|Usurper of the Roman Empire|
|Reign||April to July 175 AD|
c. 130 AD|
July 175 AD|
Egypt / Syria
|Spouse||Volusia Vettia Maeciana|
|Issue||Avidius Heliodorus, Avidius Maecianus, Avidia Alexandra|
|Father||Gaius Avidius Heliodorus|
|Mother||Julia Cassia Alexandra|
Gaius Avidius Cassius was the son of Gaius Avidius Heliodorus and Julia Cassia Alexandra. Heliodorus was a noted orator who also served as augustal prefect of Egypt from 137 to 142 AD under Hadrian. Julia Cassia was the great-granddaughter of Junia Lepida, who was herself a great-great-granddaughter of the first Roman emperor Augustus. In addition to Augustus, Cassius' mother was also a descendant of Herod the Great through her father, Gaius Julius Alexander Berenicianus.
Cassius was born in the town of Cyrrhus in Syria, although he once called Alexandria his 'paternal city'. Though his parents were Roman citizens, Avidius Cassius was a descendant of the Roman client-king Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Commagene, who had been dethroned half a century before. Thus, he counted inheritance from the Seleucid dynasty, which once ruled many eastern Roman provinces.
It is assumed that Cassius began his career during the reign of Antoninus Pius. Possibly adlected as a quaestor in 154 AD, it is assumed that the young vir militaris was stationed in the final years of Pius’s reign as a legatus in one of the legions stationed along the Danube in Moesia Inferior, watching over the Sarmatians. Certainly by 161 AD, he is noted as a legatus in the legions.
He quickly came to prominence around 164 AD under the emperor Lucius Verus during the Parthian War, as the legatus of Legio III Gallica. A strict disciplinarian, in 165 he marched down the Euphrates and defeated the Parthians at Dura-Europos. By year’s end, Cassius had travelled to the south and crossed Mesopotamia at its narrowest point and proceeded to attack the twin Parthian cities on the Tigris river, Seleucia on the right bank, and Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, on the left. He captured Ctesiphon and burnt the palace of Vologases, and although Seleucia had opened its gates to the Romans, he destroyed it as well, claiming that the local population had broken their agreement.
In dire need of supplies, and with his soldiers showing the first signs of having contracted the plague at Seleucia, he marched back to Syria with the spoils of the campaign. Sending details of his achievements to Rome, he was rewarded with elevation to the Senate, though the campaign's success was credited largely to his commander-in-chief, emperor Lucius Verus. The emperor, for his own part, is reported to have been an excellent commander, without fear of delegating military tasks to more competent generals.
In May of 166 AD, Cassius was made suffect consul, a position he held outside of Rome. During that year, he and Verus launched a new campaign against the Parthians, this time across the northern Tigris river, and into Media. There, rumours (ultimately false) reached Rome that Cassius had crossed the Indus River along with the Third Syrian legion. By the end of 166, Cassius had been made imperial legate of the Roman province of Syria.
In 172, Cassius suppressed a revolt of the Bucoli (or herdsmen) in Egypt that had broken out and was centered in the area of the Pentapolis of Middle Egypt due to an explosion in grain prices at the time. His strategy was to divide the various tribespeople, but before he could enter Egypt, he had to be given special powers which gave him imperium over all the provinces of the east.
In 175 Cassius was proclaimed Roman emperor after the erroneous news of the death of Marcus Aurelius; the sources also indicate he was encouraged by Marcus's wife Faustina, who was concerned about her husband's ill health, believing him to be on the verge of death, and felt the need for Cassius to act as a protector in this event, since her son Commodus, aged 13, was still young. She also wanted someone who would act as a counter-weight to the claims of Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, who was in a strong position to take the office of Princeps in the event of Marcus’s death. The evidence, including Marcus's own Meditations, supports the idea that Marcus was indeed quite ill, but by the time Marcus recovered, Cassius was already fully acclaimed by the Egyptian legion of II Traiana Fortis.
At first, according to Cassius Dio, Marcus, who was on campaign against tribes in the north, tried to keep the rebellion a secret from his soldiers, but after the news had spread among them, he addressed them. In this speech that Dio attributes to Marcus, he laments the disloyalty of "a dearest friend", while at the same time expressing his hope that Cassius would not be killed or commit suicide, so that he could show mercy. In the meantime, the Senate declared Cassius a public enemy.
At the start of his rebellion, he was in a reasonable position. In his native Syria, and more broadly throughout the eastern provinces he had a good number of followers. They were inspired by a combination of his royal descent and his victories in the Parthian wars, as well as his suppression of the revolt of the Bucoli. He also had ties through marriage to a large group of Lycian nobles. In terms of military resources, he had around seven legions – his three Syrian legions, plus two in Palestine, one in Arabia and one in Egypt, with the Prefect, Calvisius Statianus, joining his revolt. It was in Egypt that Cassius made his base of operations, and it is known that Cassius was recognized as Emperor there by May 3, since a document of that date is recorded as being in the first year of Cassius's reign. However, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the beginning of his rebellion may well have been in April 175, or possibly even March.
Although he seized control of some of the most vital parts of the Roman East — Egypt being an important source of grain for the city of Rome — Cassius failed to find widespread support for his rebellion. The governor of Cappadocia, Publius Martius Verus, remained loyal to Marcus Aurelius, while Herodes Atticus was reported to have sent him a letter, containing one Greek word: emanes (‘you are mad’). Rome was panicked by the news, forcing the Emperor to send Gaius Vettius Sabinianus Julius Hospes, the governor of Pannonia Inferior with a force to secure the city. Yet it was soon clear that Marcus Aurelius was in a stronger position, with many more legions available to him than were available to Cassius. "After a dream of empire lasting three months and six days", Cassius was murdered by a centurion; his head was sent to Marcus Aurelius, who refused to see it and ordered it buried. Egypt recognized Marcus as emperor again by July 28, 175.
Marriage and children
Cassius was married to Volusia Vettia or Volusia Maeciana (c. 135 – aft. 175), daughter of Lucius Volusius Maecianus, and had at least three children (the Historia Augusta implies he may have had more):
- Avidius Heliodorus – banished by order of the emperor.
- Avidius Maecianus – killed after the revolt had been put down.
- Avidia Alexandra – was allowed to keep her freedom, although her movements were restricted.
Nerva–Antonine family tree
|Nerva–Antonine family tree|
Except where otherwise noted, the notes below indicate that an individual's parentage is as shown in the above family tree.
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- Relief at Ephesus, including a possible rendering of Avidius Cassius, now headless (third photo on page)