Empire For Sale, 193 CE
Pertinax
(1 Jan - 28 March) and Didius Julianus (28 March - 1 June)
Back Next
Pertinax decided to clean up the mess that Commodus left in a big hurry. He found out rather quickly (and permanently) that some folks liked the mess -- and they had swords.

So then Didius Julianus demonstrated that he had more money than brains when he bid on and won the emperorship. Getting it proved much easier than keeping it, though.


Pertinax (1 Jan - 28 March) Denarius
About this coin:

When two men showed up in the middle of the night to inform Pertinax that the emperor was dead, he got over the shock rather quickly. On the evening of December 31, 192, Commodus's murderers dropped in on Pertinax to ask if he'd like to be the new emperor. He said "yes" right away, leading some to speculate that he may have been in on it. Be that as it may, the Praetorian Guard were won over by a promise of a sizeable bribe, and he was confirmed by the Senate on January 1, 193.

Pertinax immediately set about trying to clean up the mess that Commodus had made, which made him extremely unpopular with those who profited from the mess -- including the Praetorian Guard. Within two days, they tried to set up a rival imperial candidate, but fortunately for Pertinax, the chosen candidate did not want the job; he reported the attempt to Pertinax and left town as fast as he could.

Next, Pertinax publicly accused palace officials of embezzlement. The Senate and the Roman citizenry were delighted, but the palace staff was not.

In early March, the Praetorians found in Quintus Sosius Falco a more willing figurehead for a coup, but the attempt was betrayed before it could be carried out. However, on 28 March, Pertinax was enjoying a quiet day at the Palace when 300 soldiers showed up at the front gate. Rather than barring the gate, the guards on duty and palace officials invited them in.

At this point, Pertinax was given the sensible advice to flee for his life, but instead he decided to impress the unexpected guests with his imperial majesty. He tried to reason with them, giving what to all accounts was a pretty good little extemporaneous speech. Unfortunately, one of the guests was a rude fellow with a short attention span; he interrupted Pertinax's little speech by sticking a sword into him. At this point, realizing that the speech was probably over, the other soldiers joined in, and soon they were marching about with Pertinax's head on a pole.

Realizing that the people of Rome wouldn't share their enthusiasm, the soldiers hurried back to the Praetorian compound with their pole-mounted trophy and locked the gate. They had forgotten one little detail in their impromptu coup -- a figurehead -- so they climbed up on the walls and announced that they would be interviewing applicants for the position of Emperor at the front gate, starting immediately.

Didius Julianus (28 March - 1 June) Denarius
About this coin: It's surprisingly common on coins that break near the face to have the break trace along the edge of the portrait like this. Aside from being "25% off", this is quite a nice portrait of him. If whole, the obverse would read IMP CAES M DID IVLIAN AVG, and the reverse CONCORD MILIT, or "harmony of the military", which was of course simply his wishful thinking..

Two candidates responded to the Praetorians' invitation -- Titus Flavius Sulpicianus, father of Pertinax's wife, and Didius Julianus, an ex-consul with more money than sense. It quickly degenerated into an auction, and Julianus eventually won. Not only did he bid an absurd amount of money (more than he actually had), but he also reminded the Praetorians that, as Pertinax's father in law, Sulpicianus might seek revenge against them.

Once installed as Emperor, he had the head of the Praetorians arrested and executed, so it can't be said that nothing good came of his reign. However, that was about it. Three provincial governors (Pescennius Niger of Syria, Clodius Albinus of Britain, and Septimius Severus of Upper Pannonia) answered the call for someone to rescue Rome from the shame of having an emperor who had bought his title at public auction. By far the closest was Septimius Severus, and he quickly mobilized and headed south toward Rome.

Didius Julianus responded by sending the Praetorians out to build defenses around Rome, but they weren't up to all that hard work, especially since it had become clear that Didius Julianus couldn't pay them what he'd promised. He tried assassination, but Severus was too well defended. He even offered to Severus a joint emperorship. But Severus saw that there was no reason to settle for half the cookie when he could have it all, and probably without a fight.

As it turned out, he was right. The Senate sentenced Didius Julianus to death on 1 June, naming Severus the new emperor. The Praetorians deserted him, and he was alone when the officer sent to carry out the execution order arrived. It is reported that he did not die bravely, being in tears and asking the questions, "But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?" It's not recorded whether anyone tried to answer him.


<-Previous Page Next Page ->
Back To "Those Wacky Emperors"