How did the path from a common legionary to an emperor look like?

Aug 2019
571
North
Quite a few roman legionaries rose to emperors. How was that happening? Were they elected by the army, i.e. the legions by acclamation ?
 
Last edited:
Aug 2011
196
The Castle Anthrax
Only two, Maximian Huculius and Maximinus Thrax, immediately come to my mind. Both of them became Augustus during the wild and turbulent 3rd century. They possessed great physical gifts, benefited from the proximity of powerful benefactors, and seized the opportunities as they were presented. It was uncommon that a legionnaire ever gained that much power for more than a few hours.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,726
Dispargum
The usurper Constantine III was supposedly a common soldier who was elevated to command the garrison of Britain by acclimation of the troops. Supposedly he was only chosen because his name Constantine was the same as Constantine the Great who had done the same thing a century earlier.

Apparently the British garrison had not been paid in over a year (or at least that's one theory). There was a mutiny against the legitimate commander. The first leader of the mutiny was overthrown when he failed to satisfy the soldiers' grievances. His successor was also overthrown. Constantine III was the third mutineer leader. He led the army across the Channel to Gaul, possibly with plans to invade Italy and seize the imperial throne, but Constantine III never made it that far. He was defeated and killed in Southern Gaul.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,726
Dispargum
It was theoretically possible for an enlisted soldier to rise through the ranks all the way to emperor. He would need a least enough education to function as an officer. Many rank and file soldiers were probably illiterate, but not all. There is evidence that some enlisted soldiers helped out with army paperwork. Of course, any ambitious soldier would need courage, charisma, leadership ability, etc. As always, military promotions were tied to battlefield success. Once attaining general officer rank, the imperial throne was within sight. Any general who could seize the throne and hold it against all challengers could become emperor.
 

MAGolding

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,990
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
My post number 13 in the thread: A farming general

Includes:
Note that there actually were some Roman generals who had been poor farm boys before joining the army. In the 3rd century it became possible for lower class soldiers, instead of senators, to become high ranking army officers.

So many of the top Roman generals during the Crises of the Third Century were peasants from the Balkans who had joined the Roman Army and worked their way to the top ranks. In fact, during the Crises of the Third Century almost all of the short lived emperors were peasant generals who promoted themselves to emperor during rebellions and civil wars. For many centuries after the Crises of the Third century it was common for lowly peasants to become Roman generals, and command was not restricted to aristocratic families until the Middle Byzantine Period of the Roman Empire.
Some time after the Crises of the Third Century, it became possible again for aristocrats and senators to become Emperors, but for many centuries some emperors were low born peasants..

I don't know for certain, but Admiral Romanus Lekapenos (son of an Armenian peasant soldier) who reigned as Romanus I from 920 to 944, and those of his sons who were co-emperors may have been last Roman Emperors born as lowly commoners.
 
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Oct 2018
1,833
Sydney
The claim of humble origins is made for the following third-century emperors: Maximinus Thrax, Postumus, Marius, Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian, Probus, Maximian, Carausius, Constantius, Galerius, and Maximinus Daza.

One can't be very exact with a topic like this, because contemporary source material is scarce, and ancient aristocratic authors like Lactantius and Aurelius Victor had contempt for emperors who had not been members of the ordo senatorius, viewing humble origins as evidence for a lack of culture and sophistication. For example, Lactantius disparages Maximinus Daza as a shepherd who rapidly and undeservedly had ascended to the Caesariate (DMP 19.6). It is likely then that authors exaggerated the non-aristocratic backgrounds of certain emperors. But the fact that these authors claimed humble background for some non-senatorial emperors and not for others shows that they did not consider them to be equally humble and suggests a basis of truth. Moreover, sources generally give minimal detail on the ancestries and careers of humble emperors, which suggests that emperors did little to publicize these topics because they considered them taboo. Menander the Rhetorician recommends that panegyrists praise family if distinguished, but in the case of the Tetrarchs none of the surviving panegyrics praises their parents, and official media and lavish court ceremonial emphasized, among other things, their quasi-divinity, not their origins. Admittedly, two of the panegyrists praise the emperors’ provinces of birth, the Balkan provinces, as places of military valour, but conspicuously they avoid saying anything specific about who the emperors used to be (Panegyrici Latini 10(2).2.2; 11(3).3.8-4.1). This again suggests that there is a basis of truth to the idea that emperors of this period were of relatively humble origins.

This phenomenon was an extension of the process whereby soldiers and military officers of the third century experienced more meteoric careers than they had before. This probably resulted from multiple factors: e.g. military crisis encouraged senior officers to place more value on actual merit, the increased presence of emperors in the provinces meant greater promotion opportunities for provincial soldiers and officers, the rebellions of the period may have encouraged an increased imperial distrust for senators as military commanders, the civil wars and change-overs at the top caused instability and power vacuums in the military leadership, etc.

The career of Taurus Volusianus provides an example of this process, for whom an inscription erected during the sole reign of Gallienus (260-268) documents his climb from centurio deputatus to consul (ILS 1332). Having initially served with the iudices ex V decuriis but having then entered upon a military career, Volusianus served as a centurio deputatus in Rome and a primuspilus in Germania Inferior. He then served as praepositus equitum singulariorum Augg. NN., i.e. commander of the horse guard ‘of our Augusti’, which should refer to the current regime, and thus the joint rule of Gallienus and his father Valerian (253-260). Volusianus was subsequently appointed as a commander of three legionary detachments, and then tribune of the third cohort of the uigiles, tribune of the eleventh urban cohort, tribune of the fourth praetorian cohort, tribune of the first praetorian cohort and protector, praefectus uigilum, praetorian prefect, and consul ordinarius, an office he held alongside Gallienus in 261. Volusianus had thus experienced rapid promotion between 253 and 261. Similarly, an inscription from the late third or early fourth century documents the rise of Valerius Thiumpus from soldier to lanciarius to protector to prefect of II Herculia (ILS 2781).
 
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Mar 2015
878
Europe
It was theoretically possible for an enlisted soldier to rise through the ranks all the way to emperor. He would need a least enough education to function as an officer. Many rank and file soldiers were probably illiterate, but not all. There is evidence that some enlisted soldiers helped out with army paperwork. Of course, any ambitious soldier would need courage, charisma, leadership ability, etc. As always, military promotions were tied to battlefield success. Once attaining general officer rank, the imperial throne was within sight. Any general who could seize the throne and hold it against all challengers could become emperor.
From Egypt, there is papyrological evidence for level of literacy.
Note that the receipts were more than just signer´s name - they were formulary text but over ten words.
From a cavalry unit of 64 men posted in Egypt in 179 (not a particularly prestigious unit), 42 were illiterate in that they could not write the receipt for hay for his horse, 22 were literate. Rather more than the number of officers in the unit. Over 30 % literacy.
In the same period, of the peasants who borrowed seed corn from government granary - rich enough to run a household and be worthy of credit, but poor enough to need to borrow - 18 % could write, again a receipt of multiple words.
Basic functional literacy did not guarantee promotion even to "NCO" - there were more literates available than NCO-s needed - but it did open possibility of promotion to centurions and beyond.

Of the centurions who did not become emperors but who did leave biographies, like on gravestones, how many enlisted direct as centurions, how many started as privates?
 
Oct 2018
1,833
Sydney
The claim of humble origins is made for the following third-century emperors: Maximinus Thrax, Postumus, Marius, Claudius Gothicus, Aurelian, Probus, Maximian, Carausius, Constantius, Galerius, and Maximinus Daza.

One can't be very exact with a topic like this, because contemporary source material is scarce, and ancient aristocratic authors like Lactantius and Aurelius Victor had contempt for emperors who had not been members of the ordo senatorius, viewing humble origins as evidence for a lack of culture and sophistication. For example, Lactantius disparages Maximinus Daza as a shepherd who rapidly and undeservedly had ascended to the Caesariate (DMP 19.6). It is likely then that authors exaggerated the non-aristocratic backgrounds of certain emperors. But the fact that these authors claimed humble background for some non-senatorial emperors and not for others shows that they did not consider them to be equally humble and suggests a basis of truth. Moreover, sources generally give minimal detail on the ancestries and careers of humble emperors, which suggests that emperors did little to publicize these topics because they considered them taboo. Menander the Rhetorician recommends that panegyrists praise family if distinguished, but in the case of the Tetrarchs none of the surviving panegyrics praises their parents, and official media and lavish court ceremonial emphasized, among other things, their quasi-divinity, not their origins. Admittedly, two of the panegyrists praise the emperors’ provinces of birth, the Balkan provinces, as places of military valour, but conspicuously they avoid saying anything specific about who the emperors used to be (Panegyrici Latini 10(2).2.2; 11(3).3.8-4.1). This again suggests that there is a basis of truth to the idea that emperors of this period were of relatively humble origins.

This phenomenon was an extension of the process whereby soldiers and military officers of the third century experienced more meteoric careers than they had before. This probably resulted from multiple factors: e.g. military crisis encouraged senior officers to place more value on actual merit, the increased presence of emperors in the provinces meant greater promotion opportunities for provincial soldiers and officers, the rebellions of the period may have encouraged an increased imperial distrust for senators as military commanders, the civil wars and change-overs at the top caused instability and power vacuums in the military leadership, etc.

The career of Taurus Volusianus provides an example of this process, for whom an inscription erected during the sole reign of Gallienus (260-268) documents his climb from centurio deputatus to consul (ILS 1332). Having initially served with the iudices ex V decuriis but having then entered upon a military career, Volusianus served as a centurio deputatus in Rome and a primuspilus in Germania Inferior. He then served as praepositus equitum singulariorum Augg. NN., i.e. commander of the horse guard ‘of our Augusti’, which should refer to the current regime, and thus the joint rule of Gallienus and his father Valerian (253-260). Volusianus was subsequently appointed as a commander of three legionary detachments, and then tribune of the third cohort of the uigiles, tribune of the eleventh urban cohort, tribune of the fourth praetorian cohort, tribune of the first praetorian cohort and protector, praefectus uigilum, praetorian prefect, and consul ordinarius, an office he held alongside Gallienus in 261. Volusianus had thus experienced rapid promotion between 253 and 261. Similarly, an inscription from the late third or early fourth century documents the rise of Valerius Thiumpus from soldier to lanciarius to protector to prefect of II Herculia (ILS 2781).
In my list of emperors I somehow managed to leave out Diocletian.