Septimius Severus (145 - 211 AD)
Emperor: 193 - 211 AD
The assassination of Commodus, followed by the short reign of Pertinax and the auction of the empire to Didius Julianus, led to civil war and the rise of Septimius Severus. Though the concept of the soldier emperor was not a new development (i.e. Vespasian, Trajan), Severus' life was strictly of the military, both before and after his accession to rule Rome. His victory led to a moderately stable administrative reign, though his continued military exploits would strain the treasury and his somewhat harsh measures would taint his relationship with the aristocracy.
Severus was born April 11 AD 145 in the North African (modern Libya) city of Lepcis Magna and was of Italian heritage on his maternal side and most likely of paternal Punic origins. Though African, there is little evidence to suggest that Severus was anything other than of typical Mediterranean stock. Assertions that he was the first "black" emperor based on his African heritage fails to account for the semitic origins of the Punic (Phoenician) people and his maternal Italian heritage. (Though, it is entirely possible that Severus' paternal North African roots did include some native Berber influences.)
Reared in a family that included at least two consuls (cousins of Severus' father), the young future emperor received a quality education and was likely prepped for future service in Roman government. In the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Severus gained entry into the Senate and continued to procure imperial favor throughout the reigns of both Marcus and his son Commodus. He served as a quaestor in Hispania Baetica then the same in Sardinia after a political reorganization of the two provinces forced a transfer. This was followed by a command as a legionary legate under the proconsul of Africa and by promotion to Tribune of the Plebes by Marcus Aurelius.
He was married to Paccia Marciana at about this time (roughly AD 175), but the marriage was childless and Paccia died young, approximately 10 years later. Various military and political commands in Hispania and Gaul through this period strengthened his relationship with both Marcus Aurelius and Commodus and helped him build an influential base in the west. Severus was remarried to Julia Domna, the daughter of Julius Bassianus, who was the high-priest of the Syrian god Elagabalus (which incidentally greatly influenced a later member of the Severan imperial dynasty: Severus' great nephew Varius Avitus Bassianus who became known as Elagabalus). Severus and Julia had two children, Lucius Septimius Bassianus (Caracalla) and Geta, born in AD 186 and 189 respectively.
In the latter part of the reign of Commodus political disharmony and imperial mismanagement led to several plots against the emperor's life. This forced Commodus to appoint his most trusted commanders into positions of importance. Among these were three men who would all later vie for the throne themselves; Pescennius Niger was appointed to govern Syria, Clobius Albinus to Britain and Septimius Severus to Pannonia. Provincial loyalty and support from the bulk of the military may have provided some sense of security to Commodus abroad, but it did little to secure his position in Rome. He was assassinated December 31, AD 192 and the potential for civil war was only averted by the wise Senatorial appointment of the respected Pertinax as Commodus' successor. However, dissatisfaction among the Praetorians led to the murder of Pertinax just short of 3 months after his accession (March 28, AD 193). The auction of the empire by the praetorians to Didius Julianus immediately sparked an open revolt among the legions. Already angered by the death of their preferred Commodus, this act was intolerable and the legions in Syria proclaimed their own commander Niger as emperor within days of Pertinax' death. By April 9, the Pannonian legions had done the same for Severus.
Clodius Albinus in Britain had designs of his own, and support from a considerable political faction, but Severus was well aware of this possibility. In a shrewd political move, the 48 year old Severus offered to make the younger (approx. 5 years) Albinus his Caesar (imperial heir) in exchange for loyalty and support (though we can surmise from later evidence that this was truly just to keep him temporarily pacified). Leaving Niger behind him in the east, Severus marched for Rome, and the reign of Didius Julianus was doomed. The legions of the western provinces rallied behind Severus, leaving Julianus without any defensible position. Attempts to assassinate his opponent, negotiate a settlement and to finally abdicate his position all failed, and ultimately the praetorians took matters into their own hands, eliminating Julianus. The Senate immediately confirmed Severus as the legal princeps and he entered Rome as both a deliverer and force of vengeance. The murderers of Pertinax were immediately purged and the troublesome praetorians disbanded but reconstituted with recruits from among his own loyal legionaries. He increased the urban cohorts (effectively the city police) and the vigiles (firefighters) and raised the annual pay rate of the legions, thereby assuring their loyalty. He made several administrative arrangements to secure a capable functioning government in Rome, and was free to focus his attention to see east where rival claimant Pescennius Niger had no attention of abandoning his own cause.
War with Pescennius Niger
While Septimius Severus was settling affairs in Rome after his successful coup of Didius Julianus' government (AD 193), the governor of Syria was still preparing his own bid for Roman supremacy. The source information on Gaius Pescennius Niger is relatively obscure, be he seems to have been an Italian of equestrian heritage and was born in approximately AD 135. After serving with some military acclaim in Dacia, he seems to have been made a suffex consul (late 180s AD) and had been appointed to govern Syria as a trusted lieutenant of Commodus in AD 191.
Word of the assassination of Commodus on December 31 AD 192 likely traveled slowly into the further provinces of the empire. Pertinax was probably well established as a replacement by the time Niger was aware of his benefactors death, but the idea of usurpation, despite Pertinax also having been a supporter of Commodus, may have been established as soon as the news arrived. However, it wasn't until the murder of Pertinax and the short reign of Didius Julianus that revolt was openly set in motion. The people of Rome began to riot in clear opposition to Julianus as soon as he arrived in Rome following Pertinax murder on March 29, AD 193. The mob seized control of the Circus Maximus and called for the popular general Niger to return to Rome and claim the throne for himself, before dispersing peacefully the following day.
When word of reached Niger in Antioch, he understandably envisioned himself the people's champion and had himself proclaimed emperor by his readily supportive legions. Despite what can be assumed to be a cordial relationship between Niger and Severus (who were both ardent Commodian supporters), Niger immediately began to consolidate his control of the east while Severus made a deal with Clodius Albinus (another potential rival) in Britain (making him his heir in order to gain his support) thereby securing the west. While Severus marched on Rome, Niger moved from Antioch to Byzantium as a foreboding token of his proximity to the territories of Severus. He legitimized his own cause as the champion of the people and avenger of Pertinax by adopting the title "Justus" (the just). Attempts to get messages to Rome in order to supersede any claims by Severus to the throne were intercepted and conflict was inevitable.
For Niger to make good on his own claim, he pressed the issue and moved against Severus. He did so by marching west into Thracia towards the coastal city of Perinthus. Despite numerical advantages he was repulsed by Severan loyalists and marched back to his stronghold at Byzantium. Niger attempted to offer an olive branch to Severus in the form of a joint rule compromise, but Severus rejected this flatly. Conversely, an offer by Severus to allow Niger to go into voluntary exile unmolested was equally snubbed. Meanwhile, Asellius Aemilianus the proconsular governor of Asia and a supporter of Niger moved an army against Severan forces near Cyzicus on the coast of the Propontis. Aemilianus himself was killed in the engagement but the two armies continued to jockey for position while moving east into Bithynia.
Near Nicea, Niger arrived to take personal command facing the Severan commander Candidus (despite Severus himself having moved into the region by this point in late AD 193). It was here that a decisive battle was fought in the narrow passes between Nicea and Cius, with the outcome in doubt throughout. Each side held the advantage at several junctures, but ultimately Candidus forced Niger to retreat under cover of darkness. Niger moved south into Syria, stopping at Antioch while Candidus consolidated the Severan position in the Asia region.
In the Spring of AD 194, a Severan army under the command of Valerianus and Anullinus marched south from Cilicia towards Niger's position in Syria. At the "Cilician Gates" (a narrow pass through the mountains with high mountains on one side and cliffs above the sea on the other) Niger positioned his army on a well fortified hill and prepared for the assault. Initially the defender's position proved superior but a severe thunderstorm erupted that had the effect of confusing and disrupting Niger's forces (Dio Cassius implies divine intervention, but the effects of the storm certainly played a role in the mindset of both armies). By the end of the battle some 20,000 of Niger's army had been killed and though Niger himself escaped he was soon captured and beheaded near the Euphrates.
With the result of the battles at Cyzicus, Nicea and the Cilician Gates, any remaining support for Niger and resistance to Severus in the east waned. Severus also earned a harsh reputation in dealing with Niger's supporters, though few of the aristocracy were victimized to extremity beyond financial penalty and/or exile. Citizens of cities loyal to Severus were rewarded for their support while cities such as Antioch and Byzantium were stripped of various legal rights among other punishments in response to their support of Niger.
With his victory over Niger, Severus continued for a short time to assert his authority in the east and led punitive campaigns against the Osroeni, the Adiabeni, and the Arabians. As many of Niger's remaining supporters fled to Rome's eastern rival Parthia, Severus planned additional attacks into Mesopotamia and beyond in order to assert his authority. Much like the conqueror emperor Trajan of a century before, Severus looked to expand the empire's borders and did so by annexing Mesopotamia as a province. However, Severus' continued eastern adventures would have to wait, as the defeat of Niger allowed an opportunity to confront another rival. Despite having already named Clodius Albinus his heir, Severus named his own son Caracalla as Caesar in a clear affront to the governor of Britain (though there is some contention that Albinus had been actively undermining Severus in the west during the war with Niger). As Albinus prepared his own army for war, Severus marched west with the intention of consolidating the entire Roman empire under his own power.
War with Clodius Albinus
Septimius Severus' victory over his eastern rival Pescennius Niger opened a new opportunity to cement himself as sole emperor and his family as an imperial dynasty. Despite an earlier arrangement with the governor of Britain Clodius Albinus, to keep him from also making a claim for the throne, Severus initiated a policy to establish connections and continuity between himself and imperial predecessors. By late AD 195 Severus identified himself with Marcus Aurelius proclaiming himself the son of the former emperor (and brother of Commodus) to legitimize his claim and renamed his eldest son Bassianus as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. In so doing, Bassianus (who would later be known as Caracalla after the hooded cloak that he wore) was named Caesar to replace the previously appointed Clodius Albinus who was also declared a public enemy. Expectedly, Albinus had himself declared emperor, prepared his legions and crossed the Mare Britannicum (English Channel) into Gaul.
Clodius Albinus, like his rival Severus, was born (c. AD 150) into a wealthy North African family of senatorial distinction and rose rapidly through the Roman political system. Also like fellow imperial claimant Pescennius Niger, Albinus displayed distinction in the Dacian campaigns of Commodus reign (early 180s). He reached the consulship by the middle of that same decade and served various provincial commands and governorships throughout Commodus' reign before ultimately governing Britannia in AD 192. The Historia Augusta suggests that Commodus either intended to, or actually did name Albinus as Caesar (his heir), but coinage does not reflect this title until after the death of Commodus and the appointment by Septimius Severus to that position following the events of AD 193. Regardless, Albinus did enjoy marginal popularity among the aristocracy and he was undoubtedly considering many possible options even prior to the official break with Severus.
By early AD 196 Albinus had secured support among the aristocracy of Gaul and Hispania and established a continental base at Lugdunum (modern Lyons). Initially, Albinus enjoyed success in battle against Severan loyalists but he was unable to capitalize on these early victories. By mid AD 196, Albinus bid for the throne had stalled in southern Gaul, just short of the Alps and a march on Rome itself. Severus' personal arrival at the head of a massive army from the east began to turn the tide in his favor.
In early AD 197 (February 19) two massive armies met at Tinurtium (modern Tournus) on the River Arar (modern Saône). Cassius Dio reported 150,000 men on each side though a third, roughly 50,000 men each, of this number is much more likely. The resulting contest was among the bloodiest and hardest fought in Roman history (considering that both sides were ultimately Roman). The battle was in doubt from its onset, with each army facing opportunities for victory and potential for disaster. Albinus' left flank was initially overrun, but the right held firm and lured the Severan forces into a trap. Severus' advance was in such jeopardy of being turned into a rout that he attempted to intervene personally. At the head of a detachment of Praetorians Severus launched himself into the battle but this too was nearly a disaster. Severus lost a horse in the ensuing mayhem and was forced to fight valiantly in order to stem the tide of retreat and inspire renewed effort. His personal involvement seems to have allowed his army to hold firm. At this critical juncture, Severus' cavalry under Laetus intervened and helped overwhelm the army of Albinus.
Cassius Dio describes the resulting aftermath and the ultimate defeat of Albinus:
"Thus Severus conquered; but the Roman power suffered a severe blow, inasmuch as countless numbers had fallen on both sides. Many even of the victors deplored the disaster, for the entire plain was seen to be covered with the bodies of men and horses; some of them lay there mutilated by many wounds, as if hacked in pieces, and others, though unwounded, were piled up in heaps, weapons were scattered about, and blood flowed in streams, even pouring into the rivers. Albinus took refuge in a house that stood beside the Rhone, but when he saw the whole place surrounded, he slew himself. I am not stating, how, what Severus wrote about it, but what actually took place. The emperor, after viewing the body of Albinus and feasting his eyes upon it to the full, while giving free rein to his tongue as well, ordered all but the head to be cast away, but sent the head to Rome to be exposed on a pole."
Severus' victory ensured his continued authority and the establishment of his dynasty, but the emperor proved to have cruel streak that would taint his legacy. Many supporters of Albinus (including his immediate family) were executed and purges of the aristocracy were similar to those of Sulla in the Late Republic. While Severus' victory ensured imperial stability at least temporarily, it also helped establish the continued rise of military and bureaucratic supremacy in the government of the later Roman Empire.
Severus' Administration and the Legions
Ultimate victory over rivals Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus allowed Septimius Severus to focus his attention addressing legionary reform and engaging in military endeavors against external threats. Having already reformed the praetorian guard, who were responsible for the murder of Pertinax and the auction of the empire to Didius Julianus, Severus raised the pay scale by one half of the standard for legionaries, allowed more opportunities for promotion and in AD 197 legalized marriage for soldiers.
While soldiers had certainly long maintained unrecognized marriage, this step brought the rights of legionaries in line with those of other citizens and allowed the children of such marriages to be legally recognized as citizens. While pay raises and benefits along with the increased citizen roles was certainly expensive, such steps allowed for a greater recruiting base, and supported Severus' values on the importance of family. Thusly, the emperor who had been a career soldier not only showed his appreciation for the military that helped him to the throne, but presumably expected these rewarding measures to increase loyalty and morale.
The emperor would quickly put his legions to the test. In AD 197, earlier attempts by the Parthian King Vologases V during the Roman civil war to reassert control over Mesopatamia destabilized the eastern frontier and eventually culminated in another war with Rome's old rival Parthia. Severus marched east after raising three new legions, I, II and III Parthica, one of which (II Parthica) would eventually be stationed as a permanent garrison in Italy on the Alban Mountain for both internal control and as a centralized reserve. Parthian resistance was minimal and the Romans swept down the Euphrates on the same path set by Trajan nearly a century earlier sacking Seleucia, Babylon and the Parthian capital Ctesiphon.
Also much like Trajan, Severus failed at Hatra and ultimately was unable to fully annex Mesopatamia, but was wildly successful in the gathering of spoils in the form of immense monetary wealth and untold slaves. Severus took the title Parthicus Maximus in honor of the victory, and though the Roman grip on the far eastern provinces would remain tenuous at best, Parthia was crippled as a result of the Severan war. By AD 224, the Parthian kings would fall and be supplanted by the Sasanian Persian Empire.
Severus returned to Rome in AD 202 after an extensive tour of the eastern provinces. Included in his court was the Praetorian Prefect Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, who had been appointed just prior to the Parthian campaign. Plautianus had a reputation for imperial influence and viciousness that rivaled the memory of Tiberius' Prefect Sejanus. Cassius Dio records: "Plautianus, who not only shared Severus' power but also had the authority of prefect, and possessed the widest and greatest influence of all men, put to death many prominent men among his peers... He wanted everything, asked everything from everybody, and would take everything. He left no province and no city unplundered, but snatched and gathered in everything from all sides; and everybody sent a great deal more to him than to Severus... At home he castrated a hundred Roman citizens of noble birth, though none of us knew of it until after he was dead. From this anyone may comprehend the full extent both of his lawlessness and of his power." The power of Plautianus was such that contemporaries described him as having more power than that of the three (Severus and his two sons). His prominent position was confirmed though adlection into the Senate, appointment as consul and the marriage of his daughter Plautilla to Severus' son Caracalla.
The imperial family had much to celebrate upon it's return to the capital: an earlier promotion of Caracalla to co-Augustus and Geta to Caesar in AD 198, the wedding of Caracalla and the victories of Severus against Parthia. As such, in AD 202 Rome celebrated the decennalia games marking the tenth year of the reign of Severus. The entire family next traveled to Severus' familial home of Lepcis Magna and the celebration of Africa's favored son continued while Severus enriched the city with monuments. In AD 204, the family again returned to Rome and the revelry finally culminated in the grandiose Secular Games, and the dedication of Severus' triumphal arch in the forum. However, the celebration of Plautianus would not continue much beyond the end of the year.
By the end of 204 Plautianus was the source of terrible friction within the imperial family. Severus' wife Julia Domna and his brother Geta despised the prefect and the marriage between Caracalla and Plautina was not a happy one. A plot to kill Severus was exposed by a centurion (though the affair was likely an invention of Caracalla and perhaps included broader involvement of the entire family) and Plautianus was summarily executed. As a result, Caracalla was divorced and the entire court less subject to the instigations of the prying prefect. Plautianus was to be replaced by a much more moderate pair of administrators including the renowned jurist Papinian. In fact Severus reign was one in which the law and the value of the court system was a key component. Despite the relative position of Severus as a tyrant in the eyes of the traditional senatorial aristocracy, the Roman courts functioned with fairness and efficiency. His reliance upon such famed lawyers as Paul and Ulpian as well as the afore-mentioned Papinian led to a prominent period of Roman jurisprudence.
Unfortunately, the absence of the controlling Plautianus may have helped foster a growing sibling rivalry between the two sons of Severus along with the sort of deviant behavior that might be expected from the teenaged sons of the emperor of Rome. Severus, seems to have suspected that a change of environment and increased responsibility may help quell the difficulties between Rome's future leaders, and focused his attention on the troublesome barbarians north of Hadrian's Wall in Britannia. Herodian suggested that "they [Caracalla and Geta] could return to their senses, leading a sober military life away from the luxurious delicacies of Rome."
Herodian described the situation in Britain in AD 207 as, "The barbarians of the province were in a state of rebellion, laying waste the countryside, carrying off plunder and wrecking almost everything." Conventional wisdom would suggest that at least a portion frontier unrest can be attributed to the civil war between Albinus and Severus which temporarily stripped the province of it's legionary presence (though clearly the province was not completely abandoned of it's large auxiliary forces and legionary losses were eventually replaced.)
Whatever Severus' ultimate motivation; the welfare of his sons, the restoration of Rome's northernmost frontier or his own inclination towards military adventure, the imperial family arrived in Britain in 208. Roman advances were initially successful in clearing Caledonia of resistance, but as with all other Roman campaigns north of Hadrian's Wall, any permanent resolution was fleeting. Severe gout and deteriorating health had limited Severus' ability to personally campaign, and Roman gains were limited. Despite a temporary restoration of the frontier at the Antonine Wall, it would not be long before the border was returned to an improved and stone fortified Hadrian's Wall.
In February of AD 211, after a reign of 18 years, Septimius Severus died at Eboracum (York) leaving his quarrelsome sons to destabilize all that he had accomplished. According to Cassius Dio, Severus left his sons three pieces of advice, "be harmonius, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men." The second two were well heeded, but the first was completely ignored and Geta would not live to see the end of the year. Severus' ashes were interred in the Mausoleum of Hadrian and shortly thereafter, despite a strained relationship with some elements of the traditional aristocracy, he was deified by the senate.
Did you know...
The Praetorian Guard usually included a small cavalry detachment, equites singulares augusti, to escort the emperors to important state functions and on military campaigns.
Did you know...
Despite serving as a frontier buffer zone, Syria's ports and trade routes with the far east were important economic forces.
Did you know...
Eboracum was the major military base in the north of Britain and the capital of northern Britain, Britannia Inferior.