Septimius Severus: The First African Emperor of Rome

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Lucius Septimus Severus was the 13th emperor of the Roman Empire (from 193 to 211 AD), and quite uniquely, was its first ruler who hailed from Africa. More specifically, he was born in the Romanized city of Lepcis Magna, in modern-day Libya, in 145 AD from a family with a long history in local, as well as Roman politics and administration. Therefore, his “Africanitas” did not make him as unique as many modern observers have retrospectively supposed.

However, his method of taking power, and his agenda of creating a military monarchy, with absolute power focused on himself, was novel in many respects. Additionally, he took a universalizing approach to the empire, investing more heavily in its fringe and frontier provinces at the expense of Rome and Italy, and their local aristocracy.

Moreover, he was seen as the greatest expander of the Roman Empire since the days of the emperor Trajan. The wars and journeys across the empire that he participated in, to faraway provinces, took him away from Rome for a lot of his reign and ultimately provided his last resting place in Britain, where he died in February 211 AD.

By this point, the Roman Empire had changed forever and many aspects that have often been blamed in part for its downfall, were set in place. Yet Septimius had managed to regain some stability domestically, after the ignominious end of Commodus, and the civil war that followed his demise. Furthermore, he established the Severan Dynasty, which, whilst not impressive to previous standards, did rule for 42 years.

Lepcis Magna: The Hometown of Septimus Severus

The city where Septimius Severus was born, Lepcis Magna, was of the three most prominent cities in the region known as Tripolitania (“Tripolitania” denoting these “three cities”), along with Oea and Sabratha. To understand Septimius Severus and his African origins, it is important to first explore his place of birth and early upbringing.

Originally, Lepcis Magna had been established by Carthaginians, who themselves, originated from around Modern-day Lebanon and were originally called Phoenicians. These Phoenicians had founded the Carthaginian Empire, who were one of the Roman Republic’s most famous enemies, clashing with them in a series of three historical conflicts called the “Punic Wars.”

After the final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, almost all of “Punic” Africa, came under Roman control, including the settlement of Lepcis Magna, as Roman soldiers and settlers began to colonize it. Slowly, the settlement began to grow into an important outpost of the Roman Empire, becoming more officially part of its administration under Tiberius, as it became subsumed into the province of Roman Africa.

However, it still retained much of its original Punic culture and traits, creating a synchronicity between Roman and Punic religion, tradition, politics, and language. In this melting pot, many still clung to its pre-Roman roots, but advancement and progress was linked inextricably to Rome.

Developing early on as a prodigious supplier of olive oil, the city grew exponentially under Roman administration, as under Nero it became a municipium and received an amphitheater. Then under Trajan, its status was upgraded to a colonia.

At this time, Septimius’ grandfather, who shared the same name as the future emperor, was one of the most prominent Roman citizens in the region. He had been schooled by the leading literary figure of his day, Quintilian, and had established his close family as a prominent regional player of equestrian rank, whilst many of his relatives had reached higher into senatorial positions.

Whilst these paternal relatives seem to be Punic in origin and native to the region, Septimius’s maternal side is believed to have hailed originally from Tusculum, which was very nearby to Rome. After some time they later moved to North Africa and joined their houses together. This maternal gens Fulvii was a very well established family with aristocratic ancestors going back for centuries.

Therefore, whilst the origins and ancestry of the emperor Septimius Severus were undoubtedly different from his predecessors, many of whom had been born in Italy or Spain, he was still very much born into an aristocratic Roman culture and framework, even if it was a “provincial” one.

Thus, his “africanness” was unique to a degree, but it would not have been too sorely frowned upon to see an African individual in an influential position in the Roman Empire. Indeed, as has been discussed, many of his father’s relatives had already taken up different equestrian and senatorial posts by the time the young Septimius was born. Nor was it certain that Septimius Severus was technically “black” in terms of ethnicity.

Nonetheless, Septimius’s African origins certainly contributed to the novel aspects of his reign and the way that he chose to manage the empire. 

Septimius’s Early Life

Whilst we are quite lucky to have a relative abundance of ancient literary sources to turn to for Septimius Severus’s reign (including Eutropius, Cassius Dio, the Epitome de Caesaribus and the Historia Augusta), little is known about his early life in Lepcis Magna.

It is posited that he may have been present to watch the famed trial of the writer and speaker Apuleius, who was accused of “using magic” to seduce a woman and had to defend himself in Sabratha, the neighboring big city to Lepcis Magna. His defense became famous in its day and was later published as the Apologia.

Whether it was this event that sparked an interest in legal proceedings, or something else in the young Septimius, it was said that his favorite game as a child was “judges”, where he and his friends would act out mock trials, with Septimius always playing the role of Roman magistrate.  

Besides this we know that Septimius was schooled in Greek and Latin, to complement his native Punic. Cassius Dio tells us that Septimius was an avid learner, who was never satisfied with what was on offer in his native town. Consequently, after he had delivered his first public speech at 17, he headed to Rome, for further education.

Political Progress and Path to Power

The Historia Augusta provides a catalog of different omens that apparently foretold the ascendancy of Septimius Severus. This included the claims that Septimius once was lent the emperor’s toga accidentally when he had forgotten to bring his own to a banquet, just as he accidentally sat on the emperor’s chair on another occasion, without realizing.

Nonetheless, his political career before taking the throne was relatively unremarkable. Initially holding some standard equestrian posts, Septimius entered the senatorial ranks in 170 AD as quaestor, after which he took up the posts of praetor, tribune of the plebs, governor, and finally consul in 190 AD, the most esteemed position in the senate.

He had progressed in this fashion through the reigns of emperor Marcus Aurelius and Commodus and by the time of Commodus’s death in 192 AD, was positioned in charge of a large army as governor of upper Pannonia (in central Europe). When Commodus was initially murdered by his wrestling partner, Septimius remained neutral and did not make any notable plays for power.

In the chaos that followed Commodus’s death, Pertinax was made emperor, but only managed to hold on to power for three months. In an infamous episode of Roman History, Didius Julianus then bought the position of emperor from the emperor’s bodyguard – the Praetorian Guard. He was to last for even less time – nine weeks, during which time three other claimants to the throne were declared Roman emperors by their troops.

One was Pescennius Niger, an imperial legate in Syria. Another was Clodius Albinus, stationed in Roman Britain with three legions at his command. The other was Septimius Severus himself, posted along the Danube frontier.

Septimius had endorsed his troops’s proclamation and slowly began to march his armies towards Rome, fashioning himself as the avenger of Pertinax. Even though Didius Julianus conspired to have Septimius assassinated before he could reach Rome, it was the former who was actually murdered by one of his soldiers in June 193 AD (before Septimius arrived).

After finding this out, Septimius continued to slowly approach Rome, ensuring that his armies stayed with him and led the way, plundering as they went (to the ire of many contemporary bystanders and senators in Rome). In this, he set the precedent for how he would approach things throughout his reign – with a disregard for the senate and a championing of the military.

When he arrived in Rome, he spoke with the senate, explaining his reasons and with the presence of his troops stationed throughout the city, had the senate declare him emperor. Soon after, he had many of those who had supported and championed Julianus executed, even though he had only just promised the senate he would not act so unilaterally with senatorial lives.

Then, we are told that he designated Clodius Albinus his successor (in an expedient move designed to buy time) before setting out for the east to face his other opponent for the throne, Pescennius Niger.

Niger was beaten convincingly in 194 AD at the battle of Issus, after which a protracted mop-up operation was conducted, wherein Septimius and his generals hunted down and defeated any remaining pockets of resistance in the east. This operation took Septimius’s troops across to Mesopotamia against Parthia, and involved in a drawn-out siege of Byzantium, which had initially been Niger’s headquarters.

Following this, in 195 AD Septimius remarkably declared himself the son of Marcus Aurelius and brother of Commodus, adopting himself and his family into the Antonine Dynasty that had previously ruled as emperors. He named his son Macrinus, “Antoninus” and declared him “Caesar” – his successor, the same titled he had bestowed upon Clodius Albinus (and a title that had been previously bestowed on a number of occasions to designate an heir or more junior co-emperor).

Whether Clodius got the message first and declared war, or Septimius pre-emptively retracted his allegiance and declared war himself, is not easy to ascertain. Nonetheless, Septimius began to move westwards in order to confront Clodius. He went via Rome, to celebrate the one-hundred-year anniversary of his “ancestor” Nerva’s accession to the throne.

Eventually the two armies met at Lugdunum (Lyon) in 197 AD, wherein Clodius was decisively defeated to the extent that he soon after committed suicide, leaving Septimius unopposed as emperor of the Roman Empire.

Bringing Stability to the Roman Empire by Force

As previously mentioned, Septimius sought to legitimize his control over the Roman state by bizarrely claiming descent from Marcus Aurelius. Whilst it is difficult to know how seriously Septimius took his own assertions, it’s clear that it was intended to be a signal that he was going to bring back the stability and prosperity of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, who reigned over a golden age of Rome.

Septimius Severus compounded this agenda by soon deifying the previously disgraced emperor Commodus, which was sure to have ruffled a few senatorial feathers. He also adopted Antonine iconography and titulature for himself and his family, as well as promoting continuity with the Antonines in his coinage and inscriptions. 

As has previously been alluded to, another defining feature of Septimius’s reign and what he is well noted for in academic analyses, is his strengthening of the military, at the expense of the senate. Indeed, Septimius is accredited with the proper establishment of a military and absolutist monarchy, as well as the establishment of a new elite military caste, destined to overshadow the previously predominant senatorial class.

Before ever being proclaimed emperor, he had replaced the unruly and untrustworthy troop of current praetorian guards with a new 15,000 strong bodyguard of soldiers, mostly taken from the Danubian legions. After taking power, he was well aware – regardless of his claims of Antonine ancestry – that his accession was thanks to the military and therefore any claims to authority and legitimacy depended on their allegiance.

As such, he increased the pay of the soldiers considerably (partly through debasing the coinage) and bestowed upon them many new freedoms they had previously lacked (including the ability to marry – legally – and have their children classed as legitimate, rather than having to wait until after their long term of service). He also set up a system of advancement for soldiers that allowed them to gain civil office and take up various administrative posts.

From this system, a new military elite was born that began to slowly encroach upon the power of the senate, who had been further weakened by more summary executions carried out by Septimius Severus. He had claimed that they were carried out against lingering supporters of previous emperors or usurpers, but the veracity of such claims are very difficult to confirm.

Furthermore, soldiers were in effect insured through new officer clubs that would help care for them and their families, should they die. In another novel development, a legion was permanently situated in Italy as well, which both explicitly demonstrated Septimius Severus’ militaristic rule and represented a warning should any senators think of rebellion.

Yet for all of the negative connotations of such policies and the generally negative reception of “military monarchies” or “absolutist monarchies”, Septimius’s (perhaps harsh) actions, brought stability and security to the Roman Empire again. Also, whilst he undoubtedly was instrumental in making the Roman Empire of the next few centuries much more militaristic in nature, he was not pushing against the current.

For in truth, the senate’s power had been waning since the beginning of the Principate (the rule of emperors) and such currents were in fact accelerated under the widely revered Nerva-Antonines who had preceded Septimius Severus. Furthermore, there are some objectively good traits of rulership that Septimius exhibited – including his efficient handling of the empire’s finances, his successful military campaigns, and his assiduous attention to judicial matters.

Septimius the Judge

Just as Septimius had been passionate about judicial affairs as a child – with his playing of “judges” – he was very scrupulous in his handling of cases as ROman emperor as well. Dio tells us that he would be very patient in court and allow litigants abundant time to speak and other magistrates the ability to speak freely.

He was reportedly very strict on cases of adultery however, and published a prodigious number of edicts and statutes that were later recorded in the seminal legal text, the Digest. These covered an array of different areas, including public and private law, the rights of women, minors and slaves.

Yet it also reported that he moved much of the judicial apparatus away from senatorial hands, appointing legal magistrates from his new military caste. It is also through litigation that Septimius had many senators convicted and put to death. Nonetheless, Aurelius Victor described him as the “the establisher of rigorously fair laws”.

Septimius Severus’ Travels and Campaigns

From a retrospective outlook, Septimius was also responsible for accelerating a more global and centrifugal redistribution of resources and importance across the empire. No longer was Rome and Italy to be the main locus of significant development and enrichment, as he instigated a remarkable building campaign across the empire.

His home city and continent were particularly privileged in this time, with new buildings and benefits bestowed upon them. Much of this building programme was stimulated whilst Septimius was traveling around the empire as well, on some of his various campaigns and expeditions, some of which expanded the boundaries of Roman territory.  

Indeed, Septimius was known as the greatest expander of the empire since the “Optimus Princeps” (greatest emperor) Trajan. Like Trajan, he had engaged in wars with the perennial enemy Parthia to the East and had incorporated large tracts of their land into the Roman empire, establishing the new province of Mesopotamia.

Moreover, the frontier in Africa had been spread further south, whilst plans were intermittently made, then dropped, for further expansion in Northern Europe. This traveling nature of Septimius as well as his architectural programme across the empire, was complemented by the establishment of the military caste that has been previously mentioned.

This is because many of the military officers who became magistrates were sourced from the frontier provinces, which in turn led to the enrichment of their homelands and the increase in their political standing. The empire was therefore, in some respects, beginning to become more equal and democratic with its affairs no longer influenced so much by the Italian center.

Additionally, there was a further diversification of religion as well, as Egyptian, Syrian and other fringe region’s influences permeated into the Roman pantheon of gods. Whilst this was a relatively recurrent occurrence in Roman History, it is believed that Septimius’s more exotic origins helped to accelerate this movement increasingly away from more traditional methods and symbols of worship.

Later Years in Power and the British campaign

These continuous travels of Septimius also took him to Egypt – commonly described as the “breadbasket of the empire.” Here, as well as quite drastically restructuring certain political and religious institutions, he caught smallpox – an ailment that seemed to have quite a drastic and degenerative effect on Septimius’s health.

Nonetheless he was not to be dissuaded from resuming his travels when he recovered. Yet, in his later years the sources suggest he was recurrently bogged down by bad health, caused by the after effects of this illness and recurrent bouts of gout. This may be why his eldest son Macrinus began to take a larger share of responsibility, not to mention why his younger son Geta was also given the title of “Caesar” (and therefore appointed a joint-heir).

Whilst Septimius had been traveling around the empire after his Parthian campaign, embellishing it with new buildings and monuments, his governors in Britain had been strengthening the defenses and building on the infrastructure along Hadrian’s wall. Whether this was intended as a preparatory policy or not, Septimius set out for Britain with a large army and his two sons in 208 AD.   

His intentions are guesswork, but it is suggested that he intended to finally conquer the entire island by pacifying the unruly Britons remaining in modern-day Scotland. It is also suggested by Dio that he went there in order to bring his two sons together in common cause, as they had by now begun to antagonize and oppose each other greatly.

Having set up his court in Eboracum (York), he advanced into Scotland and fought a number of campaigns against a series of intransigent tribes. After one of these campaigns, he had declared him and his sons victorious in 209-10 AD, but rebellion soon broke out again. It was around this time that Septimius’s increasingly degenerating health forced him back to Eboracum.

Before long he passed away (in the beginning of 211 AD), having encouraged his sons to not disagree with each other and rule the empire jointly after his death (another Antonine precedent).

Legacy of Septimus Severus

Septimius’s advice was not followed by his sons and they soon came to violent disagreement. In the same year that his father had passed away Caracalla ordered a praetorian guard to murder his brother, leaving him as sole ruler. With this accomplished however, he eschewed the role of ruler and let his mother do most of the job for him!

Whilst Septimius had established a new dynasty – The Severans – they were never to accomplish the same stability and prosperity as the Nerva-Antonines that had preceded them, regardless of Septimius’s attempts to connect the two. Nor did they really improve the general regression that the Roman Empire had experienced after the demise of Commodus.

Whilst the Severan Dynasty was only to last 42 years, it was then followed by a period known as “The Crisis of the Third Century”, which was constituted by civil wars, internal rebellions and barbarian invasions. In this time the Empire nearly collapsed, demonstrating that the Severans did not push things in the right direction in any noticeable way.  

Yet Septimius certainly left his mark on the Roman state, for better or worse, setting it on a course to become a military monarchy of absolutist rule revolving around the emperor. Moreover, his universalizing approach to the empire, pulling funding and development away from the center, to the peripheries, was something that was increasingly followed.

Indeed, in a move directly inspired by his father (or her husband) the Antonine Constitution was passed in 212 AD, which bestowed citizenship on every free male in the empire – a remarkable bit of legislation that transformed the Roman world. Whilst it can retrospectively be attributed to some form of benevolent thinking, it may have equally been inspired by a need to procure more tax.

Many of these currents then, Septimius set in motion, or accelerated to a significant degree. Whilst he was a strong and assured ruler, who expanded Roman territory and embellished the periphery provinces, he was accredited by the acclaimed English historian Edward Gibbon as a primary instigator of the Roman Empire’s decline.

His aggrandizement of the military at the expense of the Roman senate, meant that future emperors ruled by the same means – military might, rather than aristocratically endowed (or supported) sovereignty. Furthermore, his large increases in military pay and expenditure would cause a permanent and crippling problem for future rulers who struggled to afford the prodigious costs of running the empire and army.

In Lepcis Magna he was no doubt remembered as a hero, but for later historians his legacy and reputation as Roman emperor is ambiguous at best. Whilst he brought the stability that Rome needed after the death of Commodus, his governance of the state was predicated on military oppression and created a toxic framework for rule that undoubtedly contributed to the Crisis of the Third Century.

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