The Younger Pertinax Makes a Joke
Early in A.D. 212 the Roman Senate was honoring the 24 year old Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Pius Augustus, more commonly known as “Caracalla” from a style of cloak that he popularized. Having been associated in power with his father, Septimius Severus (r. 193-211), since 198, Caracalla had campaigned successfully against several enemies, and so various titles were proposed and adopted, such as Germanicus and Parthicus, more or less meaning that he had defeated these nations.
At about this time Publius Helvius Pertinax the Younger was serving as one of the consuls. This Pertinax was the son of the Emperor Pertinax, who had been murdered after a brief reign (January 1-March 21, 193). The death of the elder Pertinax had touched off the series of civil wars (193-197) that brought Septimius to power, as the avenger of the late emperor. The elder Pertinax had been a rather reluctant emperor, and so had not declared his son, then about 12 or 13, his heir. As a result, the boy survived the civil wars to became a favorite of Septimius, who even adopted “Pertinax” among his titles.
Now perhaps because the senatorial proceedings were tedious at best, Pertinax jokingly proposed that his imperial friend should also adopt the title “Geticus Maximus – Great Conqueror of the Getae”.
Caracalla was not amused.
Now the “Getae” had been one the Thracian tribes defeated during the campaigns of Septimius and Caracalla, so the title “Geticus Maximus” was in that sense appropriate. But “Geta” was also a rather rare Roman cognomen, the third name commonly borne by most citizens, such as Publius Septimius Antoninus Geta, Caracalla’s younger brother. When Septimius died (February 4, 211), he had left the empire to jointly to both his sons, Caracalla and 20 year old Geta, advising them to "cooperate, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men". In the true spirit of fraternal love, however, on December 19, 211, Caracalla ignored his father’s advice and had Geta bumped off, reportedly in the arms of their mother, so that he could assume sole control of the empire.
So when Pertinax jokingly suggested Caracalla adopt the title “Geticus Maximus”, while it technically did refer to the Getae, it was actually a punning reference to the demise of the late imperial brother.
Pertinax shortly received an invitation to commit suicide, perhaps the worst review ever for a joke.
Caracalla left Rome to campaign on the frontiers in 213, and never returned to the imperial city. Popular with the troops, because he ate army rations, marched alongside them in the rain, and spurned imperial trappings, Caracalla fought the Germans, toured the provinces, massacred the Alexandrians for an alleged slight, and campaigned against the Arabs and then the Parthians. During the Parthian War he was knocked off by an assassin while relieving himself at the side of a road on April 8, 217.
A Royal Godfather
There is an old tale about King George II (1727-1760) that may or may not be true, but has been in circulation for quite some time, and has even appeared in several notable histories, such as James Ralfe’s The Naval Biography of Great Britain (London: 1825).
According to the story, not long after having ascended the throne, George II decided to pay a visit to his other kingdom, Hanover, in central Germany. So he took ship aboard the Royal Yacht Caroline, named after his queen. A small vessel, only 87 feet long and 22½ in the beam, Caroline had carried George to England during his father’s final illness in 1726, in weather so foul that a voyage of a few hours from Holland took three days, and in the end the prince had to be landed over a beach, because the ship was unable to enter a port.
Perhaps the king had done something to annoy the sea gods, for this voyage was also plagued by foul weather. In fact, both the king and his friend, James Brydges, the Duke of Chandos, patron of Georg Fredric Handel, grew so fearful that the Caroline’s captain, Henry Rodney had to personally reassure the frightened gentlemen that all would be well.
And true to his word, Rodney successful landed the pair at Hellevoetsluis, a small port in South Holland.
So relieved was the king at arriving safely, he asked Rodney to name his reward. Rodney replied, “I am no courtier, and if I were, you have no doubt sufficient claims on me; the only favor, therefore, that I have to ask, is, that you and the Duke of Chandos will stand godfather to my son, who is just born.”
Both the king and the duke were amenable to Rodney’s request, and so it was that the captain’s son was baptized as George Brydges Rodney, who in 1732 entered the Royal Navy through the king’s grace.
This favor young Rodney repaid through participation in nearly a score of major operations, crowning his career with command of the British fleet in a series of devastating defeats of its ancient rivals the Spanish, the French, and the Dutch during the War of the American Revolution, retiring in 1782 in the rank of admiral, after fifty years’ of active service.
Now there are a couple of flaws in this tale. The most glaring is that the younger Rodney was born early in 1718, as he was baptized on February 13th of that year, not in 1727. In addition, his father, Henry Rodney does not appear in any list of officers of the Royal Navy, such as the Naval Records Society’s authoritative The Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy 1660-1815
Now it is possible that the tale has come down to us in a somewhat garbled form, but, most historians today reject it. Nevertheless, it’s a good tale, and thus worth retelling.