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Septimius Severus

This webpage reproduces part of the
Historia Augusta

published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

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Clodius Albinus

(Vol. I) Historia Augusta

 p431  The Life of Pescennius Niger

1 1   [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] It is an unusual task and a difficult one to set down fairly in writing the lives of men who, through other men's victories, remained mere pretenders, and for this reason not all the facts concerning such men are preserved in our records and histories in full. 2 For, in the first place, notable events that redound to their honour are distorted by historians; other events, in the second place, are suppressed; and, in the third place, no great care is bestowed upon inquiries into their ancestry and life, since it seems sufficient to recount their presumption, the battle in which they were overcome, and the punishment they suffered.

3 Pescennius Niger, then, was born of humble parentage, according to some, of noble, according to others. His father was Annius Fuscus, his mother Lampridia. His grandfather was the supervisor of Aquinum,​1 the town to which the family sought to trace its origin, though the fact is even now considered doubtful. 4 As for Pescennius himself, he was passably well versed in literature, thrifty in his habits, and unbridled in indulgence in every manner of  p433 passion.​2 5 For a long time he commanded in the ranks,​3 and finally, after holding many general­ships,​4 he reached the point where Commodus named him to command the armies in Syria, chiefly on the recommendation of the athlete who afterward strangled Commodus;​5 for so, at that time, were all appointments made.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 2 1 And now, after he learned that Commodus had been murdered, that Julianus had been declared emperor, and then, by order of Severus and the senate, put to death, and that Albinus, furthermore, had assumed in Gaul the name and power of emperor,​6 Pescennius was hailed imperator by the armies he commanded in Syria;— though more out of aversion to Julianus, some say, than in rivalry of Severus. 2 Even before this, during the first days of Julianus' reign, because of the dislike felt for the Emperor, Pescennius was so favoured at Rome, that even the senators, who hated Severus also, prayed for his success, while with showers of stones and general execrations​7 the commons shouted "May the gods preserve him as Emperor, and him as Augustus". 3 For the mob hated Julianus because the soldiers had slain Pertinax and declared Julianus emperor contrary to their wishes; and there was violent rioting on this account. 4 Julianus, for his part, had sent a senior centurion to assassinate Niger​8 — a piece of folly, since the attempt was made against one who led an army and could protect himself, and as though, forsooth, any sort of emperor could be slain by a retired centurion! 5 With equal madness he sent out a  p435 successor for Severus when Severus had already become emperor; 6 and lastly he sent the centurion Aquilius,​9 notorious as an assassin of generals, as if such an emperor could be slain by a centurion! 7 It was similarly an act of insanity that he, according to report, dealt with Severus by issuing a proclamation forbidding him to seize the imperial power, so that he might seem to have established a prior claim to the empire by process of law!

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 3 1 What the people thought of Pescennius Niger is evident from the following: when Julianus gave circus-games at Rome, the people filled the seats of the Circus Maximus without distinction of rank, assailed him with much abuse, and then with one accord called for Pescennius Niger to protect the city​10 — partly out of hatred for Julianus, as we have said,​11 and partly out of love for the slain Pertinax. 2 On this occasion Julianus is reported to have said that neither he himself nor Pescennius was destined to rule for long, but rather Severus, though he it was who was more worthy of hatred from the senators, the soldiers, the provincials and the city-mob. And this proved to be the case.

3 Now Pescennius was on very friendly terms with Severus at the time that the latter was governor of the province of Lugdunensis.​12 4 For he was sent to apprehend a body of deserters who were then ravaging Gaul in great numbers,​13 5 and because he conducted himself in this task with credit, he gained the esteem of Severus, so much so, in fact, that the latter wrote to Commodus about him, and averred that he was a man indispensable to the state. 6 And he was, indeed, a strict man in all things military. No soldier under his command ever forced a provincial  p437 to give him fuel, oil, or service. 7 He himself never accepted any presents from a soldier, and when he served as tribune he would not allow any to be accepted. 8 Even as emperor, when two tribunes were proved to have made deductions from the soldiers' rations,​14 he ordered the auxiliaries to stone them.

9 There is extant a letter written by Severus to Ragonius Celsus, who was then governor of Gaul:​15 "It is a pity that we cannot imitate the military discipline of this man whom we have overcome in war. 10 For your soldiers go straggling on all sides; the tribunes bathe in the middle of the day; they have cook-shops for mess-halls and, instead of barracks, brothels; they dance, they drink, they sing, and they regard as the proper limit to a banquet unlimited drinking. 11 How, pray, if any traces of our ancestral discipline still remained, could these things be? So, then, first reform the tribunes, and then the rank and file. For as long as these fear you, so long will you hold them in check. 12 But learn from Niger this also, that the soldiers cannot be made to fear you unless the tribunes and generals are irreproachable." [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 4 1 Thus did Severus Augustus write about Pescennius.

While Pescennius was still in the ranks, Marcus Antoninus wrote thus to Cornelius Balbus about him: "You sound the praises of Pescennius to me, and I recognize the man; for your predecessor also declared that he was vigorous in action, dignified in demeanour,  p439 and even then more than a common soldier. 2 Accordingly, I have sent letters to be read at review in which I have ordered him placed in command of three hundred Armenians, one hundred Sarmatians, and a thousand of our own troops. 3 It is your place to show that the man has attained, not by intrigue, which is displeasing to our principles, but by merit, to a post which my grandfather Hadrian and my great-grandfather Trajan gave to none but the most thoroughly tried."

4 Again, Commodus said of this same man: "I know Pescennius for a brave man, and I have already made him tribune twice.​16 Presently, when advancing years shall make Aelius Corduenus retire from public life, I will make him a general." 5 Such were the opinions that all men had of him. And in truth Severus himself frequently declared that he would have pardoned him had he not persisted.17

6 Finally, Commodus appointed him consul,​18 and advanced him thereby over Severus, greatly indeed to the latter's wrath, since he thought that Niger had gained the consul­ship on the recommendation of the senior centurions. 7 Yet in his autobiography​19 Severus says that on one occasion, when he had fallen sick and his sons had not yet reached an age when they could rule, he intended, if anything by any chance should happen to him, to appoint Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus as his heirs to the throne, even these two men who in time became his bitterest enemies. 8 From this it is evident what Severus thought of Pescennius. [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 5 1 But if we may believe Severus, Niger was greedy for glory, hypocritical in his mode of life, base in morals, and well advanced in years when he attempted to seize the empire — for which  p441 reason Severus inveighs against his ambition, just as if he himself came to the throne young! For though he understated the number of his years, after ruling eighteen years he died at the age of eighty-nine.20

2 Now Severus dispatched Heraclitus to secure Bithynia and Fulvius to seize Niger's adult children.​21 3 Nevertheless, although he had already heard that Niger had seized the empire, and although he himself was on the point of setting out to remedy the situation in the East, he made no mention of Niger in the senate. 4 In fact, on setting out, he did only this — namely, send troops to Africa, fearing that Niger would seize it and thereby distress the Roman people with a famine.​22 5 For such a plan was possible of accomplishment, it seemed, by way of Libya and Egypt, the provinces adjacent to Africa, for all that it was no easy journey either by land or sea. 6 As for Pescennius,​23 he slew a multitude of distinguished men and got control of Greece, Thrace, and Macedonia, while Severus was still on his way to the East. He then proposed to Severus that they two share the throne between them; 7 whereupon Severus, because of the men whom Niger had slain, declared him and Aemilianus enemies to the state. Soon after, Niger gave battle under the leader­ship of Aemilianus and suffered defeat from Severus' generals. 8 Even then, Severus promised him safety in exile if he would lay down his arms. Niger, however, persisted and gave battle a second time, but was defeated;​24 and in his flight while near the lake at Cyzicus he was wounded and was thus brought before Severus, and presently he was dead. [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 6 1 His head was paraded on a pike and then sent  p443 to Rome. His children were put to death, his wife was murdered, his estates were confiscated, and his entire household utterly blotted out. 2 All this, however, was done after news of the revolt of Albinus was received,​25 for before that Niger's children and their mother had merely been sent into exile. 3 But Severus was exasperated by the second civil war, or rather the third,​26 and became implacable; 4 and it was then that he put countless senators to death​27 and got himself called by some the Punic Sulla, by others the Punic Marius.28

5 In stature Niger was tall, in appearance attractive; and his hair grew back in a graceful way toward the crown of his head. His voice was so penetrating that when he spoke in the open he could be heard a thousand paces away, if the wind were not against him. His countenance was dignified and always somewhat ruddy; 6 his neck was so black that many men say that he was called Niger on this account. The rest of his body, however, was very white and he was inclined to be fat. He was fond of wine, sparing in his use of food, and as for intercourse with women, he abstained from it wholly save for the purpose of begetting children.​29 7 Indeed, certain religious rites in Gaul, which they always by common consent vote to the most chaste to celebrate, Niger himself performed. 8 On the rounded colonnade in the garden of Commodus​a he is to be seen pictured in the mosaic among Commodus' most intimate friends and performing the rites of Isis.​30 9 To these rites Commodus was so devoted as even to shave his head, carry the image of Anubis, and make every one of the ritualistic pauses in the procession.

 p445  10 As a soldier, then, he was excellent; as a tribune, without peer; as a general, eminent; as a governor, stern; as a consul, distinguished; as a man, one to be noted both at home and abroad; but as an emperor, unlucky. Under Severus, who was a forbidding sort of man, he might have been of use to the state had he been willing to cast in his lot with him. [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 7 1 But this was not to be, for he was deceived by the sinister counsels of Aurelianus, who espoused his daughters to Niger's sons and made him persist in his attempt at empire.

2 He was a man of such influence that when he saw the provinces being demoralized by frequent changes of administration, he ventured to write to Marcus, and later to Commodus, making two recommendations: first, that no provincial governor, legate or proconsul,​31 should be superseded within a term of five years, because otherwise they laid down their power before they learned how to rule; 3 and second, that save for posts held by soldiers, no man without previous experience should be appointed to take part in the government of the empire, the purpose of this being that assistants​32 should be promoted to the administration of those provinces only in which they had served as assistants. 4 Afterwards this very principle was maintained by Severus and many of his successors, as the prefectures of Paulus and Ulpian prove — for these men were assistants to Papinian,​33 and afterwards, when the one had served as secretary of memoranda and the other as secretary of petitions,​34 both were next appointed  p447 prefects of the guard. 5 It was also a recommendation of his that no one should serve as assistant in the province of his birth, and that no one should govern a province who was not a Roman of Rome, that is, a man born in the city itself. 6 He also recommended salaries for the members of the governor's council,​35 in order to prevent their being a burden to those to whom they were advisers, adding that judges ought neither to give nor receive. 7 With his soldiers he was severity itself; once, for example, when the frontier troops in Egypt asked him for wine, he replied: "Do you ask for wine when you have the Nile?" In fact, the waters of the Nile are so sweet that the inhabitants of the country do not ask for wine. 8 And similarly, when the troops made a great uproar after they had been defeated by the Saracens, and cried out, "We get no wine, we cannot fight!", "Then blush," said he, "for the men who defeat you drink water." 9 Likewise, when the people of Palestine besought him to lessen their tribute, saying that it bore heavily on them, he replied: "So you wish me to lighten the tax on your lands; verily, if I had my way, I would tax your air."

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 8 1 Now when the confusion in the state was at its height, inasmuch as it was made known that there were three several emperors, Septimius Severus, Pescennius Niger, and Clodius Albinus, the priest of the Delphic Apollo was asked which of them as emperor would prove of most profit to the state, whereupon, it is said, he gave voice to a Greek verse as follows:

"Best is the Dark One, the African good, but the worst is the White One."

 p449  2 And in this response it was clearly understood that Niger was meant by the Dark One, Severus by the African, and Albinus by the White One. 3 Thereupon the curiosity of the questioners was aroused, and they asked who would really win the empire. To this the priest replied with further verses somewhat as follows:

"Both of the Black and the White shall the life-blood be shed all untimely;

Empire over the world shall be held by the native of Carthage."

4 And then when the priest was asked who should succeed this man, he gave answer, it is said, with another Greek verse:

"He whom the dwellers above have called by the surname of Pius."

5 But this was altogether unintelligible until Bassianus took the name Antoninus,​36 which was Pius' true surname. 6 And when finally they asked how long he should rule, the priest is said to have replied in Greek as follows:

"Surely with twice ten ships he will cleave the Italian waters,​37

Only let one of his barques bound o'er the plain of the sea."

From this they perceived that Severus would round out twenty years.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 9 1 This, Diocletian, greatest of emperors, is what we have learned concerning Pescennius, gathering it from many books. For when a man consigns to books the lives of men who were not rulers in the  p451 state, or of those, again, who were not declared emperors by the senate, or, lastly, of those who were so quickly killed that they could not attain to fame, his task is difficult, as we said at the beginning of this work.​38 2 It is for this reason that Vindex​39 is obscure and Piso​40 unknown, as well as all those others also who were merely adopted, or were hailed as emperors by the soldiers (as was Antonius​41 in Domitian's time), or were speedily slain and gave up their lives and their attempt at empire together. 3 It now remains for me to speak of Clodius Albinus,​42 who is considered this man's ally, in a way, since they rebelled against Severus similarly, and were similarly overcome by him and put to death. But we have no clear information concerning him either, 4 since he and Pescennius were the same in fate, however much they differed in their lives.

5 And lest we seem to omit any of the tales which are told of Pescennius, for all that they can be read in other books, the soothsayers told Severus concerning Pescennius that neither living nor yet dead would he fall into Severus' hands but would perish near the water. 6 Some say that Severus himself made this statement, learning it from astrology, in which he was very skilled. Nor was the augury devoid of truth, for Pescennius was found half dead near a lake.43

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 10 1 Pescennius was a man of unusual rigour; when he learned, for instance, that various soldiers were drinking from silver cups while on a campaign, he  p453 gave orders that all silver whatever should be banished from the camp in war-time, and added that the soldiers should use wooden cups — a command that gained him their resentment. 2 For it was not impossible, he said, that the soldiers' individual baggage might fall into the hands of the enemy, and foreign tribes should not be given cause for glorying in our silver, when there were other articles that would contribute less to a foeman's glory. 3 He gave orders, likewise, that in time of campaign the soldiers should not drink wine but should all content themselves with vinegar.​44 4 He also forbade pastry-cooks to follow expeditions, ordering both soldiers and all others to content themselves with biscuit. 5 For the theft of a single cock, furthermore, he gave an order that the ten comrades who had shared the bird which one of them had stolen, should all be beheaded; and he would have carried out the sentence, had not the entire army importuned him to such a degree that there was reason to fear a mutiny. 6 And when he had spared them, he ordered that each of the ten who had feasted on the stolen bird should pay the provincial who owned it the price of ten cocks. At this same time he ordered that no one during the period of the campaign should build a hearth in his company-quarters, and that they should never eat freshly-cooked food, but should live on bread and cold water. And he set spies to see that this was done. 7 He gave orders, likewise, that the soldiers should not carry gold or silver coin in their money-belts when about to go into action, but should deposit them with a designated official. After the battle, he assured them, they would get back what they had deposited, or the official who had  p455 received it would pay it to their heirs — that is, their wives and children — without fail. Thus, he reasoned, no plunder would pass to the enemy, should fortune bring some disaster. 8 All these stern measures, however, worked to his disadvantage in times so slack as those of Commodus. 9 For even if there was no one who seemed to his own times a sterner general, those measures availed to damage him rather during his life than after his death, when both envy and malice were laid by.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 11 1 On all his campaigns he took his meals in front of his tent and in the presence of all his men, and he ate the soldiers' own fare, too; nor did he ever seek shelter against sun or against rain if a soldier was without it. 2 In time of war he assigned to himself and to his slaves or aides as heavy burdens as were borne by the soldiers themselves, expounding to the soldiers the reason therefor; for in order that his slaves might not be without burdens on the march while the soldiers carried packs and this seem a grievous thing to the army, he loaded them with rations. 3 He took an oath, besides, in the presence of an assembly, that as long as he had conducted campaigns and as long as he expected to conduct them, he had not in the past and would not in the future act otherwise than as a simple soldier — having before his eyes Marius and such commanders as he. 4 He never told anecdotes about anyone save Hannibal and others such as he. 5 Indeed, when some one wished to recite him a panegyric at the time that he was declared emperor, he said to him: "Write praises of Marius, or Hannibal, or any pre-eminent general now dead, and tell what he did, that we may imitate him. 6 For the praise of the living is mere mockery,  p457 and most of all the praise of emperors, in whose power it lies to kindle hope or fear, to give advancement in public life, to condemn to death, and to declare a man an outlaw." He added that he wished to give satisfaction in his life-time, and after his death to be praised as well.

[Legamen ad paginam Latinam] 12 1 His favourites among his predecessors were Augustus, Vespasian, Titus, Trajan, Pius, and Marcus; the others, he averred, were either puppets or monsters. Among the characters of history he admired most of all Marius, Camillus,​45 Quinctius,​46 and Marcius Coriolanus.​47 2 And once, when asked his opinion concerning the Scipios, he replied, it is said, that they were rather fortunate than forceful, as was shown by their home-lives and by their youth, which, in the case of both, had not been conspicuous at home. 3 All men are agreed that he proposed, had he gained the throne, to correct all the evils which Severus, later, either could not or would not correct; and this he would have accomplished without any cruelty, or rather even with mercy, but yet the mercy of a soldier, not weak or absurd and a subject for mockery.

4 His house, still called by the name of Pescennius, may still be seen in the Field of Jupiter.​48 Within, in a certain room with three compartments there stands his statue, carved in Theban marble,​49 depicting his likeness, and given him by the common people of Thebes.º 5 There is preserved, besides, an epigram in Greek which, rendered into Latin, runs as follows:

 p459  6 "Glorious Niger stands here, the dread of the soldiers of Egypt,

Faithful ally of Thebes, willing a golden age.

Loved by the kings and the nations of earth, and by Rome the all golden,

Dear to the Antonines, aye, dear to the Empire too.

Black is the surname he bears, and black is the statue we've fashioned,

Thus do surname and hue, hero and marble, agree."

7 As for these verses, Severus refused to erase them when this was proposed by his prefects and masters of ceremonies, and said, besides: 8 "If indeed he was such a man, let all men learn how great was the man we vanquished; if such he was not, let all men deem that such was the man we vanquished; no, leave it as it is, for such he really was."

The Editor's Notes:

1 See note to Marc. xi.2.

2 But see c. vi.6, where the contrary is stated emphatically.

3 As chief centurion; see note to Avid. Cass. i.1.

4 The posts are referred to in the letter in c. iv.4, as military tribune­ships, and although this letter, like the others in the Historia Augusta, is fictitious, its statement in this instance is nearer the truth than that of the present sentence.

5 See Com. xvii.2.

6 As a matter of fact, this happened after Niger's revolt; see Sev. x.1 and notes.

7 See Did. Jul. iv.3 f.

8 Cf. Did. Jul. v.1; Sev. v.8.

9 Cf. Did. Jul. v.7‑8; Sev. v.8.

10 Cf. Did. Jul. iv.7.

11 Cf. c. ii.2.

12 Cf. Sev. iii.8.

13 See Com. xvi.2 and note.

14 These were prohibited at this time (see also Alex. xv.5), (p437)but at a later period they were recognized by law; see Cod. Just. XII.38.12.

15 On the authenticity of such letters as the following see note to Avid. Cass. i.6.

16 See c. i.5 and note.

17 Cf. c. v.8; Sev. viii.15.

18 Prior to 189, in which year Severus seems to have been consul; see Sev. iv.4.

19 See note to Sev. iii.2.

20 See Sev. xxii.1 and note.

21 See Sev. vi.10 and notes.

22 Cf. Sev. viii.7.

23 On Niger's revolt see Sev. viii.12 f. and notes.

24 Near Nicaea in Bithynia; see note to Sev. viii.17.

25 See Sev. x.1.

26 The revolt of Albinus.

27 See Sev. xiii.

28 An allusion to the proscriptions of Marius and Sulla. According to Dio, LXXV.8.1, Severus in a speech to the senate praised their severity. He is called "Punic" because he came from Africa.

29 But see c. i.4.

30 See Com. ix.3 f.

31 On the distinction see note to Hadr. iii.9.

32 The assessores (also called consiliarii), the governor's especial assistants in all matters pertaining to the administration of justice, sat by him at trials (hence the name) and gave him advice in legal matters. On this office see Digesta, i.22.

Thayer's Note: For further details and sources, see the article Assessor in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

33 In his capacity as prefect of the guard. These three men were the famous jurists constantly cited in the Digesta.

34 These two officials, together with three others, the secretary of the emperor (ab epistulis, see Hadr. xi.3), the secretary for the imperial trials (a cognitionibus), and the emperor's (p445)literary adviser (a studiis) were important and influential members of the imperial cabinet. Originally, these posts were held by freedmen of the emperor, but after Hadrian's reform of the civil service they were assigned to Equites; see Hadr. xxii.8.

35 i.e., the assessores. Salaries had already been granted to them by Antoninus Pius; see Digesta, 1.13.4. If the present passage and Alex. xlvi.1 are correct, however, it would seem that the grant had not been carried out in full.

36 See Sev. x.3.

37 An adaptation of Aeneid, i.381.

38 Cf. c. i.1.

39 C. Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, who led a revolt against Nero in 68 and was defeated by the army from Germany; see Suetonius, Nero, xl. f.

40 C. Calpurnius Piso, the nominal head of a wide-spread conspiracy formed against Nero in 65; see Tacitus, Annals, xv.48‑59.

41 L. Antonius Saturninus, governor of Upper Germany, who with two legions attempted a revolt in 88, but was soon defeated and put to death; see Suetonius, Domitian, vi.

42 See Sev. x‑xi; Cl. Alb. ix.

43 Cf. c. v.8.

44 Cf. Hadr. x.2.

45 M. Furius Camillus, who as dictator captured Veii in 396 B.C. and later defeated the Volscians.

46 L. Quinctius Cincinnatus, dictator in 458 B.C., when he defeated the Aequi.

47 Leader of the Romans against the Volscians, whom, after (p457)he was exiled from Rome in 491 B.C., he joined and led against Rome.

48 The site of this is unknown.

Thayer's Note: The general dubiousness of the Historia Augusta hasn't stopped the erudite from searching for the "Campus Jovis"; see the article in Platner and Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.

49 Black basalt, called by the ancients basanites, was brought to Rome from upper Egypt; see Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxxvi.58.

Thayer's Note:

a the garden of Commodus: According to Platner (q.v.), this is the only time such a place is explicitly mentioned in ancient literature. In view of the Historia Augusta's track record, there may have been no such garden, although it seems reasonable that there might have been one.

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