Septimius Severus: Rome’s First African Emperor

Rome’s first African emperor fought wars from Scotland to Syria in the search for imperial stability. What role did this imperial outsider have in shaping the fate of the Roman Empire?

Jun 11, 2020By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History
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Northern Apse of the Severan Basilica at Leptis Magna with Portrait of Septimius Severus, AD 200-210, Musei Captiloini


I must not allow the Roman empire to lie helpless” declared Septimius Severus in AD 193, rousing the Pannonian legions for their march on the imperial capital. The empire, seemingly so golden under the rule of Marcus Aurelius, had plunged into chaos. The vices of Commodus, punished by his assassination and damnatio memoriae in AD 192, had ushered in a period of instability and competition. 


Septimius Severus embodied the cosmopolitanism of the Roman Empire. Of African descent, hailing from Leptis Magna in Libya, his career had already encompassed roles from Sardinia to Syria. Now, as governor of Pannonia (roughly modern Hungary), Severus was well placed – and well equipped with formidable legions – to march on Rome and take advantage of the imperial power vacuum. 


One Year, Five Emperors

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Numismatic portraits of the 5 Emperors (top: Pertinax, Didius Juliuanus, Pescennius Niger; bottom: Clodius Albinus, Septimius Severus)


Rome was no stranger to civil war. Blood had been voluminously spilled before in contests for power, but AD 193 was different. Following the assassination of Commodus on New Years Eve AD 192, five different emperors would claim the imperial power in rapid succession, sparking a period of brutal war and bloodshed across the empire. First, the Senate would nominate the elder statesman Pertinax.


Professing to follow in the footsteps of Marcus Aurelius, he promised a return to Senatorial politics after the megalomania of Commodus. His harsh discipline and parsimonious approach to bonuses, however, would see him fall foul of the Praetorians who murdered him. Next, Didius Julianus was named emperor, following his notorious purchase of the empire: “both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off”. 


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Julianus was not fated to last long, and the populace of Rome grew weary of their new emperor. Across the empire, competitors were acclaimed by their legions: Pescennius Niger in Syria, Clodius Albinus in Gaul, and Septimius Severus in Pannonia.


Conquest in the East, Victory in the West

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Arch of Septimius Severus in the Forum Romanum, via Wikipedia

In this imperial Mexican stand-off, Septimius struck first. Marching on Rome, he ensured that his western flank was protected by offering to make Albinus his partner in power and heir. His advance on the capital led to the hasty murder of Julianus by a panicked guard, and his confirmation as emperor. He proclaimed himself the avenger of Pertinax and promised to work with the Senate in the restoration of imperial order.


Turning eastward, he then marched against Niger. The defeat of this rival in AD 194 included the arduous siege and sack of Byzantium (later Constantinople), and a bloody battle at Issus. After defeating Niger, Septimius was able to turn his attentions westwards. Naming his son, Caracalla, as heir, he severed his links with Albinus and the final stage of a civil war that would last 4 years in total was underway. Severus’ final victory came at the battle of Lugdunum (Lyon) in February AD 197. Recognised as the largest battle ever fought by Roman forces, Severus emerged from the bloody conflict as the master of the Empire.


Either side of these wars against imperial rivals, Severus also waged wars against Rome’s eastern neighbours. After defeating Niger, he waged a retaliatory campaign against Mesopotamia and other vassal states that had supported his rival in AD 195. In 197, after the defeat of Albinus, Severus waged a second campaign against the Parthian Empire in the east. The goals and success of the campaign remain contested, but Severus did oversee the capture of the royal city of Ctesiphon. Like the emperor Trajan almost a century earlier, his military prowess was recognised in his being awarded the title Parthicus Maximus. He would celebrate his eastern triumphs upon his return to Rome in AD 202, most famously shown on the Arch of Septimius Severus which dominates the Forum Romanum.


Finding a Father, Establishing a Dynasty

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Severan Tondo, early 3rd Century AD, Altes Museum

Severus’ break from Clodius Albinus was motivated by the desire to establish a dynasty of his own. Severus had married Julia Domna in around AD 187. Julia hailed from the Syrian city of Emesa, and was a member of the aristocratic family that managed the cult of the sun deity Elagabalus. According to historical rumour, Julia came to Severus’ attention on the back of a prophecy; he was told of a Syrian woman whose horoscope predicted that she would wed a king. Through Julia, Severus would have two sons, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (better known as Caracalla), and Geta (who would fall fatally foul of his brother), and these he designated his heirs. Indeed, Severan culture was keen to stress the unity of the imperial household, the domus divina, particularly on art and coinage.


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Portrait Bust of Marcus Aurelius, 2nd Century AD, British Museum


Alongside this new dynasty, Severus also connected his power to previous emperors. Most infamously, this was done by his proclaiming to be both the son of the former emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the brother of Commodus! Upon hearing of this farcical family tree, one particularly witty (and brave) senator is reported to have remarked to the emperor, “I congratulate you, Caesar, upon finding a father”!


Fated to Rule? Omens of Power

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Gold Aureus of Equestrian Septimius Severus, AD 200-201, British Museum


The accounts of Severus’ rise to power and his rule are notable for his persistent interest in omens, portents, and astrology. As described above, these appear to have frequently motivated his actions in life, such as his decision to seek out and marry Julia. Most famously, the senatorial historian Cassius Dio – who provided the most reliable account of Severus’ life and times – also compiled an account of the omens that foretold of his rise to power. Although this was likely a propagandistic “puff piece”, Dio’s historical narrative is notable for the historian’s interest in such omens. 


The astrological interests of an African emperor and his Syrian wife have undoubtedly contributed to a pervasive belief in the orientalising interests of the Severan dynasty and the corruption of traditional Roman morals. Such interpretations are increasingly subject to scrutinization in modern scholarship. Nevertheless, the role of omens in Severus’ reign remains striking, particularly how the emperor appears to have celebrated them in material form. In one such portentous dream – recorded by Dio – a horse in the Roman forum had thrown Pertinax from its back, but readily accepted Severus. This has been linked to a now lost equestrian statue of Severus that may have been erected in the forum, indicated by a series of coins showing the same subject. 


Deception and Devastation: Plautianus and Bulla Felix

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Portrait Bust of Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, ca. AD 200, Museo Pio-Clementino


Although accusations of favouritism towards provincial men appear unfounded, Severus did offer the post of Praetorian Prefect, arguably the most prominent position in the imperial administration, to his friend and countryman, Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, who came from the same Libyan city – Leptis Magna – as Severus himself. Plautianus’ career as Prefect was a classical case of how power corrupts. He was power hungry, avaricious, and cruel. Although his daughter, Plautilla, was married to Caracalla, the young man hated both his wife and father in law. Plautianus also appears to have disrespected the emperor’s wife, hating her as a rival to his influence over the emperor. His downfall, when it came, was swift and total, with the emperor’s dying brother revealing to Septimius the Prefect’s desire for power. A plot, contrived with Caracalla’s blessing, helped expose Plautianus, and he was struck down in front of the emperor. His images across the empire were destroyed – famously on the Arch of the Argentarii in the Forum Boarium in Rome – as his memory was condemned.


That the reign of Septimius Severus was understood as a time of change is further evidenced in the tale of Bulla Felix. Absent from all bar Dio’s history, Bulla was a bandit chieftain who terrorised the Italian country side in around AD 205-207. His career as a charismatic leader of desperate, displaced young men escaping the clutches of imperial agents is an almost Robin Hood-esque tale of derring-do. He was eventually captured following his betrayal and his final words to the Imperial Prefect are a damning indication of an empire transformed. The Prefect condescends to ask Bulla, “Why did you become a robber?”, to which the bandit chief retorts, “Why are you a Prefect?”


Cities Transformed

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Arch of Septimius Severus, Leptis Magna, Archaeological site, Lybia, via UNESCO


Alongside the changes in power that were perceived, Septimius was also arguably the Empire’s last great builder for almost a century. Similar to Hadrian in the early 2nd century, Severus was something of a wandering emperor as conflicts and curiosity took him to the corners of the empire. His imperial itineraries left an indelible mark on the fabric of the empire, as the cities he visited frequently dedicated monumental new structures in the name of the new emperor. This is evidenced across the empire, but most famously in Rome itself, and in Severus’ hometown of Leptis Magna in Libya. 

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Theatre, Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna, Libya, via UNESCO


In Rome, Severus undertook an extensive building programme, un-matched for at least a century. This involved restoration projects, such as the Pantheon (the dedicatory inscription is still faintly visible today), aquatic amenities (including several aqueducts), and projects of imperial grandeur, such as the now-lost Septizodium, a colossal nymphaeum at the south east foot of the Palatine Hill, dedicated to the glory of the new dynasty, and allegedly to impress arrivals from Africa. Leptis Magna was a city transformed, confirmed today by the designation of the site as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Septimius’ visit in AD 205 was celebrated in the bestowal of a magnificent new forum to the city, as well as temples, a theatre, and an honorific arch.


Edges of Empire

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Hadrian’s Wall, Nortumberland UK


An imperial career that spanned from Rome and North Africa to the Danubian and Arabian frontiers ended at the very northern edges of the Empire as Severus launched his final campaign against the Caledonian tribes in Scotland. He went with a considerable force, ostensibly to restore order to the province. His forces however found the Scottish landscape a tough prospect and Dio records the difficulties faced by the Roman soldiers. Archaeological evidence today has revealed the extent to which Septimius went to fortify this province; Hadrian’s Wall was re-strengthened, as was the Antonine Wall, whilst a number of expansive forts in the north were built and restored, most notably at Carpow.


However, it was not just for glory that Severus went north. Allegedly he knew that this would be a campaign he would not return from; as an old man, his death had been foretold by a prophecy. Septimius rather set out to Caledonia to ready his sons for their lives as Emperors; a break from the luxury of Rome was believed to be the cure to set his sons on the straight and narrow. Indeed, his death bed advice to the two young men was recorded by Dio: “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, scorn all other men”. However, his attempts appear to have been largely in vain, as the brothers appeared to be unwilling to reconcile their hatred of each other. Caracalla even allegedly contemplated murdering his father, only to stay his hand at the last moment! It was a prescient forewarning of the bloodshed to come. 


Lion and Fox: Septimius Severus’ Legacy

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Portrait of Septimius Severus, AD 200-206, Museo Arqueológico Nacional Madrid


When he died in Eboracum (modern York) in AD 212, Septimius was cremated and his ashes were taken by his sons back to Rome where they were interred in the Antonine Mausoleum (Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome). Although his final resting place points to a man continuing an imperial tradition, there can be no doubt that the reign of Septimius Severus, Rome’s first African emperor, ushered in a period of imperial transformation. He expanded the Empire to its greatest extent, but established a model of rule which placed ever greater emphasis on the provincial armies; he debased the Roman currency, but he facilitated the embellishment of the Empire’s cities like few others ever could. 


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Statue of Niccolò Macchiavelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence


As a historical figure, he occupies a critical juncture between the High Empire and the Late Antique, and his role in this process of change – often viewed as a decline – has seen historians engage with Septimius in a plethora of – often divisive – ways. He remains a somewhat enigmatic figure, and this is perhaps best shown by Machiavelli’s assessment. In his early 16th century political treatise, The Prince, the Florentine presented Severus as embodying the opposing traits required to be an effective ruler. Carefully examine this man, he argued, and you will find “a most valiant lion and a most cunning fox”.

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK based contributing writer with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explored the representation and status of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the past with as many people as possible. Away from his research, Kieren is also interested in arts, literature, and travel.