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Post Column: The Roman Empire, sold for 50,000 loaves

At first, there were normal auctions, which involved a lot of yelling.

Then, people became tired of hearing other people, so someone made the silent auction, which involved writing bids on paper and throwing them in at once.

Then, people became tired of seeing other people, so someone made the invisible auction, which involved people visiting separate tables alone and throwing bids in.

Finally, people became tired of being near other people, so someone made eBay. And the rest is history.

Speaking of history, the ancient Romans also had a thing with auctions, so much so that they tried to sell the entire Roman Empire in an auction at one point.

The auction of a lifetime began with the Praetorians, who were the private bodyguards of the Roman Emperors. Although once a disciplined force, the Praetorians had grown too accustomed to the good life within the Roman palace, becoming slovenly and disordered. When Emperor Pertinax attempted to bring order to the Praetorians through strict discipline in 193 AD, the Praetorians revolted and murdered him on the spot.

Poor Pertinax. In today’s terms, the only comparable event would be if the Secret Service attacked Obama for telling them not to drink so much.

As if murdering the emperor weren’t pushing the envelope already, the Praetorians decided to auction off the throne to whoever was willing to pay the most to them. Because the Praetorians were a greatly feared military force, they basically could afford to kill anyone else who protested the fact that they were selling off the emperorship to the highest bidder.

Of course, several top Roman politicians began bidding immediately as they stood outside the gates of the emperor’s palace. I mean, why not? Who wouldn’t love to pick up a deal on buying the emperor’s throne?

The first person to begin placing bids was the prefect of the city, Titus Flavius Claudius Sulpicianus, who, interestingly enough, was also the murdered emperor’s father-in-law. Just a tad awkward, but hey, who are we to criticize a guy with such an awesome name?

At the same time, the other heavyweight bidder, Didius Julianus, was roused from his drunken stupor at his own banquet by his wife and daughter. Julianus quickly rushed to the palace, and also began yelling out sums he would be willing to pay.

In the end, Sulpicianus offered to pay 20,000 sesterces to each soldier in order to be made emperor. (Sesterces were old Roman currency.) However, as the Praetorians were about to accept his bid, Julianus announced immediately that he would pay 25,000 sesterces to each soldier. Delighted by the drastic increase, the Praetorians quickly brought Julianus into the palace, and then forced the Senate at sword-point to declare him the new Emperor of Rome.

As a reference, a sestertius would have purchased roughly two loaves of bread.

So, in essence, each Praetorian received enough money to buy 50,000 loaves of bread. For the record, Roman historians say that Julianus ultimately paid each Praetorian 30,000 sesterces, 5,000 over his original bid.

Not a bad haul for killing one emperor.

However, the Roman people were understandably upset when they heard that Julianus had paid the emperor’s murderers in order to be made emperor himself. Whenever Julianus appeared in public, the people cursed at him publicly, calling out “robber and parricide.” News of the upheaval spread, and three Roman generals declared war on Julianus at once: Pescennius Niger of Syria, Septimius Severus of Pannonia (an area slightly northwest of Italy), and Clodius Albinus of Britain.

Severus’s army quickly marched through Italy and overcame the Praetorians, who surrendered at the urging of the Senate. With all of Rome turned against him, and with not a single soldier under his command, Julianus made a last-ditch effort; he promised to share the empire with Severus if Severus would stop attacking him.

Severus refused and had Julianus executed for treason. So much for “sharing is caring.”

Reportedly, Julianus’ last words were “But what evil have I done? Who have I killed?”

Poor Julianus. All he wanted was a good deal.

All in all, Julianus reigned a total of 66 days, a little more than nine weeks, before he was executed. As if that weren’t a disappointment already, the Roman Senate congregated to issue a formal middle finger, known as the damnatio memoriae, which officially declared the condemnation of the memory of Julianus’s time as an emperor.

As a happy epilogue, Severus ultimately got into a squabble with the other two generals, Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus, about who deserved to be the Emperor of Rome. Severus resolved this by declaring war on both generals and killing them.

The lesson of this story, next time you see an empire for sale on eBay, keep things simple. Don’t buy it.

Kevin Hwang is a senior at Athens High School who is taking classes at Ohio University and is a columnist for The Post. Would you bid on the entire Roman Empire? Email Kevin at kh319910@ohiou.edu.

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