Publius Helvius Pertinax

Publius Helvius Pertinax – Governor of Britannia from 185AD to c.187,  Emperor of Rome from 1st January to 28th March 193AD

Pertinax was born Publius Helvius Pertinax on 1st August 126AD at Alba Pompeia in Liguria, now known as Alba on the Tanaro River in the Piemonte district of northern Italy. The son of a former slave who made his fortune as a wool merchant, he was given a classical education and married a well-connected young woman named Flavia Titiana, who was to bear him two children, a son also known as Publius Helvius Pertinax, and a daughter, her name unrecorded.

Curriculum Vitae Pertinacis

150AD’s a teacher of classical literature
161AD volunteered for military service
commanding tribune of a Cohort of Gauls in Syria
military tribune of Legio VI Victrix at York in Britain
legionary prefect on Danube frontier – under the personal command of Marcus Aurelius
granted the rank of senator
175AD suffect consul (I) at Rome
c.176AD governor of the two Moesias
c.178AD governor of Dacia
180AD governor of Syria
185AD governor of Britain – sent by Commodus to suppress the mutiny of the British army
c.187AD governor of Africa
189AD urban prefect at Rome
192AD ordinary consul (II) at Rome – the colleague of Emperor Commodus (VII)

Imperator Caesar Publius Helvius Pertinax Augustus

Following the murder of the mad¹ emperor Commodus on the night of 31st December 192AD, the co-conspirators, the praetorian commander Quintus Aemilius Laetus and the imperial chamberlain Eclectus approached Pertinax at his home in Rome and offered him the emperorship. The following day before a crowded senate he was formally offered the title of Augustus, and after a great show of reluctance accepted it, becoming Imperator Caesar Publius Helvius Pertinax Augustus.

  1. There were a fair few of them, let’s face it!

Pertinax tried to do too much, too soon, with the result that he was alienated by both the praetorians and the imperial freedmen, and thus, his hold on power quickly became tenuous. The praetorians tried to replace him with another imperial candidate as early as January 3rd, but their chosen senator promptly betrayed the plot to Pertinax and just as swiftly left the country. Another coup was attempted by the praetorians in early March, this time their proposed recipient of the purple being the consul Quintus Sosius Falco, but Pertinax found out about the plot, pardoned Falco, and had the praetorian conspirators executed.

The slighting of the praetorians power by the ageing emperor was too much for them to bear, and a band of around three-hundred disaffected soldiers rushed the palace on the morning of 28th March, and, urged on by the palace guards and staff, they hacked the 66 year old emperor to death. Pertinax, the son of a freedman, had been the sole emperor of the entire Roman empire for a total of 87 days.

What happened next is perhaps one of the most (in)famous events of imperial Rome – often taken out of context in the historical epics of Hollywood – the praetorians auctioned-off the empire to the highest bidder in the Forum Romanum. Thus Pertinax was succeeded by Didius Julianus, who himself lasted only 66 days before being condemed by the senate in favour of Septimius Severus, the former governor of Pannonia.

Regarding the Lack of Inscribed Stones in Britain

There are no inscribed stones in Britain which mention work undertaken during the governorship of Pertinax, nor are there any which celebrate his rise to emperor. The latter is quite understandable given the brevity of his reign, but the reason for the dearth of inscriptions honouring this former governor of Britain remains unexplained. It may perhaps be due to a general recall of all inscribed stones commissioned during his governorship, in order for them to be re-inscribed with the appropriate imperial titles, but this is unproven.

Legatus Legionis in Germany

Many of the Germans, too, from across the Rhine, advanced as far as Italy and inflicted many injuries upon the Romans. They were in turn attacked by Marcus [Aurelius], who opposed to them his lieutenants Pompeianus and Pertinax: and Pertinax (who later became emperor) greatly distinguished himself. …

Cassius Dio History of Rome LXXII.i.2; Epitome of Xiphilinus (c.166AD)

Made Consul

When Pertinax as a reward for his brave exploits obtained the consulship, there were nevertheless some who showed displeasure in view of the fact that he was of obscure family, and they quoted this line from tragedy: Such things accursed war brings in its train.”¹Little did they realize that he should be emperor as well.

Cassius Dio History of Rome LXXII.xxii.1; Epitome of Xiphilinus (c.174/5AD)
  1. Euripides Suppl. 119.

Spared by Commmodus

… Many plots were formed by various people against Commodus, and he killed a great many, both men and women, some openly, and some by means of poison, secretly, making away, in fact, with practically all those who had attained eminence during his father’s reign and his own, with the exception of Pompeianus, Pertinax and Victorinus; these men for some reason or other he did not kill. …

Cassius Dio History of Rome LXXIII.iv.1; Epitome of Xiphilinus (180AD)

Quells Mutiny in Britain

“he soldiers in Britain chose Priscus, a lieutenant, emperor; but he declined, saying: I am no more an emperor than you are soldiers…

Cassius Dio History of Rome LXXIII.ix.2a; epitome of Petrus Patricius (c.185AD)

“he lieutenants of Britain, accordingly, having been rebuked for their insubordination, – they did not become quiet, in fact, until Pertinax quelled them, – now chose out of their number fifteen hundred javelin men and sent them into Italy. …

Cassius Dio History of Rome LXXIII.ix.2²; epitome of Xiphilinus (c.185/6AD)

While Pertinax was still in Britain, after that great revolt which he quelled, and was being accounted worthy of praise on all sides, a horse named Pertinax won a race at Rome. It belonged to the Greens¹ and was favoured by Commodus. So when its partisans raised a great shout, crying, It is Pertinax! the others, their opponents, in disgust at Commodus, likewise prayed, – with reference to the man rather than to the horse, – would that it were so!…

Cassius Dio History of Rome LXXIV.iv.1-2; Epitome of Xiphilinus (185/6AD)


Cassius Dio History of Rome LXXIV.i.1-x.3 (193AD)

Slain by Praetorians

Cassius Dio History of Rome 139f (AD)

Funeral Accorded Him by Severus

Cassius Dio History of Rome LXXV.iii.3-v.5 (AD)