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Severus: Rome’s first African Emperor

Portrait of family of Septimius Severus - Altes Museum - Berlin - Germany 2017 © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

In AD 193, Lucius Septimius Severus was named ruler of the Roman Empire and in doing so became Rome’s first African Emperor. After emerging victorious from a period of civil war, Severus expanded the border of the empire to new heights, ushered in a period of imperial transformation and founded a dynasty. 

Born in AD 145 in the prominent Roman Libyan city of Leptis Magna in Africa, Severus came from a wealthy and prominent local family. In AD 162, Severus went to Rome and was granted entry into the senatorial ranks, after his cousin Gaius Septimius Severus had recommended him to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Severus rose through the ranks of the cursus honorum (public offices held by aspiring Roman politicians), gaining entry into the Roman Senate in AD 170 and being appointed legatus, a senior position in the Roman Army, in AD 173 after his cousin became proconsul of the Province of Africa. 

Two years later he married Paccia Marciana, a woman from his home city of Leptis Magna. The marriage would last a little over ten years before Marciana passed away in AD 186 of natural causes. A year later during his time as governor of Gaul and living in the city of Lugdunum (modern Lyon in France), Severus married Julia Domna from Syria and the pair would have two sons - Lucius Septimius Bassianus (later nicknamed Caracalla after the Gallic hooded tunic he always wore) and Publius Septimius Geta. 

In AD 191, the then emperor Commodus made Severus governor of Pannonia Superor, a province on the Danube frontier. The following year Commodus was assassinated and in AD 193 his successor Publius Helvius Pertinax was declared emperor, heralding in the Year of the Five Emperors - a time in which five men claimed the title of Roman Emperor.  

Pertinax’s reign would last just 86 days before a disgruntled Praetorian Guard (household troops of the Roman Emperors), unhappy with Pertinax’s efforts to enforce stricter discipline within their ranks, assassinated him. 

The Praetorian Guard then did something remarkable and auctioned off the emperorship to the highest bidder. The wealthy senator Didius Julianus offered the most money for their support and subsequently secured the job.

How Julianus had brought his way to the top made him very unpopular in Rome and as such, three candidates emerged as rivals to the imperial throne – Clodius Albinus (governor of Britain), Pescennius Niger (governor of Syria) and Severus (governor of Gaul). By commanding the largest army closest to Rome, Severus had the upper hand. He secured the support of Albinus by offering him the title of Caesar, thus guaranteeing him a place in the imperial succession if Severus were to be successful. 

In June 193, Severus marched on Rome declaring himself the avenger of Pertinax and before he’d even entered the city was declared emperor by the Senate. Julianus was executed in the palace after ruling for a mere 66 days. 

Severus quickly secured his power within Rome by dissolving the current Praetorian Guard and filling its ranks with soldiers loyal to him, as well as raising three new legions. In AD 194, Severus looked to quell any threat from Niger in Syria and defeated him at the Battle of Issus. While in the East, Severus turned his forces against those Parthian vassals who had backed Niger. 

His next move saw him come into conflict with his short time ally Albinus. Hoping to secure a family dynasty, Severus declared his eldest son Caracalla as Caesar, effectively severing ties with Albinus and quashing any successional hopes the governor of Britain might have had. Albinus subsequently marched into Gaul and the forces of the two men clashed in AD 197 at the hard-fought battle of Lugdunum - a fight said to be the largest and bloodiest of all clashes between Roman forces. Severus emerged victorious and secured full control over the Roman Empire. 

He then carried out a purge of the Roman Senate, executing any who had opposed him or shown favour to Albinus. Severus then waged a successful campaign against the Parthian Empire in the East, supposedly in retaliation for their support of Niger. His forces sacked the Parthian capital city of Ctesiphon and added the northern half of Mesopotamia to the empire. For his efforts, a Triumphal Arch was erected in Severus’s honour in the Roman Forum. 

Be good to one another, enrich the soldiers, and damn the rest.

Severus enlarged the Roman Empire further with campaigns in Africa and Britain. He made significant gains in Caledonia (modern Scotland) and strengthened Hadrian’s Wall but fell short of his ultimate goal of bringing the whole British island under his rule.

It was in Roman Britain that Severus would see his final days. Ill health, most likely caused by gout, took a toll on the Emperor who passed away in AD 211 at the age of 65. On his deathbed, he was said to give the following advice to his sons, ‘Be good to one another, enrich the soldiers, and damn the rest.’ It was his treatment of the soldiers that did indeed secure Severus’s reign. His military reforms saw wage increases for soldiers along with the removal of the marriage ban, allowing military men to have wives. His treatment of the army would become a model that future emperors would emulate. 

Severus had also been popular amongst the Roman people, having brought stability after the vices and corruption of Commodus’s reign. He also left behind an empire spanning some 5 million square kilometres, the largest it had ever been. 

His two sons Caracalla and Geta jointly inherited the throne and sued for peace with the Caledonians a short while later and the Roman frontier was brought back to behind Hadrian’s Wall. Rome would never campaign so far into Caledonia again. 

Ignoring their father’s advice to be civil with one another, the relationship between the two brother’s descended to the point that members of the Praetorian Guard loyal to Caracalla assassinated Geta; most likely at the command of Caracalla himself. After a wide-scale purge of all those loyal to Geta, said to be around 20,000 people killed, Caracalla assumed total control of the emperorship in AD 212. 

He did, however, heed his father's words regarding the treatment of soldiers, raising annual wages further and often portraying himself as one of them whilst out on campaign.

His campaign against the Alemanni (Germanic tribes on the Upper Rhine River) had some success whilst his Parthian campaign in the East achieved little. His most notable act was the introduction of the Constitutio Antoniniana (Antonine Constitution), which granted citizenship to all free inhabitants across the Roman Empire. 

In the end, Caracalla died at the age of just 29, falling victim to assassination by a Praetorian Guard. The ancient sources portray him as one of the evilest men to have ascended to the imperial throne, ruling savagely and conducting himself like a tyrant.