Book Review: Pertinax: The Son of a Slave Who Became Roman Emperor


by Simon Elliott

Barnsley, Eng.: Greenhill / Philadelphia: Pen & Sword, 2020. Pp. x, 214+. Illus., map, tables, chron., biblio., index. $42.95. ISBN: 1784385255

A Most Unusual and Tragic  Roman Emperor

Dr. Elliott, author of Septimius Severus in Scotland and many other works in Roman history, gives us a look at the rise and fall of one of Rome’s most unusual Emperors, Publius Helvius Pertinax, the son of a freedman who had an impressive military and political career and then reigned briefly as Emperor (Jan. 1—Mar. 28, A.D. 193) in succession to the maniacal Commodus, assassinated on the last day of A.D. 192.

Elliott opens with an introduction and several chapters that look at Pertinax’s origins and early life, during which he became a teacher, and the political, social, and military institutions of the empire in the mid-Second Century. He then examines Pertinax’s surprising decision to enter the army at the age of 35, his early service in the ranks, rise to general, provincial commander, and high political office under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.

Elliott then devotes a single long chapter to Pertinax’s time as emperor. After an account of the death of Commodus, including Pertinax’s possible – probable? – role in it, Elliott covers the role of the Senate and Praetorians in making Pertinax emperor, and the many problems that confronted him, from a bankrupt treasury to restless Praetorians, which led to several attempts to oust him, before he was murdered, by those same Praetorians. We then get a quick look at the consequences of the death of Pertinax, in several years of civil war from which Septimius Severus, who had been one of the late emperor’s protégé’s, emerged as the victor.

Pertinax is an excellent account of a very unusual character, which throws a good deal of light on the complexities of Roman institutions.




Note: Pertinax is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A.A. Nofi   

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