28 March AD 37

Gaius Germanicus (Caligula) enters Rome as emperor.


28 March 193: Rome’s emperor is assassinated

Pertinax is stabbed to death after refusing the Praetorian Guard’s demands to be paid off

By the end of March AD 193, the life of the Roman emperor Pertinax was hanging by a thread. Yet on being proclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard three months earlier, he had seemed the ideal candidate. The son of a freed slave, a former army officer who had governed provinces from Britain to Syria, the 66-year-old veteran offered the military and financial discipline that Rome desperately needed.

At first, wrote historian Cassius Dio, Pertinax proved impressively capable, showing “not only humaneness and integrity… but also the most economical management and careful consideration for the public welfare”. The problem, however, was that the Praetorians had rather different priorities. In particular, they wanted generous recompense for putting him on the throne and were enraged when he refused to cough up.

The end came on 28 March when some 200 armed men stormed into the palace and demanded to see the emperor. Hoping “to win them over by his words”, Pertinax duly appeared, only to be greeted by the first of many savage sword-thrusts. Finally, the soldiers sawed off his head and stuck it onto a spear.

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To add insult to injury, the Praetorians promptly auctioned off the imperial throne to a rich senator, Didius Julianus, for 25,000 sesterces per man. Julianus celebrated by tucking into the dinner prepared for Pertinax a few hours earlier. “He proceeded to gorge himself,” wrote Cassius Dio, “while the corpse was still lying in the building, and then to play at dice.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

28 March 1566

Having seen off a long Ottoman siege, the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean de Vallette, decides that Malta needs a new city. On the slopes of Mount Sciberras he lays the foundation stone for his new settlement, which is eventually named, in his honour, Valletta.

28 March 1863

Battle of Glorietta Pass. American Confederate troops won a tactical victory over Union forces but were forced to retreat when their supply train was destroyed, and abandoned their plans to secure New Mexico.

28 March 1868

James Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan, dies at Deene Park, his Northamptonshire home, from injuries caused by a fall from his horse. In 1854, at the Battle of Balaklava, he led the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.

28 March 1910

French inventor Henri Fabre made the world's first successful seaplane flight when he took off from the Etang de Berre near Marseilles and flew for 1,650 feet over water.

28 March 1941

The Royal Navy inflicted a heavy defeat on the Italian fleet off Cape Matapan. For the loss of a single aircraft the British under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham sunk three cruisers and two destroyers, and badly damaged a battleship.

28 March 1942: Lübeck reaps ‘Bomber’ Harris’s whirlwind

Hundreds die in the RAF’s first mass bombing raid over Germany

Late on Saturday 28 March 1942, some 234 RAF bombers headed east into Nazi-occupied Europe. There was a full moon, and as the British bombers approached the Baltic coast, the medieval Hanseatic port of Lübeck was spread out beneath them. This was their target, selected by RAF Bomber Command’s indomitable commander, Arthur Harris. “The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them,” Harris remarked. “They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

Harris had picked Lübeck, a medium-sized industrial city, as the perfect target for his new strategy of area bombing, pounding huge tracts of German infrastructure. The result was carnage. The first wave of bombs smashed the city’s buildings open; the next wave turned it into a vast bonfire. Thousands of buildings were destroyed, hundreds of people were killed, and 15,000 people were left homeless. “At least half of the town was destroyed, mainly by fire,” wrote Harris.

In Germany, the Nazi leadership conceded that the attack had taken a heavy toll on the nation’s morale.

“This Sunday is thoroughly spoiled by an exceptionally heavy air raid by the RAF on Lübeck,” wrote Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, in his diary. “No German city has ever been attacked so severely from the air…

The damage is really enormous, I have been shown a newsreel of the destruction. It is horrible. One can well imagine how such a bombardment affects the population.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

28 March 1979

Radioactive steam leaks into the atmosphere after a water pump breaks down at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

28 March 1979: Labour receives a vote of no confidence

Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to trigger an election succeeds by a hair’s breadth

Ten o’clock in the House of Commons, and never had the atmosphere been more tense. After three tough years, Jim Callaghan’s Labour government was facing a vote of no confidence, brought by his Tory opponent, Margaret Thatcher. If he lost, it would mean a general election – and almost certainly a Thatcher premiership.

The lobbies thronged with people, the air thick with rumours. Callaghan thought “the wait seemed never-ending”. At last he saw the first of the government whips, Jimmy Hamilton, emerging from the crush of MPs.

As Hamilton reached the clerk’s table he gave “an almost imperceptible thumbs up”. On the other side, a Tory whip was whispering to Mrs Thatcher, and her face paled. “I don’t believe it,” she mouthed, and a gasp of triumph came from the Labour benches. Had they pulled it off, against all the odds?

Then the clerk of the house handed the voting slip to the Conservative teller, Spencer Le Marchant, and the mood changed. Suddenly the government benches were deathly silent, and all the noise was coming from the opposition. “Order, order!” said the speaker, and the house fell absolutely still.


“The Ayes to the right, 311,” Le Marchant said. “The Noes to the left, 310.” Even before he had finished, there came from the Tory benches a roar of unbridled joy. They had done it. Now the election was on. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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