Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
On New Year’s Eve, 192 A.D., the tyrannical emperor Commodus, last of the Antonines, drank poison from the hand of his mistress Marcia. But he threw up the poison. So the Praetorian Guards who conspired against him brought in a wrestler named, appropriately or not, Narcissus, who strangled him in the bath.
The Praetorians invested the purple in an elder statesman named Pertinax, one of the last surviving associates of the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. But they could not abide by his attempt to reform the Roman state. So 86 days after they made him emperor, the Praetorian Guards murdered Pertinax. Edward Gibbon described the scene of the crime: “His head separated from his body, and placed on a lance, was carried in triumph to the Praetorian camp, in the sight of a mournful and indignant people, who lamented the unworthy fate of that excellent prince.”
What happened next was one of the most remarkable and repugnant (as if political assassinations weren’t bad enough) episodes of not only Roman history but the history of any government anywhere. The Praetorian Guards “ran out upon the ramparts; and, with a loud voice, proclaimed that the Roman world was to be disposed of to the best bidder by public auction.”
Even as they did so, Sulpicianus, Pertinax’s father-in-law, stood in the Praetorian camp and bargained with the murderers for the throne. News of the proposed auction reached one Didius Iulianus, or Julian, “a wealthy senator, who, regardless of the public calamities, was indulging himself in the luxury of the table.” His wife, his daughter, and other sycophantic hangers-on “easily convinced him that he deserved the throne.” Julian rushed out to the Praetorian camp. Not actually admitted through the gates, Julian shouted his offers from the outside. When he beat out Sulpicianus with one last bid, the soldiers opened the gates and proclaimed him emperor. This was on March 28, 193 A.D.
Julian threw himself a magnificent feast, or what today we would call an inaugural ball, “and he amused himself till a very late hour with dice” and with the performance of a famous dancer. “Yet it was observed, that after the crowd of flatterers dispersed, and left him to darkness, solitude, and terrible reflection, he passed a sleepless night; revolving most probably in his mind his own rash folly, the fate of his virtuous predecessor, and the doubtful and dangerous tenure of an empire, which had not been acquired by merit, but purchased by money.”
On his first day in office Julian debased the currency, which shook the Roman economy and touched off a wave of discontent. The generals of various provinces refused to accept his authority and marched on Rome with their legions. Septimius Severus, the commander from Pannonia, proved the one to watch. When he entered Rome, the Praetorians scattered, and the Senate proclaimed Septimius the new emperor. He would turn out to be one of the most perfidious leaders in the empire’s history.
On June 1, 193, a soldier in the palace killed Julian. Thus ended the short and sordid reign of one rich, foolish old man who in his vanity thought he had what it took to lead a great nation.
Read Gibbon's accounts of the fates of Pertinax and Didius Iulianus.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."