THE YEAR OF FIVE EMPERORS
This script is inspired by the mixed feelings I had about “Gladiator”: enjoyment of the atmospherics of ancient Rome, coupled with some disappointment at the ending, which felt contrived. It occurred to me that the genuine story of how Commodus met his end (drunk at a New Year’s Eve costume party, killed to stop him from raping a girl) would have made a better story. But instead of ending there, I decided to begin there, telling the story of the tumultuous year which followed. This presents certain narrative difficulties: there cannot really be a “lead” character as the focus shifts among Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Clodius Albinus, Pescennius Niger, and Septimius Severus; the eventual victor (Severus) does not even appear onstage until late (to keep the number of simultaneous subplots down); two invented characters, Senator Tullius and his daughter, are followed in order to maintain some continuity throughout (most characters are real, although their traits must be fleshed out from a sparse record). Necessarily, there is a lot of exposition, but the talking is generally done against some action background; the history must be somewhat streamlined, and choices have to be made about uncertainties in the record. For example, why is Pescennius called Niger “black”? We are told that Clodius is Albinus “white” because he was very pale, but one source (late, with many errors) says Pescennius only had a black mole on his neck. Who knows? For our purposes, Pescennius is just black, with Nubian ancestry, part of the ethnic diversity which is a taken-for-granted part of the atmospherics in the story. He is known to have been governing Syria at some point under Commodus, but although he started and ended his bid for the Empire in Syria, it is also said he had a post in Egypt sometime. For our purposes, Pescennius had been transferred from Syria to Egypt sometime before Commodus was killed, so that an invented character with a revealing back-story can be governor of Syria instead. Variant versions of the history are treated as rumors: the time-lag and distortions as news propagates in the Empire is also part of the atmospherics.
scene 1. Tullius and Tullia Minor, dressed as a poet and his muse, go to the imperial palace for a New Year’s Eve costume party. She is nervous, and her father stresses to her that her duty is to attract a husband. Inside they meet senators Pertinax and Julianus. The emperor’s majordomo is insistent that they share the emperor’s wine, which Pertinax is reluctant to do. We hear, but do not see, that emperor Commodus is roaring drunk and dressed as Hercules. Tullius stammers out some odes to Hercules.
2. The same night, governor Clodius Albinus of Britain is perched on top of the northernmost wall, so that he can look down on a tribe of Caledonian barbarians while he engages them in tense negotiations, designed to bring the rest of Great Britain into Roman allegiance. The Caledonians act as if they are savages, but their chief is far more savvy than he lets on. Clodius is interrupted by an urgent messenger. The news causes him to break off abruptly and tell his men that he must depart for Londinium and then Gaul with greatest possible speed, leaving his son and his loyal retainer bewildered, and the Caledonian wondering how much advantage he can take.
3. The same night, governor Pescennius Niger of Egypt has a quiet meeting with the prefect of Alexandria, head of the city’s Greek community, and the exilarch, head of the Jewish community. He insists that they nip an incipient inter-ethnic riot in the bud, and help to squelch false rumors that Commodus is dead. He warns that a crisis is brewing in the west, reading a letter that Clodius Albinus sent to Rome some weeks earlier, copies of which are now circulating everywhere. Clodius had written the letter believing Commodus to be dead, and denouncing his record strongly. Pescennius worries that there will be uproar, urges that everyone in the East try to set all quarrels aside, and invites the prefect and exilarch to go with him on a peacemaking mission to Syria.
4. Back in Rome, Commodus is taunting everyone at the party for being unmanly, and demanding that someone screw a woman in front of him, to entertain him and demonstrate virility. He turns on Laetus, the head of the Praetorian Guard, and demands that he do it with his fiancee Popilia, who had been chatting with Tullia. Commodus rips off her clothing and Laetus tells him to stop it. He says no-one would dare stop him, and starts assaulting Popilia until Laetus cuts his throat. Tullia gives her outer robe to cover the sobbing Popilia, while Laetus calls on all the shocked senators to be witnesses of why he did what he did. Tullius takes him into custody in the name of the Senate, asking Laetus to trust him.
5. In the morning, a crier with a troupe of hired mourners tells the Romans that Commodus is dead.
6. In the Senate house, the Eldest laments that the Haruspex finds ill omens and that the young generation lacks decorum, during a raucous meeting. Julianus and his father-in-law Manlius nominate Pertinax to be the new Emperor. Senators Falco, angrily, and Sempronius, meekly, oppose this. Pertinax acts reluctant, but is elected. He will not let them vote his wife the title of Augusta.
7. The crier announces that Pertinax has taken the throne and that he pledges eighteen sesterces to every soldier. The amount is derided by passing soldiers, who point out that Commodus paid twenty a man when he took the throne.
8. Tullius comes home to find Popilia leaving. His daughter explains that Popilia has been begging her to use any influence she has, with Tullius or any other Senator, that the life of Laetus be spared. Tullius assures her that Laetus is not likely to be executed anyway, but tells her that she should pretend to Popilia that only her pleading brought about this result, so that she may be perceived as influential.
9. On the coast of Britain, loyal retainer Servilius rushes aboard ship to rejoin Clodius, who is anxious to set sail. Servilius apologizes that he advised Clodius to write the now-infamous letter denouncing Commodus, under the mistaken impression that Commodus was dead. Clodius tells him that a respected officer, Junius Severus, has been dispatched with orders to relieve him as governor of Britain and send him back to Rome. Clodius plans to intercept him in Gaul, since the appointment of Severus to replace him will not be effective until Severus is in Britain. Servilius assures him of undying loyalty.
10. Pertinax, in a lavish throne-room in the palace, receives Urbanus, former deputy to Laetus and now head of the Guard; Tigellus, prefect of Rome; and Sempronius, a Senator who opposed his election. He wants to know whether his position is safe. Sempronius says he is loyal, though Falco is trying to hatch conspiracies, but says none of the soldiers are satisfied with the monetary offer, neither the Guard under Urbanus nor the regulars under Tigellus. Urbanus and Tigellus admit that this is so, and Tigellus blames the Senate for choosing Pertinax without consulting the troops, and inadvertently insults Pertinax’s father, in the course of explaining why the troops want more. Pertinax pleads that Commodus left the treasury low, and promises to raise more money as quickly as he can. Then Urbanus and Tigellus nearly come to blows over the case of Laetus. The Guards are still loyal to him and demand his freedom. The regular troops resent that the killer of a Caesar should go unpunished, when they have all seen harsh punishments dealt out for much lesser insubordinations. Pertinax demands that Tigellus control his troops. He replies that his term as prefect ended with the New Year, and that he would prefer not to be re-appointed, seeing as he has lost the Emperor’s trust. Pertinax chooses his father-in-law Sulpicianus as the new prefect.
11. At a post-road station in northern Gaul, Clodius nervously meets Junius Severus. Junius relieves him greatly by telling him the news that Commodus is dead, for real this time. Since Pertinax has no son, and an elderly wife he dare not divorce, he will be looking to adopt an heir. Clodius boasts of his ancestry and begins scheming how he can make Pertinax adopt him. Junius commits to his cause, and impulsively burns the scrolls he has brought, that is, the summons to Clodius, an arrest warrant if Clodius was non-compliant, and his own appointment as governor of Britain. Clodius promises to put Junius in line for another governorship.
12. Outside of Antioch, governor Octavius Emesianus of Syria receives Pescennius and his two companions in a makeshift set of bleachers, to watch green troops war-game with a small contingent of veterans playing the role of Parthians. Pescennius has heard that Commodus is dead, but has not heard much else since he has been travelling, so Octavius shares all the latest gossipy versions of what might be happening in Rome. They agree that most of these stories are implausible. Pescennius returns to Octavius a contingent of troops he had taken with him when he transferred to Egypt; demands for their return had been the subject of a quarrel he wishes to end. He urges Octavius to stop ripping off the Jews and the merchants of Alexandria, which has also been causing ill feelings. Octavius explains that he seized money from the Jews and Greeks under dubious pretexts only because he must have extra funding this year, to raise local troops for his proposed attack on Parthia. The Parthian Empire is crumbling, and he wants to strike immediately before they choose better leaders. The Roman Empire has not been sending him enough troops, taking his revenues but frittering away the money on bread and circuses in the capital city. Pescennius says that he had also tried to assemble a Parthian expedition, and was probably relieved in Syria for precisely that reason: Commodus would not have wanted anyone else to achieve such glory. Octavius, increasingly drunk, laments that he too will probably be prevented from achieving glory. Pescennius and Octavius swap family histories, commiserating about the difficulty of rising through the ranks with an undistinguished background. Octavius had a tenuous link to Commodus, worthless now. On the field, the Parthian team defeats the Roman team, giving Octavius excuse to drink more. Pescennius proposes a united front between Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor, whose governor is a friend of his, conveniently travelling nearby. They should jointly write the Senate asking for the appointment of a co-Augustus, a separate Emperor for the East so that revenues would no longer be diverted to the West at this time of opportunity. Octavius is agreeable, but slyly wonders if Pescennius wants that job for himself. Pescennius guesses that if the Senate went along, they would probably choose Septimius Severus, commander on the Danube, for the eastern connections his Syrian wife might bring. Octavius knows her, and disparages the religious cult she belongs to.
13. Pertinax, in the throne-room again, congratulates Laetus for the pardon the Senate has given him, and welcomes him back to his old post as commander of the Guard. Urbanus congratulates him too. All the time that they are speaking, however, angry soldiers can be heard outside, and finally burst through the doors, demanding that he explain how Laetus can possibly be pardoned. Pertinax replies that Commodus had been committing a foul crime, worthy of death. When a soldier asks if he means that sometimes it is right to kill the Caesar, he says yes, so the soldier runs him through. Guards and city troops engage in a running swordfight, the guards successfully driving the soldiers out of the palace.
14. At night, by a section of a wall, regular troops and praetorian guards meet under a flag of truce. Laetus greets Sulpicianus wearily, asking if both sides have had enough. Sulpicianus agrees, and leads his men in reciting an oath to forget the events of the day and never seek vengeance. Laetus swears his men to the same, especially adding that even the killers of Pertinax must be forgiven, if he himself is to be forgiven. Servants arrive carrying a litter, from which emerges Senator Falco. He asks if they have forgotten the twenty gold per man, which they had been pressing for so recently. He promises to get it for them, if they hail him Emperor. Horrified, Sulpicianus promises twenty-five. Falco laughs, saying he could never raise the money. They argue until Didius Julianus appears on top of the wall and promises thirty. Falco and Sulpicianus tell the soldiers he could never pay that much, but he says he owns the Senate, and will squeeze the money out of them or kill them all. The soldiers begin hailing him.
15. Tullius and Tullia are at home, and hear screams as a mob pursues and assaults a woman, who manages to bang on their door. Servants grab weapons, open the door, and chase the mob away. The woman is Popilia, who has been beaten and stabbed. She laments that everyone blames her for what has happened, and dies. Tullia is greatly upset.
16. Julianus is in the wrecked throne-room, watching servants undertake repairs. The majordomo hands him a letter, saying that he supposes it is up to Julianus to answer now. It is from Pescennius and Octavius, and Julianus is outraged to read its content. He summons Laetus, and asks if he knows of a messenger who is strong and skilled with a dagger. Laetus says he knows just the man for the job. He asks if the sons of Pescennius Niger are still at school in Rome, and tells Laetus to arrest them. Then Julianus asks where his wife is, and is further angered to learn that she refuses to join him in the palace and has returned to the house of her father Manlius instead.
17. The crier announces that Didius Julianus is Emperor. The crowd stones him to death.
18. At the house of Manlius, Tullia is admitted and falls into the arms of Scantilla (daughter of Manlius and wife of Julianus), who calls her daughter and comforts her. Tullia says that her father is afraid to leave the house for fear of being recognized. Senators are being attacked by mobs in the streets. She had decided that she was anonymous enough to venture out in search of news, but saw some dreadful scenes. Scantilla denounces her husband as a fool, saying no-one will accept a so-called Emperor who bought his title at an auction. Julianus comes, demanding that Scantilla come with him. She says he has disgraced himself. He pledges to make the Senate give her the title of Augusta. She says to give the title to their daughter instead, if he must have some hostess at his parties, but she will have no part in it.
19. In front of a field tent in Syria, Pescennius and Octavius are reviewing troops and greeting governor Asellius Aemilianus of Asia, who asks if they have heard of the latest strange doings in Rome. A messenger arrives, and says that his message is only for the eyes of Pescennius. The two go inside, where the messenger breaks the seal on his scroll and unwraps it to reveal a dagger dripping with poison, with which he attempts to stab Pescennius, but Pescennius outmaneuvers him. His shouts bring in some soldiers, and Pescennius says that they know what to know. Octavius and Asellius enter, learn the situation, and leave. Pescennius takes a minute to compose himself, and when he goes outside Octavius and Asellius lead the troops in hailing him as Emperor. Pescennius asks if this is not premature, but they say there is little choice now. The three go back into the tent to confer. Pescennius advises Asellius to sail back to Asia Minor immediately and put troops across the water as fast as he can, as he would rather fight in Europe; he himself will lead all the troops assembled to Asia Minor, gathering allies on the way. As he returns outside to address the troops, he sees that the messenger has already been nailed to a pole and disembowelled, and gives him a mercy killing.
20. At Sirmium on the Danubian front, Septimius Severus holds a staff meeting. Noisy conversations are going on outside. He asks his chief of staff if everyone has heard about Julianus claiming to buy the imperial throne, and if the men accept him for thirty gold apiece. He is assured that all of the troops think the behavior of Julianus is dishonorable, and that they would rather hail Severus as Emperor instead. He asks his intelligence officer for a threat assessment, and is told that the situation is good: the hostile German tribes are fighting with each other, a weapons-smuggling operation has been stopped, the friendly Dacians are holding their own, and some Sarmatians are looking to immigrate. Severus is satisfied that it will be safe to withdraw half the troops from the Danube for a march on Italy, and gives his chief of staff permission to let the men hail him. He basks in the hailing only briefly, then tells the men they will march on Aquileia and Mediolanum, but not Rome until they are invited there.
21. At the encampment in northern Gaul, Clodius is entertaining governor Placidius of Gallia Belgica. A young boy comes running up, saying he is the fastest runner in the town and that the men in town told him lord Clodius would give him a penny for his news. Clodius asks what news, and the boy shouts that the Emperor has been killed. Clodius tells him that happened months ago, but the boy shouts confusingly that the Emperor died again. Eventually it is established that it is Pertinax who is dead this time, and Clodius gives him a penny for each member of his family. Junius rides up, and adds the story that Julianus bought the throne at auction. Clodius thinks the rumor must have been garbled on the way, but Junius says he has a reliable message through the post straight from Rome. Clodius wonders if anyone in Rome could accept this, and Junius confirms that the whole city is in uproar about it. Placidius adds that no-one in the Empire will accept it, or at least, he is sure Belgica will not. Clodius says he must make a move. Men have been clustering around, and now start hailing Clodius as Emperor. Clodius said it would sound more impressive if he had more men. He tells Placidius to solicit the help of the legions on the Rhine, informing the men in Belgica along the way; Servilius to go to Lugdunum and ask for the support of Gaul proper, and then to proceed to Spain where they have old friends; and Junius to ride as fast as he can to ask the help of his cousin Septimius Severus on the Danube; while he himself returns to Londinium to assemble the British troops.
22. Pescennius is in Byzantium, directing the construction of fortifications. Asellius waxes garrulous about the history and lore of the place. Pescennius keeps returning to the practical task of establishing a base there, but is finally drawn into describing his vision of building a grand city in what has been a small provincial town, making it a capital for the Eastern Empire that might even outshine Rome someday. Asellius asks whether Troy would not be a more emotionally resonant capital for the East. Pescennius points out pragmatically that Troy is most famous for having been captured and burned to the ground, and asks whether this has ever happened to Byzantium. Not yet, Asellius tells him.
23. At a post-road station outside Mediolanum, Septimius Severus confronts Junius Severus. Junius praises Clodius Albinus as the best man to be Emperor, and Septimius slaps him hard, knocking him back, demanding to know why Junius has not considered his own cousin to be a better candidate. Once Junius realizes that Septimius is already making a bid for the imperial throne, he says that of course he will be in support. Septimius says that he may need to make a truce with “the white one”, since “the black one” is also trying for the throne (he never refers to his rivals by name). Junius volunteers to be a messenger. Septimius asks whether Junius would assassinate “the white one” if he got an opportunity, and is disgusted when Junius refuses.
24. In the Senate house, Didius Julianus enters to find only the Eldest, Tullius, Sulpicianus, and Manlius. He asks why the Haruspex is not there to take omens before the session. The Eldest informs him that this is not a session of the Senate, merely a gathering of friends, to ask him to do the right thing. The fasces-bearing guards of the Senate begin to file into the house. Julianus asks the meaning of this. Manlius stammers, but manages to say that everyone needs Julianus to commit suicide now. Julianus is enraged, saying that the last session of the Senate confirmed his position and that he has the right to call them into session now, however few they are. He demands that they vote to condemn, and execute as soon as they can apprehend, the traitor Septimius Severus. The Eldest formally announces that the Senate is in session, and calls the question, but changes the name of the “traitor” to Didius Julianus. The handful of Senators solemnly moves to the Aye side of the house. Julianus asks if this is some kind of joke, until a fasces beheads him at a nod from the Eldest.
25. At night, the soldiers on the wall of Antoninus Pius are ambushed by the blue-painted Caledonians. The Romans are caught unawares and the wooden ramparts are set afire. When the chief has broken through to the other side of the wall, another group of Caledonians rides to meet him. His brother dismounts and says they have also breached the wall, and can surround the Romans on a long stretch. The chief tells his brother not to surround the Romans but to leave them an out, so that they can withdraw to Hadrian’s wall. The Romans promised money and did not pay, so they know they are in the wrong; the Caledonians should not put themselves in the wrong by slaughtering soldiers without need.
26. The Senate house is full this time, as Septimius Severus and his wife Julia Domna enter. Sempronius protests the presence of a woman in the house. Julia says she only wishes to add her god to the altar, brushes the Haruspex aside, and places a crude stone statue of a phallus at the head of the altar. Sempronius protests, but gets no support from the other Senators. Julia flashes him a murderous glare as she leaves. The Haruspex pronounces the omens good, the Eldest calls the Senate into session, and there is a quick unanimous vote to proclaim Septimius Severus princeps of the Senate and Augustus, and Julia Domna the Augusta. The hesitancy with which Sempronius moves to the Aye side is noted by the other Senators with sidelong glances.
27. Septimius receives Tullius in the throne room. The door is ajar and the throne has been shoved aside to make room for large counting tables, on which treasurers have been making calculations. Tullius is not sure if Septimius regards him as an enemy. Septimius expresses admiration for his financial acumen, and says he is seeking advice about the current situation. He unrolls a large map on one of the tables, and uses the counter chips to mark which provinces are committed to the “white”, to the “black”, or to himself. He poses the question of which provinces he really needs to hold, to make a financially and politically viable Empire, if the division into three pieces is permanent or long-term. Tullius speaks knowledgeably about the economic and political consequences of various eventualities. They decide where a plausible border between the realms of Clodius and Severus could be, and Severus is of a mind to propose mutual recognition if Clodius will accept the terms. Tullius thinks that a line through the Straits separating Europe from Asia would be a good border with Pescennius, and Severus asks if the black one could be allowed to hold Byzantium as well. Tullius describes all the reasons why this would be strategically disastrous, and asks why Severus would even consider allowing Pescennius to hold Byzantium. Severus reveals that “the black one” is already there, and dug in. So, based on what Tullius has said, the choice is clear: truce with “the white” until “the black” is destroyed. Severus proposes besieging Byzantium while sending an amphibious expedition to Lycia, in the black one’s rear flank. He notes that this will be costly, and asks if Tullius can find a way to shake loose enough funds. Tullius promises to do so, and Septimius asks what he wants in return. Tullius reveals his inner sorrow at having lost all his family in recent years. He has only Tullia Minor, and if Severus can arrange for her to be well-married, so that Tullius might see grandchildren before he dies, that would be all he would wish. The toddler Geta, carrying a little hoodie, rushes in screaming for his father to stop his brother from killing him. The slightly older Bassianus comes in shouting loudly for his “caracalla” (the hoodie) and threatening to kill Geta. His father rebukes him, gives him back the hoodie, and tells him to go somewhere else. He comforts Geta, and explains to Tullius the origin of Geta’s name, and that a caracalla is a Gaulish cloak, which some soldiers gave to Bassianus, who never wants to be without it.
28. At the home of Tullius, Tullia looks outside and begins shrieking that the Emperor is coming, telling all the servants to hurry and prepare something. Septimius and Junius Severus enter. Septimius apologizes for disrupting the household, and says that he will not stay. He has only come to introduce his cousin, but then he leaves without making the introduction, so that Junius must introduce himself. Tullius reminds him that they have met a couple times before. Junius is awkward, but admits that he has been sent to court Tullia Minor. He explains that his career prospects are blighted, that Septimius will never forgive him for his dalliance with Clodius, that he will never hold any high office again. But, he still has country estates, and could promise her a comfortable life. She says that would be delightful. Tullius remarks that officeholders are not likely to live very long in the years to come. Tullia asks if everyone has heard what happened to poor Sempronius, and Junius says there are likely to be many more. Tullius describes meeting young Bassianus and his devotion to coat the soldiers gave him, remarking that it reminds of a young son of the imperial family long ago, to whom the soldiers gave a pair of little boots.
29. A voice-over narrator takes us out. We see a map of Anatolia and Syria, and are told that Byzantium held out for over two years (arrows from Salonika and from the Danube show the moves to Byzantium) even after Pescennius went to south Anatolia to face Severus and was badly defeated (an arrow crosses the sea from Salonika to Lycia and moves in, another comes down from Byzantium, a crossed-swords symbol appears where they meet), even after he was chased back to Antioch and defeated again (arrows across Anatolia into Syria, another crossed-swords symbol), even after he tried to flee to Parthia and was captured (an arrow eastward ending at a skull-and-crossbones symbol). So Severus burned Byzantium to the ground (flames spreading out make the wipe, as we dissolve to a shot of the Hagia Sophia), and yet a century later Constantine would revive the dream of building a great capital there, remnants of which can still be seen (shots of the Theodosian Walls with modern traffic).
30. Shift to a map of Gaul and Britain. Clodius had no hope of holding out with the rest of the Empire unified. He fought against the invasion (arrows from the southeast and from Lugdunum meeting at crossed swords), then offered to surrender, knowing it meant his death (the crossed swords turn to a skull and crossbones) on condition that the lives of his sons and faithful retainers be spared. Severus agreed, but when he had everyone in hand, he changed his mind (more skull-and-crossbones symbols appear). Severus did admire the plan of Clodius to conquer the rest of Britain, and marched men north of Hadrian’s wall (an arrow from there to the Antonine wall) but could not hold the line (an arrow going back). The Romans never tried to go north again.