The Roman Empire was Sold at a Public Auction

September 14, 2023

I’m currently reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, and just finished a part that absolutely blew my mind. I felt compelled to write about it because it’s a history I didn’t know, which I was very surprised to learn I didn’t know.

In A.D. 180, Commodus became sole emperor of Rome after his father, Marcus Aurelius, died. Marcus Aurelius is widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders of all time, well loved by his contemporaries and posterity, and was the author of the famous Meditations. He is the first person that generally comes to mind when thinking of Plato’s Philosopher King ideal. Commodus turned out to be unlike his father in almost every way, and his decision to appoint his biological son – which broke with the tradition of adoption that most previous emperors had done – is regarded by Gibbon to be Marcus’ biggest mistake. After his sister (among others) made a failed assassination attempt on his life, his reign became a cesspool of intrigue and pathetic despotism. He debased the currency, had anyone he didn’t like killed (which included well-respected senators, generals, and old friends of his father), and created a cult of personality by performing as a gladiator in the Colosseum. One that didn’t play fair, as you can imagine. Not to mention, he had no interest in actually running the empire, which he left to his more able but equally pernicious subordinates. Cassius Dio, a senator at the time who witnessed his many antics firsthand, said that his reign marked Rome’s descent “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”, which turned out to be a prescient forecast of the great empire’s decline.

After many failed assassination attempts and a reign that feuled the hatred of the people and the senate, Commodus ended up being strangled to death by another gladiator named Narcissus, naked and half-drunk, in his bathtub.

The man who succeeded him as emperor was very different, and for a moment there was a hope of Rome returning to its former glory. The Praetorians went to an older senator, Pertinax, with exceptional accomplishments who still upheld Marcus Aurelius’ ideals. The son of a freed slave, Pertinax had worked his way up through Roman society by his leadership abilities. He retained a modesty and ethic that was thought would undo much of the mess left by Commodus and restore Rome to it’s former glory days during the long period of peace known as the Pax Romana. When the Praetorians came to his house to inform him of their choice of him as senator, he was unaware that Commodus was dead. He knew he was one of the senators who would eventually incur Commodus’ suspicious wrath, as he was one of the last senators from Marcus’ generation. So, when the guards showed up at his door, he received them at his house with resignation, and accepted that his time had finally come to be led to slaughter. He was shocked to learn that they had come not to execute him, but to make him emperor.

Pertinax’s reign was much more in line with the principles of Marcus Aurelius, and he was humble, self-effacing, and generous. He did, however, make one fatal flaw, which really can’t be attributed to him as to Commodus’ many years of prolonged corruption permeating through the Roman government and military. He tried to restore discipline to the Praetorian guards. Since these were the emperor’s special guards, they were some of the few people who benefitted and received special treatment from Commodus’ tyrannical reign, and they were reluctant to give up their exorbitant privileges. One day, hundreds of Praetorian guards rushed to the gates of the palace in anger at their reduced pay, and no one made any attempt to stop them – except the emperor himself. On news of their approach, Pertinax, against everyone’s advice, walked out to meet them; admonishing them for their treachery and greed. For a few moments the soldiers were hushed, and they were ashamed of themselves, and in awe of the bravery and nobility of the emperor. But then, one of the guards snapped them out of their stupor and struck Pertinax, causing the rest to descend on him, until finally, they cut off his head, stuck it on a lance, and marched it triumphantly to their camp, while the Roman populace, who loved their short-termed emperor, looked on with sad indignation.

Sulpicianus, the governor of Rome, upon hearing this mutiny, rode out to meet them and plead with them to restore their loyalty to Rome, and even tried to bribe them. Realizing their power over the ultimate authority of Rome, the Praetorian guards made a fascinating declaration:

He [Sulpicianus] had already begun to use the only effectual argument, and to treat for the Imperial dignity; but the more prudent of the Praetorians, apprehensive that, in this private contract, they should not obtain a just price for so valuable a commodity, ran out upon the ramparts; and, with a loud voice, proclaimed that the Roman world was to be disposed of to the best bidder by public auction. This infamous offer, the most insolent excess of military licence, diffused an universal grief, shame, and indignation throughout the city.

Rome, the empire encompassing nearly the whole European world, just past the height of its power and after the end of a long period of peace, was up for sale to the highest bidder.

The buyer ended up being a wealthy senator, Didius Julianus, who won the bid against Sulpicianus, and who was placed on the throne soon thereafter, paraded to his new palace ceremoniously by the Praetorians. After a big party and celebration, when the excitement had died down and he was left alone, Julianus was haunted by the gravity of what he’d done:

Yet it was observed, that after the crowd of flatterers dispersed, and left him to darkness, solitude, and terrible reflection, he passed a sleepless night; revolving most probably in his mind his own rash folly, the fate of his virtuous predecessor, and the doubtful and dangerous tenure of an empire, which had not been acquired by merit, but purchased by money.

He knew the Praetorians were not loyal to him, and that his grip on the empire was frail and could be easily disposed of. And it was.

This chaos caused a civil war to break out. Upon hearing this news, three other contenders began vying for the position of emperor, knowing Julianus’ grasp was weak. Pescennius Niger, then the governor of Syria, Clodius Albinus, a general in Britain, and Septimus Severus, governor of Pannonia Superior. Learning of the terrible injustice done to Pertinax, Severus rallied an army behind him to march to Rome and race for the claim to the cheaply bought throne. Severus easily overtook the disorganized, disloyal, and undisciplined Praetorians, killed Julianus, and declared himself the new emperor. He honored Pertinax’s name publicly and deified him. He fought with Niger and formed a tentative alliance with Albinus, but eventually, Severus was the sole claimant to the throne, and created a new dynasty that further set Rome’s fall in motion. This year, where five people all laid claim to the throne, was called the Year of the Five Emperors.

Despite the turmoil created by Commodus’ reign, the first real cause of the decline of Rome, according to Gibbon, was that famous sale by the traitorous guards.

The empire from which Europe derived its language, culture, and religion (would Christianity have survived without Constantine?), could be bought and sold at public auction by its ancient version of a secret service. And this, after a period of 200 years of unprecedented stability and happiness for the Romans.

If the uncontested dominant country of the ancient world could be sold at an auction, how brittle does that make our modern governments in comparison?

The auctioning off of Rome should give us pause, especially those of us who live in countries which flatter themselves with the illusion of stability, and force us to reflect on how easily our own lives can be disrupted or destroyed by the cascading effects of despotic leaders, combined with a population devoid of a spirit of public virtue.