An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors
Maximinus Thrax (235-238 A.D.)
Michael L. Meckler
Ohio State University
The first of the "soldier-emperors," Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus spent all three years of his reign on campaign. Although Rome's senatorial elite was eventually able to bring about the downfall of this non-aristocratic emperor, the victory was only a temporary check on the rising importance of the military in the third century.
Maximinus was born around the year 173 in a village in Thrace (roughly modern Bulgaria and the European portion of Turkey). Little reliable evidence exists about his early life, and attempts to locate the village or scholarly claims that he was born outside of Thrace are not convincing. Stories circulated among contemporaries that his family were peasants and that growing up he worked as a shepherd. He was physically imposing as a young man and embarked on a career in the Roman army. His names recall those of Gaius Julius Maximinus, who was governor of the nearby province of Dacia (modern Romania) in 208 and under whom the future emperor may have served as a soldier and been granted Roman citizenship.
The future emperor's career seems to have been spent in a long series of relatively minor military appointments until Severus Alexander's campaigns against the Persians, when Maximinus began to be entrusted with important responsibilities. As fighting flared up against the Germans on Rome's northern frontier, Maximinus was placed in charge of raising and training recruits. These young soldiers were fiercely loyal to Maximinus, whose four decades of harsh military service placed him in stark contrast to the tender, indecisive, twentysomething Alexander. The troops were ready to revolt, and Maximinus was ready to lead them. The mutiny came in early March 235 at the military headquarters along the Rhine near Mainz. Maximinus was proclaimed emperor. Alexander found himself deserted by his troops and was killed.
The new emperor concentrated on exacting revenge against the Germans with ruthless military campaigns across the Rhine. While Alexander's immediate advisors were dismissed or killed, Maximinus seems initially to have left many supporters of the old regime in positions of authority. He must have realized that his humble background made relations difficult with the aristocratic senate, and soon he faced two coup attempts: one a plot by the ex-consul Magnus to have disloyal soldiers destroy the bridge that allowed Maximinus to return across the Rhine; the other an uprising by disgruntled soldiers who accompanied Alexander from the East and who championed the recently dismissed provincial governor Quartinus as a rival emperor. Both plots were fiercely suppressed.
In 236 Maximinus named his son Maximus as Caesar and had his deceased wife Paulina deified. Winter was spent in Sirmium in Pannonia (today located in northwest Serbia near the Bosnian and Croatian borders), and the war was redirected against the Dacians and Sarmatians north of the Danube. The years of continual fighting were exacting a financial toll, and resentment was building among aristocrats who were losing their wealth to increasingly severe confiscations and extortions.
Attempts by a treasury official early in 238 to raise revenues through false judgments against some African landowners provided the spark that would ignite large-scale revolt. The landowners armed their clients as well as the farmers who worked their property. The armed mob then entered Thysdrus (modern El Djem in Tunisia), where they murdered the offending official and his bodyguards. The landowners proceeded to the aged governor of the province, the elder Gordian, and proclaimed him emperor. When the news reached Rome, the senate quickly embraced the revolt, switching allegiance to Gordian. When the news reached Maximinus, wintering again in Sirmium, he resolved to lead his armies into Italy to crush the uprising.
The swift collapse of the revolt in Africa did little to dampen the resolve of the senate, who named two of their own -- Pupienus and Balbinus -- as emperors. The first Italian city on Maximinus' route to Rome was Aquileia, which closed its gates to the advanced guard of Maximinus' army. Maximinus arrived to find his minimally supplied troops bogged down in a siege, while Pupienus was already in Ravenna raising troops and preventing a swift march into central Italy. Maximinus' soldiers were unable to gather supplies and unhappy about being trapped in this situation. After perhaps only a month of the siege, soldiers of a legion usually stationed near Rome had had enough. They marched over to the emperor's tent in the middle of the day and killed Maximinus and his son. The pair's heads were cut off and sent to Rome, while the bodies were abused and then abandoned to animals.
The historical tradition has been universally unkind to Maximinus. His arrival on the throne was similar to that of Macrinus, the only previous emperor who had not been a member of the senatorial class at the time of his accession. Yet unlike Macrinus, Maximinus was a career soldier from a backwards province who had little or no formal education. Maximinus came to be described as a ruthless, semi-barbarian tyrant, and by late antiquity he was regularly referred to with the ethnic epithet Thrax, "the Thracian."
Although the senatorial aristocracy was able to control the writing of history, they were increasingly unable to control the Roman army. The reign of Maximinus Thrax reveals what would be a growing reluctance of troops to accept senatorial commanders, a trend that would continue under other "soldier-emperors" of the third century.
Herodian, books 7-8 (available in the Loeb Classical Library)
Historia Augusta, Life of the Two Maximini (not trustworthy; also available in the Loeb Classical Library)
Zosimus, New History 1.13
André Chastagnol, Histoire Auguste (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994), pp.641-87
Karlheinz Dietz, Senatus contra principem (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1980)
Adolf Lippold, Kommentar zur Vita Maximini Duo der Historia Augusta (Bonn: Habelt, 1991)
Copyright (C) 1997, Michael L. Meckler. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
Comments to: Michael L. Meckler.
Updated: 26 August 1997
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