By indexer
4 years ago

For sale - The Roman Empire

Let us suppose that instead of going through the wearisome 4-yearly process of holding primaries and then a presidential election, the American constitution was set aside and the office of President was announced on eBay as being available to the highest bidder. It would certainly take nothing like as long, although some might claim that the arrangement lacked a little something in terms of democratic endorsement! Could it happen? Well, something very similar did actually happen in the year 193, during a turbulent period in the history of the Roman Empire.

Wanted: a successor to an unworthy Emperor

The emperor Commodus had proved to be a latter-day Caligula, in that he had become emperor at a young age (20 in the case of Commodus), had allowed his unworthy favourites to have far too much influence, and had led a thoroughly debauched life including fighting as a gladiator, demanding to be worshipped, and eventually being murdered by people who feared for their own lives were he to live any longer.

One consequence of his reign was that the Praetorian Guard, the troops under the direct command of the emperor who were supposed to be an elite fighting force and the emperor’s personal bodyguard, had become ill-disciplined and more interested in acquiring personal wealth and living the good life than anything else.

When Commodus was removed in December 192, the new emperor, Pertinax, had a very different attitude and sought to lick the Guard into shape with a regime of enforced discipline. He was from an older generation, aged 66 at his accession, who had originally been a schoolmaster and then a soldier, rising through the ranks from centurion to general. Although the new approach was no doubt welcomed by many in Rome, who were sickened by the downward moral spiral of Commodus’s imperial court, the Guard foresaw their privileged and luxurious lifestyle coming to an end and were determined not to let that happen. Consequently, Pertinax was murdered after a reign of less than three months’ duration.

What would the Praetorian Guard do next?

The Praetorian Guard now faced a dilemma. Once news reached the outer reaches of the empire that the post of emperor was again vacant, new candidates were declared for the post, these being military men who were far more likely to resemble Pertinax in their attitude towards military discipline than Commodus. The Guard needed a new Commodus, who would lavish favours upon his closest aides, but how was such a one to be found?

Somebody then came up with a brilliant idea, or so it must have seemed at the time. The person who would pay them most for the job should be the new emperor. Their loyalty was up for sale, and bids would now be accepted.

An auction is held

Two bidders soon appeared on the scene. These were Flavius Sulpicianus, a prefect of the city, and Didius Salvius Julianus, a senator (aged about 60, pictured above on a coin) who had held various military and civil posts and grown to be enormously wealthy.

The conduct of the auction was somewhat farcical, because Sulpicianus was inside the army camp, having gone there to try to placate the troops, and Julianus was on the outside, having learned about the auction while at a banquet and persuaded by his wife and daughter to go along and make a bid.

It would appear that the soldiers were not prepared to allow a senator to enter the camp, so he stood at the gate and shouted his bids, these being relayed back and forth by the soldiers standing inside the gate. The process was therefore not unlike a modern auction in which one of the bidders is in the room and the other is on the telephone, with an employee of the auction house announcing the bids on his behalf.

What was being debated was not so much the value of the imperial office as the size of bribe that the candidates were prepared to offer the members of the Guard. It was therefore an utterly corrupt and despicable procedure. Sulpicianus’s final bid was 20,000 sestercii per man, but Julianus topped it to bid 25,000 sestercii, at which the guards threw open the gates and declared Julianus to be the new emperor.

Not such a good idea after all

If we take on board the fact that the pay for a legionary at this time was around 1,300 sestercii a year, this offer represented an enormous bonus, and it had to be multiplied by the number of men in the Praetorian Guard, which could have been something like 2,000. Even given the vast reputed wealth of men like Julianus, the size of this sum puts into perspective his desire for the imperial honour.

However, having achieved the crown, he must have started to regret his decision quite soon afterwards. The Senate was forced to accept the decision of the Praetorian Guard, although clearly with great reluctance. The people of Rome also thought that this was an extremely shabby procedure, such that Julianus was given no respect whatsoever, with insults and even stones being thrown in his direction as he passed by.

Things were to get even worse for him as the troops of Septimius Severus approached Rome. No field commander would accept Julianus as emperor, and their combined forces were clearly much greater than those that could be mustered by the Praetorian Guard, which was in no shape to act as an effective military force, having given up proper soldiering years before.

Julianus offered to share the empire with Severus, but the latter would have none of it, instead offering a deal to the Praetorian Guard to be lenient with them if they gave up the murderers of Pertinax to face justice. This was clearly their safest bet and the one they accepted. The Senate was also emboldened to declare their loyalty to Severus and pass a death sentence on Julianus.

Julianus was killed in his palace by a member of the Guard that had organised his purchase of the empire less than three months previously. Severus executed the guards who had killed Pertinax, and then disbanded the Praetorian Guard altogether, later reconstituting it from a fresh beginning.

The experiment of auctioning the imperial office had been a dismal failure that besmirched the honour of Rome, and it was not an idea that was ever repeated.
4 years
carmen3521 Good content
4 years
4 years
Justin Very interesting????
4 years