There can be no doubt that Marcus Aurelius Probus was a very successful general. According to Aurelius Victor, he “was almost a second Hannibal because of his great knowledge of warfare and his versatile training of the soldiers and his toughening of the young recruits”. For most of his reign, the emperor fought internal and external enemies. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, one of Probus’ other great achievements was the promotion of wine growing in Gaul, Pannonia and Moesia. In the first century, there had been a grain shortage, so the emperor Domitianus (81-96) had issued an edict stipulating that farmland should be used for growing grain instead of grapes. No new vineyards were allowed in Italy and half of those in the provinces were to be cut down, although it does not seem the edict was entirely enforced. In Probus’ time it probably had already lapsed, and he promoted viticulture in the provinces, especially around Sirmium in present-day Serbia, where he had been born.
Internal and external enemies
The emperor’s military campaigns during his six-year reign can be reconstructed as follows. Between 277 and 279, Probus and his generals fought against ‘barbarian’ invaders who had broken through the Rhine and Danube borders. They first chased the Franks and Alemanni from Gaul, killing large number of them, although the 400.000 Germanic casualties mentioned in the Historia Augusta of course need to be taken with a pinch of salt. After securing the Rhine border, the emperor took on the Burgundi and Vandili (and perhaps the Sarmatians) that had invaded Rhaetia and Pannonia. These invaders were thoroughly defeated, with Zosimus claiming that the survivors were taken to Britannia and settled there. After his victories the emperor was awarded – or assumed – the nickname ‘Germanicus Maximus’, while some of his coins have the text VICTORIA GERM. Victories in Thrace against the Goths and the Bastarnae (a Germanic tribe) led to the acquisition of yet another nickname, ‘Gothicus Maximus’. Once again, brute force was combined with diplomacy, and defeated enemies that surrendered were allowed to settle in Roman territory.
Then, in 279, there was a rebellion in Isauria led by a certain Lydius. He is portrayed as a mere brigand by the sources, but his activities were serious enough to warrant the attention of the Roman army, which put his stronghold of Cremna in Pisidia under siege. The city surrendered after Lydius was killed and order was then quickly restored. Probus himself had not been present at the siege of Cremna, having sent his regional governor Terentius Marcianus instead. Lydius’ revolt had been a nuisance, but the man had likely never intended to proclaim himself emperor.
There was more serious trouble in Egypt, where the nomadic Blemmyes had invaded. The emperor probably travelled to the province in person and took command of the war. The nomads were subsequently driven back with heavy loss. The emperor now likely started to focus on a war against the Persians and their king, Bahram II. But before he could launch an offensive, he had to hurry back to the West to quell a rebellion in Gaul, where Bonosus and Proculus had been proclaimed joint emperors. The former was from Albingaunum in Liguria, the latter from Hispania, but of Gallo-British descent. Their rebellion was crushed in 280, while another rebellion in Syria – perhaps in 281 – came to nothing when the usurper, a certain Saturninus, was killed by his own men. Probus now finally found time to celebrate his well-deserved triumph over the various Germanic tribes and the Blemmyes of Africa. Rather oddly, while Probus styled himself ‘Germanicus Maximus’ (see above), the agnomen ‘Blemmicus Maximus’ was apparently never awarded to him.
Death and succession
Probus was a strict disciplinarian and some of his soldiers found it difficult to stomach that he also employed them for non-military purposes. Probably in September of 282, he had ordered some of them to dig ditches and create reservoirs near his birthplace of Sirmium. The city had been flooded by torrential rain and the emperor wanted it properly drained. The Historia Augusta makes things a little bigger and claims that Probus had many thousands of soldiers drain a complete swamp by digging a canal which ran to the river Savus (now the Sava). Whichever story is true, some of the soldiers revolted and set upon their emperor. Probus fled to an iron tower which he used as a lookout point, but the infuriated soldiers managed to kill him anyway.
The murder of Probus seems to have been the result of a spontaneous action. It did not have the support of the high-ranking officers, nor of the majority of the rank and file. The slain emperor was given a grand funeral. Later he was deified as well, for he is mentioned as DIVVS PROBVS in the Chronography of 354. Probus was succeeded by his praetorian prefect, Marcus Aurelius (or Numerius) Carus. According to Aurelius Victor, he had been born in Narbo Martius (modern Narbonne) in Gallia Narbonensis, a Roman colony founded in about 118 BCE. This makes him somewhat special, for if the claim is true, Carus cannot be counted among the Illyrian emperors. He named his sons Numerianus and Carinus his Caesars and seems to have simply relied on his support among the soldiers to get himself accepted by the Senate. Since he profited from the murder of Probus, some suspected him of having had a hand in the crime. The evidence is, however, not compelling.
- Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 37-38 (translated and annotated by H.W. Bird);
- Epitome de Caesaribus 37;
- Historia Augusta, The Life of Probus;
- Historia Augusta, The Lives of Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus and Bonosus;
- Zosimus, Historia Nova, Book 1.66-71.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 133-134;
- Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 621-623.
 De Caesaribus 37 (translation: H.W. Bird).
 Suetonius, Domitianus 7.
 Governor of Lycia et Pamphylia.
Updated 5 May 2023.