“But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?”
– Last words of Didius Julianus
On those pathetic last words ended the 9 week reign of an Emperor who bought the crown in a public auction, the second in the Year of the Five Emperors.
Didius Julianus came from distinguished breeding. Raised by the mother of Marcus Aurelius he served with distinction as a commander against invading tribes and as a governor. In the reign of Commodus he escaped a charge of plotting against the Emperor’s life.
The assassination of the hedonistic incompetent Commodus on December 31, 192 ended a century of stable succession. At first the highly respected Pertinax was declared Emperor and all seemed to be well. After the extravagance of Commodus reign Pertinax tried to emulate the more dignified Marcus Aurelius. But he alienated the Praetorian Guard by initially not paying them their expected accession bonus – later rectified from the proceeds of selling off Commodus’s harem of concubines and youths. Worse from their point of view, he tried treating the pampered Praetorians as soldiers and tried to impose military discipline. On March 28 they mutinied and killed him.
Then to the disgust of the rest of the Empire they auctioned of the crown. The two bidders were Julianus and Titus Flavius Claudius Sulpicianus, prefect of the city and father-in-law of the murdered emperor. Sulpicianus bid from inside the Praetorian camp and Julianus who had arrived after the camp gates were closed bid from outside the ramparts. Julianus finally clinched the throne with a bid of 25,000 sesterces to every soldier (trumping Sulpicianus’s bid of 20,000 and possibly helped by the fear that Sulpicianus would seek revenge for Pertinax). The Preatorians acclaimed Julianus Emperor and threatened the Senate into declaring him Emperor. The population of Rome was furious and jeered Julianus when he appeared in public, even throwing stones.
The problem for Julianus was that the decision of the Praetorians was not binding on any legion outside of Rome. Pescennius Niger in Syria, Septimius Severus in Pannonia, and Clodius Albinus in Britain (each commanding three legions) refused to recognize Julianus and were acclaimed as Emperor by their troops. Severus being the nearest was the most dangerous and Julianus tried to suborn his troops and declared him a public enemy. Julianus was left with the useless Praetorians who were now desperately drilled to turn them into a fighting force. It was hopeless. Severus having bought off Albinus with the title of Caesar (i.e. junior Emperor) advanced into Italy rejecting an offer by a desperate Julianus to share the Empire. The Praetorians promised no punishment so long as they punished the murderers of Pertinax (which was done with alacrity) abandoned Julianus. The Senate declared Severus emperor and at his urging declared divine honors of Pertinax and sentenced Julianus to death.
Abandoned by all except one of the prefects and his son in law, Julianus was killed in the palace by a soldier on June 1. His body was handed to his wife and daughter for burial. His wife died the following month and his daughter and son-in-law disappear from history. The Praetorians had their comeuppance. Severus dismissed them and replaced them with loyal solders from his legions. He then went on to defeat and kill Niger and Albinus (and their families) to become sole emperor in 197. Unlike the other contestants in the Year of the Five Emperors, Severus died peacefully in his bed in 211 leaving cynical though wise advice for his squabbling sons: “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.” Severus would be the last Roman Emperor to die peacefully in possession of his throne until the death of Claudius II Gothicus from the plague in 270 AD.