Donald L. Wasson
published on 23 September 2013
On March 28, 193 CE Roman Emperor Pertinax was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard, and like his predecessor Commodus, he left no apparent successor. Two possible claimants presented themselves to the Guard. These “protectors” of the imperial throne had vowed that no new emperor would be chosen without their approval and an “auction” ensued, following which, the throne was finally awarded to the highest bidder - Didius Julianus, a former commander, governor, and consul.
Marcus Didius Julianus was born on January 30, 133 CE to Quintas Petronius Didius Severus of Milan and Aemilia Clara. He was raised in the home of Marcus Aurelius’s mother, Domitia Lucilla. The educational advantages he received there enabled him to rise through the imperial ranks and become a successful commander in Germany, the governor of Lower Germany, and, during the time of Emperor Pertinax, a senator and co-consul. Unfortunately, his career briefly stalled when he and several other commanders were recalled to Rome by Emperor Commodus, and he was forced to temporarily retire. Although no proof exists, it was suggested that he may have been part of the conspiracy to assassinate the fallen emperor.
With the death of Emperor Pertinax, Julianus decided to use his vast wealth to buy the throne, outbidding the prefect of Rome and Pertinax’s father-in-law, Titus Flavius Suspicianus. To further secure his claim, he convinced the Guard that Titus might seek revenge for the death of his son-in-law. In his Roman History, Cassius Dio spoke of the auction, “Didius Julianus, at once an insatiable money-getter and wanton spendthrift …always eager for revolution and hence had been exiled by Commodus…when he heard of the death of Pertinax, hastily made his way to the camp, and, standing at the gate of the enclosure, made bid to the soldiers for the rule over Rome.”
In his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon also wrote about the auction, “This infamous offer, the most insolent excess of military license, diffused as universal grief, shame and indignation throughout the city. It reached at length the ears of Didius Julianus.” Yet, according to Gibbon, it was not personal ego but his wife and daughter’s suggestion that convinced him to pursue the throne. Gibbon added that as the Guard carried Julianus through the streets to the Senate, they paraded a man “whom they served and despised.” Herodian, in his History of the Roman Empire, spoke of Julianus’s reception by the people of Rome. “No one, however, shouted the congratulations usually heard when emperors were accompanied by a formal escort; on the contrary, the people stood at a distance, shouting curses and reviling Julianus bitterly for using his wealth to purchase the throne.”
As with Pertinax, Julianus knew he needed to maintain the support of the Praetorian Guard to remain on the imperial throne - something he would be unable to do. It wasn’t long before the new emperor had to admit that he was not as wealthy as he had claimed and that there was little if any money in the treasury. Unfortunately for Julianus, his purchase of the throne made him unpopular with both the Senate and people, and with the loss of the Guards' support, his days on the throne were numbered. He also fared no better when he eventually assumed his new responsibilities. According to Herodian, “He regarded his duties to the state as of no consequence and occupied his time in luxurious living and profligate practices.”
Almost immediately after Julianus assumed his new duties, three commanders voiced their intentions to secure the throne from him; all three stated he had been chosen by Pertinax as his successor. The first to declare his intent was Gaius Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria and the preferred choice of many in Rome. Although he was named emperor by his troops (he even selected Antioch as his capital), he chose to wait for his march on Rome until he could muster more support - he only had four legions at his disposal. Next came Decimus Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain, to declare his intentions; however, he did so with the support of only three legions. Lastly, there was Lucius Septimius Severus, governor of Pannonia Superior, a province on the Danube. He appeared to be the strongest of the three candidates with 16 legions - the entire Rhine/Danube army.
On April 9, 193 CE, with the full support of his army, Serverus declared himself emperor at Carnuntum. After gaining (or buying) the backing of Albinus, he marched southward to Rome. In desperation Emperor Julianus ordered the Guard to construct fortifications to defend the city against Severus, but they refused. Next, Julianus asked the Senate to name Severus as co-consul; they, too, refused. Gibbon wrote, “…in the invincible and rapid approach of the Pannonian legions, he saw his inevitable doom.” On June 1, 193 CE Julianus was sentenced to death by the Senate, and, while he had yet to enter the city, Severus was recognized as the new emperor. An assassin was sent to Julianus’s home, and finding him alone, stabbed and beheaded him. The former emperor’s last words were, “But what evil have I done. Whom have I killed?” His death would mark the end of the second emperor in the “Year of the Five Emperors.”
Unfortunately for Julianus and posterity, little is known of his accomplishments while on the throne. Most historians are restricted to comments on the manner in which he obtained power and the ignoble way he lost it.
- Cassius Dio. Roman History.
- Gibbon, E. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Heritage Press, 1946.
- Herodian. History of the Roman Empire.
- Kerrigan, M. A Dark History: The Roman Emperors. Metro Books, 2008.
- Scarre, C. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors. Thames and Hudson, 1995.