The Year of Six Emperors
238 CE
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Let's face it -- for the most part, Roman emperors were heartless dictators. With a few notable exceptions, the death of an emperor engendered public reaction from "who cares?" to dancing in the streets. Therefore, any year when an emperor died could be viewed as a good year. So imagine my excitement when I discovered that there was a year in which not just one, nor even two, but no less than FIVE emperors died!

Maximinus (235-238) Denarius
About this coin:

The year 238 started out with Maximinus the sole emperor. He had come up through the ranks, becoming emperor in 235 when his troops murdered his predecessor, Severus Alexander, while they were out campaigning together. He was an imposing specimen, with some reports having him in excess of eight feet tall.

Being a big (literally as well as figuratively) military man, he rarely came to Rome to "schmooze" with the Senators, prefering to spend his time in the field campaigning with his troops. He also increased taxes dramatically in order to give his soldiers healthy pay raises. This made the soldiers quite happy, but it led to a general discontent among the civilian population of the Roman Empire.

Gordian I Africanus (238) Denarius
About this coin:
Gordian II Africanus (238) As
About this coin: One of the hardest emperors to get in any condition, Gordian II was the final "hole" in my sequence of emperors. Gordian I and II used exactly the same legends on their coins. The only way to tell them apart is the portrait. Gordian II had a rounder face, and he was balding in front.

In early 238, the people in many Roman provinces were near open rebellion. The people of the province of Africa Proconsularis finally killed the local head tax collector, then prevailed upon their governor, the elderly Gordian I, to petition the Senate to declare him Emperor. He agreed, on the condition that his son, Gordian II, be declared co-Emperor. The Senate liked the idea, so they quickly agreed.

But Maximinus wasn't quite done being Emperor yet -- and he had a huge army at his back who didn't give a hang what the Senate said. The governor of the province of Numidia (just west of Africa Proconsularis) felt that Maximinus would prevail, and he didn't much care for the Gordians anyway, so he invaded Africa Proconsularis in support of Big Max before Gordians I and II could even finish packing for their trip to Rome. Gordian II was killed in the battle. When he found out, Gordian I took his own life after only three weeks and one day in office.

This left the Senate in a quandary. They were fresh out of alternate Emperors, Big Max and his huge army were marching rapidly toward Rome, and it was unlikely that a sincerely-worded apology would do the trick.

Pupienus (238) Denarius
About this coin: What can I say? This silver denarius is a wreck, appearing to have been partially melted and peeled. But at least the face is pretty good, and the name "PVPIENVS" is clear.
Balbinus (238) Antoninianus
About this coin: This silver Antoninianus (double denarius) features the shaking-hands "Concordia Avgg" (Concord of the Emperors) reverse. The portrait has caused at least one observer (me) to marvel at the striking resemblance between Balbinus and Fred Mertz.

Meeting in secret, the Senate hurriedly elected two from among their ranks, Pupienus and Balbinus, as the new Emperors.

But their "secret" meeting apparently wasn't all that secret. When they tried to leave, they discovered that a mob had gathered outside the building. This mob did not approve of their choice of new Emperors, and they expressed their disapproval by pelting the Senators with rocks and sticks any time they stuck their heads out. The mob seemed intent on keeping the Senators trapped until Maximinus showed up and settled things once and for all. However, a quick negotiation determined that the mob HAD liked those Gordian fellows. The Senators discovered that there was another Gordian -- and he was there in Rome! So little Gordian III, teenage grandson of Gordian I and nephew of Gordian II, was offered the position of Caesar (sort of like Junior Emperor), and the mob let the Senate out.

Fortunately for the Senate, Pupienus had several spies in Maximinus's camp. He got word to them that things were pretty dire, and they decided to take the direct approach. In the middle of the night, they charged Maximinus's tent and hacked him to death.

But "happily ever after" was not in the cards for Pupienus and Balbinus. They heard rumblings that the Praetorian Guard, the elite personal guard unit for the Emperor himself, wasn't happy with them. This annoyed Balbinus enormously, so he came up with a very, very stupid plan. He talked Pupienus into coming with him to confront the Praetorians and tell them to "cut it out". Always obliging, the Praetorians pulled out their swords and did as ordered.

Gordian III Pius (238 - 244) Denarius
About this coin: It is believed that there are so many fantastic denarii of Gordian III around because people stopped using the denarius during his reign. The Antoninianus, or "Double Denarius", became the standard silver coin of the Empire. About 1-1/2 times the size of the denarius, but valued at two denarii, it was the beginning of the slide into worthless money that would contribute to the slide into economic, social, and military chaos that had started with the demise of the Severan Dynasty.

But it does mean that we have a whole lot of beautiful Gordian III denarii like this one to enjoy, so what the heck?

And thus, after five emperors became dead in a single year, little Gordian III finally became the sole and only Emperor of Rome. He would last for six whole years (pretty good for those times) before being murdered by his Praetorian Prefect.


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