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Roman soldiers treachery and mutiny ( Cridmax / Adobe Stock)

A Crumbling Roman Empire: Treachery, Mutiny And Plague 250 – 270 AD


The Roman Empire during the first half of the third century AD experienced a rapid succession of no less than eight Emperors, battling the Persians in the east and the invading Goths on the northern border. Each one of these eight came to a violent end, either succumbing in battle or at the hands of assassins, often dispatched by their own men. Treachery and mutiny were common among the fickle forces, out to back whomever candidate could secure them the most battle booty. Encouraged by the purple cloak being up for grabs by whomever had the strongest military backing, usurpers challenged the legitimate Emperors at every turn.  To make matters worse, the Empire was plagued by the Cyprian plague. One by one the following Emperors battled and failed to save the crumbling Empire. Did the fate of the Roman Empire fare any better during the second half of the third century?

Bust of Emperor Trebonianus Gallus. Antakya. (third century AD) (Dosseman/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Bust of Emperor Trebonianus Gallus. Antakya. (third century AD) (Dosseman/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Trebonianus Gallus (251-253)

Senator Trebonianus Gallus was the governor of Moesia when he actively participated in the wars of Emperor Decius against the Germanic tribes on the Danube in 250. However, with his eye on the purple cloak, he betrayed Decius in battle and Decius and his army were massacred by the Goths in 251. This left the purple cloak vacant, and the remaining members of the Danube army’s high command, probably ignorant of the act of betrayal, proclaimed Trebonianus Emperor. Less energetic than his predecessor and in a hurry to return to Rome to be sanctioned for his new task by the Senate, Trebonianus obtained a humiliating peace from the Goths, who returned to their forests with booty and Roman prisoners in tow. Trebonianus’ betrayal did not seem to be generally known. Rather, the defeat was perceived as the result of Decius’s failed strategy. The purple cloak sanction was therefore done without difficulty.

Aureus of Trebonianus Gallus (AD 251-253) (Classical Numismatic Group/ CC BY-SA 2.5)

Aureus of Trebonianus Gallus (AD 251-253) (Classical Numismatic GroupCC BY-SA 2.5)

Once in Rome, Trebonianus adopted Decius’ second and surviving son, Hostilian, in order to further legitimize his authority. Hostilian died the following year, a victim of the Cyprian plague that was crippling the whole Empire. It was then that Trebonianus associated his own son Volusian to power. Trebonianus drew popular esteem when he took the necessary measures to ‘properly dispose of’ the victims of the plague, whether they were rich or poor.


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Derived from: Bartolini, M. 2023. Roman Emperors: A Guide to the Men Who Ruled the Empire. Pen and Sword History.

Mario Bartolini has a master’s degree in political history from the Université de Sherbrooke, Canada, and a second master’s degree in war studies, obtained at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is the author of Roman Emperors: A Guide to the Men Who Ruled the Empire 

Top ImageRoman soldiers treachery and mutiny ( Cridmax / Adobe Stock)

By: Mario Bartolini 



Mario J.A. Bartolini is a retired political analyst and officer in the Canadian army reserve, with a long-held interest in Roman military history. He has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political history from the Université de Sherbrooke, Canada,... Read More

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