The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 29
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous—and infamous—dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire” with a stable economy, a strong government and superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all—love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a roller coaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny.
Gaius Vibius Trebonianus Gallus was born around the year 206 in Perugia, Italy. He married Afinia Gemina Baebiana and had two children with her, a son, Gaius Vibius Volusianus and a daughter, Vibia Galla. He appears to have had a traditional political career serving as a senator and consul. In 250, he became governor of Upper Moesia and as governor became deeply involved with Decius’ Danube wars, including the successful defense of the city of Novae.
After repeated incursions into Moesia and Dacia by the Goths, Emperor Decius and his son, Herennius Etruscus led a military expedition into the Lower Danube and forced the Goths to withdraw. In an effort to trap the retreating Goths, Decius was tricked into fighting from a poor position at Abrittus in June of 251 and he and his son were killed before a relief force could arrive. With the death of Decius, the army immediately proclaimed Trebonianus Gallus as Emperor. He adopted Decius’ surviving son Hostilian, who was too young to succeed his father and proclaimed him as co-emperor. He also elevated his son Volusianus to the rank of Caesar.
Concerned with reaching Rome quickly and solidifying his position as emperor, Gallus signed an unpopular peace treaty with the Goths. In return for their withdrawal, he agreed to allow them to keep the loot and Roman prisoners gained from their incursions and to pay them an annual tribute. This allowed him to proceed immediately to Rome and when he arrived he found the city suffering from the plague. Soon after the imperial arrival in the city, Hostilian contracted the plague and died in July 251. Gallus then elevated his son Volusianus to the position of co-emperor.
As the plague continued to ravage the city, Gallus gained popular support by providing proper burials for all plague victims, even those too poor to afford it. While Gallus acted decisively regarding the dreaded disease in Rome, in all other matters, both internal and foreign, he was either slow to react or failed to take any serious action at all. There were rumors that he renewed the persecution of Christians, but the only evidence is the arrest and imprisonment of Pope Cornelius in 252.
In that same year, Persian King Shapur I attacked the eastern frontier, perhaps due to a dispute with the Romans over control of Armenia. Advancing up the Euphrates, Shapur quickly defeated the Roman forces at the battle of Barbalissos and soon controlled most of the province of Syria. In 253, he completed the annexation of Syria with the capture of its capital city of Antioch. Gallus did not take any action to stop Shapur’s advances or bolster the eastern defenses against further excursions into Roman controlled territory.
While the Persians were attacking the eastern frontier, trouble also occurred on the northern frontier. Gallus’ replacement as governor of Upper Moesia, Aemilius Aemilianus, refused to pay the annual tribute to the Goths agreed to by Gallus in 251. In retaliation for the Roman breach of the peace treaty, the Goths once again invaded the Lower Danube. Aemilianus gathered an army and was able to defeat the invading Goths. As a reward, his grateful troops proclaimed him as Emperor. He immediately stripped the area of troops and marched his army towards Rome.
In an effort to prevent Aemilianus from reaching Italy, Gallus and Volusianus gathered an army and marched north. Gallus also requested Publius Licinius Valerianus to bring reinforcements south from Germany to join up with his forces marching north, but they never arrived. Gallus’ army moved slowly and had only reached Interamna by August of 253, when word reached them that Aemilianus had already crossed into Italy with a large force and was rapidly approaching. Learning of this and fearing defeat, Gallus’ troops mutinied and murdered the two co-emperors.