On this day in 193, Roman Emperor Publius Helvius Pertinax (126-193) was assassinated by some members of the Praetorian Guard. This event put an end to Pertinax’s eighty-nine days' reign and marked the beginning of the Year of the Five Emperors.
Pertinax’s early years are documented in the Historia Augusta, a collection of biographies of Roman Emperors. According to this document, the Emperor was born in 126 in Alba Pompeia, Italy, and was the son of a freed slave. As his father acquired wealth thanks to the wool trade, Pertinax was able to have a classical education. He then went on to become a grammar teacher. However, in 161 he decided to give up his teaching job and join the military as commander of a small legion in Syria.
His military achievements in the Parthian War (161-166) earned him a promotion and a posting in the Danube frontier alongside Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The close relationship between both of them paved the way for Pertinax’s political success, as the Emperor helped him become a consul in 175 and later on a governor of the provinces of Upper and Lower Moesia, Dacia, Syria and Britain. A few years later, he was assigned a post in the latter with the aim of dealing with unruly soldiers but was eventually forced to resign in 187. He then served as proconsul in Africa from 188 to 189 and afterwards was appointed prefect in Rome by Emperor Commodus.
Pertinax as Emperor
After Commodus’ assassination in 192, the commander of the Praetorian Guard and one of the conspirators offered Pertinax the throne and he was proclaimed Emperor of the Roman Empire. His reign was a very short one, as he only stayed on the throne for the first three months of 193.
Pertinax tried his best to please the Praetorian Guard and promised to give them a donativum. In order to do so, he had to restore the empire’s finances by raising money first. In this sense, he sold several properties that belonged to Commodus and increased the silver purity of the denarius to 87%. However, these decisions did not count on the support of the Guard or the palace officials. When the Emperor attempted to impose a stricter military discipline the Guard started to lose its patience.
At the beginning of March 193, Pertinax survived an assassination attempt in Ostia plotted by several members of the Guard. The discontentment among the soldiers kept growing bigger each day until eventually the 28th of March a group of three hundred guards stormed the gates of the Emperor’s palace. Although he tried to reason with them, his attempts were unsuccessful and he was stabbed to death.
Pertinax was the first one of the five Emperors that governed the Roman Empire in 193, a period which is known as the Year of the Five Emperors and which led to a civil war that lasted four years. After his assassination, the title of Emperor was purchased from the Praetorian Guard by Didius Julianus, who reigned until his assassination in June of that same year. It was not until Septimius Severus was crowned Emperor that Pertinax was officially considered a legitimate emperor and given divine honours. In this regard, Septimius Severus executed the soldiers involved in the assassination and provided him with a state funeral. Moreover, he also held games to commemorate his birthday and ascension.
- roman empire
- roman emperor
- praetorian guard
- marcus aurelius
- septimius severus
- year of the five emperors
- historia augusta