Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

Coin of Septimius Severus

Gold coin of Septimius Severus, who doubled the pay of the soldiers, and thus unleashed inflation

Septimius Severus was undoubtedly one of the great Roman emperors. He had a long rule of over 25 years. He was a great general who fought incessantly and mostly successfully.

But although he was great, that does not make him good. One of the criteria by which one should judge great men is to look what happened after them. There are some men who come to power, rule long and apparently well, yet when they go, the whole edifice they have built up collapses, and they are followed by chaos. There are others who come to power inheriting a dire situation, and spend most of their time in power retrieving that situation, putting right what had gone wrong, reforming institutions in need of reform, and establishing new institutions to carry that organisation forward. The changes they introduce may be unpopular. But after they step down — or are ousted — there follows a long period of peace and prosperity, and for this prosperity the prior rulers can surely take a large part of the credit.

One thinks in our time of Margaret Thatcher who inherited chaos but was followed by a decade of prosperity. One thinks of Queen Elizabeth the First, who inherited a nation split by religious fervour, whose long reign began in confusion, but whose final years saw a remarkable prosperity which continued for 50 years after her death. And one thinks above all, of Augustus who certainly inherited chaos, but who left behind him a prosperity that was to last 200 years.

Septimius Severus on the other hand certainly inherited a chaotic situation and spent much of his time campaigning, and steadying the empire. But he was followed by the third century, a time when Rome went from the greatest success to the utmost chaos as far as its rulers were concerned, and at least in part Septimius Severus must take the blame. It is time to consider more carefully his character, his rule, and how far he can really be held responsible for sowing the seeds of the catastrophes of the third century

On to the Third Century