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Publius Helvius Pertinax (1)


Publius Helvius Pertinax. Bust at the Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.
Publius Helvius Pertinax (Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden)
Publius Helvius Pertinax (126-193): Roman general and emperor. His reign marks the beginning of the "year of the five emperors".

Publius Helvius Pertinax was born in Alba Pompeia in Liguria, during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, on 1 August 126, as the son of a former slave, Successus, who is said to have owned a cloth-maker's shop. He cannot have been a very poor man, however, because we know that he owned a country estate, and moreover: he could send his son to school. Pertinax studied literature, became a teacher, and later tried to obtain a position in the Roman army as centurio in one of the legions. Although he had a patron of consular rank, a man named Lucius Hedius Lollianus Avitus (consul in 144), his request was not granted. Instead, Pertinax was allowed to be the commander of an auxiliary unit in Syria, the Fourth Gallic mounted cohort. which is mentioned in an inscription from Brühl.

We do not know when this happened, except that it was during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161), and that that it is mentioned in the Historia Augusta ("Pertinax", 1.5). Allowing some time for his career as a teacher, and knowing that he was in Syria in the early 160's, we may assume that Pertinax's military career started in 160. According to the Historia Augusta, Pertinax had used the official post service without permission, and was therefore ordered by the governor of Syria to walk all the way to his command (HA, Pert., 1.6).

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Lucius Verus (from an anonymous German art collection). Photo Jona Lendering.
Lucius Verus (From an anonymous German art collection)

It was a bad start, but Pertinax had an opportunity to show what he was worth. In 161, the year of the accession of the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, the Parthians invaded the Roman empire and annihilated a legion (perhaps VIIII Hispana) in Cappadocia. Late in 162, Lucius Verus arrived in Syria, and early in 163, the Romans invaded Mesopotamia. Now, a series of very successful campaigns started, in which Pertinax fought very bravely (HA, Pert., 2.1). This was the beginning of his career in the equestrian order, the second rank of the Roman elite, after the senators.

Emperor Lucius Verus could accept honorific titles like Armeniacus ("victor in a war against the Armenians"), Parthicus Maximus, ("greatest victor against the Parthians") and even Medicus ("against the Medes"), which suggests victories east of the Tigris. During these campaigns, even the Parthian capital Ctesiphon was sacked. Unfortunately, a plague started, and the Romans were unable to organize their conquests as a province.


Ruins of the ivan (open-fronted, vaulted royal audience hall) at Ctesiphon.
The ruins of Ctesiphon (©!!!)

We do not know the exact whereabouts of the Fourth Gallic mounted cohort. Did it cross the Tigris and invade Media? Was Pertinax present when Lucius Verus sacked Ctesiphon? It is all possible, but we can not know for certain. Yet however this may be, we can be sure that Pertinax fought with distinction. Before the war was over, he received a new, important command: he was made tribune in one of the British legions (HA, Pert., 2.1). From the Brühl inscription, we know that he served in the Sixth legion Victrix, which was stationed in York in Britannia (165).

Almost immediately after this appointment, he commanded an auxiliary unit again, either I or II Tungrorum. Both units were stationed at Hadrian's wall. In 167, we find Pertinax as commander of an equestrian unit in Moesia Superior (or Pannonia Inferior), on the Middle Danube (id., 2.2).

Replica of the Bruhl Inscription. Museum für Antike Schifffahrt, Mainz (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Replica of the Bruhl Inscription. Museum für Antike Schifffahrt, Mainz.

The next stage in Pertinax's career was the office of procurator of the Via Aemilia, in northern Italy, in 168 (id., 2.2). He was now in charge of distributing state welfare payments to children along the road between Milano and Rimini. This was a civil office, and perhaps not much to his liking. It must be noticed that the Brühl Inscription refers to another procuratorship, the one of the food supply of Rome.

During the next year, he was back in the army again, and served as commander of the fleet of Germania Inferior, in Köln-Alteburg (id., 2.3). Military activities are not recorded, but it appears that his mother followed him to the north, died, and was buried near Cologne

In 169-170, Pertinax was procurator again, this time in Sarmizegetusa in Dacia (Rumania) (id., 2.4). Here, he collaborated with the governor of Dacia and Moesia Superior, Marcus Claudius Fronto, a man he had already met during the Parthian War of Lucius Verus. According to the Brühl inscription, he occupied the same office in Moesia Superior.


Bust of Marcus Aurelius. British museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Marcus Aurelius
(British Museum, London)

Until this moment, his career had been quite spectacular and fast. As son of a freedman, he had reached a very high position. This made him vulnerable too, and it seems that he was briefly out of favor. After the death of Lucius Verus (169), he did not immediately obtain the sympathy of Marcus Aurelius, who was now sole emperor. However, Marcus' son-in-law Claudius Pompeianus appointed Pertinax as commander of several detachments that were to defend the Alpine area when Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine. Again, Pertinax distinguished himself, and he was made a senator by Marcus Aurelius, who said that this was "to compensate Pertinax for the wrongs he had suffered", i.e., his temporary fall from favor. He received the rank of a former praetor and could continue a senatorial career (cursus honorum). That the son of a freedman was allowed to the Senate, was most unusual.

Coin of I Adiutrix by Septimius Severus.
The standard  of I Adiutrix; coin of Septimius Severus (©!!)

But the circumstances were no longer usual. Germanic tribes had become restless and Marcus Aurelius had to fight a great war along the Danube. He needed experienced officers like Pertinax, who was made commander of the First legion Adiutrix, stationed at Brigetio (modern Szöny, north of Budapest) (id., 2.5). Pertinax played an important role during the campaigns against the Marcomanni in Bohemia. It is very likely that I Adiutrix and the two newly founded legions II Italica and III Italica were grouped together in a single task-force. There was a lot of hard fighting and the Romans were not always victorious, but slowly, they recovered ground. According to the historian Herodian, Pertinax freed the provinces of Noricum and Raetia completely, and took part in the attacks on the Quadi and Sarmatians north of the Danube.

The destruction of a Germanic village by Roman soldiers.
The destruction of a Germanic village by Roman soldiers; relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius (©!!!)

Marcus Aurelius even contemplated adding new provinces to the empire. He often praised Pertinax, and seems to have regretted making him a senator - as a knight, Pertinax could have occupied the very important position of praetorian prefect (commander of the imperial guard; senators were not allowed to occupy this office) (id., 2.9). Instead, he made Pertinax consul in 175, together with Didius Julianus, another successful general, who had recently defeated the Chauci (id., 2.7).

The Romans were now almost victorious in their northern war, but just when the emperor wanted to organize the new provinces, they received news from the east: a general named Avidius Cassius had revolted (spring 175). Although he committed suicide almost immediately, an inspection of the provinces now demanded the emperor's personal involvement, and the northern war was ended on terms that were better than the Germanic tribes had expected. In 175-176, Marcus Aurelius and Pertinax travelled through the eastern provinces.


Statue of Commodus as Hercules Romanus. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Commodus as Hercules
(Musei Capitolini, Roma)

In the spring, the former consul began the first of three successive governorships in a war zone: Moesia Inferior (176-177), Moesia Superior (177), and Dacia (177-179) (id., 2.10-11). The very rapid succession is unusual and must be related to the fact that the Romans were again involved in the border war on the Danube. Pertinax defended Dacia against invading tribes. The war lasted until Marcus Aurelius died in 180. His son and successor Commodus decided that the Romans had been successful enough, and put an end to fight, a decision for which he was severely criticized by his contemporaries. Yet, the Romans had defeated their enemies and there was no reason not to conclude a peace treaty. The area remained quiet for a very long time.

During the first years of the reign of Commodus, Pertinax was governor of the rich province of Syria. This was a very special appointment because this meant that he was, so to speak, supreme commander of the Roman forces in the Near East - a position that had once been occupied by Lucius Verus and Avidius Cassius. It was probably here that his wife Flavia Titiana gave birth to his son Publius.

When the self-made man returned to Rome in 182, there were rumors about his greed, and the praetorian prefect Sextus Tigidius Perennis blocked further progress of his career (id., 3.1). Pertinax returned to his father's country estate (id., 3.4). He may not have like it, and he must have been temperamentally unsuited for idleness, but he had had one of the most spectacular careers that we know of. Besides, he was fifty-six, a fine age for retirement. However, more was to come.






to part two




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