The Year of The Five Emperors

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Every so often, the series Dr. Who would have a special episode where multiple versions of the time-traveling Doctor would appear on the same episode. 

I think they probably ripped the idea off from the Roman empire, where they had several years with multiple emperors. 

So, fresh off talking about the year of four emperors, we might as well go straight into the year it was even worse. 

Learn more about the year 193, the Year of the Five Emperors on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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This episode is sponsored by Audible.com.

My audiobook recommendation today is Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine by Barry Strauss.

Barry Strauss’ Ten Caesars is the story of the Roman Empire from rise to reinvention, from Augustus, who founded the empire, to Constantine, who made it Christian and moved the capital east to Constantinople.

During these centuries, Rome gained in splendor and territory, then lost both. The empire reached from modern-day Britain to Iraq, and gradually, emperors came not from the old families of the first century but from men born in the provinces, some of whom had never even seen Rome. By the fourth century, the time of Constantine, the Roman Empire had changed so dramatically in geography, ethnicity, religion, and culture that it would have been virtually unrecognizable to Augustus.

You can get a free one month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.

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As we last left our empire, the year 69 saw upheaval and the transition from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty to the Flavian Dynasty starting with the emperor Vespasian. 

When the Flavian Dynasty collapsed in the year 96, there wasn’t the chaos we saw back in 69. When Domitian died, the Senate appointed a career public servant named Nerva to the job.

Nerva was old and was more of a transition emperor, only lasting 15 months on the job before passing away. However, he adopted a young general named Trajan, who replaced him.

This was the start of probably the greatest period in the history of the Roman Empire. It was known to historians as the five good emperors and for 84 years the Empire knew peace and reasonably good rules. 

These emperors were collectively known as the Nerva–Antonine dynasty, and what they have in common is that all of the successor emperors were adopted by the emperor before them. Imperial rule wasn’t passed along by bloodlines, but rather by worthiness for the job. 

Of course, this couldn’t last forever. The last of the five good emperors was Marcus Aurelius, who passed the throne to his natural son Commodus. 

Needless to say, Commodus was not one of the five good emperors. 

Commodus was the emperor depicted in the movie Gladiator. While the movie wasn’t even close to being accurate, it did convey the gist of what you need to know: Commodus was a horrible emperor. 

Just as the year of the four emperors started the year before with a bad emperor, Nero, so too did the year of the five emperors start the year before with a bad one, Commodus. 

Commodus was crazy and paranoid, and like so many emperors, was eventually assassinated. In fact, he was assassinated on December 31, 192, only a few hours away from making the title of this episode, the year with six emperors.

Commodus’s assassination was part of a liquidation of many Roman nobles on New Year’s Eve. We Commodus himself was killed, there weren’t a whole lot of people left who could assume the position of emperor. 

The Senate gave the job to one Publius Helvius Pertinax. He had worked his way up the ranks and was one of the few remaining nobles left standing after the cleansing by Commodus. 

He made the fatal mistake that so many emperors had made: he didn’t pay off the Praetorian Guard, who were the troops who were the personal guard of the emperor. Not only that, but he took away many of the perks which were given to them by Commodus.

Shocking no one, on March 28, Pertinax was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard. 

What the Praetorian Guard did next was unprecedented. They auctioned off the Imperial throne. They literally sold it to the highest bidder. 

The winner of the auction was one Marcus Didius Julianus, emperor number two.

Didius Julianus had been a consul and the proconsul of Africa, but as it turns out, buying your rule via an auction wasn’t really the best way to secure power. The people hated him and insulted him and pelted him with objects wherever he went in Rome. No one respected him and no one really took his claim to being emperor seriously. 

Moreover, after the death of Pertinax, three different generals from the provinces claimed the Imperial throne. Here is where we get emperors three, four, and five.

Pescennius Niger was the governor of Syria. 

Clodius Albinus was the governor of Britain. 

Septimius Severus was the governor of Pannonia Superior, which today consists of parts of Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

If you look at a list of Roman Emperors, all three of these men are not listed. They were all claimants at the same time, so it wasn’t like the Year of the Four Emperors where they were emperor sequentially. 

As you can guess from this arrangement, with three generals scattered across the empire, all with armies, a civil war was inevitable. 

Septimius Severus was close to Pertinax, and when he was assassinated most people assumed that the throne would go to Severus. 

Severus, also being the closest of the three generals to Rome, headed there immediately.

Didius Julianus knew that Severus was coming, unfortunately, the only troops he had under his control was the Praetorian Guard. They were powerful in Rome, but they had no experience fighting in the field. He tried to get them to train outside of the city, but in the end, it didn’t matter. 

Didius Julianus was assassinated only 66 days after buying his way to power, and Septimius Severus waltzed into Rome with almost no opposition. 

He dismissed the Praetorian Guard and killed the men responsible for the assassination of Pertinax. 

The Senate proclaimed Severus as emperor and declared Didius Julianus damnatio memoriae, where all mention of him was to be destroyed. Please refer to my previous episode on the subject. 

Severus controlled the Italian peninsula, but he had enemies to the east and enemies to the west. 

What do you do? These events started in the year 193, but it took several years to resolve them. 

As I mentioned in the previous episode about the Year of Four Emperors, the wealth in the Roman Empire lied in the east. This is where the money and grain was, so this was where his attention went first. 

However, to do that, he had to pacify the west, and that meant pacifying Clodius Albinus.  

He gave Clodius the title of “Caesar”. The two of them shared the consulship in the year 194, this was enough to keep Clodius happy in the west. Now Severus could focus on Pescennius Niger. 

Even though the East was rich, Pescennius Niger’s military strength wasn’t close to Severus. 

Severus had 16 legions and Niger only had 6. 

Over a series of three battles, culminating in the battle of Issus, the same place where Alexander the Great won his biggest battle, Severus defeated Niger. He attempted to flee, but was captured and beheaded. 

Three emperors down, two left. 

Having secured the east, and the wealth and legions and grain that went with it, he could now focus on the west. 

Clodius assumed that when he was given the title “caesar” that meant that he was to be next in line to the throne. This was not to be. 

Severus named his sons to be next in line, which caused Clodius Albinus to declare himself emperor in the year 197.

The two met at the Battle of Lugdunum, and Clodius Albinus was soundly defeated, leaving Septimius Severus as the sole ruler of Rome.

He began the Severan Dynasty, which to be honest, gave Rome some of the worst emperors in history. His son Caracallas was horrible and Elagabalus, his grandson-in-law, is considered by many to be the worst emperor of them all.

The Roman empire eventually became more unstable with even more turnover in emperors and a whole lot more assassinations. 

Believe it or not, only 45 years after the year of five emperors there was a year with six emperors.