The Year of the Five Emperors (AD 192 – 193)
The ‘Year of the Five Emperors’ refers to the year AD 193, in which there were five claimants for the title of Roman Emperor – Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus.
- The year opened with news of the murder of Commodus on New Year’s Eve, 31 December 192 and the proclamation of the City Prefect Pertinax as Emperor on New Year’s Day, 1 January 193.
- Pertinax, himself, was later assassinated by the Praetorian Guard on 28 March 193
- .The Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s personal bodyguard force) advertised that they were offering the throne to the highest bidder.
- The Roman people were incensed by the auction and several provincial governors rose up against him
Didius Julianus (AD 193)
Later that day, Didius Julianus outmanoeuvered Titus Flavius Sulpicianus (Pertinax’s father-in-law and also the new City Prefect) for the title of Emperor.
- Flavius Sulpicianus offered to pay each soldier 20,000 sestertii to buy their loyalty (eight times their annual salary; coincidentally, also the same amount offered by Marcus Aurelius to secure their favours in 161).
- Didius Julianus, one the wealthiest men in Rome, offered 25,000 sestertii to each soldier to win the corrupt Praetorian Guard auction and was proclaimed Emperor by the Roman Senate on 28th March.
Caesar Marcus Didius Severus Julianus Augustus, the son of Quintus Petronius Didius Severus and Aemilia Clara, was born in Milan. He was raised and educated in the household of Domitia Lucilla, mother of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and rose through Roman public distinction through the support of the Emperor and his mother.
- In 170 CE, Julianus commanded the XXII Primigenia Legion in Mogontiacum (Mainz), Germany.
- Then he replaced Pertinax as proconsul of Africa. and Pertinax, now emperor, was murdered by the Praetorian Guard.
- This began the event known as, “Auction of the Empire”, which Didius Julianus is infamous for winning.
- He outbid the father-in-law of Pertinax, Titus Flavius Claudius Sulpicianus, who was the prefect of Rome.
- The Senate declared Julianus emperor in fear of the Roman army, but his rule was to be short-lived
- The people of Rome despised and rejected Julianus from the start, because they believed he was involved with the corruption.
- Without the support of Rome, the Imperial Guard would not fight for Julianus
- Severus marched into the palace, declared himself emperor, and killed Didius Julianus after just sixty-six days of rule
The three other prominent Romans challenged for the throne were:
- Pescennius Niger in Syria
- Clodius Albinus in Britain
- Septimius Severus in Pannonia
Septimius Severus marched on Rome to oust Didius Julianus and had him decapitated on 1 June 193, then dismissed the Praetorian Guard and executed the soldiers who had killed Pertinax.
Coins of Didius Julianus are rare due to his short reign
Pescennius Niger (AD 193-194)
Although Niger was born into an old Italian equestrian family and was the first member of his family to achieve the rank of Roman senator. Not much is known of his early career; it is possible that he held an administrative position in Egypt, and that he served in a military campaign in Dacia early in Commodus’ reign. During the late 180s, Niger was elected as a Suffect consul, after which Commodus made him imperial legate of Syria in 191. He was still serving in Syria when news came through firstly of the murder of Pertinax, followed by the auctioning off of the imperial title to Didius Julianus. Niger was a well regarded public figure in Rome and soon a popular demonstration against Didius Julianus broke out, during which the citizens called out for Niger to come to Rome and claim the imperial title for himself. As a consequence, it is alleged that Julianus dispatched a centurion to the east with orders to assassinate Niger at Antioch.
The result of the unrest in Rome saw Niger proclaimed Emperor by the eastern legions by the end of April 193. On his accession, Niger took the additional cognomen Justus, or “the Just”.
Although imperial propaganda issued on behalf of Septimius Severus later claimed that Niger was the first to rebel against Didius Julianus, it was Severus who beat Niger to it, claiming the imperial title on April 9. Although Niger sent envoys to Rome to announce his elevation to the imperial throne, his messengers were intercepted by Severus.
As Niger began bolstering his support in the eastern provinces, Severus marched on Rome which he entered in early June 193 after Julianus had been murdered.
Consolidating his power, Septimius Severus battled Pescennius Niger at Cyzicus and Nicea in 193 and then decisively defeated him at Issus in 194. Niger was captured while trying to escape, beheaded, and his severed head was taken to Byzantium, but the city refused to surrender. Eventually, Severus stormed and completely destroyed Byzantium before he had it rebuilt.
Niger’s head eventually found its way to Rome where it was displayed. After his victory in the east, Severus punished all of Niger’s supporters.
He also had Niger’s wife and children put to death, while his estates were confiscated
Claudius Albinus (AD 195-197)
Albinus was born in Hadrumetum, Africa Province (Sousse, Tunisia) to an aristocratic Roman family of Ceionia (gens) origin. His father, Ceionius, said his son received the name of Albinus because of the extraordinary whiteness of his complexion. Showing a disposition for military life, he entered the army when very young and served with distinction, especially in 175 during the rebellion of Avidius Cassius against Emperor Marcus Aurelius. His merit was acknowledged by the Emperor in two letters in which he calls Albinus an African, who resembled his countrymen but little. The Emperor Commodus gave Albinus a command in Gallia Belgica and afterwards in Britain.
- A false rumor having been spread that Commodus had died, Albinus denounced the man before his soldiers in Britain, calling Commodus a tyrant, and maintaining that it would be useful to the Roman Empire to restore to the senate its ancient dignity and power.
- The Senate was very pleased with these sentiments, but not so the Emperor, who sent Junius Severus to relieve Albinus of his command.
- Despite this, Albinus kept his command until after the murders of Commodus and his successor Pertinax in 193.
Clodius Albinus initially supported Septimius Severus believing that he would succeed him. When he realized that Severus had other intentions, Albinus had himself declared Emperor (Imperator Caesar Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus Augustus) in the autumn of AD 195, crossed from Britain to Gaul, bringing a large part of the British garrison with him.
- He defeated Severus’ legate, Virius Lupus, and was able to lay claim to the military resources of Gaul, but although he made Lugdunum the headquarters of his forces, he was unable to win the allegiance of the Rhine legions.
- On February 19th, AD 197, Albinus met Severus’ army at the Battle of Lugdunum. After a hard-fought battle, with 150,000 troops on either side recorded by Dio Cassius, Albinus was defeated and killed himself, or was captured and executed on the orders of Severus.
- Severus had his naked body laid out on the ground before him, so that he could ride his horse over it, in a final act of humiliation.
- If Albinus’ wife and sons were initially pardoned by Severus, he appeared to almost immediately afterwards change his mind, for as the dead Albinus was beheaded, so were they.
- Albinus’ headless body was thrown into the Rhine, together with the corpses of his murdered family.
- His body was ill treated by Severus, who sent his head to Rome as a warning to his supporters. With it he sent an insolent letter, in which he mocked the senate for their loyalty to Albinus.
- The town of Lugdunum was plundered and destroyed, and the adherents of Albinus were cruelly persecuted by Severus.
The Severan dynasty (AD 193 – 235)
Septimius Severus (AD 193-211)
After deposing and killing the incumbent emperor Didius Julianus, Severus fought his rival claimants, the generals Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus.
- Niger was defeated in 194 at the Battle of Issus in Cilicia.
- Later that year Severus waged a short punitive campaign beyond the eastern frontier, annexing the Kingdom of Osroene as a new province.
- Severus defeated Albinus three years later at the Battle of Lugdunum in Gaul.
After consolidating his rule over the western provinces, Severus waged another brief, more successful war in the east against the Parthian Empire, sacking their capital Ctesiphon in 197 and expanding the eastern frontier to the Tigris. Furthermore, he enlarged and fortified the Limes Arabicus in Arabia Petraea. In 202, he campaigned in Africa and Mauretania against the Garamantes; capturing their capital Garama and expanding the Limes Tripolitanus along the southern frontier of the empire.
- Late in his reign he travelled to Britain, strengthening Hadrian’s Wall and re-occupying the Antonine Wall.
- In 208 he invaded Caledonia (modern Scotland), but his ambitions were cut short when he fell fatally ill in late 210.
- Severus died in early 211 at Eboracum (today York, England), succeeded by his sons Caracalla and Geta.
- With the succession of his sons, Severus founded the Severan dynasty, the last dynasty of the empire before the Crisis of the Third Century.
His relations with the Senate were never good. He was unpopular with them from the outset, having seized power with the help of the military, and he returned the sentiment. Severus ordered the execution of a large number of Senators on charges of corruption and conspiracy against him, replacing them with his own favourites.
Upon his arrival at Rome in 193, he discharged the Praetorian Guard, which had murdered Pertinax and had then auctioned the Roman Empire to Didius Julianus. Its members were stripped of their ceremonial armour and forbidden to come within 100 miles of the city on pain of death.
- Severus then raised a new Guard composed of 50,000 loyal soldiers mainly camped at Albanum, near Rome (also probably to grant the emperor a kind of centralized reserve).
- During his reign the number of legions was also increased from 25/30 to 33.
- He also increased the number of auxiliary corps (numerii), many of these troops coming from the Eastern borders.
- Additionally the annual wage for a soldier was raised from 300 to 500 denarii.
Geta (AD 211)
When Septimius Severus died in Eboracum in early 211, Caracalla and Geta were proclaimed joint emperors and returned to Rome. Their joint rule was a failure. Later sources speculated that the brothers wished to split the empire in two halves. By the end of 211, the situation had become unbearable. Caracalla tried unsuccessfully to murder Geta during the festival of Saturnalia. Finally, in December Caracalla had his mother arrange a peace meeting with his brother in his mother’s apartments, and then had Geta murdered in her arms by centurions.
Caracalla (AD 211-217)
The eldest son of Septimius Severus, he reigned jointly with his father from 198 until Severus’ death in 211. For a short time he then ruled jointly with his younger brother Geta until he had him murdered later in 211. Caracalla is remembered as one of the most notorious and unpleasant of emperors because of the massacres and persecutions he authorized and instigated throughout the Empire.
- When the inhabitants of Alexandria heard Caracalla’s claims that he had killed Geta in self-defense, they produced a satire mocking this as well as Caracalla’s other pretensions. In 215, Caracalla savagely responded to this insult by slaughtering the deputation of leading citizens who had unsuspectingly assembled before the city to greet his arrival, and then unleashed his troops for several days of looting and plunder in Alexandria. According to historian Cassius Dio, over 20,000 people were killed
- According to the historian Herodian, in 216, Caracalla tricked the Parthians into believing that he was sincere in his marriage and peace proposal, but then had the bride and guests massacred after the wedding celebrations. The thereafter ongoing conflict and skirmishes became known as the Parthian war of Caracalla.
- While travelling from Edessa to continue the war with Parthia, he was assassinated while urinating at a roadside near Carrhae on 8 April 217 (4 days after his 29th birthday), by Julius Martialis, an officer of his personal bodyguard.
- Caracalla was succeeded by his Praetorian Guard Prefect, Macrinus, who (according to Herodian) was most probably responsible for having the emperor assassinated.
Caracalla’s reign was also notable for the Constitutio Antoniniana (also called the Edict of Caracalla or the Antonine Constitution), granting Roman citizenship to all freemen throughout the Roman Empire, which according to historian Cassius Dio, was done for the purposes of raising tax revenue. He is also one of the emperors who commissioned a large public bath-house (thermae) in Rome. The remains of the Baths of Caracalla are still one of the major tourist attractions of the Italian capital.
About the time of his accession he ordered the Roman currency devalued,
- The silver purity of the denarius was decreased from 56.5% to 51.5%, the actual silver weight dropping from 1.81 grams to 1.66 grams – though the overall weight slightly increased.
- In 215 he introduced the antoninianus, a “double denarius” weighing 5.1 grams and containing 2.6 grams of silver – a purity of 52%
Legendary king of Britain ?
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legendary History of the Kings of Britain makes Caracalla a king of Britain, referring to him by his actual name “Bassianus”, rather than the nickname Caracalla. In the story, after Severus’s death the Romans wanted to make Geta king of Britain, but the Britons preferred Bassianus because he had a British mother. The two brothers fought a battle in which Geta was killed and Bassianus succeeded to the throne. He ruled until he was betrayed by his Pictish allies and overthrown by Carausius, who, according to Geoffrey, was a Briton, rather than the historically much later Menapian Gaul that he actually was.
Macrinus (AD 217-218)
Macrinus’ origin was Mauretanian and, as a member of the equestrian class, he became the first emperor who did not hail from the senatorial class. Despite his equestrian background, Macrinus was confirmed in his new role by the Senate. According to S.N. Miller, this may have been due to both his background as an accomplished jurist and his deferential treatment of the senatorial class.
Macrinus displayed some financial farsightedness when he revalued the Roman currency.
- He increased the silver purity of the denarius from 51.5% to 58% — the actual silver weight increasing from 1.66 grams to 1.82 grams.
In urgent matters of foreign policy, Macrinus displayed a tendency towards conciliation and a reluctance to engage in military conflict.
- He averted trouble in the province of Daciaby returning hostages that had been held by Caracalla, and he ended troubles in Armenia by granting that country’s throne to Tiridates, whose father had also been imprisoned under Caracalla.
- Less easily managed was the problem of Mesopotamia, which had been invaded by the Parthians in the wake of Caracalla’s demise. Meeting the Parthians in battle during the summer of 217, Macrinus achieved a costly draw near the town of Nisibis and as a result was forced to enter negotiations through which Rome was obliged to pay the enormous indemnity of 200 million sesterces to the Parthian ruler Artabanus IV in return for peace.
Macrinus’ reluctance to engage in warfare, and his failure to gain victory over the Parthians caused considerable resentment among the soldiers. This was compounded by him curtailing the privileges they had enjoyed under Caracalla and the introduction of a pay system by which recruits received less than veterans. After only a short while, the legions were searching for a rival emperor.
- On May 18, AD 218 Elagabalus was proclaimed emperor by the Legio III Gallica at its camp at Raphana.
- A force under his tutor Gannys marched on Antioch and engaged a force under Macrinus on June 8, AD 218.
- Macrinus, deserted by most of his soldiers, was soundly defeated in the battle and fled towards Italy disguised as a courier.
- He was captured near Chalcedon and later executed in Cappadocia.
- His son Diadumenian, sent for safety to the Parthian court, was captured at Zeugma and also murdered.
Diadumenian (AD 218)
Diadumenian (Latin: Marcvs Opellivs Antoninvs Diadvmenianvs Avgvstvs) was the son of the Roman Emperor Macrinus, and served his father briefly as Caesar (May 217–218) and as Augustus (in 218). This ‘Boy-Caesar’ was killed when he was just 10 years old. No coins were struck when he was briefly emperor but several were struck when he served as Caesar under his father.
Elagabalus (AD 218-222)
In 217, the emperor Caracalla was assassinated and replaced by his Praetorian prefect, Marcus Opellius Macrinus. Caracalla’s maternal aunt, Julia Maesa, successfully instigated a revolt among the Third Legion to have her eldest grandson (and Caracalla’s cousin), Elagabalus, declared emperor in his place. Macrinus was defeated at the Battle of Antioch. Elagabalus, barely fourteen years old, became emperor, initiating a reign remembered mainly for sexual scandal and religious controversy.
- Later historians suggest Elagabalus showed a disregard for Roman religious traditions and sexual taboos.
- He replaced the traditional head of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter, with the deity of whom he was high priest, Elagabal.
- He forced leading members of Rome’s government to participate in religious rites celebrating this deity, over which he personally presided.
- Elagabalus was married as many as five times, lavished favors on male courtiers popularly thought to have been his lovers and was reported to have prostituted himself in the imperial palace.
- His behavior estranged the Praetorian Guard, the Senate, and the common people alike.
Amidst growing opposition, Elagabalus, just 18 years old, was assassinated and replaced by his cousin Alexander Severus on 11th March 222, in a plot formulated by his grandmother, Julia Maesa, and carried out by disaffected members of the Praetorian Guard.
Alexander Severus (AD 222-235)
Alexander was the last emperor of the Severan dynasty. He succeeded his cousin Elagabalus upon the latter’s assassination in 222, and was ultimately assassinated himself, marking the epoch event for the Crisis of the Third Century — nearly fifty years of civil wars, foreign invasion, and collapse of the monetary economy.
As emperor, Alexander’s peace time reign was prosperous.
- Upon his accession he reduced the silver purity of the denarius from 46.5% to 43% — the actual silver weight dropping from 1.41 grams to 1.30 grams
- In 229 he revalued the denarius, increasing the silver purity and weight to 45% and 1.46 grams respectively.
- The following year he decreased the amount of base metal in the denarius while adding more silver – raising the silver purity and weight again to 50.5% and 1.50 grams.
- Also during his reign taxes were lightened; literature, art and science were encouraged; and, for the convenience of the people, loan offices were instituted for lending money at a moderate rate of interest.
However militarily Rome was confronted with the rising Sassanid Empire. He managed to check the threat of the Sassanids, but when campaigning against Germanic tribes of Germania, Alexander attempted to bring peace by engaging in diplomacy and bribery. This alienated many in the legions and led to a conspiracy to assassinate and replace him.
- In 232 there was a mutiny in the Syrian legion, who proclaimed Taurinus emperor. Alexander managed to suppress the uprising, and Taurinus drowned while attempting to flee across the Euphrates. The emperor returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph in 233.
- In A.D 234, the barbarians crossed the Rhine and Danube in hordes that even caused panic at the gates of Rome.
- The soldiers serving under Alexander, who were already demoralized after their costly war against the Persians, were further discontented with their emperor when their homes were destroyed by the barbarian invaders.
- Severus enforced a strict military discipline in his men that sparked a rebellion among the German legions.
- Due to incurring heavy losses against the Persians, and on the advice of his mother, Alexander attempted to buy the German tribes off, so as to gain time
- It was this decision that resulted in the legionaries looking down upon Alexander.
- They considered him dishonorable and feared he was unfit to be Emperor.
- Under these circumstances the army swiftly looked to replace Alexander.
- Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus was the next best option.
Alexander was the last of the Syrian emperors and the first emperor to be overthrown by military discontent on a wide scale. Alexander’s death at the hands of his troops can also be seen as the heralding of a new role for Roman Emperors. Though they were not yet expected to personally fight in battle during Alexander’s time, emperors were increasingly expected to display general competence in military affairs. Thus, Alexander’s taking of his mother’s advice not to get involved in battle, his dishonorable and unsoldierly methods of dealing with the Germanic threat, and the relative failure of his military campaign against the Persians were all deemed highly unacceptable by the soldiers.
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