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Augustus had discovered that you could get away with murder so long as you dressed it up in the right way. And when I say murder I mean that quite literally – actually killing people.
Generally speaking the Romans at this time were not highly motivated by either political or religious principles. Money was the big thing. So it might be supposed that the killing of the emperor and the selling of his throne would be met with indifference.
But it turned out that even the Romans had their limits. The citizens reacted badly to Julian’s coup. It was dishonourable to have a leader who had simply bought his position. The senators had property to lose, so kept their mouths shut. But the ordinary people had no inhibitions and expressed their disapproval vocally. But given the existence of the Praetorian Guard there was nothing that they could do about it.
There were only three men in the empire who could do something about it. These were the three leaders of the armies of Britain, the Danube and Syria. None of them recognised the change of regime and all three prepared to seize the throne for themselves. All had roughly the same sized forces at their disposal. The chaos that had followed the death of Nero was playing itself out once again. War among the Romans was now inevitable.
The best connected of the contenders was Clodius Albinus, the governor of Britain. He came from an ancient family, though one that had not been particulary notable for a while. He had been appointed by Marcus but had kept in well with the very different Commodus. This, Gibbon thought, showed that he was flexible. He had turned down an offer of the role of Caesar. This was good politics. It marked him out as lacking ambition – a good point in the eyes of a tyrant.
But there was a bit more to Albinus than simply a yes man. On receiving a false report of the death of Commodus he made a speech to his men denouncing the tyrant and calling for the re-establishment of the republic. This proved to be a little embarrassing when it was discovered that Commodus was still alive after all and heard all about it. But Commodus seems to have failed to get him relieved of his command. It doesn’t seem very likely that Albinus was a true republican. The republic had not existed for 200 years. He was probably taking a position to gain favour with members of the Senate rather than actually trying to restore the long lost golden age of popular democracy. So, a wily political operator.
At the other end of the empire the governor of Syria, Pescennius Niger had risen from obscurity to one of the major jobs in the empire. He was popular with the people of his jurisdiction and was urged on to take the empire by everyone around him. In a long run struggle the eastern provinces had the advantage of having more resources available to keep the fight going. But Niger seems to have hesitated to seize the initiative.
Nearest to Rome was Septimus Severus who commanded the legions on the Danube. He had the advantage that he could get to Rome itself first. Indeed, with luck he could get to Rome before his rivals were even aware of what he was doing. He got started straight away and brought his army round for the march on the capital.
Julian soon learnt of what was going on on the Danube and started to do everything in his power to defend his own position. He sent high ranking ambassadors to negotiate with a generous offer to associate Severus with the empire. He sent assassins to try and kill him. He even proposed sending out the vestal virgins to bring to bear the power of the Gods against his enemy. The defences of Rome were built up. But every day the news got worse. The ambassadors defected to Severus. As his troops advanced through Italy towns and cities went over to his side without a struggle. And every day he got closer to Rome itself.
Severus knew how to lead an army. He shared the hardships of the common soldiers – though marching through Italy unopposed was probably not the most rigorous campaign in military history. He slept fully armed surrounded by six hundred hand picked guards who themselves were never out of armour. This precaution frustrated Julian’s assassination attempts. He also promised a huge donative – four times larger than the one on offer from Julian. In an age where you chose your leader by a calculation of what you were likely to get from him balanced by his likelihood of success, following Severus was a no-brainer.
As he closed in on Rome there was no doubt who the eventual winner was going to be. The only question was whether the ferocious Praetorians would make it a battle worth remembering. Despite being outnumbered, they had the advantage of defending a strong fortress. They could hold out for a long time and with courage and determination they could make Severus pay dearly for his prize. They would go down in history as men who lacked morals and disregarded the dignity of the empire, but who defended a bargain that they had made to the end of their strength and to the last drop of their blood.
Alternatively, they could just surrender. This was the option they went for. Severus made it easy for them by offering terms. Only the actual murderers of Pertinax would be held responsible. The guards could therefore wriggle out of the tricky position they had got themselves into by simply betraying their comrades. Once the soldiers had abandoned the cause, the Senate quickly followed suit. Julian was bundled into a bathroom and beheaded. He had been emperor for only 66 days. Severus occupied the city without a fight and was acclaimed by everyone.
The Senate had dealt with Julian, so the first item on the agenda was the Praetorians. They were ordered to assemble in full uniform but without their weapons on a plain outside the city. Severus adressed them and castigated them for their treachery. The soldiers stripped them of their fine uniforms. Another detachment occupied their camp. They were all banished on pain of death to more than a 100 miles from the capital. I think they get off lightly. They can’t have thought it through. With their track record, who would trust them to guard anything?
The other matter was dealing with the memory of Pertinax. Most incumbents have a bit of a honeymoon period when they take over. Taking over from a tyrant means you compare well with your predecessor. Getting killed before you make any mistakes is another good way to keep a high reputation. And to top it all, Pertinax had showed courage in the face of an unjust death. He must have been remembered with affection.
Severus was too much of a politician to fail to notice the opportunity. He made a belated funeral oration praising the memory of Pertinax – a golden opportunity to look good by association with someone who could not be a threat.
Of the three contenders Severus was now in the strongest position. By occupying Rome and getting the endorsement of the Senate he was sending the right mood music out. His deft handling of the legacy of Pertinax helped as well. You might have thought that given the Senate’s spineless behaviour over the previous couple of months, there wasn’t much prestige to be gained from bullying them into complying with yet another regime change. But appearances count for more than we like to think and this extra legitimacy did strengthen his position.
But nonetheless, on paper he was still vulnerable. If his two enemies had combined they had the numbers to defeat him. Luckily for Severus, Albinus was willing to settle for the post of Caesar with the hint that he would succeed Severus.
This freed Severus to attack Niger. He must have been a good general because what might easily have been a long and bitter campaign was dealt with very quickly. Niger was defeated in only two battles, both in Turkey. How serious the war could have been was shown by Byzantium which held out for three years. We don’t know why they were so determined.
Severus was now free to turn his attention to Albinus. He tried to get him the easy way. Some messengers were sent with secret instructions to kill him. The plot was discovered prompting Albinus to lead his legions across the Channel to march on Rome. Severus intercepted him at Lyons where a huge battle involving 150,000 men took place. The outcome was narrow, but Severus was victorious. Severus sent message to the Senate that he was now undisputed ruler of the Roman world. Accompanying the note was the head of Albinus.