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Rome: An Emperor Who Ruled for Just 86 Days

Updated on January 18, 2020
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MG is a senior air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff College and a notable writer on military history.

The Roman Empire

Great empires have existed since the dawn of civilization. One of the earliest empires was the Roman empire. A look at the world map shows that at its greatest extent, it covered a large part of the globe. So gigantic was the empire that the Mediterranean Sea was converted almost into a lake, with the empire in force all around it from North Africa to Europe and the entire Middle East.

Great emperors ruled this empire, but some lesser-known individuals were catapulted into the seat of power. One such emperor was Helivous Pertinax who ruled for just 86 days.

Helvius Pertinax

Who was Helvius Pertinax? He was born in an average Roman family in Milan on 1 August 126. The old saying that some men have greatness thrust on them applies to Pertinax. He was of humble origin and probably would have lived a nondescript life and gone, but he joined the Roman army and steadily rose in its ranks. He was recognized as an outstanding soldier by 2 emperors namely Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Thus Pertinax was earmarked for greatness. He was also an ambitious man and accepted any greater responsibility given to him.

Pertinax also rose in the civilian hierarchy and was a consul in the Senate.

Did Pertinax deserve to be emperor of Rome

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engraving 176AD
engraving 176AD


Pertinax ascended the throne at the age of 66. It was a dream come true and Pertinax decided he would not be anybody's puppet. He began to assert his independence and also set about reforming the Praetorian guard. The conspirators also realized that Pertinax was nobody's stooge and power had slipped from their grasp. They were not happy and plotted to remove Pertinax.

The Praetorian Guard was the elite force of the Roman army. It wielded tremendous power in Rome and was also tasked with the personal security of the emperor.

Murder of Commodus

Pertinax was in Rome when momentous events took place. A conspiracy was hatched to kill the Roman emperor Commodus. One reason for his killing was his bizarre lifestyle. His mistress was roped in by the killers as an accomplice.

It is possible that Pertinax was unaware of the plot to kill Commodus, but once Commodus was murdered he readily agreed to become emperor. The conspirators carried out the killing on new year's eve on 31st December 192. The conspirators chose new year's eve as it is a time of revelry and they hoped to succeed in their plan without attracting attention.

As the new year dawned, the conspirators were confronted with the need to have someone on the Roman throne. After due discussion, they approached Pertinax with an offer to be emperor of Rome. Pertinax readily consented as he was an ambitious man and his dream of a great name and ruler was fulfilled. Pertinax was anointed emperor of Rome, but he began to take his job seriously and that proved his undoing.

Pertinax and the Praetorian Guard

Pertinax took the first steps to enforce professionalism and discipline in the Praetorian guard. The guard had become an undisciplined force, mainly due to the activities of Commodus. He had increased their salary and also allowed them a free hand. Pertinax took steps to streamline the guard and this was not liked.

The guard resented attempts by Pertinax to enforce discipline, as they considered the emperor an upstart. They resolved to kill him and a plot was hatched when Pertinax was away from Rome. The conspirators were betrayed by a slave who blurted out the plot details to the emperor on his return to Rome.

Pertinax acted with alacrity and the ringleaders and their supporters among the guard were arrested. After a brief trial, Pertinax ordered their execution. The executions instilled fear among the guards and they resolved to get rid of Petronax. The battle lines were thus drawn

Killing of Pertinax

The Praetorian guard waited for an opportune time to kill Pertinax. A section believed that speed was of importance and on the night of 28th March 193 the dice was cast to kill Pertinax. The emperor at that time had completed just 86 days as emperor.

On that fateful night, about 300 guards attacked the royal palace. The guards loyal to Pertinax guarding the emperor were killed and the guards swept inside the palace searching for Pertinax. The emperor was killed in his sleeping quarters and the reign of Pertinax ended. It was the shortest reign of a Roman emperor.

The guards after murdering Pertinax were in a quandary as to the next step. They took a bizarre decision to auction the throne to the highest bidder. They needed a ruler who would look after and pay them. Accordingly, a Roman businessman bid and became emperor. His name was Julianus Didius. But this was to be only a short interlude as he was soon killed

Final Curtain

Didius Julianus as emperor lasted only for a short time and in June 193 he was overthrown by Septimus Severus. Julianus was executed and Septimus became emperor.
In hindsight, one can see that Pertinax made a mistake by accepting the offer to be emperor of Rome. He took his chance and put his name forever in Roman and world history. He has the satisfaction of his name remaining for posterity as emperor of Rome.

Roman history is fascinating and right from the killing of Julius Ceasor top the murder of Pertinex it is one long story of intrigue and assassination. It's a subject the excites and stimulates.


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