The Spectator

An emperor’s inauguration

Julianus arrived amid scandal and was rapidly dispatched

Given that Donald Trump is not the most popular president the USA has ever seen, even among his own party, it is salutary to be reminded what induction ceremonies can be like for those who devised imaginative routes to power.

Pertinax, who started life as a schoolmaster, was a governor of Britain and a highly respected consul before succeeding the ghastly Commodus as emperor on 30 December AD 192. But the military did not appreciate his immediate attempts to restore discipline and financial stability, and he was assassinated three months later. There then followed an auction: the assassins put the office up for sale to the highest bidder, and Didius Julianus, ‘an insatiable money-maker and outrageous spendthrift’, won it with an offer equal to 20 times a soldier’s annual salary.

The senators were appalled, especially those who had supported Pertinax or acted against Julianus in trials, even more so when Julianus rushed to the senate house to be inducted, surrounded by heavily armed troops. There he said he had many ‘advantages’ to offer, so had no need for a military presence. The senate got the message. Julianus then gorged himself at an enormous feast, entertained by a pantomime artist.

Next day the senate, disguising their true feelings, paid their respects. But the people were not to be cowed, and when Julianus was about to make a sacrifice in front of the senate house, they started abusing him as an empire-stealer and parricide. When he offered bribes, they shouted, ‘We don’t want it! We won’t take it!’ When Julianus set his soldiers on them, killing many, they took up arms and spent the night in the Campus Martius, calling on the military in the provinces to help them.

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