|c. 173, Thracia
|238 (aged 65), Aquileia, Italy
|Gaius Julius Verus Maximus
Who was Maximinus Thrax, the first soldier-emperor of Rome?
If you are interested in the history of the Roman Empire, you may have heard of Maximinus Thrax, the first emperor who rose from the ranks of the army to the throne. His reign was short and turbulent, marked by wars, rebellions and assassinations. But who was this man, and what did he accomplish?
Maximinus Thrax was born around 173 CE in Thrace or Moesia, a region that today covers parts of Bulgaria, Turkey and Romania. His original name was Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus, and he came from humble origins. His father was an accountant in the governor’s office, and his ancestors were Carpi, a Dacian tribe that lived near the Danube river. He was of large stature and immense strength, which earned him the nickname “Thrax” or “the Thracian”.
He joined the Roman army as a young man and quickly distinguished himself by his bravery and skill. He fought under several emperors, including Septimius Severus, Caracalla and Severus Alexander. He rose to the command of the Legio IV Italica, stationed on the Rhine frontier. He was popular among his soldiers and respected by his enemies.
In 235 CE, he was involved in a plot to overthrow Severus Alexander, who was seen as weak and corrupt by many in the army. He was proclaimed emperor by his troops after they killed Alexander and his mother Julia Mamaea near Mainz. He became the first emperor who was neither a senator nor an equestrian, breaking the tradition of the Severan dynasty.
Maximinus Thrax faced many challenges as emperor. He had to deal with invasions by Germanic tribes on the Rhine and Danube borders, as well as by Persians in the east. He also had to cope with unrest and opposition from the Senate and the people of Rome, who resented his military background and his harsh taxation policies. He never visited Rome during his reign, preferring to stay on campaign with his army.
His reign came to an end in 238 CE, a year known as the Year of the Six Emperors. A revolt broke out in Africa, where two wealthy landowners, Gordian I and Gordian II, declared themselves emperors with the support of the local population and some senators. Maximinus Thrax sent his loyal governor of Numidia, Capelianus, to crush the rebellion, but he was defeated and killed by Gordian II’s forces.
The Senate seized this opportunity to depose Maximinus Thrax and recognize Gordian I and Gordian II as co-emperors. However, their rule was short-lived, as they both died within a month of each other. The Senate then appointed two new emperors, Pupienus and Balbinus, who were supposed to share power with Gordian III, the grandson of Gordian I.
Maximinus Thrax did not accept this situation and marched towards Rome with his army to reclaim his throne. He reached Aquileia, a fortified city near the Adriatic coast, where he met fierce resistance from the defenders. He besieged the city for several months, but failed to capture it. His army became frustrated and demoralized by the lack of progress and supplies. They also heard rumors that Pupienus and Balbinus had bribed some of their officers to betray Maximinus Thrax.
In June 238 CE, a mutiny erupted among Maximinus Thrax’s soldiers. They stormed his tent and killed him and his son Maximus, who had been made Caesar by his father. They cut off their heads and sent them to Rome as a sign of their loyalty to Pupienus and Balbinus. However, their gesture did not save them from punishment. The Senate declared them enemies of the state and ordered their execution.
Maximinus Thrax’s reign was brief but significant. He was the first of a series of “barracks emperors” who came to power through military coups during the Crisis of the Third Century. He also initiated a period of civil war and instability that lasted for half a century. He was a formidable warrior and leader, but also a ruthless tyrant and oppressor. His legacy is controversial and debated among historians.