In the Roman Empire in the 3rd century CE there were many times when the throne was usurped and several emperors ruled at the same time. One day in 238, however, an extraordinary event occurred in Rome. The Senate elected two emperors at once and ordered them to rule together. Who were these two distinguished people?
Marcus Clodius Pupienus was born around 164. He was (according to various sources) the son of a simple craftsman living in Rome or he came from a wealthy patrician family. He probably actually came from a poor family and chose a military career. He quickly rose to quite high ranks. He began his political career thanks to an influential Roman aristocrat who loved him like a son and provided him with considerable financial support, thanks to which Pupieno became much more wealthy. He thus became a Roman senator. Over time, he held very important positions, such as governor of Germania or governor of Asia. For some time he was even prefect of the capital. He was distinguished by good organizational skills, but also by ruthlessness in suppressing plebian riots. For this reason, he was not very popular among the common people. He probably also served as consul twice. As a token of appreciation, Emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211) gave him the title of patrician, which was a great distinction despite the lack of specific benefits.
Decimus Celius Balbinus, younger than Pupienus, was born around 178. He undoubtedly came from a very wealthy aristocratic family. Thanks to this, he quickly developed his political career. He held governorships of various provinces; he was consul twice. However, he had no military experience. So he was simply a rich and influential politician; a well-bred and culturally aware person who likes comfort and luxury.
Pupienus and Balbinus sat together in the Senate at the same time. They witnessed the same events and problems in Rome. Although they differed in age, origin, career and experience, they would soon hold the helm of the Empire together for a short while…
Political background in 238 CE
After the murder of Emperor Alexander Severus, despised by the legionaries and dependent on his mother, in 235, there was a time of great crisis in the country, although no one was fully aware of it at that time. Maximinus, a commander from Thrace, was hailed as emperor by the army. In the same year, the Senate in Rome confirmed his authority.
Maximinus, however, did not come to Rome to rejoice in receiving the purple. He was a simple soldier, had a weak position among the Roman elites and tried to base his power on the army devoted to him. Therefore he remained on the Rhine to fight the Germans. In the following years, he campaigned on the Danube, fighting the Dacians and Sarmatians.
However, dissatisfaction was growing in Rome. The emperor never appeared in the capital since the beginning of his reign, and his military campaigns generated huge costs. The threat from the barbarians did not decrease, and Maximin was planning new wars. In Rome, property was confiscated en masse on the orders of the emperor and his opponents were severely punished. Denunciations, uncertainty and fear became commonplace among the Roman elites. However, there were no signs of discontent among the common people in the capital and the provinces until Maximinus began plundering temples to finance his soldiers. This made him hated by almost everyone.
In 238 there was a usurpation in Africa. Gordian I (senator and governor of Africa Province) and Gordian II (his son) were enthusiastically proclaimed emperors by the crowd. The new rulers decided to act quickly and reached an agreement with the Senate in Rome. The senators proclaimed the Gordians emperors, and considered Maximinus and his son enemies of the state. Unfortunately, about 20 days after the Gordians took on the purple, they were defeated by an African militia whose commander favored Maximinus. Gordian II died in battle and Gordian I committed suicide.
The situation became dramatic. The Senate, full of hope for change, declared people who were quickly killed in Africa as rulers. The furious Maximin, considered a public enemy, decided to come to Rome at the head of the army to obtain obedience by force. The desperate senators had no intention of begging Maximinus for mercy and decided to fight to the end.
Two emperors at once
One spring day in 238, behind the closed doors of the Temple of Concord at the Forum Romanum, the Senate made a decision on the future fate of Rome in the face of civil war. After heated discussions, it was decided to choose two equal emperors who would complement, restrain and help each other. They would rule with the help of the Senate. However, they had to be politicians who were significantly different from each other, but ready to cooperate. The choice fell on Pupienus and Balbinus.
After being elected co-rulers, the new emperors tried to get to the Capitol to complete the ceremony, but an angry crowd blocked their path and demanded that Pupieno be handed over. The plebs remembered his ruthlessness as prefect of the capital and had no intention of accepting his power. Only when Pupienus and Balbinus announced the minor Gordian III (grandson of Gordian I) as co-ruler, the crowd let them through amid joyful shouts in honor of the little emperor.
The first decision of both emperors was to recognize the killed Gordians as gods. Games were then held to gain the support of the crowds and prevent riots. Meanwhile, Maximinus Thrax wasted no time and besieged Aquileia. It was necessary to deal with him as far away from the capital as possible. After the games ended, it was finally decided to take action. The emperors divided the tasks according to their competencies: Pupieno, experienced in battle, set out against Maximinus at the head of the army, and Balbinus stayed in the capital to deal with all current affairs and ensure support from the Roman provinces.
However, several accidents occurred which marked the beginning of the end for both rulers. During the meeting of the senate, chaired by Balbinus, several praetorians illegally entered the chamber, out of sheer curiosity. However, several senators pulled out hidden daggers from under their robes and killed the curious, mistaking them for intruders. Then the assassins ran out of the meeting room and announced to the crowd that the Praetorians wanted to stage a coup. As a result, riots broke out throughout the capital, in which the people, with the help of armed gladiators, stormed the praetorian barracks. Balbinus tried unsuccessfully to calm the situation and reconcile both sides. There were bloody street clashes. The praetorians set fire to houses, and as a result, Rome burned worse than the one in Nero’s time. Neither the emperor nor anyone else could control the tragic situation. Fatalities multiplied. Suddenly, the whole situation was resolved by the joyful news that came from Aquileia: Emperor Maximinus and his son had been murdered by their own rebellious soldiers. The enemy’s head was put on a stake and brought to Rome. The riots stopped and there was joy in victory. At this time, Pupienus entered Aquileia and announced an amnesty for Maximinus’s murderers in exchange for recognition of his authority. After a solemn and passionate speech to the army, Pupieno sent some of the troops to the northern border, and with the rest returned triumphantly to Rome. He was welcomed grandly in the capital as the victor in the civil war. It seemed that everything was slowly returning to the desired normal. The emperors began to make political plans: Balbinus planned a war with the Goths, and Pupienus planned a great campaign against the Persians.
However, this was only the beginning of the problems. First, the dual power in Rome turned out to be disastrous, because the position of the two emperors was no longer equal. Pupien was the winner and the favorite of the crowds, and Balbinus had not been able to control the riots in the capital earlier, which did not go unnoticed by the senators and the crowds. Naturally, jealousy and competition for priority and influence arose between the Augustans. The emperors began to look at each other with suspicion. Secondly, the people and the praetorians were still in mutual hostility. The dispute and accusations of treason continued, although there appeared to be peace. Thirdly, the praetorians began to fear for their position. They were considered by everyone to be the cause of the riots, and, moreover, their function as imperial guard began to be informally played by Pupienia’s Germanic troops, who came with him from Aquileia. So the praetorian guard decided to act and show their strength.
In the summer of 238, during the Capitoline Games, praetorian cohorts left their barracks and marched to the emperors’ residence. The Augustas were immediately notified about this. Pupieno suggested bringing his Germans to defend the palace, but the distrustful Balbinus protested. He was afraid that Pupieno would deprive him of power with their help. While the emperors were arguing with each other, the praetorians reached the palace. The guards let them in without resistance. Both old emperors were kidnapped and stripped naked. Pupieno and Balbinus were then led by the praetorian guard through the streets of Rome amidst jeers and beatings. After a long “game”, the deprived emperors were led into the praetorian barracks. The Germans tried to recapture them, but in vain. Both were murdered and their bodies thrown into the street. Pupien and Balbinus reigned for a total of 99 days. The reason for their fall was mutual distrust, wounded pride and, as a result, hostility of the praetorian guard.
The praetorians showed their strength and that they were to have the decisive vote in the election of the emperor. Young Gordian III became the new Augustus. From then on, power struggles continued, and the praetorians were among the main players in this ongoing war for the purple. Many more emperors were to share the cruel fate of Pupienus and Balbinus, murdered in the summer of 238.