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Prominent claimants to throne after death of Commodus

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Year of the Five Emperors
Year of the Five Emperors

Murder of Commodus at the end of 192 CE it ended the reign of the Antonine dynasty and certainly the best period of the existence of the Roman empire. He was succeeded by Pertynax, a respected senator and efficient leader of Marcus Aurelius, chosen by the conspirators. Unfortunately, however, the financial and internal discipline that Pertinax tried to impose in Rome led to his murder by the praetorians in March 193 CE.

After the death of Pertinax, the praetorians organized a kind of tender for the office of emperor. The title was finally obtained by Didius Julianus, who paid the members of the guard 25,000 sestertii. Didius Julianus was a person of very good origin but did not have the appropriate political and military background.
At the same time, in different parts of the Empire, new claimants to the Roman throne appeared, who were outraged by the tragic fate of Pertinax, respected by the army. Danubian legions proclaimed Septimius Sever the governor of Pannonia the emperor; in the eastern provinces, the title was taken by Pescennius Niger; in Britain, Clodius Albinus succeeded himself. Due to the fact that in 193 CE Five different people were considered to be Roman emperors, and this period is referred to as “the Year of the Five Emperors”.

First of all, attention should be paid to the last three, as each of the contenders appeared to be a strong and efficient commander with a large military base. According to the Historia Augusta1, the Delphic oracle was to herald the beginning of the civil war with the words – Optimus Fuscus, bonus Afer, pessimus Albus, meaning “The best is Fuscus, the good Afer, the worst Albus”. Researchers interpret them as follows: Fuscus literally means “black” and refers to the Syrian legate Pescennius Niger; Afer is identified with Septimius Severus from Africa; in turn Albus (or Albinus) with the governor of Britain, Clodius Albinus. It turns out that Pescennius Niger could appear to be the best contender to the throne in the opinion of Roman society. For this reason, perhaps Septimius Severus considered him the greatest threat in the struggle for power after conquering Rome and defeating Didius Julianus. In order to secure Italy, he decided to form an alliance with Clodius Albinus and announce their joint rule, in order to be able to deal with the self-proclaimed in the east at that time. Severus was certainly the best starting position among all the contenders (stationed on the Danube; closest to Italy) and had the largest number of legions under his command. On the other hand, he had to secure the threat from both flanks; hence the decision to focus on the more formidable enemy in the east; and a temporary alliance with Albinus.

Both Niger and Sever realized that their clash would be extremely bloody and exhausting. They both tried to refer to the best emperors of the Antonin dynasty, proclaiming propaganda slogans and creating an image of pious and just rulers. One of the main sources of events from the end of the 2nd century CE there is Cassius Dio, who presents the story from the perspective of the victorious Severus. For this reason, Niger does not have a good reputation and the historian focuses rather on describing its failures or predictions that herald its fall. Clodius Albinus has a much better opinion, which is rather due to his initial cooperation with Severus and his submission to the stronger.

When analyzing the preserved historical sources, it is difficult to judge which of the chiefs would be the better princeps. What is certain is that each of them had sufficient political tools, resources and military support to be able to seize power after the murder of Pertinax. A misfortune caused all three to live at the same time and had to compete with each other.

  1. Historia Augusta, 8.1
  • Janiszewska Daria, Wojna domowa w Rzymie w latach 193-197, Kocewia Mała 2021

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