Chapter Seven

The Crisis of 193

Commodus as emperor was extravagant, irresponsible, intellectually lazy, administratively incompetent and all too willing to have others do his work. (That is, he was exactly the son Marcus Aurelius brought up, having had no training for his job.) Obsessed with the arena in the same way that Nero had been with music and the stage, he is counted as one of the worst of emperors. There seems no doubt he was a neglectful ruler, obsessed with his own pleasures, but this was not necessarily bad for the Empire. If he chose good administrators he could reign without having to rule, entertaining people the while. That he lasted for twelve years as sole ruler was partly due to the vigilance of those who surrounded him, and partly to the fact that he was genuinely popular among the ordinary people in Rome; yet he regularly insulted, humiliated and executed those around him who did the work he should have been doing. Needless to say, he was the object of regular plots against his life throughout his reign, but for ten years (the first plot was in 182), he survived.

In the end the plot that removed him – in the only way possible, by assassination – was concocted by a group of his friends and ministers who finally understood that they were going to be his next victims. He had made no attempt to nominate a successor, no doubt from a well-founded suspicion that this would make him an even more inviting target, but he was only 30 years old when he died, and he might have expected as long a life again. Several plots came and went without result, except for the execution of the plotters. The one that succeeded was organized not just by people with access to the man himself, but in the knowledge that they had a willing and credible replacement emperor available. Many of the earlier plots were fuelled simply by anger or envy, and so they failed.

The final plot was, as with earlier cases, only superficially spontaneous. The Prefect of the Guard, Q. Aemilius Laetus, appointed only in 191, and the Chamberlain of the Palace, Eclectus, appointed at about the same time, came to understand that they were going to be killed on or soon after New Year’s Day 193; the later story was also that the new consuls, the first of the year 193 – that is, the ordinarii – were to be executed even as they took up their office and that Commodus would then install himself as sole consul. This seems too extravagant even for Commodus, who, whatever else he was, was not a fool. It is, in fact, a classic example of an invented postcrisis story developed to justify to the Senate what had already occurred. (There are similar propaganda stories attached to the murder of Domitian.) Laetus and Eclectus determined to strike first. They would have appreciated the widespread fear and hatred of the emperor among the senatorial class, inspired by Commodus’ behaviour. Cassius Dio, a member of that class, has a chilling story of the emperor slaughtering beasts in the arena, and at one point stopping before Dio and his group, hefting his sword and holding up several ostrich heads and grinning at the men.

The plotters enlisted the emperor’s mistress, Marcia, as their instrument, and she administered a poison but this did not work. An athlete called Narcissus, the emperor’s trainer, was sent in to kill him in the bath. Commodus was a strong, fit man, and a strong, fit man was required to kill him. This attempt succeeded. Even those closest to the emperor had come to tire of his behaviour and to fear for their lives; one cannot imagine what a state Commodus himself had reached by this time. He may well have welcomed death as a release from a life that cannot have been less than a torment.

The official version of his death implies that it was a sudden decision to kill him by a group of imperial servants who felt threatened, but this looks to be a way of removing the senators involved from any blame. A whole series of other stories are told that were intended to display just how unbalanced Commodus had become, including that in which Commodus planned to kill the consuls. The plot, however, was not simply a sudden decision based on the fears of a few palace servants. It was a long-planned, well-conducted, very successful coup d’état. The central figure was not the Guard Prefect or any of the Palace servants or officials, but the Prefect of the City, P. Helvius Pertinax, a remarkable figure who had climbed through the military and administrative ranks from being the son of a freedman to twice holding the consul’s office. On the way he had commanded legions and governed the major provinces of Syria, Britannia and Africa. He was made Prefect of the City in 189, and so was in command of the Urban Cohorts, a disciplined force of about 1,500 men who acted as a police force in the city.

To have survived so long, to have held so many offices, to be popular with the plebs and respected by the Senate, and to retain a reputation for probity indicates remarkable abilities in Pertinax. Note that he had also survived three years in an official position that brought him into frequent contact with Commodus; note also that Commodus must have appointed him in the first place, suggesting acute judgement in the emperor. For Pertinax was also a loyalist, and had revealed the existence of at least one plot to the emperor. However, Commodus’ deteriorating behaviour had apparently finally convinced even Pertinax that for the wellbeing of the Empire, the emperor had to be removed. (Yet it is surely a tribute to Commodus’ judgement that Pertinax was so well and consistently employed throughout his reign.)

The evidence that the plot was not a spontaneous killing lies in part in the fact that Pertinax was in place at the time of the murder in order to claim the throne. In this the coup d’état had similarities with that of Nerva nearly a century before, but there were differences suggesting that lessons had been learned both from that affair and from the failure of the series of anti-Commodus plots in the previous decade. It had been a failure to understand the correct procedure that doomed the earlier plots to failure.1

Pertinax was not actually in the Palace when the killing took place, but then neither was Commodus who disliked the Palace and had moved into a smaller house in the Caelian Hill. Yet Pertinax was certainly available, and he was the first man the conspirators informed when they knew that Commodus was actually dead. He sent a friend to check that this was true (thus avoiding Avidius Cassius’ mistake, another lesson learned), then he went to the camp of the Guard, where Laetus was in command, and he made a speech, stating that Commodus was dead – he claimed that it was natural – and that Laetus and Eclectus had proposed him for emperor.

Here was the second difference from the events of 96. Pertinax and his fellow plotters felt that they had to have the Guard’s acquiescence before anything else, even though the Guard Prefect was part of the plot. The Senate was still sidelined; the effects of 97 still operated and the Guard took some persuading. Pertinax alluded to ‘many disturbing features about the present situation’, probably referring to the fact that the Treasury was empty, but to the soldiers this seemed threatening. The Guard had not seen any fighting for a dozen years and had no wish to get involved in warfare, which may have been what the soldiers thought he meant. They required reassurance and needed the sight of a confident man in command, but they saw an old man, not a good orator, referring to ‘disturbing features’ and seeming to be nervous, as he surely was, but they got the idea that he meant to go to war. As with Nerva’s coup, the Guard had been content with the dead emperor and had no wish to change things.2

The Guard was temporarily won over and Pertinax at once turned to the less important institution, the Senate. It took some time to open up the Senate House and assemble the senators (it was still night-time), but he was obviously safe with these men. They had been humiliated by Commodus, their colleagues had been murdered, and Cassius Dio’s description of his reign makes it clear that most of them hated him. General respect for the senators cannot have been very great, for they had on the whole endured these killings and humiliations without protest, which, of course, would only have brought about more killings. Yet the sequence of events in the House shows that the Senate as a whole was still composed of a formidable group of men. Before voting Pertinax the imperial powers, there was a celebration of Commodus’ demise and a discussion as to what to do with his body. Pertinax told the senators he had already ordered it to be buried, and there was some grumbling about this for some voted to punish the dead man’s body. In place of revenging themselves on his corpse, however, the Senate voted that his statues should be overthrown.

Then, after these preliminary but surely deeply satisfying measures, symbolically themselves assassinating the dead man, the imperial powers were voted to Pertinax, including, unusually, pater patriae, which was normally taken up only after some years. He did, however, refuse the titles of Augusta and Caesar for his wife and son, and indicated that he himself would prefer to use the title princeps senatus. This was clearly thought out in advance, and the decision to deny his son the title of Caesar carried with it the clear indication that he did not accept the hereditary principle, and this was in a sense confirmed by his choice of title, which was the old Republican term for the senior senator. The further implication was that Pertinax saw the emperor as no more than the chief member of the Senate, and that in his reign the Senate would have a much more active part in government than for the past century and more. He was intending to reverse the verdict of 97 and perhaps even the victory of Augustus in the civil war that ended the Republic, and to restore governing power to the Senate. It would also seem that the position of successor was now open, and that the choice was to be the Senate’s.3

No doubt the senators were pleased, but many of the Guard were not. Their original acceptance of him had been reluctant and many were not happy at having an emperor in his 60s, or at the thought that he might take them off to actual war once more. The fact that Pertinax had gone to them first perhaps gave the Guardsmen an inflated sense of their importance in the succession issue; no doubt references were made to their participation in the elevations of Claudius and Nero and in the murders of Galba and his chosen successor.

A further indication that the coup was long prepared and that only the moment of action was spontaneous lies in the series of provincial appointments that had been made in the previous year. The governorships of four of the most well-garrisoned provinces – Moesia Inferior, Dacia, Pannonia Superior and Britannia – had gone to men from Africa, and it seems that at least three other governors – those of Egypt, Asia and Africa – were connected personally and politically with these men. The source of these appointments seems to have been the Guard Prefect Laetus, also an African. The implication is that this was a cabal aiming at securing control of the provinces and the main armies in preparation for seizing power at Rome. Of course, this is only a deduction from our knowledge of these appointments; there is actually no direct evidence of this cabal, and another interpretation may simply be that Laetus was obliging his friends. At the same time it looks very much like a new version of the military cabal that propelled Trajan to the imperial throne in 97.

It is more suggestive still that none of these men made any move when the news of Commodus’ murder reached them. It is, of course, not clear what they could or should have done, but in the pattern of 68 or 97, one or more might have put himself forward as a replacement in competition with Pertinax, but none of them did. This is not to say that these men were part of the conspiracy in Rome. Some of them did not believe the news when the couriers arrived and put them in jail until confirmation arrived, assuming it was either a trick by Commodus or a provocation by some plotters. However, their lack of reaction indicates the general antipathy towards Commodus in the provinces and the army as well as in the Senate, and a certain pleasure at his replacement by Pertinax, as well, perhaps, as foreknowledge of the plot in some cases.

So there was no re-run of any of the previous coups. Not only was the exact set of conditions different, as always, but also time and experience had moved on. Lessons from earlier failures dictated that the conspirators had to have a new emperor ready, willing and on the spot when Commodus was killed. This may well have taken the plotters some time to arrange; volunteering to head a plot was not something every senator would do. Yet others could learn from the past as well. The Guardsmen were clearly convinced of their crucial role, and persistently indicated dissatisfaction with the new regime.

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On 3 January, only two days after Pertinax’ elevation, some Guardsmen tried a coup of their own, putting forward one of the new consuls as their candidate, the well-connected senator Triarius Maternus. He simply fled to Pertinax for protection. The other consul, Q. Sosius Falco, was involved in another plot later, also instigated, it seems, by Guardsmen; Falco is alleged to have known nothing about it, but since he was probably a grandson of Hadrian’s first choice of successor, L. Ceionius Commodus, a fact that was no doubt public knowledge, it seems unlikely that he was a dupe. (See Genealogical Table X(a).) It is more likely that he was naïvely ambitious and too easily persuaded. These were typically amateurish attempts and rightly failed.

In fact, deeper investigation shows that these men were related in a fairly distant way, but Falco also seems to have been connected with the Antonine royal family. Two other men who appear in the story of the coup of 193 were also involved: Ti. Claudius Pompeianus and M. Acilius Glabrio, both of whom were married to Antonine women. In the course of events during the night of the coup, Pertinax met Pompeianus in the Temple of Concord and urged him to take the post of emperor, but Pompeianus refused; later in the Senate Pertinax is said to have urged the claims of Glabrio, who also refused. It is at that point that Pertinax accepted installation on condition that his family were not given imperial titles, and that he was to be known as princeps senatus, not ‘Augustus’. Pertinax was thus being installed as a stopgap candidate until someone else was available, perhaps a son of Pompeianus or Glabrio. This would thus open the way for other men – Maternus or Falco, for example – who might be considered candidates because of their connections to the (former) royal family. Of these men, two refused out of prudence, and the others, the new consuls, either refused or were thought unsuitable. (For the conjectural connections of these candidates, see Genealogical Tables X (a) to (c).)

If Pertinax was considered to be a temporary emperor awaiting replacement this explains in part the attitude of the Guard, and the hesitations he showed in his speech at the barracks. However, the longer the temporary emperor lasted, the more the Guard would be unhappy. The antipathy of the Guard towards Pertinax necessarily increased with each of their failures and with the necessary execution of Guardsmen participants, a process that only enraged their comrades. In the end, on 28 March, a group of 200 or 300 of the men went off to the Palace, swords in hand. The Guard Prefect Laetus avoided them by leaving; Pertinax, over-confident, then went to face them personally. He was as unpersuasive as he had been in the camp on the night of the killing of Commodus. One of the guards ignored his words and killed him.4

As ever, the killing of the emperor did not solve whatever problem or problems the Guardsmen had. This really may have been a spontaneous killing, though the rapid desertion by Laetus is suspicious and some have supposed that he was implicated in the event. Certainly there was no successor in place or immediately available, suggesting spontaneity. Yet it seemed as if the Guard as a whole now held the decisive card, and for a fairly short time this turned out to be so. (One may recall the Guard’s killing of Galba and Piso, and their brief time as Otho’s men.) Some of the men wanted to give the throne to T. Flavius Sulpicianus who was Prefect of the City and Pertinax’ father-in-law; others put forward M. Didius Severus Iulianus. Both men were well-qualified, having been consuls together late in Marcus’ reign and both were previous governors and friends and colleagues of each other and of Pertinax.

It is to the point, perhaps, that none of the former candidates – Pompeianus, Glabrio, Maternus and Falco – were now involved. Their connections with the earlier royal family had been the one thing that linked them, but the murder of Pertinax clearly removed them from consideration. In other words, it was the killing of Pertinax that severed the link between the Antonine family and the imperial throne, not that of Commodus. Note, however, that Sulpicianus was Pertinax’ father-in-law, and that Didius Iulianus was also related to the Erucius family and so was of a distant connection to the former royal family, but this method of gaining the throne paid no attention to such a relationship (see Genealogical Tables X (a) and (b)).

Both Sulpicianus and Iulianus were attracted to the idea of being emperor. Their ages, experience and personal qualities made them suitable candidates, but they made the same mistake as Pertinax himself: they thought that the Guard’s support would be decisive and sufficient. In a notorious scene, they competed with one another, one inside, the other outside the Guard camp, by offering ever bigger donatives to the soldiers of the Guard; Iulianus won. This is sometimes characterized as a ‘sale’ of the Empire by the Guard, but it is hardly that; note that the men may have been rich themselves, but what they were doing was bidding with public money for the post.5

The Senate was therefore faced by the new imperial candidate leading a mass of Guardsmen to the House, carrying standards and arranged in battle array. The men at least had the sense to stay outside, and Iulianus did at least act in a gentlemanly and senatorial way, stating that he felt he was the best qualified man to fill the empty throne. Yet there could be no doubt, he was being made emperor by the Guard, and the Senate, under threat of violence, had no choice but to submit and vote him the imperial powers. The alternative, clearly, would have been a senatorial massacre, something it is doubtful that the Guard would have balked at. However, Iulianus, if he was at all sensitive to the senatorial atmosphere, was surely fully aware that he had little or no support beyond the men of the Guard.

The penalty for the unpreparedness and naïveté of the Guard and the gullibility of Iulianus came in only two months. The governor of Pannonia Superior, L. Septimius Severus, marched on Rome. He had three legions under his command, and had prepared the way by making contact with his neighbours; his brother governed Moesia Inferior (two legions in the garrison), and the governor of Pannonia Inferior was later highly favoured by him (three legions), all three from Africa. These three commands accounted for eight legions. With support or acquiescence from these men and perhaps from the German and Dacian armies (seven legions), his back was covered and he could safely leave his province. He was proclaimed imperator by one of his legions and, after a conventional show of reluctance – which had been conspicuously missing in Iulianus – he announced that he was marching to avenge Pertinax, and even added the dead man’s name to his own.6

Iulianus had no chance of survival now, particularly since Septimius’ forces marched exceptionally quickly. The plebs in Rome had already rioted against him. The provincial armies in Britannia, Hispania and Africa came out for Septimius, though it took the promise of recognition as Septimius’ successor to bring over D. Clodius Albinus, the governor in Britannia; he had ambitions for the throne himself, but was content for the moment with the promise, thus demonstrating a political naïveté not far short of that of Iulianus, which would bode ill for him. More decisively, in Syria the governor C. Pescennius Niger had himself proclaimed emperor and since he controlled, either by himself or through associates, sixteen legions, he had good support, but his distance from Italy meant that he was effectively neutral in the decisive arena. The Senate, now that it had a countervailing armed support, proved capable of defying Iulianus. Emissaries and assassins sent by Iulianus to intercept Septimius alike failed, and even the fickle Guard mostly deserted him. When Septimius sent an order to the Guard to arrest the murderers of Pertinax, their obedience signalled to Iulianus that even this prop was being knocked away; he was killed in the empty Palace by a soldier.7

This marked the nadir of the influence of the Guard. It had never been a decisive instrument in the succession, except in the negative sense that it was capable of killing ruling emperors. In making emperors, which is a very different process, the Guard had been entirely and repeatedly unsuccessful. In theory the Guard claimed to have been instrumental in elevating Claudius, but as we have seen, it was in fact the Senate that had a decisive voice; it had been to the Guard that Agrippina had turned in 54 when she wanted Nero to be the sole emperor, but he was the obvious candidate anyway. Nerva’s pleas to the Guard had been disregarded in 97, and this is probably the crucial moment when both Nerva and Trajan recognized that a successor from the army was necessary in order to retain or regain control in the city, for in a physical contest, the Guard’s swords would easily prevail over the Senate’s oratory but the army would prevail over the Guard. Now the Guard had murdered one emperor and then proclaimed and just as quickly deserted another, both of whom had relied on the Guard for support. So at no point, except in 193 in the elimination of Pertinax and Iulianus, had the Guard been more than transiently politically important, and this last cowardly, dishonourable and violent display sealed the Guard’s fate.

Iulianus was not deserted only by the Guard but also by the Senate, which could at least plead that its acceptance of him had been at the swords’ points. Even before he was killed, the Senate had refused to give Iulianus advice on what to do, a clear enough statement in itself, and had then met, summoned by one of the consuls in office, Silius Messalla. A sequence of votes accomplished the required changes. Iulianus was condemned to death as a public enemy (but then so had Septimius a little earlier), the throne was declared vacant, Septimius was proclaimed emperor and Pertinax was deified. A deputation of 100 senators set out to meet and intercept Septimius, whom they found at Interamna, 80 kilometres from the city.8 (The number of senators in the deputation is the same as that which met to choose Claudius; one wonders if this was a coincidence.)

It was clear, from the events of the previous six months, that it would not be possible to keep control of Rome if the present Guard remained there. The army could beat the Guard, but the present necessary situation of the emperor was on the frontier. The Guard’s place was around the emperor, but the Guard had become wholly untrustworthy; Septimius could not go to the city while it was the main armed force there. The news of Niger’s self-proclamation as the rival emperor meant that Septimius would need to march east as soon as possible. The Guard was clearly out of the control of its prefects, and was quite likely to produce another emperor if left in Rome or turn on Septimius if he took it with him or fall to the bribes of another senator as soon as he left.

So this was the first matter requiring attention. The Guard was summoned to meet the new emperor, and ordered to wear parade dress but without weapons. On the spot, Septimius discharged all the men and banished them at least 100 (Roman) miles from the city. It seems likely that he would also have recovered the donatives they had recently been promised. Money was power; it would not do to dismiss the Guard and leave them holding enough money to finance a grasp at power by someone else.9

The Guard being thus disposed of, Septimius entered Rome, carefully changing to civilian dress at the city boundary, though he was still escorted by his armed soldiers, reasonably enough, since an imperial Guard no longer existed. He first went to sacrifice on the Capitol, then to the Palace. By these two visits he enlisted the gods and the imperial administration on his side. He was also doing exactly the same as any other emperor returning to the city. Finally, next day, he went to the Senate House. There, once again guarded by his own armed soldiers, he made a speech in justification of his conduct and proposed a motion by which no senator should be executed by the emperor unless it was by the wish of the Senate itself. No doubt the more cynical senators voted for this in the full knowledge that it would be impossible to make the emperor obey, but it was in the spirit of Pertinax’ assumption of the title princeps senatus, and it implied that Septimius would be much more attentive to the Senate than Commodus had been.

On the other hand, his appearance in the Senate guarded by his own soldiers and a near riot of the donative-demanding troops outside surely conveyed a clear and chilling message to the senators. Septimius was being as intimidating and threatening as any emperor before him, perhaps more than any of those emperors, and certainly more so than any since Trajan or Hadrian. The presence of the armed guards in the actual chamber while he made his speech effectively cancelled out any good impression produced by his theoretical renunciation of the right of senatorial execution.

Presumably it was at this meeting that Septimius was awarded the imperial powers by a vote of the Senate. He had deliberately refrained from taking the full set earlier, though he had assumed proconsular power (which as governor he already had for his province), and had taken the titles of imperator and Augustus. Part of his army demonstrated outside the Senate during the meeting, demanding a donative, and he managed to pacify the soldiers and also to reduce their demands. This, whether intended or not – the whole demonstration and pacification might have been staged – was a clear signal to the Senate that his base of support was the army, not just the fickle Guard; as if, with the new Guard around him and his soldiers filling the city, they could ever forget. It seems likely that the Senate was fairly satisfied with the new man anyway, and would scarcely need a reminder. They were at least rid of Commodus and Iulianus, and of the old Guard.10

From the point of view of the study of how one emperor was succeeded by another, the whole sequence of events from the death of Commodus in December 192 to the arrival of Septimius at the Senate House in June 193 should be taken as a whole. In that half-year at least ten men were proposed or installed as emperor, some with success for a time, though only one of them gained a long-term hold on the position. The question therefore is to decide why it was that L. Septimius Severus succeeded where Pertinax, Iulianus, Sulpicianus, Albinus, Niger, Falco, Maternus, Pompeianus and Glabrio all failed.

It is first necessary to be clear that all these men did fail. It may be that Pertinax and Iulianus are normally listed among the legitimate occupiers of the imperial throne, while the others are relegated to the ranks of pretenders, usurpers, rebels or refusers. A tenure of eighty-seven days (Pertinax) or sixty-six days (Iulianus), followed by their murders, is only a brief success. Falco’s and Triarius’ immediate refusal of the post, and Pompeianus’ and Glabrio’s refusal even to be considered, eliminates them even as candidates. Niger and Albinus held their initial positions for a time – one and four years respectively – and were obeyed in their provinces as emperors, just as those who operated at Rome were obeyed. These therefore succeeded, like Pertinax and Iulianus, only briefly. The author of the Historia Augusta included both Niger and Albinus in the sequence of emperors, albeit writing largely fictitious biographies of them, for in their areas of command they did exercise the imperial powers during their brief reigns. (He had done the same with Avidius Cassius and earlier with the brief Aelius Caesar.) These four, though not usurpers, may therefore be counted as unsuccessful emperors.

Pertinax and Iulianus had gone through the requisite process of acclamation, proclamation and the senatorial voting of the imperial powers, and had the uncertain support of the Guard for a time, but Septimius, Niger and Albinus were only acclaimed by their armies. Niger held a great meeting of soldiers and civilians in Antioch at which he was acclaimed as imperator, and Augustus a distorted facsimile of what occurred in Rome but very similar to the process of acclamation of Galba in Spain while Nero still lived. Albinus seems not to have gone so far, but by failing either to support or oppose Septimius he was able to accept Septimius’ offer of the title of Caesar and the position of successor. Septimius had also taken the titles of imperator and Augustus, based on the support of his troops and his neighbouring governors. His success therefore was due not just to military support, but to the one thing he, Pertinax and Iulianus were all able to do, which was to gain, willingly or not, the Senate’s vote of the imperial powers. His rivals failed to do this. Septimius, in fact, was copying Trajan by being the candidate of a group of generals and governors, but so were his rivals. His control of Rome and the vote of the imperial powers in the Senate gave him a greater degree of legitimacy than the rivals, yet this was only the first stage.

Septimius’ eventual success was thus due to his command of an army that could defeat those of Niger and Albinus, and his acceptance and support from the Senate. That said, he began with the command of only three legions, scarcely enough to prevail if seriously opposed; three legions comprised only one-tenth of the whole Roman army, and if that was all he had he would not have won through. He also proved himself to be a more agile politician and a better general than any of the competitors – the rapid march on Rome and the gentle treatment of the Senate were clever moves – and so it was these qualities that brought him to the throne.

In the bigger picture, however, it was his army that was his instrument of power. The Senate, even though it had participated in the events of 193, was even more sidelined than before. The humiliation heaped upon the senators by Commodus not been erased by Pertinax’ evident respect for them, or by Septimius’ words. Instead, in sequence, the Guard, then Iulianus and his bribe, and then Septimius’ army had demonstrated where power now really lay. It would be a considerable time before the Senate regained the respect that was a necessary foundation for its power.

Septimius was acceptable as emperor because he had the widest imperial support: several governors of garrisoned provinces, a substantial army and a large part of the Senate, even if the latter had to be intimidated first. None of the others commanded such wide support, and those looking to the Guard were the least successful. Septimius’ disbandment of the Guard was thus in a sense superfluous, for the Guard always failed in proclaiming a new emperor, except that in so doing he was safeguarding his own life. The Guard was the least important player in the imperial succession game. Now that it had been disbanded so easily, its place was taken by the Senate as the player with the least serious influence.

Septimius’ success was therefore a more violent repetition of the similar success of Trajan a century earlier. Trajan had revealed the Senate’s essential unimportance in the matter of the succession when confronted with military power. Septimius merely emphasized this, in his own rather more brutal fashion, and Niger and Albinus were, of course, intending to do the same if they could. The Senate had managed to recover considerable prestige since Trajan’s coup only because emperors formally consulted and publicly deferred to it, but in the matter of the succession no emperor had paid much heed to senatorial wishes and, so far as can be seen, the Senate as a body had never proffered collective advice to an emperor on the issue. However, senators were, when a dynasty failed, still always the preferred candidates, but then only those men with command experience were ever candidates; it was their status as soldiers, not as senators, that commanded respect.

The Family of Severus

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Julia Domna, wife of Septimius.

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Caracalla (211–217). (Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons)

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Geta (211–212).

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The Berlin Tondo.

The Later Severans

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Macrinus (217–218).

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Elagabalus (218–222).

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Alexander Severus (222–235).

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