Even if they don’t know much else, most students of Roman history hopefully know that AD 69, the year after which Nero’s reign ended, is also known as the year of the four emperors. I am not sure on the other hand that many students know as much about AD 238, a year which lays claim to no less than six emperors. Maximinus Thrax began the year as emperor but subsequently Gordian I, Gordian II, Pupienus, Balbinus, and Gordian III were all proclaimed emperor by various constituencies and gained a measure of legitimacy in this action-packed year. Karen Haegemans’ book, developed out of a doctoral dissertation, focuses upon 238 and the three years leading up to it, although Haegemans does relate the period to the broader changes of the so-called crisis of the third century and longer-term patterns of Roman history. There can be no doubt that this is an interesting and under-studied period, and Haegemans does a good job of spinning the somewhat limited source material into a comprehensive survey of the three years after 235 AD. In what follows I will outline the contents before offering an appraisal of the work as a whole.
The introduction begins with a short survey of the events of 238 AD, when the senate took an active role in the opposition to Maximinus and succeeded in replacing him quite rapidly. Haegemans then lays out her position. Contrary to some previous interpretations which judge 235-238 AD as a curious period of discontinuity, she argues that the period ‘was a manifestation of a continuous evolution that had been taking place since the end of the second century’ (p. 4). The rest of the introduction is devoted to previous secondary scholarship and a survey of the primary source materials. Particular emphasis is placed on the work of Herodian, the main narrative source for the period in question.
Chapter 1 (‘Tensions in Society: Some premises’) offers an overview of contemporary social changes. There is a nuanced picture of the relationship between senators and equestrians, which moves beyond models of opposition and antagonism towards the view that they were part of the same Roman elite. Haegemans makes some interesting points about the intersection of official and private networks and judges that these may have played an important role in the revolts of 235-238 AD. This is followed by a section which analyses the place of the army in society, which is nicely contrasted to models which view the army as imposed on and opposed to society.
Chapter 2 (‘A Military Emperor’) introduces Maximinus, emphasising from the start that the emperor’s most important quality was his military skill. Haegemans begins by outlining what we know of Maximinus’ early career, moving to cover the coup which deposed Severus Alexander and brought Maximus to power, before describing the military adventures of his three-year reign, mainly warfare along the Rhine and Danube frontiers. The chapter closes with three sections which are closely related to the army: on Maximinus’ strategic policy, his road building measures, and his military expenditure.
The third and fourth chapters (‘Maximinus and the Senate’; ‘Maximinus’ Financial Policy’) discuss the non-military features of Maximinus’ reign. His relationship with the senate is particularly important because he replaced Severus Alexander, who is traditionally judged a pro-senatorial emperor, and he was in turn deposed by rebels with the full support of the senate. Haegemans does a good job of sifting the evidence and concludes that even if Maximinus was a military emperor ‘there is no reason to fully accept the strong accusation that he was especially anti-senatorial’ (p. 110). The financial policy is important because greed was one of the most prominent accusations levelled against Maximinus by his detractors (Herodian and others), while monetary debasement was an important feature throughout the rest of the third century. Haegemans concludes that Maximinus was interested in finding new sources of income, but that this was not the result of personal greed, but because he needed money to fund his military endeavours.
Chapter 5 (‘As You Sow, So Shall You Reap’) moves things forward, examining the revolt in Africa which led to the proclamation of Gordian I and his son, Gordian II, as emperors. The revolt seems to have gone smoothly at first and Haegemans is sympathetic to the idea that it was planned and hence designed to rapidly attract support at Rome and further afield. Haegemans wisely rejects the theories that there was a general ‘senatorial conspiracy’ or that this was a rebellion by African ‘nationalists’. However, the senate did raise two new emperors, Pupienus and Balbinus, after forces loyal to Maximinus had defeated and executed the Gordians, suggesting that there was a significant commitment to getting rid of Maximinus. Haegemans closes the chapter by describing the measures taken by the senate to support the ‘new’ emperors and to undercut Maximinus’ position.
Chapter 6 (‘A Second Front: the Bellum Aquileiense ’) is a relatively brief overview of Maximinus’ attempt to move his army from the Danubian provinces to Rome and put down the rebellion, the opposition which they faced at Aquileia, and the emperor’s death at the hands of his soldiers when they faced stubborn resistance from the city. Haegemans suggests that Maximinus downfall was due to his failure to act more rapidly to put down the rebellion – as his authority was based on his skill as a general, once he had shown weakness in this area he had insufficient political capital to retain control.
The seventh chapter (‘New Lords, New Laws?’) explores the policies of the emperors who replaced Maximinus over the course of 238 AD. Given that these rulers reigned for such a short period of time, much of Haegeman’s analysis is quite conjectural. There are sections on internal policy, monetary policy, appointment policy, and the defence of the empire. The chapter closes with a section on the ultimate failure of the regime of Balbinus and Pupienus and their replacement by Gordian III.
The conclusion (‘A Watershed in History?’), summarises the rest of the book, and addresses the extent to which the period 235-238 represents a significant turning point in history. Haegemans concludes that, rather than initiating the ‘crisis’ of the third century, the events of the three years in question were an early manifestation of processes which were already well underway and which were to occur with even greater frequency and impact later in the century.
The epilogue, ‘Maximinus’ Ruin’, is a short survey of the events of 235-238 and thus summarises the work as a whole. Haegemans reiterates the important point that the intersection of private patronage relationships and expanding governmental networks may have had an important impact upon the course and success of the insurrection against Maximinus.
The book concludes with two very useful appendices, the first on the chronology of the year 238 and the second on the evidence for the supposed allegiance of the different provinces of the empire. The second appendix is divided into eastern and western sections and summarises the evidence for the loyalty of the different parts of the empire. This is a useful compilation, but the material on some of the provinces is distinctly ambiguous, nonexistent in some cases. The conclusions Haegemans draws on the allegiance of a number of provinces are thus somewhat arbitrary.
The study is accompanied by a comprehensive bibliography, which will prove useful for any scholar wishing to dig a bit deeper. Unfortunately, there is no index, which reduces the usefulness of the text significantly.
In summary, this is an interesting and effective work, if somewhat flawed. The standard of written English is poor at times, and this can inhibit understanding of some of the important points that Haegemans is making, although this is never terminal. Haegemans generally focuses on earlier comparisons rather than later ones, which will be disappointing for students of later periods. Despite these relatively minor quibbles, this remains an important work. It is increasingly evident that we cannot understand the more studied periods of the second and fourth centuries without detailed work such as this on the intervening period, and it is hoped that this work will inform and inspire further investigation of the third century.