History for the Rest of Us

Didius Julianus

Didius Julianus

Jun 1, 2012

Marcus Didius Severus Julianus was born January 30, 133 AD. He was raised in the household of Domitia Lucilla, the mother of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. His accession was one of the most scandalous public events in Roman history.

Throne for Sale
After the murder of the Emperor Pertinax, the praetorian guard stationed heralds on the walls announcing that the role of Emperor would be up for auction. The question of why someone would want the position, after Pertinax was murdered only 87 days into his reign, begs asking. Two candidates presented themselves. Titus Flavius Sulpicianus, Pertinax’s father-in-law, and Marcus Didius Julianus. The bidding went on for some time as each of the men made promises to the guard. Julianus eventually was chosen by the soldiers having both outbid his rival, and having made it clear to them that Sulpicianus would probably seek revenge on the guard since they had murdered his son-in-law. Julianus is said to have ‘passed his first night in continual wakefulness’ recognizing the vulnerability of the position he had just assumed. His only supporters were the praetorian guard. The people of Rome openly demonstrated against him primarily since one of his first acts was devaluation of the Roman currency. He also was unpopular with the senate.

Didius Julianus

Didius Julianus - Roman Emperor for 66 Days

Julianus’ Support Evaporates
Hearing of the public anger in Rome, three military commanders refused to recognize the new emperor’s authority, and within a few weeks, Lucius Septimius Severus was marching towards Rome having reached an agreement with Decimus Clodius Albinus, one of the other two who had refused to recognize Julianus. Julianus was already beginning to lose support of his only backers, the praetorian guard, because they felt he wasn’t delivering on the extravagant promises he had made when vying to become emperor. Julianus sent assassins to kill Severus, but they were unsuccessful. Desperate, he then asked the senate to make Severus a joint ruler. But with Severus marching on Rome Julianus had nothing to bargain with.

What Evil Have I Done?
The senate passed a motion on June 1, 193 naming Severus emperor, and sentencing Julianus to death. The officer who was dispatched to carry out the execution found Julianus ‘alone and deserted by everyone’. His last words being ‘But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?’. Julianus’ reign was even more brief than his predecessor lasting only 66 days.

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