Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, emperor of Rome, together with his Praetorian Guardsmen
The death of Marcus Aurelius marked a turning point not only for the Roman Empire but also for the Praetorian Guard. The accession of his weak and reckless son Commodus created a power vacuum into which the praetorian prefects and the praetorians themselves, as the most significant force in Rome, were inevitably sucked. The emergence of opportunistic and self-serving praetorian prefects of a type unseen since the days of Tigellinus under Nero added to the problems caused by a greedy, lazy and indulgent Guard. The murder of Commodus in 192 heralded a protracted age of instability, beginning with a massive power struggle, orchestrated in part by the Praetorian Guard. It would culminate in the whole Guard being cashiered in 193 by Septimius Severus, and its reformation. The Guard of the third century increasingly found itself operating as an integral part of the emperor’s field army in an era of unrestrained military ambition and chronic frontier instability.
Commodus was the first weak emperor for more than eighty years. As the blood son of Marcus Aurelius he was also the first filial heir since Titus a century earlier. Whereas Titus was up to the job, Commodus was not. In 177 he had been made joint Augustus with Marcus Aurelius so the legitimacy of his sole reign was never in doubt. Aurelius recognized that Commodus, then aged only about nineteen, would be susceptible to poor advice because of his inexperience. On his deathbed he urged his advisers and relatives to support him, and recommended him to the support of the army, something Commodus claimed his father had done ever since he was a boy. Aurelius died shortly afterwards, on 17 March 180 in Vindobona (Vienna).
A few days later, Commodus was taken by those same advisers to the camp at Vindobona so that he could address the soldiers and offer them a donative. The troops were summoned to the parade ground outside the fort where Commodus made his speech. He appealed to their loyalty, experience and support. One of the great values of the evidence for this period is that our principal sources, Cassius Dio and Herodian, had not only lived through the times they were describing, but had also known the emperors concerned, though this does not mean that their accounts always accord; all too often they do not. Dio entered the senate during Commodus’ reign and thus witnessed events as they unfolded. Herodian was only a teenager when Commodus died, but his proximity to the period and its records make him equally invaluable. Dio’s opinion was that Commodus was not innately evil, but that he lacked guile; as a result he was easily led astray by his companions.
Commodus immediately made peace with the Marcomanni, a decision that instantly alienated the army. On his arrival in Rome, which was eagerly awaited, he boasted to the senate about his exploits. He thanked the soldiers who had been left in Rome, presumably the rump of the Praetorian Guard, for their loyalty. He was immediately the focus of plots. He had inherited Publius Tarrutenius Paternus as praetorian prefect, but by 181 or 182 had also appointed Tigidius Perennis to the post. Paternus became involved in the first of a series of plots against Commodus. The conspiracy was a complicated one, and not made easier to understand by the piecemeal references in the sources, which provide quite disparate detail. Commodus’ sister Lucilla was married to Claudius Pompeianus, a man whom she hated and who was also an adviser to Commodus. Pompeianus had a son, Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus, by (probably) a previous marriage. Egged on by Lucilla in the hope that her husband would be permanently ruined by the association, and apparently all under the guiding hand of Paternus, Quintianus attacked Commodus. Herodian, however, attributes the plot to Lucilla’s lover Quadratus, who was desperate to please her because she resented the precedence now awarded Crispina at her expense. Either way, Quintianus made a physical assault on Commodus, claiming it was being done in the name of the senate, but failed to kill him.
In the aftermath, Commodus forced Lucilla, and then his wife Crispina, into exile. He removed Paternus from the prefecture by awarding him honorary consular status and then killed him anyway in c. 182. Commodus decided that he hated the senate and also now fell under the influence of the remaining praetorian prefect, Tigidius Perennis, who turned out to be only the first in a record-breaking series of new praetorian prefects for a single reign. On the face of it, Perennis ought to have been the perfect candidate: he was both Italian and considered to have an excellent military reputation, though this has proved impossible to substantiate. He was presented with an extremely challenging job because it appears he was expected to do a great deal more than manage the Guard, with Commodus effectively delegating to him all the duties of the emperor. This exposed him to resentment. This is Dio’s perspective and, although critical of Perennis, the blame is also laid squarely on Commodus. Conversely, Herodian depicts Perennis as a cynical opportunist who identified Commodus’ vulnerability and capitalized on the chance to maximize his own power. There is more than a passing resemblance to the portrayals of Sejanus and Tigellinus here, even if the nature of the emperors involved was different. It is possible that this version of Perennis is therefore effectively a redrawing of the Sejanus episode, but it is just as likely that the circumstances of a vulnerable emperor and an ambitious prefect could generate similar consequences. There is no suggestion that the praetorians themselves were involved. Herodian describes Perennis as maintaining Commodus in a state of licentious intoxication. This would allow him to run the Empire in order to make as much money out of it as possible in preparation for seizing it by offering the army a huge payout. Perennis began by encouraging Commodus to believe he was surrounded by enemies in the form of rich senators, who could be executed and their property seized. This appears really to have taken hold after the crushing of the plot involving Paternus, Pompeianus, Quadratus and Lucilla. Perennis is said to have persuaded Commodus to transfer the army in Illyricum to his sons, though these are unknown, as the next stage in his plan to seize power.
The fall of Perennis followed shortly afterwards in 185. Herodian’s version is that Commodus was chastened by a theatregoer ‘dressed as a philosopher’ who publicly criticized him for attending a performance while Perennis was plotting his coup. The man was executed but Commodus turned on Perennis. In Dio’s account, fifteen hundred soldiers arrived in Rome from the garrison of Britain to alert Commodus to Perennis’ machinations; the implication is that they were bitterly resentful of how Perennis had been managing the army. This had been orchestrated by Commodus’ chamberlain, Cleander, who is discussed in more detail below. The story is amplified in the Historia Augusta, where Perennis is said to have been installing equestrians, instead of senators, as legionary commanders in Britain during a war in 184. This remarkable breach of a long-established tradition was probably a device to ensure the army was under the control of men who would owe their allegiance to Perennis and not be troubled by his non-senatorial status. Commodus apparently believed them and handed Perennis over to the praetorians themselves, who killed him, his wife and their children. In Herodian’s version, Perennis was killed by someone sent secretly on Commodus’ orders. This was followed by sending two agents to Perennis’ son, before he heard the truth about his father, to pretend they brought orders for him to come to Rome. Perennis’ son, whose name is unknown, fell for the ruse and was murdered when he reached Rome. The various problems with the details do not alter the fact that Commodus permitted his sole praetorian prefect to become far too powerful at his expense. The dangers were the same as under Tiberius and Nero, although the timescale was considerably shorter. Clearly, as with Sejanus, Perennis’ power began with commanding the Guard, though in his case he went a great deal further in his attempts to secure control over the legionary forces dispersed around the Empire. Britain’s garrison was an interesting and intelligent choice. With three legions concentrated in a geographically small area, along with a large number of auxiliary units, it presented significant opportunities to men of ambition.
Commodus decided to appoint two praetorian prefects, believing that this would be safer. If he was aware of the story of Sejanus, and he must have been, the two episodes would now have functioned as very salutary warnings. The names of the prefects concerned are not certain, complicated substantially by Commodus’ mercurial nature, which led him to hire and fire prefects in rapid succession, sometimes after only a few hours. Pescennius Niger seems to have been one of the replacements, and Titus Longaeus Rufus the other, but Niger lasted only six hours. Marcus Quartius lasted five days, and it appears a number of other, unnamed, incumbents may have followed in the reckless days of 185.
The driving force seems to have been Marcus Aurelius Cleander, a freedman and chamberlain (cubicularius) of Commodus. Cleander was responsible for selling all sorts of positions under Commodus’ nose and effectively took over the metaphorical vacancy of opportunist-in-chief created by the execution of Perennis. In or around 187, Publius Attilius Aebutanius was made prefect but was also executed; it is not known if he secured the position by simply bidding for it. At that point Cleander became praetorian prefect, an appointment (or, perhaps, self-appointment) with no precedent, along with two others whose names are unknown, creating another precedent in their being three praetorian prefects. It is inconceivable that the Guard had done any more than look on in consummate disgust, but Commodus had perhaps allowed Cleander’s advancement on the basis that he distrusted the Guard already, and any prefects appointed by the conventional route. Cleander had gone too far. He engineered the execution of a popular official called Arrius Antoninus. Even Commodus realized that Cleander would have to be sacrificed. The occasion in 189 or 190 appears to have been a food riot caused by a famine that was exacerbated by the prefect of the grain supply, Papirius Dionysius. He put it about that Cleander had been stealing from the stores to enrich himself so that the mob would believe Cleander was responsible for the shortage. The riot broke out in the circus with the mob cursing Cleander. Commodus ordered the equites singulares Augusti to attack them, but the crowd’s resolve was bolstered by praetorians fighting with them, the praetorians allegedly hating the equites singulares, though not before a large number of civilians had been killed. A terrified Commodus handed Cleander over to be torn to pieces on the spot.
Two of the last praetorian prefects of the reign were Lucius Julius Vehilius Gratus Julianus and Regillus. They lasted so little time that nothing is known of them apart from the fact that they were executed in short order. Another, Motilenus, followed shortly afterwards when he was fed poisoned figs. Commodus descended further into delusional grandeur, depicting himself as Hercules on numerous statues in Rome and some of his coins while toying with the idea of renaming Rome Colonia Commodiana. He engaged in increasingly reckless bouts of murdering prominent men. The accounts of his profligate expenditure on horseracing, chariot-racing, gladiatorial bouts, grandiose costumes and other indulgences seem impossible. Dio, however, insisted that he had seen and heard everything he described. He pointed out that it was precisely because he was an eyewitness and knew no one else who had his own level of access to what was going on that made his account reliable. Dio and the other sources, however, were susceptible to the tradition of depicting ‘bad’ emperors as bad in every possible way.
The end, when it came, was the result of a plot by his mistress, Marcia, and the then praetorian prefect, Quintus Aemilius Laetus. Aemilius Laetus, and Eclectus, Commodus’ cubicularius, had been obliged to wait on Commodus as he fought as a gladiator in the arena. Commodus would compete, and inevitably win, and then kiss Laetus and Eclectus through his helmet. The two men tried to dissuade Commodus from his more extreme acts, but they were terrified of what might happen to them. Commodus was planning to kill the two consuls on 1 January 193. Laetus and Eclectus took Marcia into their confidence and persuaded her to poison him. Commodus’ consumption of alcohol meant that he vomited some of the poison up and instead the conspirators had to persuade an athlete called Narcissus to throttle Commodus. He was killed on the last day of December 192.
The plotters had taken the precaution of planning for the succession in advance. Their choice was Publius Helvius Pertinax, a man of similar vintage to Nerva almost a century earlier. At the age of sixty-seven he was a wealthy senator, having risen from being the son of a freedman through a series of military commands to provincial governorships. These included being sent by Commodus to Britain to pacify the troops there after the death of Perennis. In 192 Pertinax was consul for the second time when Laetus and Eclectus approached him. With Commodus dead they informed Pertinax, and he went to the Castra Praetoria to present himself to the Praetorian Guard so that the all-important oath of loyalty could be secured. The praetorians already seem to have tried to elevate their own nominee, a senator called Triarius Maternus Lascivius, but he fled, perhaps wisely. The oath was secured, but at the price of 12,000 sestertii, economizing on the 20,000 sestertii allegedly paid on the accession of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, despite Pertinax’s claim that he had matched their handout. In one version of the events Pertinax allegedly only paid half the 12,000 sestertii anyway. Moreover, the people of Rome had been so worried the Guard would refuse to be ruled by Pertinax that a huge crowd had gone to the Castra Praetoria to coerce the soldiers to accept Pertinax, who had earned their respect thanks to his military reputation and time as prefect of Rome.
A very dangerous development followed. Pertinax informed the Guard that he would be setting right all sorts of distressing circumstances, which formed part of a more widespread and popular programme of reforms. The praetorians had become accustomed to various indulgent privileges that Commodus had allowed them. They now grew concerned that these were about to disappear in Pertinax’s new age of discipline and order. For the moment they suppressed their resentment, largely because Pertinax sold off or melted down everything he could that had belonged to Commodus to raise the money after he discovered that the deceased emperor had emptied the imperial coffers. Ending their freedom to do as they pleased alienated both the praetorians and imperial freedmen. The result was that Laetus became embroiled in another plot to topple an emperor, this time with the active participation of the Guard. Their first plan was to seize power while Pertinax was at the coast inspecting the grain supply, and to place a consul called Falco on the throne. The plot was uncovered but Pertinax refused to execute Falco because he was a senator, even though Dio and the other senators were fully prepared to condemn him to death.
Laetus, perhaps to divert attention from himself, turned on the praetorians and started executing some of them, claiming that Pertinax had ordered him to do so. Two hundred praetorians promptly headed off to the Palatine Hill and forced their way into the imperial palace. Pertinax made no attempt to use the vigiles or the equites singulares Augusti to protect himself, preferring instead to try negotiating with the irate praetorians. But one praetorian stopped him from going out while palace staff let the soldiers in through all the other entrances. When they confronted Pertinax they were momentarily stopped in their tracks; one praetorian darted forward and stabbed Pertinax and Eclectus, announcing that ‘this sword is sent you by the soldiers’. Pertinax’s body was decapitated and the head displayed on a spear. What followed was the unedifying auction of the Roman Empire, conducted by the Praetorian Guard. The long period of silent acquiescence and discipline that had ended during the reign of Commodus gave way fully to a period in which the praetorians were the kingmakers. They were motivated by greed and a reckless disregard either for their own interests or the emperors’ and those of the Roman people. This set in train a disastrous series of events that would last for decades.
Didius Julianus secured his position as emperor by promising the Praetorian Guard 25,000 sestertii each. It was a generous offer, but proved too generous because Julianus had failed to consider whether he could pay it. He was gathered up by the praetorians who, displaying their standards, escorted the new emperor to the forum and the senate. The public display of power was deliberate and obvious and had the desired effect. Julianus indulged the conceit that he had come alone to address the senate while a large number of armed troops secured the building outside and a number came with him into the senate. It was a clear demonstration of where the real power lay, reminiscent of the accession of Otho in 69. Under the circumstances it was hardly surprising that the senate confirmed by decree that Julianus was emperor. He also ingratiated himself, or tried to, with the Guard by acceding to their personal nominees for the prefecture, in this case Flavius Genialis and Tullius Crispinus. His limited coinage focused to some extent on the army, with ‘Harmony of the soldiers’ being the principal offering. Conversely, Pertinax’s coinage had been far more general in its themes. Unfortunately for Julianus, not only did he lack the personal resources to fund the donative, but the imperial treasuries also remained barren after Commodus’ reckless reign. The praetorians were infuriated and started publicly humiliating Julianus, who was already gaining a reputation as greedy and indulgent.
Didius Julianus’ short-lived regime was already crumbling. In the east, Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria, had been declared emperor by his troops after news of the murder of Pertinax reached them. News of Niger’s ambitions reached Rome, where a frustrated populace started to protest in his favour. Part of the reason appears to have been a belief that Pertinax had been capable of arresting the rot that had set in under Commodus but had not been allowed to finish the job by the otiose and wasteful Julianus. Fighting broke out between the crowd and ‘soldiers’, which probably included the urban cohorts and the praetorians. Niger was by no means the only potential challenger. Lucius Septimius Severus, governor of Upper Pannonia, had allied himself to Pertinax, but on the latter’s death Severus had been declared emperor on 9 April 193 by his own troops. There was an irony in Severus’ status. He had been made one of twenty-five consuls appointed by Cleander, just before the latter was made praetorian prefect. In the west, Decimus Clodius Albinus, the governor of Britain, had also thrown his hat into the ring. The stage was set for another civil war. Severus was an arch manipulator. First he bought Albinus’ cooperation by offering him the post of heir apparent. Next, he set out first to secure Rome and then to destroy Niger. Severus was confident that in the meantime Julianus would be deposed; he could then turn against Albinus, destroy him and emerge, as Vespasian had in 69, as the supreme power in the Roman world.
For the moment Julianus depended almost entirely on the fragile loyalty of the praetorians, men to whom he had promised a vast sum of money that he was unable to pay. His first move was inevitable, but futile. He ordered the senate to declare Severus a public enemy. His second was to have a defensible stronghold constructed and prepare the whole city for war, which included fortifying his own palace so that he could hold it to the end. Rome filled up with soldiers and equipment, but the preparations turned into a farce. Dio mocked what the praetorians and other available forces had become. Years of easy living, cultivated in the indulgent days of Commodus’ reign, had left the soldiers without much idea of what they were supposed to do. The fleet troops from Misenum had forgotten how to drill. According to Herodian, the praetorians had to be told to arm themselves, get back into training and dig trenches; this implies that they were accustomed to being unarmed and were completely out of condition. This depiction of the Praetorian Guard, however, suited the purpose of Dio and Herodian. A stereotyped derelict and incompetent Guard amplified the impression of the decadence of Commodus’ reign and the incompetence of Didius Julianus, as well as creating a gratifying image of grossly overpaid and indolent public servants getting their comeuppance. Nevertheless, the indolence probably had a basis in truth and might also have been linked to a conservative attitude to equipment. By the end of the second century AD praetorian infantrymen were still habitually equipping themselves with the pilum, while legionaries had spurned this in favour of various new forms of javelin.
The praetorians became agitated. Not only were they completely overwhelmed by all the work they had had to do, but they were also extremely concerned at the prospect of confronting the Syrian army under Severus that was approaching through northern Italy. Julianus toyed with the idea of offering Severus a share in the Empire in an effort to save his own skin. The praetorian prefect Tullius Crispinus was sent north to take a suitable message to this effect to Severus. Severus suspected that Crispinus had really been sent on a mission to murder him, so he had Crispinus killed. In his place Julianus appointed a third prefect, Flavius Juvenalis, whose loyalty Severus secured by writing to him confirming that he would hold the post when he, Severus, took power. There is some confusion here. The Historia Augusta calls the third prefect Veturius Macrinus, so conceivably two new prefects had been appointed, both of whom seem to have transferred to the Severan regime. Severus sent letters ahead, perhaps via Juvenalis, promising the praetorians that they would be unharmed if they handed over Pertinax’s killers. They obliged, and this meant that Julianus was finished. Severus also sent an advance force to infiltrate the city, disguised as citizens. The senate, realizing that the praetorians had abandoned Julianus, voted that Julianus be executed. This happened in short order on 2 June 193. Next they declared Severus to be the new emperor. Didius Julianus had reigned for a little over two months. In the space of five months in 193 the Praetorian Guard had played their first truly significant role in imperial events for well over a century. They had toppled an emperor and installed another, only to abandon him with unseemly haste, contributing significantly now to the inception of a new dynasty whose members would rule the Roman world until 235. Not since 69 had the praetorians made so much difference, though, ironically, it seems that in 193 as troops they were no more than a shadow of their former selves. They were to pay a heavy price for their interference in imperial politics.
The transition of power was not as smooth as the praetorians hoped. Their tribunes, now working for Severus, ordered them to leave their barracks unarmed, dressed only in the subarmilis (under-armour garment) and head for Severus’ camp. Severus stood up to address them but it was a trap. The praetorians were promptly surrounded by his armed troops, who had orders not to attack the praetorians but to contain them. Severus ordered that those who had killed Pertinax be executed. This act was to have consequences forty-five years later when another generation of praetorians believed they were about to be cashiered too.30 Severus harangued the praetorians because they had not supported Julianus or protected him, despite his shortcomings, completely ignoring their own oath of loyalty. In Severus’ view this ignoble conduct was tantamount to disqualifying themselves from entitlement to be praetorians; oddly, the so-called ‘auction of the Empire’ seems to have gone without mention.
Severus had a very good reason for adopting this strategy. It avoided creating any impression that he was buying the Empire as Didius Julianus had, even though previous emperors, including very respectable ones like Marcus Aurelius, had paid a donative. Firing the praetorians en masse also saved him a great deal of money, in the form of either a donative or a retirement gratuity. Given the cost of Severus’ own war, and the appalling state of the imperial treasuries, this must have been a pressing consideration. The normal practice would have been for the emperor to pay a donative out of his own pocket. Severus was prepared to spare the praetorians’ lives but only on the condition that they were stripped of rank and equipment and cashiered on the spot. This meant literally being stripped. They were forcibly divested by Severus’ legionaries of their uniforms, belts and any military insignia, and also made to part with their ceremonial daggers ‘inlaid with gold and silver’. Just in case the humiliated praetorians took it into their heads that they might rush back to the Castra Praetoria and arm themselves, Severus had sent a squad ahead to secure the camp. The praetorians had to disperse into Rome, the mounted troops having also to abandon their horses, though one killed both his horse and then himself in despair at the ignominy.