History of the Empire From the Death of Marcus/Book VIII


1. MAXIMINUS' actions after the death of Gordian and his advance into Italy have been described in the preceding book, together with the revolt in Africa and the dissension which arose at Rome between the praetorians and the people. Halting at the borders, Maximinus sent scouts ahead to find out whether any soldiers lay in ambush in the valleys, thickets, or mountain forests. 2. Leading his army down into level country, Maximinus drew up the legions in a broad, shallow rectangle in order to occupy most of the plain; he placed all the heavy baggage, supplies, and wagons in the center of the formation and, taking command of the rear guard, followed with his troops. 3. On each flank marched the squadrons of armed cavalry, the Moroccan javelin men, and the archers from the East. The emperor also brought along a large number of German auxiliaries; he assigned these to the van to bear the initial assaults of the enemy. These men are savage and bold in the opening phases of battle; and if any risk were involved, the barbarian Germans were readily expendable. 4. When the troops had crossed the plain in good order and strict discipline, they came to the first city in Italy, the one called Ema by the natives. Ema is situated on an elevated plateau at the foot of the Alps. From there advance guards and army scouts returned to report to Maximinus that the city was deserted. The inhabitants had fled in a body after setting fire to the doors of the temples and houses. As they had burned or carried off everything in the cities and fields, no food was left for men or animals. 5. Maximinus was gratified by the immediate flight of these Italians, and now anticipated that all the people of Italy would flee at his approach. But the army was by no means pleased to find itself suffering from famine at the very outset. Therefore, after spending the night at Ema, some in the city in houses already stripped of doors and everything else, others in the fields around the city, at sunrise they pressed on to the Alps. The Alps are very tall mountains which nature has erected as a defensive wall for Italy; rising high above the clouds, they extend a great distance and encompass Italy from the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west to the Ionian Sea on the east. 6. The mountains are covered with limitless dense forests, and the passes are narrow because of the towering cliffs or rough, broken rocks. These narrow passes are man-made, fashioned with much labor by the ancient Italians. The army advanced through these gaps with great anxiety, expecting the heights to be occupied and the paths blocked against their passage. Judging by the nature of the region, they were justified in their apprehensions.


1. WHEN no opposition was offered, they crossed the Alps without hindrance; coming down to level country, they grew bolder and sang songs of thanksgiving. As the Italians had not taken advantage of the rough terrain to hide and protect themselves, Maximinus expected everything to turn out successfully for him without the slightest difficulty. The Italians had not launched treacherous attacks from ambush or fought from the heights, taking advantage of the superior position. 2. While the army was in the plain, the scouts reported that Aquileia, the largest city in that part of Italy, had closed its gates and that the Pannonian legions which had been sent ahead had launched a vigorous attack upon the walls of this city. In spite of frequent assaults, they were completely unsuccessful. Finally, showered with stones, spears, and a rain of arrows, the Pannonians gave up and withdrew. Enraged at the Pannonian generals for fighting too feebly, Maximinus hurried to the city with his army, expecting to capture it with no difficulty.

3. Before these events occurred, Aquileia was already a huge city, with a large permanent population. Situated on the sea and with all the provinces of Illyricum behind it, Aquileia served as a port of entry for Italy. The city thus made it possible for goods transported from the interior by land or by the rivers to be traded to the merchant mariners and also for the necessities brought by sea to the mainland, goods not produced there because of the cold climate, to be sent to the upland areas. Since the inland people farm a region that produces much wine, they export this in quantity to those who do not cultivate grapes. 4. A huge number of people lived permanently in Aquileia, not only the native residents but also foreigners and merchants. At this time the city was even more crowded than usual; all the people from the surrounding area had left the small towns and villages and sought refuge there. They put their hope of safety in the city's great size and its defensive wall; this ancient wall, however, had for the most part collapsed. Under Roman rule the cities of Italy no longer had need of walls or arms; they had substituted permanent peace for war and had also gained a participating share in the Roman government. 5. Now, however, necessity forced the Aquileians to repair the wall, rebuild the fallen sections, and erect towers and battlements. After fortifying the city with a rampart as quickly as possible, they closed the gates and remained together on the wall day and night, beating off their assailants. Two senators named Crispinus and Meniphilus, former consuls, were appointed generals. 6. These two had seen to everything with careful attention. With great foresight they had brought into the city supplies of every kind in quantities sufficient to enable it to withstand a long siege. An ample supply of water was available from the many wells in the city, and, a river flowing at the foot of the city wall provided both a defensive moat and an abundance of water.


1. THESE are the preparations which had been made in the city. When it was reported to Maximinus that Aquileia was well defended and tightly shut, he thought it wise to send envoys to discuss the situation with the townspeople from the foot of the wall and try to persuade them to open the gates. There was in the besieging army a tribune who was a native of Aquileia, and whose wife, children, and relatives were inside the city. 2. Maximinus sent this man to the wall accompanied by several centurions, expecting their fellow citizen to win them over easily. The envoys told the Aquileians that Maximinus, their mutual emperor, ordered them to lay down their arms in peace, to receive him as a friend, not as an enemy, and to turn from killing to libations and sacrifices. Their emperor directed them not to overlook the fact that their native city was in danger of being razed to its very foundations, whereas it was in their power to save themselves and to preserve their city when their merciful emperor pardoned them for their offenses. Others, not they, were the guilty ones. 3. The envoys shouted their message from the foot of the wall so that those above might understand it. Most of the city's population was on the walls and in the towers; only those standing guard at other posts were absent. They all listened quietly to what the envoys were saying. 4. Fearing that the people, convinced by these lying promises, might choose peace instead of war and throw open the gates, Crispinus ran along the parapet, pleading with the Aquileians to hold out bravely and offer stout resistance; he begged them not to break faith with the senate and the Roman people, but to win a place in history as the saviors and defenders of all Italy. He warned them not to trust the promises of a tyrant, a liar, and a hypocrite, and not to surrender to certain destruction, lulled by soft words, when they could put their trust in the always unpredictable outcome of war. 5. Often, he continued, few have prevailed over many and those who appeared to be weaker have overcome those assumed to be stronger. Nor should they be frightened by the size of the besieging army. "Those who fight on another's behalf," he said, "well aware that the benefits, if any should result, will be not theirs but his, are less eager to do battle, knowing that while they share the risks, another will reap the greatest prizes of the victory. 6. But those who fight for their native land can look for greater favor from the gods because they do not pray for help in seizing the property of others, but ask only to be allowed to retain in safety what is already theirs. They show an enthusiasm for battle which results not from the orders of another but from their own inner compulsion, since all the fruits of victory belong to them and them alone." 7. By saying such things as these, Crispinus, who was venerable by nature and highly skilled in speaking Latin, and had governed the Aquileians moderately, succeeded in persuading them to remain at their assigned posts; he ordered the envoys to return unsuccessful to Maximinus. He is said to have persevered in his prosecution of the war because the many men in the city who were skilled at auguries and the taking of auspices reported that the omens favored the townspeople. The Italians place particular reliance upon the taking of auguries. 8. Oracles, too, revealed to them that their native god promised them victory. They call this god Belis, and worship him with special devotion, identifying him with Apollo, whose image, some of Maximinus' soldiers said, often appeared in the sky over the city, fighting for the Aquileians.

9. Whether the god actually appeared to some of the besiegers, or whether they simply said that he did because they were ashamed that so large an army was unable to overcome a mob of civilians, and it would thus seem that they had been beaten by gods, not by men, I am unable to say, but the strangeness of the whole affair makes everything about it credible.


1. WHEN the envoys returned unsuccessful, Maximinus, in a towering rage, pressed on toward the city with increased speed. But when he came to a large river sixteen miles from Aquileia, he found it flowing very wide and very deep. 2. The warmth at that season of the year had melted the mountain snow that had been frozen all winter, and a vast, snow-swollen flood had resulted. It was impossible for Maximinus' army to cross this river because the Aquileians had destroyed the bridge, a huge structure of imposing proportions built, by earlier emperors, of squared stones and supported on tapering piers. Since neither bridges nor boats were available, the army halted in confusion. 3. Some of the Germans, unfamiliar with the swift, violent rivers of Italy and thinking that these flowed down to the plains as lazily as their own streams (it is the slow current of the German rivers which causes them to freeze over), entered the river with their horses, which are trained to swim, and were carried away and drowned.

4. After a ditch had been dug around the camp to prevent attacks, Maximinus halted for two or three days beside the river, considering how it might be bridged. Timber was scarce, and there were no boats which could be fastened together to span the river. Some of his engineers, however, called attention to the many empty wooden kegs scattered about the deserted fields, the barrels which the natives use to ship wine safely to those forced to import it. The kegs are hollow, like boats; when fastened together and anchored to the shore by cables, they float like pontoons, and the current cannot carry them off. Planks are laid on top of these pontoons, and with great skill and speed a bank of earth is piled up evenly on the platform thus fashioned. 5. After the bridge had been completed, the army crossed over and marched to Aquileia, where they found the buildings on the outskirts deserted. The soldiers cut down all the trees and grapevines and burned them, and destroyed the crops which had already begun to appear in those regions. Since the trees were planted in even rows and the interwoven vines linked them together everywhere, the countryside had a festive air; one might even say that it wore a garland of green. All these trees and vines Maximinus' soldiers cut down to the very roots before they hurried up to the walls of Aquileia. 6. The army was exhausted, however, and it seemed wiser not to launch an immediate attack. The soldiers therefore remained out of range of the arrows and took up stations around the entire circuit of the wall by cohorts and legions, each unit investing the section it was ordered to hold. After a single day's rest, the soldiers kept the city under continuous siege for the remaining time.

They brought up every type of siege machinery and attacked the wall with all the power they could muster, leaving untried nothing of the art of siege warfare. 7. They launched numerous assaults virtually every day, and the entire army held the city encircled as if in a net, but the Aquileians fought back determinedly, showing real enthusiasm for war. They had closed their houses and temples and were fighting in a body, together with the women and children, from their advantageous position on the parapet and in the towers. In this way they held off their attackers, and no one was too young or too old to take part in the battle to preserve his native city.

8. All the buildings in the suburbs and outside the city gates were demolished by Maximinus' men, and the wood from the houses was used to build the siege engines. The soldiers made every effort to destroy a part of the wall, so that the army might break in, seize everything, and, after leveling the city, leave the area a deserted pasture land. The journey to Rome would not be fittingly glorious if Maximinus failed to capture the first city in Italy to oppose him. 9. By pleading and promising gifts, Maximinus and his son, whom he had appointed his Caesar, spurred the army to action; they rode about on horseback, encouraging the soldiers to fight with resolution. The Aquileians hurled down stones on the besiegers; combining pitch and olive oil with asphalt and brimstone, they ignited this mixture and poured it over their attackers from hollow vessels fitted with long handles. Bringing the flaming liquid to the walls, they scattered it over the soldiers like a heavy downpour of rain. 10. Carried along with the other ingredients, the pitch oozed onto the unprotected parts of the soldiers' bodies and spread everywhere. Then the soldiers ripped off their blazing corselets and the rest of their armor too, for the iron grew red hot, and the leather and wooden parts caught fire and burned. As a result, soldiers were seen everywhere stripping themselves, and the discarded armor appeared like the spoils of war, but these were taken by cunning and treachery, not by courage on the field of battle. In this tragedy, most of the soldiers suffered scarred and disfigured faces and lost eyes and hands, while every unprotected part of the body was severely injured. The Aquileians hurled down torches on the siege engines which had been dragged up to the walls. These torches, sharpened at the end like a javelin, were soaked in pitch and resin and then ignited; the firebrands, still blazing, stuck fast in the machines, which easily caught fire and were consumed by the flames.


1. DURING the opening days, then, the fortunes of war were almost equal. As time passed, however, the army of Maximinus grew depressed and, cheated in its expectations, fell into despair when the soldiers found that those whom they had not expected to hold out against a single assault were not only offering stout resistance but were even beating them back. 2. The Aquileians, on the other hand, were greatly encouraged and highly enthusiastic, and, as the battle continued, their skill and daring increased. Contemptuous of the soldiers now, they hurled taunts at them. As Maximinus rode about, they shouted insults and indecent blasphemies at him and his son. The emperor became increasingly angry because he was powerless to retaliate. 3. Unable to vent his wrath upon the enemy, he was enraged at most of his troop commanders because they were pressing the siege in cowardly and halfhearted fashion. Consequently, the hatred of his supporters increased, and his enemies grew more contemptuous of him each day.

As it happened, the Aquileians had everything they needed in abundant quantities. With great foresight they had stored in the city all the food and drink required for men and animals. The soldiers of the emperor, by contrast, lacked every necessity, since they had cut down the fruit trees and devastated the countryside. 4. Some of the soldiers had built temporary huts, but the majority were living in the open air, exposed to sun and rain. And now many died of starvation; no food was brought in from the outside, as the Romans had blocked all the roads of Italy by erecting walls provided with narrow gates. 5. The senate dispatched former consuls and picked men from all Italy to guard the beaches and harbors and prevent anyone from sailing. Their intent was to keep Maximinus in ignorance of what was happening at Rome; thus the main roads and all the bypaths were closely watched to prevent anyone's passing. The result was that the army which appeared to be maintaining the siege was itself under siege, for it was unable to capture Aquileia or leave the city and proceed to Rome; all the boats and wagons had been hidden, and no vehicles of any kind were available to the soldiers. 6. Exaggerated rumors were circulated, based only on suspicion, to the effect that the entire Roman people were under arms; that all Italy was united; that the provinces of Illyricum and the barbarian nations in the East and South had gathered an army; and that everywhere men were solidly united in hatred of Maximinus. The emperor's soldiers were in despair and in need of everything. There was scarcely even sufficient water for them. 7. The only source of water was the nearby river, which was fouled by blood and bodies. Lacking any means of burying those who died in the city, the Aquileians threw the bodies into the river; both those who fell in the fighting and those who died of disease were dropped into the stream, as the city had no facilities for burial.

8. And so the completely confused army was in the depths of despair. Then one day, during a lull in the fighting, when most of the soldiers had gone to their quarters or their stations, Maximinus was resting in his tent. Without warning, the soldiers whose camp was near Rome at the foot of Mount Alba,[1] where they had left their wives and children, decided that the best solution was to kill Maximinus and end the interminable siege. They resolved no longer to ravage Italy for an emperor they now knew to be a despicable tyrant. 9. Taking courage, therefore, the conspirators went to Maximinus' tent about noon. The imperial bodyguard, which was involved in the plot, ripped Maximinus' pictures from the standards; when he came out of his tent with his son to talk to them, they refused to listen and killed them both. They killed the army's commanding general also, and the emperor's close friends. Their bodies were handed over to those who wished to trample and mutilate them, after which the corpses were exposed to the birds and dogs. The heads of Maximinus and his son were sent to Rome. Such was the fate suffered by Maximinus and his son, who paid the penalty for their savage rule.


1. WHEN the soldiers were informed of what had happened, they were to a man dumfounded, but by no means all the troops were pleased about the assassination. The Pannonians and the barbarians from Thrace were especially angered, for these were the men who had actually placed the empire in Maximinus' hands. Since the deed was accomplished, they tolerated it, but unwillingly; they had no choice but to be hypocritical and pretend to be pleased with all that had happened. 2. Then, laying down their arms, the soldiers came to the walls of Aquileia, this time in peace, and reported the assassination of Maximinus, expecting the Aquileians to throw open the gates and welcome as friends yesterday's enemies. The Aquileian generals, however, did not allow the gates to be opened to them; bringing forward the statues of Maximus and Balbinus and Gordian Caesar, they cheered these rulers themselves and thought it appropriate that Maximinus' soldiers also acknowledge them and shout their approval of the emperors chosen by the senate and the Roman people. 3. They informed the soldiers that the other two Gordians had gone to join Jupiter in heaven. And now the Aquileians set up a market on the walls, offering for sale a huge quantity of goods of all kinds, including ample supplies of food, drink, clothing, and shoes—in short, everything that a prosperous and flourishing city could provide for human consumption. 4. At this the soldiers were even more amazed; they now realized that the Aquileians had enough of everything they needed even if the siege were prolonged, whereas they lacked all the necessities and would have perished to the last man before they captured a city so abundantly supplied. The army continued to remain in position around the city, while the soldiers purchased what they needed from the walls, each man buying as much as he chose. In the meantime, they discussed the situation among themselves. A state of peace and amity actually existed, even though the surrounded city appeared still under siege, with the army encamped on all sides.

5. This was the situation at Aquileia. The horsemen carrying the head of Maximinus to Rome made the journey at top speed; the gates of all the cities on their route were thrown open to receive them, and the people welcomed them with laurel branches. When they had crossed the marshes and shallows between Altinum and Ravenna, they found the emperor Maximus in Ravenna levying picked men from Rome and Italy. 6. The Germans sent to Maximus a large number of auxiliary troops; their good will toward the man was of long standing and resulted from his moderate governorship of their country. While he was preparing for war against Maximinus, the horsemen arrived with the heads of the emperor and his son and reported the victory. They informed Maximus that the army was in agreement with the Romans about the emperors and had sworn allegiance to the men elected by the senate. 7. When these unexpected developments were announced, sacrifices were led to the altars, and all joined in celebrating a victory won without striking a blow. Finding the omens favorable, Maximus sent the horsemen on to Rome to report to the people what had happened and to display the heads of the two men. When the messengers arrived, they rushed into the city and raised on high the heads of their enemies impaled on a spear for all to see. No words can describe the rejoicing in the city on that day. 8. Men of all ages rushed headlong to the altars and temples; no one remained at home, but, like men possessed, the people congratulated each other and poured into the Circus Maximus as if a public assembly were being held there. Balbinus sacrificed a hecatomb, and all the magistrates and the entire senate shouted with joy, each feeling that he had escaped an ax suspended over his head. Messengers and heralds with laurel branches were sent around to the provinces.


1. THUS was holiday kept at Rome. Meanwhile, Maximus left Ravenna and proceeded to Aquileia, crossing on his way the shallows fed by the Eridanus River and the surrounding marshes; these shallows empty into the sea through seven outlets, and for this reason the natives call the marsh, in their own language, the "Seven Seas." 2. The Aquileians immediately opened their gates and welcomed Maximus into the city. Now all the cities of Italy sent embassies to him of their most distinguished citizens, clad in white and carrying laurel branches. Each group brought the statues of its ancestral gods and the gold crowns among the votive offerings. These men cheered Maximus and scattered leaves in his path. The soldiers who were besieging Aquileia now came forward, carrying the laurel branches symbolic of peaceful intent, not because this represented their true feelings but because the presence of the emperor forced them to pretend respect and good will. 3. The truth is that most of the soldiers were secretly angered and grieved to see their chosen emperor killed and the emperors elected by the senate in full command. In Aquileia, Maximus attended to the sacrifices on the first and second days; on the third day, however, he summoned the entire army to the plain and from a platform erected for his use addressed them as follows:

4. "How much it has profited you to change your minds and support the actions of the Romans you have learned from recent experience. Now you are at peace instead of at war. You are enjoying the protection of the gods by whom you swore. And you are keeping your soldier's oath, that sacred rite of the Roman empire. All good things are yours to enjoy from this time on, for you have confirmed your pledges to the senate and the Roman people and to us, your emperors, chosen by the senate and the people for our nobility of birth, the many positions of authority we have held, and the long succession of offices which made it appear that we had risen to the throne by a regular cursus. 5. The empire is the personal property of no man. It is from of old the common possession of the people of Rome, the seat of your empire's fortune. To us and to you have been entrusted the administration and management of that empire. With good discipline and proper behavior, with respect and honor for those who command you, a prosperous life, full of every good thing, will be yours. For all other men in the provinces and the cities, peace will result, and obedience to their governors. You will be able to live as you like among your kinsmen; you will not suffer injury in some foreign land. 6. As to the matter of keeping the barbarian nations quiet, that will be our concern. As two emperors invested with equal power, we shall manage affairs at Rome jointly. Should any difficulty arise abroad, one of us can easily be present wherever and whenever the occasion demands. Let no one of you think that we shall remember what has occurred, either what you did (for you were simply obeying orders) or what the Romans and the other provincials did, for they rebelled because they were unjustly treated. But rather let us proclaim an amnesty for all offenses, and let there be pacts of lasting friendship and pledges of eternal good will and good conduct."

7. After this speech, Maximus promised the soldiers lavish gifts of money; then, remaining in Aquileia only a few days longer, he arranged to return to Rome. He sent the rest of the army to the provinces and to duty in their own local garrisons, while he went to Rome with the praetorians, the guards of the imperial palace, and the troops enrolled by Balbinus. 8. The auxiliaries from Germany also accompanied him to Rome; he put great faith in their loyalty, relying on the fact that before he became emperor he had governed the province of Germany in moderate fashion. Balbinus came out to meet his co-emperor on the outskirts of Rome, bringing with him Gordian Caesar. The senate and the people welcomed Maximus with cheers, as if he were celebrating a triumph.


1. FOR the rest of the time the two emperors governed in an orderly and well-regulated manner, winning approval on every hand both privately and publicly. The people honored and respected them as patriotic and admirable rulers of the empire. The praetorians, however, were privately disgruntled, not at all pleased that the people had demonstrated their approval of the emperors. The noble birth of the two men was an affront to the praetorians, and they were indignant also because the emperors had received the imperial office from the senate. 2. The praetorians feared that the German troops with Maximus in Rome would oppose them if they should instigate a revolt. They suspected that the Germans were lying in wait for them; if the praetorians were discharged from service by trickery, the Germans would be at hand to replace them as the imperial bodyguard. They recalled the example of Severus, who dismissed the praetorians who had killed Pertinax.

3. When the Capitoline Games were drawing to an end and all the people were occupied with festivals and shows, the praetorians suddenly brought their hidden resentments into the open. Making no attempt to control their anger, they launched an unreasoning assault; rushing into the palace with one purpose, they approached the aged emperors. 4. It so happened that the two men were not in complete accord: so great is the desire for sole rule and so contrary to the usual practice is it for the sovereignty to be shared that each undertook to secure the imperial power for himself alone. Balbinus considered himself the more worthy because of his noble birth and his two terms as consul; Maximus felt that he deserved first place because he had served as prefect of Rome and had won a good reputation by his administrative efforts. Both men were led to covet the sole rule because of their distinguished birth, aristocratic lineage, and the size of their families. 5. This rivalry was the basis of their downfall. When Maximus learned that the Praetorian Guard was coming to kill them, he wished to summon a sufficient number of the German auxiliaries who were in Rome to resist the conspirators. But Balbinus, thinking that this was a ruse intended to deceive him (he knew that the Germans were devoted to Maximus), refused to allow Maximus to issue the order, believing that the Germans were coming not to put down a praetorian uprising but to secure the empire for Maximus alone. 6. While the two men were arguing, the praetorians rushed in with a single purpose. When the guards at the palace gates deserted the emperors, the praetorians seized the old men and ripped off the plain robes they were wearing because they were at home. Dragging the two men naked from the palace, they inflicted every insult and indignity upon them. Jeering at these emperors elected by the senate, they beat and tortured them, pulling their beards and eyebrows and doing them every kind of physical outrage. They then brought the emperors through the middle of the city to the praetorian camp, unwilling to kill them in the palace; they preferred to torture them first, so that they might suffer longer. 7. When the Germans learned what was happening, they snatched up their arms and hastened to the rescue. As soon as the praetorians were informed of their approach, they killed the mutilated emperors. Leaving the corpses exposed in the street, the praetorians took up Gordian Caesar and proclaimed him emperor, since at the moment they could find no other candidate for the office. Proclaiming that they had only killed the men whom the people did not want to rule them in the first place, they chose as emperor this Gordian who was descended from the Gordian whom the Romans themselves had forced to accept the rule. Keeping their emperor Gordian with them, they went off to the praetorian camp, where they shut the gates and remained quiet. Learning that the men they were hurrying to rescue had been killed and their bodies exposed, the Germans returned to their quarters, unwilling to fight fruitlessly for men already dead.

8. Such was the undeserved and impious fate suffered by these two respected and distinguished elder statesmen, nobly born men deservedly elevated to the imperial throne. Gordian, at the age of about thirteen, was designated emperor and assumed the burden of the Roman empire.


  1. Legio II Parthica, stationed near Rome by Severus to protect the city.