Gaius Pescennius Niger was governor of Syria in the year 193 when he learned of the emperor Pertinax’s murder. Niger’s subsequent attempt to claim the empire for himself ended in failure in Syria after roughly one year. His life before becoming governor of Syria is not well known.[] He was born in Italy to an equestrian family.[] He seems to have been older than his eventual rival Septimius Severus, so his birth should perhaps be placed ca. AD 135-40.[] Niger may have held an important position in the administration of Egypt.[] He won renown, along with Clodius Albinus, for participation in a military campaign in Dacia early in Commodus’ reign.[] Although Niger could have been adlected into the senate before the Dacian campaign, he was by now pursuing a senatorial career and must have been held in high esteem by Commodus. Niger was made a suffect consul, probably in the late 180s, and he was sent as governor to the important province of Syria in 191.
Niger was a well-known and well-liked figure to the Roman populace. After Pertinax became emperor at the beginning of 193, many in Rome may have hoped that the elderly Pertinax would adopt Niger as his Caesar and heir, but Pertinax was murdered without having made succession plans. When Didius Julianus arrived at the senate house on 29 March 193, his first full day as emperor, a riot broke out among the Roman crowd. The rioters took over the Circus Maximus, from which they shouted for Niger to seize the throne.[] The rioters dispersed the following day, but a report of their demonstration may well have arrived in the Syrian capital, Antioch, with the news that Pertinax had been murdered and replaced by Julianus.
Spurred into action by the news, Niger had himself proclaimed emperor in Antioch. The governors of the other eastern provinces quickly joined his cause. Niger’s most important ally was the respected proconsul of Asia, Asellius Aemilianus, and support began to spread across the Propontis into Europe. Byzantium welcomed Niger, who now was preparing further advances. Niger took the additional cognomen Justus, “the Just.” Justice was promoted as the theme of his intended reign, and personifications of Justice appeared on his coins.
Other provincial governors, however, also set their sights on replacing Julianus. Albinus in Britain and Septimius Severus in Upper Pannonia (western Hungary) had each aspired to the purple, and Severus was marching an army on Rome. Severus was still 50 miles from the city when the last of Julianus’ dwindling authority disappeared. Julianus was killed in Rome 1 June 193.
Niger sent messengers to Rome to announce his acclamation, but those messengers were intercepted by Severus. A deal was struck between Severus and Albinus that kept Albinus in Britain with the title of Caesar. The larger armies of the western provinces were now united in their support for Severus. Niger’s support was confined to the east. Severus had Niger’s children captured and held as hostages, and a legion was sent to confront Niger’s army in Thrace.[]
The first conflict between the rival armies took place near Perinthus. Although Niger’s forces may have inflicted greater casualties on the Severan troops, Niger was unable to secure his advance; he returned to Byzantium. By the autumn of 193, Severus had left Rome and arrived in the region, though his armies there continued to be commanded by supporters. Niger was offered the chance of a safe exile by Severus, but Niger refused.
Severan troops crossed into Asia at the Hellespont and near Cyzicus engaged forces supporting Niger under the command of Aemilianus. Niger’s troops were defeated. Aemilianus attempted to flee but was captured and killed. Not long after, in late December 193 or early January 194, Niger was defeated in a battle near Nicaea and fled south to Antioch. Eastern provincial governors now switched their loyalty to Severus, and Niger faced revolts even in Syria.[] By late spring 194, the Severan armies were in Cilicia preparing to enter Syria. Niger and his army met the Severan troops near Issus. The battle was a decisive defeat for Niger, who fled back to Antioch. The Syrian capital that only one year earlier had cheered as Niger was proclaimed emperor now waited in fear for the approach of its new master. Niger prepared to flee once more, but outside Antioch he was captured and killed.
Despite his popularity with the Roman mob, Pescennius Niger lacked both the strong loyalty of other senatorial commanders and the number of soldiers that his rival Severus enjoyed. Niger was ultimately unable to make himself the true avenger of Pertinax, and his roughly one-year control of the eastern provinces never qualified him to be reckoned a legitimate emperor.
Cassius Dio, Roman History, bk.73, ch.13-16; bk.74, ch.6-8 (available in English translation in the Loeb Classical Library).
Herodian, bk.2, ch.7-bk.3, ch.4 (also available in the Loeb Classical Library).
Historia Augusta, Life of Pescennius Niger (not trustworthy); Life of Septimius Severus (somewhat more reliable; English translations of both lives are available in the Loeb Classical Library and in a Penguin translation, Lives of the Later Caesars, tr. Anthony Birley.
Alföldy, Géza. “Das neue Saeculum des Pescennius Niger,” Bonner Historia Augusta Colloquium 1972/1974 (Bonn: Habelt, 1976), pp.1-10; repr. with additional notes in id., Die Krise des Römischen Reiches (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1989), pp.128-38.
Birley, Anthony R. Septimius Severus: the African Emperor, 2nd edition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale, 1988).
Chastagnol, André. Histoire Auguste (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994), pp.343-47.
[]The biography in the Historia Augusta is untrustworthy.
[]Dio (Xiph.) 74.6.1.
[]Herodian 2.7.5 describes Niger in 193 as “having already passed his vigorous years.”
[]Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 20.9.
[]Dio (Xiph.) 72.8.1.
[]Dio (Xiph.) 73.13.3-5; Herodian 2.7.3.
[]Historia Augusta, Life of Septimius Severus 6.10, 8.12.