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Civil war after death of Commodus

(193-197 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

With the end of Commodus, the Imperium Romanum went through a very difficult period in its history. The removal of the emperor hated by the senators did not bring the longed-for peace to the country and the Eternal City. The son and successor of Marcus Aurelius, as a result of a conspiracy, he was murdered on December 31, 192 CE. In his place, the conspirators chose senator Pertynax, who was good with age.

According to ancient historians, the nomination of Pertinax took place in a hurry and without a plan. The soldiers accepted the new ruler only after the intervention of the praetorian prefect, Letus, and the promise to pay donativum in the amount of 12,000 sesterces. However, the new emperor was not liked by the praetorians, mainly due to planned reforms that were to reduce the privileges and influence the policy of the praetorian troops. From the beginning, Pertynax’s rule was headed for a catastrophe.

The first unsuccessful attempt at rebellion was to take place on January 2, 193. Ultimately, the praetorians managed to overthrow and murder Pertinax on March 28, 193. One of the most heinous events in Roman history took place after his death. The imperial purple was auctioned between the father-in-law of the murdered Pertinax, Flavius ​​Sulpitian, and senator Didius Julian. The winner was the latter, offering donativum in the amount of 25,000 sesterces. The praetorians’ fear of retribution from him was also against Sulpitian. After this event, Didius Julian was also approved by the senate. The senatorial tradition was definitely hostile to him. He was presented as a lazy ruler, inclined to live beyond his means, with empty promises and flattery. The situation in other parts of the imperium was also not in favour of Julian. There were more coups. Three leaders opposed the new emperor: Septimius Severus in Pannonia, Pescennius Niger in Syria, and Clodius Albin in Britain. Thus, in Imperium another great civil war began.

Most likely, the first was the governor of Syria, Pescennius Niger, who gained the support of six legions and governors of the eastern provinces. Niger declared himself August, but was not given titles such as pontifex maximus, nor pater patriae, and had no tribunal power. This was due to the fact that these competencies were traditionally assumed in Rome itself. Undoubtedly, the governor of Syria could count on the support of his supporters in the Eternal City.

Septimius Severus
Photo: Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany

Septimius Severus was another governor who declared himself emperor. This politician from the African Leptis Magna had extensive experience in various clerical positions, mainly in the military. Severus, as an experienced politician, went into action very quickly and was the first to announce himself the avenger of Pertinax, who was murdered by the praetorians. This undoubtedly helped him win over the Danube and Rhine legions, which he had once commanded Pertinax. Ultimately, as many as 16 legions stood on his side.

The third and final candidate for purple was Decimus Clodius Albinus. He came from a wealthy, aristocratic family from Hadrumetum, so like Severus, he had African roots. On the eve of the war, this politician was the governor of Britain and proclaimed himself emperor there. 4 legions stood on his side. Albin undoubtedly had a large body of supporters in Rome who were not satisfied with the rule of Didius Julian. Septimius Severus must have been aware of this, too, he decided to propose an alliance to the governor of Britain. Severus was to accept his rule in Gaul, Spain and Britain, and also awarded the title of Caesar, thus becoming his successor. Thanks to this arrangement, Septimius Severus was not forced to fight on two fronts. So he set off for Rome immediately to deal with Didius Julian first.

Didius Julian, who was in office in Rome, had no possibility of winning any of the candidates for the throne, which made him passive in the face of these speeches. Meanwhile, Severus began a rapid march to Rome (expeditio urbica). He quickly captured Ravenna and its fleet. After this event, the road to the Eternal City was open to him. Julian ordered the senate to declare Sever a public enemy and he prepared the city for defence, but he did it ineptly and slowly. It made the people of Rome laugh rather than fear. In this desperate situation, he decided to change his mind and offered Severus co-reign. The offer was rejected. Eventually, seeing Julian’s weakness and the enormous advantage of Septimius Severus’ troops, the Senate stripped him of power and issued a death sentence on him. Didius Julian was murdered on June 2, 193; it was supposed to reign for only 66 days.

After Severus entered Rome, some very important events took place. First of all, he disarmed and disbanded the old guard, replacing the degenerate praetorians with his battle-hardened, but above all, faithful soldiers. He also paid his soldiers donativum in the amount of 250 denarii. However, the changes he made in the functioning of the army were more important. Among other things, it allowed soldiers to marry. Another important event was the solemn funeral and the deification of Pertinax (consecratio). He also forced the Senate to approve his pact with Claudius Albin. At the same time, Pescennius Niger was recognized as a public enemy. Severus, wasting no time, started the war against the governor of Syria.

Pescennius Niger at that time was already the master of the entire East. He tried to move his troops to the area of ​​Propontydy, but this was prevented by Severus’ troops, which began to besiege Byzantium on the way to the east. The first battle took place at Cyzicus and ended with the success of Septimius Severus. The commander of the Niger army, Gaius Asellius Emilian, was to die in the battle. Another battle was fought between Nieca and Kios over Propontyda. It was much more even. The victory passed from hand to hand, but in the end, Severus’ soldiers took over again. After that battle, the scales of victory throughout the war began to tip in favour of Septimius Severus. Egypt, Arabia and some cities in Syria joined his cause. The last big and decisive battle took place at Issos in March 194. In the same place in 333 BCE, there was a clash between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III. Niger’s troops were outnumbered by Septimius Severus, so they set themselves up in defensive positions. Again, the battle was extremely fierce. Severus’ victory was to be decided by a cavalry attack on the rear of Niger’s troops under the command of a certain Valerian. This battle was decisive. Pescennius Niger was supposed to lose 20,000 soldiers, and was forced to flee himself, but was caught up and murdered. His head was sent to Byzantium to break the resistance of the besieged. He was also sentenced to damnatio memoria e.

Severus’ stay in the east did not end with the defeat of Niger. Later, he began persecuting the supporters of the governor of Syria and organized punitive campaigns towards the areas east of the Euphrates. We are talking about the kingdom of Osrhoena and the Adiabens and the Arabs. It was not until the end of 195 that the Byzantine Empire, which had been besieged for a long time, fell into the hands of Severus’ troops.

After all important matters in the east are dealt with. Severus could have turned west against Clodius Albin. In the first half of 195, both politicians argued about good mutual relations. However, after the final collapse of Byzantium, Septimius Severus sent assassins to Albin to murder him. However, they were caught and tortured. For Clodius Albinus, it was a sign that the period of peaceful coexistence was over. Moreover, in the summer of 195 Severus declared himself the son of Marcus Aurelius and brother of Commodus, thereby revealing his dynastic ambitions, posing as the successor of the murdered Commodus. In December 195, Severus recognized Albin as a political enemy. The latter, in turn, in the same month, assumed the title of Augusta and finally severed the ties linking him with Septimius.

After the end of the punitive campaigns, Sewer moved his troops to the west. He himself returned to Rome for a few months to put things in order in the city and to prepare a war campaign against the governor of Britain. At the same time, Albin withdrew the legions from Britain to Gaul. Lugdunum (Lyon) became its headquarters. In mid-196, Severus gathered his armies, and later entered Gaul from Upper Germania, he began his march towards Lugdunum.

At first, Albin’s troops achieved some success. It is possible that they even managed to defeat one of the commanders of Severus Virius Lupus in a minor battle. His troops began to besiege Trier. Later, however, it only got worse. Severus’ first victory in the fight against Albin was the battle of Tinurtium. It was only a prelude to the great battle that took place at Lugdunum. As in other battles of this civil war, the fight was very even. However, at the key moment of the battle, Severus was supported by the cavalry commander Julius Letus, and his troops managed to win. Clodius Albinus tried to flee, but seeing the hopelessness of the situation, he committed suicide. Thus, the several years of civil wars ended. The final winner was Septimius Severus.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Jaczynowska D., Wojna domowa w Rzymie w latach 193-197, Poznań 2010
  • Birley R. A., Septimius Severus. The African Emperor, London 1999

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