On December 31, 192, Emperor Commodus (r. 180-192) was strangled to death while he was bathing. The assassination freed the Roman Empire from Commodus’ incompetent and negligent rule. Yet, the Roman glory days were over, and the empire would never fully return to its former harmony. Instead, the reign of Commodus was succeeded by another type of chaos—instability and civil war.
By the first day of January 193, the senate had already chosen who would be the next emperor. The man they put on the throne was Publius Helvius Pertinax, and, at least on paper, Pertinax seemed to be a perfectly adequate candidate.
Emperor Pertinax was born around 126, the son of a freed slave. Despite his humble beginnings, Publius Helvius Pertinax would rise to the top of Roman society. Pertinax managed to obtain a thorough education, and rose in the academic world high enough to become a teacher.
At some point in his life, Pertinax quit his job as an educator and decided to devote himself to the symbiotic spheres of Roman military and politics. Recognized as a man who served with distinction, Pertinax built up his prestige by leading troops in Syria, Britain and Germany. Due to his military achievements, Pertinax was granted a seat in the Roman Senate, and was even elected to the office of consul. With the respect and support from Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Pertinax was eventually tasked with defending much of the eastern empire, from the Danube River to Syria. Yet, upon the death of Marcus Aurelius, Pertinax lost a great deal of his former influence. Nevertheless, by 192, the year of Emperor Commodus’ death, Pertinax had been able to climb back to prominence by becoming a Prefect of Rome, as well as the senior marshal of the Roman Empire.
When Emperor Commodus was killed, most of the key players (the assassins, the Praetorian Guard and the Senate) backed Pertinax as the next emperor. After all, the man was a former teacher, a distinguished soldier and a senior member of the Roman Senate. Also, in staunch contrast to Commodus, Pertinax had a reputation for living a moral and virtuous lifestyle. Yet, it was this side of the emperor that would lead to his downfall.
When he became emperor, Pertinax quickly scanned through the messy finances of the Roman Empire, and was dismayed by the wasteful spending and corruption that was present everywhere. In an attempt to remove all of the luxurious excesses that were expensively imposed on the empire by his predecessor, Commodus, Pertinax instituted major spending cuts in both the civilian and military spheres. Most significantly, he did away with many of the lavish benefits that Commodus had given to the emperor’s personal protection, the Praetorian Guard.
Naturally, the praetorians were not at all pleased that their elite brotherhood was being cleaned of its corruption. Therefore, after only around three months of Pertinax’s rule, a mob of disgruntled praetorians (sometimes estimated at 300 in number) pressed their way forcefully into the palace where the emperor was staying. Pertinax, a former teacher, general and senator, felt that he could disarm the mob with his words, and fatefully decided to remain in the palace and try to negotiate with the angry soldiers. The praetorians, however, either were unimpressed by the emperor’s speech, or ignored his words altogether. In March 193, Emperor Pertinax was stabbed to death by his own praetorian guardsmen. He was not allowed to die gracefully; Pertinax’s killers reportedly cut off the emperor’s head and paraded it on a stake for all of the Romans to see.
The death of Pertinax ignited one of the most persistent problems that plagued Roman society—civil war. After killing Pertinax, the Praetorian Guard held an auction, offering the imperial throne to the highest bidder. The man with the biggest coin purse, named Didius Julianus, was escorted by the Guard to the Roman Senate, where the man was made emperor. Yet, by buying the throne, Didius Julianus had little support among the people or the senators, and his protection by the Praetorian Guard would only last as long as he could pay their wages. Sensing weakness, three other powerful military commanders launched rebellions, each claiming to be the rightful heir to the slain Pertinax.
In 193, the so-called “Year of the Five Emperors,” the most powerful warlord to rise up was Septimus Severus, who launched a rebellion with around sixteen legions stationed in the regions of the empire that were adjacent to the Rhine and Danube Rivers. When news reached Rome that Severus was marching to Italy, Didius Julianus lost all of his support. Mere weeks after he had bought the throne, Emperor Didius Julianus was killed by an assassin sent by either the Roman Senate or Septimus Severus. Regardless of who sent the assassin, the Roman Senate quickly proclaimed Severus as the new emperor. Emperor Severus (r. 193-211) spent the next several years defeating his military rivals and began the Severan Dynasty, which would produce four more emperors.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Depiction of Emperor Pertinax, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.