Tetricus I (AD 271-273)

Image of the Emperor Tetricus I (c) 2000, Princeton Economic Institute

Of noble origin (Aurel. Vict. 33.14), C. Pius Esuvius Tetricus was the last emperor of the so-called imperium Galliarum. According to Eutropius (Eutrop. 9.10), he had senatorial rank and occupied the post of praeses provinciae Aquitaniae at the time when Victorinus was murdered at Cologne in early 271 AD. Through the influence of Victoria, the mother of Victorinus, who bribed the troops in his favour, Tetricus, although absent, was proclaimed emperor and took the purple near Burdigalia (Bordeaux) (Eutrop. 9.10) in spring of the same year.

Tetricus I was recognised as legitimate emperor in Gaul and Britain, but not in Spain[[1]]. On his way from Burdigalia to Augusta Treverorum (Trier), he fought a successful campaign against Germanic hordes which had taken the opportunity offered by the murder of Victorinus to cross the Rhine frontier and to plunder. Installed in his capital only at the end of 271 AD, Tetricus I again had to engage the Germans early in the following year. At the end of this campaign, in late 272 AD, he returned to establish himself in Trier, which remained his capital until his overthrow by the emperor Aurelian. It was in Trier that he celebrated his entry into his second consulship on 1 January 273[[2]] and that he elevated, probably in late spring or early summer of the same year, his son Tetricus II to the rank of Caesar[[3]]

Tetricus I took no steps to extend the authority of his Gallic Empire beyond Gaul and Britain, thus leaving the initiative to the legitimate emperor Aurelian. While Aurelian was still campaigning in the East, Tetricus I was, however, able to restore the authority of the Gallic Empire in south-eastern Aquitania and western Narbonensis, which had since the reign of Claudius Gothicus been controlled by the Empire[[4]]

On his victorious return from the eastern part of the empire in 273 AD, Aurelian immediately set out for the reconquest of the western part of the Empire. Tetricus I and his son – who had spent late 273 and early 274 AD in Trier and had entered there upon their first joint consulship on 1 January 274 AD – had to move southwards to meet Aurelian and his army advancing into northern Gaul. The decisive battle took place in February or March 274 AD apud Catalaunos (Eutrop. 9.13.1; Paneg. Lat. 8.4.3 (ed. Galletier)) i.e. near Châlons-sur-Marne. During the battle, Tetricus I and his son Tetricus II surrendered to Aurelian, while their troops, left to fend for themselves, continued to fight in despair, thus causing heavy losses on both sides (Aur. Vict. 33.4-5; 35.7; SHA Tyr. Trig. 24.4).

According to our literary sources (SHA Tyr. Trig. 24. 3; Eutrop. 9.13.2; Aurel. Vict. 35.4), Tetricus I, wearied by the insubordination of his soldiers and facing the revolt of Faustinus, had previously offered to betray his army if Aurelian would come to his rescue, quoting Vergil in his letter to Aurelian: “eripe me his, invicte, malis” (Vergil, Aen. VI, 365). The victorious Aurelian spared the life of both Tetricus I and his son Tetricus II. In spring of 274 AD, both Tetrici were put on display in Rome during Aurelian’s triumph, but Aurelian kept his side of the bargain and pardoned them. Tetricus I was even given the office of corrector Lucaniae (Aurel. Vict. 35.5; Eutrop 9.13)[[5]] and quietly ended his life in Italy, where he died at an advanced age at an unknown date (Eutrop. 9.13).

It is, however, likely that this account of the end of the Gallic Empire only reflects the position of the Aurelianic propaganda and it is therefore open to suspicion. There is good evidence to suggest that Tetricus I remained resolute and confident in his political and military strength to the last and did not betray his troops. After his military defeat at Châlons-sur-Marne and his subsequent humiliation, he would thus have owed his life not to his own previous treachery, but rather to Aurelian’s need to establish and stabilise his own administration in the western part of the empire.[[6]]


1) Primary Sources :

Aurelius Victor, Liber de Caesaribus, ed. F. Pichlmayr, Leipzig, 1911 (reprinted 1970)

Eutropius, Breviarium, ed. C. Santini, Leipzig, 1979.

Scriptores Historiae Augustae, ed. E. Hohl, Leipzig, 1927.<>

2) Secondary Sources :

Der Kleine Pauly II 379f, Nr. 1 (R. Hanslik)

Drinkwater 1987 : J. F. Drinkwater, The Gallic Empire. Separatism and Continuity in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire A.D. 260-274, Stuttgart, 1987 (= Historia Einzelschriften Heft 52).

Elmer 1941 : G. Elmer, “Die Münzprägung der gallischen Kaiser von Postumus bis Tetricus in Köln, Trier und Mailand,” in : Bonner Jahrbücher 146, 1941, 1-106.

Kienast 1990 : D. Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle. Grundzüge einer römischen Kaiserchronologie, Darmstadt, 1990, p. 244-245.

König 1981 : I. König, Die gallischen Usurpatoren von Postumus bis Tetricus, München 1981, p. 158ff.

Lafaurie 1975 : J. Lafaurie, “L’Empire gaulois. Apport de la numismatique,” in : Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II, 2, Berlin, New York, 1975, 853-1012.

PIR E 99

PLRE 885 Nr. 1

RE VI 1, 1907, 696ff. Nr. 1 (A. Stein)

Schulte 1983 : B. Schulte, Die Goldprägung der gallischen Kaiser von Postumus bis Tetricus, Aarau, Frankfurt a. M., Salzburg, 1983.

Schulzki 1996 : H.-J. Schulzki, Die Antoninianenprägung der gallischen Kaiser von Postumus bis Tetricus (AGK) : Typenkatalog der regulären und nachgeprägten Münzen, Bonn, 1996 ( = Antiquitas 3, 35).

[[1]] The indication that he also was recognized in Spain, provided by SHA Vita Claudii 7.5, is fictitious. For the epigraphic evidence on the outlay of the Imperium Galliarum under Tetricus I see Drinkwater 1987, 122-25.

[[2]] This account is based mainly on the numismatic evidence, see Drinkwater 1987, p. 183ff.

[[3]]König 1981, p. 166f. has argued that the elevation of Tetricus II to the rank of Caesar took place earlier, in 271 or 272 AD. For the rejection of this hypothesis on the basis of the numismatic evidence, see Drinkwater 1987, p. 106f. and 186f.

[[4]]The main evidence for this assumption are milestones bearing the name of Tetricus. See E. Demongeot, A propos des milliaires de Tetricus en Narbonnaise, in: Mélanges offerts à Michel Labrousse. Paris, 1986, pp. 79-82.

[[5]]According to SHA Tyr. Trig. 24.5 he held the office of corrector totius Italiae. But the same, S.H.A. Aur. XXXIX.1, also gives the office of corrector Lucaniae.

[[6]]For this critical interpretation of the literary account, see Drinkwater 1987, p. 42f., while König 1981, 177-181 closely follows the account of the literary sources.