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238: The Year of Six Emperors

The year 69 AD is well known to historians as the “Year of Four Emperors” (Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian), and 193 AD could be said to have had five (Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Septimius Severus and two other claimants) but Rome also had a “Year of Six Emperors”, this being 238 AD. Given that the first of the six (Maximinus Thrax) ended his reign in April of that year, and the last of them (Gordian III) began his in July, it might be more accurate to talk about the “Four Months of Six Emperors”.

It should also be obvious that this was a particularly chaotic and confusing period of Roman history, and that the claims of some of the six to be considered emperors at all could be called into question. Here is a summary of the lives and reigns of the four claimants who formed the meat of the imperial sandwich in that year.

Gordian I and Gordian II

Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus Romanus Africanus was probably born in 159, so by the year 238 he was a very old man of nearly 80. His parentage is unknown, but he appears to have come from aristocratic stock and had become a senator and proconsul of Africa by the time that he was persuaded, in March 238, to assume the title of emperor in opposition to the increasingly unpopular Maximinus Thrax who, as a former shepherd, was far from being a member of the senatorial class.

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(Gordian I)

Gordian accepted the title on condition that it could be shared with his son, who is therefore known to history as Gordian II. The younger Gordian, who was probably born in 192, was known to enjoy a luxurious and lascivious lifestyle. It was said that he had 22 concubines and fathered three or four children with each of them.

However, the Gordians were not accepted universally as rightful joint emperors. In particular, Capelianus, the governor of Numidia, was a loyal supporter of Maximinus and held a personal grudge against the older Gordian. He had command of a legion that he brought to battle against the Gordians at Carthage on 12th April. The result was decisive, with Gordian II being killed and Gordian I hanging himself out of grief at losing his son.

Pupienus and Balbinus

These two shadowy figures became the Senate’s Plan B after the Gordians were dead. Marcus Clodius Pupienus was a distinguished long-serving soldier, who was probably born around 178. Decimus Caelius Calvinus Balbinus, age unknown, appears to have been a high-born socialite who enjoyed an easy-going lifestyle.

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The pair therefore bore some similarities to the Gordians whom they replaced as the Senate’s choice as joint emperors to mount a robust defence against Maximinus, who was on his way from the Balkans to Italy in a bid to defend his throne. However, the people of Rome were not convinced that the Senate had made the right move, so Pupienus and Balbinus jointly adopted as their heir a young nephew of Gordian II.

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Pupienus and Balbinus began their joint reign on 22nd April. However, they did not last long in office, despite the ease with which their main objective – defeating the threat posed by Maximinus – was achieved. He got no closer to Rome than the city of Aquileia (between Trieste and Venice) before falling victim to his own soldiers, but Pupienus and Balbinus proved to be no more popular with the army, or at least the Praetorian Guard, who kidnapped and murdered them on 29th July.

The soldiers’ preference was to be ruled, once again, by a boy emperor, namely 13-year-old Gordian III.


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