Your RDA of Irony

Craigslist: AD 193

There were some advantages to being a Roman emperor. For instance, until the fifth century, the pay was excellent. You would rarely be turned down at an orgy. Furthermore, the job would never be outsourced to India, if only because the Romans had but a vague notion about India’s location.

Longevity, however, was another matter. From an actuarial perspective, an emperor would have regarded murder as a natural cause of death. In a period of five centuries, Rome had more than 80 emperors. The total is imprecise because the imperial reigns often were.

The Emperor Pertinax might have expected a longer reign. He certainly was an improvement over his predecessor, the depauched and incompetent Commodus. (You remember him from “Gladiator.”) Indeed, on his own merits, Pertinax had the makings of an excellent ruler. He was conscientious, honest and capable. You could add frugality to his virtues, but that actually was a flaw in Rome. The people wanted their bread and circuses, and the Praetorian Guard expected “donations”.

The Praetorians could overlook any vice in an emperor but stinginess. Pertinax had every virtue but generosity, so he did not survive his bodyguards. Today is that dubious anniversary.

The impulsive Praetorians seized the throne but had no one to occupy it. Then the extravagantly rich Didius Julianus,  the Steve Forbes of his day, simply decided to buy the position of emperor. He showed up at the Praetorians’ camp and proceeded to bid for their loyalty. Another patrician competed in the auction for the Empire, but Julianus outbid him. His purchased Praetorians then cowed the Senate into acclaiming him the emperor.

The Praetorians’ loyalty lasted two months. When an ambitious general marched on Rome, the imperial guard switched sides again. Julianus did not live to regret it. He now is remembered as a joke. (The same might be said of Steve Forbes.)

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