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Septimius Severus, Emperor of Rome

by John Welford 4 months ago in Historical

He spent much of his reign away from Rome on campaign

Lucius Septimius Severus became Emperor of Rome in 193 and reigned until 211, but he spent most of those years on campaign, either in fighting off other claimants to the imperial throne, of whom there were many, or defending the Empire from attack by enemies to the east and the north.

His rise to power

Septimius Severus was born in 146 near Leptis (in what is now Libya in North Africa). He held a number of military commands under emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus and rose to be commander-in-chief of the army in Pannonia and Illyria (the western Balkans and the western half of modern Hungary). When Emperor Pertinax was killed in 193, Severus was declared emperor by his troops and he proceeded to march on Rome to make good his claim.

The Praetorian Guard in Rome, who had murdered Pertinax because of the latter’s attempts to instill discipline in the Guard, had taken the extraordinary step of putting the Empire up for auction to the highest bidder. A wealthy Roman, Didius Julianus, had won by offering large sums of money to the soldiers, but was otherwise totally unsuited for high office. He was in turn executed by order of the Senate as Severus approached, and the latter was therefore able to claim the throne without opposition in Rome.

However, the eastern legions had also proclaimed a new emperor, this being Pescennius Niger, the governor of Syria. Severus therefore had to leave Rome almost immediately to face this challenge, which he did decisively near Issus (on the southern coast of modern Turkey) in 194, with Niger being put to death.

Severus then attacked Byzantium, laying siege to the city which had refused to submit to him. The siege lasted for two years, after which Severus had the walls demolished to ground level and all its soldiers and senior officials put to death. While the siege was in progress, Severus crossed the Euphrates in 195 and subdued the Mesopotamians.

In 196, Severus was able to return to Rome, only to find that there was another challenger for the throne, namely Clodius Albinus, who had been proclaimed emperor by the troops in Gaul. Albinus was defeated and killed in battle at Lugdunum (modern Lyons) on 19th February 197.

After another short time in Rome, Severus again had to march eastwards, to confront an invasion of Mesopotamia by the Parthians. He crossed the Euphrates in 198, and was successful in his campaign, but he spent three more years in the eastern Empire, visiting Arabia, Palestine and Egypt, and did not return to Rome until 202.

Severus as Emperor

He was now able to settle into something approaching a peaceful reign as emperor, for the next seven years anyway. He imposed a degree of stability that had been missing during the reigns of his predecessors, notably Commodus, although this was done by strong-arm tactics that made him unpopular in many quarters. Severus was always a soldier and not a politician.

In 208 he returned to the campaign field, accompanied by his sons Caracalla and Geta, by going to Britain and defending the province against the Caledonians. As part of this campaign he ordered the strengthening of Hadrian’s Wall, which had been completed some 80 years previously.

Severus never returned to Rome, dying of natural causes at Eboracum (York) on 4th February 211. He had decreed that both his sons should rule jointly as emperor, but this arrangement was to be short-lived. Septimius Severus had brought stability to the empire, but this was only to be a welcome interval in the chaos wrought by his predecessors and his successors.


John Welford

I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.

I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".

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