Six imperial year

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The year 238 AD is designated as the six-emperor year . The chaotic, sometimes civil war-like events of these months are considered to be one of the most serious government crises in Roman history and revealed structural problems of the empire at the end of the Principate's epoch , which could only be temporarily overcome in late antiquity (see Imperial Crisis of the 3rd Century ).

That year six men were recognized as Roman emperors by the Senate , one after the other . These six were

The events began with the usurpation attempt by Gordian I, who died quickly with his son Gordian II. Since the Roman Senate had already spoken out against Maximinus, in this situation it proclaimed two more opposing emperors, Pupienus and Balbinus. Soon after, Maximinus was slain by his own soldiers; the rivalry between Pupienus and Balbinus led to her death within a short time. Gordian III, the grandson of Gordian I, was now proclaimed Augustus in Rome and then reigned for six years.

The Emperors of the Six Imperial Year

Bust of Maximinus Thrax

Maximinus Thrax

Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus Thrax was Roman emperor from 235 to 238. He is considered the first of the so-called soldier emperors . In March 235 he was proclaimed emperor by the Rhine Legions. Although he was militarily successful and his image is obviously badly distorted in the sources, he never seems to have achieved the general acceptance that was indispensable for a Roman princeps in the long run. The emperor was apparently not very popular, especially in the east of the empire and with some of the senators. Maximinus never stayed in the city of Rome during his entire reign.

After unrest in the province of Africa , the local proconsul (governor), Gordianus, was proclaimed emperor in Carthage in early 238. Contrary to what older research assumed, as Frank Kolb was able to show as early as 1977, this was not a long-term planned action by senatorial conspirators against Maximinus; the survey was rather the spontaneous consequence of the escalation of a local crisis situation. Gordian's supporters in Italy killed the city and Praetorian prefects in Rome and were able to persuade the senate to recognize the usurper. The absent Maximinus and his son, Caesar Maximus , were declared enemies of the state ( hostes ) at the same time . About half of the provincial governors, especially in the west of the empire, remained loyal to the emperor. The Praetorians also opposed the Senate and Gordian, but initially withdrew to their barracks after bloody street fights.

Gordian I. and Gordian II.

Gordian I.
Gordian II

Gordianus or Gordian I was only from March 19 to April 9, 238 (the exact chronology is disputed) with his son Gordian II as co-regent of the Roman emperor. Gordian was already 80 years old when he was proclaimed emperor - allegedly against his will. He died of suicide after learning of his son's death.

Gordian II was co-regent of his father Gordian I. His short term of office corresponds to that of his father. He died in battle with Capelianus , governor of Numidia loyal to Maximinus and commander of the legio III Augusta . According to the sources, Gordian II was defeated mainly because, as an art lover, he allegedly had no military experience. It can hardly be decided whether this is true.

Pupienus and Balbinus

Balbinus Hermitage.jpg
Pupieno, 238 dc., Collez.  albani.JPG

The news of the death of the Gordiane and the approach of Maximinus, who was moving from the north towards Italy, caused panic in Rome. There was every reason to fear the emperor's revenge. The Senate, which evidently could not agree on a single candidate even in dire straits , now appointed Pupienus and Balbinus as emperors with equal rights who were to organize the resistance against Maximinus. Meanwhile Maximinus moved on to Italy and was suddenly murdered by his own troops together with his son during the unsuccessful siege of Aquileia at the end of April. His head was cut off and sent to Rome on a pole. So there were temporarily two emperors ( Augusti ) and one Caesar , namely the young grandson of Gordian I (see below).

The short reign of the two Augusti was marked by mutual distrust; This was due to the unclear hierarchy between the two emperors. Balbinus apparently took over the management of the civil affairs of state, while Pupienus initially dealt with the organization of the resistance against Maximinus Thrax. The enthusiasm of the Romans for the victorious Pupienus was then perhaps a reason for his break with his fellow emperor. The Germanic bodyguard of Pupienus angered the Praetorians, who in any case felt they had been sidelined and cheated of their role as emperor-makers; Finally, taking advantage of the rivalry between Pupienus and Balbinus, they murdered the two Augusti . After the two “Senate Emperors” had supposedly only reigned for 99 days, it had been shown again that the Senate could not assert itself against the military in the fight for power in the Reich.

Gordian III.

Gordian III.

Gordian III. was Roman emperor from 238 to 244. As the grandson of Gordian I and the nephew of Gordian II, he was first appointed Caesar and princeps iuventutis after their death , and after the murder of Balbinus and Pupienus, when he was barely 14, he was proclaimed sole emperor (Augustus) by the Praetorians . This ended the turmoil of the six-imperial year.

Gordian III. and his advisors succeeded in temporarily securing the borders of the Roman Empire, put down an uprising in Africa and defeated the Goths and Sarmatians . In 243 he finally began a campaign against the Persian Sassanids, which the Senate Emperors Balbinus and Pupienus had apparently already planned. When his Praetorian prefect Timesitheus , the secret head of the government and Gordian's father-in-law, died on the way, the Emperor Marcus Iulius appointed Philip, known as Philip the Arab , as his successor. This was probably responsible for Gordian's death (which occurred in the area of ​​today's Baghdad ) in the war against the Sassanids in 244 ; but it is also possible that Gordian fell at the Battle of Mesiche . In any case, Philip subsequently became the new emperor.

See also


Sources for the six-emperor year 238 include:

The most important report comes from Herodian. However, all of these sources are highly problematic in their own way, so that it is difficult to provide a reliable reconstruction of the events.


  • Henning Börm : The reign of Emperor Maximinus Thrax and the six-emperor year 238. The beginning of the “Imperial Crisis”? In: Gymnasium . tape 115 , 2008, p. 69 ff . ( online ).
  • Karlheinz Dietz : Senatus contra principem. Investigations into the senatorial opposition to Emperor Maximinus Thrax (=  Vestigia . Band 29 ). CH Beck, Munich 1980, ISBN 3-406-04799-8 .
  • Frank Kolb : The uprising of the Africa Proconsularis province in 238 AD. The economic and social background . In: Historia . tape 26 , 1977, pp. 440 ff .
  • Michael Sommer : The soldier emperors . 3. Edition. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2014, ISBN 978-3-534-26426-1 , pp. 32-36 .