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Firmus (ca.372-ca.375 A.D.)

Walter E. Roberts

Emory University

Very little is known about Firmus' early life. He was one of the many children of the Moorish prince Nubel, who was also a Roman military officer and a Christian.[[1]] When Nubel died sometime in the early 370s, his children began fighting over his estate. Firmus killed his brother Zammac, an illegitimate heir but a favorite of the comes Africae Romanus. Romanus was infuriated by this act, and, using his acquaintance with the magister officiorum Remigius, he began a campaign to discredit Firmus at the imperial court of Valentinian I.[[2]] Fearing for his safety, Firmus decided to revolt against Romanus.[[3]]

This revolt occurred against the backdrop of Romanus' general mismanagement of the African provinces. During the 360s, Romanus had let the province of Tripolitania, and especially the town of Lepcis, fall prey to the raids of various native African peoples because the African provincials would not meet his demand for increased booty and supplies for his troops. When the provincials complained to Valentinian, Romanus used his connections with Remigius to divert the blame from himself. As a result, Ruricius, the praeses of Tripolitania, and many prominent provincials were put to death.[[4]] Firmus' revolt, occurring shortly after these events, caused Valentinian to send his magister militum Theodosius (father of the later emperor) to Africa.[[5]] The date of Firmus' revolt can only be put in a relative chronology, sometime between Theodosius' participation in Valentinian I's Alamannic campaigns of 372 and the accession of Gratian in 375.

Theodosius arrived at Sitifis and arrested Romanus before heading into Mauretania Caesariensis to deal with Firmus.[[6]] Firmus tried to reconcile with Theodosius, explaining that Romanus had left him no choice but to revolt. Theodosius, however, was intent on punishing Firmus. In fact Firmus made three appeals for peace, even going so far as to send Christian priests as envoys, but each time Theodosius chose to continue hostilities.[[7]] At some point, perhaps even before Theodosius' arrival, Firmus was proclaimed emperor. According to Ammianus, a tribunus Constantianorum peditum put his neck chain on Firmus' head, and Firmus rode around in a purple cloak. The neck chain on Firmus' head symbolized the royal diadem, while the purple cloak was a traditional symbol of imperial power.[[8]] Other sources that confirm Firmus' proclamation are Orosius, St. Augustine, Zosimus, and the Epitome de Caesaribus.[[9]]

During his conflicts with Theodosius, which ranged throughout the southern regions of Mauretania Caesariensis and Mauretania Sitifensis, Firmus was aided by some of his siblings. His brothers Mascizel and Dius led the Tyndenses and Masinissenses peoples, while his sister Cyria led a confederation of African peoples on Firmus' behalf. Theodosius' campaign almost turned into a fiasco as his army was vastly outnumbered and Firmus was able to stir up support among the various native peoples of the two provinces. Theodosius was almost defeated and forced to withdraw several times, but in the end Firmus was betrayed and captured by Igmazen, a chieftain of the Isaflenses, who apparently wanted to win the support of Theodosius. Not wanting to fall into the hands of Theodosius, Firmus committed suicide.[[10]]

Theodosius' mission was ostensibly to put down a barbarian revolt, but a careful reading of Ammianus casts doubt on this interpretation. Romanus, as comes Africae, had command of the troops in Africa, and the revolt of Firmus did not appear to be a major threat requiring a detachment of the comitatenses, despite the fact that Firmus had the support of the equites quartae saggitarium cohortis and members of the Constantiani pedites. In point of fact, Ammianus states that Theodosius was sent not only to deal with Firmus, but also to investigate Romanus and his crimes.[[11]] Thus, it seems Theodosius was sent to apprehend a criminal under the pretext of quelling a "barbarian revolt." Valentinian apparently wanted to make a show of imperial power in Africa by both disgracing Romanus and putting down a rebellious client.

An examination of Firmus' career shows that Firmus was more than some mere barbarian with no ties to the Roman imprerial government. While Firmus was a Moor, he was firmly entrenched in the Roman political and military system in Africa. Although Ammianus is very vague about the exact position Firmus held in the Roman military, it seems that he held some position of authorirty, as he was able to command at least two military units, one of which even was willing to declare him emperor. Furthermore, Firmus recognized the authority of the imperial government because he worked within the parameters of the patron-client network of the imperial court in his dispute with Romanus.

There are two aspects of Firmus' revolt that need to be examined more closely. These are the development of Christianity as the predominant religion of the Roman state, and the impact of Roman rule in the provinces Augustine's brief mention of Firmus offers a glimpse of the religious unrest in Africa during this period. Firmus championed the cause of the Donatists, going so far as to kill the Nicene inhabitants of Rusuccuru. In a letter to his brother Emeritus, Augustine denounced Firmus for his support of the Donatists. Augustine's implicit argument is that because the Donatists were not part of the lawful (Nicene) church, Firmus could not have been a lawful ruler.[[12]]

Augustine's position seems to confirm the other sources' statements questioning Firmus' claims to be a legitimate emperor. The imperial government certainly took steps to undermine Firmus' claim, drafting several laws passed that prohibited Donatist practices after Firmus' downfall. The Donatist controversy, and its accompanying civil unrest, indicate that perhaps imperial rule was not as fully entrenched in late Roman Africa as modern historians have previously thought. [[13]].

Similarly, Firmus' revolt brings into question the Roman government's relations with the so-called "barbarians" in Roman Africa. An examination of Firmus' family and their position within the Roman social, political, and military structure reveals that the line between "barbarian" and "Roman" was a thin one indeed.[[14]] Firmus' father Nubel was a praepositus in the equites armigeri iuniores, which was a vexillatio comitatensis stationed in Africa. Nubel's wife Nonnia and father Saturninus were Roman, while his mother Collcial was probably a Moor. Nubel himself was head of the Iubelani, a Moorish people, but his Christianity is attested by the fact that he dedicated a church near Rusguniae which held a fragment of the True Cross.[[15]] Nubel's children continued his tradition of serving the imperial government. Zammac was apparently in the service of Romanus, and several of Firmus' brothers mentioned by Ammianus can be found in Roman service at a later date. The best example is Gildo who became comes per Africam under the usurper Magnus Maximus. He retained this office until 397 when he revolted against Honorius. The Roman government responded by hiring Mascizel to suppress the revolt.[[16]]

Furthermore, the imperial government's response to Firmus' uprising also illustrates the blurred line between who was a Roman and who was a barbarian in Africa. In 373, Valentinian issued two laws dealing with the situation in Africa. The first was addressed to Theodosius and prohibits marriages between Romans and gentiles (native peoples of Africa who received land in exchange for guarding the African frontiers). The reason for this prohibition was that these marriages led to criminal activities against the imperial government.[[17]] This appears to be an attempt to bring up the old notion of the "barbarians" corrupting the pure Romans. As Hagith Sivan states, "If our information about the affair of Firmus depended solely on this constitution, it would have been difficult to surmise that the revolt was, in effect, an internal affair, entirely conducted on Roman soil, not an invasion of hostile external barbarians who threatened the Roman peace in Africa."[[18]]

Another indication that Firmus’ revolt was about more than barbarians against Romans was the imperial preoccupation with regaining the support of the African provincials. One of the first actions Theodosius took upon arriving in Africa was to ensure the provincials that he would supply his army from stores captured from Firmus’ supporters. Theodosius did not appear anxious to repeat the mistakes of Romanus by alienating the provincials still loyal to the imperial government.[[19]] Furthermore, after Firmus' revolt was resolved, Valentinian tried to win the support of the decurions of Sitifis by freeing them from the onerous duties of their class if they either served in the army for five years, or served in the imperial bureaucracy for twenty-five years.[[20]]

The revolt of Firmus highlights several trends of the later empire. Many symptoms of the third-century crisis seem to be happening in fourth- century Africa. A distrust on the part of the provincials towards the imperial government, military leaders such as Romanus enriching themselves, and political dissension all seem to point to the fact that imperial rule in Africa was beginning to crumble. This would certainly fit into Ammianus' view of a general decline, and other fourth- century sources seem to agree. One modern scholar has suggested that the saga of Firmus may have been the model for the account of the usurper Firmus who arose in Egypt after Zenobia's downfall in 272.[[21]] This account was in the Historia Augusta, a series of biographies of third century emperors and usurpers actually written in the late fourth century. Given the model of Africa presented by Firmus' rebellion, perhaps modern scholars also need to reevaluate the effectiveness of the imperial government in the fourth century by looking at other regions of the empire.

Selected Bibliography:

Primary Sources

Ammianus Marcellinus. Rerum gestarum libri qui supersunt. W. Seyfarth, ed. 3 vols. Leipzig, 1978.

Augustine. Contra Epistulam Parmeniani. M. Petschenig ed. Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinarum 51. Vienna, 1907.

________. Epistulae. A.L. Goldbacher ed. Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinarum 34. Vienna, 1895.

Codex Theodosianus. T. Mommsen, P.M. Meyer, and P. Krüger eds., Theodosiani libri XVI cum constitutionibus Sirmondianis et leges novellae ad Theodosianum pertinentes (2 vols.). Berlin, 1905.

Corpus Inscriptionum latinarum. Vol. 8. G. Wilmanns ed. Berlin, 1881.

Epitome de Caesaribus. F.R. Pichlmayr ed. Berlin, 1961.

Orosius. Adversus paganos historiarum libri septum. Z. Zangemeister ed., Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinarum 5. Vienna, 1882.

Zosimus, Historia nova. François Paschoud ed. and trans., Zosime: Histoire Nouvelle (3 vols.). Paris, 1971-89.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkeley, 1967.

Elton, Hugh. "Defining Romans, Barbarians, and the Roman Frontier." In Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity, eds. Ralph W. Mathisen and Hagith S. Sivan, 126-35. Aldershot, 1996

Frend, W.H.C. The Donatist Church: a Movement of Protest in North Africa. Oxford, 1952.

Jones, A.H.M. The Later Roman Empire 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey. 3 Volumes. Oxford, 1964.

________., J.R. Martindale, and J. Morris. The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire Volume I A.D. 260-395. Cambridge, 1971

Matthews, John F. The Roman Empire of Ammianus. London, 1989.

________. "Symmachus and the magister militum Theodosius." Historia 20 (1971): 122-8.

________. "Mauretania in Ammianus and the Notitia." In Aspects of the Notitia Dignitatum, eds. R. Goodburn and P. Bartholomew, 157-86. Oxford, 1976

________. Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court, A.D. 364-425. Oxford, 1975.

Paschoud, François. "Le tyran fantasm‚: variations de l'Histoire Auguste sur le thème de l'usurpation." In Usurpationen in der Spätantike, eds. François Paschoud and Joachim Szidat, 87-98. Stuttgart, 1997.

Sivan, Hagith S. "Why Not Marry a Barbarian? Marital Frontiers in Late Antiquity (The Example of CTh 3.14.1)." In Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity, eds. Ralph W. Mathisen and Hagith S. Sivan, 136-45. Aldershot, 1996


Tilley, Maureen A. The Bible in Christian North Africa: the Donatist World. Minneapolis, 1997.

Warmington, Brian. "The Career of Romanus, Comes Africae." BZ 49(1956): 55-66.


[[1]]PLRE 1, s.v. "Nubel." CIL 8.9255, found in Mauretania Caesariensis, identifies a Flavius Nuvel as a Roman officer and a Christian. While PLRE 1 denies that this inscription refers to Nubel the Moorish prince, modern scholars such as Matthews, Sivan, and Elton have made this connection. See PLRE 1, s.v. "Nubel;" "Flavius Nuvel;" Matthews, "Mauretania," 174-6; Sivan, "Why Not Marry a Barbarian," 141; and Elton, "Defining Barbarians," 134 n.34.

[[2]]Ammianus, 29.5.2.

[[3]]Ibid., 29.5.3.

[[4]]Ibid., 28.6.1-4.

[[5]]Ibid., 29.5.4.

[[6]]Ibid., 29.5.5-7.

[[7]]Ibid., 29.5-7.

[[8]]Ibid., 29.5.20; 48.

[[9]]Orosius, 7.33; Augustine, Contra Epistulam Parmeniani 1.11.17; Zosimus, 4.16.3 ; and Epitome de Caesaribus, 45.7-8.

[[10]]Ammianus 29.18-55. For a detailed discussion of the campaigns see Matthews, "Mauretania," 157-78.

[[11]]Ammianus 28.6.26; 29.5.4-6.

[[12]]Augustine, Epistula 87.10; For the Donatist controversy in general see Maureen A. Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa: The Donatist World (Minneapolis, 1997); W.H.C. Frend,The Donatist Church: a Movement of Protest in North Africa, (Oxford, 1952), and Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, 1967), 212-243. Matthews, "Mauretania," 178 discounts the role of Donatism in Firmus' revolt, while Friend, The Donatist Church, 193-207, contends Firmus’ Donatism played a key role in his decision to revolt. .

[[13]]CTh. 16.5.4; 16.6.1; 16.6.2.

[[14]]Elton, "Defining Romans," 131-5; John F. Matthews, The Roman Empire of Ammianus (London, 1989), 367-76.

[[15]]CIL 8.9255

[[16]]Zosimus 5.11 ; Elton, "Defining Barbarians," 132.

[[17]]CTh 3.14.1; Sivan, "Why not Marry a Barbarian," 136-45.

[[18]]Ibid., 145.

[[19]]Ammianus 29.5.10.

[[20]]CTH 7.1.6. For more on the social aspects of Firmus’ revolt see B.H. Warmington, “The Career of Romanus,” 55-61.

[[21]]François Paschoud, "Le tyran fantasmé," 90-91.

Copyright (C) 1998, Walter E. Roberts. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Walter E. Roberts

Updated: 18 August 1998

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