The assassination of Aurelian in September 275 ushered in a period of ten years during which the Roman Empire once more descended into chaos. Six emperors came and went before the next strong ruler, Diocletian, came on to the scene.
Tacitus and Florian
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Not for the first time in Rome’s history, a group of plotters acted to bring about the end of an emperor’s reign without having much idea about who they wanted to take his place. On this occasion the Senate made an unwise choice by selecting Marcus Claudius Tacitus (no relation to the historian of that name), a senator who was already aged about 75. Tacitus was immediately faced with the challenge of seeing off incursions of barbarians in Asia Minor. He and his half-brother Florian were successful in this, but that was not enough to save the emperor’s skin. He suffered the same fate as Aurelian, being killed by the same group of palace insiders in June 276, while still on campaign in northern Syria.
Florian took over the reins but had an even shorter stay in the top job. He was murdered after only two months by soldiers loyal to Marcus Aurelius Probus.
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Probus was born in 232 in Pannonia and rose through the ranks of the army to become a general. He was determined to knock heads together and end once and for all the destructive power struggle within the higher echelons of the army and government. His way of doing this was to invite the assassins of Aurelian and Tacitus to a dinner, on the pretext of offering a reconciliation between the disparate groups, then having all the guests murdered.
Once he was firmly in power, Probus began the job of suppressing uprisings and incursions at various places throughout the empire. There were several attempted revolts by would-be emperors, which Probus was able to put down without too many problems, and he was also successful in seeing off Franks, Alemanni, Goths, Vandals and others, from Gaul to Egypt.
Probus’s policy was not always to seek battle against opposing tribes. In some places he allowed barbarian groups to settle within the borders of the empire, notably in Gaul and near the Danube. This helped to make up for depopulation caused by war and plague and also to pacify those people who might otherwise have sought to destroy Roman towns and institutions.
Eventually Probus had time to concentrate on domestic matters. These included the completion of the defensive walls around Rome that had been started by Aurelian. He also built temples and bridges in Egypt, planted vineyards in Gaul and worked on drainage projects on the Nile and the Danube.
Of course, he did not do all this work himself! That was done by his soldiers, who were not required to fight once all the incursions and uprisings were dealt with. However, that did not suit everybody in the army, especially as working hard on building sites and in fields was less to their liking than marching up and down on parade grounds and honing their military skills.
Probus fell victim in October 282 to a revolt led by the Praetorian Prefect Carus, who promptly declared himself to be the new emperor.
Carus was born in Narbonne, France, although nobody knows when. He promptly appointed his sons Carinus and Numerian to the rank of Caesar (deputy emperor), left Carinus in charge of the western empire, and set out eastwards with Numerian to tackle Rome’s old foe the Sassanids.
After the death of Shapur in 272 the Sassanid empire was nowhere near the threat that it had once been, so attacking it was more of a vanity project than a defensive one. However, before battle could be joined, Carus died suddenly in August 283 when the army was in Mesopotamia. The cause of his death is uncertain, although one source said that he had been struck by a thunderbolt – this could, of course, have been a symbolic way of saying that he had been assassinated.
The death of Carus left Carinus and Numerian as joint emperors. Numerian was quite happy to head for home, but the Romans had not gone far when Numerian contracted a serious eye infection, or so it was reported. This meant that he had to travel in a closed litter, so he remained out of sight as the army travelled westwards towards Rome. After a time, people noticed that a terrible stench was coming from the litter, and when it was opened it was found that Numerian had died and his body was starting to decompose.
Did he die of natural causes, or was there some dirty work afoot and had he already been dead before being placed in the litter? The latter was certainly the opinion of the commander of the Imperial Guard, Caius Aurelius Valerius Diocles. He promptly accused the new Praetorian Prefect of murder and ran him through with his sword. This unfortunate man, who may or may not have been guilty, was Flavius Aper who was also Numerian’s father-in-law.
Diocles was now acclaimed as the new emperor, for which role he took the name Diocletian.
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Meanwhile, Carinus was still ruling the western empire. History has not been kind to Carinus, mainly because it was written by people who were wholly sympathetic to Diocletian, who was seen as the man who saved the empire from chaos and depravity.
The truth would appear to be that Carinus spent most of his brief reign campaigning successfully against barbarians on the Rhine and the Danube and even venturing to Britain.
However, according to some accounts he found time to engage in every vice known to man, outdoing even the worst excesses of Caligula. He apparently married and then divorced nine wives, committed every sexual vice that could be imagined, killed people for the fun of it, and spent vast sums of money on entertainment and luxury. It does all seem a little unlikely, probably resulting from the over-active and warped imaginations of the historians!
What is definitely true is that Carinus had to fight for his throne against Diocletian, the armies meeting in 285 at the River Margus in what is now Serbia. The battle seemed to be going in Carinus’s favour, but he was struck down by an unknown hand, possibly belonging to one his own commanders who saw Diocletian as a better bet as emperor. If that was what happened, the commander in question was probably correct in his opinion.