People have bought some unusual things at auctions. In the Digital Age, thanks to eBay and Facebook, it is possible to bid on almost every imaginable commodity.
Despite the untold advances of technology, perhaps the most impressive thing ever acquired through an auction was purchased nearly 2,000 years ago. That’s when the item being sold was the most powerful job on earth: the Emperor of Rome.
The reign of Emperor Marcus Didius Severus Julianus (more commonly remembered simply as Didius Julianus) would scarcely earn more than a footnote in most history books if it weren’t for a couple of interesting points of interest. One would be the manner in which Didius came to the throne. The second would be the length of his administration.
Of course, there is the third matter — one of his names was “Severus.” This would be obvious to any Harry Potter fan that there is going to be some kind of behind-the-scenes intrigue going on.
Didius Julianus was born on January 29, 137 to a prominent political family. He was raised in the house of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ mother, Domitian Lucille. His family connections allowed him to leapfrog up the socio-political ladder.
Marcus Aurelius appointed him to the command of Legio XXII Primigenia in Germania. Later, as governor of Belgica, he maintained the province’s borders against the Germanic Chauci. This command earned him the consulship and he went on to govern with distinction in Dalmatia and Germania Superior and to serve as praefectus alimentorum in Italy. There, he was responsible for grants of money and welfare to the poor.
During the reign of Commodus (who preferred fighting as a gladiator to serving as emperor and who also has one of the more unfortunate names in history), Didius Julianus fell under suspicion as a suspect in an assassination attempt on the emperor. This trifling matter was quickly cleared up, however, and became one of Commodus’ fair-haired favorites.
It was also about this time that Didius Julianus hitched his wagon to the rising star of Pertinax, serving with him as consul and succeeding him as governor of Africa. Commodus’ reign met a violent end when he was strangled in the commode (well, the bathtub, technically, but you can’t blame us for trying). Pertinax succeeded him as emperor. He continued to show favor toward Didius Julianus, referring to him as “my colleague and successor.”
Pertinax’s words proved to be prophetic. His reign as emperor was brief, lasting from January 1, 193 to March 28, 193, when he met a violent death at the hands of the praetorians.
Inasmuch as the last two emperors left office by being assassinated, one would think there would be a shortage of applicants for the job. Oddly, some still thought there could be some perks in being emperor of the Roman Empire. With no clear successor to Pertinax, however, something had to be done to figure out who would get the top job.
Technically, the Roman Senate had the responsibility of naming the next emperor. In practice, since the praetorian guards were responsible for ending the tenure and life of the last emperor, it made sense to make sure whoever became emperor started on their good side.
City prefect Flavius Sulpicianus (Pertinax’s father-in-law) lobbied the praetorians, hoping to get their support. The praetorians were lukewarm at best toward his advances. The most likely candidates wisely read the tea leaves and saw that being emperor was not the type of job one sought if a long and happy life was on the bucket list. They were able to find one promising and opportunistic fellow, however. Didius Julianus was invited to the praetorian camp to contend for the highest office in the land.
At this point, the future of the Roman Empire fell into a bidding war. Flavors Sulpicianus and Didius Julianus went back and forth, making offers to gain the support of the praetorians. The bids came in the form of promises to pay each of the members of the elite group of soldiers in exchange for pledges of support.
After an intense and suspenseful time of bids, counter-bids, and counter-counter-bids, Didius Julianus won out by promising 25,000 sesterces per Praetorian. In total, this came out to approximately 200 million sesterces or 50 million denarii. By way of context, 1 denarius was the equivalent of one day’s wages.
Armed with the backing of the praetorian guard, Didius Julianus made his claim for the throne to the senate. The Senate, in turn, confirmed the arrangement, officially elevating him to the position of emperor.
Whatever hopes Didius Julianus might have had for a long and prosperous reign were not to be realized. Despite winning the approval of the praetorians, he quickly became one of the most unpopular men in the empire. A significant part of the problem was his immediate decision to devalue the currency so he could have an easier time making good on all the money he had promised to pay.
Stateman and historian Cassius Dio wrote that Roman citizens were openly hostile toward their new emperor. The fact that the last two emperors had been assassinated and the new emperor simply bought his way to power did not sit well with them. Open revolt started to break out, threatening to crumble the mighty Roman Empire.
On top of all of this, Didius Julianus was more than a little slow in making good on his promise to pay the praetorians. The Historia Augusta suggests that he managed to pay about 30,000 sesterces. Herodian disagreed, however, stating that there wasn’t any money to back up the massive number of IOUs.
With nothing more than empty pockets in exchange for their support, the praetorians quickly lost their zest for the new administration. Without the power of the praetorians to defend his claim to the throne, Didius Julianus found himself losing friends in the Senate, as well.
Just two months and four days into his reign, the Senate exercised a rather extreme form of term limits. Cassius Dio recorded, “We [the Senate] thereupon sentenced Julianus to death, named Severus emperor, and bestowed divine honors on Pertinax. And so it came about that Julianus was slain as he was reclining in the palace itself; his only words were, ‘But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?’ He had lived sixty years, four months, and the same number of days, out of which he had reigned sixty-six days.”
And so ended the great and glorious reign of Emperor Didius Julianus. He ran up a massive amount of debt to earn a job that lasted just a little more than six days. He squandered his reputation and became one of the most unpopular men of the age. His political support turned overnight from one where the Senate proclaimed him as supreme ruler to the point where he was stripped of power, publicly condemned, and executed.
On a positive note, he did get to be Emperor, and although he promised to pay a fortune for the honor, he didn’t actually have to write a check.