Lucius Pescennius Niger
Lucius Pescennius Niger (c.140-194): Roman general, emperor for a short while in 193-194.
Lucius (or Gaius) Pescennius Niger was born in Aquinum, a modest provincial town in Italy, between 135 and 140. He was the son of a Roman knight named Annius Fuscus and his wife Lampridia.
These were the years of the emperor Antoninus Pius, when the Roman world was tranquil and at peace with most of its neighbors. This peace, however, was shattered during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180), who had to wage war against the Germanic tribes along the Danube, and whose brother Lucius Verus had to fight a big war against the Parthian Empire in the east. When peace was lost, Pescennius was more than twenty years old and it was probably no coincidence that in this restless age a military man like him was to rise higher than a normal equestrian's son.
He served as military prefect of an auxiliary cohort during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The next step of his career, a double military tribuneship (a high position in a legion), is attributed to the reign of the next emperor, Commodus (180-192). Although Pescennius was no longer a young man, he seems to have done his job excellently and must have impressed the emperor, because he was accepted as senator with the rank of a former praetor.
Pescennius went on to occupy an unknown office in Dacia (modern Romania). 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: Decimus Clodius Albinus, who will return in our story. The fact that two senators with the rank of former praetors are mentioned in a military situation, strongly suggests that they were the commanders of the garrison of Dacia, which consisted of V Macedonica and XIII Gemina.
By now, Pescennius must have had a good reputation as a commander. When in 185 a man named Maternus freed some prisoners and started a gang of robbers that invested Gaul, Commodus considered this a serious crisis and appointed Pescennius Niger as governor of the province called Gallia Lugdunensis. Deserters from several army units had joined Maternus, but Pescennius overcame them, together with the Eighth Augustan Legion of Strasbourg (186).
After a consulship at an unknown moment, Pescennius was considered worthy of the governorship of Syria, a very important position, where he had to command two legions, III Cyrenaica and IIII Scythica. He arrived in Antioch, his new residence, in 191. It seems that Pescennius was sincerely liked by the Syrians.
Under normal circumstance, this governorship was the zenith of an extraordinary career. However, the circumstances were nor longer usual. The situation in Rome was worsening. The emperor Commodus had waged something like a war against the Senate and had tried to boost his popularity, which was declining after a great fire, by acting as a gladiator and presenting himself as the Roman Hercules. Although the Romans were not unused to imperial extravaganza, they found this shocking and several courtiers decided that Commodus' reign had to be terminated.
Several reliable men had already been appointed to key positions, and perhaps Pescennius' appointment as governor of Syria (and general of its legions) was among them. 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. Like Pescennius Niger, he was a social climber who had made his career in the army - and outside the Senate.
The coup had been bloodless, but unfortunately, something went wrong. On 28 March 193, eighty-six days after the murder of Commodus, a sedition broke out in the camp of the imperial guard. A group of soldiers burst into the palace, where one of them killed his emperor.
This time, the succession had not been considered beforehand and there was no natural candidate availavle. The soldiers were not fighting for a particular pretender, they were just angry. Two men, however, were considered capax imperii ("fit to rule"): the prefect of the city, Pertinax' father-in-law T. Flavius Sulpicianus, and a noble war hero named Marcus Didius Julianus. The latter offered more money to the soldiers and became emperor.
The Romans did not know what was more shocking: the outrageous behavior of Commodus, the murder of Pertinax, or the fact that the empire had been auctioned away. Didius Julianus had to cope with people shouting that they wanted another ruler, and they usually mentioned the same name: Lucius Pescennius Niger. The new emperor sent an assassin to kill the popular governor, but in vain.
Instead, Julianus was informed that Pescennius had heard about his popularity and had accepted the imperial purple himself on 19 (?) April 193. He had proclaimed the beginning of a new "Golden age" after the dictatorial rule of Commodus and Julianus, and had received recognition from every province in the east, from the Parthian king Vologases V, and from the ruler of Hatra, a small kingdom in Mesopotamia.
Pescennius' position was excellent. To start with, he controlled at least five and probably nine legions. He could certainly count on II Traiana Fortis in Alexandria, X Fretensis in Jerusalem, III Cyrenaica in Bosra in northern Arabia Petraea, III Gallica in Raphanaea (Syria), and XII Fulminata in Melitene. We do not know about the loyalty of other legions in the region (VI Ferrata in Caparcotna in Galilee, IIII Scythica at Zeugma, XVI Flavia Firma at Samosata, and XV Apollinaris at Satala), but we can assume that they supported Pescennius Niger as well. However, the new ruler probably would not have to fight at all, because he controlled the port of Alexandria, which was crucial for the food supply of Rome. He could starve the capital. Or so it seemed.
The Romans and Syrians were not the only people who abhorred from the coup of Didius Julianus. The soldiers of the army of the Danube preferred the governor of Pannonia Superior, Septimius Severus, as emperor (9 April 193). In his province, he controlled I Adiutrix in Brigetio, X Gemina in Vindobona (modern Vienna), and XIIII Gemina in Carnuntum. However, he could also employ the legions of the Upper Danube, III Italica of Regina Castra and II Italica of Lauriacum, and he could rely upon the units of the Lower Danube and Dacia, like II Adiutrix at Aquincum (Budapest), IIII Flavia Felix in Singidunum (Belgrade), VII Claudia at Viminacium, V Macedonica and XIII Gemina at Potaissa and Apulum in Dacia, I Italica in Novae, and XI Claudia at Durostorum, near the delta of the Danube.
Septimius Severus had a larger army and was closer to Rome. With the Pannonian legions I Adiutrix and XIV Gemina, he made a lightning raid on Rome, which he reached on 9 June. By then Didius Julianus was already murdered and Severus was recognized by the Senate.
Meanwhile, the chaos had only increased, because in faraway Britain, Decimus Clodius Albinus (once Pescennius' fellow-commander in the war against the Sarmatians) had assumed the imperial purple as well. He could count on the three British legions (II Augusta at Isca/Caerleon, VI Victrix at Deva/Chester, XX Valeria Victrix at Eburacum/York). The only undecided legions were those of Germania Inferior, once Clodius Albinus' province, and Germania Superior (XXX Ulpia Victrix at Xanten, I Minervia at Bonn, XXII Primigenia at Mainz, VIII Augusta at Strasbourg), Hispania (VII Gemina), and Numidia (III Augusta). Clodius Albinus understood that, with three legions, he was no match for Severus, and accepted a position as caesar, intended successor.
Now Severus had his hands free to attack Pescennius Niger. He sent and army to Egypt - an expedition about which we know next to nothing but must have been important to restore the food supply of Rome. At the same time, he arrested the family of his opponent, and sent the two easternmost legions of the Danube, I Italica and XI Claudia, to Byzantium, which controlled the Bosphorus. However, the legionaries found that this strategically important city had already been occupied by Pescennius himself. And there was a second enemy army, commanded by Asellius Aemilianus, his right-hand man and the governor of the province of Asia.
Negotiations were conducted - Pescennius proposing to share the empire and Severus offering his rival a guarantee - but when these had come to naught, fighting broke out. Ultimately, the reinforced army of Septimius Severus was able to make a landing in Asia and defeat the army of Pescennius Niger at Nicaea (January 194). Asellius Aemilianus was caught at Cyzicus. Pescennius, who had been in Byzantium, now fled to Syria. When he had arrived, he learned that Egypt was lost as well (13 February).
This was not the end of his emperorship, however. Byzantium still held out, and Severus still needed to reach Syria. He would have to cross the Taurus Mountains, which meant that he had to force his way through the Cilician Gate. Apparently, Pescennius personally commanded the troops in the Taurus. In his History of the Roman Empire, the historian Herodian says that heavy rainfall forced the defenders to give up their position, and that the Severans reached the plain of Cilicia. Between this country and the plain of Antioch was the coastal zone of Issus, where Alexander the Great had defeated his rival Darius III Codomannus of Persia in 331 BCE. This was to be the place of another decisive battle.
It took place on 31 March 194, and Pescennius Niger was defeated. According to the historian Cassius Dio, 20,000 people were massacred.note[Cassius Dio, Roman History 75=74.8.1.] Pescennius 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. His reign had lasted less than one year. He was killed and his head was sent to Byzantium in order to induce the defenders to surrender. Severus punished Pescennius' adherents and sent his family into exile. The Senate convened and pronounced a damnatio memoriae.
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 emperorship acceptable. After he had gained some successes in Mesopotamia, he returned to Rome, defeated Clodius Albinus in Gaul, went to Mesopotamia again and sacked the Parthian capital Ctesiphon. All this was commemorated on the Arch of Septimius Severus on the Forum Romanum.
Although Lucius Septimius Severus had been the enemy of Pescennius Niger, the two men had much in common. Like Pertinax and Didius Julianus, they were experienced generals. From the reign of Marcus Aurelius on, the Romans had to defend themselves against dangerous enemies -the Germanic tribes in the north and the Sasanians in the east- and these military commanders were to be the new leaders of the Roman world. When Pescennius Niger was born, the Mediterranean was tranquil and peaceful; when he died, this world had started to become unquiet. Although his reign was not a success, the future belonged to military leaders like Pescennius.
- The text of the biography of Pescennius Niger from the Historia Augusta can be found here in Latin and English.
- The reign of Pescennius has also been treated in Cassius Dio's Roman History (Book 75=74), and Herodian's History of the Roman Empire (Book 2 and 3)