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Rome’s Pivotal Year Of Transition, by Anthony Riches

Roman scholars (not to mention my fellow novelists) have extensively analysed 69AD, the infamous Year of the Four Emperors, which began with Nero on the throne and ended with Vespasian as supreme ruler. It is less well known outside the scholarly ranks that the end of the second century saw no less than five men become Emperor in a single year.

With the assassination of the Emperor Commodus (think Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator) on the last day of 192AD, Publius Helvius Pertinax, widely believed to have been privy to the murder plot, took the throne.  A respected soldier and senator, he hoped to restore the greater tolerance of the five adoptive emperors and restore the stability of their 84 year period of rule but made one fatal mistake in failing to pay the Praetorian Guard the substantial donative they expected as the price for their complicity. Eventually, panicked by their agitation into selling off the previous ruler’s assets – including his concubines – he devalued the currency to find the money.  The damage, however, was already done. Attempts to restore military discipline backfired on him and, after one failed plot. he was put to the sword by a gang of Praetorians in March.

At this point the question of who was to rule the empire descended into farce, as the Praetorians quite literally auctioned the throne off to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus was the winner, paying the sum of 25,000 sesterces for every man in the Praetorian camp. Lauded by the senate – who had little choice in the matter – he assumed the throne, but was roundly abused as a ‘robber and parricide’ whenever he appeared in public.

Given the power vacuum in Rome, three armies – the legions of Britannia, Syria and Pannonia (modern day Hungary) all promptly declared their generals, Albinus, Niger and the North African Septimius Severus, to be Emperor. Removing Albinus as a competitor by declaring him Caesar, Severus advanced on Rome, defeated the inexperienced Praetorians sent to stop him and persuaded the remainder to surrender on the promise that they would face no punishment. With Serverus proclaimed as emperor and Julianus murdered by yet another Praetorian, the new emperor promptly dismissed the Guard in ignominy and repopulated their ranks using his own loyal troops.

So, why is this year so important in Roman history? Well, after the relatively enlightened reign of the five ‘wise’ emperors, chosen by ability rather than by family succession, and the disastrous rule of Commodus, the empire fell under the control of a despotic strongman. With Severus’s death in 211AD a long period of chaos was ushered in which was to last until the establishment of the Dominate in 284AD. To illustrate, there were 21 emperors between 14AD and 211AD, and an amazing 40 between 235AD and 284AD – only one of whom actually died in his bed. The despotic model established by Severus needed the strongest of rulers to maintain it, and the Empire as established by Augustus two hundred years before was no longer governable without a special blend of ruthlessness and cunning. Rome descended into seventy years of instability from which it was fortunate to emerge more or less intact with its rejuvenation under Diocletian in the late third century. For the student of ancient military history there’s another hook that stems from this year of Roman destiny; a sequence of events that left the empire’s military might divided between three contenders and which set the scene for a four year civil war that ended with Severus’s victory at the titanic two day battle of Lugdunum – but that is another story.


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