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..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.
From Egypt, there is papyrological evidence for level of literacy.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.
In my list of emperors I somehow managed to leave out Diocletian.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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