Septimius Severus, AE18, Nikopolis ad Istrum.
AV KAI CE CEVHRO, laureate head right.
NIKOPOLI PROC ICTR, Crescent and one star.
Note: Varbanov lists 17 different entries for the
crescent and one star types, depending on obverse
and reverse legends, and size.
Septimius Severus AE23 of Alexandria Troas
Obverse: SEVERVS PIVS AVG, laureate draped bust right
Reverse: COL AVG TROA, she wolf and twins right
Septimius Severus (Latin: Lucius Septimius Severus Augustus; 11 April 145
– 4 February 211), also known as Severus, was Roman emperor from 193 to
211. Severus was born in Leptis Magna in the Roman province of Africa.
As a young man he advanced through the cursus honorum—the customary succession
of offices—under the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Severus
seized power after the death of Emperor Pertinax in 193 during the Year
of the Five Emperors.
After deposing and killing the incumbent emperor Didius Julianus, Severus
fought his rival claimants, the generals Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus.
Niger was defeated in 194 at the Battle of Issus in Cilicia. Later
that year Severus waged a short punitive campaign beyond the eastern frontier,
annexing the Kingdom of Osroene as a new province. Severus defeated
Albinus three years later at the Battle of Lugdunum in Gaul.
After consolidating his rule over the western provinces, Severus waged
another brief, more successful war in the east against the Parthian Empire,
sacking their capital Ctesiphon in 197 and expanding the eastern frontier
to the Tigris. Furthermore, he enlarged and fortified the Limes Arabicus
in Arabia Petraea. In 202, he campaigned in Africa and Mauretania
against the Garamantes; capturing their capital Garama and expanding the
Limes Tripolitanus along the southern frontier of the empire.
Late in his reign he travelled to Britain, strengthening Hadrian's Wall
and reoccupying the Antonine Wall. In 208 he invaded Caledonia (modern
Scotland), but his ambitions were cut short when he fell fatally ill in
late 210. Severus died in early 211 at Eboracum (today York, England),
succeeded by his sons Caracalla and Geta. With the succession of
his sons, Severus founded the Severan dynasty, the last dynasty of the
empire before the Crisis of the Third Century.
Family and education:
Born on 11 April 145 at Leptis Magna (in present-day Libya) as the son
of Publius Septimius Geta and Fulvia Pia, Septimius Severus came from a
wealthy and distinguished family of equestrian rank. He had Italian
Roman ancestry on his mother's side and descended from Punic - and perhaps
also Libyan - forebears on his father's side.
Severus' father, an obscure provincial, held no major political status,
but he had two cousins, Publius Septimius Aper and Gaius Septimius Severus,
who served as consuls under the emperor Antoninus Pius (reigned 138-161).
His mother's ancestors had moved from Italy to North Africa: they belonged
to the gens Fulvia, an Italian patrician family that originated in Tusculum.
Septimius Severus had two siblings: an older brother, Publius Septimius
Geta, and a younger sister, Septimia Octavilla. Severus's maternal cousin
was Praetorian prefect and consul Gaius Fulvius Plautianus.
Septimius Severus grew up in the town of Leptis Magna. He spoke the
local Punic language fluently, but he was also educated in Latin and Greek,
which he spoke with a slight accent. Little else is known of the
young Severus' education, but according to Cassius Dio the boy had been
eager for more education than he had actually got. Presumably Severus
received lessons in oratory: at age 17 he gave his first public speech.
Sometime around 162 Septimius Severus set out for Rome seeking a public
career. At the recommendation of his relative Gaius Septimius Severus,
the emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180) granted him entry into the
senatorial ranks. Membership of the senatorial order was a prerequisite
to attain positions within the cursus honorum and to gain entry into the
Roman Senate. Nevertheless, it appears that Severus' career during
the 160s met with some difficulties.
It is likely that he served as a vigintivir in Rome, overseeing road maintenance
in or near the city, and he may have appeared in court as an advocate.
At the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius he was the State Attorney (Advocatus
fisci). However, he omitted the military tribunate from the cursus
honorum and had to delay his quaestorship until he had reached the required
minimum age of 25. To make matters worse, the Antonine Plague swept
through the capital in 166.
With his career at a halt, Severus decided to temporarily return to Leptis,
where the climate was healthier. According to the Historia Augusta,
a usually unreliable source, he was prosecuted for adultery during this
time but the case was ultimately dismissed. At the end of 169 Severus
was of the required age to become a quaestor and journeyed back to Rome.
On 5 December, he took office and was officially enrolled in the Roman
Between 170 and 180 the activities of Septimius Severus went largely unrecorded,
in spite of the fact that he occupied an impressive number of posts in
quick succession. The Antonine Plague had severely thinned the senatorial
ranks, and with capable men now in short supply, Severus' career advanced
more steadily than it otherwise might have. After his first term
as quaestor, he was ordered[by whom?] to serve a second term in the province
of Baetica (in present-day southern Spain) under Publius Cornelius Anullinus,
but circumstances prevented Severus from taking up the appointment.
The sudden death of his father necessitated a return to Leptis Magna to
settle family affairs. Before he was able to leave Africa, Mauri
tribesmen invaded southern Spain. Control of the province was handed
over to the Emperor, while the Senate gained temporary control of Sardinia
as compensation. Thus, Septimius Severus spent the remainder of his
second term as quaestor on the island of Sardinia.
In 173 Severus' kinsman Gaius Septimius Severus was appointed proconsul
of the Africa Province. The elder Severus chose his cousin
as one of his two legati pro praetore. Following the end of this
term, Septimius Severus travelled back to Rome, taking up office as tribune
of the plebs, with the distinction of being candidatus of the emperor.
Septimius Severus was already in his early thirties at the time of his
first marriage. In about 175, he married a woman from Leptis Magna
named Paccia Marciana. It is likely that he met her during his tenure
as legate under his uncle. Marciana's name reveals that she was of
Punic or Libyan origin but virtually nothing else is known of her.
Septimius Severus does not mention her in his autobiography, though he
later commemorated her with statues when he became Emperor. The Historia
Augusta claims that Marciana and Severus had two daughters but their existence
is nowhere else attested. It appears that the marriage produced no
surviving children, despite lasting for more than ten years.
Marciana died of natural causes around 186. Septimius Severus was
now in his forties and still childless. Eager to remarry, he began
enquiring into the horoscopes of prospective brides. The Historia
Augusta relates that he heard of a woman in Syria who had been foretold
that she would marry a king, and therefore Severus sought her as his wife.
This woman was an Emesan Syrian woman named Julia
Domna. Her father, Julius Bassianus, descended from the royal
house of Samsigeramus and Sohaemus, and served as a high priest to the
local cult of the sun god Elagabal. Domna's older sister was Julia
Maesa, later grandmother to the future emperors Elagabalus and Alexander
Bassianus accepted Severus' marriage proposal in early 187, and the following
summer he and Julia were married. The marriage proved to be a happy
one and Severus cherished his wife and her political opinions, since she
was very well-read and keen on philosophy. Together, they had two
sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus (later nicknamed Caracalla, b. 4 April
188) and Publius Septimius Geta (b. 7 March 189).
Rise to power:
In 191 Severus was made governor of Pannonia Superior by Commodus at the
advice of Quintus Aemilius Laetus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard.
However, Commodus was assassinated the following year. Pertinax was
acclaimed emperor, but he was then killed by the Praetorian Guard in early
193. In response to the murder of Pertinax, Severus was proclaimed
Emperor at Carnuntum by his legion XIV Gemina. Nearby legions, such
as X Gemina at Vindobona, soon followed. Having assembled an army,
Severus hurried to Italy.
Pertinax's successor in Rome was Didius Julianus, who had bought the emperorship
in an auction. Julianus was condemned to death by the Senate and
killed, and Severus took possession of Rome without opposition. He
executed Pertinax's murderers and dismissed the rest of the Praetorian
Guard, filling its ranks with loyal troops from his own legions.
The legions of Syria, however, had proclaimed Pescennius Niger emperor.
At the same time, Severus felt it was reasonable to offer Clodius Albinus,
the powerful governor of Britannia who had probably supported Didius against
him, the rank of Caesar, which implied some claim to succession.
With his rearguard safe, he moved to the East and crushed Niger's forces
at the Battle of Issus. While campaigning against Byzantium he ordered
the covering of the tomb of his fellow Carthaginian Hannibal with fine
The following year was devoted to suppressing Mesopotamia and other Parthian
vassals who had backed Niger. When afterwards Severus declared openly
his son Caracalla as successor, Albinus was hailed emperor by his troops
and moved to Gallia. Severus, after a short stay in Rome, moved northwards
to meet him. On 19 February 197, in the Battle of Lugdunum, with
an army of about 75,000 men, mostly composed of Pannonian, Moesian and
Dacian legions and most likely a number of Auxiliaries, Severus defeated
and killed Clodius Albinus, securing his full control over the Empire.
War against Parthia:
In early 197 Severus departed Rome and travelled to the east by sea.
He embarked at Brundisium and probably landed at the port of Aegeae in
Cilicia, travelling to Syria by land. He immediately gathered his
army and crossed the Euphrates. Abgar IX, King of Osroene but essentially
only the ruler of Edessa since the annexation of his kingdom as a Roman
province, handed over his children as hostages and assisted Severus' expedition
by providing archers.
At this time King Khosrov I of Armenia, also sent hostages, money and gifts.
Severus travelled onwards to Nisibis, which his general Julius Laetus had
prevented from falling into enemy hands. Afterwards, Severus returned
to Syria for a time to plan a much more ambitious campaign.
The following year he led another, more successful campaign against the
Parthian Empire, reportedly in retaliation for the support given to Pescennius
Niger. The Parthian capital Ctesiphon was sacked by the legions and
the northern half of Mesopotamia was annexed to the Empire. However,
like Trajan nearly a century before, he was unable to capture the fortress
of Hatra even after two lengthy sieges. During his time in the east
he also expanded the Limes Arabicus, building new fortifications in the
Arabian Desert from Basie to Dumata.
Relations with the Senate and People:
Severus' relations with the Senate were never good. He was unpopular
with them from the outset, having seized power with the help of the military,
and he returned the sentiment. Severus ordered the execution of a
large number of Senators on charges of corruption and conspiracy against
him and replaced them with his own favourites.
Although his actions turned Rome into a military dictatorship, he was popular
with the citizens of Rome, having stamped out the rampant corruption of
Commodus's reign. When he returned from his victory over the Parthians,
he erected the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome. According to Cassius
Dio, however, after 197 Severus fell heavily under the influence of his
Praetorian Prefect, Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, who came to have almost total
control of most branches of the imperial administration. Plautianus's daughter,
Fulvia Plautilla, was married to Severus's son, Caracalla. Plautianus's
excessive power came to an end in 204, when he was denounced by the Emperor's
dying brother. In January 205, Caracalla accused Plautianus for plotting
to kill him and Severus. The powerful prefect was executed while
he was trying to defend his case in front of the two emperors. One
of the two following praefecti was the famous jurist Aemilius Papinianus.
However, executions of senators did not stop: Cassius Dio records that
many of them were put to death, some after being formally tried.
Upon his arrival at Rome in 193, Severus discharged the Praetorian Guard,
which had murdered Pertinax and had then auctioned the Roman Empire to
Didius Julianus. Its members were stripped of their ceremonial armour
and forbidden to come within 100 miles of the city on pain of death.
Severus replaced the old guard with 10 new cohorts recruited from veterans
of his Danubian legions.
Around 197, he increased the number of legions from 30 to 33, with the
introduction of the three new legions I, II, and III Parthica, and he garrisoned
Legio II Parthica at Albanum, only 20 kilometers from Rome. He gave
his soldiers a donative of a thousand sesterces (250 denarii) each, and
raised the annual wage for a soldier in the legions from 300 to 400 denarii.
Reputed persecution of Christians:
At the beginning of Severus' reign, Trajan's policy toward the Christians
was still valid, that is, Christians were only to be punished if they refused
to worship the emperor and the gods, but they were not to be sought out.
Therefore, persecution was inconsistent, local, and sporadic. Faced with
internal dissidence and external threats, Severus felt the need to promote
religious harmony by promoting syncretism, and by possibly issuing an edict
that punished conversion to Judaism and Christianity.
A number of persecutions of Christians occurred in the Roman Empire during
the reign of Septimius Severus and are traditionally attributed to Severus
by the early Christian community. This is based on the decree mentioned
in the Augustan History, an unreliable mix of fact and fiction. Early
church historian Eusebius describes Severus as a persecutor, but the Christian
apologist Tertullian states that Severus was well disposed towards Christians,
employed a Christian as his personal physician and had personally intervened
to save several high-born Christians known to him from "the mob".
Eusebius' description of Severus as a persecutor likely derives merely
from the fact that numerous persecutions occurred during his reign, including
those known in the Roman martyrology as the martyrs of Madaura and Perpetua
and Felicity in the Roman province of Africa, but these were probably as
the result of local persecutions rather than empire-wide actions or decrees
The expansion of the African frontier during the reign of Severus (medium
tan). Severus even briefly held a military presence in Garama in
203 (light tan).
In late 202 Severus launched a campaign in the province of Africa.
The legate of Legio III Augusta Quintus Anicius Faustus had been fighting
against the Garamantes along the Limes Tripolitanus for five years, capturing
several settlements from the enemy such as Cydamus, Gholaia, Garbia, and
their capital Garama – over 600 km south of Leptis Magna.
During this time the province of Numidia was also enlarged: the empire
annexed the settlements of Vescera, Castellum Dimmidi, Gemellae, Thabudeos,
Thubunae and Zabi. By 203 the entire southern frontier of Roman Africa
had been dramatically expanded and re-fortified. Desert nomads could no
longer safely raid the region's interior and escape back into the Sahara.
In 208 Severus traveled to Britain with the intention of conquering Caledonia.
Modern archaeological discoveries have made the scope and direction of
his northern campaign better understood. Severus probably arrived
in Britain possessing an army over 40,000, considering some of the camps
constructed during his campaign could house this number.
He strengthened Hadrian's Wall and reconquered the Southern Uplands up
to the Antonine Wall, which was also enhanced. Severus built a 165-acre
camp south of the Antonine Wall at Trimontium, probably assembling his
forces there. Severus then thrust north with his army across the wall into
enemy territory. Retracing the steps of Agricola of over a century
previous, Severus rebuilt and garrisoned many abandoned Roman forts along
the east coast, including Carpow which could house up to 40,000 soldiers.
An interesting story from around this time is when Severus' wife, Julia
Domna, criticised the sexual morals of the Caledonian women, the wife of
Caledonian chief Argentocoxos replied: "We fulfill the demands of nature
in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with
the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the
Cassius Dio's account of the invasion reads "Severus, accordingly, desiring
to subjugate the whole of it, invaded Caledonia. But as he advanced
through the country he experienced countless hardships in cutting down
the forests, levelling the heights, filling up the swamps, and bridging
the rivers; but he fought no battle and beheld no enemy in battle array.
The enemy purposely put sheep and cattle in front of the soldiers for them
to seize, in order that they might be lured on still further until they
were worn out; for in fact the water caused great suffering to the Romans,
and when they became scattered, they would be attacked. Then, unable
to walk, they would be slain by their own men, in order to avoid capture,
so that a full fifty thousand died. But Severus did not desist until
he approached the extremity of the island. Here he observed most
accurately the variation of the sun's motion and the length of the days
and the nights in summer and winter respectively. Having thus been
conveyed through practically the whole of the hostile country (for he actually
was conveyed in a covered litter most of the way, on account of his infirmity),
he returned to the friendly portion, after he had forced the Britons to
come to terms, on the condition that they should abandon a large part of
By 210, Severus' campaigning had made significant gains, despite Caledonian
guerrilla tactics and purportedly heavy Roman casualties. The Caledonians
sued for peace, which Severus granted on condition they relinquish control
of the Central Lowlands. This is evidenced by extensive Severan era
fortifications in the Central Lowlands.
The Caledonians, short on supplies and feeling their position becoming
desperate, revolted later that year along with the Maeatae. Severus
prepared for another protracted campaign within Caledonia. He was
now intent on exterminating the Caledonians, telling his soldiers: "Let
no one escape sheer destruction, No one our hands, not even the babe in
the womb of the mother, If it be male; let it nevertheless not escape sheer
Severus' campaign was cut short when he fell fatally ill. He withdrew
to Eboracum and died there in 211. Although his son Caracalla continued
campaigning the following year, he soon settled for peace. The Romans
never campaigned deep into Caledonia again: they soon withdrew south permanently
to Hadrian's Wall.
He is famously said to have given the advice to his sons: "Be harmonious,
enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men" before he died at Eboracum
(York) on 4 February 211.
Upon his death in 211, Severus was deified by the Senate and succeeded
by his sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were advised by his wife Julia Domna.
Assessment and legacy:
Though his military expenditure was costly to the empire, Severus was a
strong and able ruler. According to Gibbon, "his daring ambition
was never diverted from its steady course by the allurements of pleasure,
the apprehension of danger, or the feelings of humanity." His enlargement
of the Limes Tripolitanus secured Africa, the agricultural base of the
empire where he was born. His victory over the Parthian Empire was
for a time decisive, securing Nisibis and Singara for the Empire and established
a status quo for Roman dominance in the region until 251. His policy
of an expanded and better-rewarded army was criticized by his contemporaries
Cassius Dio and Herodianus: in particular, they pointed out the increasing
burden (in the form of taxes and services) the civilian population had
to bear to maintain the new army.
In order to maintain his enlarged military he debased the Roman currency
drastically. Upon his accession he decreased the silver purity of
the denarius from 81.5% to 78.5%. However, the silver weight actually increased,
rising from 2.40 grams to 2.46 grams. Nevertheless, the following
year he debased the denarius substantially because of rising military expenditures.
The silver purity decreased from 78.5% to 64.5% — the silver weight dropping
from 2.46 grams to 1.98 grams. In 196 he reduced the purity and silver
weight of the denarius again, to 54% and 1.82 grams respectively.
Severus' currency debasement was the largest since the reign of Nero, compromising
the long-term strength of the economy.
Severus was also distinguished for his buildings. Apart from the
triumphal arch in the Roman Forum carrying his full name, he also built
the Septizodium in Rome and enriched greatly his native city of Leptis
Magna (including another triumphal arch on the occasion of his visit of
203). The greater part of the Flavian Palace overlooking the Circus
Maximus was undertaken in his reign.
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