Maximinus - Rome's Giant Emperor

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
I'm having one of those days:rolleyes: ...

Maximinus Thrax occupies an important - and rather unattractive - place in the annals of Imperial Roman history. The so-called "Crisis of the Third Century" began with his reign in 235-238 AD. Though he was not the first Augustus to owe his position to the favor of his soldiers, he was the first of the "barracks emperors" whose chronic infighting nearly brought the Empire to total destruction in the following four decades.

Maximinus' body and personality seemed to line up well with his role in history - he was a remarkably brutish, ugly, and difficult man whose hands were soaked in the blood of those who had dared cross him. In this post, I plan to give a concise biography revealing pretty much everything that is known about this short-lived but crucial figure in the history of the Roman Empire.

The child who would become Maximinus was born in the Balkans in the late 2nd Century. The date and place of his birth, and the identity of his parents are shrouded in legend. Traditionally it has been believed that he was born around 170 AD - meaning he would've been close to 70 when he died. Modern historians are inclined to think that he was born at least a decade later, probably at some point in the reign of Commodus (180 - 192 AD).

The identity of his parents is equally mysterious. Tradition claims that his mother was an Alanian Sarmatian, his father an illiterate Thracian peasant. Other sources call him a "Goth", possibly implying a Getic Dacian.

Even the source of Maximinus' name remains a mystery. A man named Gaius Julius Maximinus governed one of the Danube provinces c. 208 AD; it is possible that our Maximinus received his citizenship from this governor. Gaius Julius Maximinus was probably from a well-born Gaulish family; his praenomen and nomen indicate that his ancestors had received citizenship from Julius Caesar. "Maximinus" means "smallest to biggest", perhaps implying that he had risen from the ranks to a position of great power.

The future emperor Maximinus was physically huge and powerful; the (admittedly, unreliable) Historiae Augusta claims that he was eight feet tall. His coins depict a man with a massive head and thick brow and huge, thick nose. Added to this were cruel, squinty eyes and the close-cropped hair of a professional soldier. Even if he wasn't a giant as the HA states, Maximinus was definitely a very big man. The much more reliable historian Herodianus says that no barbarian warrior or Greek athlete came close to Maximinus in height or physical prowess.

Maximinus had a colorful military career that presumably began as early as the 190s AD. He served in a wing of auxiliary cavalry, and was distinguished by his courage, his enormous size, his skill as a horseman, and his ferocious and violent temperament. He appears to have served as a private trooper in the ranks of the Equites Singulares Augustae in the first decade of the 3rd Century; this was the Emperor's personal cavalry bodyguard. Septimius Severus would have been blissfully unaware that this burly young Danubian soldier would one day overthrow the Dynasty he had just established...

By the reign of Elagabalus (218-222 AD), Maximinus was serving as a tribune in the East, though his precise command is unknown. He had also married by this time. His wife was Caecilia Paulina, and judging by her name she was of good Roman ancestry - a polar opposite to her husband. They had a single child, a son, born in or around 218 AD - he was named Gaius Julius Verus Maximus. If Maximinus really had been born as early as 170 AD, it is likely that Caecilia was not his first wife, and that he may have had other children.

Maximinus began to truly make a name for himself during the reign of the last Severan, Severus Alexander (222-235 AD). In the late 220s he was serving as the Dux Ripae of the East, the supreme commander of the Syrian army and the Euphrates frontier. It is likely that he skirmished with the first Sassanid Persians to assault the Empire. In 232 he appears to have been commading the Second Traiana Legion in Egypt.

We next hear of Maximinus in 235; he was serving as "Prefect of the Recruits" along the Rhine frontier. Severus Alexander, the cultured and rather timid young emperor, was reluctantly fighting a war against the Alamanni. The soldiers had little respect for him, but looked upon Maximinus with almost fatherly affection. A crude, poor-mannered, mean-spirited provincial, he was one of them!

When Alexander attempted to bribe the Alamanni to stay on the Germanic side of the Rhine, the soldiers had had enough. He and his mother were both put to the sword, and Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus Thrax, Praefectus Tirones, was declared Imperator and Caesar Augustus by the gathered armies.

Maximinus found that his popularity was mostly limited to the legions of the Rhine and the Danube frontiers. The Senate and Rome herself only acknowledged him with great reluctance, and the senators spoke with open scorn about his provincial origins. Two rebellions - at least one involving some of the senators - broke out against Maximinus almost immediately.

Maximinus abandoned the placid Germanic policies of his predecessor, and pursued the Alamanni deep into Germania, pillaging and butchering every settlement in his way. While he was fighting in Germania, however, a senator of consular rank formed a rather devious plot to leave him stranded on the wrong side of the River by destroying the only military bridge over the Rhine.

History has only remembered this senator's cognomen, Magnus. It is fairly possible that he was the Titus Pactumeius Magnus who had served as consul in 183 AD. Whoever he was, somebody snitched on him. Magnus and the centurions who had planned to aid him were all executed, as were their families, friends, and slaves. Maximinus was a simple man and would not tolerate intrigue.

Simultaneously, a revolt broke out in Syria, led by a former governor of Syria named Quartinus. Quartinus was murdered by an Osrohenian officer in his army named Macedo before Maximinus could embark to the East to put him down.

Despite the rancid opposition of the Senate and a number of well-born officers, Maximinus threw himself and all his resources at the Germanic Wars. The Alamanni were decimated and Maximinus was awarded the title of Germanicus Maximus. He declared his son Maximus to be "Prince of the Youth", and his late wife was hailed as empress. When and how Caecilia Paulina died is a mystery; contemporary gossip claimed that Maximinus had cut her to pieces in a fit of barbarian rage.

Having finished with Germania, Maximinus marched his army to Sirmium in the Danube region, and waged war on the Sarmatians and Free Dacians. The Danube had never been a quiet frontier, but it had not seen violence of this magnitude since Trajan's Dacian Wars over a century before.

One of the legions that had - thus far - been loyally fighting alongside Maximinus was the Second Parthica, garrisoned at Albanum in Italy. Many of these soldiers had wives and lovers, and children, waiting for them at Albanum, and were missing them fiercely. Since most of the Praetorians were still in Italy (and had yet to voice their opinion of Maximinus...), Maximinus relied on the Second Parthica as his bodyguards. He doubled legionary pay in the fleeting hope that it would raise morale. "Love the soldiers, damn everyone else", Severus had said...

Maximinus massacred several tribes from his HQ's at Sirmium, winning enough victories to justify taking the titles Sarmaticus Maximus and Dacicus Maximus. The Senate was not particularly impressed, however, by this crude soldier-emperor who hadn't even bothered to make an appearance in the Mother City. Maximinus wasn't behaving like the "First Man" of the Principate, he was behaving like a dictatorial warlord. It was their first clear taste of what was to come - and they weren't enjoying it very much.

Maximinus needed more funds - and quickly. His wars were expensive, his massive increase of military salaries was even more expensive. Roman tax-collectors had never been known in the provinces as the understanding sort, but Maximinus told them to be brutal - murderously so. Tax collectors called upon soldiers and even hired thugs to enforce their demands on the population of the Empire. Rich men were charged with ridiculous crimes and imprisoned, all of their possessions confiscated by the government.

Unrest broke out across the Empire - but nowhere worse than Africa, which was incidentally one of the richest provinces. The governor of Africa, Marcus Antonius Gordianus Romanus, and his son by the same name, led a revolt in January of 238 AD. They took the titles of Augustus and Caesar, respectively, and raised an army to enforce their claims to the purple.

In the meantime, the Senate had also become fed up, and had chosen two of their number - Decimus Caelius Balbinus and Pupienus Maximus - to rule as joint Augusti. In January of 238, the Roman Empire had six emperors (counting Julius Maximus, son and co-emperor of Maximinus), each one of them minting coins and commanding armies.

Capellianus, the governor of Numidia, was one of Maximinus' few loyal supporters in the entire Empire. He crushed the revolt of the Gordiani in Africa and looted the homes of their supporters, winning spoils for Maximinus. Maximinus and his lackeys had been reduced to pillaging the houses of Roman citizens just so the Emperor could keep his promises to the increasingly demanding army.

Content with Capellianus' crushing victory, Maximinus and his son invaded Italy with several legions - including the increasingly unhappy Second Parthica. They besieged the first major city of Italy, Aquilea, with gruesome results. In May of 238 they failed an assault on the city's imposing walls, at the cost of some hundreds of lives.

As the soldiers retreated back to their camps around the city, word came from Rome. The Praetorian Guard - the muscle behind the otherwise farcical regime of Pupienus and Balbinus - had besieged Albanum. If the soldiers of the Second Parthica did not rebel against Maximinus, their families would die.

That afternoon, Maximinus and his son were taking a siesta in their tent. They awoke to the awful commotion of angry, chanting soldiers and clashing weapons. Several centurions of the Second Parthica entered the tent, and a few moments later came out with the severed heads of the emperors in their hands.

The heads were sent to Rome by cavalry messengers attached to the Second Parthica. The Praetorians not only broke off their assault on Albanum, they also killed Balbinus and Pupienus. Marcus Antonius Gordianus Tertius, grandson of the former governor of Africa, was hailed the new Emperor.

Maximinus was a short-lived and unloved Roman emperor. His blood-soaked reign was a chilling prelude of the horrifice violence to come in the next four decades, violence from which the Empire would never fully recover. He was the first of the "barracks emperors".
 

okamido

Forum Staff
Jun 2009
29,885
land of Califia
What a lovely episode. Just goes to show that you don't need a barbarian horde to fell the Empire, the Empire was more than capable of felling itself.
 

pixi666

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
2,534
The Great Indoors
What a lovely episode. Just goes to show that you don't need a barbarian horde to fell the Empire, the Empire was more than capable of felling itself.
Who says that Maximinus' legions weren't barbarians?
 

Sargon of Akkad

Ad Honorem
Jun 2009
6,987
Glorious England
I don't know why, but whenever I hear his name I picture someone roaring "THRAAAAAAAAAX!" in anger.
 

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
Who says that Maximinus' legions weren't barbarians?
His legions were no different in terms of origin than those of the previous century. Peoples of all nations - Italians, Spaniards, Gauls, Germans, Illyrians, and others would've marched under Maximinus. Even if many of them happened to be "barbarian" in ethnic origin, they were all Latin-speaking Roman citizens fighting in Roman military units with Roman equipment.
 

pixi666

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
2,534
The Great Indoors
His legions were no different in terms of origin than those of the previous century. Peoples of all nations - Italians, Spaniards, Gauls, Germans, Illyrians, and others would've marched under Maximinus. Even if many of them happened to be "barbarian" in ethnic origin, they were all Latin-speaking Roman citizens fighting in Roman military units with Roman equipment.
I meant by their conduct rather than by their ethnicities, but I take your point.
 

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
I was solely commenting on the misconception that untold numbers of German hordes ransacked the Empire.:)
A misconception I find very noxious - as you already pointed out in this thread, it was the Romans that brought the Roman Empire down.
 

Sargon of Akkad

Ad Honorem
Jun 2009
6,987
Glorious England
"THRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAX!"

Seriously, just say it out loud to yourself. You can't not say it in a cry of anger. :D
 

okamido

Forum Staff
Jun 2009
29,885
land of Califia
That afternoon, Maximinus and his son were taking a siesta in their tent. They awoke to the awful commotion of angry, chanting soldiers and clashing weapons. Several centurions of the Second Parthica entered the tent, and a few moments later came out with the severed heads of the emperors in their hands.
At 8'6", I wonder how difficult it was too take him down?



Oh yes...ahem, ahem....
THRAXXXXXXX!!!:D