The first emperor to rise from the ranks of the army was Maximinus Thrax (the Thracian) [Julius Verus Maximinus, Gaius]. Maximinus is not in fact recorded as Thrax before the Epitome de Caesaribus (written c. ad 395). As Syme observes, however, it is quite likely that he did come from one of the Thracian provinces, if not Thracia itself then Moesia Inferior. His father Micea was a Goth, his mother Ababa an Alan. He knew no Greek. He entered the army, serving in the cavalry before attracting attention because of his size, hence receiving a post in the bodyguard of Emperor Septimius Severus and positions of honor under Caracalla. Called “Thrax” because of his origins, Maximinus despised Elagabalus but served as a tribune in the government and was greeted with joy by the new emperor, Severus Alexander, who gave him command of the recruits from Pannonia serving on the Rhine.
He possessed enormous strength, but other qualities were presumably in evidence to allow him to reach officer status and go on to the command of a legion in Egypt. When Severus Alexander mounted his expedition to the Rhine in A D 235, Maximinus was in command of recruits from Pannonia. His military record ensured that when the young emperor was assassinated, the troops declared for him, but not unanimously.
Severus was quickly despatched, his memory condemned, and his council of advisers dismissed. Establishment resistance (two successive military revolts centred on the consulars C. Petronius Magnus and Titius Quartinus) was too late and too feeble. In the meantime, and certainly before the last week of March 235, the Roman senate formally recognized Maximinus. Eighteen years after the usurpation of Macrinus, the purple had once more passed to an equestrian. However, it must again be emphasized that, despite his success, Maximinus was an outsider; unlike Macrinus, he had not attained the rank of praetorian prefect. His unusual position helps explain his subsequent actions.
Some of the eastern soldiers were loyal to Severus Alexander, and some of the senatorial officers did not wish him well, but after eradicating all his immediate opponents, Maximinus remained emperor for another three years, campaigning successfully in Germany beyond the Rhine, finishing off what his predecessor had started. Preoccupied with these military necessities, Maximinus did not find time to go to Rome to strengthen his position. The Senate had confirmed him as emperor, but not with good grace, and a series of revolts and attempts at usurpation broke out.
The assassination (in March AD 235) and replacement of Severus Alexander by a tough career soldier from Thrace, Maximinus Thrax (r. AD 235-38), was a stark reminder that the empire needed emperors who knew the army. An equestrian outside the ruling clique, Maximinus had exploited the opportunities of the Severan army to gain numerous senior appointments.
However, the senatorial aristocracy could not agree to this particular appointment, and, after an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, they managed to face the army down. The subsequent run of emperors – the three Gordiani, Decius, Trebonianus Gallus, Valerianus and Gallienus – was one of ‘gentlemen officers’. Yet their military misfortunes would finally destroy the prestige of the Augustan system, leaving military rule as the only alternative. Maximinus, the Thracian soldier of obscure birth and exclusively military experience, had set the trend whereby the army called the shots, putting forward their own commanders as new emperors.
Maximinus did not follow the usual practice of successful usurpers by moving to Rome, but chose to continue the German campaign. He may, of course, have simply wanted to consolidate his standing with the army. On the other hand, that he remained three full years on the northern frontier suggests that it was an acute awareness of his political vulnerability that caused him to stay away from the capital, where senatorial power and regard for the late Severan regime were strong. Maximinus crossed the Rhine south of Mainz after midsummer 235; he traversed the Agri Decumates before engaging the enemy: there was no fighting on Roman territory, and no surrender of the southern limes. Having compelled the Germans he encountered to negotiate peace, he moved south to spend the winter of 235/6 in Raetia, possibly at Regensburg. In 236, having campaigned against the Germans from Regensburg, he moved eastward to the middle Danube, where he fought against free Dacians and Sarmatians. The move necessitated the transfer of his headquarters, probably to Sirmium. In the same year, 236 (perhaps in early spring, on the anniversary of his own accession), Maximinus designated his son, C. Iulius Verus Maximus, as his Caesar and formal successor. Maximinus passed the two following winters, 236/7 and 237/8, in Sirmium. The campaigning season of 237 saw him in action once again against Sarmatians and Dacians; that of 238 was intended to be used for a major expedition against the Germans.
Though all appeared to be going well, Maximinus was by now running into serious trouble. He might even eventually have experienced problems in his chosen role of conqueror of foreign enemies. The expedition planned for 238 may have been in response to the first major Gothic attack on the Graeco-Roman world (against the Black Sea cities of Olbia and Tyras); and the Persians were again threatening the east: in 236 king Ardashir had raided Mesopotamia and taken Nisibis and Carrhae, possibly Rhesaina, and perhaps Singara. However, it was domestic unrest that proved to be Maximinus’ undoing. Maximinus lived frugally, was disinclined to pay tribute to Rome’s enemies and, while not miserly with his troops, was no spendthrift in respect of pay and donatives. On the other hand, his constant warfare led to a significant increase in state spending which had to be met from taxation. Maximinus tightened up the collection of standard taxes and demanded extraordinary payments from rich and poor alike. Money and materials were not the only things he asked for: the levying of recruits may also have occasioned resentment. Though he became unpopular, and was branded the enemy of the well-to-do, with the right support at the centre of his empire he should still have been able to survive. It was his political weakness that allowed matters to get out of hand.
Maximinus, therefore, ought still to have been able to deal with the situation without trouble. Pupienus, Balbinus and Gordian III were for the most part, like the two Gordiani, dependent on raw conscripts and local youth militias. Against these Maximinus could throw a large, battle-hardened army and, in response to the news of the defection of Rome to Gordian I, he was already on his way. However, his judgement continued to fail him. He seems to have decided on a Blitzkrieg that would take him quickly to Rome, but he did not take into account the difficulties of deploying an army towards the end of an Alpine winter, and he found it hard to cope with the guerilla tactics employed by the defenders of northern Italy. His columns came to a halt when the city of Aquileia – important not only as a major communications centre, but now also as a repository of badly needed supplies – closed its gates to him. Instead of taking a reduced force and pushing on to Rome, Maximinus allowed his anger to get the better of him, and settled down to besiege the city. This gave Pupienus the opportunity to move north to Ravenna to co-ordinate opposition. However, the outlook for Maximinus’ foes remained uncertain. Pupienus’ troops were of doubtful quality; and the potential for division between the three leaders of the newly established regime remained great: even before Pupienus had departed from Rome there was street-fighting between the mob and the praetorian troops, possibly inspired by the Gordianic faction. Maximinus should still have been able to emerge victorious, but his excessive insistence on effort and discipline caused increasing disaffection among his hungry, tired and now demoralized troops. After about four weeks, around early June 238, Maximinus’ army mutinied, slew him and his son, and went over to Pupienus, Balbinus and Gordian III.
Maximinus Thrax had Parthian cataphracts, being mercenaries, deserters, or prisoners of war conscripted into the army, and in 238 a large force of Germanic cavalry, Gothic foederati or, more accurately mercenaries obviously hired during his Danubian war, followed him to Italy. However, foreign federate forces and hired or mobilized symmarchiarii, fellow-combatants, always fought in the wars of the empire. There were many auxiliaries in his force. The irregulars were notably conspicuous amongst them. Moors, extensively used by the Roman army over the years, were there in force. They had served Rome well in the Rhine campaigns and their leader in the 2nd century ad, Lusius Quietus, whose career is noted above, had gone on to become a consul. Now they were an integral part of Maximinus’ new invasion of Italy.
Alongside these irregulars were other units, regiments whose appearance spoke of distant cultures and frontiers. There were oriental archers with reflex bows. Cataphract cavalry, of the type Roman soldiers jokingly termed clibanarii or `oven-men’ on account of their extensive armour, were seen in flesh and metal for the first time on Italian soil. 40 If the armies of the Severans had seemed alien, that of Maximinus must have seemed still more so. Yet within these forces even more revolutionary changes were taking place. These changes again testify to the Roman tendency to incorporate men and ideas from elsewhere.
As Maximinus began his invasion of Italy, events in Africa were reaching a horrific climax. The legionary legate in Numidia remained loyal to the Danubian emperor. His forces slaughtered the Senate-backed contender, Gordian, and his son at Carthage. Then they vented their fury on the civilian population, slaughtering not only the landowners who had backed Gordian but many more besides. A couple of key points emerge from this gory tale. The first is that in the richly networked world of the Roman Empire the original uprising, with its resentments against high taxes and its strong local leadership, could never simply be a regional revolt. The disturbance had profound implications, both in terms of the reason for the taxes, the financing of distant wars, and in terms of senatorial politics. The second lesson comes from the bloodletting itself. Shaw sees it as notable that an army that had been stationed in Africa for so long could turn on the civilian population in this way. 43 Even after generations of service in the provinces, the military community was still first and foremost at the service of the emperor. It might bring, through its recruitment and through its families, many provincials ever closer into the orbit of Roman power, but its relationship with local populations was always ultimately secondary to its interdependence on imperial power.
Maximinus Thrax (235-238), on his march on Rome, had made an all-out effort to take the city with his capable and ingenious Pannonian troops:
The soldiers . . . remained out of range of the arrows and took up stations around the entire circuit of the wall by cohorts and legions, each unit investing the section it was ordered to hold. . . . The soldiers kept the city under continuous siege. . . . They brought up every type of siege machinery and attacked the wall with all the power they could muster, leaving untried nothing of the art of siege warfare. . . . They launched numerous assaults virtually every day, and the entire army held the city encircled as if in a net, but the Aquileians fought back determinedly, showing real enthusiasm for war.
Before the gates of Aquileia, where travelers descending the Alps meet the via Annia and enter the network of roads that leads to Rome. There in 238 ce civil war was averted, through an exercise of economic power on the part of a city, in the face of an emperor and his army. Maximinus the Thracian had been acclaimed emperor by his army three years earlier, after he assassinated his predecessor, Severus Alexander; but the Senate did not recognize his elevation and eventually put forward its own candidates and attempted to field its own army. Maximinus marched on Italy, but without, one might say, divine foresight: he departed Sirmium in such haste that he neglected to send the customary advance notice requesting provision, and he had to gather it en route (Herodian 7.8.10-11). He encountered serious difficulty as soon as he reached Italy: the population of Emona had abandoned their city, burning whatever supplies they could not carry, and his army went hungry (Herodian 8.1.4-5). Aquileia therefore assumed even greater importance for the provisioning of his army, but its population closed their gates against him. Maximinus, unwilling, or perhaps unable, to advance without supplies, while leaving a large, hostile city as his back, undertook a siege. His army began to starve, murdered Maximinus and his son, and reconciled with the Senate and its emperor, Gordian III.
The events that encompassed the ruin of Maximinus, and the narratives by which we know them, thus subvert, even as they illustrate, those easy attempts to equate power with force, and to locate its origins in law, violence, or wealth, that lie at the heart of most construals of what Gibbon called “the system of imperial government.” For if it was not the Senate but Aquileia that undid Maximinus, and not by force but flight, as it were, that it did so, neither did Aquileia choose its ruler. That power it ceded all the time: to the army when it chose Maximinus, to the Senate when it chose Gordian, and to the imperial system, when it accepted and with its money supported government by whatsoever Roman held the throne.