Editor's note: this is the second part of a series by Coin World Senior Editor Jeff Starck about the ancient coins from the Year of Five Emperors. This story appeared in the December issue of Coin World.
The assassination of Pertinax ushered in what David Vagi (writing in Coinage and History of the Roman Empire) considers the lowest event in Roman history.
The right to rule the empire was sold at a public auction by the praetorian guards — the very men responsible for the emperor’s protection.
“The highest bidder was Didius Julianus, a wealthy nobleman who had more money than scruples,” wrote Vagi in the article.
His winning bid was 25,000 sestertii per guard, a huge sum that Pertinax’s father-in-law, Flavius Sulpicianus, could not beat.
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“Drunk with power and blinded by greed, the praetorians conducted Julianus in tight formation to the senate house, where the terrified senators had little choice but to hail him emperor,” wrote Vagi in his book.
Though wealthy and ambitious, Didius Julianus was not up to the task, failing to deliver his remuneration to the praetorian guards and unable to oppose rebellions that flared up from generals in the provinces.
Public rage prompted the rebellions, as citizens immediately sought the assistance of frontier commanders to break free from the reign of the guards and this emperor.
Three generals responded to the people’s pleas: Clodius Albinus, Pescennius Niger, and Septimius Severus.