Pertinax was Emperor of Rome for only 86 days, and there were only a few examples of men with a shorter hold on that post. Needless to say, his reign took place during one of Rome’s periodic periods of utter chaos.
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Schoolmaster to Emperor
Helvius Pertinax was born into an ordinary family in Milan on 1st August 126. He started his working life as a schoolmaster but later decided to join the army, where he become a centurion and gave distinguished service in several combat zones, including Britain. His name was soon mentioned in high places and he rose to senior positions, both military and civil, under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, twice being consul.
When Commodus was murdered on 31st December 192 his assassins had no plan in mind for what was to happen next. A new emperor was required, but who? They needed somebody who could command trust, would not be another Commodus, but who would also be controllable.
The following day they offered Pertinax the job, and he accepted. As things turned out, this proved to be a mistake, both in terms of the offer and its acceptance.
At the age of 66, Pertinax would have been regarded as an old man and therefore probably not as energetic or enthusiastic as someone much younger. If the conspirators had been historically minded they might have thought that they were doing something similar to what happened after the assassination of Caligula in the year 41. His relatively elderly uncle Claudius was dragged into the spotlight, made emperor, and ended up doing a reasonably good job. Might Pertinax be another Claudius?
Wrong moves for a supposedly puppet emperor
The main difference between the situation in the years 41 and 193 was that the murderers of Commodus wanted a puppet whose strings they could pull, and Pertinax had no intention of fulfilling that role. Maybe he also saw himself as a latter-day Claudius who would rule with authority and set Rome on a fresh course, possibly seeking a return to the days of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.
As a former military commander, Pertinax must have been disgusted with what he saw when brought face to face with the Praetorian Guard, who were the privileged elite that formed the emperor’s honour guard. Commodus had allowed standards to slip and Pertinax, from day one, aimed to set matters right by insisting on proper army discipline at all levels.
Given that the Guard members had thoroughly enjoyed their life of luxury under Commodus, their reaction to the reforms proposed by Pertinax could only have been a hostile one. Pertinax was asking for trouble, and that was what he got.
On 28th March 193 the imperial palace was stormed by around 300 members of the Guard who wasted no time in assassinating Pertinax, thus bringing to an end the reign of a well-meaning but unwise emperor.
And the next?
It was now abundantly clear that the real power in Rome was wielded by the Praetorian Guard, and their decision was what mattered when it came to who would next sit on the imperial throne. The way they went about making that decision was one of the most deplorable episodes in the history of the Roman Empire.