If you think that modern elections and politics can be confusing, be thankful that you didn’t live in Ancient Rome. Rome was always a place where an unpopular ruler could run into problems but one year in particular was really bad for anyone who wanted to call themselves a Roman Emperor. It has become known as the Year of the Five Emperors and was a tough time for anyone who wanted to rule the Empire.
Picture the scene: the year is 193AD. Commodus, that unpleasant emperor made famous by the movie “Gladiator” has just been assassinated. Since he was just about as bad a fellow as was portrayed in the movie it is no wonder that his reign did not end well. The problem was a simple one: who would take over? The first Emperor was a man by the name of Publius Helvius Pertinax. Pertinax was fairly down to earth and wanted to work with the Senate instead of against them. The politicians loved him. The common people loved him. The problem was that the soldiers did not.
Pertinax had only paid them half of the large sum of 12,000 sesterces that he had promised them for their support following Commodus’ assassination. Unfortunately, when you have underpaid soldiers they tend to react badly. Soldiers burst into the palace on the 28th of March and Pertinax was assassinated. This paved the way for his successor, Marcus Didius Severus Julianus to assume the position of emperor.
The problem with Julianus is that while the soldiers liked him the common people did not. Julianus found that wherever he went, mobs would call out insults and would often throw stones. Although the military that was based in Rome supported Julianus the outlying legions did not do so. They advanced and overthrew Julianus who was later executed. He had been Emperor for three months.
The final three emperors were actually generals who vied for the position. Gaius Pescennius Niger took power next. Although a general named Lucius Septimius Severus actually overthrew Julianus it was Niger that seized the title of Emperor. Severus did not agree and fought Niger. Niger was defeated. In the course of fleeing to Parthia, Niger was killed.
One would assume that Severus would seize power and be the next in line but this was not the case. The fourth Emperor was a man by the name of Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus. Again, Severus did not agree with this and brought his legions to bear against those of Albinus. They met and fought the Battle of Lugdunum. Albinus definitely did not come out on top. He was defeated and was then decapitated and trampled by the horse that Severus rode.
Lucius Septimius Severus was the final Emperor in the Year of Five Emperors. Not only did he manage to hold on for the rest of the year, he actually reigned until the year 211. During this time Severus waged war on the Parthian Empire, fought Picts in Caledonia and was involved with the strengthening of Hadrian’s Wall. He was able to leave the empire to his sons Caracalla and Geta and provided a period of stability following the turbulent Year of Five Emperors.