Titus Flavius Sulpicianus

Titus Flavius Sulpicianus (second half second century): Roman senator, candidate to the imperial throne in 193.

Roman man c.170-190 CETitus Flavius Sulpicianus (or Titus Claudius Sulpicianus) was probably born in Hierapatna, a town on the island of Crete. His family had already produced a Roman magistrate - we do not know who - and therefore belonged to the senatorial aristocracy, so the young man could embark upon a senatorial career (cursus honorum). Again, we don't know much about it, but it is certain that in the early 170's, he was elected as one of the members of the college of Arval brethren (fratres Arvales). This was a very ancient group of twelve priests of senatorial descent that had to perform several religious duties.

After a consulship at an unknown date, Sulpicianus served as governor of the province of Asia during the reign of the emperor Commodus. This was a prestigious function, and it certainly implies that Sulpicianus belonged to the elite of the empire. This is also indicated by the fact that his daughter Flavia Titiana had married to Publius Helvius Pertinax, one of the best generals of the Roman empire in the age of Marcus Aurelius.

Commodus as HerculesUnfortunately, the days of the noble emperor Marcus Aurelius were gone and his evil (or so it seemed) son Commodus was now ruling the Mediterranean world. His policy was directed against the Senate and many members of the august council were killed. Commodus' autocratic ideas became especially obvious when he was forced to boost his popularity after a terrible fire destroyed the center of Rome in 192. The emperor wanted to gain support from the populace by acting as a gladiator and started to present himself as the Roman Hercules. Although Roman senators knew something about imperial extravaganza in the past (the first century had seen a lot worse than this), they found this behavior extremely shocking and several brave courtiers and senators decided that Commodus' crazy reign had to be terminated.

His removal had to be prepared secretly, because the risks were immense. Besides, to prevent the outbreak a civil war, it was necessary to choose the next emperor, and this had to be Sulpicianus' son-in-law Pertinax. He was not of the highest birth, but his reputation as a capable general would deter other commanders from marching on Rome. Everything was carefully arranged in the years 191 and 192. Capable and loyal senators like Pescennius Niger, Septimius Severus, and Clodius Albinus were appointed as governors of crucial provinces like Syria, Pannonia Superior and Britannia.

In the night of 31 December 192 / 1 January 193, the conspirators decided to strike. They murdered the gladiator-emperor and hailed the old general Pertinax as emperor. Nobody offered resistance. The coup had been bloodless.

Pertinax Pertinax' reign started with celebration and happiness, and he was smart enough to appoint several reliable men on key positions. His father-in-law Titus Flavius Sulpicianus was made prefect of the city ("mayor"), which meant that he was responsible for the armed forces in Rome. He was a nobleman and would make Pertinax, a social climber, acceptable to other old-fashioned senators. According to the historian Cassius Dio, he was "a man in every way worthy of the office".note

Unfortunately, the empire was not to enjoy a smooth regime change. The soldiers of the imperial guard were missing Commodus and disliked the old general, who had promised them a large sum of money, but had been able to pay them only half of it. Eighty-six days after the death of Commodus, on 28 March 193, a sedition broke out in the barracks and a group of soldiers burst into the palace, where one of them killed his master.

Nobody had planned this murder. The soldiers were not fighting for a particular pretender, they were just angry. They never had a design to kill their emperor, but it just happened. The terrible deed was immediately regretted, so the throne was offered to Pertinax' nearest surviving relative, his father-in-law Sulpicianus, who was probably to act as regent until Pertinax' son Publius had grown up.

Sulpicianus, prefect of the city, hurried to the barracks of the guard, and promised each of the soldiers 20,000 sesterces, or eight yearly wages. This was not unreasonable - Marcus Aurelius had offered the same amount in 161 - and under normal circumstances, Sulpicianus would immediately have been made emperor. However, there were complications, a man named Didius Julianus had informally been appointed succesor. What happened next is told by Cassius Dio:

When the fate of Pertinax was noised about, some ran to their homes and others to those of the soldiers, all taking thought for their own safety. But Sulpicianus, who had been sent by Pertinax to the camp to set matters in order there, remained on the spot, and intrigued to get himself appointed emperor. Meanwhile Didius Julianus [...], when he heard of the death of Pertinax, hastily made his way to the camp, and, standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans.

Then ensued a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the city and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from the inside, the other from the outside. They gradually raised their bids up to 20,000 sesterces per soldier. [...]

Sulpicianus would have won the day, being inside and being prefect of the city and also the first to name the figure 20,000, had not Julianus raised his bid no longer by a small amount but by 5,000 at one time, both shouting it in a loud voice and also indicating the amount with his fingers. So the soldiers, captivated by this excessive bid and at the same time fearing that Sulpicianus might avenge Pertinax (an idea that Julianus put into their heads), received Julianus inside and declared him emperor.note

Didius JulianusProbably, no Roman was deeply shocked by this. Of course, every decent man regretted the death of Pertinax and - of course, again - every decent Roman was happy that the successor had been chosen without much violence. And Didius Julianus was an honorable man. He was happy to pardon his rival. Sulpicianus survived.

Yet, not much later, every decent Roman realized that the empire had actually been auctioned off. Three fellow-conspirators of Pertinax (Pescennius Niger, Septimius Severus, and Clodius Albinus) accepted the imperial purple and announced that they would avenge the noble emperor Pertinax. So the civil war that everyone had been trying to avoid, eventually broke out in the spring of 193.

Septimius SeverusIn June, Septimius Severus, I Adiutrix and XIV Gemina took Rome. Didius Julianus had already been captured by an angry mob and had been killed. Severus reorganized the city and left his capital almost immediately, to wage war against Pescennius Niger, who was defeated and killed in northern Syria in the spring of 194.

It seems that Titus Flavius Sulpicianus was executed in 197. The date suggests that he had sided with Severus' rival Clodius Albinus. This was something Severus could never pardon. In the same year, he attacked Albinus, and defeated him near modern Lyon in France. From now on, his family was unchallenged as ruling dynasty of the Roman world.

Sulpicianus had simply been one of the casualties of the succession. The dynasty of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus had been replaced by the Severans.

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 25 July 2015.