Lucius Septimius Severus was Roman emperor from 193 to 211 AD. He was of Libyan descent from Lepcis Magna and came from a prominent local Punic family, which in the past held both senatorial and consular status. He visited Rome for the first time in 163 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. With the protection from his cousin Caius Septimius Severus, he entered the Senate in 170. Later, his cousin went to Africa to serve as a proconsul in 173-174 and chose Lucius Septimius Severus to be his legatus.
The rise of Septimius to emperor began after the assassination of emperor Commodus in 192
The successor of Commodus was Petrinax who wasn’t welcomed by the Praetorian Guard. It led to their revolt and sooner assassination of the emperor. The Praetorian Guard proceeded to auction off the imperial throne. They wanted to choose a person who will pay the most being promised the support of the Praetorian Guard.
The first candidate was Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain. The second was Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria, while the third candidate was Septimius Severus, who governed the province of Pannonia Superior on the Danube frontier. Each candidate was defended by three legions apiece and had a powerful military base. Septimius Severus had an advantage in terms of propaganda and location as Pannonia was the closest of these provinces to Rome. Severus prevented a possible clash with Clodius Albinus in Britain by promising him the title of Caesar and a place in the imperial succession. Septimius Severus was recogized by the Senate as emperor in 193. With his accession, that year became known as “The Year of Five Emperors.”
Later, Septimius Severus replaced the existing Praetorian Guard with a larger bodyguard gathered from the Danubian legions under his leadership. Moreover, he raised three new legions and increased the Rome’s number of vigils, urban cohorts, and other units. Eventually, Septimius organized a campaign to march to the eastern provinces to eliminate his rival Niger. His army defeated Niger and drove his forces out of Thrace. While in the East, Severus turned his forces against the Parthian vassals.
Septimius Severus quickly conquered the kingdom of Osroen and Adiabene, taking the titles Parthicus Arabicus and Parthicus Adiabenicus to celebrate these victories. To strengthen his reputation and try to connect his new dynasty with the Antonines dynasty, he declared himself the son of the now deified former emperor Marcus Aurelius and the brother of the deified Commodus. Moreover, he gave his eldest son M. Aurelius Antoninus (later emperor Caracalla) the title of Caesar. This last step led him to a direct conflict with his former ally, Clodius Albinus, who was initially given this title in exchange for his loyalty. Realizing that Severus had intended to abandon him, Albinus rebelled and crossed over with his legions to Gaul. Severus hurried west to meet Albinus at the battle of Lugdunum and defeated him in a bloody battle in 197. After defeating Albinus, Septimius Severus became the only emperor of the Roman Empire.
In 197 AD, Severus again went to the eastern provinces, where the Parthian Empire used his absence to besiege Nisibis in Rome-occupied Mesopotamia. After breaking through the Parthian siege there, he continued the attack on the Euphrates, attacking and plundering the Parthian cities of Seleucia, Babylon, and, ultimately, the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. Then Septimius turned against the fortress of Hatra in Iraq, but could not take it after two siege attempts. Having reached an agreement on saving a person with Hatra, Septimius declared victory in the East, having assumed the title of Parthicus Maximus.
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Then Severus went to Egypt in 199 AD, reorganizing the province. Returning to Syria to stay for a year (late 200 – early 202 AD), Severus finally returned to Rome in the summer of 202. He wanted to celebrate his decade with a victorious game, and also to present his son Antoninus for a wedding with the daughter of his confidant. In the autumn of the same year, Severus traveled to his homeland in Africa, making a trip to the hometown Lepcis Magna, as well as to Utica and Carthage. In Lepcis Magna, he conducted an active program for the construction of monuments, providing columns with streets, a new forum, a basilica and a new harbor. He also used this time to crush the desert tribes (especially Garamantes), who were pursuing the African borders of Rome. Severus expanded and strengthened the African border, even expanding the presence of Rome in the Sahara, thereby limiting the raider actions of these border tribes who could no longer attack Roman lands with impunity and then flee back to the desert.
Then Severus returned to Italy in 203 AD, where he remained until 208 AD, conducting secular games in 204 AD. After the murder of his prefect, Plautianus, Severus replaced him with a lawyer Papinian. His patronage of this new prefect, as well as the lawyers of Ulpian and Paul, made the era of the northerners gold for Roman jurisprudence. In 208, small battles on the border of Roman Britain gave Severus a reason to start a campaign there that would last until his death in 211. With this campaign, Severus was hoping for a chance to gain military glory. Moreover, he brought with him his sons Antoninus and Geta in the hope of providing them with some administrative and military experience necessary to retain imperial power.
The intentions of Severus in Britain were to conquer the whole island and completely subordinate it to Roman rule. To this end, Severus completely repaired many forts along Hadrian’s wall with the intention of using this wall as a base for the campaign to conquer the north of the island of Britain. Leaving Geta in the south, Severus and his son Antoninus campaigned in the north, especially in current Scotland. The campaign was mixed for the Romans: the local Caledonian tribes did not meet with the Romans in open battle and participated in partisan tactics against them, which led to heavy losses of the Romans. However, by 210 AD the northern tribes sued the peace, and Severus took the opportunity to build a new forward base at Carpow on Tay for a future campaign. He also took the title of Britannicus for himself and his sons, to commemorate this victory. This success was short-lived, however, since the tribes soon rebelled. By this time, Severus could not continue his campaign against them.
Severus’s reign witnessed reforms both in the provinces and in the armed forces, which had long-term consequences. He divided the three areas of the Legion of Pannonia and Syria to prevent future governors from revolting. Britain became divided into two provinces, although it is not clear whether Severus or his son and successor Caracalla did it.
Septimius Severus is also known for its army reforms. He significantly increased the strength of the army to ensure its loyalty and raised the annual salary of soldiers from 300 to 500 denarii. Historians Dio and Herodian criticized Severus for this wage increase, mostly because it put more financial pressure on the civilian population to support a large army. Moreover, Severus lifted the ban on marriage that existed in the Roman army, giving soldiers the right to take wives. This measure was seen as a positive reform, since it granted legal rights to the wives of soldiers who, prior to the ban, did not have legal protection, because their relations were informal and did not have binding legal force. Severus was so concerned about the dedication of the army that, on his deathbed, he was said to have advised his two sons: “Be good to each other, enrich the soldiers and curse the others.”
Although his military expenses were expensive for the empire, Severus was a strong and capable leader. The Roman Empire reached the greatest extent under his rule – more than 5 million square kilometers. His expansion of the Limes Tripolitanus provided to Africa the agricultural base of the Empire. His victory over the Parthian Empire was decisive for some time, protecting the empire from Nisibis and Singara and establishing the status quo of Roman rule in the region until 251.
Severus’s campaign was interrupted when he fell ill. He retired to Eboracum (York) and died there in 211. Although his son Caracalla continued the campaign the following year, he soon agreed to peace. The Romans never again went deep into Caledonia. Soon after, the frontier was forever allotted south to Hadrian’s wall.
Author: Kate Zusmann
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