Didius Julianus: The Man Who Bought An Empire

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Podcast Transcript

Throughout the history of the Roman Empire, there were 96 men who are considered to have been Roman Emperors from Augustus to Romulus Augustulus.

Most of them came to power via being appointed by their predecessor, or through military conquest, or through good old-fashioned scheming and treachery.

However, there was one man who ascended to the title of emperor in a totally unique way.

Learn more about Didius Julianus, and how he became Roman Emperor in an auction, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you have never heard of Didius Julianus I wouldn’t worry about it too much. 

In the big scheme of things, his impact on history was pretty minor. He didn’t conquer any territories, he didn’t reform the Roman state, he didn’t even commit heinous acts to be known as a bad emperor.  Even if he wanted to do any of these things, he wasn’t able to because his reign was so short. 

In fact, the only reason why anyone really remembers him is because of how he became emperor. 

So who was Didius Julianus and what were the circumstances which allowed him to come to power? 

Didius Julianus had a pretty privileged upbringing. He was born around the year 133 in what was then the city of Mediolanum which is the modern-day city of Milan. 

His family was extremely wealthy, which is the one thing about him you probably need to know. 

Two of his ancestors on his mother’s side were consuls which was a very big deal in Rome. It gave him and his family a great deal of prestige.

He was raised in the household of a woman named Domitia Calvilla, who was the mother of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. With her support, he began a career in public service and began to climb the Cursus Honorum. Here I’ll refer you to my previous episode all about the Cursus Honorum and the various offices that you could hold. 

He became a quaestor, then became an aedile, and then was appointed as praetor in the year 162. 

He was appointed the head of the XXII Legion where he performed well. 

In 170, he was appointed the governor of Gallia Belgica, which is centered around modern-day Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. While he was there, he was noted for fighting off the Germanic Chauci tribe.

In 175, after his governorship, he was appointed consul which is the apex of almost any Roman political career. He was later appointed governor of the provinces of Dalmatia and Germania Inferior.

So, Didius Julianus had a pretty good career going at this point and he had esteemed himself as a Roman. 

He was then appointed by the Emperor Commodus to distribute money to the poor in Milan. This is considered by most historians to have been a demotion because he was probably accumulating too much power, so the emperor wanted to knock him down a notch.

He was eventually put on trial, having been accused of taking part in a plot to kill Commodus. 

Just as an aside, if there was one emperor who probably deserved to be killed, it would have been Commodus, who was unquestionably one of the worst emperors in history. If you’ve seen the movie Gladiator, Joaquin Phoenix played Commodus. This will probably be the topic of a future episode.

Anyway, Didius Julianus ended up being acquitted and was later appointed as the governor of Bithynia, which is today the northern coast of Turkey, as well as serving as proconsul of North Africa. 

Eventually, someone did kill Commodus. He was killed on December 31, 192. 

With the start of the new year on January 1, the new emperor was a guy named Pertinax. The year 193 became known as the Year of Five Emperors. 

Here I need to point out the power and influence of the Praetorian Guard. 

The Praetorian Guard was the personal guard of the Emperor and also served as a police force within Rome. Starting with the emperor Claudius, they began to take a role in determining who the emperor was going to be. 

When someone became Emperor, it was common to give the Praetorian Guard a bonus, which was basically a glorified bribe. 

When Commodus was killed, the Praetorian Guard marched across Rome, grabbed Pertinax, who was serving as the urban prefect which was kind of like the mayor, brought him back to their barracks, and named him emperor.

To be fair, Pertinax didn’t do a horrible job and he tried to bring things back to the days of Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor before Commodus, and Marcus Aurelius was generally considered to be a good emperor.

The problem was, that Pertinax didn’t give the Praetorians their bonus. He eventually sold off a bunch of properties owned by Commodus to pay them, but he didn’t make many friends. However, he tried to reform the Praetorian Guard to make them subject to more discipline, which also didn’t go over well. 

Eventually, on March 28, a group of 300 Praetorian Guard stormed the imperial palace and killed Pertinax. He was emperor for only 87 days. 

The death of Pertinax created a power vacuum as there was no obvious person who would become emperor. 

What happened next was one of the most ridiculous and absurd scenes in all of Roman history. 

Pertinax’s father-in-law, Titus Flavius Claudius Sulpicianus, who was the prefect of Rome, went to the Praetorian camp. Supposedly, he went there to quell a disturbance with the praetorians.

However, while he was there, he began to make an offer to have himself declared emperor. 

Many of the praetorians had misgivings at first thinking that Sulpicianus probably wanted to get revenge for the death of his son-in-law.

They let him into the camp where he began making his case for being emperor. 

While this was happening, Didius Julianus showed up at the camp. 

With Sulpicianus inside the camp making his case, Julianus was outside the camp shouting his case. 

The real thing that the Praetorian Guard cared about, of course, was money, and it eventually became a bidding war between Sulpicianus and Julianus. 

This went on for several hours with Sulpicianus making a bid of 20,000 silver sesterces per praetorian.

Julianus, fearing he would lose the throne, made a bid of 25,000 sesterces to each praetorian. 

There were about 8,000 praetorians, which meant a payment of 200,000,000 sesterces.

Sulpicianus couldn’t match the bid, and so Didius Julianus was proclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard.

It is very difficult to try to make comparisons between ancient and modern finances. However, we do know that 25,000 sesterces was about the equivalent of 10 years salary for the average member of the Praetorian Guard, or the value of 10 horses.

I’ve seen modern conversions of a sesterce that would put the total amount bid by Didius Julianus somewhere between a quarter billion to one billion contemporary US dollars.

Pretty much from the moment he purchased the imperial throne, things began going downhill for Didius Julianus. 

For starters, absolutely no one respected him. Earning the title of Emperor on the field of battle, or through birth, or even by appointment was something the average Roman could respect. Buying it outright in an auction was something everyone looked down on. 

The senate declared him emperor, which is why he is on the list of Roman emperors, but they only did that because of the threat of violence by the Praetorian Guard. 

Whenever he went out, crowds would gather to insult him and they would often throw stones at him. They would call him a robber and a thief.

It wasn’t just the fact that he purchased the throne either. What little he did proved to be extremely unpopular. 

After Commodus died, the senate issued a Damantio Memoriae decrease against him, requiring that his name be erased from history. I’ll reference my episode on that subject here. 

Didius Julianus was going to reverse the decree because Commodus was popular with the Praetorian Guard, even if everyone else hated him. 

During the brief time Pertinax was emperor, he tried to reverse the Commodus’s debasing of the coinage. Julianus, reversed the reversal, making the coins less valuable once again. 

Word of Julianus’s buying the emperorship spread, three different generals across the empire were acclaimed emperor by their legions. 

Pescennius Niger in Syria, Septimius Severus in the province of Pannonia on the Danube River, and Clodius Albinus in Brittania. 

Julianus’s lack of popularity and the rise of three different claimants to the throne wasn’t his biggest problem, however. That was a lack of money. 

It turns out that he didn’t have as much money as he had promised, and there also wasn’t that much in the treasury. 

The Praetorian Guard might have been the military force in the city of Rome, but the truth was they really weren’t that good at fighting battles. Because their job was guarding and policing, they were no match for a real Roman legion out on the frontiers of the empire. 

Septimius Severus, who had the largest number of legions, was also closest to Rome of the three claimants. He immediately began to march on Rome with his men. 

It isn’t known if he crushed the Praetorian Guard in battle or if the praetorians just defected en masse to Septimius Severus. Either way, they quickly became a non-factor in imperial politics.

When Septimius Severus entered Rome, the senate quickly and gladly turned on Didius Julianus. They declared Septimius Severus emperor, deified Pertinax, and sentenced Julianus to death. 

With everyone having abandoned him, a team of Severus’s soldiers entered the imperial palace and killed Didius Julianus.

According to the historian Cassius Dio, his last words were “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?”

He served as emperor for a total of 66 days, and after his death, the Senate passed a resolution of Damnatio Memorae against him. He died at the age of 57.

Septimius Severus dissolved the praetorian guard for obvious reasons and ended up establishing the Severan Dynasty. 

Didius Julianus ended up becoming a footnote to Roman history. Other than how he obtained the imperial throne, there really wasn’t anything about him that was noteworthy. 

Had he not bought the imperial throne, he probably would have been well respected and have lived a much longer life. 

However, had he done that, I probably also wouldn’t have been doing a podcast episode about him.