Decimus Clodius Albinus

Decimus Clodius Albinus (147-197): Roman emperor (r.193-197).

Clodius Albinus
Clodius Albinus

Decimus Clodius Albinus was born on 25 November 147. According to a very suspicious source, the Historia Augusta, he was born in Hadrumetum in Africa.note This is probably confirmed by a coin with the legend saeculum frugiferum (something like 'fertile era'), frugifera being the title of the colonia Hadrumetum. The Historia Augusta also states that Clodius Albinus was a member of a very noble family, which may perhaps also be true, because at a later stage, he received some support from the Senate, which, as a rule, was greatly impressed by ancient families. One coin, possible political associations: it is not very strong evidence, but this is all there is.

We know hardly anything about his career. According to the Historia Augusta, Clodius Albinus received some education in Greek and Latin literature, but was too much of a martial nature to enjoy it.note It may or may not be true.

Normal steps in a normal career (cursus honorum) would have been a military tribuneship at the age of twenty, i.e., during the initial phase of the northern wars of Marcus Aurelius. According to the Historia Augusta, an emperor excused Clodius Albinus the quaestorship because he was impressed by his military achievements, for example as leader of a cavalry unit, and commander of legions like I Italica and IIII Flavia.note This may be true - at least, there is nothing inherently implausible, although the author of the Historia Augusta calls the emperor Commodus instead of Marcus Aurelius - not the least of all possible blunders.

The next steps were the aedileship and praetorship. He is said to have sponsored marvellous games.note The next step was the governorship of a province or the command of a legion

According to Cassius Dio, a reliable author, Clodius Albinus occupied an unknown office in Dacia (modern Romania).note Here, he fought against the Sarmatians, a coalition of Iranian tribes that had settled in Central Europe. Another man is named in the same context: Pescennius Niger, who will return in our story. The fact that two senators with the rank of former praetors are mentioned in a military situation, strongly suggest that they were the commanders of the garrison of Dacia, which consisted of V Macedonica and XIII Gemina. All this happened in 182-184, early in the reign of Commodus.

It is possible that certain coins from Pautalia in Thrace, showing Clodius Albinus on the obverse and Glykon on the reverse, prove that the legionary commander had experienced divine protection from the recently introduced snake-god.

Commodus as Hercules
Commodus as Hercules

Clodius Albinus now could become consul, maybe in 185 or 186, after which he seems to have been governor of Germania Inferior, a province with two legions. By the end of the reign of Commodus, in 192, he was governing Britain, a province with three legions, which were employed against the Caledonians from modern Scotland. Germania Inferior and Britain were only given to excellent commanders, which seems to confirm that Clodius Albinus was indeed "of a martial nature".

On 31 December 192, Commodus was assassinated, and on New Year's day, he was succeeded by the old general Pertinax, a former governor of Syria. Although the new ruler was immediately recognized by the legions and provinces, he lost control of the situation and was murdered. The imperial guard chose Didius Julianus, another capable general, as its emperor. He lacked moral credit and civil war broke out.

The Syrian legions supported Pescennius Niger; those of Britain Clodius Albinus; and those of the Danube sided with Septimius Severus. The latter was the first to reach Rome, where he had Didius Julianus executed. He was now in a very strong position, because he commanded most legions and controlled the Senate. He also gained support from I Minervia and XXX Ulpia Victrix, the two units in in Germania Inferior. This was crucial, because Clodius Albinus needed these legions -which knew him from his years as governor of this province- if he wanted to challenge Severus. Now that they had sided with the man who controlled Rome, Clodius Albinus' position was seriously weakened. When he received a letter from Severus, in which he offered him an adoption and a position as crown prince (caesar), he accepted. He was from now on known as known as Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus Caesar.

Having his rear secured, Severus could attack Pescennius Niger and proceeded to the east. His position was improving every day, especially since one of Pescennius' commanders, Asellius Aemilianus, was a relative of Clodius Albinus. It was possible that he would side with Severus, and it was likely that Pescennius would suspect him. As it turned out, Asellius remained loyal, but coordination between the armies of Pescennius and his deputy was bad and Severus could cross into Asia. On the last day of March 194, he defeated Pescennius Niger. The defeated emperor tried to flee to his ally, the Parthian king Vologases V, but he was intercepted by the soldiers of Severus before he could cross the Euphrates.

Clodius Albinus

The victorious emperor immediately launched a short war against the Parthians, who had supported his opponent. This, at least, was the pretext, but the real reason must have been that he had won a civil war and needed a victory in a foreign war to make his rule acceptable.

Meanwhile, Clodius Albinus, consul for the second time in 194, remained in Britain. In Rome, coins were minted in his name, usually showing his portrait and the goddess Minerva.

According to later propaganda, Clodius Albinus was not as loyal as he had promised Severus. Reportedly he wrote letters to other senators about future moves against the emperor. Many senators sympathized with the caesar.

This information is highly suspect, because after his eastern victories, Severus became more self-confident and wanted to get rid of Albinus. He needed a pretext. In 195, Severus forced the Senate to declare war upon Clodius Albinus, after he had appointed his son Caracalla as caesar.

Iit was Clodius Albinus who stroke first, proclaimed himself emperor, changed his full name into Imperator Caesar Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus Augustus, and invaded Gaul in 196. He was supported by the three British legions (II Augusta at Isca/Caerleon, VI Victrix at Deva/Chester, XX Valeria Victrix at Eburacum/York). The fact that he kept the name Septimius may have meant that he was still looking for a compromise.

Septimius Severus
Septimius Severus

His position was indeed very weak, but he may have been hoping for additional support from the Rhine army. But XXII Primigenia defended Trier and the loyalty of the other legions of Germania Inferior and Germania Superior was never in doubt. In January 197, the Clodius Albinus clashed with Severus in a battle in the Saône valley. He was defeated, went to his headquarters in Lyon, where he was defeated again on 19 February. The city was sacked and Albinus, trapped in a house on the bank of the Rhône, committed suicide. The Senate in Rome pronounced a damnatio memoriae.

Decimus Clodius Albinus had nearly everything that was necessary to become a good emperor. He was a military man and he was appreciated by his fellow senators. What he was missing was the ruthlessness of Septimius Severus. The future belonged to him and his dynasty.


This page was created in 2004; last modified on 4 August 2020.