Septimius Severus was undoubtedly one of the great Roman emperors. He had a long rule of 18 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 at 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.
Septimius Severus 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.
Septimius Severus came from Africa, from the city of Leptis Magna, one of the three cities of Tripolitania. Leptis was originally a Phoenician city founded from Tyre, though long under the influence of Carthage. And when Carthage was destroyed by the Romans, Leptis became a free state, issuing its own coins but being an ally of Rome. The language spoken was Punic: up until around AD 100, the inscriptions were in Punic or bilingual, though around 100, Leptis became a Roman colony and Latin became the official language. However Septimius grew up speaking Punic, though being a member of the nobility, as a teenager he was packed off to Rome where he learnt to speak Latin and Greek without an accent.
At Rome he flourished and began climbing the cursus honorum. An important event took place in 107 when his first wife died after 10 years of marriage, and he looked round for a new wife and found a charismatic eastern princess, Julia Domna, who if not exactly beautiful, was deep in letters and philosophy, and turned out to be the leading spirit in the career of her husband and her two sons: her elder sister Julia Maesa turned out to be the dominating influence over her two grandsons, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus, who both became successively emperors: Elagabalus was named after the principal god of their ancestral city, Emesene.
Septimius did well in the army and rose fast, and by 191 he was appointed governor of Upper Pannonia, modern Hungary and Serbia, with one of the largest armies in the Roman world. Thus in the chaos following the death of Marcus Aurelius, he was in a prime position to make a bid for imperial power. He marched quickly on Rome and was proclaimed Emperor by the Senate. He neutralised one of his rivals Clodius Albinus and eventually defeated the challenger from the East, Pescennius Niger. He was a powerful and dominating figure and soon proved himself as a mighty warrior.
He fought three major campaigns: the first was in the East where once again he attacked the Parthians with considerable success. He captured their capital Ctesiphon and they gave no more trouble. Then several years later in 203 he turned his attention to Africa where he revisited Leptis and beautified his home city. However there was trouble from the south, from the Garamantes who were the crucial gateway to trade across the Sahara.
The Garamantes are an interesting example of the effects of Romanisation on the Barbarian tribes outside the Empire. For long little was known about them, but a major archaeological campaign by David Mattingley has revealed the establishment of a successful town: they had discovered that there were underground water channels, and by exploiting these they could carry out widespread irrigation.
This took place at the height of the Roman Empire from the 1 – 3 centuries AD, and it displayed the remarkable way in which the Roman upsurge carried people upwards well beyond the boundaries of the Empire. However the Garamantes had been giving trouble, so Septimius led a campaign where he defeated the Empire who thereafter gave no more trouble. There was a defensive line known as the Limes Tripolitania, a pale imitation of Hadrian’s Wall, which he expanded and strengthened.
After several years in Rome, in 208 he set out on what proved to be his final campaign: Britain. In some ways his British campaign is a little odd. The building of the Antonine wall was not a success, and in the 60 years after the building of the wall, the barbarians living between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall refused to be Romanised and the archaeological evidence suggests a retreat to Hadrian’s Wall. However retreat was not a word in Septimius’ vocabulary. He would play the other policy and rather than trying to build a frontier, he would go ahead and conquer the whole of Scotland, or Caledonia as he called it.
He set out on a campaign following the footsteps of Agricola in the 80s up the East coast of Scotland to Aberdeen and beyond, and archaeologists have great fun working out which of the camps are Agricolan and which Severan. However Severus was an ill man. He was plagued by gout and had to be carried everywhere in a litter. When winter came, they withdrew to winter quarters in York, and here, in Feb 211, Septimius Severus died leaving his two sons Caracalla and Geta as joint emperors, largely under the control of their mother, Julia Domna.
They soon decided to make peace with the Caledonians and to retreat to Hadrian’s Wall. This was so thoroughly rebuilt that for long it was considered to be the wall of Severus and it was only in the 19th century that the study of inscriptions gave the honour back to Hadrian. Caracalla and Geta returned to Rome, though they hated each other so much that they would not even stay in the same place or eat dinner together. Their mother kept them apart for the rest of the year, but in December, Caracalla murdered his brother.
Caracalla reigned for nine more years with his mother doing most of the work. The one thing he achieved was in many ways one of the most important changes of all, for he introduced a new constitution, the Constitutio Antoniniana. This had the effect of making all freemen in the Roman Empire, Roman citizens, thus increasing the citizenship tenfold. This might not have been quite as dramatic as it seemed. The great historian Cassius Dio who was a contemporary, said that its main purpose was to increase taxation, because citizens were taxed and non-citizens were no; though it seems that the main taxes concerned, the inheritance tax and tax paid on the freeing of slaves, did not seem particularly onerous. No doubt it did have an effect in improving the cohesion of the Roman Empire, but if so, this is rarely mentioned.
Septimius was undoubtedly a great emperor: but was he a good one? His relations with the Senate were not good and many senators were put to death. Instead he relied on advisers from the equestrian classes, though some of these distinguished, notably Ulpian, the great jurist, considered one of the founders of Roman law.
But Septimius’ main relation was with the soldiers: he discharged the existing Praetorian guards, – always a risky thing for any emperor to do, but he had his army behind him, and he replaced the Praetorians with veterans from his Pannonian legions. He gave the whole army a bounty that included a donative of 250 denarii, and he increased their annual payment from 300 to 400 denarii a year. This may seem very generous but it had to be paid for, and it was paid for by debasing the coinage: there were three successive debasements, going from 81% silver purity to 54 %. His successor debased it further to 51%. This inevitably led to inflation. He had not learnt as modern bankers have done, to debase the currency and keep the inflation hidden, but as always there was a lag, and the real effects would not be seen until thirty years later. But the troubles of the 3rd century from the 330s onwards, show the results of the largess of Septimius Severus. He left his advice to his sons: be humane, enrich the soldiers, and let everyone else go to hell!
On to the Third Century