When intelligence reached Rome that the elder Gordian and his son had both perished in Africa, and that the savage Maximin, thirsting for vengeance, was ad vancing to wards Italy at the head of a powerful army, the senate resolved upon electing two rulers with equal power, one of whom should remain in the city to direct the civil administration, while the other should march against Maximin.
The choice fell upon Decimus Caelius Balbinus and Marcus Clodius Pupienus Maximus, both consulars well stricken in years, the one a sagacious statesman, the other a bold soldier and an able general. Balbinus, who was of noble birth, and traced his descent from Cornelius Balbus of Cadiz, the friend of Pompey, Cicero, and Caesar, had governed in succession the most important among the peaceful provinces of the empire.
He was celebrated as one of the best orators and poets of the age, and had gained the esteem and love of all ranks. Maximus, on the other hand, was of lowly origin, the son, according to some, of a blacksmith, according to others, of a coachmaker.
He had acquired great renown as an imperial legate by his victories over the Sarmatians in Illyria and the Germans on the Rhine, had been eventually appointed prefect of the city, and had discharged the duties of that office with a remarkable firmness and strictness.
The populace, still clinging with affection to the family of Gordian, and dreading the severity of Maximus, refused for a while to ratify the decision of the senate, and a serious tumult arose, which was not quelled until the grandson of Gordian, a boy of fourteen, was presented to the crowd and proclaimed Caesar. While Pupienus was hastening to encounter Maximin, now under the walls of A quileia, a formidable strife broke out at Rome between the citizens and the praetorians.
The camp of the praetorians was closely invested, and they were reduced to great distress in consequence of the supply of water being cut off, but in retaliation they made desperate sallies, in which whole regions of the town were burned or reduced to ruins.
These disorders were repressed for a time by the glad tidings of the destruction of Maximin, and all parties joined in welcoming with the most lively demonstrations of joy the united armies and their triumphant chief.
But the calm was of short duration.
The hatred existing between the praetorians and the populace had been only smothered for a while, not extinguished; the soldiers of all ranks openly lamented that they had lost a prince chosen by themselves, and were obliged to submit to those nominated by the civil power.
A conspiracy was soon organized by the guards. On a day when public attention was engrossed by the exhibition of the Capitoline games, a strong band of soldiers forced their way into the palace, seized the two emperors, stripped them of their royal robes, dragged them through the streets, and finally put them to death.
The chronology of this brief reign is involved in much difficulty, and different historians have contracted or extended it to periods varying from twenty-two days to two years.
The statements of ancient writers are so irreconcileable, that we have no sure resource except medals; but, by studying carefully the evidence which these afford, we may repose with considerable confidence on the conclusion of Eckhel, that the accession of Balbinus and Maximus took place about the end of April, A. D. 238, and their death before the beginning of August in the same year.
We ought to notice here a remarkable innovation which was introduced in consequence of the circumstances attending the election of these princes. Up to this period, although several individuals had enjoyed at the same time the appellation of Augustus, it had been held as an inviolable maxim of the constitution, that the office of chief pontiff did not admit of division, and could be vacated by death only.
But the senate, in this case, anxious to preserve perfect equality between the two emperors, departed from a rule scrupulously observed from the earliest ages, and invested both with the office and appellation of Pontifex Maximus.
The precedent thus established was afterwards generally followed; colleagues in the empire became generally, as a matter of course, colleagues in the chief priesthood; and when pretenders to the purple arose at the same time in different parts of the world, they all assumed the title among their other designations.