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Year of the Five Emperors

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Year 193 CE is known in the history of ancient Rome as The Year of Five Emperors, because during these 365 days as many as five claimants claimed the throne. This year also brought the fall of the current Antonin dynasty (96 – 192 CE) and the beginning of the four-year period of civil wars (193 – 197 CE), which eventually ended with the victory of Septimius Severus.

Death of Commodus

The last, as it turned out, representative of the Antonin dynasty, Emperor Commodus reigned from 180. He took the throne after the death of his father, the last of the so-called five good emperorsMarcus Aurelius. Commodus’s rule became more and more unpopular because of the emperor’s progressive paranoia, which most likely became the cause of the growing political terror among the Roman elite. The emperor had a divine worship and considered himself Hercules. Finally, on December 31, 192, he was murdered as a result of a conspiracy formed by the aristocracy, and then recognized as a public enemy (damnatio memoriae).


The proconsul of Africa, Pertinax, was proclaimed the new Caesar. During his almost 90-day reign, he quickly fell out of favor with both aristocratic and military circles. Pertynaks introduced fees for the recovery of patrician property confiscated by Commodus, and attempted to restore strict discipline in the army. On March 28, 193, the emperor was murdered in a plot organized by the Praetorians in consultation with the Senate.

Didius Julianus

After the death of Pertynax, the Pretorian Guard conducted a kind of tender for the imperial office. Father-in-law of the murdered Pertinax, Sulpicianus, and Didius Julianus took part in it. The latter won by offering each praetorian 25,000 seniors in exchange for support to the throne. Soon the governors of three Roman provinces came out against the new emperor: Septimius Severus (Panonia), Clodius Albinus (Britain), and Pescenius Niger (Syria). With the progress of Severus’ army towards Rome, Didius Julianus left other followers. Ultimately, the Senate recognized Septimius Severus as emperor and sentenced Didius Julianus to death. Caesar was murdered in his palace on June 1, 193.

Gaius Pescennius Niger

After the death of Didius Julius, there was a civil war between the claimants to the throne – Septimius Severus, who took over Italy and the western part of the Empire, and Pescennius Niger, whose forces concentrated in Anatolia and Syria. Sewer, who had a definite military advantage, decided to launch an offensive towards the centers of support of his rival. Initially, Pescennius Niger tried to carry out a quick strike on Severus’ forces, but during the campaign he was forced to retreat eastwards. Severus’ forces won the battles of Kyzikos (193), Kius (194), and Issos (194), which sealed the fate of Pescennius Niger, who was killed while trying to escape to Persia. The last center of resistance – the city of Byzantium – was not taken over by Severus’ supporters until December 195.

Clodius Albinus

Clodius Albinus was one of the proconsul who seized power after the murder of Pertynaks. Initially, he made an agreement with Septimius Severus, accepting the title of Caesar, and de facto managed part of the empire (Britain). In 193, together with Severus, he held the office of consul. After defeating supporters of Pescennius Niger and destroying Byzantium, former allies were confronted. Septimius Severus led the Senate to recognize his son Karakalla as heir to the throne and to proclaim Clodius Albin as “the enemy of Rome.” Initially, Albinus succeeded – he declared himself emperor and with the help of his faithful legions he managed to take over most of Gaul, but the lack of support from the Rhine legions meant that Albinus remained in a much weaker position. The armies of the two emperors met at the Battle of Lugdunum (today’s Lyon) in 197. Clodius Albinus’s army was defeated, and he himself committed suicide or was murdered by order of Septimius Severus.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus emerged victorious from the civil war 193 – 197 as the undisputed ruler of the entire Empire. At the same time, he managed to establish another dynasty in the history of the Empire, whose end began the period of the Third Age Crisis. Septimius Sewer came from the Romanized African aristocracy, and in 191 he was appointed a proconsul of Pannonia by Commodus. After the murder of Pertynax, he quickly decided to march on Rome. The mastery of the capital of the empire and the transitional pact with Klodiusz Albinos enabled him to defeat Pescennius Niger and further consolidate power. In the last phase of the conflict, he already had a huge advantage and after 197 he ruled over the entire Empire. For the legitimacy of his authority, Septimius Severus considered himself the son and successor of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The consequence of the above (after all, the emperor could not be the brother of the convict to damnatio memoriae) was also the push of the deification of Commodus in the Senate in 195.

Author: Piotr Baran

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