Friday, March 2, 2012

The Stunning Defeat of Maximinus the Giant

Our chronology of the empire now skips forward to 235 A.D. and we pass over Macrinius, Elagabalus, and Severus Alexander in the process.

Macrinius, assassin of Caracalla, reigned for a year. His lack of military success against the Parthians caused dissatisfaction among the troops and that combined with his lack of pedigree caused the army to embrace the 14 year old grandson of the sister of Caracalla’s mother as emperor. His mother had put it out that he was Caracalla’s son. The boy called himself Elagabalus, the hereditary priest of the Oriental sun god and his behavior set new Roman standards for the bizarre and unconventional, recalling Caligula. Once his handlers divined where things were headed, they forced him to adopt his 13 year old cousin as backup. The boys quickly became rivals leading to Elagabalus order that Severus Alexander be put to death. No one would obey the order. He sought to punish the disobedient, but they killed him instead. Alexander ascended to the throne and reigned for 13 years before his youth and lack of fortitude convinced the army a change was needed. Maximinus was declared emperor by the troops and Alexander was killed.

Maximinus was a formidable physical specimen. Unreliable sources have him eight foot tall and though we don’t know for sure, he likely overshadowed his contemporaries in size and strength. Maximinus was the first true barbarian emperor, rising through the ranks as a common soldier. He got the attention of Septimius Severus when he wrestled seventeen men in one afternoon and defeated all of them.

Here is how Gibbon describes him:

He was conscious that his mean and barbarian origin, his savage appearance, and his total ignorance of the arts and institutions of civil life, formed a very unfavorable contrast with the amiable manners of the unhappy Alexander. He remembered that, in his humbler fortune, he had often waited before the doors of the haughty nobles of Rome, and had been denied admittance by the insolence of their slaves. He recollected too the friendship of a few who had relieved his poverty, and assisted his rising hopes. But those who had spurned, and those who had protected, the Thracian, were guilty of the same crime, the knowledge of his original obscurity. For this crime many were put to death; and by the execution of several of his benefactors Maximinus published, in characters of blood, the indelible history of his baseness and ingratitude.

The senate was unhappy with the elevation of Maximinus but gave approval because it had to. Immediately there were two plots against his life – both foiled. He spent the two years fighting the Germans, Dacians, and Sarmatians, exhausting the treasury and using extortion to refill it. The resulting financial condition of Rome stirred up serious opposition.

Now our story gets interesting.

Some wealthy young men in the African province were being forced to give up their estates to fund the emperor’s treasury when they incited a riot, resulting in the death of the money collector. The rioters seized the town of Thysdrus and designated it as the center of a new rebellion against the emperor. The proconsul of Africa, Gordian, was pressured to accept the crown of emperor even though he was eighty years old. Descended from Trajan and the Gracchi, Gordian was one of the most respected men in Rome.

He sent embassies to Rome where the senate, delighted  at the chance to reclaim the empire for the patricians, met secretly in the Temple of Castor and Pollux to consider the matter, and voted Gordian emperor. His son, Gordian II, was named co-emperor. To seal their authority the senate authorized the murder of the praetorian prefect, Vitalianus, a strong supporter of Maximinus.

The senate now sensed the return of their power and proceeded to govern in the old way. Twenty senators were selected to command the army in defense of Italy. Each was given unlimited authority to prepare for battle. At the same time dispatches were sent to the provinces begging the commanders to send help to the city.

Before the defense of Italy could begin, however, the Gordians were dead. A force from Mauritania, loyal to Maximinus, attacked them at Carthage. When the farther heard his son had been killed in battle, he committed suicide after a reign of thirty six days. It was the beginning of March 238 A.D.

Lacking an emperor, the senate was now forced to a war council. One of them, a descendent of Trajan, gave a stirring speech reminding his colleagues that the senate would prevail if they only could reassert their powers long lost. He nominated Balbinus and Maximus as the co-emperors who could lead Rome to victory. Opposite in style and skill -- Balbinus the intellectual and Maximus the soldier --  but complementary in purpose, the two men were elected to the throne.

But the people were not satisfied. They resented the new emperors as aged patricians who did not represent them. Crowds surrounded the Temple of Jupiter demanding that they have a say in the election of an emperor. They forced the senate to name Gordian III, grandson of the elder Gordian, as a third co-emperor. This was done partly out of respect for the sacrifice made by the elder Gordians in launching the rebellion.

Maximinus went wild with rage when he was told of the activities of the senate, and set his mind on the destruction of Italy.

As he began his march to Rome, Maximinus moved southwest out of the Balkans. After passing through the Julian Alps (see map), his army was shocked to see the landscape before them, as the locals had applied a scorched earth policy to the region. Villages had been burned, cattle driven away, and bridges destroyed. Maximinus did not realize it but the other aspect of the plan for defense was the fortification of selected cities to prepare them for the invasion.

 The first city in the army’s path was Aquileia (northeast of Venice). Eight miles from the Adriatic, Aquileia was settled in 181 B.C. as a frontier fortress designed to block entrance into Italy. It’s fortifications had been in disrepair, but the delay of Maximinus gave the city time to re-build the walls and stock the city for battle.

When Maximinus and his army arrived, they decided to pursue a siege strategy and proceeded to cut trees for the construction of siege engines. By the time he was ready, the two commanders of the town, Crispinus and Menophilus, were equally prepared for him. The council of twenty had arranged for all roads to Rome to be blockaded to prevent re-supply of the invaders. The army of Maximinus was repulsed in repeated attacks, his siege engines destroyed by flaming projectiles. The attacks went on from March to May of 238 A.D.

Then a stunning event occurred. I’ll let Gibbon explain.

Maximinus’ soldiers, exposed to the inclemency of the season, the contagion of disease, the horrors of famine, and the wasted land became dispirited and disaffected. Cut off from intelligence, they believed the whole empire had embraced the cause of the senate, and they were left as devoted victims to perish under the walls of Aquileia. The fierce temper of the tyrant was exasperated by disappointments which he imputed to the cowardice of his army; and his wanton and ill timed cruelty, instead of striking terror, inspired hatred, and a just desire for revenge.

A plot was formed between the Praetorian Guard and the second legion (Parthica) to murder the emperor and it was successfully carried out.

Upon hearing of Maximinus’ death, the Aquileians opened the gates of the city and invited their former adversaries to eat. Maximus, overseeing the battle from Ravenna,  returned to Rome in triumph and was greeted by his co-emperors as he entered the city.

It wasn’t long, however,  before Balbinus and Maximus were at each other’s throats. So focused on taking power from each other they ignored the dangerous power of the praetorians and paid with their lives  -- killed during the Capitoline games in July 238 A.D. The praetorians hoisted Gordian III to their shoulders and carried him to their camp, proclaiming him as the only legitimate emperor of Rome.

Young Gordian reigned for six years. When his praetorian prefect, Misitheus, died of the flux, the replacement, Philip, who aspired to the throne, had the boy murdered.

The events described here reflect the continuing rot of the empire. Power was concentrated in armies located far from Rome, commanded by provincials who had no connection to the mother city. In isolation, they rallied around their commanders, who, when they coveted the power of Rome, would move to take over. All of the factors that made the republic function: family history, a sense of culture, substantial political experience, and education were collapsed down to a remnant group of patricians and new men who had lost their authority forever.


David Alastair Hayden said...

Just wanted to say that I enjoy reading your blog. I love Ancient History, and it's nice to get small but well-written and meaningful hits appear in my RSS feed from time to time.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I need to make a note of this to link back once I get to writing that post about the Kalefeld/Harzhorn battlefield which is now pretty firmly connected with Maximinus' German campaign.