Barracks emperor

Barracks emperor

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A Barracks emperor was a Roman Emperor
Roman Emperor
The Roman emperor was the ruler of the Roman State during the imperial period . The Romans had no single term for the office although at any given time, a given title was associated with the emperor...

 who seized power by virtue of his command of the army. Barracks emperors were especially common in the period from 235 through 284, during the Crisis of the Third Century
Crisis of the Third Century
The Crisis of the Third Century was a period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression...

. There were approximately fourteen barracks emperors in 33 years, producing an average reign of a little over two years apiece. The resulting instability in the imperial office and the near constant state of civil war and insurrection threatened to destroy the Roman Empire from within and left it vulnerable to attack from without.

Style of the 3rd century barracks emperors

Unlike previous emperors who had seized power in military coups d'état (Vespasian
Vespasian , was Roman Emperor from 69 AD to 79 AD. Vespasian was the founder of the Flavian dynasty, which ruled the Empire for a quarter century. Vespasian was descended from a family of equestrians, who rose into the senatorial rank under the Emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty...

 and Septimius Severus
Septimius Severus
Septimius Severus , also known as Severus, was Roman Emperor from 193 to 211. Severus was born in Leptis Magna in the province of Africa. As a young man he advanced through the customary succession of offices under the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Severus seized power after the death of...

, both from traditional middle-class Equestrian
Equestrian (Roman)
The Roman equestrian order constituted the lower of the two aristocratic classes of ancient Rome, ranking below the patricians , a hereditary caste that monopolised political power during the regal era and during the early Republic . A member of the equestrian order was known as an eques...

 stock), the barracks emperors tended to be low-class commoners (often from outlying parts of the empire); the first barracks emperor, Maximinus Thrax
Maximinus Thrax
Maximinus Thrax , also known as Maximinus I, was Roman Emperor from 235 to 238.Maximinus is described by several ancient sources, though none are contemporary except Herodian's Roman History. Maximinus was the first emperor never to set foot in Rome...

, had begun his military career as an enlisted soldier. A barracks emperor could not boast of a distinguished family name or a successful career as a statesman or public servant; rather, he had only his military career to recommend himself, and his only influence was the points of his soldiers' swords.

Some of these soldier emperors were members of the equestrian class who had worked their way up to a sufficient position of influence within their legion that the soldiers would support a bid for the purple, although this was a risky undertaking because the soldiers could withdraw their support at any time and perhaps shift it to another military leader who looked more promising at the time.

Because the barracks emperors were frequently border commanders, the act of overthrowing the reigning emperor and seizing power for themselves left large gaps in the empire's border defenses, gaps that could be exploited by the Romans' enemies, leading to the Germanic incursion into Roman territory in the 260s and resulting in the construction of the Aurelian Walls
Aurelian Walls
The Aurelian Walls is a line of city walls built between 271 and 275 in Rome, Italy, during the reign of the Roman Emperors Aurelian and Probus....

 around Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

. The barracks emperors also used state money to pay their troops — no emperor who had come into power by force of arms could afford to allow his soldiers to become disaffected, as those who live by the sword die by the sword — and public works and infrastructure fell into ruin. To accommodate the vast demands of buying off their soldiers, the state often simply seized private property, damaging the economy and driving up inflation.

Transition to the Dominate era

The imperial system was on the verge of total collapse in 284 when yet another barracks emperor, a cavalry commander named Diocletian
Diocletian |latinized]] upon his accession to Diocletian . c. 22 December 244  – 3 December 311), was a Roman Emperor from 284 to 305....

, seized power and donned the purple. Diocletian instituted a number of reforms designed to stabilize the empire and the imperial office, including a collegial system of emperors called the Tetrarchy
The term Tetrarchy describes any system of government where power is divided among four individuals, but usually refers to the tetrarchy instituted by Roman Emperor Diocletian in 293, marking the end of the Crisis of the Third Century and the recovery of the Roman Empire...

, bringing an end to the Third Century Crisis and inaugurating the Dominate
The Dominate was the "despotic" latter phase of government in the ancient Roman Empire from the conclusion of the Third Century Crisis of 235–284 until the formal date of the collapse of the Western Empire in AD 476. It followed the period known as the Principate...

 era of Roman history.

Although further Emperors would don the purple on the basis of military power (e.g., Constantine I
Constantine I
Constantine the Great , also known as Constantine I or Saint Constantine, was Roman Emperor from 306 to 337. Well known for being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine and co-Emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious tolerance of all...

, Valentinian I
Valentinian I
Valentinian I , also known as Valentinian the Great, was Roman emperor from 364 to 375. Upon becoming emperor he made his brother Valens his co-emperor, giving him rule of the eastern provinces while Valentinian retained the west....

, and Theodosius I
Theodosius I
Theodosius I , also known as Theodosius the Great, was Roman Emperor from 379 to 395. Theodosius was the last emperor to rule over both the eastern and the western halves of the Roman Empire. During his reign, the Goths secured control of Illyricum after the Gothic War, establishing their homeland...

), the phenomenon of the barracks emperors died out, to be replaced in the late imperial era by shadow emperors
Power behind the throne
The phrase power behind the throne refers to a person or group that informally exercises the real power of an office. In politics, it most commonly refers to a spouse, aide, or advisor of a political leader who serves as de facto leader, setting policy through influence or manipulation.The...

 like Stilicho
Flavius Stilicho was a high-ranking general , Patrician and Consul of the Western Roman Empire, notably of Vandal birth. Despised by the Roman population for his Germanic ancestry and Arian beliefs, Stilicho was in 408 executed along with his wife and son...

, Constantius III
Constantius III
Flavius Constantius , commonly known as Constantius III, was Western Roman Emperor for seven months in 421. A prominent general and politician, he was the power behind the throne for much of the 410s, and in 421 briefly became co-emperor of the Western Empire with Honorius.- Early life and rise to...

, Flavius Aëtius
Flavius Aëtius
Flavius Aëtius , dux et patricius, was a Roman general of the closing period of the Western Roman Empire. He was an able military commander and the most influential man in the Western Roman Empire for two decades . He managed policy in regard to the attacks of barbarian peoples pressing on the Empire...

, Avitus
Eparchius Avitus was Western Roman Emperor from July 8 or July 9, 455 to October 17, 456. A Gallic-Roman aristocrat, he was a senator and a high-ranking officer both in the civil and military administration, as well as Bishop of Piacenza.A representative of the Gallic-Roman aristocracy, he...

, Ricimer
Flavius Ricimer was a Germanic general who achieved effective control of the remaining parts of the Western Roman Empire, during the middle of the 5th century...

, Gundobad
Gundobad was King of the Burgundians , succeeding his father Gundioc of Burgundy. Previous to this, he had been a Patrician of the Western Roman Empire in 472–473, succeeding his uncle Ricimer.- Early life :...

, Flavius Orestes, and Odoacer
Flavius Odoacer , also known as Flavius Odovacer, was the first King of Italy. His reign is commonly seen as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire. Though the real power in Italy was in his hands, he represented himself as the client of Julius Nepos and, after Nepos' death in 480, of the...

, military strongmen who effectually ruled the empire as imperial generalissimos controlling weak-willed puppet emperors rather than by donning the purple themselves.


February/March 235 to March/April 238
Maximinus Thrax
Maximinus Thrax
Maximinus Thrax , also known as Maximinus I, was Roman Emperor from 235 to 238.Maximinus is described by several ancient sources, though none are contemporary except Herodian's Roman History. Maximinus was the first emperor never to set foot in Rome...

Murdered by troops
early 238
Gordian I
Gordian I
Gordian I , was Roman Emperor for one month with his son Gordian II in 238, the Year of the Six Emperors. Caught up in a rebellion against the Emperor Maximinus Thrax, he was defeated by forces loyal to Maximinus before committing suicide.-Early life:...

governor in Africa, declared co-emperor with his son Gordian II by popular demand. Committed suicide after defeat in battle against the governor of Numidia
earlyJanuary March 238 to lateJanuary/April 238
Gordian II
Gordian II
Gordian II , was Roman Emperor for one month with his father Gordian I in 238, the Year of the Six Emperors. Seeking to overthrow the Emperor Maximinus Thrax, he died in battle outside of Carthage.-Early career:...

Son of and co-emperor with Gordian I. Killed in battle against the governor of Numidia
April to July 238
Pupienus and Balbinus
Pupienus and Balbinus
Marcus Clodius Pupienus Maximus and Decimus Caelius Calvinus Balbinus were two Roman co-emperors elected by the Roman senate on April 22, 238 after the failure of Gordian I and Gordian II to defeat the usurper Maximinus Thrax.- Pupienus :Pupienus, born about 178, was an example of ascension in the...

Senators elected as co-emperors by Roman Senate upon the failure of the African rebellion. Murdered by the Praetorians
May 238 to February 244
Gordian III
Gordian III
Gordian III , was Roman Emperor from 238 to 244. Gordian was the son of Antonia Gordiana and an unnamed Roman Senator who died before 238. Antonia Gordiana was the daughter of Emperor Gordian I and younger sister of Emperor Gordian II. Very little is known on his early life before his acclamation...

Grandson of Gordian I - elected by Senate at 13. Either killed in battle against Persians under Shapur I in modern-day Iraq (Roman histories do not mention the battle) or murdered by the Praetorian Prefect Philip, who succeeded him as Philip the Arab
240 to 240
Sabinianus was the leader of a revolt against Gordian III in Africa. He proclaimed himself emperor, but after being defeated by the governor of Mauretania , his supporters in Carthage surrendered him to the imperial authorities.- References :*...

Proclaimed himself emperor; defeated in battle
February 244 to September/October 249
Philip the Arab
Philip the Arab
Philip the Arab , also known as Philip or Philippus Arabs, was Roman Emperor from 244 to 249. He came from Syria, and rose to become a major figure in the Roman Empire. He achieved power after the death of Gordian III, quickly negotiating peace with the Sassanid Empire...

Killed in battle by Decius
Trajan Decius , was Roman Emperor from 249 to 251. In the last year of his reign, he co-ruled with his son Herennius Etruscus until they were both killed in the Battle of Abrittus.-Early life and rise to power:...

 near modern-day Verona
248 to 248
Proclaimed himself emperor; murdered by his own soldiers
248 to 248
248 to 248
Mar. Silbannacus is a mysterious figure believed to have been an usurper in the Roman Empire during the time of Philip the Arab , or between the fall of Aemilianus and the rise to power of Valerian ....

249 to June 251
Trajan Decius , was Roman Emperor from 249 to 251. In the last year of his reign, he co-ruled with his son Herennius Etruscus until they were both killed in the Battle of Abrittus.-Early life and rise to power:...

Appointed by Philip the Arab to defeat Pacantius. Proclaimed emperor by the Danubian armies. Killed in battle against the Goths
249 to 252
Gaius Julius Priscus
Gaius Julius Priscus was military man and member of the Praetorian guard in the reign of Gordian III.- Life :Priscus was born in the Roman province of Syria, possibly in Damascus, son of a Julius Marinus a local Roman citizen, possibly of some importance...

Proclaimed himself emperor in the Eastern provinces with Gothic support
250 to 250
Iulius Valens Licinianus was a Roman usurper in 250.Apparently, Licinianus, who was a senator, had the support of the Roman Senate and parts of the population when he initiated an uprising against Decius, who was fighting the Goths. However, Valerian, who had been left in charge in Rome by Decius,...

early251 to 1 July 251
Herennius Etruscus
Herennius Etruscus
Herennius Etruscus , was Roman emperor in 251, in a joint rule with his father Decius. Emperor Hostilian was his younger brother.Herennius was born in near Sirmium in Pannonia , during one of his father's military postings. His mother was Herennia Cupressenia Etruscilla, a Roman lady of an...

Co-emperor with his father Decius. Killed in battle against Goths
251 to 251
Hostilian was Roman emperor in 251. Hostilian was born in Sirmium in Illyricum sometime after 230, as the son of the future emperor Decius by his wife Herennia Cupressenia Etruscilla...

Younger brother of Herennius Etruscus, whom he succeeded as emperor. His authority did not extend far beyond Rome, where he soon died in an outbreak of plague
June 251 to August 253
Trebonianus Gallus
Trebonianus Gallus , also known as Gallus, was Roman Emperor from 251 to 253, in a joint rule with his son Volusianus.-Early life:Gallus was born in Italy, in a family with respected ancestry of Etruscan senatorial background. He had two children in his marriage with Afinia Gemina Baebiana: Gaius...

Proclaimed emperor by the army after the deaths of Decius and Herennius Etruscus. Co-ruled with his son Volusianus. Murdered by his own soldiers
July 251 to August 253
Volusianus , also known as Volusian, was a Roman Emperor from 251 to 253.He was son to Gaius Vibius Trebonianus Gallus by his wife Afinia Gemina Baebiana. He is known to have had a sister, Vibia Galla....

Co-emperor with his father Trebonianus Gallus. Murdered by his own soldiers
August 253 to October 253
Aemilianus , also known as Aemilian, was Roman Emperor for three months in 253.Commander of the Moesian troops, he obtained an important victory against the invading Goths and was, for this reason, acclaimed Emperor by his army...

Governor of Moesia Superior and Pannonia who defeated a Gothic army and was proclaimed emperor by his soldiers. Murdered by his own soldiers when they saw that they could not defeat the army of Valerian, who came to avenge Trebonianus Gallus
253 to June 260
Governor of the Rhine provinces. Co-emperor with Gallienus
Gallienus was Roman Emperor with his father Valerian from 253 to 260, and alone from 260 to 268. He took control of the Empire at a time when it was undergoing great crisis...

; captured by Persians: died in captivity
253 to September 268
Gallienus was Roman Emperor with his father Valerian from 253 to 260, and alone from 260 to 268. He took control of the Empire at a time when it was undergoing great crisis...

Co-emperor with Valerian 253 to 260, sole emperor from 260 to 268; murdered
258 or June 260
Ingenuus was a Roman military commander, the imperial legate in Pannonia, who became a usurper to the throne of the emperor Gallienus when he led a brief and unsuccessful revolt in the year 260. Appointed by Gallienus himself, Ingenuus served him well by repulsing a Sarmatian invasion and securing...

Proclaimed himself emperor
P. C Regalianus was a Dacian general who turned against the Roman Empire and became himself emperor for a brief period, being murdered by the hands who raised him to power.-Career:...

Proclaimed emperor
260 to 261
Macrianus Major
Macrianus Major
Fulvius Macrianus , also called Macrianus Major, was a Roman usurper. He was one of Valerian's fiscal officers. More precisely, sources refer to him as being in charge of the whole state accounts or, in the language of a later age, as Count of the Treasury and the person in charge of markets and...

Proclaimed emperor; defeated and killed in battle
260 to 261
Titus Fulvius Iunius Quietus was a Roman usurper against Roman Emperor Gallienus.Quietus was the son of Fulvius Macrianus and a noblewoman, possibly named Iunia...

261 to 261 or 262
Mussius Aemilianus
Mussius Aemilianus
Lucius Mussius Aemilianus was a Roman usurper.Mussius Aemilianus probably was of Italian stock. He was an officer in the Roman army under Philip the Arab and Valerian. Under the latter he became praefect of Egypt. He supported the rebellion of the Macriani against Gallienus...

Proclaimed emperor
268 to 268
For the Frankish ruler of Aragon, see Aureolus of Aragon.Manius Acilius Aureolus was a Roman military commander and would-be usurper. He was one of the so-called Thirty Tyrants who populated the reign of the Emperor Gallienus...

Proclaimed himself emperor; surrendered to Claudius II Gothicus
Claudius II
Claudius II , commonly known as Claudius Gothicus, was Roman Emperor from 268 to 270. During his reign he fought successfully against the Alamanni and scored a crushing victory against the Goths at the Battle of Naissus. He died after succumbing to a smallpox plague that ravaged the provinces of...