Following the deaths of Gordian I and II and the collapse of their rebellion against Maximinus Thrax in April of 238, the Senate found itself in an extremely difficult position. Having declared the Emperor Maximinus, a public enemy, it had to face the prospect of an imminent invasion as Maximinus, at the head of his army, had already crossed into Italy from his winter quarters at Sirmium.[] Acting with unusual alacrity, the Senate, meeting in an emergency session in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, elected two emperors, Clodius Pupienus Maximus and D. Caelius Calvinus Balbinus[] Both men were previously elected members of an emergency committee, known from inscriptions as the XX Viri Ex S.C. Rei Publicae Curandae, selected earlier by the Senate to prepare for the invasion of Maximinus.[]
However, while the Senate was meeting to elect new emperors, a large crowd of the urban plebs began to gather outside the temple, and as news of theelection spread throughout Rome, rioting broke out, most likely at the instigation of partisans of the Gordians, with the crowd demanding that a relative of the Gordians be elected.[]
As the rioting escalated, the new emperors rallied a group of young men from the Equestrian Order and attempted to force their way through the crowd. Driven back bya shower of stones and sticks, they resorted to the expedient of naming the son of Gordian I’s daughter (the future emperor, Gordian III) as Caesar. This had the effect of calming the crowd and the two emperors could turn to the business at hand. It was agreed that Balbinus would remain in Rome, whilePupienus, having greater military experience and connections, departed for Ravenna.[] Arriving in Ravenna in late April or early May, Pupienus was joined by a number of German troops in preparation for his attack on Maximinus, who himself had run into serious and unforeseen problems while besieging the city of Aquileia.[]
Pupienus was probably around 60 at the time of his election. Although he may have been poor at the beginning ofhis career, his upward mobility, largely through military positions, was rapid; he was a primus pilus (chief centurion), a military tribune, praetor, proconsul of Bithynia, Greece and Narbonensis, and legatus of either Upper or Lower Germany. He won victories over the Sarmatians and the Germans. He was consul twice, the first time possibly in 207, and the second in 234, when he was prefect of the city of Rome. He was also a member of the XX VIRI. According to Herodian, our best narrative source for these events, Pupienus had a reputation for severity when he was prefect in Rome, and this was reported to be one of the reasons why the plebs were so unhappy with his choice as Emperor. Nevertheless, Herodian says that he was a popular governor of Germany, and while he was in Ravenna, he had no trouble raising troops from his old province in order to confront Maximinus. [] Pupienus had at least one son, Ti. Clodius M.f. Pupienus Maximus (who would himself become consul in 236), a daughter Pupiena Sextia Paulina Cethegilla, and possibly a second son, M. Pupienus Africanus. Pupienus’ family may also have had connections to some of the richest individuals in Athens.[]
As events turned out, things went from bad to worse for Maximinus at Aquileia. His supply train had broken down and his foraging parties could find little food, as the senatorial commanders at Aquileia had ordered all the food from the surrounding countryside removed or destroyed.[] Adding to his woes was the fact that many of Maximinus’ soldiers had families in the camp at Albanum near Rome, who now became de facto hostages. Finally, just as Pupienus was preparing to depart from Ravenna, a group of Maximinus’ own soldiers assassinated him, together with his son. Their severed heads were conveyed first to Ravenna, and on to Rome. Thus, by the middle of May, Pupienus entered Aquileia in triumph without ever having engaged in a battle[]
Pupienus paid the troops of Maximinus a substantial donative, which, if it did not endear them to the Senate’s emperor, did at least keep them quiet. He then returned to Rome to take up the business of governing, along with his co-emperor, Balbinus. In Rome, however, matters had not gone well for Balbinus. While Pupienus had been in Ravenna, the brutal murder of two unarmed soldiers in the Senate had convulsed Rome in rioting, which eventually escalated into a civil war between the urban plebs, led by partisans of the Gordians, and the soldiers. The fighting in the city between the two sides resulted in a conflagration in which nearly half the city was burned down.[]
Although that situation appeared to have calmed down when Pupienus returned to Rome, mutual suspicions between the two emperors began to plague their government from the start. None of this dissension had escaped the “watchful eyes”[] of the Praetorian guard, who knew that “Emperors at variance could be slain more easily.”[] Matters quickly came to a head, as the Praetorian Guard, frustrated over the election of Senatorial emperors, and fearful that they would be cashiered by Pupienus and replaced by his German bodyguard who had accompanied him back from Aquileia, marched on the palace in order to stage a coup d’ état. Pupienus, having learned of the danger, pleaded with Balbinus to summon the German bodyguard. Balbinus, for his part, fearful that the whole affair was being staged by Pupienus to assassinate him, refused, and a fierce argument broke out between the two just as the guard, in a murderous rage, burst into the room, seized both emperors and dragged them back to their camp where, amid a hail of sword-blows and insults, they were hacked to death. By the time the bodyguard did come to their aid, the deed had been done and the Praetorian Guard had, in the meantime, proclaimed the young Gordian as Emperor Gordian III. Their deaths and the elevation of Gordian III occurred in July of 238.[]
Thus ended the rule of two emperors elected by the Senate. Before their deaths Pupienus was planning an expedition against the Persians and Balbinus against the Germans [] The length of their joint rule is generally given as 99 days.[] Although always spoken well of by the literary sources, there are several extant inscriptions where both emperors had their names removed.[] They certainly deserved a better fate.
Although the reign of the two Emperors was brief, there are a number of extant coins from their period of rule. Since Pupienus and Balbinus were in Rome, the coins probably feature a good likeness of the emperors.Pupienus appears as rather thin with a full beard, in sharp contrast to the “heavily jowled” and short-bearded Balbinus. Coins featured the double “GG” in the abbreviation “AUGG” (Augustus) to show that power was shared equally between the two men. The reverses often featured two clasped hands to indicate cooperation, a goal that eluded them in their brief tenure in power.[]
Because of the absence of accurate dating in the literary sources, the precise chronology of these events has been the subject of much study. The present consensus among historians assigns the following dates (all in the year 238 A.D.) to these events: March 22nd Gordian I, II were proclaimed Emperors in Africa; April 1st or 2nd they were recognized at Rome; April 12th they were killed (after reigning twenty days); April 22nd Pupienus and Balbinus were proclaimed Emperors; June 24th Maximinus and his son were assassinated outside of Aquileia; July 29thPupienus and Balbinus were assassinated and Gordian III proclaimed as sole Augustus.[]
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________. Merlin, Alf. ed. L’Année Epigraphique. (1934) No. 230. (Paris, 1935).
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Dessau, Hermann. Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae. (Berlin,1892.)
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Oliver, James. “The Sacred Gerusia” Hesperia Supp. VI (1941).
Paschoud, F., ed. Histoire Nouvelle [par] Zosime. (Paris, 1971)
Whittaker, C.R. ed. Herodian 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1970).
Woodhead, A.G. Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum. XXI (1965) No. 505.
Brandt, Hartwin. Kommentar zur Historia Augusta. vol 2 v. Maximi et Balbini. (Bonn, 1996)
Buecheler, F, Usener, H. “Untersuchungen zur römischen Kaisergeschichte.” Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie 58 (1903) 538-545.
Cagnat, R, Besnier, M. L’Année Epigraphique (1929) No. 158; (1934) No. 230.
Carson, R.A.G. “The Coinage and Chronology of A.D. 238.” Spec. Issue: Centennial Publication of The American Numismatic Society (1958) 181ff.
Kienast, Dietmar. Römische Kaisertabelle. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1990.
Loriot, Xavier. “Les Premieres Années de la Grande Crise du IIIe siécle: De L’avenement de Maximin le Thrace (235) la mort de Gordien III (244)” Aufstieg u. Niedergang der Rõmischen Welt II, 2 659-718 [1972-]
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Townshend, P.W. “The Revolution of A.D. 238: The Leaders and Their Aims.” Yale Classical Studies 14 (1955) 49-105.
[]Herodian, VII.10.1-5. Even Sir Ronald Syme (Emperors and Biography, p. 175) was moved to remark: “In the war Against Maximinus, the Senate displayed an energy which confounded all prediction.” The events are also analyzed by P.W. Townsend, “The Revolution of 238: The Leaders and Their Aims,” Yale Classical Studies 14 (1955) pp 50-53. However, where Townsend sees elaborate planning, Syme sees the revolt of Gordian as in a much more fortuitous event, seeing parallels to the revolt of Vindex against Nero in 68 A.D.
[]Literary sources of the XX VIRI are in Zosimus, 1.14.2; Victor, Caes. 26.7; S.H.A. Gordians, 14.3, 22.1. The full name of the committee is also found in Hermann Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae No.’s 1186 and 8979. Of the twenty members the names of 6 are known.
[]Full name:ILS 496; his age: Syme, Emperors and Biography, p. 171; his career is outlined by Whittaker, Herodian , p. 229, note 2 and also by Dietmar Kienast, Rõmische Kaisertabelle p. 190 and Willy Liebenam, Fasti Consulares Imperii Romani (Bonn, 1909), p. 29. The exact date of the first consulship is unknown. Statements regarding Pupienus’ severity may also be rhetorical exaggerations in order to contrast him with Balbinus. (Max. Balb. VII.7; XV.1) See Stein in Pauly-Wissowa, Vol. 4, col 97 (Clodius) No. 50: “Im übrigen aber scheint es, dass gerade diese Seite seines Charakters von dem Biographen zu stark hervorgehoben wird, um ihn entschiedener seinem Mitkaiser Balbinus gegenüberzustellen.”
[]. On Pupienus’ family see R. Syme, Emperors and Biography, pp 171-174; his son, Dessau ILS, No.1185; Second son: Groag and Stein, Prosopographia Imperii Romanii No.804; On his possible connections in Athens see Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, XXII (1965), No. 505; James H. Oliver, “The Sacred Gerusia” Hesperia Supp. VI (1941): On an inscription which honors M. Ulpius Eubiotius for relieving Athens of a famine, mention is made of a “Pupienus Maximus.” According to Oliver: “The similarity of the name and social rank of the Athenian family at least invite speculation on the subject” that this man and the Emperor are one and the same.
[]The details of the fighting are given in Herodian VII. 11-12. The SHA Max. & Balb. X, incorrectly places these events after the nomination of Pupienus and Balbinus, thus confusing this riot with the earlier one.
[]On the erasure of their names see Whittaker, Herodian II, page 308, note 1. This was quite possibly the action of the Gordian Party. The names were erased even at Aquileia (at Aquileia, Année Epigraphique, (1934) no. 230. Also erased on CIL VII, 510. However, there are inscriptions where their names survived intact: CIL VIII 10342, 10343, 10365
[]The coinage of the reign is discussed by Whittaker, Herodian II, p. 303, note 3; R.A.G. Carson, Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum VI 99-104; 250-260; plates 43-47; Cohen, vol 5, pp 14-19.
[]The chronology of these events is discussed by Xavier Loriot, “Les Premieres Années de la Grande Crise du IIIe Siécle,” Aufstieg ü. Niedergang der Rõmischen Welt 2.2, 720-721; C.E. Van Sickle, “A Hypothetical Chronology for the Year of the Gordians,” Classical Philology, XXII (1927), 416-417