Year of the Six Emperors: The Year 238

Bust of Gordianus I (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

Maximinus Thrax was a harsh and unpopular ruler. Sources hostile to him claim he embezzled state funds and even plundered temples just to be able to pay his army, the base of all his power. Hatred against him grew ever greater, not just in Rome, but also in the provinces. This lead to a rebellion in Africa proconsularis. A group of young people assassinated the procurator of this province and at the end of February or the beginning of March, the men and their supporters declared eighty-year-old Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus, the proconsul of Africa, Augustus, while his son was made co-emperor. This all happened in Thysdrus – near modern-day El Djem in Tunesia – where the proconsul was relaxing at his country estate. Gordianus decided he had nothing to lose. After a few days, he set out for Carthage, the regional capital and one of the largest cities of the Empire.

Gordianus sent his quaestor to Rome to arrange the murder of the praetorian prefect Vitalianus, who was still loyal to Maximinus and governed the capital on his behalf. The prefect was killed by a group of centurions and soldiers, who subsequently spread the rumour that Maximinus himself had been killed (he was, of course, not even in Rome, but in his camp near Sirmium). The Senate and People were more than willing to believe the rumour and rejoiced upon hearing the news. The Senate decided to accept Gordianus I and II as joint Augusti and declared Maximinus Thrax an enemy of the state (hostis). The people now directed their anger towards people suspected of being supporters of Maximinus, the deposed emperor. Many citizens were killed in the ensuing riots, among them many who were innocent. The praefectus urbi Sabinianus was clubbed to death when he tried to calm the tensions.

Bust of Pupienus (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

The emperor strikes back

The Senate now sent envoys to all the provinces to try and get the provincial governors on their side. Most were persuaded to rebel against Maximinus, but a few refused and killed the envoys or sent them to Maximinus, who had them tortured and executed. Maximinus himself certainly was not going to give up without a fight. Towards the end of March, the emperor gathered his forces and marched from Sirmium in the Balkans to Italy.

Meanwhile, things were not going so well for the Senate in Africa. The legate of the neighbouring province of Numidia, one Capellianus, was still loyal to Maximinus. Unlike the two Gordiani, he had well-trained soldiers at his disposal. Capellianus commanded the veteran Legio III Augusta, which was permanently stationed at Lambaesis (in modern Algeria), while the Gordiani had to rely on a mob. The Gordiani’s people’s army outnumbered Capellianus’ forces, but the latter’s professional soldiers easily defeated father and son near Carthage. The younger Gordianus was killed in battle, while the elder Gordianus had already committed suicide before the battle by hanging himself. Both would later be deified by the Senate. For now, Capellianus entered Carthage and began executing supporters of the Gordiani. He also plundered temples and confiscated private property and public funds. The rebellion seemed to be over.

New emperors, please…

Bust of Gordianus III (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

The Senate now nominated two of its members as the new Augusti: Maximus Pupienus and Clodius Balbinus. Pupienus had served as consul together with Maximinus in 236, but was now on the ‘rebel side’ in the Civil War. It is quite possible that the Senate deliberately chose two new emperors, to have them share power and to prevent the accumulation of too much power in one hand. It did not work very well. The Senate had met in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus on the Capitoline (or, according to the Historia Augusta, in the Temple of Concordia on the Forum). When the new emperors wanted to leave the building and go to the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill, a mob blocked the exit. The two Gordiani seem to have had quite a few supporters in Rome. Incited by these supporters, the people demanded that 13-year-old Gordianus, grandson of the elder Gordianus and son of his daughter, be made a Caesar.

Pupienus, Balbinus and the Senate had no other option but to give in to these demands. Gordianus III was made a Caesar, but now the people’s anger focused on the praetorians, who were seen as supporters of Maximinus and were thoroughly hated. Soon there were large-scale riots and street battles in Rome. The praetorians pulled back to their barracks and managed to hold out behind their walls. When their water supply was cut off, the soldiers sallied and pushed back the mob to the narrow streets, where conditions favoured the people. The praetorians were pelted from balconies and rooftops with tiles and bricks and responded by setting fire to many buildings. Soon the fire began to consume parts of the city. Anarchy ruled in the streets of Rome.

The end of Maximinus Thrax

Meanwhile, Maximinus marched his forces across the Alps into Italy and sent ahead his vanguard to storm the city of Aquileia. The vanguard’s attempt failed, and the emperor was forced to lay siege to the city. Inspired by the leadership of two former (suffect) consuls, Crispinus and Menophilus, the Aquileians put up some determined resistance and Maximinus’ troops failed to force their way into the city. The troops began to suffer from food shortages and soon morale was dangerously low. Maximinus’ invasion had lost momentum and the soldiers blamed their emperor for their misery. In May, Maximinus Thrax was murdered by legionaries from Legio II Parthica, one of the legions raised by Septimius Severus. The soldiers cut off Maximinus’ head and that of his son and sent the severed heads to Rome.

Remains of the forum of Aquileia.

Most of Rome rejoiced upon receiving the news of the death of the hated emperor. Apparently, some order had been restored and the people celebrated in the streets. However, Maximinus still had supporters among the soldiers and the praetorian guard was most unhappy with the two new emperors, Pupienus and Balbus, who – to add insult to injury – did not like each other very much either. In June, the praetorians prepared to storm the imperial palace to capture or kill the two men. Pupienus wanted to use some Germanic auxiliaries against them, but Balbinus tried to block this, fearing that his rival was going to use these forces to make himself sole emperor. So while Pupienus and Balbinus were squabbling, the praetorians forced their way into the palace and captured the elderly Augusti. The men were tortured and dragged through the streets to the Castra Praetoria. When the Germanic auxiliaries heard the news, they hastened to intervene and save the emperors – they were especially devoted to Pupienus – but the men had already been murdered.

The praetorians now made Gordianus III the new Augustus. For the next few years, a 13-year-old would rule the Roman Empire, but the real power behind the throne was the praetorian prefect Gaius Timesitheus (appointed in 241). The Germanic troops had no desire to fight for a few corpses and retreated to their quarters. Peace returned to the streets of Rome.

Continue to the years 238-244.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 92-93;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 589-592.

Updated 15 January 2023.


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