Posts Tagged ‘Praetorian Guard’

Didius Julianus

April 14, 2010

One of Rome’s most significant emperors was a chap named Septimius Severus, and one day there’s bound to be an entry on this blog about him. One of Rome’s least significant emperors was the man that came immediately before him, Didius Julianus. In fact, this is the man that time and time again I fall down upon when I’m trying to remember the order of the Emperors.* As such, I’ve decided to try to fix him in my mind by writing this entry.

The most interesting thing about Didianus was how he came to power. Currently, the UK is still coming to terms with the disreputable behaviour of its politicians, but no amount of duck ponds purchased at tax payers’ expense would cheapen the office quite as much as this short-lived Emperor’s pursuit of office did.

By the end of the second century, the Praetorian Guard had settled into the role of kingmaker they’d carved out for themselves. In 192, they’d decided that Commodus had had long enough at the top and the Praetorian prefect assassinated him. Rushing Pertinax to the Praetorian camp, they proclaimed the man Emperor. Owing to a misreading of the situation (the Praetorian’s believing their support to be a quid pro quo, Pertinax a mere quid), the new Emperor’s reign lasted a mere 86 days before the guards sharpened their swords once more and added another name to the growing list of murdered rulers.

They certainly weren’t prepared to make the same mistake again; before they used their military clout to install the next Emperor, they wanted positive assurances there’d be some monetary value in it for them. At the end of March 193, then, they announced that the throne would go to the highest bidder. The city prefect at the time was at the Praetorian camp when that announcement was made, and so he immediately put in a bid.

This is where our man enters the picture. Hearing what was happening, Julianus ran to the camp with an offer of his own. According to Cassius Dio, however, he was refused access. Unperturbed, he simply stood by the door and shouted an offer of his own. The two imperial candidates continued to outbid each other from this absurd position until eventually, Didius Julianus’ bid of 25,000 sesterces to each and every guard won the day.

The tawdry manner in which he became Emperor undermined any power that he’d expected to wield, however. The public would heckle him at any public appearance and various generals (including Septimius Severus) refused to acknowledge his rule. Such shaky foundations could never support his reign for long, and having come to power at the end of March, by the end of May he was stripped of his rank and sentenced to death. An issue that is cropping up time and time again at the moment is whether politicians have really understood the public outcry. Didius Julianus certainly didn’t, and his last words were a bewildered “But what evil have I done? Who did I kill?”

In an uncharacteristically generous mood, the new Emperor Septimius Severus spared the wife and daughter of the man who had so recently declared him a public enemy, and returned the corpse to them for burial. Didius Julianus was buried under the fifth milestone of the Via Labicana, or today’s Via Casalina.

*Oh come now. Yes I try and remember the order of the emperors sometimes, but you’re sitting there reading an obscure blog about Roman history. Let’s not get all high and mighty here.