A barracks emperor (also called a "soldier emperor") was a
The Roman Emperor was the ruler of the Roman Empire during the History of the Roman Empire, imperial period (starting in 27 BC). The emperors used a variety of different titles throughout history. Often when a given Roman is described as becomi ...
who seized power by virtue of his command of the army. Barracks emperors were especially common in the period from 235 through 284, during the
that began with the assassination of Severus Alexander
. Beginning with Maximinus Thrax
, there were approximately fourteen barracks emperors in 33 years, producing an average reign of a little over two years apiece. The resulting instability in the imperial office and the near constant state of civil war and insurrection threatened to destroy the Roman Empire from within and left it vulnerable to attack from external adversaries.
Style of the 3rd century
Unlike previous emperors who had seized power in military ''coups d'état'' (
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Lucius Septimius Severus (; 9 April 145 – 4 February 211) was a Roman emperor from 193 to 211. He was born in Leptis Magna (present day Al-Khums, Libya) in the Roman province of Africa (Roman province), Africa. As a young man he advanced t ...
, both from traditional middle-class Equestrian
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), the barracks emperors tended to be low-class commoners (often from outlying parts of the empire); the first barracks emperor, Maximinus Thrax
, had begun his military career as an enlisted soldier. A barracks emperor could not boast of a distinguished family name or a successful career as a statesman or public servant; rather, he had only his military career to recommend himself, and his only influence had been though the soldiers loyal to his command.
Some of these soldier emperors were members of the equestrian class who had worked their way up to a sufficient position of influence within their legion that the soldiers would support a bid for power, although this was a risky undertaking because the soldiers could withdraw their support at any time and perhaps shift it to another military leader who looked more promising at the time.
Because the barracks emperors were frequently border commanders, the act of overthrowing the reigning emperor and seizing power for themselves left large gaps in the empire's border defenses, gaps that could be exploited by Rome’s enemies, leading to the Germanic incursion into Roman territory in the 260s and resulting in the construction of the Aurelian Walls
, established_title = Founded
, established_date = 753 BC
, founder = King Romulus
, image_map = Map of comune of Rome (metropolitan city of Capital Rome, region Lazio, Italy).svg
, map_caption = The te ...
. The barracks emperors also used state money to pay their troops – no emperor who had come into power by force of arms could afford to allow his soldiers to become disaffected – and public works and infrastructure fell into ruin. To accommodate the vast demands of buying off their soldiers, the state often simply seized private property, damaging the economy and driving up inflation.
Transition to the Dominate era
In 284, yet another barracks emperor named
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who was a cavalry commander, seized power. Diocletian instituted a number of reforms designed to stabilize the empire and the imperial office, bringing an end to the Third Century Crisis and inaugurating the
The Dominate is the name sometimes given to the " despotic" later phase of imperial government, following the earlier period known as the " Principate", in the ancient Roman Empire. This phase is more often called the Tetrarchy
The Tetrarch ...
era of Roman history.
Although further Emperors would don the purple on the basis of military power (e.g.,
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), the phenomenon of the barracks emperors died out, to be replaced in the late imperial era by shadow emperors
, Constantius III
Flavius Aetius (Aëtius; ; c. 391 – 454) was a Roman general of the closing period of the Western Roman Empire
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, Avitus, Ricimer, Gundobad, Orestes (Roman soldier), Flavius Orestes, and Odoacer, military strongmen who effectually ruled the empire as imperial generalissimos controlling weak-willed puppet emperors rather than taking the title themselves.
Earlier barracks emperors
When the notion of a barracks emperor is extended to any emperor that was appointed by the army, more emperors whose reign predates the 3rd century can be included:
*The first known emperor appointed by the Praetorian Guards was Claudius, who was appointed after the murder of Caligula.
*A notable case took place after the murder of emperor Pertinax. Praetorian Guards had come to the point where they simply sold the throne off, by auctioning it to the highest bidder, selling it to one of the richest Romans at the time, Didius Julianus.
Military of ancient Rome