Maximinus I "Thrax" Mar AD 235-Apr AD 238 Silver Denarius
Rome mint: Mar AD 235 to Jan AD 236
Obv: IMP MAXIMINVS PIVS AVG - Laureate bust right,
Rev: VICTORIA AVG - Victory advancing right, holding
wreath and palm.
RIC IVii, 16D, page 141 - Cohen 99
Maximinus Thrax (Latin: Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus Augustus; c. 173 –
May 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. He was a so-called barracks emperor
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). According to the notoriously unreliable Augustan
History (Historia Augusta), he was born in Thrace or Moesia to a Gothic
father and an Alanic mother, 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. 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
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.
In many ways, Maximinus was similar to the later Thraco-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, but did not rise to a powerful position until promoted by Alexander
Severus. Maximinus was in command of Legio IV Italica, composed of
recruits from Pannonia, who were angered by Alexander's payments to the
Alemanni and his avoidance of war. The troops, among whom included
the Legio XXII Primigenia, elected the stern Maximinus, killing young Alexander
and his mother at Moguntiacum (modern Mainz). The Praetorian Guard
acclaimed him emperor, and their choice was grudgingly confirmed by the
Senate, who were displeased to have a peasant as emperor. His son Maximus
Consolidation of power:
Maximinus hated the nobility and was ruthless towards those he suspected
of plotting against him. He began by eliminating the close advisors
of Alexander. His suspicions may have been justified; two plots against
Maximinus were foiled. The first was during a campaign across the
Rhine, when a group of officers, supported by influential senators, plotted
to destroy a bridge across the river, in order to strand Maximinus in hostile
territory. They planned to elect senator Magnus emperor, afterwards;
but the conspiracy was discovered and the conspirators executed.
The second plot involved Mesopotamian archers who were loyal to Alexander.
They planned to elevate Quartinus, but their leader Macedo changed sides
and murdered Quartinus instead, although this was not enough to save his
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.
Maximinus' first campaign was against the Alamanni, whom Maximinus defeated
despite heavy Roman casualties in a swamp in the Agri Decumates.
After the victory, Maximinus took the title Germanicus Maximus, raised
his son Maximus to the rank of caesar and princeps iuventutis, and deified
his late wife Paulina. Maximinus may have launched a second campaign
deep into Germania, defeating a Germanic tribe beyond the Weser in the
Battle at the Harzhorn. Securing the German frontier, at least for
a while, Maximinus then set up a winter encampment at Sirmium in Pannonia,
and from that supply base fought the Dacians and the Sarmatians during
the winter of 235–236.
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. The landowners armed
their clients and their agricultural workers and entered Thysdrus (modern
El Djem), where they murdered the offending official and his bodyguards
and proclaimed the aged governor of the province, Marcus Antonius Gordianus
Sempronianus (Gordian I), and his son, Gordian II, as co-emperors.
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. Maximinus, wintering at Sirmium immediately assembled his
army and advanced on Rome, the Pannonian legions leading the way.
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,
Capelianus, nursed a long-standing grudge against the Gordians and controlled
the only legionary unit (III Augusta) in the area. He marched on
Carthage and easily overwhelmed the local militias defending the city.
Gordian II was killed in the fighting and, on hearing this, Gordian I hanged
himself with his belt.
Pupienus, Balbinus, and Gordian III:
When the African revolt collapsed, the Senate found itself in great jeopardy.
Having shown clear support for the Gordians, they could expect no clemency
from Maximinus when he reached Rome. In this predicament, they remained
determined to defy Maximinus and elected two of their number, Pupienus
and Balbinus, as co-emperors. 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. 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.
Defeat and death:
Maximinus marched on Rome, but Aquileia closed its gates against him. His
troops became disaffected during the unexpected siege of the city, at which
time they suffered from famine and disease. In May 238, soldiers
of the II Parthica in his camp assassinated him, his son, and his chief
ministers. Their heads were cut off, placed on poles, and carried
to Rome by cavalrymen.
Pupienus and Balbinus then became undisputed co-emperors. However,
they distrusted each other, and ultimately both were murdered by the Praetorian
Guard, making Gordian III sole Emperor.
Maximinus doubled the pay of soldiers; 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.
According to early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, the Imperial
household of Maximinus' predecessor, Alexander, had contained many Christians.
Eusebius states that, hating his predecessor's household, Maximinius ordered
that the leaders of the churches should be put to death. According
to Eusebius, this persecution of 235 sent Hippolytus of Rome and Pope Pontian
into exile but other evidence suggests that the persecutions of 235 were
local to the provinces where they occurred rather than happening under
the direction of the Emperor.
Ancient sources, ranging from the unreliable Historia Augusta to Herodian,
speak of Maximinus as a man of significantly greater size than his contemporaries.
He is, moreover, depicted in ancient imagery as a man with a prominent
brow, nose, and jaw; symptoms of acromegaly. His thumb was said to
be so large that he wore his wife's bracelet as a ring for it.
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".
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.
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
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 or emphasize the admiration and aversion that the image of the soldier
evoked in the civilian population.
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