Thirty Tyrants

The term “Thirty Tyrants” refers to the usurpers during the reign of Gallienus (253- 268 CE) and appears in the ancient text Historia Augusta, a collection of imperial biographies from Hadrian to Carus, many of which are spurious. The term refers to the Thirty Tyrants of Athens, a group of known historical figures who supported Athens’s enemy Sparta in 404-403 BCE after Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). During the time of Gallienus, the actual number of tyrants was probably 9 with some possible additions but not the 30 mentioned in Historia Augusta. These individuals created dissensions in the empire and allowed for it to be fragmented. Their actions forced Rome to continually expend forces in the field. Their rebellions created social, political, and economic instability not only in the local districts where the rebellions occurred but also throughout the empire. Some of these individuals mentioned did not claim the throne but were involved in fighting the central government. The tyrants were Postumus, Laelianus, Marius, and Victorinus (not a real tyrant), all in Gaul, and Ingenuus, Regalianus, Macrianus Major, Macrianus Minor and his brother Quietus, and Aureolus, all in the Danube region.

In the west, Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus seized control of Gaul in 260 and ultimately controlled Gaul, Germania, Hispania, and Britain, which has been called the Gallic Empire. He ruled for 10 years before his troops murdered him. He may have been from the Batavians, a tribe along the Rhine who rose through the ranks. With the defeat and capture of Gallienus’s father Valerian, Postumus was proclaimed emperor, after which he marched on Colonia Agrippinensis and murdered Gallienus’s son Salonius. Postumus set up many of the same accoutrements of the Roman government, including legislative bodies such as a senate and assembly. His coins proclaimed himself as restorer of Gaul. He fought against several Germanic tribes in 262-263, taking the title “Germanicus.” It appears that Postumus did not intend to attack Rome and instead wanted to make Gaul his center. He withstood several attacks from Gallienus and defeated several usurpers. In 269 Postumus defeated Laelianus and tried to prevent his own troops from looting the captured city of Moguntiacum, and for this reason his troops murdered him.

Laelianus, who ruled from early 269 until June, was considered one of the Thirty Tyrants. With the murder of Postumus the troops set up Marius as emperor. He appears to have allowed the troops to sack Moguntiacum, but his rule lasted no more than a few months. Postumus’s praetorian prefect Victorinus had Marius killed while he was in the city of Trier. By this time Gallienus was dead, and although Victorinus was listed among the Thirty Tyrants, he would not properly be seen as one. Victorinus ruled the Gallic Empire from 269 to 271. He continued Postumus’s policy of maintaining Gallic independence. Hispania deserted him for the central government under Claudius Gothicus and was murdered in 271 in Colonia Agrippinensis for supposedly seducing the wife of one of his officers. His son, also named among the Thirty Tyrants, was murdered as well.

In Pannonia, Ingenuus rebelled against Gallienus in 260. Gallienus appointed Ingenuus against the Sarmatians and was successful in repulsing them at the frontier border in 258. He was charged with educating Gallienus’s younger son Cornelius Valerianus, but the boy’s death in 258 aroused suspicion. When Gallienus’s father, Emperor Valerian, was captured by the Persians, the legions in Moesia declared him emperor at Sirmium. Gallienus sent his mobile army from Germany, and Ingenuus was defeated; Ingenuus drowned rather than surrender. Like Ingenuus who rose to power after Valerian’s capture, so too did Regalianus, a soldier supposedly descended from the Dacian king Decebalus, who was promoted by the population in Pannonia to protect them against the Sarmatians. Regalianus was successful in pushing them back in 260 but was soon murdered by his own people.

Another set of usurpers likewise occurred with the defeat of Valerian. Macrianus Major, Valerian’s chief fiscal officer, used his position as head of the treasury to have his sons Macrianus Minor and Quietus proclaimed emperors; Macrianus Major supposedly was not qualified, since he had deformed legs. He was able to secure the eastern frontier from further attacks from the Persians. Macrianus Major left Quietus behind in the east and with Macrianus Minor moved to Thrace. Macrianus Major’s army was defeated by Aureolus, Gallienus’s great cavalry general who had just defeated Ingenuus. Both Macrianus Major and his son Macrianus Minor were killed. Quietus remained in the east, but with the defeat of his father and brother he now lost the support of the provinces to Odaenathus, the king of Palmyra. Quietus fled to Emesa and was besieged and then murdered by the inhabitants.

The final known usurper who in fact lived during Gallienus’s rule was the general Aureolus. Born in Dacia, he enlisted in the military and was supposedly a horse groom. He appears to have risen in the ranks of the cavalry and was noticed by Valerian and Gallienus. Aureolus also appears to have conceived or at least helped conceive the mobile cavalry army that helped Gallienus maintain control of the central core of the empire. Aureolus first achieved success against Ingenuus in 258 in the Battle of Mursa and then achieved success in 261 against Macrianus Major and Macrianus Minor whose army had been increased with survivors from Ingenuus’s and Regalianus’s armies. It appears that Gallienus remained in Gaul to take on Postumus. After pacifying the Danube region, Aureolus accompanied Gallienus against Postumus again. This appears to have resulted in the recapture of Raetia. Supposedly in this campaign Aureolus allowed Postumus to escape, which caused Gallienus to suspect Aureolus of plotting against him. The evidence for this was his demotion to governor of Raetia and the loss of his mobile cavalry army.

With Gallienus in the Danube region facing the Goths, Aureolus invaded Italy and seized Milan; from there he appears to have invited Postumus to enter Italy and become emperor. Aureolus minted coins in favor of Postumus and the loyalty of his cavalry in an attempt to persuade them to come over to him and Postumus. Gallienus moved against Aureolus, while Postumus did not come to his support. Gallienus defeated Aureolus, and he fled to Milan; Gallienus was then murdered by his generals, including the new emperor, Claudius, and Aureolus surrendered to him. Before Claudius could decide his fate, Aureolus was executed by Claudius’s Praetorian Guard, perhaps with Claudius’s permission in order to remove any connection between Aureolus’s rebellion and the assassination of Gallienus.

The other so-called Thirty Tyrants never claimed imperial power. They included Cyriades; Odaenathus and his followers: Septimius Herodianus, his son and coruler of Palmyra; Maeonius, his nephew; and Zenobia, his wife, who would kill Maeonius and take power as the queen of Palmyra. Balista, another of the Thirty Tyrants and the general of Macrianus and Quietus, was killed by Odaenathus. Valens Thessalonicus attempted to suppress Macrianus; he killed Piso, a general sent by Macrianus to assassinate him, but then was hailed as emperor by his troops, only to be murdered in turn by them. Lucius Mussius Aemilianus, the governor of Egypt, supported Macrianus but was defeated by one of Gallienus’s generals and captured and strangled. These known individuals did not necessarily proclaim themselves as emperors. Saturninus, Trebellianus, Herennianus, Timolaus, and Celsus were mere fiction. Zenobia and Victoria, the mother of Victorinus, were also mentioned as members of the Thirty Tyrants even if as women who did not hold power.

Further Reading Drinkwater, John F. 1987. The Gallic Empire: Separatism and Continuity in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, A. D. 260-274. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.