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One Year, Five Emperors



The current state of the nation is as bad as I've seen it in my lifetime. Threats to democracy abound, from the Capitol riot (aka "legitimate political discourse," according to the GOP) to gerrymandering to SCOTUS extremism and all the rest. Of course, this isn't the first time that good government has been threatened. We're actually living in well-regulated and compassionate times compared with much of the past. Take, for example, A.D. 193, the Year of the Five (Roman) Emperors, in which the age-old aphorism "Might makes right" was borne out on at least four occasions.

The year began more or less like any other in that tumultuous period, with the murder, on New Year's Eve 192, of Emperor Commodus. Following the beheading of his ally Cleander and fearing for his own life, Commodus became increasingly paranoid: Anyone whom he suspected of plotting against him was assassinated. Thinking they might be next, three noblemen arranged for Commodus' death by strangulation and, on New Year's Day A.D. 193, one Pertinax was proclaimed Emperor (or "Caesar"). Whereas Commodus had been generous to his immediate protectors, the Praetorian Guard, Pertinax tried to rein in their excesses. Bad move. The guards killed him as he was trying to negotiate a new deal with them, then auctioned off the throne to the highest bidder, Didius Julianus, an African proconsul. Another bad move: His reign lasted just two months.

Septimius Severus, also from Africa (Leptis Magna, in Libya), had come up through the ranks and was governor of much of the Balkans at the time of Commodus' murder. Supported by several legions, he made a successful bid for the imperial throne, having Didius executed on June 1 of that fateful year. Severus defeated two other rivals in the wings, first by diplomacy then by warfare. Skipping over the details — and battles — Severus not only reigned as Emperor until his death 18 years later, but established a dynasty that lasted until A.D. 235.

Severus was, by all accounts, a wily, strong and ambitious Caesar under whom the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent — 2 million square miles — including the entire Mediterranean basin from the Strait of Gibraltar to Cappadocia and Egypt. His advice to his sons, who succeeded him, was succinct and to the point: "Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, scorn all others."

My wife, Louisa, and I were reminded of his legacy on a recent visit to Nikopolis-ad-Istrum, a Roman city in north-central Bulgaria. Once a major economic and military base at the crossroads of two trade routes, Nikopolis had been established by Emperor Trajan in A.D. 102 following his victory in the Dacian Wars. Nearly a century later, the city fathers had to pick sides in the succession wars of A.D. 193. Happily, their choice — Severus — came out on top and he favored the city thereafter, visiting it several times. A stela (carved marble pillar) records his letter of his appreciation: "Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimus Pius Pertinax Augustus, Conqueror of Arabia ... [many other victories follow] ... to the archons, the Council and the People of Nicopolis, greetings! You have a zeal which is very striking .... We have accepted the cash contribution of 700,000 denarii .... Good luck!"

Apparently, the city's "contribution" of 700,000 denarii (the silver content of a contemporary denarius would be worth about $2 today) paid off and the city prospered until A.D. 447, when it was sacked by Atilla's Huns. After trying to bring the Caledonians to heel, with mixed results, Severus died, age 65, at York, Britain, in A.D. 211. He left a mixed legacy. On the one hand, after a rocky start, he brought peace and stability to the Empire. On the other hand, he began a long process of devaluing the coinage, which ultimately became a major factor in the long "decline and fall" (in Gibbons' phrase) of the Roman Empire.

Just so you know: Things have been worse.

Barry Evans (he/him, [email protected]) has Leptis Magna, Severus' birthplace, at the top of his bucket list.

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