Decimus Caelius Calvinus Balbinus: Roman emperor in 238.

The emperor Balbinus
The emperor Balbinus

If we are to believe the historian Zonaras, Decimus Caelius Calvinus Balbinus was about sixty years old when he became emperor in 238. This would mean that he was born in 178, at the end of the reign of the last of the "good emperors", Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps this is true, but several scholars have argued that Balbinus was a bit younger.

However this may be, he was probably the son of a man named Caelius Calvinus, who is known to have reached the consulship and was governor of Cappadocia in 184. Perhaps this man was the son of Gaius Caelius Secundus, who had been consul in 157. In any case, our Balbinus belonged to an important family, which had once been plebeian but had been admitted to the patriciate, because the future emperor is known to have been one of the Salians, a religious college that consisted of patricians.

His career is a bit mysterious. According to the historian Herodian, who wrote an important account of the events between 180 and 238, Balbinus governed several provinces, which may have included Asia in 201/202. This governorship was only given to former consuls, which proves that he had already obtained this important office in c.200, which is extremely young, even if we accept that he was born in 178.

The notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta adds governorships in Africa, Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Thrace, and Gaul.note None of these would have implied important military duties.


Because Balbinus is known to have received the exceptional honor of a second consulship,note which he shared with the emperor Caracalla, in 213, we can be sure that he must have been an important man. No emperor would share a consulship with a nobody.

The dynasty of Septimius Severus and Caracalla lasted until 235. Because no source mentions any encounter between Balbinus and the religiously-minded emperor Heliogabalus (218-222), we may assume that the influential senator was outside Rome. He may have returned and may have been one of the senatorial advisers of Severus Alexander (222-235), but this is only a speculation to explain why he remained influential.

The young Severus Alexander and his mother Julia Mamaea were lynched by soldiers in Mainz, and the throne was given to Maximinus Thrax, a capable general with strained relations to the Senate. After three years, two men named Gordian revolted in Africa, and the senators immediately sided with them (January 238). The emperor, who was fighting a war against the Sarmatians in what is now Hungary, marched on Rome, and the Senate appointed a committee to protect Italy. Balbinus was one of its members, which proves that he was at that time known as a capable man.

When the news came that the two Gordians had been defeated and were dead, the Senate convened a special meeting in the temple of Jupiter and appointed two new emperors, Balbinus and Marcus Clodius Pupienus Maximus. A riot in the city forced them to adopt the young Gordian III as their caesar, and other riots followed, in which the citizens of Rome attacked the soldiers of the imperial guard. To show the world that better times were near, the amount of silver in the Roman coins was briefly improved.


Balbinus, who seems to have lacked military experience, stayed in Rome, while Pupienus commanded an army that went to the north. The city of Aquileia had refused to support Maximinus Thrax and was under siege. One of the besieging legions was II Parthica, which was, under normal circumstances, stationed in Alba near Rome. The soldiers knew that their relatives could be used as hostages by the two rebel emperors, and therefore killed the legitimate ruler of the Roman world. As a reward, Pupienus permitted them to return home.

At the moment of victory, the two emperors started to quarrel. On the ninety-ninth day of their reign, they were killed by the soldiers of the imperial guard, and Gordian III could start to reign. The Senate pronounced a damnatio memoriae.


This page was created in 2005; last modified on 8 June 2019.