The year started with Publius Helvius Pertinax on the throne, a senator who was the son of a freedman. Pertinax was accepted by the Senate as emperor, and at the same time, the senators declared the slain Commodus an enemy of the state. Both the Senate and the people of Rome hated their former emperor intensely, or so they pretended. They demanded that his body be dragged through the streets and thrown into the river Tiber. Pertinax, however, refused and instead ordered the body to be cremated and the remains to be placed in Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Commodus would later even be declared a god by Septimius Severus, possibly because of the latter’s wrath against the Senate.
Pertinax now set about governing the Empire. The people expected a mild emperor, who would rule Rome and the Empire much like Marcus Aurelius did. The start of Pertinax’ rule was certainly promising, as he aimed to govern together with the Senate. The Empire’s financial situation was, however, worrisome. To fill to state coffers again, Pertinax ordered all of Commodus’ possessions to be sold at an auction. In this way, the new emperor managed to pay the praetorians the 12.000 sesterces that he had promised them when they made him emperor. The Greek historian Herodianus claims that Pertinax also instigated land reforms and abolished all kinds of taxes for the use of river shores, docks, urban ports and roads. These measures are not attested elsewhere, and considering the dire financial state the Empire was in, one can doubt whether they were truly taken.
Nonetheless, the new emperor was certainly popular with both the Senate and the populace. He was, however, not popular with the praetorians, who under Commodus were used to a luxurious life without obligations and with complete freedom to abuse and intimidate the population. Pertinax’ attempts to discipline the praetorians were deeply resented. Even the praetorian prefect Quintus Aemilius Laetus began to regret his choice for Pertinax, whom he now considered to be far too incorruptible. One fateful night, on 28 March, a band of some 200-300 dissatisfied praetorians marched on the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill and forced its way in. Although the emperor had a strong personal bodyguard at his disposal, he decided to meet the soldiers in person and to try to reason with them. His gallant attempt failed and the soldiers stabbed their emperor to death after just 87 days on the throne. The chamberlain Eclectus, who had also been responsible for offering the throne to Pertinax, was killed as well. The praetorians cut off the emperor’s head and put it on a spear. They carried it through the city in triumph, but the people responded angrily and were truly horrified by the fate of their beloved emperor. Pertinax would later be deified by the Senate and People of Rome, at the instigation of his successor, Septimius Severus.
Auctioning off the Empire
After their dreadful deed, the praetorians, fearful of the wrath of the people, decided to retreat to their barracks, the Castra Praetoria, just outside the city. There, one of the most shameful events in the whole history of Rome took place: from the walls of their encampment, the praetorians announced to all who wanted to hear that the City and Empire were up for sale and that the purple would be granted to the highest bidder. The auction drew the attention of a senator called Marcus Didius Julianus, who was a very wealthy man. He had come to the Senate House that night, but had found it closed. Two praetorian tribuni had taken him to the barracks, where Titus Flavius Sulpicianus, the praefectus urbi and father-in-law to Pertinax, had already claimed the throne for himself on account of his personal relationship with the dead emperor.
Both men were asked to make their bids, Sulpicianus from inside the camp and Didius Julianus from outside it. The former’s offer of 20.000 sesterces for every praetorian was surpassed by Julianus’ offer of 25.000 sesterces. It was the offer that bought him the purple. The praetorians opened their gates and hailed their new emperor. Didius Julianus was subsequently also accepted by the Senate, but hardly enthusiastically: to ensure the Senate’s support, the new emperor entered the Senate House accompanied by an armed escort. The people of Rome showed considerably more courage and did not accept their new emperor. They threw insults at Julianus, who ultimately ordered his soldiers to use force. This sparked riots in the city, and the people started calling for Gaius Pescennius Niger, the governor of Syria, to come to their aid.
Three rivals to the throne
Julianus’ position as emperor came under serious threat when three rivals to the throne emerged. Three of the most important provincial governors (legati), with battle-hardened legions and plenty of auxiliaries at their disposal, decided to rebel against the new emperor. It is hard to reconstruct who rebelled first and when, but – considering that it would take several weeks for the news of Pertinax’ death and Julianus’ accession to the throne to reach the provinces – it is a fair assumption that the rebellions started in late April or early May of this year. The legate Lucius Septimius Severus was declared emperor in Carnuntum by the legions in Pannonia Superior, i.e. the troops guarding the Rhine-Danube border. Severus’ brother was the governor of Moesia, which gave him an advantage. At about the same time, Gaius Pescennius Niger, the governor of the rich and important province of Syria (already mentioned briefly above), was declared emperor by his own legions. The third rival to the throne was the governor of Britannia, Decimus Clodius Albinus, who like Severus was from Africa.
Of the three rivals, Severus was the only one to take determined action. Being closest to Rome, he gathered his forces, invaded Italy and marched on the capital to depose Julianus. Severus would later claim that he had had a dream which predicted that he would become emperor. Severus’ Pannonian troops were battle-hardened veterans and Severus tried to raise their morale even further by claiming that their opponents in Italy were weak and better at parading than at fighting. Severus certainly had a point here. Julianus tried to mobilise his praetorians to fight for him, but they had become soft and had no taste for battle. In desperation, the emperor tried to strengthen the city’s defences by constructing a rampart and gates in the northern suburbs of Rome, which were outside the Servian Walls (named after the legendary king Servius Tullius; the much longer Aurelian Walls would be built decades later). He even tried to reinforce the palace defences, but it was all in vain.
In less than a month, Severus marched his troops from Carnuntum to Rome. He entered Italy virtually unopposed and cities opened their gates for him without resistance. It was clear that nobody was going to fight for Julianus. The emperor tried to use his last financial reserves to win the loyalty of the praetorian guardsmen, but it was to no avail. Even attempts to make the available elephants in Rome ready for battle failed miserably. In desperation, Julianus had Quintus Aemilius Laetus, the praetorian prefect, and Marcia, Commodus’ mistress, executed. Meanwhile, Severus’ agents had already infiltrated the city. Julianus now convened the Senate and proposed to make an offer to Severus that both men would share the throne as co-emperors. The Senate agreed and the praetorian prefect Tullius Crispinus was sent to Severus to present him with the offer. Severus, however, flatly refused and continued his advance on the capital. The senators, now becoming nervous, decided that the emperor had to be removed. On their instigation, soldiers were sent to Julianus, who killed him on 1 June after just 66 days on the throne.
Severus enters Rome
At the time of the murder, Severus was still north of Rome. The Senate sent a large delegation of – if the Historia Augusta is to be believed – a hundred senators to his camp to congratulate him on obtaining the throne. A few days after Julianus’ death, Severus entered the city with his army. One of his first actions was to deal with the untrustworthy praetorians. The old praetorian guard was assembled, humiliated, disarmed and then disbanded. The new emperor subsequently raised fresh praetorian cohorts from his own legionaries (previously, praetorians were recruited exclusively from Roman citizens in Italy, Spain, Macedonia or Noricum). The praetorian guardsmen responsible for the murder of Pertinax were executed. Severus now had a secure power base in Italy, from which he could deal with his rivals, Albinus and Niger. Believing the latter to be the most dangerous enemy, Severus struck a deal with Albinus, legate of Britannia, granting him the title of Caesar. With his hands free in the West, Severus now focussed on Niger in the East. Before leaving Rome, Severus managed to win the loyalty of the people by making grants and throwing games. He also gave his legions their customary donativa and the former emperor Pertinax was given a grand funeral at the Campus Martius. Severus then marched off to fight Niger.
As soon as Niger heard of Severus’ campaigns in Italy and his plans for heading East, he closed the passes through the Taurus Mountains and tried to assemble forces from other provinces and from the rulers of Parthia, Armenia and the rich city of Hatra. He also managed to occupy Byzantium and thus controlled the Bosporus. The city had formidable defences and was an almost impregnable fortress. Severus decided not to waste his soldiers’ lives by storming the walls. Instead, he crossed the Hellespont further to the south. Near Cyzicus in Asia Minor, his army encountered that of Niger’s ally Asellius Aemilianus, the proconsul of Asia. Severus was victorious and his army marched further east, while Aemilianus was killed in battle. Severus sent a force to besiege Byzantium and try to starve the city into submission. The siege probably started in the autumn and would last almost three years. After Severus’ victory at Cyzicus, Nicomedia in Bithynia joined his side, whereupon its rival Nicaea joined Aemilianus. Another battle was fought and once again, Severus’ army, led by his general Candidus, was victorious. Severus did not just rely on military means: before setting out for the east, he had rounded up almost all the children of the governors of the eastern provinces and had them placed under house arrest in Rome. They were now the emperor’s most valuable hostages.
Hearing of Severus’ victories, the cities of Laodicea and Tyrus rebelled against Niger, who brutally put down both rebellions by sending in his Moorish auxiliaries. At about the same, Severus tried to force a breakthrough in the Taurus Mountains, but the terrain favoured Niger’s troops and the first attacks were thwarted by stubborn resistance.
– Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book 74 and Book 75;
– Herodianus, The Roman Histories II.3-15; III.1-3, 6;
– Historia Augusta, Commodus 17;
– Historia Augusta, Pertinax 4-6, 10-11;
– Historia Augusta, Didius Julianus 2-5, 7;
– Historia Augusta, Severus 5-9;
– Historia Augusta, Pescennius Niger 2.
– Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 56-59 and p. 64-65.