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Septimius Severus (Bellum Romanum)

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Septimius Severus
Emperor of the Roman Empire

A statue of Septimius Severus.jpg
21st Emperor of the Roman Empire
Reign 14 April 193 - 21 February 197 (aged 52)
Predecessor Didius Julianus
Successor Clodius Albinus
Spouse Julia Domna
Issue Bassianus
Full name
Lucius Septimius Severus Augustus
Father Publius Septimius Geta
Mother Fulvia Pia
Born 11 April 145
Leptis Magna, Africa
Died 21 February 197

Religion Roman polytheism

Septimius Severus (14 April 193 - 21 February 197 AD) was Roman emperor from 193 to 197. Severus was born in Leptis Magna in the province of Africa. As a young man he advanced through the cursus honorum—the traditional career through political offices—under the reigns of Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Severus seized power after the death of Emperor Pertinax in 193 during the Year of the Five Emperors.

After marching on Rome and deposing the incumbent Emperor Didius Julianus, who had actually bought his title and reigned for eight weeks, Severus fought his rival claimants, the generals Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. Niger was defeated in 194 at the Battle of Issus in the east. Later that year Severus waged a short punitive campaign beyond the eastern frontier, annexing the Kingdom of Osroene as a new province. After consolidating the eastern provinces, the only thing that prevented Severus from complete domination of the realm was the powerful general, Clodius Albinus, who had complete support of the aristocracy and three legions. Severus marched west in an attempt to get rid of this complication; however, Severus himself was defeated and killed by Albinius' men at the Battle of Lugdunum, leaving Albinius as the sole contender to the position of emperor.

Early life

Family and education

Born on 11 April 145 at Leptis Magna as the son of Publius Septimius Geta and Fulvia Pia, Septimius Severus came from a wealthy and distinguished family. He had Roman ancestry on his mother's side and descended from Punic - and perhaps also Berber - forebears on his father's side.

Severus' father, a native of the region, held no major political status, but he had two cousins, who served as consuls under Emperor Antoninus Pius. His mother's ancestors belonged to the gens Fulvia, a patrician (noble) family that originated in near Rome. Septimius Severus had two siblings: an older brother, Publius Septimius Geta, and a younger sister, Septimia Octavilla. Severus's cousin was praetorian prefect and consul Gaius Fulvius Plautianus.

Septimius Severus grew up in his hometown of Leptis Magna. He spoke the local Punic language fluently, but he was also educated in Latin and Greek, which he spoke with a slight accent. Little else is known of the young Severus' education, but according to several records, the boy had been eager for more education than he had actually got. In his late teens, Severus received lessons in oratory and by age 17 he gave his first public speech.

Public life

Colorized bust of Severus

A bust of Severus in his mid-twenties

Sometime around 162 Septimius Severus set out for Rome, seeking a public career and recognition. At the recommendation of a relative, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius granted him entry into the senatorial ranks. Membership of the senatorial order was a prerequisite to attain positions within the cursus honorum (course of offices) and to gain entry into the Roman Senate. Nevertheless, Severus' career during the 160's met with some complications.

Severus first served as a minor public servant in Rome, overseeing road maintenance in or near the city, and he may have appeared in court as an advocate. At the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, he was a Advocatus fisci (State attorney). However, he omitted the military tribunate from the cursus honorum and had to delay subsequent offices until he had reached the required minimum age of 25. To make matters worse, the Antonine Plague swept through the capital in 166.

With his career at a halt, Severus decided to temporarily return to Leptis, where the atmosphere was healthier. In a bout of bad luck, he was prosecuted for adultery during this time but the case was ultimately dismissed. At the end of 169 Severus was of the required age to become a Quaestor, the next office in the course of offices, and journeyed back to Rome. On 5 December, he took office and was officially enrolled in the Roman Senate.

Since the Antonine Plague had severely thinned the senatorial ranks, and with capable men now in short supply, Severus' career advanced more steadily than it otherwise might have. After his first term as quaestor, he was ordered by the senate to serve a second term in the western provinces, but unclear circumstances prevented him from doing so.

The sudden death of Severus' father necessitated a return to Leptis Magna to settle family affairs. Before he was able to leave Africa, Mauri tribesmen invaded. Control of the province was handed over to the Emperor, while the Senate gained temporary control of Sardinia as compensation. Thus, Septimius Severus spent the remainder of his second term as quaestor on the island of Sardinia. Following the end of this term, Septimius Severus travelled back to Rome, taking up office again.

A bust of Julia Domna

A bust of Julia Domna.

Ending up a widower by the time his first wife died in 186 of natural causes, Severus was getting older and was still childless. Eager to remarry, he began enquiring into the horoscopes of prospective brides. He heard of a woman in the east who had been foretold that she would marry a king, and therefore Severus sought her as his wife.

This woman was named Julia Domna. Her father, Julius Bassianus, descended from a royal house and served as a high priest to the local cult of the sun god Elagabal. Bassianus accepted Severus' marriage proposal in early 187, and the following summer he and Julia were married. The marriage proved to be a happy one and Severus cherished his wife and her political opinions, since she was very well-read and keen on philosophy. Together, they had two sons.

Rise to power

In 191, Severus was made governor of Pannonia Superior by Emperor Commodus at the advice of one of Severus' close friends in the Praetorian Guard. However, Commodus was assassinated the following year, starting the Year of the Five Emperors. A notable general and perhaps Severus' best friend, Pertinax was acclaimed emperor, but was killed by the Praetorian Guard in early 193. In response to the murder of Pertinax, Severus was proclaimed Emperor as well by his legion, with nearby legions following. Having assembled an army, Severus hurried to Rome.

Reign as emperor

Heroic nude statue of Severus

A heroic nude statue of Severus

Pertinax's successor in Rome was Didius Julianus, who had bought the emperorship in an auction in one of the lowest points of Roman history. Julianus was condemned to death by the Senate and killed, and Severus took possession of Rome without opposition. He executed Pertinax's murderers and disbanded the rest of the Praetorian Guard. Its members were stripped of their ceremonial armour and forbidden to come within 100 miles of the capital on pain of death. Severus replaced the old guard with 10 new cohorts recruited from veterans of his experienced Danubian legions. Severus was now emperor.

From the outset, Severus' relations with the Senate were not good, having seized the title of emperor with the sole power of the military. Severus returned this sentiment as he ordered the execution of many of his dissenters within the Senate, and replacing them with sycophants, giving him the title of Tyrannus (tyrant) among the aristocracy. Although these actions temporarily turned Rome into a military dictatorship, Severus was very popular with the citizens and common folk, having stamped out the rampant corruption of Commodus' reign as soon as he past the gates of Rome.

Securing the east

The legions of the east, however, had proclaimed Pescennius Niger, another popular general emperor. At the same time, Severus felt it was reasonable to offer Clodius Albinus, the powerful governor of Britannia who had three legions under his control, the rank of Caesar, which implied claim to succession. With his rearguard safe, he moved to the East and crushed Niger's forces at the Battle of Issus. While campaigning against the city of Byzantium, who had supported Niger, Severus ordered the covering of the tomb of his fellow Carthaginian Hannibal with fine marble. The following year was devoted to suppressing Parthian vassals who had backed Niger.


A white marble bust of Severus

A white marble bust of an aged Severus

When he had successfully quelled the east, Severus' only obstacle from complete imperium (power to command) over the empire was Albinus, who had taken root in the west. Severus declared openly his eldest son as successor, causing Albinus to be hailed as emperor by his troops and landed in Gaul. Severus, after a short hiatus in Rome, moved northwards to meet him in battle. On the 19th of February, Severus met Albinus at the Battle of Lugdunum, with an army of about 75,000 men. Even though Severus' men had both experience and the edge in cavalry, Severus was detached from his men in the heat of battle and slain by Albinus' army, demoralizing and routing Severus' legions. Severus' brief reign had ended and Albinus marched on Rome to be coronated as emperor.

Severus' family however, consisting of Julia Domna, Bassianus, and Geta, were treated with respect by Albinus, who delivered the body of Severus to them safely, and were allowed to live in exile at Cyrene. It was here that Julia developed her love for philosophy and became devoted to the work of Plato. Even envisioning a city built on the principles of Plato's Republic.

Reign of Didius Julianus:
(Year of the Five Emperors)
Reign of Septimius Severus:
193 - 197
Reign of Clodius Albinus:
197 - 211

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