- Barracks emperor
A Barracks emperor was a
Roman Emperorwho seized power by virtue of his command of the army. Barracks emperors were especially common in the period from 235through 284, during the Crisis of the Third Century. 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.
tyle of the 3rd century barracks emperors
Unlike previous emperors who had seized power in military "coups d'état" (
Daleanand , both from traditional middle-class Equestrian stock), the barracks emperors tended to be low-class commoners (often from disreputable parts of the empire); the first barracks emperor, Maximinus Thrax, 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 the points of his soldiers' swords.
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, such as a Germanic incursion into imperial territory in the
260s, resulting in the construction of the Aurelian Wallsaround Rome. 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 fall into dissatisfaction or disaffectation, 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
284when yet another barracks emperor, a cavalry commander named Diocletian, 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, bringing an end to the Third Century Crisis and inaugurating the Dominateera of Roman history.
Although further Emperors would don the purple on the basis of military power (e.g.,
Constantine I, Valentinian I, and Theodosius I), the phenomenon of the barracks emperors died out, to be replaced in the late imperial era by shadow emperorslike Stilicho, Constantius III, Flavius Aëtius, Avitus, Ricimer, Gundobad, Flavius Orestes, and Odoacer, military strongmen who effectually ruled the empire as imperial generalissimos controlling weak-willed puppet emperors rather than by donning the purple themselves.
Reign Incumbent Notes February/March 235to March/April 238 Maximinus Thrax Murdered by troops early 238 Gordian I 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 "early"January March 238to "late"January/April 238 Gordian II Son of and co-emperor with Gordian I. Killed in battle against the governor of Numidia April to July 238 Pupienus and Balbinus Senators elected as co-emperors by Roman Senate upon the failure of the African rebellion. Murdered by the Praetorians May 238to February 244 Gordian III 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 240to 240 " Sabinianus" Proclaimed himself emperor; defeated in battle February 244to September/October 249 Philip the Arab Killed in battle by Deciusnear modern-day Verona 248to 248 " Pacantius" Proclaimed himself emperor; murdered by his own soldiers 248to 248 "Jotapian" Claimant 248to 248 " Silbannacus" Usurper 249to June 251 Decius Appointed by Philip the Arab to defeat Pacantius. Proclaimed emperor by the Danubian armies. Killed in battle against the Goths 249to 252 "Priscus" Proclaimed himself emperor in the Eastern provinces with Gothic support 250to 250 " Licinianus" Claimant "early" 251to 1 July 251 Herennius Etruscus Co-emperor with his father Decius. Killed in battle against Goths 251to 251 " Hostilian" 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 251to August 253 Gallus 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 251to August 253 Volusianus Co-emperor with his father Trebonianus Gallus. Murdered by his own soldiers August 253to October 253 Aemilian 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 253to June 260 Valerian Governor of the Rhine provinces. Co-emperor with Gallienus; captured by Persians: died in captivity 253to September 268 Gallienus Co-emperor with Valerian 253to 260, sole emperor from 260to 268; murdered 258or June 260 " Ingenuus" Proclaimed himself emperor 260 " Regalianus" Proclaimed emperor 260to 261 " Macrianus Major" Proclaimed emperor; defeated and killed in battle 260to 261 " Quietus" Claimant 261to 261or 262 " Mussius Aemilianus" Proclaimed emperor 268to 268 " Aureolus" Proclaimed himself emperor; surrendered to Claudius II Gothicus
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