A Succession of Short-Lived Roman Emperors

From the Lecture Series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

After Commodus was assassinated, a senator called Pertinax was chosen to replace him. Unlike the other senators who were more than happy to see one of themselves on the throne, the Praetorian Guards were not that thrilled. However, when they were presented with the promise of 12,000 sesterces per soldier, they got on board. But things took a wrong turn.

A coin minted during Emperor Pertinax’s reign.
Pertinax cut government expenses and granted tax exemptions to the farmers who cultivated deserted land. (Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc./CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Brief Reign of Emperor Pertinax

When Pertinax took over, he started a series of reforms to mend the damage done by Commodus. He cut government expenses, granted tax exemptions to the farmers who cultivated deserted land, and sold Commodus’s property in an auction. Other reforms included reducing the power of Praetorians and promising respect to the senate.

Although this was all exciting and promising, it didn’t have the results he had in mind. Each one of these reforms affected a certain group of people that resulted in their alienation. Ordinary people were dissatisfied with the prospect of not receiving any generous gifts from the emperor. Above all, the Praetorians were initially against him, so they were infuriated when he tried to limit their power. As a result, he was assassinated only three months into his reign at the hands of some Praetorians.

Learn more about Augustus, the first emperor.

The Roman Empire is Auctioned

Apparently, the Praetorians had killed the emperor without thinking about who would be the next emperor. However, it presented an opportunity for them to earn money out of this situation. In one of the most disgraceful chapters of Roman history, the fate of the Roman Empire was determined in a sort of auction. Two wealthy Roman noblemen competed to buy the Roman Empire through bribery. The Roman Empire was basically sold by the Praetorian Guards to the highest bidder.

A statue of a Praetorian soldier.
Praetorians were infuriated when Pertinax tried to limit their power. (Image: Albert Krantz/Public domain)

The winner was Didius Julianus, whose offer was 25,000 sesterces for each soldier. But he, too, was murdered by a Praetorian just 66 days after he became the emperor. Was the money he paid really worth it? Well, he managed to record himself in history as a Roman emperor. So, the money could be said to be well-spent.

Although the incident did not give the Roman Empire a long-lasting emperor, it proved the power of the military in making or breaking emperors. Having realized that, different legions in various provinces decided to play their parts. The legions in Britain, Syria, and along the Danube separately announced their commanders as emperor.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Emperor Septimius Severus, a Military Commander

Among these commanders, Septimius Severus, the commander of the Danube legion, had the support of 16 legions, which was the largest army. He declared Clodius Albinus, the commander of the Britain legion, the Caesar in charge of Britain, Gaul, and Spain, and therefore bought his support.

The bust of Septimius Severus, one of the ‘soldier emperors’ of Rome.
Septimius Severus belonged to the group of ‘soldier emperors’ or ‘barracks emperors’. He seized power through his military forces. (Image: Glyptothek / Public domain)

Then, Severus headed for Italy and took over Rome. He replaced the members of the Praetorian Guard with his own men who were carefully chosen. He headed for the east and attacked the legion under the command of Pescennius Niger. By 195, Niger and his legions were crushed, and Niger fled to Parthia, the neighboring empire. Severus also attacked Parthia before going back to the west, where Albinus had rebelled against him. Albinus was badly defeated, and his body was trampled by Severus, his head cut off, and his body thrown into the Rhone River.

Now that both of Severus’s Roman enemies were defeated, he was free to invade Parthia again and take over its capital. He subordinated a part of the Parthian Empire, renamed it Mesopotamia, and turned it into a province of the Roman Empire.

Although his eastern victories were huge accomplishments, bringing respect and admiration to him, they created problems for him after a while.

First, because of his attacks on the Parthian Empire, its military power had diminished. It made the Empire easy prey for the Sassanid Empire, and three decades later, they overthrew it. Second, the new province of Mesopotamia became the object over which the Roman Empire and the Sassanid Empire fought. These wars proved to be too costly for the Roman Empire, and they weakened its military and economy. The Roman historian, Cassius Dio, said about these wars: “This conquest has been a source of constant wars and great expense to use. For it yields very little and uses up vast sums.”

Septimius Severus was different from all his predecessors in that he seized power through his military forces. He did not become emperor through hereditary succession or through being selected by the senate; hence he belongs to the group of ‘soldier emperors’ or ‘barracks emperors’. This group of emperors largely consisted of local governors in borderline provinces that had commanded large forces because they fought barbarians.

Learn more about the Five Good Emperors.

Common Questions about the Succession of Short-Lived Roman Emperors

Q: Why was Pertinax assassinated?

Pertinax was assassinated because of a series of reforms he put in place. These reforms, although they seemed exciting, led to the alienation of many groups.

Q: How did Didius Julianus become emperor?

Didius Julianus was a wealthy Roman aristocrat who became emperor through bribery. He was the highest bidder in what was a shameful auction by the Praetorian Prefect to sell the Roman Empire.

Q: How did Septimius Severus become emperor?

Septimius Severus was an army commander who had a very big army and the support of many legions. He announced himself the emperor by taking over Rome and defeating his rival army commanders.

Q: Who became emperor after Commodus?

After the death of Commodus, Pertinax became emperor. He was an elderly senator who was chosen by the senate as emperor. However, his reign was short-lived because of the resentment he created through his reforms.

Keep Reading
Roman Conquest of Britain: Caesar’s Expedition to Hadrian’s Wall
Augustus: Paving the Way for Hereditary Succession
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire