Probus was a career soldier who had risen through the ranks, so we are back to the pattern established by Claudius and Aurelian. Both those emperors came originally from the province of Illyricum, just over the Adriatic from Italy. Probus also came from the same region. It may have been that there was an Illyricum network in operation favouring people from a similar background, but given that the emperors from Illyricum all showed a high degree of ability it is more likely just to be a coincidence. Probus at least, got his first big break from the distinctly Roman emperor Valerian. He quickly justified an early promotion by defeating a Samartian invasion and saving the life of a near relative of the emperor while he was at it.
After getting off to this promising start Probus was sent all around the empire and did well wherever he went. He was a trusted general under Aurelian and often dissuaded him from acts of cruelty. A courageous position to take with someone like Aurelian. He was given command of the East on an unusually high salary by Tacitus. So when he got to the top job at the age of 44 it was a natural progression. It sounds like the culmination of the successful career of an ambitious man. But as we have seen, being the emperor was not purely a bowl of cherries. There is a private letter of Probus that still exists that makes it clear that he was far from sure that the throne was something that he really wanted.
“But it is no longer in my power,” says Probus, in a private letter, “to lay down a title so full of envy and of danger. I must continue to personate the character which the soldiers have imposed upon me.”
Celebrities moaning about the drawbacks of celebrity is something we are familiar with, but Probus did have a point. The whole imperial show was kept on the road by keeping the army sweet, and everything had to be subordinated to that. The misgivings and inner angst of Probus probably were genuine and well founded. But they didn’t interfere with his ability to successfully run a military campaign, or to court the favour of the Senate with some well chosen flattery. Having got effective control of the empire he wrote to the Senate asking for their ratification. He signed off ‘I submit to your clemency my pretensions and my merits.’ One wonders how he would have reacted if the reply had been to say that they would have rather had someone else. But they were only too happy to indulge him.
But the priority was the military situation which in short time from the death of Aurelian had deteriorated rapidly. A huge party of Sarmatians had carried out an extensive raid and were on their way home with their booty. Probus intercepted them, defeated them and reclaimed the stolen property. He also finally dealt with the Isaurians who were still holding out in the mountains in central Asia Minor. An alliance with the Goths secured the Danube frontier. He then dealt with a continued rebellion in Egypt. The renewed strength of the empire in the east led to peace overtures from the Persians, who must have realised that they stood no chance in open war against a resurgent Rome.
The barbarians in the west did not have the sophistication of the Persians and so did not realise the risk they were running by invading Gaul when the opportunity seemed to have presented itself by the absence of the legions who were away on their unsuccessful attempt to install Florianus as emperor. Probus rapidly dealt with them. The Franks were pushed back to the Rhine delta. He intercepted the Burgundians near the Seine. Probus had a distinctly liberal streak and he offered them the chance to return home unhindered so long as they left their booty behind. The Burgundians misjudged him and tried to avoid handing it over, and were massacred.
The most troublesome invaders were the Lygians who had come all the way from Poland. One particular tribe of the Lygians were the Arii who dressed in black, painted their skins black and carried shields of black. They attacked at night and must have been terrifying. Probus defeated them and took their leader Semno prisoner. He let him go on condition that he returned to his home and never troubled the empire again. In fact the power of this people was broken forever and they leave the pages of history at this point. There may be a very good reason for this. Probus, who seems to have been fond of experimenting, tried offering a bounty of a gold piece per head of barbarian. This probably explains the unusually high casualties among the Lygians.
Probus was clearly a man who was willing to try to new solutions to old problems. Previous emperors were content to simply drive the barbarians out of Gaul. Probus having secured the province pushed on and invaded Germany itself. The expedition was a success and he managed to retrieve a lot of property and rescue captives. But he gave up on the idea of establishing Germany as a colony. This would have given the empire a wider boundary to defend, and nearly every action of Probus betrays that the Romans chief problem at this time was lack of manpower.
Instead he built some new defensive walls some 200 miles from the Danube to the Rhine which shortened the total length of the frontier and protected the dangerous point where German tribes could penetrate quickly into Italy. But walls in history don’t have a great track record of success. China’s didn’t save China from the Mongols and Hadrian’s wall did not prevent Britain being invaded by the Picts. The wall of Probus in Germany only survived a few years after the death of Probus himself.
He also levied large numbers of German recruits for the Roman army, a long established practice. He was wise enough to disperse these widely amongst existing military units rather than create a single body whose loyalty might be open to question. His innovation was to settle groups of barbarians within the empire itself. For example he transported a group of Vandals to Britain and set them up in East Anglia. The logic was inescapable. The crisis of the third century had depleted the population of the empire, and left it weak and vulnerable to invasion by land hungry barbarians. Managed with skill, this process of immigration could be a win-win situation for the newcomers and the hosts. Franks and Gepids were stationed on the banks of the Rhine and the Danube.
Despite the obvious benefits for both sides the settlement policy did run into plenty of difficulties. The barbarians were always tempted to give up the hard work of farming in favour of the easy option of raiding. There was one particularly spectacular example of this. Some Franks were posted on the Black Sea coast to provide a guard against the Alans. But instead of doing this, they pinched a Roman fleet. With this they managed to get out of the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean, supporting themselves as they went with frequent raids as they passed by. They captured Syracuse and massacred a large number of the inhabitants. Leaving Sicily they passed out of the Mediterranean altogether and negotiated up the coasts of Spain and France to reach their home in Holland with a pile of treasure and enough stories to dine out on for the rest of their lives.
Probus was not able to stop the Franks on the amazing career because he had a serious rebellion in the East to deal with. The general called Saterninus who was in charge was trusted by Probus, so much so that he didn’t believe the initial report that he had revolted. In fact Saturninus may well have been forced into it by his soldiers. He was certainly not desperate for power. He is reported to have said. “You know not the misery of sovereign power; a sword is perpetually suspended over our head. We dread our very guards, we distrust our companions.” He was right to dread his guard. As soon as it was clear that Probus was going to win they killed the unlucky, the unambitious but the realistic Saturninus.
No sooner was the revolt in the East ended in what had become the traditional manner than there was not one, but two revolts in Gaul. The leaders were Bonosus and Proculus who were a drunk and letch respectively. Probus dealt with them.
The successes of Probus would have been highly impressive were it not for coming so soon after the truly stellar performance of Aurelian. But even so Probus clearly deserved the triumph that he awarded himself when all of the foes of the empire and of himself personally had been dealt with. In the event though, it wasn’t the comparison with his predecessor’s one that spoilt the triumph of Probus but a much more gruesome event. Probus had a large group of gladiators assembled for the occasion, but about 80 of them decided that they weren’t going to play their part in the event. They broke out and with their skill and desperation caused a huge number of deaths. Regular troops had to be brought in to deal with them. The courage of these men commands respect, but it must have spoilt the party for everyone.
It is a bit ironic that this gladiator revolt, the first since the famous one of Spartacus back in the republic, should take place during the reign of Probus who was one of the most liberal of Roman emperors. I am of course talking in relative terms here. I don’t think any Roman emperor could be described as actually being liberal in any meaningful way. But Probus was not prone to the showman like punishments that Aurelian went in for. He had another way of keeping the troops out of mischief. The idea was to keep them busy so they didn’t revolt. So for example, when he was in Egypt he got the army to build temples and other buildings and to improve the navigation of the Nile.
This was obviously something that he found satisfying because he carried on with similar exercises. If you look at a map of the empire at this time it was still not that different to that of the time of Hadrian. Dacia had been given up, but Rome had good relations with the new Gothic kingdom that had replaced the former province. But the picture was deceptive. The crisis of the third century had depleted the empire of people and wrecked its trade. Large areas of formerly productive territory were now wasteland. Probus was well aware of these problems, and did what was in his power to overcome them. Taxes were necessarily very high to maintain the army. Probus speculated that if peace could be achieved the expense of a standing army could be reduced. It is unlikely that this idea appealed to the army itself and this may have provoked some discontent. Until the secure peace he was seeking was achieved, one thing he could do was to use the spare manpower of the military for civilian regeneration projects.
There was no shortage of things that needed doing. Swamps could be drained. Plantations could be established. A particular example of this was planting vines in the regions devastated by barbarian inroads such as Gaul and Pannonia. He was supervising one such scheme near Sirmium not far from where he was born when he met his end. The long term economic benefits of developing agriculture in this part of the empire were no doubt highly worthy, but it seems that they were lost on the legions who had to do the actual work. The whole point of joining the army was to get away from the back breaking toil of being a peasant and to live high on the hog in exchange for occasional danger. If you end up in a field doing just the kind of work you signed up to avoid, it must be pretty galling.
In fact it proved to much for a group of them on one hot summer day. They broke out into a mutiny and chased Probus into a tower and then killed him.
He had reigned for six years packed with action and struggle. It is ironic that he should have met his end just when peace had been established. His short rule combined with the much more notable characters that surround him in this period of history have meant that Probus is rarely remembered if it all. His achievements although real do sound very much like a reprise of those of Aurelian, and there is little he did that could not have just as easily have been done by any other able commander. But what we read about him is intriguing. He seems to have been a man of imagination and insight.
What might he have achieved if he had had longer? If he had managed the forty years of Constantine could he have revived the economy? Did he have a long term plan to incorporate the barbarian settlements in such a way as to make the defences strong enough to resist further encroachment? We will of course never know. What we do know is that the emperors that came after him would shortly reorganise and change the empire on a massive scale. Something needed to be done and it is unlikely that Probus would have done what Diocletian and Constantine did.