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The Year of Six Emperors

"It so happened that the two men were not in complete accord: so great is the desire for sole rule and so contrary to the usual practice is it for the sovereignty to be shared that each undertook to secure the imperial power for himself alone."
- Herodian 8.8.4

Balbinus and Pupienus Maximus were co-emperors in the year 238 for about 3 months. Herodian, a historian who lived during this time, relates that their end at the hands of the Praetorian guard, might have been prevented had the two been less at odds with each other.

Balbinus, fearing that Pupienus was plotting to kill him and take over sole rule, stopped Pupienus from ordering German auxiliaries to protect them. Instead the Praetorian guard dragged the emperors naked from the palace, beating and torturing them, and finally killing the two emperors, leaving their corpses in the street. The rebels declared 13 year old Gordian III as emperor.

My coin of interest today is this Antoninianus with a beautiful portrait of the short lived co-emperor Marcus Clodius Pupienus Maximus declaring the Amor Mutuus Augusti or "Mutual Love of the Emperors". Their join reign for about 3 months being marked by anything other than mutual love and clasped hands.

Pupienus, AD 238, AR Antoninianus, (22mm, 4.98g, 12h), Rome mint, 2nd emission

Obv: Radiate, draped, and cuirassed bust right of the emperor

Rev: AMOR MVTVVS AVGG, clasped right hands

Ref: RIC IV 9b; BMCRE 82-6; RSC 2

Maximinus I Thrax came to power with the death of Severus Alexander and his mother in February or March 235 at Vicus Britannicus (not far from Mainz). For more on this, see these notes: "The Last Severan Emperor". This coin is an early issue from Maximinus I with a portrait resembling his predecessor, Severus Alexander.

Maximinus I, 235-238, AR denarius ( 20 mm, 2.94g, 12h), Rome, 235

Obv: IMP MAXIMINVS PIVS AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Maximinus to right

Rev: VICTORIA AVG Victory advancing right, holding wreath and palm frond

Ref: BMC 105-7; Cohen 99a; RIC 16

Photius I of Constantinople, who served as the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople from 858 to 867 and again from 877 to 886, is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church as Saint Photios the Great. However, he is not recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church due to his significant role in the schism between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.

In his Bibliotheca (Codex 99) he summarizes the events told by Herodian.

"Maximin (Maximinus I Thrax), a brutal and oppressive tyrant, a man of enormous stature and extremely cruel, reigned nearly three years. The soldiers in Africa revolted and slew the governor, a man of like character appointed by Maximin, and elected the proconsul Gordian (a man eighty years of age) emperor against his will. Rome joyfully accepted his election, deprived Maximin of all his honours, and at the same time declared the proconsul's son, Gordian, joint-emperor with his father.

While Maximin was preparing for war, Gordian, who had occupied Carthage together with his son, seeing that his position was desperate, hanged himself; his son was defeated by Maximin, and fell on the field of battle. The Romans, deeply grieved at their death, hating and at the same time fearing Maximin, proclaimed Balbinus and (Pupienus) Maximus emperors at Rome. 

The soldiers created a disturbance and demanded that Gordian, the grandson of the elder Gordian, and his daughter's son, quite a boy, should be associated with them in the empire. While Maximus was advancing against Maximin, the latter was murdered by his own soldiers, his head was taken to Maximus, and thence to Rome. 

Soon afterwards, the soldiers again revolted, dragged Maximus and Balbinus from the palace and, after inflicting every insult upon them, put them to death and bestowed the throne upon Gordian alone, now about thirteen years of age."

Photius is very complimentary of Herodian:

"The writer's style is clear, brilliant, and agreeable; his diction avoids extremes, being neither too much given to atticism, which violates the natural charm of ordinary language, nor so careless as to degenerate into meanness to the sacrifice of all the rules of art. He does not take a pride in what is superfluous, nor does he omit anything that is necessary; in a word, he is inferior to few in all the good qualities of an historian."

AD 238 was "The Year of the Six Emperors" with the following all reigning for some time durnig the year:

When did he rule?

How did he die?

Maximinus Thrax

235 – April 238 AD

Assassinated by his own soldiers

Gordian I

March – April 238 AD

Suicide after learning of his son's death

Gordian II

March – April 238 AD

Killed in battle against Capelianus' forces


April – July 238 AD

Assassinated by the Praetorian Guard


April – July 238 AD

Assassinated by the Praetorian Guard

Gordian III

July 238 – 244 AD

Died under uncertain circumstances; possibly assassinated

Gordian III, AD 238-244, Antoninianus, Rome

Obv: IMP CAES M ANT GORDIANVS AVG, radiate, draped and cuirassed bust right.

Rev: ROMAE AETERNAE, Roma seated left on shield, holding crowning Victory and spear.

Ref: RIC 38.

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