallienus (253-268) as his co-emperor and successor.

Valerian needs to defend the rich eastern portion of the empire from the Sassanids.  He reassigns his best Black Sea region general to the task, but, as soon as the Black Sea troops leave, rich Roman trading cities (Pityus and Trebizond) are attacked and plundered by the Boranni.  At Trebizond, the remaining soldiers didn’t even bother to fight.

Meanwhile, the Goths once again cross the Danube.  Valerian calls on his son Gallienus to bring his Rhine army to the rescue. But, as soon as Gallienus leaves the Rhine, The Franks and Allemani attack.

Unhappy with the fact that they aren’t defended properly, disgruntled troops and people in Gaul set up Posthumus as a rival emperor.

Faced with so many emergencies, Valerian thinks his best course is to negotiate with the most formidable of his outside enemies, the Sassanids.  He heads east to fight and (hopefully) negotiate…but, while he recovers Antioch, he then seems to have been betrayed.  The Sassanids seize him and Valerian simply disappears. There are Sassanid monuments showing him begging King Shappur for mercy—but we don’t know if he got it or not.

Now why were all these bad things happening to the good Roman people? I’ll tell you why, say some Romans.  It’s the Christians.  The gods have abandoned us because we have abandoned them, allowing these atheists in our midst.  Get rid of the atheists, and all will be well.