Didius Julianus, the Man Who Bought the Roman Empire
In the year 193 AD an auction took place that sent shockwaves throughout the ancient world, as buyers competed for the greatest prize of a generation, the Roman Empire. Following the murder of emperor Pertinax by his own sworn protectors, the Praetorian Guard, the illustrious Roman Empire, like a piece of prime real estate, was put up for sale, to be given to the highest bidder. In the end, Didius Julianus, a wealthy and influential senator, would emerge as the winner. But as events unfolded, Didius Julianus would start to experience buyer’s remorse. Once a man of honor and respect, his purchase would lead not only to the further fragmentation of the empire, but to his own humiliating demise. Surveying the wreckage, many Roman historians would comment on the events of Didius Julianus’s reign, with some kinder than others.
The Early Life of Didius Julianus Was Almost Perfect
The early life of Didius Julianus was the life of a man of high birth and imperial favor. His father was Petronius Didius Severus, patriarch of the illustrious Petronii family who came from Milan. His mother was Aemillia Clara, who could trace her lineage back to the famous Roman jurist Salvius Julianus Aemillianus.
Didius was raised in the distinguished household of the Antonines by the mother of emperor Marcus Aurelius, Domitia Lucillus, and was part of the sacred college of sodales Antoniniani, a cult which worshipped the emperor. The Antonines were an extremely powerful family who had risen to power with the accession of Antoninus Pius from 138 AD and later Marcus Aurelius from 161.
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Bust of Marcus Aurelius (reign 161–180 AD). (Public Domain)
With his aristocratic connections, Didius enjoyed an accomplished military and political career in the provinces of the vast Roman Empire. His earliest major appointment was as the military legate for the proconsuls of Achaea and Africa in 168 and 169, where he served under the leadership of his relative, Salvius Julianus.
After his promising spell on the fringes of the empire, Didius moved to Belgica, a more important posting, where he had considerable success against the local Germanic tribes. Didius proved his military acumen by foiling the expansionist aims of the Chatti tribe, and later he was able to effectively quash the rebellion of another recalcitrant German foe, the Chauci.
Didius was rewarded for his triumphs with the consulship in 175, the highest Roman office before the emperorship, which he shared with future emperor Pertinax.
After further stints in military positions, Didius turned his talents to charitable work, becoming head of the alimenta in Italy, a welfare program instituted by Emperor Nerva in 97 with the aim of helping the poor children of Italy. During his tenure however, Didius, who by then was a significant player in Roman politics, faced major danger when he was implicated in a conspiracy to overthrow Emperor Marcus Aurelius led by his relative and previous boss, Salvius Julianus. Julianus was executed for treason and Didius was given the more lenient punishment of being exiled to his home city of Milan.
Didius found himself back in favor with Emperor Commodus a few years later, and was appointed pro-consul of Africa in 190, replacing his contemporary Pertinax.
By 193, Didius Julianus was a leading member of the Senate after having achieved a notable career spanning the full range of Roman postings. Didius was venerated by other senators for his high-born pedigree, which was helped by his connection to Marcus Aurelius and the Antonine clan. As a result, when the low-born Pertinax acceded to the throne in early 193, there were many rumblings of discontent from senators who took issue with his humble family origins, and who preferred a man of good birth like Didius Julianus as leader instead.
However, following the murder of Pertinax by his own Praetorian Guard after only three months in power, Didius would attempt to claim the monarchy in a way that appalled many Romans, and which was largely responsible for his immediate fall from grace.
Strange as it may seem, the Praetorian Guard could be “bribed” to sell the Roman Empire, as they did to Didius Julianus. This Praetorians relief with an eagle grasping a thunderbolt through its claws. (JÄNNICK Jérémy / Wikimedia Commons & Louvre-Lens)
Auctioning the Roman Empire to the Highest Bidder: Didius
Like most events in history, the historical accounts that cover Didius Julianus’ power grab and his short reign present conflicting information and interpretations of what happened. Some Roman scholars, such as Dio and Herodian who felt personal animosity towards Didius, condemned his actions and everything he did during his ephemeral rule, while others, such as Ignotus writing centuries later, are more sober and realistic in their analysis.
Dio reported that as soon as Didius Julianus heard about the murder of Pertinax, he rushed to the Praetorian Guard to put in a bid for power, with the disapproving Herodian adding that he was drunk at the time. When Didius arrived, he found the Praetorian Guard were already negotiating with Flavius Sulpicianus, the father-in-law of the recently deceased Pertinax.
Didius was able to successfully outbid Sulpicianus by raising his offer from 1250 sesterii to 6250 sesterii for each member of the Praetorian Guard. He also implored the elite bodyguard of the emperor to think about Sulpicianus’ family connections with Pertinax and suggested to them that if Sulpicianus was emperor there was a higher chance he would take revenge and have them executed for regicide.
The sequence of events disgusted Dio to his very core, who saw in the exchange the corruption of sacrosanct Roman values:
“Then ensured a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from the inside, the other from the outside.” (Historia Romana as cited in Leaning, p. 556.)
On the other hand, there are always two sides to a story. Ignotus offered a more moderate version of events that countered this greedy and avaricious characterization of Didius Julianus. He maintained that after Pertinax was killed, Didius made his way to the Senate, which had been summoned quickly after the news spread of the murder. At the doors of the Senate, Didius came across two members of the Praetorian Guard, Publicius Florianus and Vectius Aper, who pressured Didius into claiming the throne for himself and obtaining mastery of the Empire and its enormous dominions.
The soldiers then purportedly forced Didius to accompany them to the other members of the Praetorian Guard who were engaged in discussions with Sulpicianus. Didius was refused entry into the compound, but from outside proposed a large donation and the restoration of Emperor Commodus’ reputation. At the same time, he rightly warned the Praetorian Guards about the possibility that Sulpicianus would take revenge on them if he became ruler. Didius was then proclaimed emperor on the conditions that no harm was to come to Sulpicianus and that Flavius Genialis and Tullius Crispanus, two senior guards, were to become the Praetorian prefects.
Although the auction of the Roman Empire was a real and shameful event, Ignotus’ version suggests that Didius was coerced into making his infamous offer in contrast to Dio and Herodian, who present him as purchasing the empire with enthusiasm and glee. In addition, Didius Julianus was supposedly emboldened by his wife, daughter, and clients to take his chances, further showing that the motivations for Didius Julianus’ bid for the kingdom potentially lay more in the persuasive words of other people than the man himself.
A marble bust of Didius Julianus in the Residenz Museum, Munich. (© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro)
The Embarrassingly Brief Reign of Didius Julianus
Like the tumultuous circumstances of his rise to authority, the imperial rule of Didius Julianus, which lasted only 66 days, is also viewed differently by the various Roman commentators.
According to Dio, after Didius’ deal he went to the Senate accompanied by military personnel and bestowed upon his daughter Didia Clara and his wife Manlia Scantilla the title of “ Augusta.” Iconographic evidence from Roman coins from his administration, depicting his wife and daughter as ‘ ”Augustae” show that in this instance, Dio was telling the truth.
After this, Dio related how Didius made his way to the Imperial Palace, rejecting the meal prepared for Pertinax, who still lay dead in a pool of blood on the floor, and ordered a gourmet spread in the middle of the night while he enjoyed the entertainment of Roman actor Pylades and played games of dice. Ignotus on the other hand rejected Dio’s description and argued that no banquet was requested until after Pertinax had been buried.
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The next day, Didius was inaugurated as emperor in the Senate and given the title Pater Patriae. Outside the Senate, crowds of Roman citizens expressed their anger and disapproval with huge demonstrations against the new emperor. In these protests the memory of Pertinax, who had been popular, was invoked. The demonstrators threw stones and chanted abuse at Didius as he entered and left the Senate.
The angry mob, broken up by soldiers, moved to another part of the city called Circus, and continued to lambast Didius and call for the intervention of Pescennius Niger, the governor of Syria, to overthrow the pretender to the throne.
According to Dio, Didius was so enraged by the insulting throng that he told his military escort to kill the nearest demonstrators. For Ignotus, no such thing happened, and Didius remained calm and collected in the face of the mob’s derision. Because of the fixation on how Didius came to power and how it ended in the ancient chronicles, little is known about his achievements while emperor.
Dio provides some limited information, telling of how Didius tried to win back the people by restoring some of the more popular laws enacted under Emperor Commodus, and the Roman high caste by acting graciously and respectfully towards them. However, Didius’ reign was to end as fast and as it started, and with an equal amount of bloodshed as ambitious military men from around the Empire prepared to challenge his power.
The Severan Tondo, circa 200 AD, which took over Rome after Didius Julianus was killed in his home, depicts Septimius Severus with his family: to the left his wife Julia Domna, in front of them their sons Geta and Caracalla. Geta's face was removed after his murder by his brother. (© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro)
A Turbulent Fall from Power
The explosive developments in Rome impelled Roman high commanders in far-flung corners of the Empire to turn their rapacious eyes back to Rome. In the east, Pescennius Niger, whose presence had been requested by the furious protesters at the Senate, proclaimed himself emperor of the swathe of territories from the Black Sea to Egypt. In the west in the Upper Pannonia province, Septimius Severus did the same and following a quick alliance with the armies on the Danube-Rhine frontier, he became the first challenger to set out for Rome and attempt to win back the empire from Didius’ weakening grasp.
With the prospect of a battle-hardened Roman army rapidly advancing towards him, Didius fate was already sealed. Herodian noted how Didius’ response was marked by inaction and cowardice, and Dio related how Didius barricaded the Imperial Palace in a hopeless attempt to shut himself off from impending doom.
On the other hand, Ignotus’ more sympathetic account characterizes Didius’ initial actions as more positive, and he reports how Didius ordered Rome’s walls to be fortified and manned by the Praetorian Guard. Elsewhere, Didius sent his ally Vespronius Candidius to attempt to win back Septimus’ army, Valerius Cattulinus to assume command over Septimus’ province of Upper Pannonia, and Aquilius Felix to murder his incoming rival. All of these plans failed and following Septimius’ victory at Ravenna against Didius’ lieutenant Tullius Crispinus, an important strategic location, Rome was suddenly wide open to attack.
Didius despaired as he sought to save his life with a series of increasingly desperate measures. After his offer to share the emperorship with Septimus’ was rejected, he ordered his priests to meet Septimius and try to dissuade him from taking the throne. The Senate declined the request, stating that an emperor who could not protect himself militarily had no right to sit on the throne.
In a final and hopeless burst of anguish, Didius turned to ritual magic, and even his most sympathetic biographer, Ignotus, would report horrors of human sacrifice and unusual rituals whereby the eyes of young boys were bandaged up in bizarre rituals to the gods.
Before Septimius could get his hands on him however, Didius Julianus was murdered by a member of the Praetorian Guard in the imperial palace, mirroring Pertinax’s fate only a few months prior. As Didius’ life faded on the lofty floors, Dio recorded his last words: “What evil have I done? Whom have I killed?.”
Didius Julianus was not the first to “buy” the Roman Empire from the Praetorian Guards, Claudius did too! (New York Public Library)
A Greedy Villain or an Unfortunate Victim?
For a man who had won the admiration of many throughout his life, Didius Julianus would die in disgrace and with his reputation in tatters. Thanks in large part to the accounts offered by Dio and Herodian, history has looked unkindly at his disastrous stint as Roman leader, painting him as a greedy and delusional figure.
Yet, these writers were heavily influenced by the propaganda of Severus Septimius, who had every reason to character-assassinate his rival. Herodian claimed, for example, that the auction of the empire was the first of its kind, but this was patently untrue. Donations to the Praetorian Guard was in fact a pre-existing practice that had started long before Didius Julianus with emperor Claudius.
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In 41, Claudius had paid each of the Praetorian Guard 3750 denarii in return for the Roman crown, illustrating that Didius’ transaction was in no way unusual.
As a result, using the more reliable account of Ignotus, a more realistic picture of Didius Julianus emerges as a well-meaning man who caved in to the pressure of the Praetorian Guard and his family with ruinous consequences.
Top image: Marble busts of Didius Julianus who bought the Roman Empire at the end of the 2nd century AD in a facial reconstruction artwork created by Daniel Voshart. Source: Daniel Voshart / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
By Jake Leigh-Howart
Kemezis, A. 2012. Commemoration of the Antonine Aristocracy in Cassius Dio and the Historia Augusta. Classical Quarterly.
Leaning, J.B. 1989. Didius Julianus and his Biographer. Latomus.
Wasson, D. 2013. Didius Julianus. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Didius_Julianus/ .
Woodward, A.M. 1961. The Coinage of Didius Julianus and his Family. The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society.