While Roman scholars have extensively analysed A.D.69, the infamous Year of the Four Emperors which began with Nero on the throne and ended with Vespasian as supreme ruler, the upheavals of A.D.193 saw no less than five men claim the purple in a single year. After over a decade of clearly increasing instability in their emperor, who latterly took to considering himself as the modern incarnation of the god Hercules and fighting in the Flavian Amphitheatre as a gladiator (trust me, there was no greater infamy for a man in Rome), the empire’s terrified ruling class had seen enough. With the assassination of the emperor on the last day of AD192, the respected soldier and senator Publius Helvius Pertinax took the throne. Intending a return to the greater tolerance and stability Rome had enjoyed under the five adoptive emperors who had reigned for most of the 2nd century, men chosen for their abilities rather than by bloodline, he bravely decided not to pay the Praetorian Guard the substantial donative – or bribe – they expected as the price of their complicity. Despite eventually selling off Commodus’s properties and assets - including his concubines – to meet their demands, his standing with the Guard was fatally undermined. After evading one assassination attempt he was put to the sword by a gang of Praetorians in March.
At this point the question of who would rule the empire descended into farce, as the Guard literally auctioned off the throne. Didius Julianus was the winner, paying 25,000 sesterces (eighty years pay for a legionary) for every man in the Praetorian Camp. Lauded by the senate – who had little choice in the matter – he became emperor, but was roundly abused and even pelted with stones when he appeared in public.
At the same time the armies of Britannia, Syria and Pannonia (modern day Hungary) each promptly declared their generals, Albinus, Niger and the North African Septimius Severus, to be Emperor. Removing the Britannia legions as a threat by cannily – and insincerely - declaring Albinus ‘Caesar’ and thus persuading him not to act, Severus used Pannonia’s proximity to Rome to steal a march on his rivals and claim the throne. Having convinced the outnumbered Praetorians to surrender, promising that they would face no punishment, Julianus’s murder by a soldier gave the new emperor sufficient pretext to dismiss them in ignominy, and replace them with his own soldiers.
Tumultuous even by comparison with the bloodiest of Rome’s history , AD193 left the empire’s military might divided between the three generals and left Severus in a precarious position of power, in possession of the capital and the throne, but threatened from the east by Niger and the west by Albinus, former colleagues in the Dacian wars of the 180s. Holding Albinus’s powerful British army at arm’s length with continuing promises of shared power, he sent his generals after Niger. With his forces at first pinned down and then defeated, Niger himself suffered a prompt execution upon his capture close to Antioch.
With the risk posed by the eastern legions removed from the board Severus was free to focus on his only remaining rival, influencing the senate to declare his fellow African and former ally Clodius Albinus, governor of Britannia, an enemy of the state. Goaded by this declaration of war (and a narrowly failed assassination attempt by a messenger from Serverus), or possibly having waited for the power struggle to play out in the hope of confronting a single weakened rival, Albinus took an estimated 40,000 men - pretty much every legionary and auxiliary soldier in Britannia - and marched south with the aim of capturing Rome. Denied passage across the Alps, he pitched his British and Spanish legions against Serverus’s Dacian and German forces at Lugdunum, modern day Lyons.
The engagement that resulted was a titanic affair fought over two days, a rarity in an age when a few hours was usually enough to bring about either an outcome or an exhausted stalemate. At the battle’s climax, with Albinus’s legions apparently victorious and already chanting their victory hymn, Serverus’s superior cavalry took the day. By this hair’s breadth victory the Severan dynasty’s future was assured, and a fresh, if not ultimately fruitful chapter in the empire’s history opened.
Lugdunum, for all that the battle took place in Gaul, was nevertheless a watershed in the province’s history, since Britannia had never before exerted such a pivotal influence in imperial affairs. There was, however, a disastrously high price to be paid for this moment of illusory glory. Not until Serverus’s brutal campaign of subjugation a decade later would the northern British tribes be properly subdued again, and their depredations would have served as a powerful object lesson in the importance of choosing carefully when taking sides in war.
With ultimate power now safe in one pair of hands, the undisputed emperor went on to fight a series of campaigns along the empire’s frontiers which culminated with his death in York in AD211. But that, as any good historical novelist will tell you, is another story…