Publius Helvius Pertinax Augustus was a celebrated Roman general and statesman, who, in 193 CE, occupied the Roman throne for a short period. Little that we know about him comes mainly from the writings of Cassius Dio, a contemporary historian, and also from a book called 'Historia Augusta'. Born to a freed slave with considerable wealth, he joined the Roman army as the commander of the Fourth Gallic mounted cohort at the age of thirty-five, quickly distinguishing himself at the Roman-Parthian War. Thereafter, he received quick promotion, serving in various places across the Roman Empire. Eventually, he was made a senator and thereafter, continued to hold various important posts until he was proclaimed the emperor on the assassination of Commodus. As the emperor, he tried to bring in many reforms and discipline his troops. However, his reign ended within eighty-six days when a disgruntled soldier struck him down amid a heated discussion. Today, he is remembered in Roman history as one who displayed "not only humaneness and integrity in the imperial administrations, but also the most economical management and the most careful consideration for the public welfare."
Childhood & Early Years
Publius Helvius Pertinax Augustus was born on 1 August 126 CE, in the ancient town of Alba Pompeia, located in the northwestern region of Italy. His father, Helvius Successus, was a freed slave who later went into trading and amassed considerable wealth.
Although born to a freed slave, Pertinax was able to go to school, where he studied literature and arithmetic. That apart, his father also appointed a Greek teacher for him, who taught him grammar. Later, he moved to Rome to study with Sulpicius Apollinaris.
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After completing his education, Pertinax began his career as a grammar teacher. But when he was in his early thirties, he had a change of heart and decided to join the army.
Initially, he tried to acquire the position of a centurion in one of the Roman legions. Although he was backed by his father’s patron, Lucius Hedius Lollianus Avitus, his request was not granted. Instead, he received appointment as the commander of the Fourth Gallic mounted cohort, possibly in 160.
His first posting was in Syria, where he is said to have used the imperial post without official letters of recommendation and was forced to return to his station from Antioch on foot by the governor. But very soon, he was able to make his mark.
In the summer of 161, King Vologases IV of Parthia attacked Armenia, deposing the Roman client king, Sohaemus, and annihilating a Roman legion in Cappadocia. Eventually, the five years long Roman-Parthian War was set off, giving Pertinax a chance to demonstrate his capabilities.
Pertinax must have shown unique leadership qualities and fought bravely in the Roman-Parthian War because he was soon occupying the post of a tribune in the Legio VI Victrix, at that time stationed at York, Britannia. The post ranked below the legatus and above the centurion.
In Britannia, he served as the commander of an auxiliary unit, either I or II Tungrorum, both of which were stationed at Hadrian's Wall. From there, he was transferred to Moesia, a Roman Province located south of the Danube River, where he fought against the Germanic tribes alongside Marcus Aurelius.
In 168, he was transferred to northern Italy, where he was responsible for distribution of grants from Milan and Rimini along Via Aemilia. In the following year, he returned to the battlefield, serving as the commander of Germania Inferiorin Köln-Alteburg.
In 169, he was appointed procurator of Roman Dacia, located in present day Romania. A high ranking officer in charge of financial affairs, he shared the same office as the governor at Sarmizegetusa. But later in the same year, as Marcus Aurelius became the emperor, he temporarily fell from favor.
As the Senator & Governor
In 170, Pertinax returned to the battlefield as the commander of several detachments, charged with defending the Alpine area from the invasion of the Germanic tribes. Here too, he distinguished himself, which enabled him to return to the emperor’s favor. Very soon, he was appointed a senator.
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As the Germanic tribes continued to invade, Pertinax was sent to Brigetio, located north of modern day Budapest, as the commander of the first legion Adiutrix. After a hard fight, the Roman forces under Pertinax completely recovered the provinces of Noricum and Raetia.
In 175, Emperor Marcus Aurelius appointed Pertinax a consul, and took him on a visit to the eastern provinces. Shortly after that, he was appointed the governor of Moesia Inferior (176-177) and then of Moesia Superior (177), and finally of Dacia (177-179).
In 180, Pertinax was appointed the governor of the rich province of Syria by Emperor Commodus, a position he held until 182. Thereafter, he was forced to step down because of corruption charges, spending the next three years in Alba Pompeia.
In 185, adverse situations in Britannia forced Emperor Commodus to recall Pertinax and make him the governor of Britannia. Here, he tried his best to instill discipline among the troops, braving personal attacks. However in 187, he was forced to resign and return to Rome.
In 188, after a short stint as prefect of the state welfare payments, he was made governor (Proconsul) of Africa, holding the position till 189. Thereafter, he returned to Italy to become the mayor of Rome. During this period, he became close to the emperor, sharing consulship with him.
Stint As the Emperor
On 31 December 192, Emperor Commodus was assassinated by a group of three, which included his mistress, Marcia. Soon after that, Pertinax was hurried to the barracks of the Praetorian Guards, and in the following morning proclaimed the emperor.
Realizing that he needed the support of the Praetorian Guards, he offered each soldier a reward of 12,000 sesterces. Thereafter, he went to the senate, where too he was proclaimed as the emperor. However, he refused to use imperial titles for his wife and his son.
Pertinax ruled for only eighty-six days. During this short period, he tried to implement several welfare measures such as identifying ownerless agricultural lands and redistributing them among others. He also reduced tax, reassessed property rating and reformed the Roman currency.
Unlike Commodus, he tried to rule in accordance with the wishes of the senators and enforce discipline among the soldiers. For paying the reward money to the Praetorian Guards, he started selling Commodus’ personal possessions. However, the delay made the soldiers unhappy, which eventually put an end to his regime.
Personal Life & Legacy
Pertinax was married to Flavia Titiana, the daughter of Senator Titus Flavius Claudius Sulpicianus. They had two children, a son called Publius Helvius Pertinax and a daughter, whose name is not known.
On 28 March 193, a contingent of two to three hundred soldiers of the Praetorian Guards attacked his palace. As the palace officials remained idle, Pertinax came out to reason with them. He was almost successful when a soldier struck him down, killing the sixty-six-year old emperor instantly.
When Emperor Septimius Severus came to power, he discharged the Praetorian Guards and decreed divine honor on Pertinax.
Pertinax’ reign marked the beginning of the "Year of the Five Emperors".