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| | The Man Who Bought the Roman Empire
There are rulers in history who stand out not so much for what they did with their power, but for how they gained it, or lost it. The Roman Emperor Didius Julianus is just such a ruler. His reign is one of the shortest, and certainly the most comical, in Roman history. An examination of his career and conduct before his unorthodox ascension, however, suggests that his fate was perhaps unbecoming of this accomplished military man.
Marcus Didius Severus, who was given the extra cognomen of Julianus later in life, was born at Mediolanum (Milan) during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. The exact date is a mystery - Cassius Dio gives it as January 30th of 132 CE, the Historia Augusta as February 2nd of 137. The former date is generally considered more likely.
Julianus was the youngest of three brothers born to Quintus Petronius Didius Severus and Aemilia Clara. Didius Severus was a Romanized Gaul, whose ancestors were chieftains of the Insubres tribe; his family had lived in Mediolanum likely for most or all of the town's history. Aemilia Clara was a Roman noblewoman whose family had settled in the province of Africa several generations before; whether her ancestry was predominately Italian or African is unknown.
For reasons that are lost to history, Julianus was not raised by his parents. There is no evidence, but perhaps they died when he was a child. Either way, he was brought up in the household of Domitilla Lucilla, the mother of the future Emperor Marcus Aurelius. When he came of age, Domitilla became his patroness and secured a prosperous future for him. In 153 he married a girl of senatorial family named Manlia Scantilla. Around 157, he was a tribune in a legion. At some point in the 150s, his only child, Didia Clara, was born. She would become known during the reign of Commodus as the most beautiful woman in Roman society.
Julianus held a succession of posts, most of them civilian in nature, over the course of the 160s, serving as an aedile and praetor as well as a clerk to several provincial governors. It was in 170 CE that he received his first serious responsibility, when he was made the legionary legate of the Twenty-second Primigenia Legion, which was stationed at Mogontiacum. There is evidence to suggest that he defeated an incursion of the Chatti while commanding this Legion.
Julianus the General
The next year Julianus was given his first province to govern, Gallia Belgica. It was here that he made a name for himself. Our ancient sources, backed up by archaeological evidence, tell us that there was a major Germanic raid into this province c. 173, spearheaded by the Chauci. Julianus proved himself to be quick-thinking and efficient in gathering both legionary and auxiliary forces, and inflicting crippling defeats on this tribe.
Julianus' efforts in Belgica did not go unrewarded. In 175 he was appointed consul alongside his friend and fellow senator, Publius Helvius Pertinax. Julianus and Pertinax had radically different family backgrounds but their careers mirrored each other closely. Pertinax allegedly nicknamed Julianus "My Successor" because whatever post Pertinax held, Julianus earned it right after his term ended. This joke was to prove chillingly prophetic.
Julianus was an energetic and ambitious man and - perhaps surprisingly, considering his later reputation and conduct - he seems to have been an above-average general and soldier. He first suggested that Marcus Aurelius have a string of forts built along the northern coast of Gaul; these forts would later form part of the "Saxon Shore" in following centuries. However, Julianus was also a pleasure-seeker. His dinner parties were opulent and lavish, and his lust for wealth apparently outweighed the substantial fortune he inherited from his father.
The future emperor wore his hair and his beard long, as was the fashion from the reign of Hadrian on to the Severan epoch. His features in most of his coins and busts suggest a slightly-built man, with a (perhaps deceptively) gentle and sensitive face.
Julianus was the governor of Dalmatia 176-180, and apparently strengthened his reputation as a talented military man by rounding up gangs of brigands, deserters, and stray Germanic warbands. By the death of Marcus Aurelius in March of 180, he was considered one of the best generals in the Empire. He was appointed governor of Germania inferior by Commodus in this year, and appears to have held this post for four years. As he had in Belgica a decade before, Julianus appears to have taken an active interest in fort-building in Germania.
In 184 or 185, Julianus and Pertinax were among a number of accomplished generals who were forced into retirement by Commodus. The fact that he did not execute them in some rancid scandal, as was his preferred method, shows that he had no evidence that either man held any danger to his position. Julianus it seems was shortly redeemed anyways. Around 186 he was the city prefect of Rome. The next few years saw him governing Bithynia and Pontus, the old province of Pliny the Younger, while Pertinax governed Africa. In 189 Pertinax was recalled to Rome, and Julianus governed Africa for the next year.
The Cost of Empire
In the early months of 193 CE, Didius Julianus was living in Rome, in comfortable retirement. He spent most of his time hosting decadent feasts for his fellow senators and off-duty generals. He regaled his guests with tales of the brave deeds he and the men under his command had performed, often in the face of the relentless savagery of the Germanic tribes. The stunning beauty of his daughter Clara, however, did much to increase the prestige of his name in Rome herself.
In March, however, Julianus' comfortable world was upset. His old friend and colleague Pertinax had succeeded Commodus at the beginning of the year. Pertinax had proven a competent emperor and was well loved by the common people, but the Praetorians were nursing a fierce grudge against him for not raising their pay as he had promised at the beginning of his reign. On March 28th, a contingent of angry soldiers broke into the Palace, and Pertinax recklessly confronted them.
Unsurprisingly, the Roman world found itself without a master. The senators of the city all locked themselves in their houses while bands of Praetorians scoured the streets, looking for someone to hail as emperor. Two volunteers came forward, Titus Flavius Sulpicianus the city prefect, and Didius Julianus. Sulpicianus enjoyed a better reputation with the Praetorians and was permitted into their Camp; Julianus courted them from outside, shouting promises over the walls.
Various factions within the Guard supported one man or the other; the bickering between Sulpicianus and Julianus soon turned into an auction. They were the two richest men living in the Capital, and it was money (or perceived lack thereof) that had first driven the Praetorians to these successive acts of boldness and rebellion. Sulpicianus promised to pay each Praetorian 20,000 secterces; in response Julianus promised 25,000 a piece. Unable to top that, Sulpicianus relinquished his claim to the Empire, and the Praetorians declared Julianus Caesar Augustus.
Marcus Didius Severus Julianus became Roman Emperor on the evening of March 28th, 193 CE. His reign was to last just over two months, and would prove stressful and embarassing for everyone involved with his regime. The proud and energetic victor over the Chauci and Chatti was a stingy and frightened little man during his brief stint as emperor.
It could be argued that Julianus has no place on the list of "official" emperors. His term was but a tiny speed-bump between the established regimes of Pertinax and Severus. There is no evidence that any province, governor, or military unit outside of Italy supported his claim to the purple; indeed many of the provinces may not have been aware of him until he was already dead. In name he was the ruler of the Roman Empire, in practice he was barely able to keep a precarious hold over Rome herself.
Julianus' first act was to declare Pertinax a god. It was "the Successor's" final tribute to a friend and a colleague. Julianus also executed the powerful Praetorian prefect Quintus Aemilius Laetus, on the grounds that the latter had been instrumental in the murders of both Commodus and Pertinax. Other members of the plot against Commodus, including his Christian mistress Marcia, were sent to their deaths by Julianus.
Laetus was replaced with two prefects, Titus Flavius Genealis and Tullius Crispinus. The Guard itself was apparently reorganized, and the soldiers who had killed Pertinax were put to death. Despite being Julianus' rival, Flavius Sulpicianus was spared and was allowed to continue his decorated public career, in a rare display of professional courtesy. Julianus apparently promised donatives not only to the Praetorians but also to the common people; when these gifts failed to materialize the mob became hostile towards Julianus.
The Emperor apparently couldn't leave his Palace without being assaulted by commoners, throwing stones and chanting "robber and parricide!" Others prayed to Pescennius Niger, the governor of Syria, to march on Rome and deliever them from this cheapskate usurper. Julianus made no attempt to punish these protestors, a testimony both to their numbers and to the weakness of his regime.
When word of Pertinax's death reached the provinces, three different governors proclaimed themselves emperor Decimus Clodius Albinus of Britain, Lucius Septimius Severus of Pannonia, and Lucius Pescennius Niger of Syria. Severus was the closest to Rome, and by declaring Albinus his "Caesar" he bought off the western legions for the time being. He marched on Rome with an army of three legions and accompanying auxiliary units. The common people of Rome as well as the rest of Italy rejoiced at these developments; Julianus panicked.
Julianus sent his Praetorian prefect Crispinus to Severus, offering to make Severus Julianus' Caesar. Insulted by this notion, Severus murdered Crispinus and continued his advance on the Mother City. Rome herself was in an uproar. It had been a century and a half since a Roman army had actually marched on Rome; legionary units were forbidden from even entering Italy.
Julianus was desperate to find competent soldiery. The Praetorians were lacking in discipline; the Emperor's frenzied attempts to impose classic Roman discipline on them were met with laughter and sneers of contempt. Julianus called marines from the Misenum Fleet to Rome; upon arrival, however, they were more interested in chasing women and making drunken nusiances of themselves than defending the increasingly hapless emperor. Gladiators and slaves were drafted into Julianus' makeshift army; the emperor even pulled elephants from the circus into his army, but these proved impossible to ride or tame sufficiently.
Apparently all these military mishaps caused the senators barely concealed amusement. Julianus simply had no luck at all. This became increasingly apparent in the final week of May, when it became clear that there was no military force in Italy that had both the ability and the desire to resist Severus' advance. On June 1st of 193, the Senate reneged their allegiance to Julianus and declared Severus emperor. Julianus barricaded himself in his palace.
In his final hours, Julianus was abandoned by his Praetorians. The Guardsmen proved to be as treacherous as they were expensive. Besides his wife and daughter, only one person remained loyal to the abandoned emperor, his son-in-law Sextus Cornelius Repentinus, who stood at Julianus' side at great risk to his own life and career. On the morning of June 2nd, the Senate hired a soldier, probably a Praetorian, to infiltrate the Palace and execute Julianus. The deed was carried out quietly and quickly; Julianus allegedly died protesting "what wrong have I done? Who have I killed?"
A week later Severus entered Rome, and was recognized by the Senate, who issued a damnatio memoriae on Julianus. Severus had scornfully disregarded Julianus in life, but in death he was surprisingly kind. The Praetorian cohorts were disbanded and reformed with veterans from Pannonia; the officers who had abandoned Julianus were executed. Julianus' now-decomposing body was handed over to his wife, daughter, and son-in-law, who laid him to rest just outside of Rome.
Marcus Didius Severus Julianus was a successful man, but the tumultuous events of the last three months of his life cast a negative aura on the many achievements of his ealier career. He was one of Rome's finest generals during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, conducting himself with courage and skill against several enemies. He was a talented and intelligent man who lived a colorful life, earning a reputation for administrative and military excellence in provincial posts across the Empire.
On the other hand, Julianus was a vain and greedy individual, desperate not only for wealth, but for recognition. His conduct as emperor was neither inspired nor tyrannical - it was all the behavior of a man who had sought the purple to indulge his own ego, to make an everlasting name for himself. Julianus recognized only too late how unnecessary, and how dangerous, his pitiful graspings for power would prove to be.
Julianus was a man who should have died elderly, tired, and in bed, surrounded by his family and hallowed by his descendants. Instead, he died around the age of sixty, still alert and healthy, but destined to be branded a greedy and power-hungry coward. In the last two months of his life, he achieved the immorality of historical remembrance, and he lived long enough to wish he hadn't.
He was the man who bought the Roman Empire. But he paid in gold, in an era when successful emperors paid in the blood of brave soldiers.