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Barracks emperor

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Title: Barracks emperor  
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Subject: Crisis of the Third Century, Emperor, Roman emperors, Maximinus Thrax, Year of the Five Emperors
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Barracks emperor

A Barracks emperor (also called a "soldier emperor") was a Roman Emperor who seized power by virtue of his command of the army. Barracks emperors were especially common in the period from 235 through 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 beyond.

Style of the 3rd century barracks emperors

Unlike previous emperors who had seized power in military coups d'état (Vespasian and Septimius Severus, both from traditional middle-class Equestrian stock), the barracks emperors tended to be low-class commoners (often from outlying 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 was the points of his soldiers' swords.

Some of these soldier emperors were members of the equestrian class who had worked their way up to a sufficient position of influence within their legion that the soldiers would support a bid for the purple, although this was a risky undertaking because the soldiers could withdraw their support at any time and perhaps shift it to another military leader who looked more promising at the time.

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, leading to the Germanic incursion into Roman territory in the 260s and resulting in the construction of the Aurelian Walls around 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 become disaffected, 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 284 when 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 Dominate era 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 emperors like 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 235 to 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
earlyJanuary March 238 to lateJanuary/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 238 to 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
240 to 240 Sabinianus Proclaimed himself emperor; defeated in battle
February 244 to September/October 249 Philip the Arab Killed in battle by Decius near modern-day Verona
248 to 248 Pacantius Proclaimed himself emperor; murdered by his own soldiers
248 to 248 Jotapian Claimant
248 to 248 Silbannacus Usurper
249 to June 251 Decius Appointed by Philip the Arab to defeat Pacantius. Proclaimed emperor by the Danubian armies. Killed in battle against the Goths
249 to 252 Priscus Proclaimed himself emperor in the Eastern provinces with Gothic support
250 to 250 Licinianus Claimant
early251 to 1 July 251 Herennius Etruscus Co-emperor with his father Decius. Killed in battle against Goths
251 to 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 251 to 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 251 to August 253 Volusianus Co-emperor with his father Trebonianus Gallus. Murdered by his own soldiers
August 253 to 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
253 to June 260 Valerian Governor of the Rhine provinces. Co-emperor with Gallienus; captured by Persians: died in captivity
253 to September 268 Gallienus Co-emperor with Valerian 253 to 260, sole emperor from 260 to 268; murdered
258 or June 260 Ingenuus Proclaimed himself emperor
260 Regalianus Proclaimed emperor
260 to 261 Macrianus Major Proclaimed emperor; defeated and killed in battle
260 to 261 Quietus Claimant
261 to 261 or 262 Mussius Aemilianus Proclaimed emperor
268 to 268 Aureolus Proclaimed himself emperor; surrendered to Claudius II Gothicus

Earlier Barracks Emperors

When the notion of a barracks emperor is extended to any emperor that was appointed by the army, more emperors whose reign predates the 3rd century can be included:

  • The first known emperor that was appointed by the Praetorian Guards after the murder of Caligula, was Claudius.
  • A notable case took place after the murder of emperor Pertinax. Praetorian Guards had come to the point when they simply sold the throne off, by auctioning it to the highest bidder, selling it to one of the richest Romans at the time, Didius Julianus.
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