Roman Emperors: Gordian III to Valerian Part II

Lanciarii (javelin-armed infantrymen) of Legio II Parthica, mid-III c. AD.

It is true that a new and relatively homogeneous archaeological culture developed between the Carpathians and the Donets river in the second half of the third century, and that by the 320s this region was ruled by a number of tribal polities whose main language was Gothic and whose military elites are lumped together as ‘Goths’ in the Roman sources. This archaeological culture, which we call Sântana-de-Mures/Černjachov, is named for two cemeteries, one in modern Rumania, one in modern Ukraine, that share characteristic types of grave goods and burial ritual. New forms of settlement appear in this region during the second half of the third century as well, with farming villages clustered along the arable river valleys, large compounds for the elites dominating the landscape, a predilection for high-value Roman imports and a symbiotic relationship with nomadic pastoralists where agricultural lands bordered the grassy steppe. The decorative and dress styles revealed in the grave goods share some affinities with those found a century or so earlier in northern Poland, but they also show elements of central European origin, and quite a lot of influence from the nomadic art of the Eurasian steppe.

Rather than shoehorning this evidence into a narrative of mass migration from the north in order to fit our late literary evidence, responsible scholars recognise a local development, involving migration from both the steppes and parts of northern Europe, reshaping the more fragmented and less hierarchical agricultural societies that had preceded them. The formation of new, and often socially more complex, societies on the fringes of empires is well known from comparative evidence, both from antiquity – such as the Alamanni, and from such modern examples as Tsarist Russia in its expansionist phase or the frontiers of the British Raj. The existence of the imperial power gave tribal military leaders a powerful structure against which to fight, but also something to learn from, and a supply of resources – either in loot, subsidy or trade – which they could distribute to increase their own power. Given time, and the consolidation of new tribal polities, a new and more or less uniform material culture developed out of numerous different antecedents, and a common language among the elite population in the form of Gothic.

Somewhat ironically, one of the first pieces of evidence we have for Goths and their relationship with the Roman empire is Shapur’s monumental inscription at Naqsh-e Rustam, which lists Goths among the nations he defeated in Rome’s armies and thus demonstrates that by the middle of the century the emperors were recruiting men from beyond the Danube into units that they could designate as Gothic. That said, the consolidation of the lower Danube and Black Sea regions under Gothic hegemony is really only apparent in the fourth century, when it was already complete. During the third century, all we see are its by-products – invasions from beyond the Danube and the Black Sea that were a constant problem for third-century emperors, whether led by assertive new rulers seeking plunder or their defeated opponents looking for greener pastures. In what follows, we will refer to the various third-century invaders from this region not as Goths but as ‘Scythians’, the generic word used in our Greek sources, rather than making presumptions about how they identified themselves or retrojecting Gothic hegemony into a period when it cannot be documented. These Danubian ‘Scythians’ joined the Persians and Alamanni as the most formidable of Rome’s neighbours from Philip’s reign onwards.

By mid 245, Philip had marched with an army to Dacia, and he is known to have been at Aquae in November of that year. Trajan’s Dacian provinces had always been an experiment and Roman civic life never put down roots in Dacia, as it had begun to do south of the Danube from the time of Marcus Aurelius onwards. Pannonia and Moesia, and the Balkans more generally, began to look more and more like the rest of the Latin provinces as the later second century turned into the third. Civilian population followed in the wake of the huge military investment of the Marcomannic wars and three generations later, at mid third century, civilian life flourished both in the great military cities that led from the Alps to Asia and in rich villas where the topography was suitable to agriculture. Dacia, by contrast, had been built up hastily after Trajan’s defeat of the last Dacian king Decebalus, with few monumental cities and a network of roads and way stations that primarily served a military presence needed to protect the mineral resources of the province.

Even though the Sarmatians and Carpi, whose territories neighboured the province to the west and east respectively, were relatively easy to control compared to the more powerful Alamanni, it does not seem that Roman-style living penetrated very deeply into the cultural fabric of the Dacian provinces, or that a civilian infrastructure developed save to cater for the direct needs of the military and the mines. Things might, of course, have changed – Pannonia and Moesia did not really start to develop into fully Romanised provinces until the time of Marcus, a hundred years or more after their conquest – but the upheaval to the east of Dacia, and in particular its challenge to the local hegemony of the Carpi, meant that the very real revenues from the Dacian mines can hardly have been worth the expense of keeping the region garrisoned.

Perhaps disturbed by events among the ‘Scythians’ north of the Black Sea, the Carpi began causing trouble on the Dacian frontier in 245, and Philip continued fighting there in 246, probably well beyond the imperial borders. Late in the summer of 247, he returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph, taking the official title Carpicus Maximus and perhaps also being hailed as Germanicus Maximus. The imperial family stayed in Rome for the winter of 247–8 and the following spring Philip celebrated the completion of the thousandth anniversary of Rome’s history, on 21 April of that year.  There was some confusion among the Romans themselves about their secular games, and so two rather different sequences of them developed. One was the supposedly archaic and Etruscan celebrations revived by Augustus in 17 BC, which were conducted every 110 years, supervised by the quindecimviri of the official priesthood and celebrated over a triduum from the nights of 31 May to 3 June. The others were centenary celebrations to commemorate centuries (saecula) since the foundation of Rome, which took place on her dies natalis, 21 April – the feast of the Parilia (or Natalis Urbis, as it was uniformly referred to in our period). In their different ways both sorts of ‘secular’ games publicly performed a link between the past and the present of the Roman state, asserting an essential continuity in Rome’s identity over the years. Domitian and Septimius Severus had celebrated games in the Augustan sequence, Antoninus Pius in the second, and Philip’s would continue that of Pius.

There can be no doubt that Philip’s millennial games were even more symbolically significant for those purposes. We do not have an involved description of Philip’s games, but one (not very reliable) source reports that he used the gladiators and animals that had been intended for the Persian victory of Gordian, a victory that of course never came. We do, however, have epigraphic attestations of the importance of these millennial games, and they are noted in the various strands of Greek and Latin chronicling from late antiquity. Philip’s coinage is particularly rich in references to their celebration. Struck both in commemorative aurei and regular antoniniani and sestertii, in the name not just of Philip himself but also of the young Philip II and Otacilia Severa, they depict various animals killed in the Circus Maximus: lions, antelopes, hippopotami, ibexes, stags and gazelles, as well as pictures of a temple to Roma with her statue among the columns. We also see depictions of the chariot races – ludi circenses – that had been a regular part of the annual celebration of the Natalis Urbis since the time of Hadrian. But to the beast hunts and races, Philip added the rituals of the ‘authentic’ secular games in the Augustan sequence, with a triduum of theatrical spectacles on the Campus Martius, as well as singing competitions and other events whose victors are recorded in surviving inscriptions. This wide variety of attestation – particularly by contrast to the games of Antoninus Pius – is a marker of the celebration’s millennial importance.

Perhaps the most surprising evidence of this is also the strangest: common terra sigillata – the red-slip tableware that graced every Roman table – decorated with medallions honouring Philip’s games rather in the manner of today’s painted place settings commemorating royal weddings or presidential inaugurations (and perhaps just as kitschy then as now). The pomp and circumstance of Philip’s games was clearly felt out in distant provinces, but scholars remain divided about whether the sort of ‘millennial fever’ that was felt in Christian Europe around AD 1000 was there in Philip’s time as well. The Latin sources are ambiguous at best, but there is one eastern source that does seem to make the case: a collection of Greek texts that came to be known as the Oracula Sybillina. These had nothing whatsoever to do with the original Sybilline oracles of the republican era, but were both a response to the crises of third-century politics and genuinely apocalyptic in outlook – in the Thirteenth Oracle, much the most famous in the collection, the millenarian expectations of Rome’s thousandth anniversary meets with a fierce sense that the Roman empire needed to end.

Yet despite any such currents of unease, Philip’s lavish celebrations seem to have been a propaganda success. The completion of one millennium could also be seen as the start of another, just as glorious: certainly successors of Philip continued to strike secular coins a full half decade after his games had been celebrated. In general, however, Philip’s government was not faring well. In 248, in Cappadocia or Syria, a nobleman from Commagene named Iotapianus was proclaimed emperor, supposedly to protect the provinces from the heavy-handed exactions of Julius Priscus. There may also have been a revolt on the Rhine, led by one Marinus Silbanniccus, although the date of this revolt is uncertain and only two coins of the usurper are known to exist. More dangerously, the consular governor of Moesia, Claudius Marinus Pacatianus, was proclaimed emperor, possibly in April 248, probably at Viminacium where his coins were minted. But he was swiftly killed by his own soldiers when the neighbouring provincial governor led his army into Moesia.

It is possible that the senator Pacatianus represented the hostility of his order towards the junta of bureaucrats that surrounded Philip, one that resented the supra-regional commands awarded to men like Severianus and Priscus. It is also possible that Philip’s celebration of the Roman millennium, with its heavy freighting of tradition, contributed to his decision to rise up. Regardless, Pacatianus’s rebellion was put down. Unfortunately for Philip, the commander who suppressed him immediately allowed himself to be proclaimed emperor in turn. C. Messius Quintus Decius Valerinus was a senatorial commander in his mid-forties who came from the region, having been born near Sirmium. Under Severus Alexander he had governed both Moesia and Germania Inferior, while he held the prestigious command of Hispania Citerior under Maximinus and remained loyal to that emperor in the face of the senatorial revolt. In 249, he was serving as a legate of both Moesia and Pannonia, in one of the extraordinary commands that Philip so favoured. It was in Pannonia that his rebellion was declared, the mint at Viminacium striking issues in his name almost at once. He also changed his name to C. Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, reflecting the glory of the emperor Trajan who had conquered the Dacians, in what may have been a reference to Decius’s own Balkan origins.

A bigger puzzle surrounds the whereabouts and actions of Philip himself. He was either still in Italy, where he mustered an army to personally confront this latest usurper, or he was deep in Thrace, marching eastwards to deal with the rebellion of Iotapianus, having thought it safe to leave Decius to deal with the Danube frontier. Either way, having suppressed a brief mutiny at Viminacium, Decius either advanced from Pannonia at the head of the Balkan legions, crossed the Julian Alps and defeated Philip at Verona in September 249, or else he marched down the main Balkan highway in the opposite direction and defeated Philip at Beroea in Thrace. Philip was killed by his own soldiers, the young Philip was put to death in Rome by the praetorians when news of his father’s defeat reached them, and the emperor’s other relatives are never heard from again.

After defeating Philip, wherever he did so, Decius advanced to Rome, and was by September recognised as pontifex maximus and pater patriae. He immediately launched a programme of great ambition. His ostentatious traditionalism was obvious from the outset, starting with his decision to change his name to include that of a conquering emperor remembered for his goodness as much as his prowess. The names he gave his children by the Roman matron Herennia Cupressenia Etruscilla are equally redolent of the past: Q. Herennius Etruscus Messius Decius and C. Valens Hostilianus Messius Quintus. Just as extraordinary were his numismatic initiatives. Coins were, of course, among the most widely seen and handled items to emanate from the imperial court and the emperor’s circle. While we should not presume that emperors were personally responsible for every change and fillip in the numismatic iconography, when a major programmatic initiative in the coinage differs distinctly from what has gone before, we should take notice, as is the case with Decius.

After the new emperor had reached Italy, the mints at Milan and Rome began to issue not just the expected sorts of coins honouring Dacia, Pannonia and the genius exercitum illyriciani (‘the genius of the Illyrian armies’) but also an unprecedented series of antoniniani celebrating the deified emperors of Rome. These coins showed an altar on their reverse with the legend consecratio, while on their obverses there appeared a series of imperial portraits of the divi, beginning with Augustus and taking in Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. That imperial pantheon is standard and to be expected, but the selection of names that follows is more interesting: Commodus, Septimius Severus and Severus Alexander. No Pertinax and no divus Gordianus, the latter having been deified a mere five years previously. Now to be sure, false genealogies and the retrospective ascription of dynastic ties are something we have become used to already in this book – from Severus’s shifting decisions about which ‘ancestors’ to honour, to the sedulously cultivated rumours of a filial connection between Caracalla and the two young cousins who succeeded him. Equally, Greek and Roman viewers were used to the periodic erasing of emperors from official memory, the physical chiselling away of names from monuments both effacing memories and simultaneously forcing remembrance, the better to damage the reputation of the one thus effaced. But the ‘virtual’ erasure of memory as we see it enacted here is something different and new. Because the remembrances with which it so visibly tampers were so recent, it can only be read as a deliberate rejection of the previous decade. Decius was asserting his direct succession to Severus Alexander and retaining none of the intervening emperors, not even the youngest Gordian whose consecratio was a matter of living and public knowledge. The miserable decade of invasion and civil war, it was meant to be clear, had ended.


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