CHAPTER XXIX, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

Copyright by Will Durant. See the book at Amazon


ON January 1, 193, a few hours after the assassination of Commodus, the Senate met in a transport of happiness, and chose as emperor one of its most respected members, whose just administration as prefect of the city had continued the finest traditions of the Antonines. Pertinax accepted with reluctance a dignity so exalted that any fall from it must be fatal. He “demeaned himself as an ordinary man,” says Herodian, attended the lectures of the philosophers, encouraged literature, replenished the treasury, reduced taxes, and auctioned off the gold and silver, the embroideries and silks and beautiful slaves, wherewith Commodus had filled the imperial palace; “in fact, he did everything,” says Dio Cassius, “that a good emperor should do.” The freedmen who had lost their perquisites through his economy conspired with the Praetorian Guard, which disliked his restoration of discipline. On March 28, 300 soldiers forced their way into the palace, struck him down, and carried his head upon a spear to their camp. The people and the Senate mourned and hid. The leaders of the Guard announced that they would bestow the crown upon that Roman who should offer them the largest donative. Didius Julianus was persuaded by his wife and daughter to interrupt his meal and enter his bid. Proceeding to the camp, he found a rival offering 5000 drachmas ($3000) to each soldier in return for the throne. The agents of the Guard passed from one millionaire to the other, encouraging higher bids; when Julianus promised each man 6250 drachmas the Guard declared him emperor.

Aroused by this crowning indignity, the people of Rome appealed to the legions in Britain, Syria, and Pannonia to come and depose Julianus. The legions, angered by exclusion from the donative, hailed their respective generals with the imperial title, and marched toward Rome. The Pannonian commander, Lucius Septimius Severus Geta, gained the Principate by boldness, expedition, and bribery. He pledged himself to give each soldier 12,000 drachmas upon his accession; he led them from the Danube to within seventy miles of Rome in a month; he won over to himself the troops sent to halt him, and subdued the Praetorians by offering them pardon in return for the surrender of their leaders. He violated precedent by entering the capital with all his troops in full armor, but he himself appeased tradition by wearing civilian dress. A tribune found Julianus in tears and terror in the palace, led him into a bathroom, and beheaded him (June 2, 193).

Africa, which was at this time providing Christianity with its ablest defenders, gave birth (146) and early schooling to Septimius. Brought up in a family of Punic-speaking Phoenicians, he studied literature and philosophy in Athens and practiced law in Rome. Despite the Semitic accent of his Latin, he was among the best-educated Romans of his time, and liked to surround himself with poets and philosophers. But he did not allow philosophy to impede his wars, or poetry to soften his character. He was a man of handsome features, strong physique, and simple dress, hardy in hardship, clever in strategy, fearless in battle, ruthless in victory. He conversed with wit, judged with penetration, lied without scruple, loved money more than honor, and governed with cruelty and competence. The Senate had made the mistake of declaring for his rival Albinus; Septimius, surrounded with 600 guards, persuaded it to confirm his own accession; then he put scores of senators to death, and confiscated so many aristocratic estates that he became landlord to half the peninsula. The decimated Senate was replenished by imperial nomination with new members chiefly from the monarchical East. The great lawyers of the age- Papinian, Paulus, Ulpian- accumulated arguments in defense of absolute power. Septimius ignored the Senate except when he sent it commands; he assumed full control of the various treasuries, based his rule frankly upon the army, and made the Principate an hereditary military monarchy. The army was increased in size; the pay of the soldiers was raised, and became an exhausting drain upon the public purse. Military service was made compulsory, but was forbidden to the inhabitants of Italy; henceforth provincial legions would choose emperors for a Rome that had lost the fortitude to rule.

This realistic warrior believed in astrology, and excelled in the interpretation of portents and dreams. When, six years before his accession, his first wife died, he offered his hand to a rich Syrian whose horoscope had pledged her a throne. Julia Domna was the daughter of a rich priest of the god Elagabal at Emesa. There, long since, a meteorite had fallen, had been enshrined in a gaudy temple, and was worshiped as the symbol, if not the embodiment, of the deity. Julia came, bore Septimius two sons, Caracalla and Geta, and rose to her promised throne. She was too beautiful to be monogamous, but Septimius was too busy to be jealous. She gathered around her a salon of literary men, patronized the arts, and persuaded Philostratus to write and adorn the life of Apollonius of Tyana. Her strong character and influence accelerated that orientation of the monarchy toward Eastern ways which culminated morally under Elagabalus, and politically under Diocletian.