The humble teacher, born of a freed slave, who reluctantly became emperor.
By J.P. Anderson
Due to the brevity of his 86 day reign, and the rarity of his surviving coins, few collectors are aware of the remarkable life Pertinax led or of his extraordinary rise to power. Most references cover only the brief period during his rule as emperor, which followed the death of his disturbed predecessor Commodus on New Year’s Eve, AD 192.
Pertinax was born during the reign of Hadrian, on August 1, 126, in Alba Pompeia in northwest Italy. His father, Helvius Successus, was a freed slave and a successful merchant. The Augustan Histories claim Helvius Successus was a wealthy timber merchant, while other sources indicate he was in the wool trade. The income from his trade was enough to pay for Pertinax to be tutored in Rome by the renowned teacher Sulpicius Apollinaris of Carthage. The family patron, Senator Lollianus Avitus, likely assisted in arranging for Pertinax’s prestigious education.
Pertinax must have excelled in his learning, as he was a teacher himself for at least 10 years following his schooling. Had Pertinax remained content with a teaching career, his life would likely be unknown to us today. In 160, at the mature age of 34, Pertinax’s ambition led him to an entirely new career in the military.
He first attempted to obtain a commission as a centurion through the assistance of his patron Avitus. Although this attempt was unsuccessful, he was eventually granted the post of Prefect of a Syrian Cohort. As this was an Equestrian position, Pertinax must have acquired the property qualification of 400,000 sesterces in order to have been granted this rank. The historian Cassius Dio indicates that another influential patron, Senator Claudius Pompeianus, may have also assisted Pertinax in his military ambitions.
In his eagerness to start his new position in Syria as quickly as possible, Pertinax used the government posting service to get to Antioch without an official pass. As an introduction to the strictness of military discipline, the Syrian governor, Attidius Cornelianus, punished Pertinax for this by denying him the further use of military transport , forcing him to walk to his new posting. It is worth noting that even knights at this time could not always afford their own horse.
As the peaceful reign of Antoninus Pius neared its end, the Parthian king Volgases III , emboldened by the pending change of leadership in Rome, made advances on the Roman protected kingdom of Armenia. The growing instability in the east gave Pertinax an opportunity to prove his worth to the military. Both Cornelianius and the governor of Cappadocia, Sedatius Sererianus, were defeated in battles with the Parthians, but the tide began to turn in Rome’s favour in 163. Under the strong leadership of the new governor of Cappadocia, Statius Priscus, recently transferred from Britain, the Parthians were soundly defeated during battle in Armenia. Under the new governor of Syria, Cn. Julius Verus, Pertinax was promoted to a higher equestrian grade and transferred to Britain. Serving under Governor Calpurnius Agricola, Pertinax was one of the equestrian tribunes of Legion VI Victrix, stationed at York. The cost and time involved in transferring officers such great distances was likely not undertaken by the military unless the person being transferred showed significant promise.
The early years of the reign of Marcus Aurelius were a sharp contrast to those of his predecessor. The Roman frontier was facing imminent threat in both the east and the north, and required competent leaders to maintain order and discipline. Unrest in the Scottish lowlands and Pennines during this time led to abandonment of the Antonine Wall and strengthening of the defences along Hadrian’s Wall.
As a measure of his increasing responsibilities and effectiveness as a leader, Pertinax was next posted to head a cavalry regiment in Moesia. An altar discovered in Sirmium on the Save provides the first record of Pertinax. Its translated inscription reads “Jupiter Best and Greatest and Mars the Protector, by P. Helvius Pertinax, Prefect”.
With fewer positions of higher equestrian rank available, in 168 Pertinax was appointed Procurator of the alimenta (child welfare) system in northern Italy. Two more promotions followed closely in the next two years, first to prefect of the German fleet, and then a special procuratorship in Dacia. His annual salary at this time reached 200,000 sesterces.
The year 170 was a difficult one for both Pertinax and Rome. Plague and the untimely death of co-emperor Lucius Verus the previous year had no doubt distracted Marcus in his efforts to stabilize the conditions around the Danube frontier. The records do not provide much detail of the crisis in Dacia, but it was serious enough to have led to the abrupt dismissal of Pertinax from his position. Barbarians swept into the Balkans as well as northern Italy. The governor of the Dacian provinces, General Claudius Fronto, was defeated and killed in battle. The setback to Pertinax’s career did not last long. His patron, Claudius Pompeianus, who married the widowed Lucilla and was now the son in-law of the emperor, was chosen to clear the invaders from Italian soil. Pompeianus selected Pertinax as his aide, and by 171 they had succeeded in their task. As a sign of the determination and desperation which led the barbarians to invade the heartland of the Roman empire, a fragment of Cassius Dio’s account describes that “among the barbarian dead were found even the bodies of women wearing armour”. It is hard to imagine the difficulties these people faced in their northern homeland which caused them to prefer direct conflict with the Roman legions on Italian soil.
Pertinax performed so well in helping to drive the invaders back that he was now appointed to the Senate. In just 11 years, at the age of 45, this teacher and son of a freed slave had risen steadily through the officer ranks and was now a senator. Still more was in store for this ambitious and hard working public servant.
Given the rank of ex-praetor, Pertinax was now in command of the legion Pannonian I, Adiutrix. This position was given by the emperor to compensate him for the wrong he had suffered with his dismissal in Dacia. During the offensive against the Quadi in 172, the famous “rain miracle” took place. Surrounded and outnumbered, the drought-stricken Roman forces were close to defeat when a miraculous storm arose, providing renewed energy to the Romans while hail and lightning assaulted the enemy. This event is commemorated both on coins and on Aurelius’ column (fig. 1 and 2 ). One source states that Pertinax was in command of the troops during this “divine intervention.” Many scenes on Marcus’ column show the emperor consulting with commanders. Although there are no labels, several of these are considered to include Pertinax.
Following the death in battle of the Praetorian Prefect Marcus Vindex in 172, the emperor expressed a desire to appoint Pertinax to the vacant position, but was unable to, as active senators could not be in charge of the Praetorian Guard. Aurelius frequently praised Pertinax and elevated him as an example to the troops.
By 175, Pertinax was granted the governorship of Upper Moseia, and made consul. His co-consul was the wealthy senator Didius Julianus, who would later become infamous as the emperor who purchased the throne after Pertinax. Further governorships of Lower Moesia and Dacia followed for Pertinax. Following the dangerous situation in 175, when the Syrian governor Avidius Cassius was proclaimed emperor by his restless troops, another civil war seemed inevitable. With Marcus’ ill health, and instability on many borders, such a civil conflict could have brought the Roman Empire to an end two centuries early. Fortunately, Cassius was assassinated, thanks to the action of a few troops loyal to Marcus (ref the Aug. 2007 Celator article Avidius Cassius – An Emperor Without A Coin? by Mark Fox for more info). Prior to his death in 180, Marcus Aurelius needed a new governor of Syria, whom the Roman people and his son, the future emperor Commodus, could rely on. He chose Pertinax.
Although the transfer of power after the death of Aurelius was uneventful, just two years into his reign people closest to Commodus, including his sister Lucilla (fig. 3), felt that a change of leadership was required. Pertinax was abruptly relieved of his position as governor in 182, likely as a result of the failed assassination attempt on Commodus, which implicated the wife of Pertinax’ friend and patron Pompeianus. There is no indication that either Pomeianus or Pertinax were involved. So sweeping was the response to the conspiracy on the emperor’s life that it resulted in the dismissal of the future emperor Septimius Severus’ legionary command in Syria as well.
Following his recall to Rome, Pertinax was ordered to withdraw from public and military life. He spent the next 3 years in exile at his family home in Liguria. It must have been difficult for Pertinax to accept this forced retirement.
In 185 conditions in Britain had deteriorated, culminating in the execution of the Praetorian Prefect Tigidius Perennis at the hands of disgruntled legionaries who travelled from Britain to Rome. It was Perennis who, 3 years earlier, had orchestrated the exile of Pertinax. Following the recall of the governor of Britain and the dismissal of the legates of the British legions, there was a desperate need for someone to restore order there. Perennis had made enemies not only in Britain, but also in Rome. His execution of many senators in Rome heightened the level of distrust between the emperor and the Senate. With the cooperation of the imperial chamberlain Cleander, the ex-legates of the disgruntled British legions managed to convince the emperor that conditions could only improve if Perennis was eliminated. Cleander now gained the influence held by the previous Prefect. Pertinax was recalled and appointed governor of Britain. Septimius Severus, the future emperor, was likewise recalled, and granted his first governorship, of Gallia Lugdunensis.
According to Herodian, rebel deserters from Gaul lead by a man named Maternus plotted to assassinate Commodus during the festival of Cybele in Rome, around 187. The plot, which involved the assassins masquerading as praetorians during the festival, was uncovered and Commodus made special sacrifices to the goddess in gratitude for sparing his life.
The task of restoring order in Britain may have been the most difficult in Pertinax’s long and distinguished career. Nearly lynched by mutinous troops when he refused to be proclaimed emperor, he wisely informed the emperor of the conspiracy. After two years he asked to be relieved of his command, claiming the troops “were hostile to him, because of his strict discipline.” He spent the following months back on Italian soil, supervising the alimenta system again. His success in Britain was so well known back in Rome that a popular racehorse was named after him. Thanks in part to his good relations with Cleander, who in 188 had achieved personal authority over the Praetorians, Pertinax was next sent to Africa as Proconsul.
Two years later, Pertinax returned to Rome to assume the position of Prefect of the city. Unfortunately for Cleander, his popularity and influence with the emperor were now all but gone. Rioting broke out at the Circus Maximus, and in an effort to appease the mob, Commodus had Cleander beheaded.
During the final two years of Commodus’ increasingly unstable reign, many more senators and relatives of the imperial family lost their lives. Those who remained must have felt they were next. Despite the loss of influential supporters, Pertinax continued with his position as city prefect, even sharing the consulship with the emperor in 192. The Augustan history indicates that Commodus was pleased with Pertinax and that his duties as prefect were conducted with “extreme gentleness and consideration”.
Towards the end of 192, Commodus’ behaviour had alienated even those closest to him, and a plan to murder him on New Year’s Eve 192 was carried out by Aemilius Laetus, the Praetorial Prefect, the imperial chamberlain Electus, and the emperor’s mistress Marcia. Contemporary authors Herodian and Dio claim the decision to kill Commodus was made only hours before his murder, to prevent the emperor from carrying out his plans to have those closest to him executed on the following day. Marius Maximus, writing the Augustan history in the 4th century AD, claims Pertinax was likely aware of and in support of the plot, which had been planned months in advance. When Pertinax was informed of the death of Commodus, and offered the now vacant throne by Laetus, he went first to the Praetorian camp, to confirm the support of the guards. He shortly thereafter convened a meeting of the senate, and was unanimously persuaded to accept the throne. For the first time in Roman history, their supreme leader was selected solely on the basis of his past achievements, without regard to his humble origins. This son of a freed slave now occupied the throne of the Julio-Claudians, the Flavians, and the Antonines.
While Pertinax was a strong believer in long established Roman traditions and rituals, he was not without imagination or creativity when it came to the coinage that was to symbolize his rule. Mattingly in BMC vol. V describes the first issues of Pertinax as “almost unparalleled in the whole imperial coinage”. Pertinax chose reverses that must have had a personal meaning for him, such as “Dis Custodibus” – to the guardian gods, “Liberatus Civibus” – on the delivery of the citizens, and, perhaps most enigmatic of all, “Dis Genitoribus” – to the generative divinities, ( fig. 4 )
The later issue of coins, identified by COS II or TRP COS II, follow more traditional styles, (fig. 5) although again the character and influence of the emperor shows with his choices of “Laetitia Temporum” , –the Gladness of the Times, and “Ops Divina” – divine aid.
Although some historians claim that Pertinax was deeply involved in the conspiracy to murder his predecessor, his behaviour after accepting the throne was not what one would expect from someone who had coveted the position. Pertinax refused the titles of Augusta for his wife and Caesar for his son. He arranged for a respectful burial of Commodus, despite major opposition from the senate, who wanted to desecrate his body. He chose not to punish the conspirators for Commodus’ murder, nor those who tried to replace him with the then Consul, Falco. Although he alienated both the praetorians and the imperial household, who had indulged themselves in the extravagant lifestyle of Commodus, Pertinax took no sweeping measures to ensure his security or impose his authority. He conducted himself with the same calmness and integrity as he had as prefect of the city. It is likely that Pertinax was as surprised by his sudden elevation to the throne as Claudius had been, some 151 years earlier.
As his background, education and upbringing was unlike that of any emperor before him, it is not surprising that Pertinax’s coinage is also radically different. His modesty and piety are clearly conveyed through his choice of unusual reverses honouring Janus, Ops, Mens, Cybele, Fortuna, Laetitia and Providentia. As suggested by A.M. Woodward, the extreme rarity of his first coinage issues might be because Pertinax had them withdrawn, feeling they were too obscure for effective publicity.
Pertinax’s conservative measures to reform the economy and restore the order established by the beloved Marcus Aurelius were cut tragically short, when he was murdered on March 28, 193, by a few guards who were sworn to protect him. The loss of such an experienced and esteemed leader only served to hasten the decline of the empire.
For further information on the life of Pertinax, contemporary writers Cassius Dio and Herodian give a fascinating account of the events, including excerpts of the speeches given by Pertinax to his troops and to his assassins.
The author would like to thank Curtis Clay of Harlan J. Berk, and Dominique Hollard, of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France for their kind support in researching the coins of Pertinax.
Banti, Alberto. I Grandi Bronzi Imperiali. Vol. III-3, Firenze, 1986.
Birley, Anthony. Marcus Aurelius A Biography. Yale University Press, 1966.
Birley, Anthony. Septimius Severus The African Emperor. Doubleday & Co. NY, 1972.
Birley, Anthony. Lives of the Later Caesars – The first part of the Augustan History. Translated by Anthony Birley, Penguin Books, 1976, pp 179-191.
Cayon, Juan. Los Sestercios Del Imperio Roman. Vol. III, Madrid 1984.
Dio, Cassius. Roman History, Book LXXIV. Translated by Ernest Cary, Loeb Classical Library, 1927.
Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1, Univ. of Chicago, 1952, pp 34-42.
Herodian. History of the Roman Empire. Translated by Edward C. Echols, Berkeley, 1961.
Matttingly, Carson & Hill. Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum. Vol. V, 2nd Ed., 1975.
Stevenson, Seth William. Dictionary of Roman Coins. First published in 1889, reprinted by B.A. Seaby, 1964, pp 332, 333, 620.
Woodward, A.M. “The Coinage of Pertinax.” Numismatic Chronicle. Vol. XVII, 1957.