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Maximinus I

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Maximinus I

Maximinus Thrax
27th Emperor of the Roman Empire
Bust of Maximinus Thrax
Reign 20 March 235 – April 238
Full name Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus Augustus
Born c. 173
Birthplace Thrace or Moesia
Died April 238 (aged 65)
Place of death Aquileia, Italy
Predecessor Severus Alexander
Successor Pupienus and Balbinus
Wife Caecilia Paulina
Issue Gaius Julius Verus Maximus
Father Unknown, possibly Micca[1]
Mother Unknown, possibly Ababa[1]

Maximinus Thrax (Latin: Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus Augustus;[2] c. 173 – 238), also known as Maximinus I, was Roman Emperor from 235 to 238.

Maximinus is described by several ancient sources, though none are contemporary except Herodian's Roman History. Maximinus was the first emperor never to set foot in Rome.[3] He was the first of the so-called barracks emperors of the 3rd century; his rule is often considered to mark the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century. He died at Aquileia whilst attempting to put down a Senatorial revolt.

Rise to power

Most likely Maximinus was of Thraco-Roman origin (believed so by Herodian in his writings).[4] According to the notoriously unreliable Augustan History (Historia Augusta), he was born in Thrace or Moesia to a Gothic father and an Alanic mother,[5] an Iranian people of the Scythian-Sarmatian branch; however, the supposed parentage is highly unlikely, as the presence of the Goths in the Danubian area is first attested after the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century. British historian Ronald Syme, writing that "the word 'Gothia' should have sufficed for condemnation" of the passage in the Augustan History, felt that the burden of evidence from Herodian, Syncellus and elsewhere pointed to Maximinus having been born in Moesia.[6] The references to his "Gothic" ancestry might refer to a Thracian Getae origin (the two populations were often confused by later writers, most notably by Jordanes in his Getica), as suggested by the paragraphs describing how "he was singularly beloved by the Getae, moreover, as if he were one of themselves" and how he spoke "almost pure Thracian".[7]

His background was, in any case, that of a provincial of low birth, and was seen by the Senate as a barbarian, not even a true Roman, despite Caracalla’s edict granting citizenship to all freeborn inhabitants of the Empire.[8] In many ways, Maximinus was similar to the later Thraco-Roman Roman emperors of the 3rd-5th century (Licinius, Galerius, Aureolus, Leo the Thracian, etc.), elevating themselves, via a military career, from the condition of a common soldier in one of the Roman legions to the foremost positions of political power. He joined the army during the reign of Septimius Severus,[9] but did not rise to a powerful position until promoted by Alexander Severus.[10] Maximinus was in command of Legio IV Italica, composed of recruits from Pannonia,[11] who were angered by Alexander's payments to the Alemanni and his avoidance of war.[12] The troops, among whom included the Legio XXII Primigenia, elected the stern Maximinus, killing young Alexander and his mother at Moguntiacum (modern Mainz).[13] The Praetorian Guard acclaimed him emperor, and their choice was grudgingly confirmed by the Senate,[8] who were displeased to have a peasant as emperor. His son Maximus became caesar.[8]

According to British historian Edward Gibbon:

[H]e 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 unfavourable 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 Maximin published, in characters of blood, the indelible history of his baseness and ingratitude.[14]


O: laureate draped and cuirassed bust of Maximinus


R: Maximinus holding sceptre; standard on either side


silver denarius struck in Rome from February to December 236 AD; ref.: RIC 4

Consolidation of power

Maximinus hated the nobility and was ruthless towards those he suspected of plotting against him.[15] He began by eliminating the close advisors of Alexander.[3] His suspicions may have been justified; two plots against Maximinus were foiled.[16] The first was during a campaign across the Rhine, during which a group of officers, supported by influential senators, plotted the destruction of a bridge across the river, then leave Maximinus stranded on the other side.[17] Afterwards they planned to elect senator Magnus emperor; however the plot was discovered and the conspirators executed.[15] The second plot involved Mesopotamian archers who were loyal to Alexander.[18] They planned to elevate Quartinus, but their leader Macedo changed sides and murdered Quartinus instead, although this was not enough to save his own life.[15]

Defence of frontiers

The accession of Maximinus is commonly seen as the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century (also known as the "Military Anarchy" or the "Imperial Crisis"), the commonly applied name for the crumbling and near collapse of the Roman Empire between 235 and 284 caused by three simultaneous crises: external invasion, internal civil war, and economic collapse.[10]

Maximinus' first campaign was against the Alamanni, whom Maximinus defeated despite heavy Roman casualties in a swamp in the Agri Decumates.[19] After the victory, Maximinus took the title Germanicus Maximus,[8] raised his son Maximus to the rank of caesar and princeps iuventutis, and deified his late wife Paulina.[3] Maximinus may have launched a second campaign deep into Germania, defeating a Germanic tribe beyond the Weser in the Battle at the Harzhorn.[20][21] Securing the German frontier, at least for a while, Maximinus then set up a winter encampment at Sirmium in Pannonia,[8] and from that supply base fought the Dacians and the Sarmatians during the winter of 235–236.[3]

Gordian I and Gordian II

Early in 238, in the province of Africa, a treasury official's extortions through false judgments in corrupt courts against some local landowners ignited a full-scale revolt in the province.[22] The landowners armed their clients and their agricultural workers and entered Thysdrus (modern El Djem), where they murdered the offending official and his bodyguards[23] and proclaimed the aged governor of the province, Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus (Gordian I), and his son, Gordian II, as co-emperors.[24] The Senate in Rome switched allegiance, gave both Gordian and Gordian II the title of Augustus, and set about rousing the provinces in support of the pair.[25] Maximinus, wintering at Sirmium immediately assembled his army and advanced on Rome, the Pannonian legions leading the way.[3]

Meanwhile, in Africa, the revolt had not gone as planned. The province of Africa was bordered on the west by the province of Numidia, whose governor, Capellianus, nursed a long-standing grudge against the Gordians and controlled the only legionary unit (III Augusta) in the area.[26] He marched on Carthage and easily overwhelmed the local militias defending the city.[22] Gordian II was killed in the fighting and, on hearing this, Gordian I hanged himself with his belt.[27]

Pupienus, Balbinus, and Gordian III

When the African revolt collapsed, the Senate found itself in great jeopardy.[28] Having shown clear support for the Gordians, they could expect no clemency from Maximinus when he reached Rome. In this predicament, they determined to defy Maximinus and elected two of their number, Pupienus and Balbinus, as co-emperors.[3] When the Roman mob heard that the Senate had selected two men from the Patrician class, men whom the ordinary people held in no great regard, they protested, showering the imperial cortège with sticks and stones.[29] A faction in Rome preferred Gordian's grandson (Gordian III), and there was severe street fighting. The co-emperors had no option but to compromise, and, sending for the grandson of the elder Gordian they appointed him Caesar.[30]

Defeat and death

Maximinus marched on Rome,[31] but Aquileia closed its gates against him. His troops became disaffected during the unexpected siege of the city, during which they suffered from famine and disease.[15] In April 238, soldiers of the II Parthica in his camp assassinated him, his son, and his chief ministers.[28] Their heads were cut off, placed on poles, and carried to Rome by cavalrymen.[3]

Pupienus and Balbinus then became undisputed co-emperors.


Maximinus doubled the pay of soldiers;[9] this act, along with virtually continuous warfare, required higher taxes. Tax-collectors began to resort to violent methods and illegal confiscations, further alienating the governing class from everyone else.[3]

Maximinus reversed Alexander's policy of clemency towards the Christians,[32] who were viewed as unsupportive enemies of the state. He persecuted Christians ruthlessly,[33] and the bishop of Rome, Pontian, as well as his successor, Anterus, are said to have been martyred.[34]


Ancient sources, ranging from the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta to Herodian, speak of Maximinus as a man of significantly greater size than his contemporaries.[35][36] He is, moreover, depicted in ancient imagery as a man with a prominent brow, nose, and jaw; symptoms of one form of overgrowth. His thumb was said to be so large that he wore his wife's bracelet as a ring for it. While the exact size of Maximinus will probably never be known, he was nonetheless likely a man of great size.

According to Historia Augusta, "he was of such size, so Cordus reports, that men said he was eight foot, six inches [c.2.5 metres] in height".[37] It is very likely however that this is one of the many 'tall tales' in the Historia Augusta, and is immediately suspect due to its citation of 'Cordus', one of the several fictitious authorities the work cites.[38]

Although not going into the supposedly detailed portions of Historia Augusta, the historian Herodian, a contemporary of Maximinus, mentions him as a man of greater size, noting that: "He was in any case a man of such frightening appearance and colossal size that there is no obvious comparison to be drawn with any of the best-trained Greek athletes or warrior elite of the barbarians."[39]

Some historians interpret the stories on Maximinus' unusual height (as well as other information on his appearance, like excessive sweating and superhuman strength) as popular stereotyped attributes which do no more than intentionally turn him into a stylized embodiment of the barbarian bandit[40] or emphasize the admiration and aversion that the image of the soldier evoked in the civilian population.[41]

His consistent portrayal as a man with a prominent brow, nose, and jaw, made some researchers to suspect that he may have suffered from overgrowth to some extent in form of acromegaly.[42]

See also


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Southern, Pat. The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine, Routledge, 2001
  • Syme, Ronald, Emperors and Biography, Oxford University Press, 1971
  • Potter, David Stone, The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180-395, Routledge, 2004
  • (1997)
  • Gibbon. Edward Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (1888)


Further reading

  • A. Bellezza: Massimino il Trace, Geneva 1964.
  • H. Börm: Die Herrschaft des Kaisers Maximinus Thrax und das Sechskaiserjahr 238. Der Beginn der Reichskrise?, in: Gymnasium 115, 2008.
  • J. Burian: Maximinus Thrax. Sein Bild bei Herodian und in der Historia Augusta, in: Philologus 132, 1988.
  • L. de Blois: The onset of crisis in the first half of the third century A.D., in: K.-P. Johne et al. (eds.), Deleto paene imperio Romano, Stuttgart 2006.
  • K. Dietz: Senatus contra principem. Untersuchungen zur senatorischen Opposition gegen Kaiser Maximinus Thrax, Munich 1980.
  • F. Kolb: Der Aufstand der Provinz Africa Proconsularis im Jahr 238 n. Chr.: die wirtschaftlichen und sozialen Hintergründe, in: Historia 26, 1977.
  • A. Lippold: Kommentar zur Vita Maximini Dua der Historia Augusta, Bonn 1991.
  • X. Loriot: Les premières années de la grande crise du IIIe siècle: De l'avènement de Maximin le Thrace (235) à la mort de Gordien III (244), in: ANRW II/2, 1975.

External links

  • Maximinus coinage
  • -logo.svg 

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Alexander Severus
Roman Emperor
Served alongside: Gordian I, Gordian II, Pupienus and Balbinus (all 238)
Succeeded by
Pupienus and Balbinus
Political offices
Preceded by
Gnaeus Claudius Severus,
Titus Claudius Quintianus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Marcus Pupienus Africanus Maximus
Succeeded by
Lucius Marius Perpetuus ,
Lucius Mummius Felix Cornelianus

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