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Probus (276-282 A.D.) and Rival Claimants (Proculus, Bonosus, and Saturninus)of the 280s

Robin Mc Mahon

New York University

Bust of Probus(c)1999, Princeton Economic Institute
Coin of Saturninus (c)1999, Princeton Economic Institute

Probus's Background

M. Aurelius Probus was most likely born in Sirmium in 232 A.D. It is difficult to reconstruct Probus' career before he became emperor because of the unreliable nature of the account in the Historia Augusta, but it is certainly possible that he was a tribune under Valerian. Perhaps all that can be said with any reliability is that he served in the military and was on Aurelian's staff during his Eastern campaigns.[[1]] There is a certain amount of confusion in the sources about him because of the fact that he has often been confused with a certain Tenagino Probus, who served as prefect in Egypt under Claudius II Gothicus.[[2]]

Accession to Power

After the murder of Aurelian, the Senate chose as his successor the septuagenarian senator, Tacitus, who took up the burdens of state and headed with the army to the East. The Eruli had overrun Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia and finally Cilicia, where Tacitus, with help from his half-brother Florianus, defeated them.[[3]] Tacitus, however, either died of an illness or was killed by his own troops; he was succeeded by Florianus.[[4]] In the meantime, Probus had been declared Emperor by his own troops in mid-276, and prepared to meet Florianus, who was marching from the Bosporus, having broken off his victorious engagement against the Eruli. Florianus was acknowledged in Rome and was supported by Gaul, Spain, Britain, and Italy; Probus was supported by Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine and Egypt. The two fought a desultory campaign near Tarsus. With a much smaller force, Probus decided his best strategy would be to avoid a pitched battle and let the heat overcome the troops of Florianus. The latter, having reigned barely two months, was murdered by his own troops.[[5]] Probus became sole Emperor, possibly by August 276.[[6]]

Probus in the West: 276-279

His first order of business was to punish the murderers of Aurelian, who may have also had a hand in the murder of Tacitus.[[7]] On the basis of numismatic evidence, Probus appears to have traveled from the east across the Propontis, and then through the provinces of Thrace, Moesia and Pannonia. It is at this time that he must have defeated the Goths because he already had the title Gothicus by 277 A.D. Shortly after he arrived at the Rhine River he made a trip to Rome to have his powers ratified by the Senate.[[8]]

Following the death of Postumus in 258, the situation in Gaul had rapidly deteriorated and numerous bands of invaders had swept across the Rhine. In the south, the Longiones, together with the Alamanni, had advanced through the Neckar valley into Gaul. The Franks had crossed the Rhine further north. In order to meet this simultaneous threat, Probus divided his forces having his generals campaign against the Franks, while he himself fought against the Longiones and Alamanni. Both Probus and his generals were victorious; in fact, Probus even captured Semnon, the leader of the Longiones, with his son. Both groups of invaders agreed to terms and booty and prisoners were returned; in the end, Probus allowed Semnon and his son their freedom.

Probus is next reported to have fought victoriously against the Burgundians and to have secured his victory with some ingenuity. Because his forces were smaller than those of the invaders, he wanted to engage the enemy on terms as favorable as possible; the Romans were on one side of the river and the barbarians were on the other. Probus was able to induce them to cross the river by having his soldiers hurl insults at them, and being enraged, they began crossing the river. Before the barbarians were able to organize themselves, the Roman army soundly routed them. Smarting from their defeat, the enemy did not live up to their end of the treaty, with the result that, in a second battle, they were again worsted by Probus.[[9]] The barbarians who were taken prisoner were enrolled in the Roman Army and sent to Britain.

Not content with merely defeating the barbarians along the Rhine, Probus took important steps to secure the boundary for the future. He planned and constructed a series of forts and depots on the German side of the Rhine at various crossing points, which he garrisoned with troops. Further, Probus apparently took measures to restore economic stability to Gaul by encouraging the planting of vineyards. Probus' titles Gothicus Maximus and Germanicus Maximus suggest claims to the success of his operations in the area.[[10]]

Events in the East 279-280

The sources do not give many details of Probus's activities in Raetia and Illyricum, but Zosimus does say he repulsed an invasion of Vandals from Illyricum in a battle along a river generally identified as the Lech. In 279, theatre of operations was Lycia. Zosimus records the curious story of the adventures and death of a robber chieftain name Lydius who may be the same individual called Palfuerius in the Historia Augusta. In order to prevent further troubles, Probus constructed fortresses, and settled large groups of veterans in this area, giving them land in exchange for the promise that their sons would also serve in the legions when they were old enough.[[11]]

Probus's Military and Economic Activities In Egypt

Meanwhile, Probus had sent his generals to Egypt, where the Blemmyes were stirring up trouble in 280; they had broken through the border, advanced up the Nile, and, in league with the city of Ptolemais, captured the city of Koptus. They were eventually expelled and order was restored by Probus' generals. Once Probus had restored order, he set about the task of a large-scale reconstruction of the dikes, canals, and bridges along the Nile, something which not been done since it had been undertaken by Augustus in the years 27-25 B.C. More specifically, the Vita Probi notes, "On the Nile, moreover, he did so much that his sole efforts added greatly to the tithes of grain. He constructed bridges and temples porticos and basilicas, all by the labour of the soldiers, he opened up many river-mouths, and drained many marshes, and put in their place grain-fields and farms"(9.3-4). The importance of this type of work cannot be underestimated since a large percentage of the food supply for Rome came from Egypt and the African provinces.[[12]]

The Revolts of Proculus, Bonosus, and Saturninus

According to the Historia Augusta, although the Persian King, Vahram II, had made peaceful overtures, Probus had rejected these and was planning to push the war forward when he was faced with a series of revolts both in the West and East. It is difficult to place them in their exact time-frame since the sources do not agree. Nevertheless, the situation was serious enough for Probus to cancel his plans for war with Persia and hurry back to the West. On his return Probus settled large numbers of barbarians in the Empire.[[13]] Perhaps this was done to repopulate areas which had been left abandoned by the effects of invasions and plague. This policy, which Probus did not begin, and which was continued by his successors was, however, destined to bring trouble to Rome in the future.

The writer of the Vita Probi in the Historia Augusta indicates that in 280 A.D. Proculus revolted in the vicinity of the city of Lugdunum, which had been severely dealt with by Aurelian and, for reasons not given, spurred on by this fear, had adopted a hostile attitude towards Probus. Proculus apparently had some connections to the Franks and he had hoped to rally them to his cause. They appear, however, to have handed him over to Probus when he arrived on the scene.[[14]] Probably at the same time, Bonosus revolted. His rebellion seems to have been serious as it appears to have required considerable force to be suppressed. Bonosus, an officer in charge of the Rhine fleet, had somehow let the Germans slip over the border and burn the fleet. Fearful of retribution, he apparently took shelter in proclaiming himself emperor. He was, in spite of his lapse with the fleet, an excellent soldier. The fighting was only stopped when Bonosus, despairing of his position, hanged himself. Probus spared the lives of his sons as well as that of his wife.[[15]]

Julius Saturninus, one of Probus 's commanders in Syria, probably seized power in the year 281. A close friend and associate of Probus, he may have been compelled to adopt the purple by his unruly troops. Although he initially rejected a request of the people of Alexandria to put on the purple, he later changed his mind and proclaimed himself Augustus. In any case, Probus planned to put down the rebellion. However, Saturninus was killed by his own troops before Probus had a chance to act.[[16]]

The sources do not provide much in the way of material to analyze the extent of these revolts and how widespread the feeling was against Probus in the West. There are indications that the revolts were more than local affairs because inscriptions from as far away as Spain have been found where Probus's name has been erased.[[17]]

In 281 Probus was in Rome to celebrate his victories. Although the Historia Augusta goes into great detail to describe the events of Probusís triumph and celebrations of his victories in respect to the number of animals and prisoners involved, there may be some truth to its description because Zosimus states there was a uprising which at this time required a force of soldiers to suppress. On a more substantial note, Probus completed the wall around Rome which had been begun by Aurelian.[[18]]

Probus' Assassination

Probus was too anxious to push ahead with his plans for an invasion of Persia, which had been postponed due to the revolts and unrest in the West, and, to this end, he left Rome in 282 and proceeded first to his native town of Sirmium when news came that M. Aurelius Carus, Perfect of the Guard, had been proclaimed emperor. When troops sent by Probus to quell the rebellion went over to Carus, Probus' remaining troops killed the emperor. His death occurred sometime between September or October 282.[[19]]


Primary Sources:

Chastagnol, André. Histoire Auguste. (Paris, 1994).

Magie, D., ed. Scriptores Historiae Augustae. (Cambridge, 1982).

Paschoud, F. ed.Histoire Nouvelle [par] Zosime. (Paris, 1971).

Zonaras, Annales (12.27.). ed. M. Pinder (Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae), Bonn 1844.

Cohen, Henry. Description Historique des Monnaies Frappées Sous L'Empire Romain. (Paris & London, 1880-1892).

Grenfell, Bernard and Hunt, Arthur S. Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Vol XII (London 1916) No. 1409.

Secondary Works

Barnes, T.D. "Some Persons in the Historia Augusta." Phoenix 26 (1972): 140ff.

R. Hanslik, "Aurelius (28)." Kl. P.. 1: col. 769.

________. "Bonosus (1)." Kl. P. 1: col. 928.

________."Proculus (8a)." RE 23: col. 75-76.

Henze, W. "Aurelius (194)." RE 2.2: col. 2516-2523.

________. "Bonosus (1)." RE 3: col. 713-714.

Jones, A.H.M., J.R. Martindale, and J. Morris. "Probus 3." The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. (Cambridge, 1971) 1.736.

Kienast, Dietmar. Römische Kaisertabelle: Grundzüge römischen Kaiserchronologie. (Darmstadt, 1990).

Lépaulle, Emile. Étude historique sur M. Aur. Probus d'après la numismatique du Regne de Cet Empereur. (Lyon, 1884).

Lippold, A. "Saturninus (2)." Kl. P. 4: col. 1570.

Peachin, Michael. Roman Imperial Titulature and Chronology A.D. 235-284. (Amsterdam, 1990).

Pomeroy, Sarah B. "The Revolt of Saturninus." Schweizer Münzblätter 19 (May, 1969) 54-56.

Schwartz, Jacques. "L'empereur Probus et l'Egypte." Chronique d'Egypte 45 (1970), 381-386.

Stein, A. "Saturninus (6)." RE 2A: col.213ff.

________."Tenagino Probus." Klio, 29 (1936): 237-242

Syme, Ronald. Emperors' Biography: Studies in the Historia Augusta. (Oxford, 1971).

Vitucci, G. L'imperatore Probo. (Rome, 1952).

Westermann, W.L. "The Papyri and the Chronology of the Reign of the Emperor Probus." Aegyptus 1 (1920): 297-301.

Winkler, G. "Proculus (2)." Kl. P. 4: col. 1150.


[[1]]For Probus' full name and his year of birth, see Dietmar Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle: Grundzüge römischen Kaiserchronologie, (Darmstadt, 1990), 250; Probus' place of birth and lineage: it is unclear whether his father was a certain Maximus who rose through the ranks to become a tribune (SHA, Vita Probus, 3.1-2) or a certain Dalmatius who was a gardener (Aur. Vict., Epit., 37.1); W. Henze, RE 2.2, s.v. "Aurelius (194)," col.2517ff; Probus' early career under Valerian and subsequent emperors through Aurelian: SHA, Vita Probus, 5.6-7, 6.1ff; Kienast sifts through the farrago of data in the SHA for the reader and points out what material is worth believing (Römische Kaisertabelle, 250).

For the most recent full treatment of Probus' reign, see G. Vitucci, L'imperatore Probo. Rome, 1952; for a more concise and recent treatment, see R. Hanslik, Kl. P. 1, s.v. "Aurelius (28)," col. 769.

[[2]]The confusion in the Historia Augusta may be intentional since Probus is the hero and his biographer certainly wanted to attribute as many valiant deeds to him as he could. The problem is carefully gone over by A. Stein ("Tenagino Probus," Klio, 29 [1936], 237-242). Stein gives documentary evidence for the career of T. Probus as well as the name Tenagino (which he says is Etruscan in origin). The confusion is also noted in, among other sources, A.H.M Jones (The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, s.v. "Probus (3)," 1.736), T. Barnes, ("Some persons in the Historia Augusta," Phoenix, 26[1972],156), and Kienast (Römische Kaisertabelle, 250).

[[3]]Zosimus, 1.63.1-64.3; SHA, Vita Taciti, 13.1ff; Zonar., 12.28 ([Bonn ed.], 2.608.5ff); for an introduction to the events surrounding Tacitus' campaign in the east and its sources, see F. Paschoud, Zosime, Histoire Nouvelle, (Paris, 1971), 55, 172, n. 92 , and David Magie, Scriptores Historiae Augustae, (Cambridge, 1982), 3.318, n.3. The exact family relationship between Tacitus and Florian is unclear.

[[4]]Zosimus, 1.63.1-2; Zonar., 12..28 (2.608.13-22); SHA, Vita Tacitus, 13.5.

[[5]]Zonar., 12 29(2.608. 23-609.6); SHA, Vita Taciti, 13.6-14.2, Vita Probi, 14.1-2; Zosimus, 1.63-64; Henze, RE 2.2, col. 2519; David Magie, Scriptores Historiae Augustae, 3. 320 n. 4, 3.321, n.5 ; for a discussion of the chronology of these events, see F. Paschoud, Zosime , 1.172-3, nn. 92-93.

[[6]]Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle , 250; Peachin, 46-117; David Magie, Scriptores Historiae Augustae, 3.354-355, n.2; ; Henze, RE 2.2, col. 2519; Vitucci, Probo, 24ff; Paschoud provides a general survey of the scholarship on the dating of Probus' sole emperorship (Zosime, 1.172ff, n. 93).

[[7]]Zosimus indicates that Probus invited them to a banquet and, while observing the proceedings from above, then gave a signal for the soldiers to attack them.(1.65.1-2) It seems, however, somewhat implausible that they could be so gullible. In Zonaras, Probus rebukes them in person and later put them to death.(12.29[2.609.1ff]). The author of the Vita Probi (13.2-3) in the Historia Augusta indicates some retribution was taken upon the murderers. Probus did not, however, take any action against the followers of Florianus (ibid., 13.3 ); F. Paschoud, Zosime , 1.57, n.94; Henze, RE 2.2, col. 2519.

[[8]]E. Lépaulle, Étude historique sur M. Aur. Probus d'après la numismatique du Regne de Cet Empereur, (Lyon, 1884), 52-53; Henze, RE, 2.2, col. 2520; Henry Cohen, Description Historique des Monnaies Frappées Sous L'Empire Romain, (Paris and London, 1880), Adventus series for Probus, 29-73. Probus' title Gothicus: CIL, 11.1178b; SHA, Vita Probi, 13.5; David Magie, Scriptores Historiae Augustae, 3.363, n.5

Probus' trip to Rome is discussed by Henze (RE, 2.2, col. 2520) and Lépaulle (54).

[[9]]The fullest treatment of Probus' wars with the Germans remains that of Zosimus (1.67-68); the account of these events in the SHA (Vita Probi, 13.5-14.7) is not as detailed as that in Zosimus. Zonaras' narrative (12.29 [2.609.20ff]) is cursory at best; Henze, RE, 2.2, col. 2520-2521; the sources and the secondary literature are treated in depth by Paschoud (Zosime,. 1.58, 173, n. 96, 1.59, 175, n. 97); the chronology of these operations is discussed by Vitucci (Probo, 48ff).

[[10]]Probus' use of prisoners of war as troops: Zosimus, 1.68.3; Henze, RE, 2.2, col. 2521; Probus' fortifications along the Rhine: SHA, Vita Probi,14.1-7; Henze, RE, 2.2, col. 2520ff; vineyards in Gaul: SHA, Vita Probi,18.8; Henze, RE, 2.2, col. 2521.

Probus" victory titles: Gothicus Maximus, infra, n. 8;.Germanicus Maximus, C.I.L., 8.11931; his victories are reflected in his coinage by such legends as Temporum Felicitas (Cohen 728-731), Securitas Perpetua (ibid, 625-627), and Victoria Germanica (ibid.,754-777); Henze, RE, 2.2, col. 2521.

[[11]]Kienast dates events in Asia Minor, Egypt, and Illyricum to 279-280 A.D. (Römische Kaisertabelle, 250); Zosimus, 1.69.1ff; SHA, Vita Probi, 16.1ff; the story of Lydius/ Palfuerius, Zosimus, 1.69.1-70, SHA, Vita Probi, 16.4-7; Henze, RE, 2.2, col.2521; Paschoud, Zosime,. 1.60, 175ff, n. 98; settlement of veterans: SHA, Vita Probi, 16.6; Henze, RE, 2.2, col.2521.

[[12]]Revolts in Egypt: Zosimus, 1.71.1; SHA, Vita Probi, 17.2, 6; Henze, RE, 2.2, 2522; reconstruction of dikes, canals, and bridges along the Nile: SHA, Vita Probi, 9.2; David Magie, Scriptores Historiae Augustae, 3.351-352, n.3 ; the reconstruction of the dikes can by dated from P. Oxy. 12.409; for a full discussion of the papyrus and its dating, see W.L.Westermann, "The Papyri and the Chronology of the Reign of the Emperor Probus", Aegyptus, 1 (1920), 297-301. On Probus in Egypt, see J. Schwartz, "L'empereur Probus et l'Egypte" in Chronique d'Egypte 45 (1970), 381-386.

[[13]]Probus' peace with the Persians (SHA, Vita Probi, 18.1) may have been a stop-gap action since he eventually planned to go to war with them (ibid., 20.1); he may have made peace in order to deal with the usurpers in the west (ibid., 18.4; Probus and his dealings with the Persians: Henze, RE, 2.2, col.2522ff; David Magie, Scriptores Historiae Augustae, 3.371, n. 5); Probus' settlement of barbarians within the boundaries of the empire: SHA, Vita Probi, 18.2, Zosimus, 1.17.1.

[[14]]Chronology of Proculus' revolt: Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle 252; sources that deal with his revolt: SHA, Vita Probi, 18.5, Vita Firmi, 12.1, 13.1, 4; G. Winkler, Kl. P. 4, s.v. "Proculus (2)," 1150; R. Hanslik, RE 23, s.v. "Proculus (8a)," col. 75-76; Henze, RE, 2.2, col.2522; although Kienast accepts the outline of events spelled out in the SHA, he rightly believes that many of the details included about Proculus' life should be considered dubious (Römische Kaisertabelle , 252-253); Barnes rejects all the details of Proculus' career contained in the SHA (Phoenix, 26 [1972], 168).

[[15]]Chronology of Bonosus' revolt: Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle , 251-252; sources that deal with his revolt: SHA, Vita Probi, 18.5, Vita Firmi, 14-15; W. Henze, R.E. 3, s.v. "Bonosus (1)," col. 713-714; ibid., RE, 2.2, col.2522; R. Hanslik, Kl. P. 1, s.v. "Bonosus (1)," col. 928; other sources mention Bonosus' revolt in passing: Aur. Vict., Caes. 37.3, Epit., 37.2; Eutrop., 9.17.1; although Kienast accepts the outline of events spelled out in the SHA and apparently the details about his command on the Rhine and his suicide (15.1-3), he rejects the details contained in 14.1-5 of the Vita Firmi (Römische Kaisertabelle, 251-252); Barnes rejects all the details of Bonosus' career contained in the SHA (Phoenix, 26 [1972], 150ff).

[[16]]Chronology of Saturninus' reign: Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle , 253; sources that treat Saturninus' reign: Zosimus, 1.66.1 (where Saturninus is described as a Mauretanian); Zonar., 12.29 (2.609.10ff); SHA, Vita Probi, 18.4, Vita Firmi, 7-9; Although Kienast rejects Saturninus' career which is spelled out in the Vita Firmi at 9.5, he appears to accept the fact that he was dux limitis Orientalis under Aurelian and governor of Syria under Probus (Römische Kaisertabelle , 253), aspects of his career not accepted by Barnes (Phoenix, 26 [1972], 171ff); Saturninus' reign is discussed by Vitucci (Probo, 58ff), Lippold (Kl. P. 4, s.v. "Saturninus (2)," col. 1570), Stein (R.E. 2A, s.v. "Saturninus (6)," col.213ff), Henze (RE 2.2, col. 2522), and Pomeroy (Sarah B. Pomeroy, "The Revolt of Saturninus", Schweizer Münzblätter, 19 (1969), 54-56); a good survey of the literature and discussion of the chronology of the revolt is provided by Paschoud (Zosime, 1.57, 173, n. 95). See also A. Chastagnol, "Sur la chronologie des années 275-285" in Festschrift Jean Lafaurie (Paris, 1980), 75-82.

[[17]]There are several inscriptions where Probus' name was later erased; see C.I.L., 2.3738, 8.100, 1353, 10.3728; Henze, RE 2.2, col. 2522-2523.

[[18]]Dating of Probus' triumph: Henze, RE 2.2, col. 2523; description of triumph: SHA, Vita Probi, 19.1-8; uprising at Rome: Zosimus, 1.73.1; the wall of Aurelian: Ibid., 1.49.2; Henze, RE 2.2, col. 2523; F. Paschoud, Zosime , 1.43,163-164, n.77.

[[19]]Zosimus, 1.71.4-5; Zonar.,12.29 (2.609.10ff); Magie, Scriptores Historiae Augustae, 3.378-9, n. 1; according to the SHA (Vita Probi, 21.1-4), a tumult occurred and the exasperated soldiers pursued Probus to an "ironclad" lookout tower and he was killed there. Magie notes, " The same account of his death is given in Aur[elius] Victor, Caes. 37,4 and Eutropius, ix, 17, 2; on the other hand, this version [preserved in Zosimus and Zonaras}...seems more credible....Probus' death took place after 29 Aug., 282 since there are Alexandrian coins of his eighth year, which began on that day...."(Scriptores Historiae Augustae, 3.378-9, n. 1); Paschoud discusses the chronological problems in the sources surrounding the dating of Probus' death (Zosime, 1.62, 177-178, n.101).

Copyright (C) 1999, Robin Mc Mahon. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Robin Mc Mahon.

Updated:8 July 1999

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