Lucius Septimius Severus restored stability to the Roman empire after the tumultuous reign of the emperor Commodus and the civil wars that erupted in the wake of Commodus’ murder. However, by giving greater pay and benefits to soldiers and annexing the troublesome lands of northern Mesopotamia into the Roman empire, Septimius Severus brought increasing financial and military burdens to Rome’s government. His prudent administration allowed these burdens to be met during his eighteen years on the throne, but his reign was not entirely sunny. The bloodiness with which Severus gained and maintained control of the empire tarnished his generally positive reputation.
Severus’ Early Life and Acclamation
Severus was born 11 April 145 in the African city of Lepcis Magna, whose magnificent ruins are located in modern Libya, 130 miles east of Tripoli. Septimius Severus came from a distinguished local family with cousins who received suffect consulships in Rome under Antoninus Pius. The future emperor’s father seems not to have held any major offices, but the grandfather may have been the wealthy equestrian Septimius Severus commemorated by the Flavian-era poet Statius.[]
The future emperor was helped in his early career by one of his consular cousins, who arranged entry into the senate and the favor of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Life as a senator meant a life of travel from one government posting to another. Moorish attacks on his intended post of Baetica (southern Spain) forced Severus to serve his quaestorship in Sardinia. He then traveled to Africa as a legate and returned to Rome to be a tribune of the plebs. Around the year 175 he married Paccia Marciana, who seems also to have been of African origin. The childless marriage lasted a decade or so until her death.
Severus’ career continued to flourish as the empire passed from Marcus to Commodus. The young senator held a praetorship, then served in Spain, commanded a legion in Syria and held the governorships of Gallia Lugdunensis (central France), Sicily and Upper Pannonia (easternmost Austria and western Hungary). While in Gallia Lugdunensis in 187, the now-widowed future emperor married Julia Domna, a woman from a prominent family of the Syrian city of Emesa. Two sons quickly arrived, eleven months apart: Bassianus (known to history as Caracalla) in April of the year 188, and Geta in March 189.
News of Pertinax’s assassination 28 March 193 in an uprising by the praetorian guard quickly reached Pannonia, and only twelve days later on 9 April 193, Severus was proclaimed emperor. Septimius Severus had the strong support of the armies along the Rhine and Danube, but the loyalty of the governor of Britain, Clodius Albinus, was in doubt. Severus’ envoys from Pannonia offered Albinus the title of Caesar, which he accepted.
The Civil Wars with Albinus, Niger, and Didius Julianus
In the city of Rome, Didius Julianus gained the support of the praetorian troops and was promoted as the successor to Pertinax. Although Julianus’ authority did not extend much beyond Italy, Severus understood that legitimacy for a Roman emperor meant having one’s authority accepted in Rome. He and his army began a swift march to the city. They met practically no resistance on their advance from Pannonia into northern Italy, as Julianus’ supporters defected. By the beginning of June when Severus reached Interamna, 50 miles north of Rome, even the praetorian guard stationed in the capital switched sides. Didius Julianus was declared a public enemy and killed. Septimius Severus entered Rome without a fight.
Civil war was not yet over. Another provincial governor also had his eyes on the throne. In Syria, Pescennius Niger had been proclaimed emperor on news of Pertinax’s death, and the eastern provinces quickly went under his authority. Byzantium became Niger’s base of operations as he prepared to fight the armies of the west loyal to Severus.
Niger was unable to maintain further advances into Europe. The fighting moved to the Asian shore of the Propontis, and in late December 193 or early January 194, Niger was defeated in a battle near Nicaea and fled south. Asia and Bithynia fell under Severus’ control, and Egypt soon recognized Severus’ authority. By late spring, Niger was defeated near Issus and the remainder of his support collapsed. Syria was pacified. Niger was killed fleeing Antioch. Byzantium, however, refused to surrender to Severan forces. Niger’s head was sent to the city to persuade the besieged citizens to give up, but to no avail. The Byzantines held out for another year before surrender. As punishment for their stubbornness, the walls of their city were destroyed.
Severus’ Eastern Campaigns
During the fighting, two of the peoples of upper Mesopotamia — the Osrhoeni and the Adiabeni — captured some Roman garrisons and made an unsuccessful attack on the Roman-allied city of Nisibis. After the defeat of Niger, these peoples offered to return Roman captives and what remained of the seized treasures if the remaining Roman garrisons were removed from the region. Severus refused the offer and prepared for war against the two peoples, as well as against an Arabian tribe that had aided Niger. In the spring of 195, Severus marched an army through the desert into upper Mesopotamia. The native peoples quickly surrendered, and Severus added to his name the victorious titles Arabicus and Adiabenicus. Much of the upper third of Mesopotamia was organized as a Roman province, though the king of Osrhoene was allowed to retain control of a diminished realm.
The tottering Parthian empire was less and less able to control those peoples living in the border regions with Rome. Rome’s eastern frontier was entering a period of instability, and Severus responded with an interventionist policy of attack and annexation. Some senators feared that increased involvement in Mesopotamia would only embroil Rome in local squabbles at great expense. [] The emperor, however, would remain consistent in his active eastern policy.
Legitimization of the Severan Dynasty
Severus also took steps to cement his legitimacy as emperor by connecting himself to the Antonine dynasty. Severus now proclaimed himself the son of Marcus Aurelius, which allowed him to trace his authority, through adoption, back to the emperor Nerva. Julia Domna was awarded the title “Mother of the Camp” (mater castrorum), a title only previously given to the empress Faustina the Younger, Marcus’ wife. Bassianus, the emperor’s elder son, was renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and given the title Caesar. It was this last step that marked a decisive break with Albinus.
Albinus had remained in Britain as governor during the struggles between Severus and Niger. Although Albinus had not attempted open revolt against the emperor, he seems to have been in communication with senators about future moves.[] By the end of 195, Albinus was declared a public enemy by Severus. The governor of Britain responded by proclaiming himself emperor and invading Gaul.
A weary Roman populace used the anonymity of the crowd at the chariot races to complain about renewed civil war, but it was Gaul that bore the brunt of the fighting. Albinus and his supporters were able to inflict losses on the occasion of the initial attacks, but disorder was so great that opportunistic soldiers could easily operate on their own within the lands under Albinus’ nominal control.
The tide began to turn early in 197, and after a Severan victory at Tournus, Albinus found himself and his army trapped near Lyon. A battle broke out 19 February 197. In the initial fighting, Albinus’ troops forced the Severans into retreat, during which Severus fell off his horse. When the Severan cavalry appeared, however, Albinus’ army was routed. Lyon was sacked and Albinus, who was trapped in a house along the river Rhône, committed suicide. Severus ordered Albinus’ head to be cut off and sent to Rome for display. Many of Albinus’ supporters were killed, including a large number of Spanish and Gallic aristocrats. Albinus’ wife and children were killed, as were many of the wives of his supporters. Tradition also told of the mutilation of bodies and denial of proper burial. The emperor revealed a penchant for cruelty that troubled even his fervent supporters. A purge of the senate soon followed. Included among the victims was Pertinax’s father-in-law, Sulpicianus.
Severus and the Roman Military
Severus brought many changes to the Roman military. Soldiers’ pay was increased by half, they were allowed to be married while in service, and greater opportunities were provided for promotion into officer ranks and the civil service. The entire praetorian guard, discredited by the murder of Pertinax and the auctioning of their support to Julianus, was dismissed. The emperor created a new, larger praetorian guard out of provincial soldiers from the legions. Increases were also made to the two other security forces based in Rome: the urban cohorts, who maintained order; and the night watch, who fought fires and dealt with overnight disturbances, break-ins and other petty crime. These military reforms proved expensive, but the measures may well have increased soldiers’ performance and morale in an increasingly unsettled age.
One location that remained unsettled was the eastern frontier. In 197 Nisibis had again been under siege, and the emperor prepared for another eastern campaign. Three new legions were raised, though one was left behind in central Italy to maintain order. The Roman armies easily swept through upper Mesopotamia, traveling down the Euphrates to sack Seleucia, Babylon and Ctesiphon, which had been abandoned by the Parthian king Vologaeses V. On 28 January 198 — the centenary of Trajan’s accession — Severus took the victorious title Parthicus Maximus and promoted both of his sons: Caracalla to the rank of Augustus and Geta to the rank of Caesar.
Before embarking on the eastern campaign, the emperor had named Gaius Fulvius Plautianus as a praetorian prefect. Plautianus came from the emperor’s home town of Lepcis, and the prefect may even have been a relative of the emperor[] The victories in Mesopotamia were followed by tours of eastern provinces, including Egypt. Plautianus accompanied Severus throughout the travels, and by the year 201 Plautianus was the emperor’s closest confidant and advisor. Plautianus was also praetorian prefect without peer after having arranged the murder of his last colleague in the post.
Upon the return to Rome in 202, the influence of Plautianus was at its height. Comparisons were made with Sejanus, the powerful praetorian prefect under the emperor Tiberius. Plautianus, who earlier had been adlected into the senate, was now awarded consular rank, and his daughter Plautilla was married to Caracalla. The wealth Plautianus had acquired from his close connection with the emperor enabled him to provide a dowry said to have been worthy of fifty princesses. [] Celebrations and games also marked the decennalia, the beginning of the tenth year of Severus’ reign. Later in the year the enlarged imperial family traveled to Lepcis, where native sons Severus and Plautianus could display their prestige and power.
The following year the imperial family returned to Rome, where an arch, still standing today, was dedicated to the emperor at the western end of the Forum. Preparations were also being made for the Secular Games, which were thought to have originated in earliest Rome and were to be held every 110 years. Augustus celebrated the Secular Games in 17 B.C., and Domitian in A.D. 88, six years too early. (Claudius used the excuse of Rome’s 800th year to hold the games in A.D. 47.) In 204 Severus would preside over ten days of ceremonies and spectacles.
By the end of 204, Plautianus was finding his influence with the emperor on the wane. Caracalla was not happy to be the husband of Plautilla. Julia Domna resented Plautianus’ criticisms and investigations against her. Severus was tiring of his praetorian prefect’s ostentation, which at times seemed to surpass that of the emperor himself. The emperor’s ailing brother, Geta, also denounced Plautianus, and after Geta’s death the praetorian prefect found himself being bypassed by the emperor. In January 205 a soldier named Saturninus revealed to the emperor a plot by Plautianus to have Severus and Caracalla killed. Plautianus was summoned to the imperial palace and executed. His children were exiled, and Caracalla divorced Plautilla. Some observers suspected the story of a plot was merely a ruse to cover up long-term plans for Plautianus’ removal. []
Severus and Roman Law
Two new praetorian prefects were named to replace Plautianus, one of whom was the eminent jurist Papinian. The emperor’s position as ultimate appeals judge had brought an ever-increasing legal workload to his office. During the second century, a career path for legal experts was established, and an emperor came to rely heavily upon his consilium, an advisory panel of experienced jurists, in rendering decisions. Severus brought these jurists to even greater prominence. A diligent administrator and conscientious judge, the emperor appreciated legal reasoning and nurtured its development. His reign ushered in the golden age of Roman jurisprudence, and his court employed the talents of the three greatest Roman lawyers: Papinian, Paul and Ulpian.
The order Severus was able to impose on the empire through both the force of arms and the force of law failed to extend to his own family. His now teenaged sons, Caracalla and Geta, displayed a reckless sibling rivalry that sometimes resulted in physical injury. The emperor believed the lack of responsibilities in Rome contributed to the ill-will between his sons and decided that the family would travel to Britain to oversee military operations there. Caracalla was involved in directing the army’s campaigns, while Geta was given civilian authority and a promotion to joint emperor with his father and brother.
Severus was now into his 60s. Chronic gout limited his activities and sapped his strength. The emperor’s health continued to deteriorate in Britain, and he became ever more intent on trying to improve the bitter relationship between his two sons. He is reported to have given his sons three pieces of advice: “Get along; pay off the soldiers; and disregard everyone else.” [] The first piece of advice would not be heeded.
Severus died in York on 4 February 211 at the age of 65. His reign lasted nearly 18 years, a duration that would not be matched until Diocletian. Culturally and ideologically Septimius Severus connected his reign to the earlier Antonine era, but the reforms he enacted would eventually alter the very character of Roman government. By creating a larger and more expensive army and increasing the influence of lawyers in administration, Severus planted the seeds that would develop into the highly militaristic and bureaucratic government of the later empire.
Cassius Dio, Roman History, bk.73, ch.14-bk.76, ch.17 (available in English translation in the Loeb Classical Library)
Herodian, bk.2, ch.9-bk.3, ch.15 (also available in the Loeb Classical Library).
Historia Augusta, Life of Septimius Severus (not entirely trustworthy; English translations are available in the Loeb Classical Library and in a Penguin translation, Lives of the Later Caesars, tr. Anthony Birley.
Alföldy, Géza. “Septimius Severus und der Senat,” Bonner Jahrbücher 168 (1968) 112-60.
Birley, Anthony R. Septimius Severus: the African emperor, 2nd edition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale, 1988).
Birley, Eric. “Septimius Severus and the Roman Army,” Epigraphische Studien 8 (1969) 63-82, repr. in id., The Roman Army: Papers 1929-1986 (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1988), pp.21-40.
Chastagnol, André, Histoire Auguste (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994), pp.301-9.
Honoré, Tony. Emperors and Lawyers, 2nd edition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994).
Millar, Fergus. The Roman Near East (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1993), pp.118-41.
Rubin, Ze’ev. Civil-War Propaganda and Historiography (Brussels: Collection Latomus v.173, 1980).