Septimius Severus

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Septimius Severus
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Lucius Septimius Severus Pertinax (born April 11, 146 in Leptis Magna in today's Libya; † February 4, 211 in Eboracum , today York ) was Roman Emperor from April 9, 193 to February 4, 211. He founded the Severer dynasty and was one of the protagonists of the second year of the four emperors .


Rise to the emperor

Septimius Severus was born in Leptis Magna in the province of Africa as the son of Publius Septimius Geta and Fulvia Pia. He had a brother who was also named Publius Septimius Geta .

His family was thoroughly Romanized, belonged to the Roman equestrian order and was wealthy. Septimius apparently also spoke Punic , but had already mastered the two great languages ​​of the empire, Latin and Greek, from childhood, and also studied Greek and Latin literature. In his first speeches in the Senate, he is said to have been mocked because of his “Punic” accent; Although this later apparently disappeared, his Latin is said to have had an "African" tinge to the end. Apparently his provincial roots were a source of ridicule for his enemies. The claim sometimes made in popular scientific publications that he was even of sub-Saharan origin, however, finds no support in the sources; Severus can in any case be considered a Roman. For further training he went to Rome. Although he had not previously completed the military career as a tribunus militum , which is actually mandatory for future senators , but had undergone legal training, he was admitted to a senatorial career by Emperor Mark Aurel due to the advocacy of one of his relatives and was admitted to the Senate under an adlectio 169 recorded.

Severus completed the classic cursus honorum : 170 he was a quaestor in Rome, and the following year in Sardinia. In 173/174 he was legatus proconsulis provinciae Africae , then on the imperial recommendation he became tribune of the people , 178 praetor and then legate (and thus commander) of Legio IV Scythica . After that he spent some time in Athens . In 190 he became a suffect consul , together with Apuleius Rufinus and, according to the Historia Augusta, at the express request of the emperor Commodus , and received the command of the legions in the province of Pannonia the following year from the emperor . Nothing is known of having commanded military operations. The command was probably transferred to the militarily inexperienced man for precisely this reason, since it was assumed (erroneously) that no usurpation was to be feared from him . Since 187 Septimius Severus was married to the aristocrat Julia Domna from Syria with whom he had two sons, Caracalla born in 188 and Geta born in 189 . He had previously been married to Paccia Marciana, originally from Africa , from around 175 , who had died around 185. That first marriage had been childless.

An aureus of Septimius Severus from the year he was made emperor

After the murder of Commodus' successor Pertinax in Rome on March 28, 193, Severus was proclaimed emperor by the Pannonian troops in Carnuntum on April 9. The situation in the empire was confused: In Rome, after Pertinax's death, Didius Julianus bought the office of emperor from the Praetorians , but Septimius was able to rely on the majority of the legions in the empire. Presumably he had already planned the usurpation under Pertinax, because it is unlikely that he should have started such an undertaking in such a short time - he could not have found out about Pertinax's death until April 7th at the earliest: First, he must seek support of the Danube regions, which undoubtedly took some time. In any case, Septimius crossed the Alps in order to take Rome without resistance; Didius Julianus, who had last offered him a divided rule, had been murdered before his arrival. Septimius dissolved the old Praetorian Guard and replaced it with a new guard loyal to him, whose soldiers received a high donation . This marked a turning point, because while the Praetorians had previously been recruited exclusively in Italy and a few particularly strongly Romanized provinces (such as the Baetica ) for 200 years , from then on they came from all regions of the empire, but above all from the rather uncivilized Pannonia and the illyricum .

However, the legions in the province of Syria had proclaimed their commander Pescennius Niger as emperor in mid-April , while the candidate of the troops stationed in Britain was Clodius Albinus . Septimius had to fight for power and demonstratively placed himself in the footsteps of the murdered Pertinax. By negotiating, he succeeded in winning Clodius Albinus on his side by making him Caesar and thus the future successor. Then he could turn to Pescennius Niger. Its troops were defeated in Thrace and Asia Minor in 193/194 . At Issus, Niger was defeated in March 194 and was taken prisoner, in which he was killed shortly afterwards. Cities that stood by Niger, such as Antioch on the Orontes and Byzantium , were severely punished. The province of Syria was divided into two parts to prevent a concentration of power in the hands of the governor. There was also limited persecution of Christians .

Septimius Severus as emperor

Aureus of Septimius Severus

Military successes in the east

Septimius Severus stayed in the east after his victory over Niger and successfully waged war against the Parthians in 195 and 197/198 . In 195 the support of the Niger by Parthian vassals served as a pretext for the successful Parthica expeditio . The war was not directed against the Parthians themselves, but only against some of the petty kings allied with them . In the course of the campaign, the rulers of Adiabene and Osrhoene , who had previously been under Roman influence, finally came under the control of Rome.

After the victory over Albinus (see below), three new legions were raised in 197 for a second Parthian War ( Parthica I, II and III). This time the Roman offensive was directed against the actual Parthian Empire, which had evidently been weakened by internal turmoil. No organized resistance was encountered when advancing downstream in Mesopotamia. The Parthian capital, Ctesiphon , was probably stormed and looted in late 197 (or early 198); the arsakid Parthian king Vologaeses V , who had no standing army worth mentioning, had previously withdrawn to the Iranian highlands to gather the aristocracy there. Before there could be a counterattack, the Romans had already withdrawn upstream. According to Cassius Dio , 100,000 prisoners are said to have been carried along. These successes in the east were later immortalized on the Arch of Septimius Severus . At the beginning of 198 Severus took on the nickname Parthicus maximus , which was also minted on coins; Only Trajan had carried this title before him , as his successor Septimius now presented himself.

A conquest of the Parthian Empire was out of the question; Severus hadn't put the royal army into battle at all. Instead, he turned back to northern Mesopotamia, but two attempts against the strategically important, Parthian allied Hatra failed, and the emperor had to withdraw defeated from the city. Nevertheless, it was decided to officially incorporate northern Mesopotamia , which had probably been under Roman influence since the campaign of Lucius Verus, into the Roman Empire .

Denarius of Septimius Severus with inscription FVNDATOR PACIS (founder of peace)

In the year 200 at the latest, Severus established the new province of Mesopotamia and occupied it with two newly established legions. The Roman Empire now extended as far as the Tigris in the east . The establishment of the two provinces of Osrhoene and Mesopotamia east of the Euphrates represented an unacceptable provocation for the Arsacids; In the following four centuries, they and their successors, the Sassanids , tried again and again to drive the Romans out of Mesopotamia and to re-establish the Euphrates as a border: The relative calm on the Roman eastern border was therefore over from then on. Cassius Dio already regarded the establishment of the Mesopotamian provinces as a serious mistake.

After the Parthian War, Septimius Severus stayed in the east for some time. He visited Alexandria and Egypt in the winter of 199/200 . Then the emperor went to Rome in 202. He demonstratively renounced a triumphal procession, allegedly because he did not want to give the impression that he was actually triumphing over his opponents of the civil war. However, as mentioned, he had a triumphal arch erected anyway.

Domestic politics

The emperor's relations with the Roman Senate were strained. He made himself unpopular by further restricting the competences of the Senate, which had lost real power since Augustus , but still formally governed the res publica (see Principle ).

In 195 Clodius Albinus rose, who had apparently expected more from his agreement with Septimius and had a large following in the Senate, when it became clear that Septimius had intended not him, but his two own sons as his successor. Albinus was declared an enemy of the state ( hostis publicus ) and in turn moved with an army to Gaul , where he was defeated in early 197, however, in a battle near Lugdunum and committed suicide. If Severus had spared the senators among its supporters after the victory over Niger, he now had many aristocrats killed. Several supporters of Albinus, including Sulpicianus , lost their lives in connection with his uprising. This earned Severus the hatred of many senators.

From then on, Septimius Severus was finally the sole ruler of the empire. Now the consilium principis gained in importance, in which mainly jurists from the equestrian order set the tone. From then on, the knights ( equites ) played an increasingly important role in administration and the military. The recruitment of chivalrous jurists should also be important for the development of Roman law ; and the legions that Septimius reorganized were commanded by knights and not, as was previously the case, by senators. This initiated a development that would ultimately lead to the exclusion of the senators from military command posts under Gallienus (around 260).

The Legio II Parthica was demonstratively stationed near Rome in 202, thus ending the demilitarization of Italy (which was only apparent in view of the presence of the Praetorians). Septimius generously rewarded the troops devoted to him, which, however, contributed to the devaluation of money. In addition, he allowed the soldiers for the first time legally valid marriages while on duty, and particularly deserving centurions could now pursue a chivalric career and thus further advance socially. In addition, the power of the individual military leaders was restricted, as individual commanders or governors now had fewer legions under their command; the time when several legions were stationed in one province was over.

More obviously than the emperors before him, Severus marked the army as the real and chief pillar of his power. The soldiers' pay, which had remained unchanged for more than a hundred years, has now been gradually doubled by the civil war winner, which in view of the fact that the maintenance of the army had already devoured around two thirds of the Roman state budget, led to a huge financial burden. Severus and his successor Caracalla therefore increased the tax pressure massively.

Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum in Rome

Despite the strictness of his rule, Septimius was popular with the people of Rome and formally adhered to the principled ideology that he was not a monarch but merely a protector of the republic. He demonstratively contained corruption and fought the robbery in Italy. When he returned from his victory over the Parthians, he had a triumphal arch built, which has been preserved to this day and bears his name. An extensive building program was initiated from which the population of Rome benefited considerably. He also had olive oil distributed free of charge to many residents. For his successes he was celebrated by sacrificing himself at a fire altar with the inscription "Wiedererrichter der Stadt" ( Restitutor urbis ) on a coin. In 204 he also organized splendid ludi saeculares in Rome , the course of which was recorded in detail in a large inscription erected on the Field of Mars .

Septimius Severus as restitutor urbis on denarius, Kampmann 49.159.2

Overall, Septimius Severus endeavored above all to stabilize his rule internally, which he originally owed to usurpation . In order to be able to maintain his authority over the army, on which he was visibly dependent, he increasingly relied on dynastic legitimation. His fictitious adoption by Emperor Mark Aurel, whom he wanted to build on, belongs in this context. Therefore, he rehabilitated Commodus, who was hated by the Senate but popular with the army, even had him elevated to the rank of gods and called himself divi Marci filius, divi Commodi frater , "son of the deified Markus and brother of the deified Commodus". He also inherited the Commodus' private fortune through fictitious adoption. He gave his older son Caracalla, Augustus since 198 , the new name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus , in order to tie in with the “golden age” of the Antonines. In addition, there was an attempt to give the ruling family a sacred character as a “divine house” ( domus divina ) . Septimius Severus was the first Roman emperor to have himself depicted with a nimbus , pointing to late antiquity .

Persecution of Christians

During his government there were local persecutions of Christians : as early as 202 the emperor had made conversion to Christianity a punishable offense. There was no doubt that there were Christians at his court. He allowed minor persecutions of Christians in Egypt and Thebes as well as in the provinces of Africa and in the East to take place, even if the church was hardly affected by it. He thus placed himself in the tradition of the Roman Christian policy of the previous decades.

Last years and death

Septimius Severus with his family on a contemporary tondo . Geta's face after his assassination repaid .

In the last years of his reign, Septimius Severus undertook several campaigns to preserve the Roman claim to power in Britain ; in addition, his sons and designated successors were to gain loyalty to the troops through military success. In 208 the emperor , who was already severely plagued by gout , traveled to Britain with his sons Caracalla and Geta, who were said to have been relentlessly enemies since their youth. Geta received civilian control over the province in 209, and Caracalla was given supreme command of the army. The Roman army advanced far north from Eboracum . The emperor ordered the renovation of Hadrian's Wall . Finally he died in Eboracum on February 4th, 211. His last words to his two sons are said to have been: "Be united, enrich the soldiers and despise all others."

After his death he was declared a god ( divus ) by the Senate . He was succeeded by Caracalla and Geta, who both already held the title Augustus and whose hostility was now openly revealed. The power-conscious Caracalla murdered Geta soon afterwards and became the sole successor of his father in late 211 or early 212. Like him, he tried above all to win the support of the army.

Balance sheet

Larger than life bronze statue of Septimius Severus in divine nudity, Cyprus Museum, Nicosia

The reign of Septimius Severus, despite some horrors for the Senate and the Christians, initially had a stabilizing effect on the empire. He secured the borders. The provinces and the economy initially benefited from the calm in the empire, although the cities in particular groaned under the increased taxes and there were increasing signs of an economic crisis. The increased displacement of senators from the Reich leadership is seen by many researchers as a logical measure rather than a real innovation. But it was precisely the elimination of the Senate and the preference for the military that earned Septimius Severus a bad reputation , especially in senatorial historiography . Undoubtedly, the rise of this Romanized North African to empire is remarkable. His reign therefore appears to some historians to be a rather positive one, especially in view of the turmoil shortly before his accession to the throne and the subsequent period of the " Imperial Crisis of the 3rd Century ".

On the other hand, the government of Severus marked a turning point with its disclosure of the ruler's dependence on the benevolence of the army, because it ushered in a development that was to culminate among the soldier emperors who were appointed and overthrown by the troops at will. The usurper Severus tried by all means and regardless of loss to keep himself in power; nevertheless he could not permanently compensate for the loss of reputation of the empire for which he was responsible. Not least the related financial policy of Severus, which led to a massive increase in tax pressure, should have disastrous consequences for the following period. Ultimately, the question arises whether Severus delayed the occurrence of the "Imperial Crisis" or rather helped to trigger it.


The most important historiographical sources are the often unreliable Historia Augusta (although the vita of Septimius Severus there is probably based on Marius Maximus and contains quite valuable material), Cassius Dio (book 72ff .; counted according to the edition in the Loeb Classical Library ) and Herodian ( Book 2 and 3). Several sources report that Septimius Severus also wrote an autobiography, but it is lost; allegedly it was used by the author of the Historia Augusta .


  • Timothy Barnes: Aspects of the Severan Empire, part I: Severus as a new Augustus. In: New England Classical Journal 35, 2008, pp. 251-267.
  • Anthony R. Birley : Septimius Severus. The African Emperor . 2nd edition, Batsford, London 1988, ISBN 0-7134-5694-9 (standard work)
  • Alison Cooley: Septimius Severus. The Augustan emperor . In: Simon Swain et al. (Ed.): Severan Culture. Cambridge 2007, pp. 385-397.
  • Anne Daguet-Gagey: Septime Sévère. Rome, l'Afrique et l'Orient . Payot, Paris 2000.
  • Julie Langford: Maternal Megalomania. Julia Domna and the Imperial Politics of Motherhood. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2013, ISBN 978-1-4214-0847-7 (current, important study on the role that Septimius' wife Julia Domna played in the self-portrayal of the emperor and his dynasty)
  • Achim Lichtenberger : Severus Pius Augustus: Studies on the sacred representation and reception of the rule of Septimius Severus and his family (193-211 AD) (= Impact of Empire , Volume 14). Brill, Leiden et al. 2011, ISBN 978-90-04-20192-7 . ( Review )
  • David S. Potter: The Roman Empire at Bay . Routledge, London and New York 2004, ISBN 978-0-415-10057-1 .
  • Jussi Rantala: The Ludi Saeculares of Septimius Severus. The Ideologies of a New Roman Empire. Routledge, London 2017.
  • Zeev Rubin: Dio, Herodian, and Severus' Second Parthian War . In: Chiron 5, 1975, pp. 419-441.
  • Zeev Rubin: Civil War Propaganda and Historiography . Latomus, Brussels 1980.
  • Jörg Spielvogel : Septimius Severus . Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2006, ISBN 3-534-15426-6 . ( Review )

Web links

Commons : Septimius Severus  - album with pictures, videos and audio files


  1. Epitome de Caesaribus 20.8; see also Birley, Septimius Severus , p. 34f.
  2. Historia Augusta , Vita Severi 19.9.
  3. Birley, Septimius Severus , pp. 89ff.
  4. Birley, Septimius Severus , pp. 129ff.
  5. Cassius Dio 76.9
  6. Cf. Michael A. Speidel: A bulwark for Syria. Septimius Severus and the Provincial Order of Northern Mesopotamia in the Third Century . In: Chiron 37 (2007), pp. 405-433.
  7. Cassius Dio 76,3,2
  8. On the years in Italy see Birley, Septimius Severus , p. 155ff.
  9. AE 1932, 70.
  10. Gerold Walser : The Severers in Research 1960–1972 . In: Rise and Decline of the Roman World , Vol. II.2, Berlin 1975, pp. 614–656, here: 624.
  11. Birley, Septimius Severus , pp. 170ff.
  12. Cassius Dio 77.15.2.
  13. See the attempt at a balance sheet in Birley, Septimius Severus , pp. 195–200.
predecessor Office successor
Didius Julianus Roman emperor
Caracalla and Geta