Although a brute and (as the senators would not forget for a moment) a low-born brute, Maximinus has a number of ‘firsts’ to his name – not all of them to be sneered at.
1. Maximinus Thrax (“the Thracian”) was the first barbarian emperor.
This wasn’t, in a sense, the first of firsts. There had been earlier imperial firsts
The first emperor not born and raised in Italy had been Trajan (ruled 98-117 AD) who hailed from Spain. And, not so long ago, Septimius Severus had become the first non-European emperor (born in Libya). His son’s murderer – and briefly successor – Macrinus, was a Mauretanian (horrors, a Moor!) and the first emperor who had not been a senator. He was followed on the throne by Elagabalus and Severus Alexander, the first emperors of Syrian blood. These emperors, however, all came from families that had long enjoyed Roman citizenship and were part of the Romanized (or Hellenized) elite in the provinces. Maximinus was different.2. Maximinus was the first emperor who was not born a Roman citizen. His peasant family was far below salt and beneath notice. He joined the army as a private soldier and, rising through the ranks, was granted citizenship.
So, it hardly matters whether you see him as semi-Romanized (a cup half full) or semi-barbarian (half-empty): to the senate and in Rome, he was a barbarian.3. He was the first emperor actually to fight in battle, personally performing deeds of prowess, and even the most hostile sources admit his personal courage. But (and, with a barbarian, there is always a 'but') ...
His [military] achievements would have won him a reputation if he had not proved so oppressive and fearsome to his own people and his subjects. There is little point in destroying barbarians, if even more people are being murdered actually in Rome and the subject nations; nor in carrying off prisoners and plunder from the enemy, when the people at home are stripped bare of their possessions.4. He was the first emperor never to step foot in Rome. His entire reign – from the murder of Alexander to his own death three years and three months later – was spent fighting on the northern frontiers. When he did finally head to Rome, it was to crush an uprising against him ... and much too late.
238 AD and all that
What happened is a very complicated story and I have given much thought to how to bring it to life on a blog. Plagiarism seemed best. The neatest summary I have come across is on the site De Imperatoribus Romanis and I have used this – spiced up with lots of additions and speeded up with some subtractions –
Maximinus and his son, the Caesar Maximus, had been fighting against the Germans all through 235 and 236. In 237, they left the war-torn Rhine and redirected the war against the barbarians north of the Danube. The years of continual battle were exacting a financial toll, and resentment was building among aristocrats who were losing their wealth to increasingly severe confiscations and extortions.
Attempts by a treasury official in the province of Libya early in 238 to raise revenues through false judgments against some landowners provided the spark that would ignite large-scale revolt. After a mob, armed by these nobles, had murdered the offending official and his bodyguards, the now-outlaw landowners proclaimed the governor of the province, the elder Gordian (a man of eighty years) as emperor. When the news reached Rome, the senate quickly embraced the revolt, bestowed the title of Augustus on Gordian (I) and his son Gordian (II) and stripped Maximinus of his honours. Maximinus was wintering in Pannonia when he heard the news. He decided it was time to visit eternal Rome, crush the revolt, and make the senators pay for their treason.
While Maximinus was leading his army to Italy, one of his North African generals met the ill-prepared Gordian II on a Libyan field. It was a massacre.
Pushing and trampling on each other, more were killed by their own side than by the enemy. In the battle Gordian's son and his entourage fell, but, because of the many dead, their bodies could not be brought back for burial, and the son's body was never found.The swift collapse of the revolt in Libya (the two Gordians had ruled for only 20 or 22 days) did little to dampen the resolve of the senate
There was a young lad, the son of Gordian's daughter, named after his grandfather. So the emperors fetched the boy, who was found playing at home.... Once the senate had voted him the title of Caesar (he was too young to be made head of state), the people's anger ended and they allowed the emperors to go to the imperial palace.
Maximinus let his troops get bogged down in an interminable siege.
The people of Aquileia fought back vigorously and enthusiastically from the walls ... and the entirely population, including women and children, joined in the resistance from the battlements and turrets.... The Aquileians fired down rocks from the walls and prepared a concoction of pitch and oil mixed with sulphur and bitumen, which they poured into empty jars with long handles. As soon as the army approached the walls, they set fire to the mixture and poured it out, showering it all together like rain on the besiegers. Men tore off their burning breast-plates and other armour because the metal was getting red-hot, and the leather and wooden parts were burning and shrinking. As a result, a great number of soldiers lost their eyesight; or their faces and hands....
None other than Rutilius Crispinus, whom we last saw with Severus Alexander in Palmyra , where, as the Roman general in chief, he was entertained by Julius Aurelius Zenobius, Zenobia's father. Crispinus had obviously survived the hellish march into Mesopotamia and made it back to Rome. Now, here he was dashing around the ramparts of Aquileia, urging the people to stay firm, keep up their resistance and not betray the senate and Roman people: "Instead," he cried, "earn yourselves the title of saviours and defenders of all Italy." He not only made a great speech (preserved by Herodian) but had very sensibly imported a large enough stock of food into the city to survive a long siege.
A bad year for Augusti
Certainly, it was a first among firsts that the single year of 238 AD saw the violent end of no fewer than five of the six emperors + one caesar. The curious thing is that all six emperors were legitimate in the sense that they had been nominated or approved by the Senate. Of course, it was a long time since the Senate actually chose the emperors. They now were almost invariably elevated by one of the armies. When a new Augustus was acclaimed by his troops, the senate wisely hailed the army’s choice; or, when civil wars broke out between rival generals, senators kept their heads down until they could ratify the victor.
Six in one year is a bit much.
The two old men were seized, stripped, and dragged naked from the imperial palace, to the accompaniment of absolutely degrading indignities. After beating and jeering at these senatorial emperors, the Praetorians maltreated them by pulling out their beards and eyebrows and mutilating their bodies. [They] were left exposed out on the road, while the soldiers lifted up Gordian (who held the title of Caesar) and proclaimed him as the emperor, for want of someone else.So the survivor of this cull of Augusti in 238 was Gordian III. He was now thirteen years old and he owed his elevation first to the urban mob and then the Praetorian Guard. Decidedly infra dig and the senate didn't like it one bit. The faction of the Gordiani had used the enmity between the senate and Praetorians and the senate and the urban plebs to nullify the senatorial revolution. Somehow, the boy-emperor (and his empress mother!) shrugged the senate aside.
Before this had happened, however, the senate had already raised the murdered Severus Alexander to the rank of the gods, and he was granted the honour of a cenotaph in Gaul and a magnificent tomb in Rome. This leads us directly to