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Pertinax - 'Usurper'
Roman Emperor: 1 January 193 – 28 March 193 A.D.

Buy Coins of Pertinax - Roman Emperor

Pertinax was a Roman emperor who briefly reigned from December 31, 192 until his death on March 28, 193. He was emperor for only 86 days

Publius Helvius Pertinax, commonly known as Pertinax (August 1, 126 – March 28, 193), was a Roman emperor who briefly reigned from December 31, 192 until his death on March 28, 193. He was emperor for only 86 days. He is known as the first emperor of the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors. Upon his death, he was succeeded by Didius Julianus, whose reign was similarly short-lived.

 Early life

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 a 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, whose army at the time 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 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 December 31, 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. 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 a contingent of some three hundred soldiers of the Praetorian Guard rushed the gates. 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.


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 Severus.

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 adapted his cognomen of Pertinax as part of his name, and also for some time held games on the anniversary of Pertinax's ascension and his birthday.

 Cultural references

Pertinax's leadership style is criticised in Machiavelli's The Prince for making him hated and scorned by his soldiers, due to living unadventurously and being kind and courteous.[1]

In Romanitas, an 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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