The night they auctioned off the Roman Empire. It was not merely an empire, it was the world. …
In the second century A.D. Rome stretched across a million and a half square miles, from Scotland to the Sahara, from the Atlantic to the Euphrates. It owned the pyramids, the Parthenon, and every olive tree between Araby and Aragon. It included London and Paris, cities not yet what they would be, as well as Athens and Alexandria, cities no longer what they had been. And, of course, Rome itself. The Eternal City was at the height of its ancient glory. All in all, it was a vastly impressive piece of real estate.
And yet, one evening it was offered up for sale to the highest bidder. All of it. Kit and kaboodle. Everything mentioned above and splendors too numerous to list. Yes, the complete Roman Empire was once set on the auction block. The date was March 28,193. The story is tragical-comical. And historical.
What is more, the man who would be emperor by midnight began dinner on March 28 without the slighest notion he would eat his dessert from Imperial dishes. Great things happen, of course,when you least expect them. The name of the man was Didius Julianis. Hardly a household word you did say? Be reminded that he only bought a little fame. Which is fair,since he only paid a little for it. How much is too crass to ask at this point. The question to consider first is, simply, how? And for this, we must glance quickly at the beginnings of the Roman Empire.
When Augustus Caesar was building upon the wreckage of the Roman Republic what he euphemistically called a “principate,” he established his own military bodyguard to protect the palace and serve as orderlies. This was the cohortes praetorianae, the Praetorian Guard, and they were some five thousand strong. They were strong not merely because they were an elite corps but because they were the only soldiers nearby. Augustus billeted them here and there, in and around Rome. But his successor, Tiberius, decided that special soldiers deserved special quarters, and so he established a Praetorian camp just outside the city walls, near the Quirinal hill. Now the guardsmen could all live together and be more efficient. In a very special way.
Consider: The Praetorians were the only troops in or near the city. The city controlled the world. Ergo, whoever controlled the Praetorians…Indeed,from the earliest days, their commander, the Praetorian prefect, had a strong voice in affairs of state. And oftentimes more than just a voice.
There was Sejanus, for example. This Praetorian prefect convinced Tiberius to retire to Capri, while he himself ran things in Rome. Sejan
as too ambitious however. He met a bad end because he would not settle for the power without the glory.
Then there was Macro, Sejanus’s successor. Macro decided that Tiberius had lived long enough. It was time for Caligula. Macro had Tiberius murdered and then sold the Praetorians on Caligula. The guardsmen easily sold the senate. Vivat Caligula!
In a few years, however, the guard grew unhappy with Macro’s candidate. Caligula was not a well balanced man. One needs no further proof of this than the fact he did not treat the Praetorians with respect. They killed him one afternoon in A.D. 41.
That same afternoon as they were looting the Imperial Palace, the soldiers discovered old uncle Claudius hiding, Polonius like, behind an arras. With a sudden burst of Juli-Claudian affection the guardsmen saluted him as emperor and bore him to the senate to be approved. He, Claudius, was too frightened to dampen the soldier’s enthusiasm, or so said Suetonius.
Incidents like these made the Praetorians realize the full extent of their power. They could, quite literally, make or break emperors. Crafty Agrippina knew this. She succeeded in convincing the soldiers that her own son by a previous marriage was the logical man to follow Claudius. And if one is a senator confronted by a candidate of the Praetorian Guard, one does not embark on a series of embarrassing questions such as “where is the rightful heir?” Especially, if one believes in the sanctity of their own life. That is, preferring to live. It was just such a preference that induced the senators to bestow the imperial honor upon Agrippina’s son, Nero.