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193: Didius Julianus, who bought the purple from the Praetorians

June 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 193, Didius Julianus lost the rulership of Rome for which he had paid so dearly.

And his life.

Julianus‘s path to these doleful pages begins with the assassination of the notorious Emperor Commodus at the end of 192.

That man’s successor, Pertinax, was a notable bust with the Praetorian Guard, the elite imperial bodyguard whose status as the only military unit in Rome made it potential — and here, actual — kingmakers.

The Praetorians expected the payoff that had become customary for new executives, and when Pertinax proved less than liberal on that particular budget item, they turned right around and overthrew him.

To see that there would be no mistake the next time around, the Praetorians dispensed with the pretense and brazenly auctioned the purple.

Roman aristocrat and historian Cassius Dio was a witness to this hot mess.

Didius Julianus, at once an insatiate money-getter and a wanton spendthrift, who was always eager for revolution and hence had been exiled by Commodus to his native city of Mediolanum, now, when he heard of the death of Pertinax, hastily made his way to the camp, and, standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans. Then ensued a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from the inside, the other from the outside. They gradually raised their bids up to twenty thousand sesterces per soldier. Some of the soldiers would carry word to Julianus, “Sulpicianus offers so much; how much more do you make it?” And to Sulpicianus in turn, “Julianus promises so much; how much do you raise him?” Sulpicianus would have won the day, being inside and being prefect of the city and also the first to name the figure twenty thousand, had not Julianus raised his bid no longer by a small amount but by five thousand at one time, both shouting it in a loud voice and also indicating the amount with his fingers. So the soldiers, captivated by this excessive bid and at the same time fearing that Sulpicianus might avenge Pertinax (an idea that Julianus put into their heads), received Julianus inside and declared him emperor.

-Cassius Dio, Book 74

The ignoble achievement is the only thing Didius Julianus is now remembered for.

While Julianus and the Praetorian guard were conducting their damnable business in the capital, three Roman generals in the provinces claimed the throne for themselves.

For centuries the Roman legions had been scattered beyond the Italian peninsula as a hedge against military coups. But after decades of relative stability at the top,* Rome was about to get a bracing reminder of what civil war looked like.

Praetorians — a few cohorts worth of men not in fighting trim — were fine for bullying Senators, but in an outright civil war, they were no match for the legions. The Praetorian Guard’s power to arbitrate the succession was contingent upon the beneficiary’s capacity to cement his own legitimacy by commanding the loyalty of (most of) the state apparatus.

And it turned out that buying the sceptre on spqrBay was not the way to get folks to bend their knees to it.

Septimius Severus, the imperial claimant nearest to the capital, commenced a relentless and virtually unresisted march on Rome, co-opting the troop garrisons and towns as he swept down the peninsula and spurning Julianus’s desperate diplomatic entreaties.

Cassius Dio’s record of Julianus scrambling to defend Rome against Severus is full of black humor.

Julianus … caused the senate to declare Severus a public enemy, and proceeded to prepare against him. In the suburbs he constructed a rampart, provided with gates, so that he might take up a position out there and fight from that base. The city during these days became nothing more nor less than a camp, in the enemy’s country, as it were. Great was the turmoil on the part of the various forces that were encamped and drilling, — men, horses, and elephants, — and great, also, was the fear inspired in the rest of the population by the armed troops, because the latter hated them. Yet at times we would be overcome by laughter; for the Praetorians did nothing worthy of their name and of their promise, for they had learned to live delicately;** the sailors summoned from the fleet stationed at Misenum did not even know how to drill; and the elephants found their towers burdensome and would not even carry their drivers any longer, but threw them off, too. But what caused us the greatest amusement was his fortifying of the palace with latticed gates and strong doors. For, inasmuch as it seemed probable that the soldiers would never have slain Pertinax so easily if the doors had been securely locked, Julianus believed that in case of defeat he would be able to shut himself up there and survive.

In the end, Severus took Rome without striking a blow: the Praetorians switched sides again, and the Eternal City delivered itself from the one usurper to the other. Cassius Dio, again, in media res

the soldiers, convinced by letters of Severus that if they surrendered the slayers of Pertinax and themselves kept the peace they would suffer no harm, arrested the men who had killed Pertinax … We [the Senate] thereupon sentenced Julianus to death, named Severus emperor, and bestowed divine honours on Pertinax. And so it came about that Julianus was slain as he was reclining in the palace itself; his only words were, “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?” He had lived sixty years, four months, and the same number of days, out of which he had reigned sixty-six days.

(Actually, Julianus had killed someone: foreseeing that the Praetorians were liable to turn coat yet again, Julianus had the Praetorian prefect who sold him this lemon of an empire put to death for trying to cut a deal with Severus. Despite this negative feedback, the transaction took place on a strict no-refunds, no-exchanges basis.)

A harsh deal for Didius Julianus was a pretty good one for the Roman Empire. Septimius Severus cleaned up his other rival claimants, and ran the empire capably for the next generation.

Kick back with this review of the the dreadful interlude of Didius Julianus with episodes 98 and 99 of the enjoyable History of Rome podcast.

* “The period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous,” in the judgment of Edward Gibbon.

** The Praetorians were also de-motivated because their promised donative had not been forthcoming.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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3 thoughts on “193: Didius Julianus, who bought the purple from the Praetorians”

  1. brainout says:

    I thought I read somewhere that Severus’ wife Julia outbid Julianus by 2x and that’s why the troops switched sides. But I can’t find that source text now. Do you know anything about this?

    If my query annoys, please feel free to ignore it. I’ve been documenting Bible prophecy about Rome future since 2010, https://vimeo.com/channels/paulmeterggs11 . So am now vetting its claims.

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