The Praetorian Guard had been set up by the first emperor, Augustus, as an instrument of his personal power. Comprising ten cohorts of 1,000 men each, they were stationed in and around Rome. The next emperor, Tiberius, moved the whole Guard to a specially-built citadel within Rome itself, in the early years of the first century. Around the time of Vespasian, mid 1st century, they were increased to around 16,000 elite troops.
The Praetorians soon realised their power, not simply to support emperors but also to dispose of them. In AD 193 they had murdered the emperor Pertinax. The reasons are not entirely clear: Pertinax had been in office for only three months, and had himself been implicated in the murder of the previous emperor, Commodus who had proved himself completely ineffectual. However, with Pertinax’s demise, there were no obvious successors.
Sulpicianus, the father-in-law of Pertinax and a leading public official, was endeavoring to calm the roman masses after the assassination when the Praetorian Guard marched up bearing his son-in-law’s head on a lance. Astonishingly, Sulpicianus attempted at this point to claim the mantle of emperor himself, but the Praetorian leadership, sensing a better deal, ran to a nearby vantage point and proclaimed to the waiting crowd that the empire was to be disposed of by public auction!
This offer eventually reached the ears of a wealthy senator, Didius Julianus who was sumptuously dining at the time, and he made his way to the Praetorian camp and began to bid against Sulpicianus from the foot of the ramparts. Sulpicianus had already bid a $25,000 donative for each soldier in today’s money, when Julianus submitted a ‘jump bid’ of $32,000 per Guard. This offer was enough to win the auction and buy the empire.
Note that if all the troopers were to receive this amount, the total bill would have been around half a billion dollars. For reference purposes, the annual tax revenues of the roman empire at this time were around $7 billion.
All did not end happily for Julianus. His political support did not extend beyond those he had bribed and three field generals rose against him. In the end, Septimius Severus, at the head of three eastern legions won, and Julianus was out of office and executed within 66 days. The Praetorians were also out of luck. Severus ordered them to parade unarmed outside the city, where his Danubian legions disbanded them. Severus ruled as emperor for the next eighteen years.
This is perhaps where any analogy with the 3G mobile phone auctions fails.