Return to Notae

The Severan Emperors

"If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus."

Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Domitian, the younger son of Vespasian, was the last emperor to have inherited the position from his father. Without surviving sons, themselves, all but one had chosen their successor by adoption. For the next eighty years, these so-called "adoptive" emperors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius) ruled Rome. It was such men, selected for their competence, rather than through hereditary succession, that permitted Rome to enjoy the happy condition of which Gibbon speaks. That felicitous time ended with Commodus.

Commodus (AD 180-192) was eighteen years old when he became emperor, the son of Marcus Aurelius and the younger Faustina, although so unlike his father that he popularly was thought to have been illegitimate. With his accession, says Cassius Dio, a senator and contemporary of many of the events which he records, "our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day" (LXXII.36.4).

Indifferent to the affairs of government, Commodus gave himself over to the pleasures of the court, which led to a series of intrigues and miscarried conspiracies. His sister instigated an attempt on his life, but the assassin, instead of stabbing the emperor, wasted time declaring his intentions and so was seized. Afterwards, Commodus was all too willing to relinquish his responsibilities, first to Perennis, the praetorian prefect and then to the freedman Cleander, the court chamberlain. But, as their power increased, they both were executed in their turn and, says Dio, a new "Golden Age" proclaimed.

Commodus demanded deification as a god and identified himself with Hercules. The months of the year were renamed after his various titles, which he elaborated upon so as to have the requisite number. When, in AD 191, a disastrous fire destroyed the Temple of Peace ("the largest and most beautiful of all the buildings in the city," says Herodian) and the Temple of Vesta, exposing the sacred Palladium to public view as it was carried along the Sacra Via to safety by the Vestals, Commodus thought of himself as the second founder of Rome and officially renamed it Colonia Commodiana.

The emperor's megalomania extended to the amphitheater, as well, where he fought as a gladiator, in spite of the contempt in which that class was held. In September AD 192, he presented himself for the first time at the games. Senators were obliged to attend, and Dio tells of Commodus killing an ostrich and displaying the severed head in one hand and his bloody sword in the other, implying that he could treat them the same way. Such was the absurdity of the spectacle, the decapitated ostriches running around with their heads cut off, and the threat to their lives, says Dio, that he and the other senators had to chew the laurel leaves of their garlands to keep from laughing.

Both Dio and Herodian also were at the Plebeian Games later in November, when Commodus, presented himself as Hercules Venator (the Hunter). People came from all over Italy and the neighboring provinces, writes Herodian, to witness the spectacle of an emperor of Rome who "promised he would kill all the wild animals with his own hand and engage in gladiatorial combat with the stoutest of the young men." And, from the safety of a raised enclosure, kill he did: lions and bears (a hundred of them), leopards, deer and gazelle, a tiger, a hippopotamus, and an elephant. Animals wild and domestic, all were slaughtered in this mockery of the hunt (venatio). An indication of the expense and extravagance of such a spectacle is that it would be more than sixteen hundred years before another hippopotamus was seen in Europe.

For the new year, writes Dio, Commodus planned to kill the consuls-elect and then, dressed as a gladiator, present himself to the people of Rome as consul in their place. When, says Herodian, on New Year's Eve AD 192, the night before he was to appear as a secutor, Marcia, the emperor's favorite concubine, discovered her own name and those of Eclectus, the chamberlain, and Laetus, the praetorian prefect, on the proscription list, they plotted to save themselves and had Commodus strangled in his bath.

So died the last of the Antonine emperors, "a greater curse to the Romans," according to Dio, "than any pestilence or any crime." Word was sent to Pertinax, the city prefect and likely a member of the conspiracy. It was not yet midnight when he hurried to the praetorian camp, where the guard shouted their acclamation, and then to the Senate house. The Historia Augusta records the Senate's angry litany of denunciation at the news of Commodus' death:

"He that killed all, let him be dragged with the hook, he that killed persons of all ages, let him be dragged with the hook, he that killed both sexes, let him be dragged with the hook, he that did not spare his own blood, let him be dragged with the hook, he that plundered temples, let him be dragged with the hook, he that destroyed testaments, let him be dragged with the hook, he that plundered the living, let him be dragged with the hook!"

At age sixty-six, Pertinax, the son of a former slave and once a grammarian, was emperor. But, says Dio, he "failed to comprehend...that one cannot with safety reform everything at once, and that the restoration of a state, in particular, requires both time and wisdom" (LXXIV.10). Changing too much, too soon, he alienated both the praetorian guard, which feared the loss of privileges granted by Commodus, and the palace administration, which he blamed for the shortage in the imperial treasury. There was an attempt to replenish the funds squandered by Commodus, and even the jeweled weapons and golden helmets that he had used in the arena were auctioned off. But the measures he introduced were unpopular and there were several coup attempts. Finally, at the instigation of Laetus, a contingent of soldiers confronted the old man, who tried in vain to reason with them. Shouting "The soldiers have sent you this sword," says Dio, one of the men struck him down. As he covered his head with his toga and said a prayer, Pertinax was stabbed to death and his head stuck on a spear. He had ruled for eighty-seven days.

With no obvious successor, the praetorian guard now offered the position of emperor to the highest bidder. Two candidates presented themselves at their camp, each vying to outbid the other: Flavius Sulpicianus, the city prefect and father-in-law of the murdered Pertinax, and Didius Julianus, a wealthy member of the Senate. The bidding continued until Julianus offered a donative of 25,000 sestertii per man. Fearful of revenge were Sulpicianus made emperor, the praetorians chose Julianus, who, mindful of what had happened to his predecessor and aware of his own vulnerability, "passed," says the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, "the first night in continual wakefulness, disquieted by such a fate."

Unpopular with the people, who openly demonstrated against him the next day in the Circus Maximus, and with the Senate, Julianus soon lost the support of the praetorian guard, as well, when it became apparent that he would not be able to pay the extravagant bribe he had offered them. Nor was there support in the provinces, where, within two weeks of Pertinax's death, the frontier legions began to proclaim their own candidates: Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria; Clodius Albinus, governor of Britannia; and Septimius Severus, governor of Upper Pannonia on the Danube. As the Scriptores Historiae Augustae said of the last Severan emperor, so it could be said of the first: "And thus were sown the seeds of civil wars, in which it necessarily happened that soldiers enlisted to fight against a foreign foe fell at the hands of their brothers." A debilitating civil war was about to begin, as the legions of Rome fought one another for control of the empire.

Acclaimed emperor at Carnuntum, the provincial capital, Severus marched on Rome as the avenger of Pertinax. Albinus was offered the title of "Caesar," with its prospect of succession, to assure his neutrality, while Niger fatally delayed in Antioch. Julianus had the Senate declare Severus a public enemy, issued coins proclaiming himself ruler of the world, and did what he could to oppose him. But the praetorians, who were set to digging fortifications, avoided the work, and the elephants, conscripted from the arena, proved ineffectual. Senatorial envoys were sent but found it more prudent to change sides; assassins were dispatched, but Severus was too closely guarded. According to the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, a deputation of Vestal Virgins even was considered.

Julianus sought to appease Severus by putting both Marcia and Laetus to death and, in a last, desperate move, even asked the Senate to declare Severus joint ruler. It all was to no avail; the praetorian prefect who conveyed the offer was put to death. With Severus advancing, the Senate moved that Julianus be deposed and Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) proclaimed emperor. The soldier sent to carry out the sentence found Julianus in the palace, says Herodian, "alone and deserted by everyone" and killed him "amid a shameful scene of tears." Didius Julianus had ruled only sixty-six days.

Severus was set to enter Rome in triumph. But, before he did, he had the praetorians summoned to parade outside the city, ordering them to leave their weapons behind. Surrounded by his own men, Severus berated the guard for what they had done. Those who had taken part in the assassination of Pertinax were executed and the rest banished from within a hundred miles of Rome. For over two centuries, from the time of Augustus, the largely Italian praetorian guard had been the elite of the army and enjoyed a disproportionate influence on the politics of Rome. Now it was to be recruited from the provinces and the legions loyal to the emperor. It never again would be so powerful.

Having ordered an elaborate state funeral for the deified Pertinax, Severus, after less than a month in the city, turned his attention to his rivals. For the next four years (AD 193-197), wars of succession were fought across the empire. In AD 194, Niger's army was defeated in a decisive battle on the plain near Issus, where Alexandria had defeated Darius more than five hundred years before, and Niger beheaded as he fled toward Antioch. That future governors should not have the same aspirations, Syria was divided into two provinces. (In time, Britain, too, would be split, with London and York as capitals of the south and north.) Then, consolidating Niger's legions with his own, Severus led them in retaliation against the Parthian vassal states in Mesopotamia that had supported his rival and, says Dio, "out of a desire for glory." The newly conquered territory was the first significant addition to the empire since the time of Trajan ninety years earlier. Byzantium, too, was besieged and its towered walls pulled down

Late in AD 195, realizing that he would not succeed Severus, Albinus had himself proclaimed Augustus (emperor) and crossed over to Gaul. The Senate, in turn, declared him a public enemy. The populace was dismayed at the prospect of more civil war, and Dio relates what he, himself, heard in the Circus Maximus during the last chariot races before the Saturnalia. There, the plebs, safe in the anonymity of crowds that could number as many as 200,000, began to shout "How long are we to suffer such things...How long are we to be waging war?" Dio was amazed at the protest, that so many could utter "the same shouts at the same time, like a carefully trained chorus."

Designating his own son Antoninus (Caracalla or Caracallus, from the nickname given him because of the hooded cloak he wore) as Caesar and successor, Severus consolidated his power in Rome and marched against Albinus early in AD 197. In a closely fought battle on the outskirts of Lugdunum (Lyons), in which Severus was thrown from his horse, Albinus was defeated and committed suicide. Before the body was thrown into the river, together with those of his wife and sons, the corpse was trampled beneath the hooves of Severus' horse, and the head sent to Rome. When Severus returned to Rome, he ruthlessly persecuted the supporters of Niger and Albinus, both of whom had been popular with the Senate and people. Twenty-nine senators were put to death, including Sulpicianus, and command of the legions taken from the Senate and given to the knights (equites). The soldiers was awarded a stipend and allowed to live at home instead of in the barracks. The plebs were quieted with donations and more spectacles in the arena.

Within months, Severus departed Rome in a second war against the Parthians, sacking its capital, Ctesiphon, early in AD 198, "just as if," writes Dio, "the sole purpose of his campaign had been to plunder this place." He visited Palestine and Syria and toured Egypt, viewing the embalmed body of Alexander the Great, then sealed the tomb, says Dio, so that no one else would be able to look upon him. Severus returned to Rome in AD 202. While there, Caracalla, though only thirteen, married the daughter of his father's praetorian prefect, Plautianus, who, according to Dio, "had possessed the greatest power of all the men of my time, so that everyone regarded him with greater fear and trembling than the very emperors." Caracalla loathed both his wife and his father-in-law and threatened to have them both killed, which he did at the earliest opportunity. Severus stayed only a few weeks before leaving to visit his native Africa and the city of his birth, Lepcis Magna, upon which he bestowed many new buildings, including a new forum and basilica.

Severus was honored with an arch (AD 203), which was dedicated by the Senate on the emperor's decennalia (tenth anniversary), in celebration of his Parthian victories. The first major architectural addition to the Forum in eighty years, it marked the spot, says Herodian, where Severus had dreamed of Pertinax falling from his horse and the animal taking up Severus on his back for all to see. Diagonally opposite the Arch of Augustus, which also had been erected to celebrate a triumph over the Parthians, the new monument symbolically linked Rome's present emperor with her first.

In AD 207, says Herodian, there were reports of unrest in Britannia. "The barbarians of the province were in a state of rebellion, laying waste the countryside, carrying off plunder and wrecking almost everything." A decade earlier, Albinus had taken his legions to Gaul, leaving behind a weakened frontier, which the Caledonians and other tribes now exploited. The news promised new victories and an opportunity to get his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who hated one another, out the city where, says Herodian, "they could return to their senses, leading a sober military life away from the luxurious delicacies of Rome." In an audacious attempt, Dio records that Caracalla actually attempted to kill his father while on the march, but Severus did nothing, allowing "his love for his offspring to outweigh his love for his country; and yet in doing so he betrayed his other son, for he well knew what would happen." He was determined, once and for all, to conquer that troublesome isle, and there were some successes. But Severus died in York in AD 211, saying to his sons, reports Dio, to "be harmonius, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men." Caracalla, more interested in winning the allegiance of the soldiers than another punitive campaign, abandoned the territory that had been won and returned with his mother and brother and their father's ashes to Rome.

Caracalla now attempted to gain sole power, but Geta's claim was supported in the Senate and by their mother Julia Domna. The antagonism between the two brothers was intense and extended to their having separate entrances to the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill. There was talk that the empire, itself, should be divided, but their mother resisted, asking, says Herodian, whether they intended to divide her as well. Caracalla intended to murder Geta on the Saturnalia but could not. Eventually, he did find his chance and, enticing Julia to invite them both to meet with her in private to effect a reconciliation, had his brother killed in his mother's arms.

Now that Caracalla (AD 211-217) was emperor, all evidence of his dead brother Geta was systematically obliterated, including reference to him in the inscription on the Arch of Severus (where one still can see that the fourth line largely has been chiseled away). After mollifying the praetorian guard with a substantial raise in pay ("I am one of you," Dio reports him as saying, "and it is because of you alone that I care to live, in order that I may confer upon you many favors; for all the treasuries are yours"), in AD 212 he purged Rome of his brother's supporters, murdering some twenty thousand people. "Not a person survived," says Herodian, "who was even casually acquainted with Geta. Athletes and charioteers and performers of all the arts and dancing—everything that Geta enjoyed watching or listening to—were destroyed."

Guilty and uncomfortable in Rome, the next year Caracalla ventured against the Germans, went on to Ilium to visit the supposed tomb of Achilles (which he decorated with garlands and flowers), then to Antioch, and eventually to the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria, the second largest city in the empire. There, inexplicably enraged, Caracalla ordered the slaughter of thousands of young men in that city. It was afterwards, in AD 217, after returning to Antioch to lead his legions against the Parthians, that Caracalla was assassinated. Standing by the side of the road to relieve himself, while the soldiers respectfully turned their backs, he was murdered by an officer of his bodyguard at the instigation of Macrinus, one of the praetorian prefects, who was fearful that his conspiracy against the emperor would be discovered. Feigning innocence of the deed, Macrinus (AD 217-218) was acclaimed emperor by the soldiers, the first not to have been a senator.

As despised as Caracalla was, he did leave behind one of the most famous legal measure of antiquity: the Constitutio Antoniniana, an edict dating from AD 212 that granted Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire, something that until then had been reserved only for Italians and a few select provincials. It also thereby subjected them to the obligations and taxes of Roman citizens, which were simultaneously doubled. If the measure did not seem significant at the time, it is because the distinction between citizen and non-citizen effectively had been replaced by that between honestiores and humiliores, rich and poor. Caracalla also built one of the most impressive monuments of imperial Rome: the Baths of Caracalla (Thermae Antoninianae). Sumptuously decorated and enclosed by gardens and open-air gymnasia, as well as an art collection that included the powerful Belvedere Torso and Farnese Hercules, the massive complex could accommodate sixteen hundred bathers, who became almost insignificant within its huge domes and soaring vaults. Of it can be said, as Martial had written of another emperor, "What worse than Nero, what better than Nero's baths."

Sick and hounded by Macrinus to leave Antioch, Julia Domna committed suicide not long after the death of her son. The daughter of the high priest of the sun god Elagabalus (Heliogabalus in Latin), her horoscope, writes Herodian, had foretold that she would marry a king, something that must have piqued the interest of Severus, who was intensely superstitious. A patron of writers and the philosopher Philostratus, whose Life of Apollonius was written at her request, Julia Domna was the first of the Syrian princesses who would exert such influence over the emperors of Rome. Her sister Julia Maesa was not as willing to accommodate Macrinus. Enlisting the support of one of the Syrian legions, she put forward her own grandchild to be acclaimed emperor. Macrinus, whose ignominious settlement with the Parthians had displeased the army, was defeated and killed. He had ruled little more than a year.

Another Severan now was emperor: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, better known as Elagabalus or Heliogabalus (AD 218-222). He was no more than fourteen years old, and real power rested with his grandmother Julia Maesa and his mother Julia Soaemias. He and his family arrived from Syria in AD 219 to begin what was perhaps the most bizarre period of Roman history. A religious fanatic with exotic sexual proclivities, Elagabalus married a Vestal Virgin to symbolize the wedding between the Syrian and Roman pantheon, and built a magnificent temple, the Elagaballium, to the sun god Elagabalus, of which he was the hereditary priest and from whom he took his name. The most sacred symbols of Rome, including the Palladium and eternal flame, as well as those of Christians and Jews, were to be brought to the temple of Elagabalus, who would take precedence, says Dio, "even before Jupiter himself." Julia Maesa became increasingly apprehensive at such behavior. She had another grandson, the child of her other daughter Julia Mamaea, and they persuaded Elagabalus to adopt his cousin Alexander as Caesar and heir. When he came to regret the choice of his popular rival and tried to have him killed, Elagabalus and his mother were murdered, instead, and the emperor's body thrown into the Tiber.

Alexander Severus (AD 222-235), himself no more than fourteen years old, would rule under the jealous tutelage of his mother and grandmother for thirteen years. The old gods were restored to their sanctuaries and the Elagaballium rededicated to Jupiter Ultor (the Avenger). By now, the empire was under increasing threat. The resurgent Persians had overthrown the Parthians, Rome's traditional enemy, and in AD 230 invaded Mesopotamia, putting Syria, itself, at risk. While Alexander defended the eastern provinces, the German tribes took advantage of his absence and threatened the northern frontier. Alexander returned to Rome and then left for the Rhine. Prepared to negotiate and pay a subsidy to the Germans, Alexander contemptuously was murdered by his own soldiers in AD 235, "clinging," reports Herodian, "to his mother and weeping and blaming her for his misfortunes."

The Severan emperors had ruled for forty-two years. The next half century would a time of chaos and despair, the darkest years in the history of Rome.

References: Septimius Severus: The African Emperor (1971) by Anthony Birley; The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition (1994) by Michael Grant; The Severans: The Changed Roman Empire (1996) by Michael Grant; The Roman Emperors (1985) by Michael Grant; Chronicle of the Roman Emperors (1995) by Chris Scarre; Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome (1995) by Chris Scarre; A Study of Cassius Dio (1964) by Fergus Millar; The Roman Empire (1992) by Colin Wells; The Fasti of Roman Britain (1981) by Anthony R. Birley; The Syrian Princesses (1974) by Godfrey Turton.

Dio's Roman History (1925) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library); Herodian (1969) translated by C. R. Whittaker (Loeb Classical Library); Scriptores Historiae Augustae (1924) translated by David Magie (Loeb Classical Library); Tacitus on Britain and Germany (1948) translated by H. Mattingly (Penguin Classics); The Meditations of Marcus Antoninus (1944) translated by A. S. L. Farquharson.

Return to Top of Page