Born Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus around AD 173, Maximinus Thrax acceded to the throne of Rome in AD 235 when his predecessor Severus Alexander was killed.
Despised by the Senate for being nothing more than a common barbarian, despised by the people for raising their taxes to pay for his military campaigns, and eventually despised by his own troops, he was eventually killed by his own men.
This is the astonishing story of Maximinus Thrax, Caesar of Rome.
The Early Years: Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus
It’s believed Maximinus Thrax was born around AD 173 in Thrace – modern-day Bulgaria, northeastern Macedonia and parts of Turkey – although some sources suggest he may have been born in Moesia, which today forms parts of Serbia, Kosovo, Ukraine and Bulgaria.
Unfortunately, many of the Maximinus Thrax facts passed down are hard to verify because they come from two main sources, both of which have been deemed somewhat unreliable. The first is from a minor Roman civil servant named Herodian and the second is the Historia Augusta, probably written in the fourth or fifth centuries by authors unknown.
As such, little is known about the early years of Maximinus Thrax or his upbringing and education. However, it’s often stated that he was a shepherd and a bandit leader who wasn’t considered a true Roman by the Senate. This is despite Emperor Caracalla granting Roman citizenship to most free men in the Roman Empire.
Maximinus, who became the first Thracian Roman emperor, was also said to be a giant of a man, standing, according to a number of – probably unreliable sources – over eight and half feet tall with superhuman strength.
Maximinus Thrax: The Soldier
The early military career of Maximinus Thrax is not well-documented, with many of the available sources being deemed unreliable or contradictory. He may have served in the campaigns of Septimius Severus against the Parthians, as well as Caracalla’s campaigns in the East and on the Germanic frontier. It’s believed he gained a reputation for his physical prowess and exceptional strength, which helped him rise through the ranks.
Under his predecessor Emperor Severus Alexander, Thrax held important military positions, including as the first commander of Legio IV Italica, the Italian Fourth Legion. This position put him in a place of significant influence within the Roman army.
Rise of the Thracian
In 235 AD, the assassination of Severus Alexander, the last emperor of the Severan dynasty, marked a significant turning point in Roman history. The young emperor had ruled for 13 years, but his policies, particularly regarding the treatment of the Germanic tribes, had led to discontent among the military ranks. This ultimately led to his downfall.
Incensed at Alexander’s insistence on paying a tribute to the Alemanni instead of going to war against them, Severus’ own soldiers turned on him. The decision was seen as a sign of weakness by many in the military, and the Emperor was confronted by his own troops near the city of Mainz, in modern-day Germany. The soldiers, dissatisfied with Severus Alexander’s policies and leadership, turned against the emperor and assassinated him, along with his mother Julia Mamaea.
Maximinus Thrax was a high-ranking officer at the time, holding the position of commander of the newly-formed Legio IV Italica, and was likely present during these events.
In the aftermath of this violent coup, the troops proclaimed Maximinus Thrax as the new emperor. Thus the man born Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus became the first Thracian Roman emperor, marking the beginning of a tumultuous period for the Roman Empire.
Despite the Senate’s reluctance to accept a ‘barbarian’ on the throne, they were forced to confirm his appointment due to the support he received from the military.
Though it’s not explicitly clear if Maximinus Thrax orchestrated the assassination of Severus Alexander, his presence and subsequent rise to power suggest that he may have played a significant role in the events that transpired.
The contemporary writer Herodian wrote of the new emperor, ‘His character was naturally barbaric, as his race was barbarian. He had inherited the brutal disposition of his countrymen, and he intended to make his imperial position secure by acts of cruelty, fearing that he would become an object of contempt to the Senate and the people, who might be more conscious of his lowly origin than impressed by the honour he had won.’
The reign of Maximinus Thrax, so-named for his supposed Thracian origin, didn’t get off to a great start. He began by killing Alexander’s closest advisors and foiled two plots against his life.
One of his first battles was against the Alemanni. Despite heavy Roman losses, his victory earned him the title Germanicus Maximus. Yet so expensive was his push into Germanic territory that it forced him to raise taxes, a hugely unpopular move. This, combined with the fact the Senate resented him for – among other things – the fact that he never actually set foot in Rome, was a bridge too far.
The Senate Turns
The Senate threw their support behind Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus, known as Gordian I, the governor of Africa. Along with his son of the same name, known as Gordian II, the pair were proclaimed co-emperors.
However Gordian II was killed in a battle soon after. Upon hearing of the death of his son, Gordian I committed suicide. Their reign lasted just twenty-two days.
When the Senate heard about the deaths of the co-emperors, they feared a response from Emperor Maximinus. In an act of defiance, they named two further co-emperors from the patrician class, Pupenius and Balbinus.
Maximinus Thrax Caesar: The End
Maximinus marched on Rome, supposedly to stop the revolt against him but when he got to the city of Aquileia, he found the city gates closed to him. There followed a brutal siege against the townspeople. However, his army was exhausted, had run out of food and eventually gave up. It is believed Maximinus then executed his generals, accusing them of cowardice. This enraged the army to such an extent they turned on Emperor Maximinus and killed him.
Later in 238 AD, both Pupenius and Balbinus were both killed by the Praetorian Guard and Gordian III was declared emperor. At just thirteen, he was the youngest sole emperor of the united Roman Empire.
With the deaths of Gordians I & II, Pupenius, Balbinus and Maximinus Thrax and the accession of Gordian III, 238 AD became known as the Year of the Six Emperors.