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How and why Carus became Roman emperor is a big unanswered question - at least for those cobwebby historians who think about these matters whilst day dreaming at a tutorial. By all accounts Carus was a grasper and grabber, a man who wouldn't think even once to knife an opponent in the back and received his own reward by killing his boss.
edit Up the Greasy Pole
Carus was about 60 when he appointed himself emperor. He was Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, the ancient 'emperor maker/breakers' who is the past had got through a lot of their bosses since their creation by Emperor Augustus 300 years previously. The Praetorians hadn't been so influential of late. Soldier-emperors like Valerian thought they were effete camp sitters. Carus for his part had been close to both to emperors Gallienus and Probus, observing from distance and noting down their failures. Where exactly Carus came from isn't clear, he was probably another of the emperors from the Balkans but no one appears to have made much of an investigation.
Carus's opportunity for higher office came through the efforts of Emperor Probus to retrain the Roman army to do something more useful besides fighting and looting. Old soldiers like dogs are not good at learning new tricks so Probus was killed for his troubles. Carus offered his services and became the new emperor. The next day a gold coin was found under every mutineer's pillow with a 'Thank You Brave Soldier' wax tablet attached.
edit Emperor and Revenge
Once he was emperor, Carus associated his sons Carinus and Numerian with a share of imperial power. The two young men accepted their rapid elevation by splashing out on the latest fast speed chariots and buying drinks for their friends at expensive nightclubs. The Roman Senate said they should have been consulted or encouraged to express favour (read:'bribe us to cheer for you') but Carus turned away the toga mafia and made clear to his associates that he wanted quick military glory to cement the new "Carinian Dynasty .
The usual way to start a reign had been to pick a fight against a beatable bunch of barbarians and drag their sorry corpses through Rome's victory arches. Carus also said he wanted to restore Dacia to the Roman empire after it had been abandoned by Aurelian a few years earlier. Perhaps also the looming presence of emperor Trajan on his column and its strip panel celebration of conquering the province may have influenced Carus.
Out along the Danube frontier, Carus went searching for the Goths, Vandals and the Sarmatians but none of them fancied a bash about with the Romans. The emperor then he got news that the Persian empire was in the midst of a vicious family quarrel and that no one was checking the front door. This looked a much more promising field of glory (and booty). It would also offer an opportunity to extract revenge for the defeat and humiliation of Valerian in 260.
edit Thunderbolt to my heart
With his son Numerian, Carus crossed with his army into Persia. For the first time in a long time, there was no army to greet the Romans. Onwards they marched until they reached the capital Ctesiphon. The Persian shah Bahram was out in Afghanistan fighting his brother Hormizd and appears to have taken virtually his entire army with him. For Carus this was his 'Trajan moment'. As his soldiers helped themselves to the Shah's best furniture and carpets, Carus strode around the luxurious surroundings with a poet to record his emotions and prepare a victory speech for that great triumph he could look forward to. Perhaps he would be able to re-annex Mesopotamia.
Yet something was disturbing Carus. Before emarking on the campaign to Persia, he had consulted an oracle which warned him 'not to stay under permanent shelter'. Taking this as a warning about staying inside a palace, Carus had taken the precaution of living inside a fully equipped tent. He was also wary of assassination and so slept in his armour.
Following one night of drinking and toasting further imperial success, Carus retired to his tent. A fierce thunderstorm then arose and a bolt stuck Carus in his tent. Fried like a can of Fray Bentos, the smoking remains of Carus were found the next day. His son Numerian was proclaimed solo emperor in the East and made the decision to return to Rome. Since Carus was already a pile of ashes, his son skimped on a fancy funeral and left the scene.
Numerian and Carinus