Roman usurper
Usurpers are individuals or groups of individuals who obtain and maintain the power or rights of another by force and without legal authority. Usurpation was endemic during roman imperial era, especially from 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...

 onwards, when political instability became the rule.

The first dynasty of the Roman Empire, the Julio-Claudians
Julio-Claudian family tree
The Julio-Claudian dynasty of the early Roman Empire has a family tree complicated by multiple marriages between the members of the gens Julia and the gens Claudia.-Family tree:...

 (27 BC – 68 AD), justified the imperial throne by familial ties, namely with the connection (although only through adoption) with Augustus
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

, the first 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...

. Eventually conflicts within the Julio-Claudian family triggered a series of murders, which led to the demise of the line. Nero
Nero , was Roman Emperor from 54 to 68, and the last in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius to become his heir and successor, and succeeded to the throne in 54 following Claudius' death....

 died with public enemy status, and following his suicide
Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse...

 a short civil war began, known as the Year of the four emperors
Year of the Four Emperors
The Year of the Four Emperors was a year in the history of the Roman Empire, AD 69, in which four emperors ruled in a remarkable succession. These four emperors were Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian....

. The Flavian dynasty started with 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...

 only to end with the assassination of his second son Domitian
Domitian was Roman Emperor from 81 to 96. Domitian was the third and last emperor of the Flavian dynasty.Domitian's youth and early career were largely spent in the shadow of his brother Titus, who gained military renown during the First Jewish-Roman War...

. The 2nd century was a period of relative peace marked by the rule of the so-called Five good emperors, but the next century would be characterized by endemic political instability, one of the factors that eventually contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.


Commodus , was Roman Emperor from 180 to 192. He also ruled as co-emperor with his father Marcus Aurelius from 177 until his father's death in 180. His name changed throughout his reign; see changes of name for earlier and later forms. His accession as emperor was the first time a son had succeeded...

, the last 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...

 of the Antonine dynasty and remembered by contemporaneous chronicles as an unpopular ruler notorious for his extravagance and cruelty, was assassinated in 192. Without sons to be his heir, a struggle for power immediately broke out amongst the governors of the most important provinces. Pertinax
Pertinax , was Roman Emperor for three months in 193. He is known as the first emperor of the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors. A high ranking military and Senatorial figure, he tried to restore discipline in the Praetorian Guards, whereupon they rebelled and killed him...

 was elevated to the purple and recognized by his peers, but following his murder by a restive Praetorian guard
Praetorian Guard
The Praetorian Guard was a force of bodyguards used by Roman Emperors. The title was already used during the Roman Republic for the guards of Roman generals, at least since the rise to prominence of the Scipio family around 275 BC...

, 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...

 decided to make his bid for power and usurped the throne. Although initially a usurper, Severus managed to remain in power for the next 18 years and died a natural death while campaigning in northern Britain. His death in 211 triggered what historians call 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...

. In this period, from 211 to the accession of Diocletian
Diocletian |latinized]] upon his accession to Diocletian . c. 22 December 244  – 3 December 311), was a Roman Emperor from 284 to 305....

 and the establishment of 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...

 in 286, Rome saw 28 emperors of whom only two had a natural death (from the plague
Bubonic plague
Plague is a deadly infectious disease that is caused by the enterobacteria Yersinia pestis, named after the French-Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. Primarily carried by rodents and spread to humans via fleas, the disease is notorious throughout history, due to the unrivaled scale of death...

). However, there were also 38 usurpers who raised revolts across the empire, a clear sign that the security of the frontiers was not the only problem within the Roman world. Usurpation attempts were a constant worry for the emperors in this period; it was a too common method of acceding the throne. Successful usurpers were usually either provincial governors, commanders of a large grouping of Roman legion
Roman legion
A Roman legion normally indicates the basic ancient Roman army unit recruited specifically from Roman citizens. The organization of legions varied greatly over time but they were typically composed of perhaps 5,000 soldiers, divided into maniples and later into "cohorts"...

s, or prefects of the Praetorian guard, which had control of 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...

, where the Imperial palace still lay.

The danger of usurpation was greater following the death of an emperor, when his successor was not accepted by all provinces. Usually the legions acclaimed their own commander as emperor on news of the accession of a less popular man. The acclaimed emperor, usually a provincial governor, would then march to Italy or where the opponent was stationed, in order to contest for the purple. But legionaries disliked fighting against their brothers in arms, so battles between legions rarely transpired. Two main factors decided the success of a usurpation attempt: loyalty of the legionaries, heavily dependent on the amount of booty or monetary prizes promised on victory; and trust of the military abilities of the commander, upon which depended morale. Failure of either part to fulfill one or two of the criteria normally resulted in a mutiny and death at the hands of their own soldiers. Since the emperors had the status quo and political credibility behind them, the usurper had to be a charismatic man to avoid doubts in his ranks and an untimely death. Valerian, who defeated Aemilianus
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...

 (himself a usurper) is an example of this kind. Other usurpers, like the emperor 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...

, ascended the throne by a planned murder directed at an established sovereign (in his case 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...


However successful, the usurpation procedure always left the new emperor in a somewhat fragile political position, since the throne had been attained by violent means. The danger of another usurper was always present and the first measures taken were inevitably to put trusted men into important commands. Frequently, the emperor embellished his ancestry and his early life in order to enhance his credibility or the right to the throne. Mentions of obscure genealogical
Genealogy is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. Genealogists use oral traditions, historical records, genetic analysis, and other records to obtain information about a family and to demonstrate kinship and pedigrees of its members...

 relations with previous popular emperors were common, and certainly confused historians. But most of all the usurper manoeuvred to keep his legions happy, since he owed his power to their continued loyalty.

Practical effects

The usurpation mania of the 3rd century had profound effects in the bureaucratic and military organization of the Empire. Fear of potential rivals was to be the main driving force for the evolution of the Roman world from the early to the late Empire.

One of the most striking changes was the division and multiplication of the Roman provinces. Provinces were ruled by a governor, either a proconsul
A proconsul was a governor of a province in the Roman Republic appointed for one year by the senate. In modern usage, the title has been used for a person from one country ruling another country or bluntly interfering in another country's internal affairs.-Ancient Rome:In the Roman Republic, a...

, propraetor or procurator
Procurator (Roman)
A procurator was the title of various officials of the Roman Empire, posts mostly filled by equites . A procurator Augusti was the governor of the smaller imperial provinces...

, and were ascribed a certain number of legions, according to the degree of pacification they required. This meant that the governors of, for instance, Moesia
Moesia was an ancient region and later Roman province situated in the Balkans, along the south bank of the Danube River. It included territories of modern-day Southern Serbia , Northern Republic of Macedonia, Northern Bulgaria, Romanian Dobrudja, Southern Moldova, and Budjak .-History:In ancient...

 or Pannonia
Pannonia was an ancient province of the Roman Empire bounded north and east by the Danube, coterminous westward with Noricum and upper Italy, and southward with Dalmatia and upper Moesia....

 in the Danubian border
Danubian provinces
Danubian provinces to refer to the Roman provinces of the Lower Danube: Dacia , Moesia and Scythia Minor, as well as Pannonia Inferior....

 had huge military contingents on their hands. The greater the number of legions a provincial governor had, the greater the temptation to make a bid to the throne. And indeed, the majority of usurpation attempts came from the Asian province of Syria, and the Rhine and Danube provinces, frontier provinces with large military presence. Thus, provinces were slowly divided into smaller units to avoid concentration of power and military capacity in the hands of one man. Syria is a perfect example: a single province in AD 14, in the middle of the 3rd century it was divided in four different administrative regions: Tres Daciae, Cappadocia, Syria Coele and Syria Palestina. In a similar way, Moesia and Pannonia were divided in Superior and Inferior (Upper and Lower) halves; Dardania was later separated from Moesia, and Pannonia was further divided into Prima, Valeria, Savia and Secunda.

As the fear of civil war increased, the emperor felt the need of legions permanently in his reach, to be deployed against possible internal threats. This caused the geographic division of the army into limitanei legions, which remained in the borders, and comitatenses, which were stationed in strategic points within the Empire. Legio II Parthica
Legio II Parthica
Legio secunda Parthica was a Roman legion levied by Emperor Septimius Severus in 197, for his campaign against the Parthian Empire, hence the cognomen Parthica. The legion was still active in the beginning of the 5th century...

, garrisoned in the Alban mountains outside of Rome since the time of Septimius Severus, was among the first comitatenses created.

Despite this administrative subdivision of legions for internal security purposes, the fact remains that men had to be removed from the frontier garrisons to accomplish this. A smaller number of legions meant less secure borders and eventually raids from the Germanic and Gothic tribes against the Rhine and the Danube became more frequent. In the East, the Persian Empire grew bolder in their attacks on the Roman communities. Moreover, in a time when individual initiative was a common way to assume the imperial purple, giving important commands to competent generals was asking for trouble. Jealousy and fear often prevented the presence of the right man to deal with a specific threat, and, in consequence, marginal provinces were often raided, sacked or conquered.

Assessment of usurpers

The only usurpers whose early life and specific circumstances of rebellion are known with reasonable certainty are the ones who later became emperors. The unsuccessful usurpation attempts inevitably ended with the rebel's execution, murder or suicide and subsequent erasure of his life from all records. This often causes confusion in the contemporaneous sources which are contradictory in the details of a certain rebellion. For instance the usurper Uranius
Uranius is the name of a Roman usurper cited by Zosimus, and active during the reigns of Elagabalus or Alexander Severus.However, it is possible that Zosimus confused this usurper with Lucius Julius Aurelius Sulpicius Severus Uranius Antoninus, who, according to numismatical evidence, reigned much...

 is placed by some in the reign of Elagabalus
Elagabalus , also known as Heliogabalus, was Roman Emperor from 218 to 222. A member of the Severan Dynasty, he was Syrian on his mother's side, the son of Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus. Early in his youth he served as a priest of the god El-Gabal at his hometown, Emesa...

 and by others in the time of 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...


Every new emperor, either legal or illegal, marked the beginning of his rule by minting new coins, both for the prestige of declaring oneself as Augustus and to pay the loyal soldiers their share. Thus coinage is often the only evidence of a determined usurpation. But the number of coin types with the effigy of a usurper might not be equal to the total number of usurpations. The presence of minting facilities certainly allowed short term usurpers to release their coinage, but on the other hand, a man capable of sustaining a rebellion for a couple of months in a remote area might fail to produce his own coins due to the lack of access to the instruments of minting technology.

Later assessment of usurpation events demonstrated that some are questionable or even fictitious. Gallienus was the emperor who suffered greatest number of usurpations, with a record of fourteen attempts (excluding the Gallic Empire
Gallic Empire
The Gallic Empire is the modern name for a breakaway realm that existed from 260 to 274. It originated during the Roman Empire's Crisis of the Third Century....

secession) in fifteen years of rule. However, three of these are clear fabrications, either contemporaneous to show the invincibility of the emperor or added by later writers to embellish their own prose.
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