Marcus Aurelius Claudius was in his fifties when he became Augustus. According to Aurelius Victor, the dying Gallienus had named Claudius – who was at Ticinum (Pavia) at the time of the murder – his successor. This is not impossible, although it is a lot more likely that he was simply chosen by the conspirators (of whom he may have been part) and then accepted by the army. There was a rumour that he was an illegitimate son of the late emperor Gordianus II, but surely that story was fabricated to give some legitimacy to his rule. Gordianus was from Africa, while Claudius was born in the Balkan region, so the story makes no sense at all. Among later generations, some chose to believe that Claudius’ brother Crispus had a daughter named Claudia, who married a Dardanian nobleman named Eutropius. Claudia then bore her husband a son named Constantius Chlorus, who, in 272, became the father of Constantine the Great. This whole story was no doubt fabricated as well, possibly by Constantine himself.
An emperor on campaign
The new emperor now needed to prove he was worth the honour bestowed on him. Claudius first had to deal with Aureolus, the man who had rebelled against Gallienus and had drawn the late emperor to Mediolanum. Aureolus had fled the city, but was tracked down by Claudius. There may have been a battle, and the usurper was killed or murdered by his own soldiers. Claudius then proceeded to Rome, where the Senate and people accepted him as their emperor.
Claudius did not stay in Rome for long. Before the year 268 was out, he was at the head of the troops again and had to stop an incursion of the Alemanni, who had once again invaded Northern-Italy. The Roman army and the invaders met at Lake Benacus, the ancient name of Lake Garda. Although no details of the battle have survived, the result was a decisive victory for Rome. An inscription set up at Toscolano-Maderno on the western shore of the lake probably refers to the battle and the gratitude of the Benacenses, the people living along the shores, vis-à-vis their emperor:
IMP(ERATORI) CAES(ARI) / M(ARCO) AUR(ELIO) CLAUDIO / P(IO) F(ELICI) INVICTO / AUG(USTO) / BENACENSES
After the defeat of the Alemanni, the emperor had his hands free to fight the Goths, Heruli and other Germanic tribes that were overrunning the Balkan provinces. It is possible that the people stirring up trouble there were still those who had invaded in 267 and had not yet been defeated. Yet sources such as Zosimus surely suggest there had been new invasion of 320.000 ‘barbarians’ who made use of 6.000 ships. These numbers are massively inflated, but there is little reason to doubt the seriousness of the invasion. The Goths and their allies first attacked Tomis and Marcianopolis in Moesia, but without much success. Their fleet then sailed through the Bosporus and into the Sea of Marmara, then called the Propontis. The ships got dispersed because of the strong current and some were dashed to pieces.
A squadron of ships that managed to get out unscathed sailed further south and attacked the larger islands in the Aegean Sea, such as Rhodes, Crete and Cyprus, although they failed to do much damage. Others attacked Cyzicus and then Cassandreia and Thessalonica in Macedonia. Again the Roman cities seem to have held out and the whole Gothic campaign had so far hardly been a raging success. Then news reached the invaders that the emperor had arrived in the region. It was now 269. The Goths and their allies marched north, perhaps to meet him, but more likely to escape back to their home country. The first confrontation with the Romans took place between Doberus and Pelagonia. Claudius’ Dalmatian cavalry killed some 3.000 Goths, but the main force managed to escape and advanced further north. At Naissus, it was checked by the main Roman army led by the emperor himself. The Battle of Naissus was a bloody affair and both sides suffered heavy casualties. In the end the Romans seem to have feigned retreat and lured the Goths into an ambush. The Gothic army was then destroyed. According to Zosimus, more than 50.000 ‘barbarians’ were killed. The number is no doubt exaggerated, but the Romans had won a major victory.
After his victory, Claudius was awarded the agnomen of ‘Gothicus Maximus’, and hence he became known to posterity as Claudius Gothicus. His campaign was by no means over though, as some of the Gothic survivors rallied and perhaps united their forces with marauding warbands that had not participated in the battle. Protected by their wagons, they marched east into Thrace. Claudius sent his cavalry after them, who drove the fleeing enemies towards Mount Haemus in the Balkan Mountains. There, probably in early 270, the Goths were surrounded. The Romans attacked, but the Goths managed to repel their infantry, which had to be saved by the cavalry. Just a little later, negotiations were opened. Claudius realised that the Goths were more useful to him as allies than as enemies. To avoid further bloodshed, he allowed the survivors to settle in Roman territory. In return, the Gothic warriors were absorbed into the Roman army.
Unfortunately, sometime during their campaign in Macedonia, the Goths had contracted a deadly disease. This was probably the same Plague of Cyprian that had now been raging through the Roman Empire for more than twenty years. Many inhabitants of the Empire must have by now become immune to the disease, but these Gothic invaders from outside the Empire were not. Worse, the disease spread to the Roman army, where many soldiers fell ill and died. The most crucial victim was the emperor himself. Claudius Gothicus passed away at the height of his power and may have been one of the last casualties of the aforementioned plague. The late emperor was deified and many coins were minted with the text DIVO CLAVDIO.
Meanwhile in the West and East
In the so-called ‘Gallic Empire’, the emperor Postumus had learned the hard way that usurpers are not necessarily safe from other usurpers. In early 269, a man named Laelianus had rebelled against his leader in Mogontiacum (present-day Mainz). We do not know what position he held, but it seems likely he got support from Legio XXII Primigenia, which was stationed at Mogontiacum. This was a threat Postumus could not ignore. He quickly marched on the city and defeated the usurper. Laelianus was killed, but then Postumus took a decision he would severely regret: he prohibited his soldiers from looting the city they had captured. The infuriated men then murdered their emperor. Postumus was succeeded by one Marius, whom Aurelius Victor claims had been a blacksmith. Marius’ reign was short, but long enough for him to start minting coins. After a few months on the throne he was murdered and succeeded by Marcus Piavonius Victorinus.
In the turmoil following the death of Postumus, the Spanish provinces may have seceded from the Gallic Empire and recognised Claudius (who was still alive at the time) as the legitimate emperor. One of Claudius’ generals, a man named Julius Placidianus, operated in Southern Gaul, where he captured the town of Cularo in Narbonensis (now Grenoble). This likely inspired the city of Augustodunum (modern Autun) to revolt and defect to Claudius, but Victorinus was able to quell the rebellion in 269 or 270. Augustodunum was besieged, captured and sacked. The Gallic Empire was reeling, but it was still in the game.
In the Roman East, central authority was weak to non-existent. Zenobia of Palmyra began tightening her grip on the provinces. She ruled on behalf of her young son Vaballathus, ras (lord) of Palmyra, who had inherited his father’s titles of King of Kings and corrector totius orientis. Zenobia was said to have been a beautiful and very intelligent woman. She spoke Aramaic, Greek and Egyptian fluently, but had limited knowledge of Latin. Ancient sources stress that she was chaste, just, both strict and mild in her rule, and excelled at riding and hunting. In the early years of her reign, she was still loyal to Rome, but that changed in 270. Perhaps the death of Claudius had created a power vacuum that Zenobia chose to exploit.
Zenobia ordered her general Septimius Zabdas to invade Egypt. She claimed descent from the Ptolemies of old, the descendants of Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemaios, and perhaps this was her pretext for launching the invasion: Egypt was rightfully hers and she was the new Cleopatra. Zabdas’ army was likely composed of native Palmyrene troops as well as regular Roman troops from Syria that were now under Zenobia’s command. The Palmyrene army met that of the Roman prefect of Egypt, whose name is unknown, but who must have made use of the two legions in region: Legio II Traiana and Legio XXII Deiotariana, as well as local troops. The Romans were defeated and Zenobia added Egypt to the territories under her control. After leaving a small garrison behind, Zabdas left again.
Since the province was still vital to Rome’s grain supply, there was an attempt to win it back. A certain Probus or Probatus, who had been appointed to combat piracy in the region, attacked and routed the garrison. He seems to have acted entirely on his own accord. Unfortunately for the Romans, Probus or Probatus was then decisively defeated by Timagenes, an Egyptian who served under Zenobia. And so Egypt remained in Palmyrene hands. Zenobia’s attack had been a serious provocation. It was only a matter of time before she would formally break with Rome.
- Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 33-34 (translated and annotated by H.W. Bird);
- Epitome de Caesaribus 34;
- Historia Augusta, The Life of Claudius;
- Historia Augusta, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders (Zenobia);
- Zosimus, Historia Nova, Book 1.42-46.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 118 and p. 125-127;
- David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180-395, p. 261-262;
- Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 609-612.
 Many of the years given in this post are conjectural. The chronology of events during the Crisis of the Third Century is often hazy.
 CIL 05, 04869.
 This is attested by an incription (CIL 12, 02228), part of which reads IN NARB(ONENSI) / PROV(INCIA) SUB CURA IUL(I) / PLACIDIANI V(IRI) P(ERFECTISSIMI) PRAE/FECT(I) VIGIL(UM).
Updated 10 April 2023.