Pertinax (Latin: Publius Helvius Pertinax Augustus; 1 August 126 – 28 March
193) was Roman Emperor for the first three months of 193. Successor
to the late emperor he assassinated, Commodus, Pertinax was the first to
serve as emperor during the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors.
Born the son of a freed slave, Pertinax originally worked as a teacher
before becoming an officer in the army. He fought in the war with
the Parthians during the 160s, and success there led to higher-ranking
positions in both the military and political spheres, including provincial
governor and urban prefect. He was also a member of the Roman Senate,
where he was a contemporary of the historian Cassius Dio.
Following the death of Commodus, Pertinax was acclaimed emperor.
He attempted to institute several reform measures, although the short length
of his time as emperor prevented the success of those attempts. One
of those reforms, the restoration of discipline among the Praetorian Guards,
led to conflict that eventually culminated in Pertinax's murder by the
Guard. After his death, the Praetorians auctioned off the imperial
title, which was won by the wealthy senator Didius Julianus, whose reign
would last sixty-six days.
Pertinax would be deified by the successor of Julianus, Septimius Severus.
His historical reputation has largely been a positive one, following the
assessment of Dio.
His career before becoming emperor is documented in the Historia Augusta
and confirmed in many places by existing inscriptions. Born in Alba
Pompeia in Italy, the son of freedman Helvius Successus, originally Pertinax
made his way as a grammaticus (teacher of grammar), but he eventually decided
to find a more rewarding line of work and through the help of patronage
he was commissioned an officer in a cohort.
In the Parthian war that followed, he was able to distinguish himself,
which resulted in a string of promotions, and after postings in Britain
(as military tribune of the Legio VI Victrix) and along the Danube,
he served as a procurator in Dacia. He suffered a setback as a victim
of court intrigues during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, but shortly afterwards
he was recalled to assist Claudius Pompeianus in the Marcomannic Wars.
In 175 he received the honor of a suffect consulship and until 185, Pertinax
was governor of the provinces of Upper and Lower Moesia, Dacia, Syria and
finally governor of Britain.
In the decade of the 180s, Pertinax took a pivotal role in the Roman Senate
until the praetorian prefect Sextus Tigidius Perennis forced him out of
public life. He was recalled after three years to Britain, where
the Roman army was in a state of mutiny. He tried to quell the unruly
soldiers there but one legion mutinied and attacked his bodyguard, leaving
Pertinax for dead. When he recovered, he punished the mutineers severely,
which led to his growing reputation as a disciplinarian. When he
was forced to resign in 187, the reason given was that the legions had
grown hostile to him because of his harsh rule.
He served as proconsul of Africa during the years 188–189, and followed
this term of service with the urban prefecture of Rome, and a second consulship
as ordinarius with the emperor as his colleague.
When Commodus' behaviour became increasingly erratic throughout the early
190s, Pertinax is thought to have been implicated in the conspiracy that
led to his assassination on 31 December 192. The plot was carried
out by the Praetorian prefect Quintus Aemilius Laetus, Commodus' mistress
Marcia, and his chamberlain Eclectus. After the murder had been carried
out, Pertinax, who was serving as urban prefect at this time, was hurried
to the Praetorian Camp and proclaimed emperor the following morning.
His short reign (86 days) was an uneasy one. He attempted to emulate the
restrained practices of Marcus Aurelius, and made an effort to reform the
alimenta but he faced antagonism from many quarters.
Ancient writers detail how the Praetorian Guard expected a generous donativum
on his ascension, and when they were disappointed, agitated until he produced
the money, selling off Commodus' property, including the concubines and
youths Commodus kept for his sexual pleasures. He reformed the Roman
currency dramatically, increasing the silver purity of the denarius from
74% to 87% — the actual silver weight increasing from 2.22 grams to 2.75
grams. This currency reform did not survive his death.
Pertinax attempted to impose stricter military discipline upon the pampered
Praetorians. In early March he narrowly averted one conspiracy by
a group to replace him with the consul Quintus Sosius Falco while he was
in Ostia inspecting the arrangements for grain shipments. The plot
was betrayed; Falco himself was pardoned but several of the officers behind
the coup were executed.
On 28 March 193, Pertinax was at his palace when, according to the Historia
Augusta, a contingent of some three hundred soldiers of the Praetorian
Guard rushed the gates (two hundred according to Cassius Dio). Ancient
sources suggest that they had received only half their promised pay.
Neither the guards on duty nor the palace officials chose to resist them.
Pertinax sent Laetus to meet them, but he chose to side with the insurgents
instead and deserted the emperor.
Although advised to flee, he then attempted to reason with them, and was
almost successful before being struck down by one of the soldiers.
Pertinax must have been aware of the danger he faced by assuming the purple,
for he refused to use imperial titles for either his wife or son, thus
protecting them from the aftermath of his own assassination. He did
however appoint his father-in-law Titus Flavius Claudius Sulpicianus as
Praefectus urbi of Rome.
The praetorian guards auctioned off the imperial position, which Senator
Didius Julianus won and became the new Emperor, an act which triggered
a brief civil war over the succession, won later in the same year by Septimius
After his entry to Rome, Septimius recognized Pertinax as a legitimate
emperor, executed the soldiers who killed him, and not only pressured the
Senate to deify him and provide for him a state funeral, but also adopted
his cognomen of Pertinax as part of his name, and for some time held games
on the anniversary of Pertinax's ascension and his birthday.
In popular culture:
Pertinax is discussed in The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.
When discussing the importance of a prince not being hated, Machiavelli
provides Pertinax as an example of how it is just as easy for a ruler to
be hated for good actions as for bad ones. Though describing him
as a good man, Machiavelli considered Pertinax's attempt to reform a soldiery
that had become "accustomed to live licentiously" a mistake, as it inspired
their hatred of him, which led to his overthrow and death.
Pertinax is described by David Hume in his essay Of the Original Contract
as an "excellent prince" possessing an implied modesty when, on the arrival
of soldiers who had come to proclaim him emperor, he believed that Commodus
had ordered his death.
During the debate over ratification of the United States Constitution,
Virginia politician John Dawson, at the state's ratifying convention in
1788, spoke of the "atrocious murder" of Pertinax by the Praetorian Guard
as an example of the danger of establishing a standing army.
Pertinax was the pseudonym of the French journalist André Géraud
In Romanitas, a fictional alternate history novel by Sophia McDougall,
Pertinax's reign is the point of divergence. In the history as established
by the novel, the plot against Pertinax was thwarted, and Pertinax introduced
a series of reforms that would consolidate the Roman Empire to such a degree
that it would still be a major power in the 21st century.
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