1902 Encyclopedia > Septimus Severus (Lucius Septimus Severus)

Lucius Septimus Severus
(often known as: Septimus Severus)
Roman emperor (from 193)

LUCIUS SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS, the twenty-first emperor of Rome, reigned from 193 to 211 A.D. He was born in 146 at Leptis Magna, an African coast town in the district of Syrtes, whose ancient prosperity is still attested by its extensive ruins. In this region of Africa, despite its long possession by the Romans, the Punic tongue was still spoken by the people in general. Severus had to acquire Latin as a foreign language, and is said to have spoken it to the end of his days with a strong African accent. After he had arrived at the throne he dismissed abruptly from Rome a sister who had come to visit him, because he felt shame at her abominable Latin. Yet Severus and his dynasty were almost the only emperors of provincial descent who frankly cherished the province of their origin, while the province showed true loyalty to the only Roman emperor ever born on African soil, and to the successors who derived their title from him.

Of the origin of the Severi nothing is known : it is a natural but very doubtful conjecture that the L. Septimius Severus, a native of Africa, addressed by the poet Statius, was an ancestor of the emperor who bore the same name. The father of Severus was a Roman citizen of equestrian rank, and it may safely be affirmed that the family held a poor position when he was born, but had risen in importance by the time he reached manhood. Two of his uncles attained to consular rank. Fulvius Pius, the maternal grandfather of Severus, is often identified with the man of that name who was governor of Africa, and, after being condemned for corruption by Pertinax, was highly honoured by Didius Julianus; but dates are strongly against the identification. Of the future emperor's education we learn nothing but its results. Spartianus declares him to have been " very learned in Latin and Greek literature," to have had a genuine zeal for study, and to have been fond of philosophy and rhetoric. But the learning of rulers is often seen through a magnifying medium, and we may better accept the statement of Dio Cassius that in the pursuit of education his eagerness was greater than his success, and that he was rather shrewd than facile. No doubt in his early years he acquired that love for jurisprudence which distinguished him as emperor. Of his youth we know only that it was entirely spent at Leptis. Beyond that there is merely one anecdotal fabri-cation giving an account of youthful wildness,

The removal of Severus from Leptis to Rome is attri-buted by his biographer to the desire for higher education, but was also no doubt due in some degree to ambition. From the emperor Marcus Aurelius he early obtained, by intercession of a consular uncle, the distinction of the broad purple stripe. At twenty-six, that is, almost at the earliest age allowed by law, Severus attained the quaestor-ship and a seat in the senate, and proceeded as quaestor militaris to the senatorial province of Baetica, in the Beninsula. While Severus was temporarily absent in Africa in consequence of the death of his father, the province of Baetica, disordered by invasion and internal commotion, was taken over by the emperor, who gave the senate Sardinia in exchange. On this Severus became military quaestor of Sardinia. His next office, probably in 174, was that of legate to the proconsul of Africa, and in the following year lie was tribune of the plebs. This magistracy, though far different from what it had been in the days of the republic, was still one of dignity, and brought with it promotion to a higher grade in the senate. During the tribunate he married his first wife Marcia, whose name he passed over in his autobiography, though he erected statues of her after he became emperor. In 178 Severus became praetor, not by favour of the emperor, but by competition for the suffrages of the senators. Then, probably in the same year, he went to Spain as legate; after that (179) he commanded a legion in Syria. The death of Marcus Aurelius seems in some way to have interrupted his career; he was unemployed for several years, and devoted great part of his leisure to the study of literature, religion, and antiquities (so says Spartianus) at Athens. The year of Severus's first consulship cannot be determined with precision, but it falls within the space between 185 and 190. In this time also falls the marriage with Julia, afterwards famous as Julia Domna, whose acquaintance he had no doubt made when an officer in Syria. Her two sons Bassianus (known as Caracalla) and Geta were probably born in 188 and 189. Severus was governor in succession of Gallia Lugdunensis, Sicily, and Pannonia Superior. He was in command of three legions at Carnuntum, the capital of the province last named, when news reached him that Commodus had been murdered by his favourite concubine and his most trusted servants.

Up to this moment the career of Severus had been ordinary in its character. He had not raised himself above the usual official level. He had achieved no military dis-tinction,—had indeed seen no warfare beyond the petty border frays of a frontier province. But the storm that now tried all official spirits found his alone powerful enough to brave it. Three imperial dynasties had now been ended by assassination. The Flavian line had enjoyed much shorter duration and much less prestige than the other two, and the circumstances of its fall had been peculiar in that it was probably planned in the interest of the senate and the senate certainly reaped the immediate fruits. But the crisis which arose on the death of Nero and the crisis which arose on the death of Commodus were strikingly alike. In both cases it was left to the army to determine by a struggle which of the divisional commanders should succeed to the command-in-chief, that is, to the imperial throne. In each case the contest began with an impulsion given to the commanders by the legionaries themselves. The soldiers of ; the great commands competed keenly for the honour and the material advantages to be won by placing their general in the seat of empire. The officer who refused to lead would have been deemed a traitor to his troops, and would have suffered the punishment of his treason.

There is a widespread impression that the Praetorian guards at all times held the Roman empire in their hands, but its erroneousness is demonstrated by the events of the year 193. For the first time in the course of imperial history the Praetorians presumed to nominate as emperor a man who had no legions at his back. This was Pertinax, who has been well styled the Galba of his time-—upright and honourable to severity, and zealous for good govern-ment, but blindly optimist about the possibilities of reform in a feeble and corrupt age. After a three months' rule he was destroyed by the power that lifted him up. According to the well-known story, true rather in its out-line than in its details, the Praetorians sold the throne to Didius Julianus. But at the end of two months both the Praetorians and their nominee were swept away by the real disposers of Roman rule, the provincial legions. Four groups of legions at the time were strong enough to aspire to determine the destiny of the empire,—those quartered in Britain, in Germany, in Pannonia, in Syria. Three of the groups actually took the decisive step, and Severus in Pannonia, Pescennius Niger in Syria, Clodius Albinus in Britain, received from their troops the title of Augustus. Severus far outdid his rivals in promptness and decision. By what means we do not know, he secured the aid of the legions in Germany and of those in Illyria. These, with the forces in Bannonia, made a combination sufficiently formidable to overawe Albinus for the moment. He probably deemed that his best chance lay in the exhaustion of his competitors by an internecine struggle. At all events he received with submission an offer made by Severus, no doubt well understood by both to be politic, insincere, and temporary. Severus sent a trusted officer, who confirmed Albinus in his power and bestowed upon him the title of Caesar, making him the nominal heir-apparent to the throne.

Before the action of Severus was known in Borne, the senate and people had shown signs of turning to Bescen-nius Niger, that he might deliver them from the poor puppet Didius Julianus and avenge on the Praetorians the murder of Pertinax. Having secured the co-operation or neutrality of all the forces in the western part of the empire, Severus hastened to Borne. To win the sympathy of the capital he posed as the avenger and successor of Pertinax, whose name he even added to his own, and used to the end of his reign. The feeble defences of Julianus were broken down and the Praetorians disarmed and dis-banded, without a blow being struck. A new body of household troops was enrolled and organized on quite different principles from the old. In face of the senate, as Dio tells us, Severus acted for the moment like " one of the good emperors in the olden days." After a magni-ficent entry into the city he joined the senate in execrat-ing the memory of Commodus, and in punishing the murderers of Pertinax, whom he honoured with the most splendid funeral rites. He also encouraged the senate to pass a decree directing that any emperor or subordinate of an emperor who should put a senator to death should be treated as a public enemy. But he ominously refrained from asking the senate to sanction his accession to the throne.

The rest of Severus's reign, as it is read in the ancient histories, is in the main occupied with wars, over which we shall rapidly pass. The power wielded by Pescennius Niger, who called himself emperor, and was supposed to control one half of the Boman world, proved to be more imposing than substantial. The magnificent promises of Oriental princes were falsified as usual in the hour of need. Niger himself, as described by Dio, was the very type of mediocrity, conspicuous for no faculties, good or bad. This very character had no doubt commended him to Commodus as suited for the important command in Syria, which might have proved a source of danger in abler hands. The contest between Severus and Niger was practically decided after two or three engagements, fought by Severus's officers. The last battle, which took place at Issus, ended in the defeat and death of Niger (194). After this the emperor spent two years in successful attacks upon the peoples bordering on Syria, particularly in Adiabene and Osrhoene. Byzantium, the first of Niger's possessions to be attacked, was the last to fall, after a glorious defence.

Late in 196 Severus turned westward, to reckon with Albinus, who was well aware that the reckoning was inevitable. He was better born and better educated than Severus, but in capacity far inferior. As Several was nearing Italy he received the news that Albinus had been declared emperor by his soldiers. The first counter-stroke of Severus was to affiliate himself and his elder son to the Antonines by a sort of spurious and posthumous adop-tion. The prestige of the old name, even when gained in this illegitimate way, was probably worth a good deal. Bassianus, the elder son of Severus, thereafter known as Aurelius Antoninus, was named Caesar in place of Albinus, and was thus marked out as successor to his father. With-out interrupting the march of his forces, Severus con-trived to make an excursion to Borne. Here he availed himself with much subtlety of the sympathy many senators were known to have felt for Niger. Though he was so far faithful to the decree passed by his own advice that he put no senator to death, yet he banished and impoverished many whose presence or influence seemed dangerous or inconvenient to his prospects. Of the sufferers probably few had ever seen or communicated with Niger.

The collision between the forces of Severus and Albinus was the most violent that had taken place between Roman troops since the mighty contest at Philippi. The decisive engagement was fought in February of the year 197 on the plain between the Rhone and the Saone, to the north of Lyons. Dio tells us that 150,000 men fought on each side. The fortunes of Severus were, to all appearance, at one stage of the battle as hopeless as those of Julius Caesar were for some hours during the battle of Munda. The tide was turned by the same means in both cases—by the personal conduct and bravery of the commander.

By this crowning victory Severus was released from all need for disguise, and " poured forth on the civil population all the wrath which he had been storing up for a long time " (Dio). He particularly frightened the senate by calling himself the son of Marcus and brother of Commodus, whom he had before insulted. And he read a speech in which he declared that the severity and cruelty of Sulla, Marius, and Augustus had proved to be safer policy than the clemency of Pompey and Julius Caesar, which had wrought their ruin. He ended with an apology for Commodus and bitter reproaches against the senate for their sympathy with his assassins. Over sixty senators were arrested, on a charge of having adhered to Albinus, and half of them were put to death. In most instances the charge was merely a pretence to enable the emperor to crush out the forward and dangerous spirits in the senate. The murderers of Commodus were punished; Commodus himself was deified ; and on the monuments from this time onward Severus figures as the brother of that reproduction of all the vice and cruelty of Nero with the refinement left out.

The next years (197-202) were devoted by Severus to one of the dominant ideas of the empire from its earliest days—war against the Parthians. The results to which Trajan and Verus had aspired were now fully attained, and Mesopotamia was definitely established as a Boman pro-vince. Part of the time was spent in the exploration of Egypt, in respect of which Dio takes opportunity to say that Severus was not the man to leave anything human or divine uninvestigated. The emperor returned to enjoy a well-earned triumph, commemorated to this day by the arch in Rome which bears his name. During the six years which followed (202-208) Severus resided at Rome and gave his attention to the organization of the empire. No doubt his vigorous influence was felt to its remotest corners, but our historians desert us at this point and leave us for the most part to the important but dim and defective conclusions to be drawn from the abundant monumental records of the reign. Only two or three events in the civil history of this period are fully narrated by the ancient writers. The first of these is the festival of the Decennalia, or rejoicings in the tenth year of the emperor's reign. Contemporaneous with this festival was the marriage of Aurelius Antoninus (Caracalla) with Plautilla, the daughter of Plautianus, commander of the reorganized Praetorian guards. This officer holds a conspicuous position in the ancient accounts of the reign, yet it is all but impossible to believe a good deal that we are told concerning him. Nevertheless, without a clear view of the career of Plautianus, it is difficult to grasp definitely some important features in the character of Severus, or to appreciate exactly the nature of his government. According to Dio and Herodian, Plautianus was allowed for years to exercise and abuse the whole power of the emperor, so far as it did not relate to the actual conduct of war. He was cruel, arrogant, and corrupt; and the whole empire groaned under his exac-tions. Geta, the brother of Severus, tried to open the emperor's eyes, but the licence of Plautianus was merely restricted for a moment, to be bestowed again in full. Finally, in 203 this second Sejanus fell a victim to an intrigue set on foot by his own son-in-law Antoninus (Caracalla), the details of which were not clearly known even to contemporary writers. It is hard to see in what way we are to reconcile this history with the known facts of Severus's character and career, unless we assume that Plautianus was really the instrument of his master for the execution of his new policy towards the senate and the senatorial provinces. That Plautianus abused his authority and brought about his own fall is probable enough,—also that Severus had destined him at one time for the guardian-ship of his sons. Plautianus was succeeded in his office by two men, one of whom was the celebrated jurist Papinian.

Severus spent the last three years of his life (208-211) in Britain, amidst constant and not very successful warfare, which he is said to have provoked partly to strengthen the discipline and powers of the legions, partly to wean his sons from their evil courses by hard military service. He died at York in February of the year 211. There are vague traditions that his death was in some way hastened by Caracalla. This prince had been, since¡ about 197, nominally joint emperor with his father, so that no ceremony was needed for his recognition as monarch.

The natural gifts of Severus were of no high or unusual order. He had a clear head, promptitude, resolution, tenacity, and great organizing power, but no touch of genius. That he was cruel cannot be questioned, but his cruelty was of the calculating kind, and always clearly directed to some end. He threw the head of Niger over the ramparts of Byzantium, but merely as the best means of procuring a surrender of the stubbornly defended fortress. The head of Albinus he exhibited at Rome, bat only as a warning to the capital to tamper no more with pretenders. The children of Niger were held as hostages and kindly treated so long as they might possibly afford a useful basis for negotiation with their father ; when he was defeated they were killed, lest from among them should arise a claimant for the imperial power. Stern and barbarous punishment was always meted out by Severus to the conquered foe, but terror was deemed the best guarantee for peace. He felt no scruples of conscience or honour if he thought his interest at stake, but he was not wont to take an excited or exaggerated view of wha,t his interest required. He used or destroyed men and institutions alike with cool judgment and a single eye to the main purpose of his life, the secure establishment of his dynasty. The few traces of aimless savagery which we find in the ancient narra-tives are probably the result of fear working on the imagination of the time.
As a soldier Severus was personally brave, but he can hardly be called a general, in spite of his successful campaigns. He was rather the organizer of victory than the actual author of it. The operations against Niger were carried out entirely by his officers. Dio even declares that the final battle with Albinus was the first at which Severus had ever been actually present. When a war was going on he was constantly travelling over the scene of it, planning it and instilling into the army his own pertinacious spirit, but the actual fighting was usually left to others. His treat-ment of the army is the most characteristic feature of his reign. He frankly broke witli the decent conventions of the Augustan constitution, ignored the senate, and candidly based his rule upon force. The only title he ever laid to the throne was the pronuncia-miento of the legions, whose adherence to his cause he commemorated even on the coinage of the realm. The legions voted him the adopted son of Marcus Aurelius ; the legions associated with him Caracalla in the government of the empire. Severus strove earnestly to wed the army as a whole to the support of his dynasty. He increased enormously the material gains and the honorary distinc-tions of the service, so that he was charged with corrupting the troops. Yet it cannot be denied that, all things considered, he left the army of the empire more efficient than he found it. He increased the strength of it by three legions, and turned the Praetorians, heretofore a flabby body without military experience or instinct, into a chosen corps of veterans. Their ranks were filled by promotion from all the legions on service, whereas pre-viously there had been special enlistment from Italy and one or two of the neighbouring provinces. It was hoped that these picked men would form a force on which an emperor could rely in an emergency. But to meet the possibility of a legionary revolt in the provinces, one of the fundamental principles of the Augustan empire was abrogated : Italy became a province, and troops of the regular army were quartered in it under the direct command of the emperor. Further to obviate the risk of revolution, the great commands in the provinces were broken up, so that, excepting on the turbulent eastern frontier, it was not possible for a commander to dispose of troops numerous enough to render him dangerous to the government.

But, while the policy of Severus was primarily a family policy, he was by no means careless of the general security and welfare of the empire. Only in one instance, the destruction of Byzantium, did he weaken its defences for his own private ends—an error for which his successors paid dearly, when the Goths came to dominate the Euxine. The constantly troublesome Danubian regions received the special attention of the emperor, but all over the realm the status and privileges of communities and districts were recast in the way that seemed likely to conduce to their prosperity. The administration acquired more and more of a military character, in Italy as well as in the provinces. Retired military officers now filled many of the posts formerly reserved for civilians of equestrian rank. The prtefect of the Prsetorians received large civil and judi-cial powers, so that the investment of Papinian with the office was less unnatural than it at first sight seems. The alliance between Severus and the jurisconsults had important consequences. While he gave them new importance in the body politic, and co-operated with them in the work of legal reform, they did him material service by working an absolutist view of the government into the texture of Roman law. Of the legal changes of the reign, important as they were, we can only mention a few details. The emperor himself was a devoted and upright judge, but he struck a great blow at the purity of the law by transferring the exercise of imperial jurisdic-tion from the forum to the palace. He sharpened in many respects the law of treason, put an end to the time-honoured quaestiones perpetuae, altered largely that important section of the law which defined the rights of the fiscus, and developed further the social policy which Augustus had embodied in the lex Julia ale adulteriis and the lex Papia Poppaea.

Severus boldly adopted as an official designation the autocratic title of dominus, which the better of his predecessors had renounced, and with which the worse had only toyed, as Domitian, whom Martial did not hesitate to call "his lord and his god." During Severus's reign the senate was absolutely powerless ; he took all initiative into his hands. He broke down the distinction between the servants of the senate and the servants of the emperor. All nominations to office or function passed under his scrutiny. The estimation of the old consular and other republican titles was diminished. The growth of capacity in the senate was effectually checked by cutting off the tallest of the poppy-heads early in the reign. The senate became a mere registration office for the imperial determinations, and its members, as has been well said, a choir for drawling conventional hymns of praise in honour of the monarch. Even the nominal restoration of the senate's power at the time of Alexander Severus, and the accession of so-called "senatorial emperors" later on, did not efface the work of Septimius Severus, which was resumed and carried to its fulfil-ment by Diocletian. ,
It only remains to say a few words of the emperor's attitude towards literature, art, and religion. No period in the history of Latin literature is so barren as the reign of Severus. Many later periods—the age of Stilicho, for example—shine brilliantly by com-parison. The only great Latin writers are the Christians Tertullian and Cyprian. The Greek literature of the period is richer, but not owing to any patronage of the emperor, except perhaps in the case of Dio Cassius, who, though no admirer of Severus, attributes to encouragement received from him the execution of the great his-torical work which has come down to our time. The numerous restorations of ancient buildings and the many new constructions carried out by Severus show that he was not insensible to the artistic glories of the past ; and he is known to have paid much attention to works of art in foreign countries where his duties took him. But he was in no sense 'a patron or connoisseur of art. As to religion, if we may trust Dio, one of the most superstitious of historians, Severus was one of the most superstitious of monarchs. But apart from that it is difficult to say what was his influence on the religious currents of the time. He probably did a good deal to strengthen and extend the official cult of the imperial family, which had been greatly developed during the prosperous times of the Antonines.. But what he thought of Christianity, Judaism, or the Oriental mysticism to which his wife Julia Domna gave such an impulse in the succeeding reign, it is impossible to say. We may best conclude that his religious sympathies were wide, since tradition has not painted him as the partisan of any one form of worship.

The energy and dominance of Severus's character and his capacity for rule may be deemed, without fancifulness, to be traceable in the numerous representations of his features which have survived to our days.

The authorities for this emperor's reign are fairly full and satisfactory, considering the general scantiness of the imperial records. Severus himself wrote an autobiography which was regarded as candid and trustworthy on the whole. The events of the reign were recorded by several contemporaries. The first place among these must be given to Dio Cassius, who stands to the empire in much the same relation as Livy to the republic. He became a senator in the year when Marcus Aurelius died (160) and retained that dignity for more than fifty years. He was well acquainted with Severus, and was near enough the centre of affairs to know the real nature of events, without being great enough to have personal motives for warping the record. Though tiiis portion of Dio's history no longer exists in its original form, we have copious extracts from it, made by Xiphllinus, an ecclesiastic of the 11th century. The faults which have impaired the credit of Dio's great work in its earlier portions,—his lack of the critical faculty, his inexact knowledge of the earlier Roman institutions, his passion for signs from heaven,—could do little injury to the narrative of an eye-witness; and he must here make upon the attentive reader the impression of unusual freedom from the commonest vices of history,—passion, prejudice, and insincerity. His Greek, too, stands in agreeable contrast to the debased Latin of the "scriptures historiae Augustae." The Greek writer Herodian was also a contemporary of Severus, but the mere fact that we know nothing of his life is in itself enough to show that his opportunities were not so great as those of Dio. The reputation of Herodian, who was used as the main authority for the times of Severus by Tillemont and Giubon, has not been proof against the criticism of recent scholars. His faults are those of rhetoric and exaggeration. His narrative is probably in many places not independent of Dio. The writers known as the " scriptures historiae Augustae" are also of considerable importance,—particularly in the lives of Dldias Julianus, Severus, Pescennius Niger, and Caracalla, attributed to Aelius Spartianus ; those of Clodius Albinus and Opilius Macrinus to Julius Capitolinus; those of Antoninus Diadumenus, Antoninus Heliogabalus, and Alexander Severus to Lampridius. The personal history of Severus and his family is known to us mainly through these writers. Their principal authority was most probably L. Marius Maximus, a younger contemporary of Septimius Severus, who wrote, in continuation of the work of Suetonius, the lives of eleven emperors from Trajan to Heliogabalus inclusive. If we may believe a few words about him dropped by Ammianus Marcellinus, he was a kind of prose Juvenal, -whose uniformly dark pigments can hardly have sufficed to paint a true picture even of his own times. The very numerous inscriptions belonging to the age of Septimius Severus enable us to control at many points and largely to supplement the literary records of his reign, particularly as regards the details of Iiis administration. The juridical works of Justinian's epoch embody much that tlirows light on the government of Severus.

The principal modern works relating to this emperor, after Tillemont and Gibbon, are—J. J. Schulte, De Imperatore L. Septimio Severo, Münster, 1867 ; Höfner, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Kaisers L. Septimius Severus, Giessen, 1875 ; Untersuchungen zur römischen Kaisergeschichte, ed. by M. Budinger ; II. Schiller, Geschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit, Gotha, 1880-83 ; De Ceuleneer, Essai sur la Vie et le Règne de Septime Sévère, Brussels, 1880 ; Réville, La Religion à Rome sous les Sévères, Paris, 1886. Controversy about the many disputed matters pertaining to Severus has been intentionally avoided in what has been said above. (J. S. R.)

The above article was written by: J. S. Reid, D.Litt.

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