Marcus Aurelius, famous for his Stoic philosophy, succeeded his father-by-adoption, Antoninus Pius, on the latter’s death in 161. Marcus, though, insisted on sharing power equally with the younger adopted son of Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus. In 162 Lucius travelled to the East to direct the Roman campaign against the expansionist Parthians. He delegated conduct of the war to subordinates, who eventually brought it to a successful conclusion. In 166 Lucius returned to Rome and celebrated a joint triumph with Marcus. Trouble was brewing on the Danube frontier, however, requiring the intervention of both emperors in 168. Early in 169 Lucius Verus died suddenly, leaving Marcus Aurelius as sole emperor.
Marcus Antoninus, devoted to philosophy as long as he lived and pre-eminent among emperors in purity of life …‘Marcus Antoninus the Philosopher’ 1
… [Lucius Verus] enjoyed, not unrestricted power, but a sovereignty on like terms and equal dignity with Marcus, from whom he differed, however, as far as morals went, both in the laxity of his principles and the excessive licence of his life.‘Verus’ 1
While the Parthian war was still in progress, the Marcomannic war broke out, after having been postponed for a long time by the diplomacy of the men who were in charge there, in order that the Marcomannic war might not be waged until Rome was done with the war in the East.…
Clad in the military cloak the two emperors finally set forth, for now not only were the Victuali and Marcomanni throwing everything into confusion, but other tribes, who had been driven on by the more distant barbarians and had retreated before them, were ready to attack Italy if not peaceably received.‘Marcus Antoninus the Philosopher’ 12 & 14
… Lucius, while in his carriage, was suddenly stricken with the sickness which they call apoplexy, and after he had been set down from his carriage and bled, he was taken to Altinum [near Venice], and here he died, after living for three days unable to speak.‘Verus’ 9
Such was Marcus’ sense of honour, moreover, that although Verus’ vices mightily offended him, he concealed and defended them; he also deified him after his death, aided and advanced his aunts and sisters by means of honours and pensions, honoured Verus himself with many sacrifices, consecrated a flamen for him and a college of Antonine priests, and gave him all honours that are appointed for the deified. There is no emperor who is not the victim of some evil tale, and Marcus is no exception. For it was bruited about, in truth, that he put Verus out of the way, either with poison – by cutting a sow’s womb with a knife smeared on one side with poison, and then offering the poisoned portion to his brother to eat, while keeping the harmless portion for himself – or, at least, by employing the physician Posidippus, who bled Verus, it is said, unseasonably.‘Marcus Antoninus the Philosopher’ 15
The emperor himself fought for a long time, almost his entire life, one might say, with the barbarians in the region of the Ister [Danube], with both the Iazyges [a Sarmatian tribe] and the Marcomanni [a German tribe], one after the other, using Pannonia as his base.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXI, 3
He himself carried on the war with the Marcomanni, but this was greater than any in the memory of man, so that it is compared to the Punic wars …Eutropius Breviarium Ab Urbe Condita VIII, 12
… from the borders of Illyricum even into Gaul, all the nations banded together against us – the Marcomanni, Varistae, Hermunduri and Quadi, the Suebians, Sarmatians, Lacringes and Buri, these and certain others together with the Victuali, namely, Osi, Bessi, Cobotes, Roxolani, Bastarnae, Alani, Peucini, and finally, the Costoboci. Furthermore, war threatened in Parthia and Britain. Thereupon, by immense labour on his own part, while his soldiers reflected his energy, and both legates and prefects of the guard led the army, he conquered these exceedingly fierce peoples, accepted the surrender of the Marcomanni, and brought a great number of them to Italy.Historia Augusta ‘Marcus Antoninus the Philosopher’ 22
The Iazyges were defeated and came to terms … Indeed, the emperor had wished to exterminate them utterly. For that they were still strong at this time and had done the Romans great harm was evident from the fact that they returned a hundred thousand captives that were still in their hands even after the many who had been sold, had died, or had escaped, and that they promptly furnished as their contribution to the alliance eight thousand cavalry, fifty-five hundred of whom he [Marcus Aurelius] sent to Britain.Cassius Dio Roman History LXXI, 16 (fragment)
He wished to make a province of Marcomannia and likewise of Sarmatia, and would have done so had not Avidius Cassius just then [in 175] raised a rebellion in the East.Historia Augusta ‘Marcus Antoninus the Philosopher’ 24
But Cassius in rebelling made a terrible mistake, due to his having been deceived by Faustina. The latter, who was the daughter of Antoninus Pius, seeing that her husband [Marcus] had fallen ill and expecting that he would die at any moment, was afraid that the throne might fall to some outsider, inasmuch as Commodus [sole surviving son of Marcus and Faustina] was both too young and also rather simple-minded, and that she might thus find herself reduced to a private station. Therefore she secretly induced Cassius to make his preparations so that, if anything should happen to Antoninus [i.e. Marcus], he might obtain both her and the imperial power.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXI, 22
Avidius Cassius was one of the commanders who had won the Parthian war for Lucius Verus. He had been made governor of Syria, and subsequently had been given wider authority in the East. Dio goes on to say that, while Cassius was mulling over Faustina’s suggestion, he heard a rumour that Marcus was dead. He sprang into action, and claimed the throne. He soon learned that Marcus was not in fact dead, but nevertheless pressed on with his claim, and prepared for war. Cassius’ challenge was short-lived however. He was murdered before Marcus could engage with him.
Thus was this pretender slain after a dream of empire lasting three months and six days; and his son, who was somewhere else, was also murdered. Marcus, upon reaching the provinces that had joined in Cassius’ uprising, treated them all very leniently and did not put anyone to death, whether obscure or prominent.[*]Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXI, 27
In 177 Marcus made his son, Commodus, co-emperor. The next year, together with Commodus, he returned to the Danube. Dio was of the opinion that:
… if Marcus had lived longer, he would have subdued that entire region; but as it was, he passed away on the seventeenth of March [in the year 180], not as a result of the disease from which he still suffered, but by the act of his physicians, as I have been plainly told, who wished to do Commodus a favour.
… In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power.… he lived fifty-eight years, ten months, and twenty-two days, of which time he had spent a considerable part as assistant to the first Antoninus [Antoninus Pius], and had been emperor himself nineteen years and eleven days, yet from first to last he remained the same and did not change in the least. So truly was he a good man and devoid of all pretence.
… he did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire. Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXI, 33, 34 & 36
In the second century of the Christian Æra, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines [i.e. Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius].Gibbon goes further:Gibbon Decline and Fall Chapter 1
If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian [in 96] to the accession of Commodus [in 180].(Some might suggest there is still no reason to disagree with him.) For Gibbon, Marcus Aurelius’ death was a turning point – the time when:Gibbon Decline and Fall Chapter 3
… the Roman monarchy, having attained its full strength and maturity, began to verge towards its decline …Gibbon Decline and Fall Preface
Commodus was now sole ruler, but unfortunately he had none of his father’s strength of character, as Cassius Dio, who became a senator during the reign of Commodus, explains:
This man was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature. And this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died, leaving him many guardians, among whom were numbered the best men of the senate. But their suggestions and counsels Commodus rejected, and after making a truce with the barbarians he rushed to Rome; for he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city.…
Some say, and it seems plausible, that Commodus Antoninus, his son and successor, was not begotten by him, but in adultery; they embroider this assertion, moreover, with a story current among the people. On a certain occasion, it was said, Faustina, the daughter of Pius and wife of Marcus, saw some gladiators pass by, and was inflamed with love for one of them; and afterwards, when suffering from a long illness, she confessed the passion to her husband. And when Marcus reported this to the Chaldeans, it was their advice that the gladiator should be killed and that Faustina should bathe in his blood and thus couch with her husband. When this was done, the passion was indeed allayed, but their son Commodus was born a gladiator, not really a prince; for afterwards as emperor he fought almost a thousand gladiatorial bouts before the eyes of the people … This story is considered plausible, as a matter of fact, for the reason that the son of so virtuous a prince had habits worse than any trainer of gladiators, any play-actor, any fighter in the arena, or, in fine, anything brought into existence from the offscourings of all dishonour and crime. Many writers, however, state that Commodus was really begotten in adultery, since it is generally known that Faustina, while at Caieta, used to choose out lovers from among the sailors and gladiators. When Marcus Antoninus was told about this, that he might divorce, if not kill her, he is reported to have said “If we send our wife away, we must also return her dowry”. And what was her dowry? the Empire, which, after he had been adopted at the wish of Hadrian, he had inherited from his father-in-law Pius.Aurelius Victor says that Commodus:‘Marcus Antoninus the Philosopher’ 19
… possessed such an utterly harsh and cruel nature that he frequently butchered gladiators in mock battles, since he would use an iron sword, his opponents swords made of lead. When he had finished off very many in that manner, by chance one of them named Scaeva, who was very bold, physically powerful and a skilled fighter, deterred him from this passion. He, spurning his sword, which he saw was useless, said that the one with which Commodus was armed would be sufficient for both of them. Fearing that in the struggle he might have his weapon torn away from him and be killed, which does happen, he had Scaeva removed and, [now] more fearful of the others, he transferred his ferocity to wild beasts.Liber de Caesaribus §17
Commodus devoted most of his life to ease and to horses and to combats of wild beasts and of men. In fact, besides all that he did in private, he often slew in public large numbers of men and of beasts as well. For example, all alone with his own hands, he dispatched five hippopotami together with two elephants on two successive days; and he also killed rhinoceroses and a camelopard [giraffe].Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXII, 10
… Many plots were formed by various people against Commodus, and he killed a great many, both men and women, some openly and some by means of poison, secretly, making away, in fact, with practically all those who had attained eminence during his father’s reign and his own, with the exception of Pompeianus, Pertinax and Victorinus; these men for some reason or other he did not kill. I state these and subsequent facts, not, as hitherto, on the authority of others’ reports, but from my own observation.…
… I should render my narrative very tedious were I to give a detailed report of all the persons put to death by Commodus, of all those whom he made away with as the result of false accusations or unjustified suspicions or because of their conspicuous wealth, distinguished family, unusual learning, or some other point of excellence.…
He also had some wars with the barbarians beyond Dacia, in which Albinus and Niger, who later fought against the emperor Severus, won fame; but the greatest struggle was the one with the Britons. When the tribes in that island, crossing the wall that separated them from the Roman legions, proceeded to do much mischief and cut down a general together with his troops, Commodus became alarmed but sent Ulpius Marcellus against them. This man, who was temperate and frugal and always lived like a soldier in the matter of his food as well as in everything else when he was at war, was becoming haughty and arrogant; he was most conspicuously incorruptible, and yet was not of a pleasant or kindly nature. He showed himself more wakeful than any other general, and as he wished the others who were associated with him to be alert also, he used to write orders on twelve tablets, such as are made out of linden wood, almost every evening, and bid an aide to deliver them to such-and-such persons at various hours, so that these officers, believing the general to be always awake, might not themselves take their fill of sleep. For nature in the first place had made him able to resist sleep, and he had developed this faculty by the discipline of fasting. For in general he would never eat to satiety, and in order that he might not take his fill even of bread, he used to send to Rome for it. This was not because he could not eat the bread of the country, but in order that his bread might be so stale that he should be unable to eat even a small portion more than was absolutely necessary; for his gums were tender and, if the bread was very dry, would soon begin to bleed. However, he purposely exaggerated his natural tendency by simulating, in order that he might have the greatest possible reputation for wakefulness.
Such a man was Marcellus; and he ruthlessly put down the barbarians of Britain, and later, when, thanks to his peculiar excellence, he was all but on the point of being put to death by Commodus, he was nevertheless pardoned.Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXII, 1, 4, 7 & 8
The wall referred to by Cassius Dio in the above quote is almost certainly Hadrian’s Wall. Ulpius Marcellus secured a victory over the “barbarians of Britain” in 184. Commemorative coins were issued. Commodus was acclaimed ‘Imperator for the seventh time’ and he adopted the title ‘Britannicus’.
Swift on the heels of Ulpius Marcellus’ success, Roman forces in Britain mutinied. It may be that the overbearing behaviour of, the austere and unlikable, Marcellus was part of the cause, resulting in his rapid recall and a charge of treason which was soon dropped. At any rate:
The soldiers in Britain chose Priscus, a legionary legate, emperor; but he declined, saying: “I am no more an emperor than you are soldiers.”Cassius Dio Roman History LXXII, 9 (fragment)
He [Commodus] was called Britannicus by those who desired to flatter him, whereas the Britons even wished to set up an emperor against him.Historia Augusta ‘Commodus Antoninus’ 8[*]
The rebellious mood of the army in Britain would appear to have been inflamed by the actions of one Perennis. He was nominally prefect of the Praetorian Guard, but:
… inasmuch as Commodus had given himself up to chariot-racing and licentiousness and performed scarcely any of the duties pertaining to his office, Perennis was compelled to manage not only the military affairs, but everything else as well, and to stand at the head of the State. The soldiers, accordingly, whenever any matter did not turn out to their satisfaction, laid the blame upon Perennis and were angry with him.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXII, 9
Perennis seems to have replaced the senatorial legionary legates in Britain with men of lower rank.
… in spite of his great power, suddenly, because in the war in Britain he had dismissed certain senators and had put men of the equestrian order in command of the soldiers, this same Perennis was declared an enemy to the state, when the matter was reported by representatives of the army, and was thereupon delivered up to the soldiers to be torn to pieces.Historia Augusta ‘Commodus Antoninus’ 6
Perennis … met his death as the result of a mutiny of the soldiers.… Those in Britain, accordingly, having been rebuked for their insubordination – they did not become quiet, in fact, until Pertinax quelled them – now chose out of their number fifteen hundred javelin men and sent them into Italy. These men had already drawn near to Rome without encountering any resistance, when Commodus met them and asked: “What is the meaning of this, soldiers? What is your purpose in coming?” And when they answered, “We are here because Perennis is plotting against you and plans to make his son emperor,” Commodus believed them, especially as Cleander [his chamberlain] insisted; for this man had often been prevented by Perennis from doing all that he desired, and consequently he hated him bitterly. He accordingly delivered up the prefect to the very soldiers whose commander he was, and had not the courage to scorn fifteen hundred men, though he had many times that number of Praetorians. So Perennis was maltreated and struck down by those men, and his wife, his sister, and two sons were also killed.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXII, 9
… it may be that a force from the British army was already operating on the continent for another purpose, the suppression of brigandage. The end of the Marcomannic wars had left bands of runaway slaves and deserters roaming through Gaul, Spain and Italy.In the story of Perennis’ downfall told by Herodian, which bears little resemblance to that of Cassius Dio/Xiphilinus, no connection is made with Britain:Septimius Severus: The African Emperor Revised Edition (1988), Chapter 8
… some soldiers visited Perennis’ son [both Perennis’ sons were in Pannonia] in secret and carried off coins bearing the prefect’s portrait. And, without the knowledge of Perennis, the praetorian prefect, they took the coins directly to Commodus and revealed to him the secret details of the plot. They were richly rewarded for their service. While Perennis was still ignorant of these developments and anticipated nothing of the sort, the emperor sent for him at night and had him beheaded.History of the Empire after Marcus I, 9
Perennis’ death was in 185. To restore order in Britain, Commodus appointed Publius Helvius Pertinax as governor.
After Perennis had been put to death, Commodus made amends to Pertinax, and in a letter asked him to set out for Britain. After his arrival there he kept the soldiers from any revolt, for they wished to set up some other man as emperor, preferably Pertinax himself.… And certainly he did suppress the mutinies against Commodus in Britain, but in so doing he came into great danger; for in a mutiny of a legion he was almost killed, and indeed was left among the slain. This mutiny Pertinax punished very severely. Later on, however, he petitioned to be excused from his governorship, saying that the legions were hostile to him because he had been strict in his discipline.Historia Augusta ‘Helvius Pertinax’ 3[*]
Pertinax probably left Britain in 187. In 190:
Commodus, taking a respite from his amusements and sports, turned to murder and was killing off the prominent men.… Moreover, a pestilence occurred, the greatest of any of which I have knowledge; for two thousand persons often died in Rome in a single day. Then, too, many others, not alone in the City, but throughout almost the entire empire, perished at the hands of criminals who smeared some deadly drugs on tiny needles and for pay infected people with the poison by means of these instruments.…
Now the death of these victims passed unheeded; for Commodus was a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime. Among other reasons was this, that whatever honours they had been wont to vote to his father out of affection they were now compelled out of fear and by direct command to assign also to the son. He actually ordered that Rome itself should be called Commodiana, the legions Commodian, and the day on which these measures were voted Commodiana. Upon himself he bestowed, in addition to a great many other names, that of Hercules. Rome he styled the ‘Immortal, Fortunate Colony of the Whole Earth’; for he wished it to be regarded as a settlement of his own. In his honour a gold statue was erected of a thousand pounds weight, representing him together with a bull and a cow. Finally, all the months were named after him, so that they were enumerated as follows: Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius, Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius. For he himself assumed these several titles at different times, but ‘Amazonius’ and ‘Exsuperatorius’ he applied constantly to himself, to indicate that in every respect he surpassed absolutely all mankind superlatively; so superlatively mad had the abandoned wretch become. And to the senate he would send messages couched in these terms: “The Emperor Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus, Pacifier of the Whole Earth, Invincible, the Roman Hercules, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of the Tribunician Authority for the eighteenth time, Imperator for the eighth time, Consul for the seventh time, [i.e. the year 192] Father of his Country, to consuls, praetors, tribunes, and the fortunate Commodian senate, Greeting.” Vast numbers of statues were erected representing him in the garb of Hercules. And it was voted that his age should be named the ‘Golden Age’, and that this should be recorded in all the records without exception.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXII, 14–15
In what was to be the final plot against him, Commodus was served poison:
But the immoderate use of wine and baths, which was habitual with him, kept him from succumbing at once, and instead he vomited up some of it; and thus suspecting the truth, he indulged in some threats. Then they sent Narcissus, an athlete, against him, and caused this man to strangle him while he was taking a bath. Such was the end of Commodus, after he had ruled twelve years, nine months, and fourteen days. He had lived thirty-one years and four months …Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXII, 22
Commodus was murdered on 31st December 192. The plotters, one of whom was Laetus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, immediately chose Pertinax (who had been Commodus’ colleague in the consulship of 192) to be emperor. Dio implies that Pertinax was an innocent party. Herodian is clear that Pertinax was an innocent party.[*] In the Historia Augusta, though, ‘Julius Capitolinus’ is definite that Pertinax was complicit in Commodus’ murder.[*] Either way, having secured the Praetorians’ acclamation, Pertinax went:
… to the senate-house while it was still night, and after greeting us [Cassius Dio was a senator], so far as it was possible for anyone to approach him in the midst of such a jostling throng, he said off-hand: “I have been named emperor by the soldiers; however, I do not want the office and shall resign it at once, this very day, because of my age and feeble health, and because of the distressing state of affairs.” This was no sooner said than we gave him our genuine approbation and chose him in very truth; for he was not only most noble in spirit but also strong in body, except that he suffered from a slight impediment in walking by reason of his feet.[*]
… He at once reduced to order everything that had previously been irregular and confused; for he showed not only humaneness and integrity in the imperial administrations, but also the most economical management and the most careful consideration for the public welfare.…
… Laetus, however, did not remain permanently loyal to Pertinax, or, I might better say, he was never faithful even for a moment; for when he did not get what he wanted, he proceeded to incite the soldiers against him …Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXIII, 1, 5 & 6
On 28th March 193, a band of two hundred Praetorians invaded the palace. Pertinax was murdered.
The soldiers cut off the head of Pertinax and fastened it on a spear, glorying in the deed. Thus did Pertinax, who undertook to restore everything in a moment, come to his end. He failed to comprehend, though a man of wide practical experience, that one cannot with safety reform everything at once, and that the restoration of a state, in particular, requires but time and wisdom. He had lived sixty-seven years, lacking four months and three days, and had reigned eighty-seven days.
… Then ensued a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other …Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXIII, 10–11
Didius Julianus made the highest bid – he also planted the idea in the soldiers’ minds that Flavius Sulpicianus, being Pertinax’s father-in-law, might be inclined to seek revenge – and so the Praetorians declared him emperor.
So toward evening the new ruler hastened to the Forum and the senate-house. He was escorted by a vast number of Praetorians with numerous standards, as if prepared for action, his object being to intimidate both us and the populace at the outset and thereby to secure our allegiance … we pushed our way through the soldiers, entered the senate-house, and heard him deliver a speech that was quite worthy of him, in the course of which he said: “I see that you need a ruler, and I myself am best fitted of any to rule you. I should mention all the advantages I can offer, if you were not already familiar with them and had not already had experience of me. Consequently I have not even asked to be attended here by many soldiers, but have come to you alone, in order that you may ratify what has been given to me by them.” “I am here alone” is what he said, though he had actually surrounded the entire senate-house outside with heavy-armed troops and had a large number of soldiers in the chamber itself; moreover he reminded us of our knowledge of the kind of man he was, in consequence of which we both feared and hated him.
… The next day we went up to pay our respects to him, moulding our faces, so to speak, and posturing, so that our grief should not be detected. The populace, however, went about openly with sullen looks, spoke its mind as much as it pleased, and was getting ready to do anything it could. Finally, when he came to the senate-house and was about to sacrifice to Janus before the entrance, all fell to shouting, as if by preconcerted arrangement, calling him stealer of the empire and parricide. Then, when he affected not to be angry and promised them some money, they became indignant at the implication that they could be bribed, and all cried out together: “We don't want it! We won't take it!” And the surrounding buildings echoed back their shout in a way to make one shudder. When Julianus heard their reply, he could endure it no longer, but ordered those standing nearest to be slain. That exasperated the populace all the more, and it did not cease expressing its regret for Pertinax and abusing Julianus, invoking the gods and cursing the soldiers; but though many were wounded and killed in many parts of the city, they continued to resist. Finally they seized arms and rushed together into the Circus, and there spent the night and the following day without food or drink, shouting and calling upon the remainder of the soldiers, especially Pescennius Niger and his followers in Syria, to come to their aid. Later, exhausted by their shouting, by their fasting, and by their loss of sleep, they separated and kept quiet, awaiting the hoped-for deliverance from abroad.
… These were the occurrences in Rome. I shall now speak of what happened outside, and of the various rebellions. For three men at this time, each commanding three legions of citizens and many foreigners [i.e. auxiliary units] besides, attempted to secure the control of affairs – Severus [Septimius Severus], Niger [Pescennius Niger] and Albinus [Clodius Albinus]. The last-named was governor of Britain, Severus of Pannonia [i.e. Pannonia Superior], and Niger of Syria. These, then, were the three men portended by the three stars that suddenly came to view surrounding the sun when Julianus in our presence was offering the Sacrifices of Entrance in front of the senate-house. These stars were so very distinct that the soldiers kept continually looking at them and pointing them out to one another, while declaring that some dreadful fate would befall the emperor. As for us, however much we hoped and prayed that it might so prove, yet the fear of the moment would not permit us to gaze up at them except by furtive glances. So much for this incident, which I give from my own knowledge.
Now of the three leaders that I have mentioned, Severus was the shrewdest; he understood in advance that after Julianus had been deposed the three would clash and fight against one another for the empire, and he therefore determined to win over the rival who was nearest to him. So he sent a letter by one of his trusted friends to Albinus, appointing him Caesar; as for Niger, who was proud of having been summoned by the populace, he had no hopes of him. Albinus, accordingly, in the belief that he was to share the rule with Severus, remained where he was; and Severus, after winning over everything in Europe except Byzantium [later Constantinople, now Istanbul], was hastening against Rome.…
… wisely refused, for Commodus, he said, was only looking for a man who would perish with him, or whom he could reasonably put to death.According to Herodian, Severus’ offer to Albinus was simply a deception:Historia Augusta ‘Clodius Albinus’ 6 [*]
Severus made preparations for the war with great care. A thorough and cautious man, he had his doubts about the army in Britain, which was large and very powerful, manned by excellent soldiers. Britain was then under the command of Albinus, a man of the senatorial order who had been reared in luxury on money inherited from his ancestors. Severus, wishing to gain the friendship of this man, deceived him by a trick; he feared that Albinus, having strong stimuli to encourage him to seize the throne, and made bold by his ancestry and wealth, a powerful army, and his popularity among the Romans, might seize the empire and occupy Rome while Severus was busy with affairs in the East [i.e. with Niger]. And so he deceived the man by pretending to do him honour. Albinus, conceited and somewhat naive in his judgment, really believed the many things which Severus swore on oath in his letters. Severus appointed him Caesar, to anticipate his hope and desire for a share of the imperial power. He wrote Albinus the friendliest of letters, deceitful, of course, in which he begged the man to devote his attention to the welfare of the empire. He wrote him that the situation required a man of the nobility in the prime of life; he himself was old and afflicted with gout, and his sons were still very young. Believing Severus, Albinus gratefully accepted the honour, delighted to be getting what he wanted without fighting and without risk.History of the Empire after Marcus II, 15
Julianus, on learning of this, caused the senate to declare Severus a public enemy, and proceeded to prepare against him.…
Severus presently reached Italy, and took possession of Ravenna without striking a blow. Moreover, the men whom Julianus kept sending against him, either to persuade him to turn back or to block his advance, were going over the Severus’ side; and the Praetorians, in whom Julianus reposed most confidence, were becoming worn out by their constant toil and were becoming greatly alarmed at the report of Severus’ near approach. At this juncture Julianus called us together and bade us appoint Severus to share his throne. But the soldiers, convinced by letters of Severus that if they surrendered the slayers of Pertinax and themselves kept the peace they would suffer no harm, arrested the men who had killed Pertinax … We thereupon sentenced Julianus to death, named Severus emperor, and bestowed divine honours upon Pertinax. And so it came about that Julianus was slain [on 1st June 193] as he was reclining in the palace itself; his only words were, “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?” He had lived sixty years, four months, and the same number of days, out of which he had reigned sixty-six days.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXIII, 12–17
Severus had the Praetorians involved in killing Pertinax put to death – Julianus had already executed the prefect, Laetus. The rest of the Guard were cashiered and banished from Rome. He replaced them with recruits from the ranks of his legions. Severus then turned his attention to Niger. In 194, at Issus, in Cilicia (now in southern Turkey), the conclusive showdown took place.
The battle was indecisive for a long time, but at length Niger’s forces proved distinctly superior, thanks both to their numbers and to the terrain. They would have been completely victorious had it not been for the fact that clouds gathered out of a clear sky, a wind sprang up after a calm, and there followed heavy thunderclaps, sharp lightnings, and a violent rain-storm, all of which they had to face. This did not trouble Severus’ troops, as it was at their backs; but it caused great confusion to Niger’s men, since it was directly in their faces. Most of all, this opportune coming of the storm inspired courage in the one side, which believed it was being aided by Heaven, and fear in the other, which felt that Heaven was warring against it; thus it made the one army strong beyond its own strength, and terrified the other in spite of its real power …Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXIV, 7
Niger’s forces panicked, and were routed:
… twenty thousand of Niger’s followers perished.… Upon the capture of Antioch not long after this, Niger fled from there toward the Euphrates, intending to make his escape to the barbarians; but his pursuers overtook him and cut off his head. Severus caused the head to be sent to Byzantium and to be set up on a pole, that the sight of it might induce the Byzantines to join his cause. After this he proceeded to punish those who had belonged to Niger’s party...
Many, now, were the exploits and the experiences of the Byzantines, since for the entire space of three years they were besieged by the armaments of practically the whole world.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXIV, 8 & 12
… while this siege was going on, Severus, out of a desire for glory, made a campaign against the barbarians – against the Osroëni, the Adiabeni, and the Arabians.…
Before Severus had recovered from his conflicts with the barbarians he was involved in civil war with Albinus, his Caesar. For Severus would no longer give him even the rank of Caesar, now that he had got Niger out of the way and had settled other matters in that part of the world to his satisfaction; whereas Albinus aspired even to the pre-eminence of emperor.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXV, 1 & 4
Even though Niger had been eliminated, Severus considered Albinus still a menace. He now heard that this man, delighted with the title of Caesar, was acting more and more like an emperor; he was informed also that a great many men, particularly the most distinguished senators, were writing public and private letters to the Caesar, trying to persuade him to come to Rome while Severus was absent and occupied elsewhere. The fact is that the aristocracy much preferred Albinus as emperor because he belonged to a noble family and was reputed to have a mild nature. When he learned of these developments, Severus declined to initiate open hostility against Albinus and start a war with him since he lacked a reasonable excuse for such action. He thought it best to try to eliminate his Caesar by tricking him without warning. He therefore sent his most trusted imperial messengers to Britain with secret orders to hand Albinus the dispatches openly if they were admitted to his presence. They were then to ask him to meet them privately to receive secret instructions; when Albinus agreed to this and his bodyguards were not present, the messengers were to attack him without warning and cut him down. Severus provided them with deadly poisons so that, if the opportunity presented itself, they might persuade one of his cooks or cupbearers to administer a dose in secret. Albinus’ advisers, however, were suspicious of the emperor’s messengers, and warned him to be on his guard against this cunning schemer. Severus’ actions against Niger’s governors had seriously damaged his reputation; after forcing them through their children to betray Niger … and after making good use of their assistance, he put them to death with their children after he had got from them everything he wanted. His actions on this occasion clearly revealed Severus’ despicable character. The efforts of Severus now led Albinus to increase the size of his bodyguard. None of the emperor’s men was admitted into the Caesar’s presence until he had first been stripped and searched for concealed weapons. Now when the messengers from Severus arrived, they handed over the dispatches to Albinus openly and asked him to retire with them to receive secret orders. But Albinus, suspicious, had the men seized, and, putting them to torture privately, discovered the entire plot; after killing the messengers, he prepared to resist his revealed enemy.
When he was informed of what had occurred, Severus took effective and energetic action; by nature quick to anger, he no longer concealed his hostility toward Albinus.Incidentally, whilst Cassius Dio, who was close to the events, does not indicate that Albinus or Julianus were complicit in Pertinax’s murder (neither does Herodian), the later sources Aurelius Victor, Eutropius and the Historia Augusta (in its largely fictional biography of Albinus) have it that it was Julianus, on the advice of Albinus, who instigated the murder.[*] Severus portrayed himself as Pertinax’s avenger (he added the name Pertinax to his own name), and the allegation may well have originated as a piece of Severan propaganda – presumably transmitted to Victor, Eutropius and the Historia via the Kaisergeschichte (History of the Emperors), as Alexander Enmann (in 1884) named a proposed, no longer extant, Latin work, that began with Augustus and concluded in the year 357.History of the Empire after Marcus III, 5–6
When it was reported that Severus was not merely threatening to come but would soon appear in person, Albinus was in a state of complete confusion amid the negligence and revelry. Crossing over to the mainland of Gaul opposite Britain, he established his headquarters there.
But probably in the last decade of the second century the vast majority of Romano-British towns were given earthwork defences. The exact date is of course uncertain, and the excavated evidence naturally varies from site to site; but the phenomenon of urban defences in pure earthwork is so unusual in the western provinces that it must be assumed to have been a single programme caused by some crisis: and in that case the latest archaeological date for any of them can be applied to all; and this date is c.190. The sole advantage of earthwork over masonry is that it can be rapidly put up by large gangs of unskilled labour; whereas towns walls require skilled masons, of whom there were not enough to wall all towns simultaneously. The best explanation for the earthwork programme, if it was not caused by the threat of barbarian raiding (for which there is very little evidence), is that the programme was undertaken by D. [Decimus] Clodius Albinus in preparation for his continental expedition against Septimius Severus in 196.Sheppard S. Frere ‘The cities of Britain in the crisis of the third century’,
Revue Archéologique de Picardie No. 3-4 (1984), freely available online.
He then sent messages to the governors of the provinces ordering them to provide food and money for his army. Some obeyed and sent supplies, to their own destruction, since they suffered for it later; those who did not obey him saved themselves, more by luck than good judgment.Herodian History of the Empire after Marcus III, 7
… as he [Severus] was returning to Rome after the civil war caused by Niger, he received news of another civil war, caused by Clodius Albinus, who had revolted in Gaul.… Severus at once declared him a public foe, and likewise those who, in their letters to him or replies to his letters, had expressed themselves as favourably inclined to him.… At first, Severus’ generals were worsted by those of Albinus …Historia Augusta ‘Severus’ 10[*]
The struggle between Severus and Albinus near Lugdunum [Lyon] must now be described. There were a hundred and fifty thousand soldiers on each side,[*] and both leaders were present in the conflict, since it was a life-and-death struggle between them, though Severus had not previously been present at any other battle. Albinus excelled in family and education, but his adversary was superior in warfare and was a skilful commander. It chanced, however, that in an earlier battle Albinus had defeated Lupus, one of Severus’ generals, and had slain many of his soldiers. The present conflict showed many phases and shifts of fortune. Thus, Albinus’ left wing was defeated and fled back to the camp, and Severus’ men, pursuing them, burst in with them and proceeded to slay them and to plunder their tents. In the meantime Albinus’ troops on the right wing, having concealed trenches in front of them and pits covered over with earth on the surface, advanced as far as these pitfalls and hurled their javelins at long range; then, instead of continuing to go forward, they turned back, as if frightened, with the purpose of drawing their foes in pursuit. And this is exactly what happened. For Severus’ men, nettled by their brief charge and despising them for their flight after so short an advance, rushed against them in the belief that the whole intervening distance was passable; but on reaching the trenches, they met with a terrible disaster. For the men in the front rank, as soon as the surface-covering was broken through, fell into the excavations, and those immediately behind them stumbled over them, slipped, and likewise fell in; the rest drew back in terror, but their retreat was so sudden that they not only lost their footing themselves, but also upset those in the rear and drove them into a deep ravine. Great, indeed, was the loss of life among both these and those who had fallen into the trenches, as horses and men perished in wild confusion. And in the midst of this disorder the men between the ravine and the trenches were being annihilated by showers of missiles and arrows. Severus, seeing this, came to their aid with the Praetorians, but, far from helping them, he came very near destroying the Praetorians, too, and found his own life imperilled when he lost his horse. When he saw all his men in flight, he tore off his riding cloak, and drawing his sword, rushed among the fugitives, hoping either that they would be ashamed and turn back or that he might himself perish with them. Some, indeed, did stop when they saw him in this attitude, and turned back; and brought in this way face to face with the men following them, they cut down not a few of them, supposing them to be Albinus’ men; and they routed all their pursuers. At this juncture the cavalry under Laetus came up from one side and completed their victory. Laetus, it appears, so long as the struggle was close, had merely looked on, hoping that both leaders would perish and that the soldiers who survived on either side would give the supreme power to him; but when he saw that Severus’ side was prevailing, he also took a hand in the business.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXV, 6
When the army of Severus came to Gaul, a few minor skirmishes occurred here and there, but the final battle was fought near the large and prosperous city of Lugdunum. Albinus shut himself up in that city, remaining behind when he sent the army out to do battle. A major engagement developed, and for a long time each side’s chances of victory were equal, for in courage and ruthlessness the soldiers from Britain were in no way inferior to the soldiers from Illyria. When these two magnificent armies were locked in combat, it was no easy matter to put either one to flight. As some contemporary historians recorded – saying it not to curry favour but in the interests of accuracy – the division of the army stationed opposite the sector where Severus and his command were fighting proved far superior; the emperor slipped from his horse and fled, managing to escape by throwing off the imperial cloak. But while the soldiers from Britain were pursuing the Illyrians, chanting paeans of praise as if they were already victorious, they say that Laetus, one of Severus’ generals, appeared with the troops under his command fresh and not yet committed in the battle. The historians accuse Laetus of watching the progress of the battle and deliberately waiting, holding his troops out of the fighting and appearing only after he was informed that Severus had been beaten. The aftermath of the affair substantiates the charge that Laetus coveted the empire himself. Later, when Severus had set everything straight and was living an orderly life, he gave generous rewards to the rest of his commanders, but Laetus alone he put to death, as seems reasonable under the circumstances, considering the general’s past performances. All this happened at a much later date, however. On this occasion, when Laetus appeared with fresh troops, as has been related above, Severus’ soldiers, taking heart, wrapped the emperor in the imperial cloak again and mounted him on his horse. But Albinus’ soldiers, thinking that the victory was theirs, now found themselves in disorder when this powerful and as yet uncommitted army suddenly attacked; after a brief resistance they broke and ran. When the rout became general, Severus’ soldiers pursued and slaughtered the fugitives until they drove them into Lugdunum. Each contemporary historian has recorded to suit his own purpose the actual number of those killed and captured on each side.In the Historia Augusta, ‘Aelius Spartianus’ names the site of Severus’ first victory over Albinus:History of the Empire after Marcus III, 7
… after many operations had been carried on in Gaul with varying success, Severus had his first successful encounter with Albinus at Tinurtium [now Tournus, around 55 modern miles north of Lugdunum]. Through the fall of his horse, however, he was at one time [i.e. during the battle of Lugdunum] in the utmost peril; and it was even believed that he had been slain by a blow with a ball of lead, and the army almost elected another emperor.‘Severus’ 11
Severus defeated Albinus at Lugdunum on 19th February 197.
Thus Severus conquered; but the Roman power suffered a severe blow, inasmuch as countless numbers had fallen on both sides. Many even of the victors deplored the disaster, for the entire plain was seen to be covered with the bodies of men and horses; some of them lay there mutilated by many wounds, as if hacked in pieces, and others, though unwounded, were piled up in heaps, weapons were scattered about, and blood flowed in streams, even pouring into the rivers. Albinus took refuge in a house that stood beside the Rhône, but when he saw the whole place surrounded, he slew himself. I am not stating, now, what Severus wrote about it, but what actually took place. The emperor, after viewing the body of Albinus and feasting his eyes upon it to the full, while giving free rein to his tongue as well, ordered all but the head to be cast away, but sent the head to Rome to be exposed on a pole.
… he [Severus] gave orders that the bodies of the senators who had been slain in the battle should be mutilated. And then, when Albinus’ body was brought before him, he had him beheaded while still half alive, gave orders that his head should be taken to Rome … The rest of Albinus’ body was, by Severus’ order, laid out in front of his own home, and kept there for a long time exposed to view. Furthermore, Severus himself rode on horseback over the body, and when the horse shied, he spoke to it and loosed the reins, that it might trample boldly. Some add that he ordered Albinus’ body to be cast into the Rhône, and also the bodies of his wife and children.Herodian makes no mention of Albinus’ suicide:Historia Augusta ‘Severus’ 11
When they [Severus’ troops] caught Albinus they cut off his head and sent it to Severus.…
Then the angry emperor took vengeance upon Albinus’ friends at Rome. He sent the man’s head to the city and ordered that it be displayed. When he reported his victory in dispatches, he added a note stating that he had sent Albinus’ head to be put on public view so that the people might know the extent of his anger against them.History of the Empire after Marcus III, 7–8
As this action showed clearly that he possessed none of the qualities of a good ruler, he alarmed both us and the populace more than ever by the commands that he sent; for now that he had overcome all armed opposition, he was venting upon the unarmed all the wrath that he had stored up against them in the past. He caused us especial dismay by constantly styling himself the son of Marcus and the brother of Commodus and by bestowing divine honours upon the latter, whom but recently he had been abusing.Cassius Dio Roman History (Epitome, Xiphilinus) LXXV, 7