The new emperor Carus – the name means ‘beloved’ – sent his eldest son Carinus to Gaul and took his youngest son Numerianus with him on a campaign in the East against the Persians. It seems likely that Probus had already been planning an offensive against Rome’s eastern nemesis, but that he had simply been unable to launch it because of rebellions and his own untimely death. The time was now right to strike at the Sassanid Empire. The Sassanid ruler Bahram II enjoyed a long reign of some twenty years, but he was nowhere near as talented as his grandfather Shapur had been. Moreover, Bahram had to deal with rebellions by his relatives in the eastern satrapies of his huge empire. There was religious unrest in the Sassanid Empire as well. Zoroastrian fanatics, led by a priest named Kartir, had became very powerful and had already persuaded Bahram’s father Bahram I to start persecuting religious minorities. The prophet Mani had been executed in about 274, and the Sassanid authorities had suppressed his followers, as well as Christians, Buddhists and others.
An emperor on campaign
In 282 Carus seems to have first campaigned against the Goths and Sarmatians. These campaigns must have been a success, for Carus began styling himself ‘Gothicus Maximus’. We also find the title ‘Germanicus Maximus’ in inscriptions, which perhaps refers to victories won by Carinus along the Rhine: father and sons may have acted as some sort of trinity that shared victories and titles. Although obviously important for raising morale, these victories against tribal forces that cannot have been exceptionally large were just minor ones. The main course was the Roman offensive in the East against the Sassanid Empire. The Persian campaign was no doubt intended as the ultimate Roman revenge for the humiliations of the 250s and 260s.
Carus’ offensive of 283 was a huge success and won the emperor the agnomen of ‘Persicus Maximus’. Bahram was unable to organise any effective resistance and the Romans quickly reached the Persian capital of Ctesiphon on the Tigris. We do not know exactly what happened next. The most plausible option is that the defenceless city simply surrendered. Since the ram had not yet touched the wall, Ctesiphon had to be spared and could not be sacked. Carus continued his advance, but just a little bit later, probably in the summer of 283, the emperor was dead. It may have been a natural death of disease, but soon stories began to circulate that the Augustus’ tent had been struck by lightning. If this was the case, then surely the gods, and especially Jupiter, disapproved of the Roman campaign. Perhaps it was time to cancel the offensive and return to friendly territory.
Now that Carus was dead, his son Numerianus was formally in charge of the Roman army. However, the real power behind the throne was once again a praetorian prefect, a man named Lucius Flavius Aper (‘wild boar’). Numerianus was married to his daughter, so Aper was his father-in-law as well. The new Augustus and his praetorian prefect decided to march back to Syria, but they do not seem to have been in a hurry to travel to Rome. Carinus had acted quite differently: as soon as he heard of his father’s death, he had immediately raced to the capital to set himself up there. Once there, he may very well have arranged for the deification of his father, as a large number of coins with the text DIVO CARO have been found (see the first image of this post). Rather curiously, Carus is not mentioned among the divine emperors in the Chronography of 354. He had been on the throne for less than two years, and perhaps his cult simply never became popular. His successor may have had something to do with this.
The Rise of Diocletianus
Sometime in 284, Numerianus left Emesa in Syria (now the city of Homs) and began making his way to Rome. The emperor was suffering from an eye infection and had to be carried around in a litter of which the curtains were always kept closed. Numerianus was never seen again, and this aroused suspicion among the soldiers. When the imperial caravan had reached Nicomedia in Bithynia, probably in November, the men demanded to see their emperor. The foul odour coming from the litter gave a hint that something terrible had happened, and once the soldiers had opened the curtains, they discovered a dead body in a state of decomposition.
The council of generals and tribunes then selected a man named Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocles as the new emperor, no doubt much to the disappointment of Aper. Diocles was a commander of the imperial bodyguard, the protectores. He immediately blamed Aper for having murdered Numerianus and then personally killed the praetorian prefect with his sword, skewering him like a pig. While it is not impossible that Aper was involved in the murder, some historians tend to blame Diocles himself. He and some of the other protectores may first have murdered Carus in his tent and then Numerianus in Syria, hiding the body in a litter to conceal his death. Both Aper and Diocles could get close to the emperors, so both had plenty of opportunities to kill them. They may even have conspired together, with Diocles ultimately shoving Aper aside and killing him to ensure his silence. There is just no way to establish what had happened exactly.
Diocles – ‘Glory of Zeus’ – would soon change his name to Diocletianus. He would go on to become one of the most successful emperors of the third century, abdicating voluntarily as late as 305. But in 284 there was still an obstacle on his path: Carinus Augustus, son of the late Carus.
- Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 38-39 (translated and annotated by H.W. Bird);
- Epitome de Caesaribus 38;
- Eutropius, Breviarium Historiae Romanae18-19;
- Historia Augusta, The Lives of Carus, Carinus and Numerian.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 133-134;
- Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 134-139;
- Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 623-625.
 ZPE-149-246 = AE 2014, 01485.
Updated 5 May 2023.