The Severans would be the last imperial family to rule Rome before the chaos of the third century AD, and the changes that followed, would permanently alter the nature of the imperial office itself.
For Rome, the Severan dynasty was perhaps a mixed bag. On the one hand, its founder ended the bloody struggle for the throne that began with the fall of the Antonine dynasty, provided the empire with firm and decisive leadership, and led the Roman army capably enough to keep the frontiers secure and win military glory for both Rome and himself.
On the other hand, the Severan dynasty was an imperial family plagued by enough scandal to sicken even the ancient Romans. The reign of every Severan emperor but one ended in murder. Worst of all, none of the Severans cared to preserve, honor, or respect the image of the emperor as a citizen prince that had been so carefully cultivated by Augustus. The Severans disregarded this image completely, and chose instead to behave as openly despotic autocrats using only the support of the military to keep themselves in power. The trends of murdered emperors and undisguised military despots would both set a dark precedent that would long outlive the Severans themselves.
Founder of a Dynasty
Septimius Severus spent most of his life without any reason to expect that he would someday be Emperor of Rome. He was born in 145 AD into an affluent equestrian (minor noble) family in what is now Libya. As a young man, he left home to pursue a public service career in Rome. After spending decades holding a number of various government posts and acquiring administrative experience, in 191 AD Septimius was appointed by the Emperor Commodus to serve as military governor of Pannonia, a Roman frontier province in what is now southern Hungary.
He was still governing Pannonia two years later when he received news that Commodus had been assassinated. A former general, Pertinax, succeeded the murdered Commodus as emperor, but was himself murdered by his own guards just three months after taking office and replaced by a rich senator who paid the Praetorian Guard a huge bribe to proclaim him emperor. Instead of accepting this turn of events, Septimius saw in them a chance to make his own bid for power.
With the support of his soldiers Septimius Severus declared himself emperor, vowed to avenge Pertinax, and marched on Rome with his army. Septimius took the city easily, the senator that had bribed his way to the throne was killed, and the praetorians that had murdered Pertinax were dishonourably discharged by the new emperor, who promptly replaced them with soldiers loyal to him. A few more years of civil war followed as Septimius faced two more rivals that wanted to make themselves emperor, but by 197 AD control of the empire was firmly in his hands.
As emperor, Septimius Severus spent little time in Rome. The Roman army had put him on the throne and kept him in power so he was happy to ignore the Senate, appointed prominent army officers to important government posts, and spend most of his time on the frontiers with his soldiers. He waged military campaigns across the empire to expand its frontiers but these campaigns were costly, time consuming, and brought no lasting benefits to Rome.
During the last of these expansionist frontier campaigns Septimius fell terminally ill, dying in Britain in 211 AD. On his deathbed he chose his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, to succeed him as joint emperors. According to legend, before the dying emperor drew his last breath he advised his sons to love each other, enrich the soldiers, and despise everyone else.
The Sons of Septimius
A joint rule between two emperors was not unthinkable to the ancient Romans; after all, it had happened before. However, Caracalla and Geta did not have the harmonious relationship of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. In fact these two brothers loathed one another, unable and completely unwilling to share power. According to legend, they even attempted to divide the imperial palace into separate segments so that they’d never have to see each other. In any case, their joint rule lasted less than a year before the angry and violent Caracalla murdered Geta.
As sole emperor, Caracalla showed the same favouritism for the army and open contempt for the Senate as his father had. Caracalla strained Rome’s finances by greatly increasing the salary of his soldiers, even though the soldiers of the Roman army were well paid already. He did make some contributions to the public at large, building a massive public bathing complex in Rome and passing a law in 212 AD granting Roman citizenship to every non-slave in the empire, but neither of these acts were enough to erase the permanent stain on his reputation that he’d earned by killing his younger brother. In 217 AD Caracalla planned a military campaign against Parthia to win glory and prestige for himself, but was murdered en route by one of his own soldiers.
With Caracalla dead one of his officers, Macrinus, tried to make himself emperor with the army’s support, but this would-be ‘usurper’ lacked the wisdom or skill to match his ambition. He was soon overthrown and replaced with another Severan, a cousin of Caracalla named Elagabalus.
The Last Severans
At just 14 years old Elagabalus became the youngest emperor in Roman history, but the young man had very little aptitude for, or even interest in, ruling the empire. He spent most of his time engaging in a series of bizarre and sordid sex scandals while his mother and grandmother ran the empire from behind the scenes. After four years of his antics the Praetorian Guard, sickened and embarrassed by their teenage emperor’s indecent and irresponsible behaviour, finally lost all patience with him. On 11 March, 222 AD the praetorians murdered Elagabalus and replaced him with his even younger cousin, the 13-year-old Alexander Severus.
Although Alexander’s personality was far more agreeable than his cousin’s, he was as much a puppet of his mother and grandmother as Elagabalus had been. Unlike Elagabalus or Caracalla Alexander was a pleasant and likeable young man. Unfortunately, he was utterly lacking in strength, foresight, or any of the other qualities of leadership needed to address the mounting challenges Rome faced during Alexander’s lifetime.
The last Severan emperor died during a military campaign in Germany in 235 AD, after he attempted to bribe the Germanic tribes to go home instead of fight against him. The men of the Roman army, offended by what they saw as a cowardly and dishonourable act, rebelled and killed Alexander. The Severan dynasty died with him.
The Severan emperors had been both a departure from the past and a taste of what the future held in store for Rome. Certainly, not every emperor before the Severans had conformed to the Augustan ideal. Domitian, for instance, showered his soldiers with praise and rewards, sometimes led them personally on military campaigns, and often showed open contempt for the Roman Senate. In that sense, none of the Severans had done anything that previous emperors hadn’t done before.
However, when earlier Roman emperors had rejected the Augustan ideal in favour of behaving like military autocrats they had done so on an individual basis. Never before the Severans had an entire imperial dynasty blatantly refused to respect the Augustan portrait of the modest, civil servant emperor.
The support of the Roman army had always been at the heart of imperial power. Ultimately, no matter how well or poorly they concealed it every Roman emperor, including Augustus, had been a military dictator. So why did it matter so much that the Severan emperors refused to continue this ‘fantasy’, and instead openly behaved like the military despots they were?
Because by doing this the Severans, particularly Septimius and Caracalla, dispelled the last remnants of the Augustan ideal by embodying the brutal truth that lay beneath it. The Augustan image of the virtuous citizen prince may have always been an illusion, a fairy tale, but the stabilizing effect it had on imperial politics was tangible and genuine. When that illusion finally vanished once and for all, the consequences were all too real and all too deadly.