Marcus Didius Severus Julianus
(AD 133 – AD 193)

Marcus Didius Severus Julianus was the son of Quintus Petronius Didius Severus, member of one of the most important families of Mediolanum (Milan).

Hi mother came from north Africa and was closely related to Salvius Julianus, the eminent jurist on the imperial council of Hadrian. With such contacts the parents of Julianus arranged for their son to be raised in the household of Domitia Lucilla, the mother of Marcus Aurelius.

Educated in such quarters it was little surprise that Julianus soon began his political career. In AD 162 he became praetor, later he commanded a legion based at Moguntiacum on the Rhine and from roughly AD 170 to 175 he governed the province of Gallia Belgica.

The in AD 175 he held the consulship as the colleague of Pertinax, the future emperor. In AD 176 he was governor of Illyricum and in AD 178 he governed Lower Germany.

Following these positions he was given the post of director of the alimenta (welfare system) of Italy. At this point his career hit a brief crisis, as he accused of having been a part of a conspiracy to kill emperor Commodus in AD 182 which had envolved his relative Publius Salvius Julianus. But after being cleared of such allegations in court, Julianus’ career continued unabated.

He became proconsul of Pontus and Bithynia and then, in AD 189-90, proconsul of the province of Africa. His tenure in Africa at an end he returned to Rome and therefore was present in the capital when emperor Pertinax was murdered.

Pertinax’ death left Rome without any successor. More so the real decision over who was to be emperor lay undoubtedly with the praetorians, who had just disposed of the last one.

The main reason for which Pertinax had been killed was money. Had he promised the praetorians a bonus, he had not delivered it. So to ambitious men like Julianus it appeared clear that money was the one thing which would decide whom the praetorians would put on the throne. And so Julianus hurried to the pratorian where he sought to offer the soldiers money.

But Julianus was not the only man to have realized that the throne could be bought. Titus Flavius Sulpicianus, Pertinax’ father-in-law had already arrived earlier and was already inside the camp.

The soldiers, having two bidders for the throne simply decided to hand it to the one who would bid most. Absolutely no attempts were made to disguise what was happening. In fact, the pratorians had heralds announce the sale from the walls, in case any other rich men should show themselves interested.

What now ensued was a farce, the likes of which the Roman empire had never seen. Sulpicianus and Didius Julianus, began to outbid each other, Sulpicianus inside the camp, Julianus outside, passing his figure on to messengers who carried the figures back and forth.

As the bids went up and up, Sulpicianus finally reached the sum of 20’000 seserces for each praetorian. At this moment Julianus decided not to continue bidding a little more every time, but simply announced aloud that he’d pay 25’000 seserces per head. Sulpicianus did not raise.

The soldiers had two reasons to decide for Julianus. Their first and most obvious one was that he offered them more money. The other was that, and Julianus didn’t fail to mention this to them, Sulpicianus might well seek to avenge his son-in-law’s murder when he came to the throne.

As crass as this auction no doubt was, it has to be seen in the context of successive Roman emperors who had paid out large bonuses upon taking office. When Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus acceded to the throne they paid the praetorians 20’000 sesterces a soldier. In this light, Julianus’ bid of 25’000 perhaps does not appear that excessive after all.

The senate was naturally not too pleased at the way by which the office had been secured. (After all, at the death of Domitian it had been the senate who chose Nerva for the vacant throne, not the praetorians!). But opposition by the senators was impossible. Julianus arrived at the senate with a contingent of praetorians to enforce his will. So, knowing that opposition would mean their death, the senators confirmed the praetorians’ choice.

Julianus’ wife Manlia Scantilla and daughter Didia Clara were both granted the status of Augusta. Didia Clara was married to Cornelius Repentius, who was prefect of Rome.

Laetus, the praetorian prefect who had been the chief conspirator in the murder of Commodus was put to death by Julianus, who announced he sought to honour the memory of Commodus (most likely to justify his succession of the murdered Pertinax).

Julianus made many promises to the population of Rome, trying to win their support, but the public dislike of the man who had bought the throne only increased. There was even demonstrations in the street against Julianus.

But now other, far more powerful threats to Julianus than the civilian people of Rome began to arise. Within a very short time Pescennius Niger (governor of Syria), Clodius Albinus (governor of Britain), and Septimius Severus (governor of Upper Pannonia) were declared emperors by their troops.

All three were comrades of Laetus, whom Julianus had had executed, and who had put Pertinax on the throne.

Severus moved fastest, gained the support of the entire Rhine and Danube garrison (16 legions !) and came to agreement with Albinus, offering him the title ‘Caesar’ to buy his support. Then Severus made for Rome with his huge force.

Julianus tried his all to fortify Rome, as it had no defences at that time. But the praetorians were no friends of hard labours such as digging ramparts and building walls and they did everything to avoid them. But then the praetorians had lost much of their faith in Julianus when he had failed to pay them their promised 25’000 sesterces a head.

Now, in this time of desparate crisis, he quickly made payment of 30’000 seserces per man, but the soldiers were well aware of his reasons. Marines were brought in from Misenum, but they turned out to be a rather undisciplined rabble and hence were pretty useless. Julianus is said to have even even tried use the elephants of the circus for his makeshift army.

Assassins were sent forth to murder Severus, but he was too closely guarded.

Desperate to save his skin, Julianus now sent a senatorial delegation to Severus’ troops, trying to use the respect for the ancient senate to order the soldiers to return to their bases in the north.

But instead the senators who were sent simply defected to Severus’ side.
Even a plan was prepared to send the Vestal Virgins to plead for mercy considered, but was abandoned.

Then the senate, which had not much earlier been ordered to pronounce Severus a public enemy, was ordered to grant him the status of join emperor. The praetorian prefect Tullius Crispinus was sent to carry the message to Severus. Severus not only rejected the offer, but had the unfortunate messenger killed.

In a strange desperate bid, Julianus now even tried to switch sides, asking of the praetorians that they should hand over the murderers of Pertinax and should not resist Severus’ troops on arrival. The consul Silius Messalla learnt of this order and decided to call a meeting of the senate. It might well have been that the seante was being sidelined – and a possible scapegoat – by this political manoeuvre of Julianus. For on 1 June AD 193, with Severus only days away from Rome, the senate passed a motion sentencing Julianus to death.

Julianus made one last desperate attempt at saving himself by trying to install Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, the last husband of the deceased empress Annia Lucilla, as joint emperor alongside him. But Pompeianus didn’t want to know of such an offer.

All was lost and Julianus knew it. He withdrew into the palace together with his son-in-law Repentius and the remaining praetorian commander Titus Flavius Genialis.

Sent by the senate, an officer of the guard next made his way into the palace and found the emperor. The historian Dio Cassius reports the emperor on his knees begging for his life. But despite such pleading he was killed. His brief reign had lasted for 66 days.

Severus handed the body to Julianus’ wife and daughter who had it buried in his grandfather’s tomb along the Via Labicana.


The decline of Rome

Julian the Apostate

Roman Emperors


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