The Year of the 6 Emperors | History Hit

The Year of the 6 Emperors

Graham Land

20 Aug 2018
Maximinus Thrax (image public domain)

During the late 2nd century and early 3rd century AD, Rome was rife with political instability, including the assassinations of several emperors. This was a marked contrast to the era of Pax Romana, the period of prosperity and political stability that had defined the previous circa 200 years.

By the 3rd century, the Roman Empire had already experienced chaotic periods of leadership. The Year of the Four Emperors in 69 AD, following the death of Nero by suicide, was but a taste of what was to come, and the instability that came after the assassination of the brutal and feckless Commodus meant the year 192 AD saw a total of five emperors rule Rome.

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Maximinus Thrax kicks off the crisis

In 238 AD the office of emperor would be its most unstable in history. Known as the Year of the Six Emperors, it began during the short reign of Maximinus Thrax, who had ruled since 235. Thrax’s reign is considered by many scholars to be the start of the Crisis of the 3rd Century (235–84 AD), during which the Empire was beset by invasions, plague, civil wars and economic difficulties.

From low-born Thracian peasant stock, Maximinus was not a favourite of the Patrician Senate, which plotted against him from the start. The hatred was mutual, and the Emperor harshly punished any conspirators, largely supporters of his predecessor, Severus Alexander, who was killed by his own mutinous soldiers.

Gordian and Gordian II’s brief and imprudent reign

Gordian I on a coin.

An uprising against corrupt tax officials in the province of Africa spurred local landowners to proclaim the elderly provincial governor and his son as co-emperors. The Senate supported the claim, causing Maximinus Thrax to march on Rome. Meanwhile, the forces of the governor of Numidia entered Carthage in support of Maximinus, easily defeating the Gordians.

The younger was killed in battle and the older committed suicide by hanging.

Pupienus, Balbinus and Gordian III try to tidy up

Fearing the wrath of Maximinus upon his return to Rome, the Senate could nonetheless not go back on its rebellion. It elected two of its own members to the throne: Pupienus and Balbinus. The plebeian inhabitants of Rome, who preferred one of their own to rule rather than a pair of upper class patricians, showed their displeasure by rioting and casting sticks and stones at the new emperors.

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In order to appease the displeased masses, Pupienus and Balbinus declared the 13-year-old grandson of the elder Gordian, Marcus Antonius Gordianus Pius, as Caesar.

Maximus’ march on Rome did not go as planned. His soldiers suffered from famine and disease during the siege and then eventually turned on him, killing him along with his chief ministers and son Maximus, who had been made deputy emperor. Soldiers carried the father and son’s severed heads into Rome, signifying their support for Pupienus and Balbinus as co-emperors, for which they were pardoned.

year of the six emperors

The popular boy-emperor Gordian III, credit: Ancienne collection Borghèse ; acquisition, 1807 / Borghese Collection; purchase, 1807.

When Pupienius and Balbinus returned to Rome, they found the city again in chaos. They managed to calm it, albeit temporarily. Not long after, while arguing over who to attack in an enormous planned military campaign, the Emperors were seized by Praetorian Guard, stripped, dragged through the streets, tortured and killed.

On that day Marcus Antonius Gordianus Pius, or Gordian III, was proclaimed sole Emperor. He ruled from 239 – 244, largely as a figurehead controlled by his advisors, particularly the head of the Praetorian Guard, Timesitheus, who was also his father in law. Gordian III died of unknown causes while campaigning in the Middle East.

Graham Land