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Statue of Pertinax, National Museum of the Union, Alba-Iulia, Romania
19th Emperor of the Roman Empire
Reign 1 January 193 – 28 March 193
Predecessor Commodus
Successor Didius Julianus
Born (126-08-01)1 August 126
Alba Pompeia, Italia
Died 28 March 193(193-03-28) (aged 66)
Rome, Italia
Burial Rome
Full name
Publius Helvius Pertinax (from birth to accession);
Caesar Publius Helvius Pertinax Augustus (as emperor)
Dynasty None
Father Helvius Successus

Pertinax (Latin: Publius Helvius Pertinax Augustus;[1] 1 August 126 – 28 March 193) was Roman Emperor for the first three months of 193.[2] Successor to the assassinated Commodus, he was the first to serve as emperor during the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors.

Born the son of a freed slave, Pertinax originally worked as a teacher before becoming an officer in the Roman legion. He fought in the war with the Parthians during the 160s, and success there led to higher-ranking positions in both the military and political spheres, including provincial governor and urban prefect. He was also a member of the Roman Senate, where he was a contemporary of the historian Cassius Dio.

Following the death of Commodus, Pertinax was acclaimed emperor. He attempted to institute several reform measures, although the short length of his time as emperor prevented the success of those attempts. One of those reforms, the restoration of discipline among the Praetorian Guards, led to conflict that eventually culminated in Pertinax's murder by the Guard. After his death, the Praetorians auctioned off the imperial title, which was won by the wealthy senator Didius Julianus, whose reign would last sixty-six days.

Pertinax would be deified by the successor of Julianus, Septimius Severus. His historical reputation has largely been a positive one, following the assessment of Dio.

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,[3] the son of freedman Helvius Successus,[4] originally Pertinax made his way as a grammaticus (teacher of grammar),[5] 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.[6]

In the Parthian war that followed,[7] 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)[8] and along the Danube, he served as a procurator in Dacia.[9] 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.[10] In 175 he received the honor of a suffect consulship[11] and until 185, Pertinax was governor of the provinces of Upper and Lower Moesia, Dacia, Syria and finally governor of Britain.[12]

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.[13] He was recalled after three years to Britain, where the Roman army was in a state of mutiny.[14] He tried to quell the unruly soldiers there but one legion mutinied and attacked his bodyguard, leaving Pertinax for dead.[15] When he recovered, he punished the mutineers severely, which led to his growing reputation as a disciplinarian.[16] 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.[17]

He served as proconsul of Africa during the years 188–189,[18] and followed this term of service with the urban prefecture of Rome,[19] and a second consulship as ordinarius with the emperor as his colleague.[20]


Roman aureus struck under the rule of Pertinax

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 31 December 192.[21] The plot was carried out by the Praetorian prefect Quintus Aemilius Laetus, Commodus' mistress Marcia, and his chamberlain Eclectus.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24]

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,[25] including the concubines and youths Commodus kept for his sexual pleasures.[26][27] He reformed the Roman currency dramatically, increasing the silver purity of the denarius from 74% to 87% — the actual silver weight increasing from 2.22 grams to 2.75 grams.[28] This currency reform did not survive his death.

Pertinax attempted to impose stricter military discipline upon the pampered Praetorians.[29] 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.[30] The plot was betrayed; Falco himself was pardoned but several of the officers behind the coup were executed.[31]

On 28 March 193, Pertinax was at his palace when, according to the Historia Augusta, a contingent of some three hundred soldiers of the Praetorian Guard rushed the gates[32] (two hundred according to Cassius Dio).[33] Ancient sources suggest that they had received only half their promised pay.[34] 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.[35]

Although advised to flee, he then attempted to reason with them, and was almost successful before being struck down by one of the soldiers.[36] 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,[37] thus protecting them from the aftermath of his own assassination. He did however appoint his father-in-law Titus Flavius Claudius Sulpicianus as Praefectus urbi of Rome.


The praetorian guards auctioned off the imperial position, which Senator Didius Julianus won and became the new Emperor,[38] an act which triggered a brief civil war over the succession, won later in the same year by Septimius Severus.[39]

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,[40] but also adopted his cognomen of Pertinax as part of his name,[41] and for some time held games on the anniversary of Pertinax's ascension and his birthday.[42]

Cultural references

Pertinax is discussed in The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.[43] When discussing the importance of a prince not being hated, Machiavelli provides Pertinax as an example of how it is just as easy for a ruler to be hated for good actions as for bad ones. Though describing him as a good man,[44] Machiavelli considered Pertinax's attempt to reform a soldiery that had become "accustomed to live licentiously" a mistake, as it inspired their hatred of him, which led to his overthrow and death.

Pertinax is described by David Hume in his essay Of the Original Contract as an "excellent prince" possessing an implied modesty when, on the arrival of soldiers who had come to proclaim him emperor, believed that Commodus had ordered his death.[45]

During the debate over ratification of the United States Constitution, Virginia politician John Dawson, at the state's ratifying convention in 1788, spoke of the "atrocious murder" of Pertinax by the Praetorian Guard as an example of the danger of establishing a standing army.[46][47]

Pertinax was the pseudonym of the French journalist André Géraud (1882–1974).

In Romanitas, a fictional 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.


Primary sources

  • Historia Augusta, Life of Pertinax, English version of Historia Augusta
  • Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 74,
  • Aurelius Victor, "Epitome de Caesaribus", English version of Epitome de Caesaribus
  • Zosimus, "Historia Nova", Historia Nova

Secondary sources

  • De Imperatoribus RomanisMeckler, Michael, "Pertinax (193 A.D)",
  • Bowman, Alan K. The Cambridge Ancient History: The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193–337. Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • Birley, Anthony. The Roman government of Britain. Oxford University Press, 2005
  • Gibbon. Edward Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (1788)


  1. ^ In Classical Latin, Pertinax's name would be inscribed as PVBLIVS HELVIVS PERTINAX AVGVSTVS.
  2. ^ Thomas, History of the Roman Empire from the time of Vespasian to the Extinction of the Western Empire (1853), pg. 158. Although Commodus was killed on 31 December 192, Pertinax was not acclaimed emperor until 1 January 193.
  3. ^ Dio, 74:3
  4. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 1:1
  5. ^ Canduci, pg. 50
  6. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 1:6
  7. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 2:1
  8. ^ Birley, pg. 173
  9. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 2:4
  10. ^ Dio, 74:3
  11. ^ Meckler,
  12. ^ Birley, pg. 173
  13. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 3:3
  14. ^ Dio, 74:4
  15. ^ Birley, pg. 174
  16. ^ Canduci, pg. 50
  17. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 3:10
  18. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 4:1
  19. ^ Victor, 18:2
  20. ^ Birley, pg. 174
  21. ^ Canduci, pg. 50
  22. ^ Bowman, pg. 1
  23. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 4:5
  24. ^ Gibbon, Ch. 4
  25. ^ Bowman, pg. 2
  26. ^ Dio, 74:5
  27. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 7:8
  28. ^ Tulane University "Roman Currency of the Principate"
  29. ^ Zosimus, 1:8
  30. ^ Dio, 74:8
  31. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 10:4
  32. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 11:1
  33. ^ Dio, 74:9
  34. ^ Dio, 74:8
  35. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 11:7
  36. ^ Dio, 74:10
  37. ^ Bowman, pg. 1
  38. ^ Canduci, pg. 50
  39. ^ Dio, 74:17:4
  40. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 15:1
  41. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 15:2
  42. ^ Historia Augusta, Pertinax, 15:5
  43. ^ Machiavelli – The Prince, Ch. XIX
  44. ^ Machiavelli – The Prince, Ch. XIX. Pertinax is described, along with Marcus Aurelius and Severus Alexander, as "men of modest life, lovers of justice, enemies to cruelty, humane, and benignant".
  45. ^ Hume – Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, II.XII.41
  46. ^
  47. ^

External links

  • Pertinax at Livius.Org
Political offices
Preceded by
Ulpius Marcellus
Roman governors of Britain
c. 185 – 187
Succeeded by
Unknown, then Decimus Clodius Albinus
Preceded by
Lucius Calpurnius Piso,
Publius Salvius Julianus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Didius Julianus
Succeeded by
Titus Pomponius Proculus Vitrasius Pollio,
Marcus Flavius Aper
Preceded by
Popilius Pedo Apronianus and Marcus Valerius Bradua Mauricus
Consul of the Roman Empire with Commodus
Succeeded by
Quintus Pompeius Sosius Falco and Gaius Iulius Erucius Clarus Vibianus
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Roman Emperor
Succeeded by
Didius Julianus
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