Answers to popular questions about Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus was Roman Emperor from 193 to 211 AD. His reign came in the aftermath of the Year of Five Emperors in A.D. 193. Image: Roman alabaster and marble bust of Emperor Septimius Severus, The Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitolini), Rome

Septimius Severus, the first Roman emperor from Africa, was best known for being a strong and competent ruler. His almost 18-year reign transformed the Roman government into one of a military monarchy.

The following are some FAQs about Septimius Severus, his dynasty and reign:

How did Septimius Severus become Roman Emperor?

Prior to becoming emperor of Rome, Septimius served as the governor of Upper Pannonia, a Roman territory in present day Austria and Hungry. An able and skilled military leader, Septimius at the time had under his command the Roman army on the Danube River.

Under the pretext of avenging the murder of Publius Helvius Pertinax in March 193, Septimius Severus set out to depose Marcus Didius Julianus from power. The Praetorian Guard had murdered Pertinax and then sold the Roman crown to Julianus. Having been proclaimed emperor by his troops in April 193, Septimius marched his troops to Rome. After about a month of intense power struggle, Julianus was murdered in Rome, and Septimius simply walked into Rome as there was hardly any resistance from anyone.

To prevent the Praetorian Guard from interfering in politics, Septimius purged it of many of their leaders. Basically, he replaced them with about 14,500 of his troops. After securing Rome, he appointed his rival in Britain, Decimus Clodius, co-emperor. He then proceeded to eliminate the threat posed by another rival and claimant to the imperial title, Gaius Pescennius Niger. Niger, who was the governor of Syria, was defeated by Severus in 194.

Sensing the growing influence of his junior emperor Albinus, Severus marched his troops to the north and defeated Albinus at a battle near Lugdunum (present day Lyon, France) in February 197.

After purging the Roman senate of all supporters of Albinus, Severus consolidate his power by claiming that he was the adoptive son of famed Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (reign: 161-180). He then secured the succession of his sons, Caracalla and Geta, as co-emperors, establishing the Severan Dynasty. This move aimed to ensure a smooth transition of power and maintain stability within the empire.

An aureus of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193 AD)

Aureus minted in 193 by Septimius Severus to celebrate XIIII Gemina Martia Victrix, the legion that proclaimed him emperor. Severus’ legion XIV Gemina acclaimed him emperor at Carnuntum on 9 April 193. This came just a few days after the assassination of Roman Emperor Publius Helvius Pertinax (reign: 1 January 193 – 28 March 193) by the Praetorian Guard.

Where was he born?

Septimius Severus was born in Leptis Magna, a city in the province of Africa (modern-day Libya). He was the first Roman emperor from the African continent, and his ascension to power marked an important milestone in Roman history.

Leptis Magna in Rome's African province

Image: Leptis Magna in Rome’s African province (present-day Libya)

The North African city of Leptis great prominence beginning in AD 193. This was because it was the hometown of emperor Septimius Severus. The emperor is said to have showered significant attention on the city above all other provincial cities. At some point, it became the third-most developed city in Roman Africa, only behind Carthage and Alexandria. A number of buildings and structures sprang up during Severus’ reign, including a new forum. The city’s docks were also rebuilt.

Basilica of Septimius Severus

Basilica of Septimius Severus

What were some of his notable achievements?

By establishing the Severan dynasty in 193, which came after the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors, Septimius Severus helped ensure a smooth transition of power as well the needed political stability.

He introduced a host of military reforms that were aimed at strengthening the army’s loyalty and effectiveness. The led to a more powerful and professional military force that could wage war against the Parthian Empire.

invested heavily in the restoration and beautification of Rome. He repaired numerous public buildings and constructed new structures, including the famous Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum.

In 208 AD, Septimius Severus, together with his sons Caracalla and Geta, commanded a military campaign in Roman Britain with the objective of asserting Roman authority over the regions not yet under their control.

The Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna

African-born Roman Emperor Septimius Severus is credited with establishing the Severan dynasty (193-235 A.D.). The Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna in present-day Libya.

How did Emperor Septimius Severus keep Rome stable?

By March 197, Septimius Severus had gotten rid of all his political rivals, including Decimus Clodius Albinus, his rival in Britian, he proceeded to embark on a military campaign in the east.

In those campaigns, he successfully annexed large parts of the north of Mesopotamia. Upon his return, he introduced a number of military and administrative reforms. For example, he increased the wages of his troops in order to secure their unquestionable loyalty and commitment.

Realizing that generals that had under their control huge numbers of legions posed a significant threat to his reign, he reduced the number of legions under his general’s control.

He also took a number of steps that sidelined the Roman Senate. For example, many of his government officials were picked from the equestrian order and not the senatorial rank.

How did he die?

Septimius Severus died on February 4, 211 AD, in Eboracum (modern-day York), Britain. In the later years of his reign, he suffered from various health issues, including gout and a severe illness. Despite his declining health, he embarked on a military campaign in Britain to consolidate Roman control over the region.

Who succeeded him?

Following his death, his sons Caracalla and Geta initially ruled as co-emperors. However, their relationship was fraught with animosity and power struggles, which eventually led to Geta’s assassination by Caracalla.

Except for the brief rule of Marcus Opellius Macrinus from 217 to 218 AD, the descendants of Septimius Severus maintained their hold on power until 235 AD.

Dynastic aureus of Septimius Severus and his family, minted in 202. The reverse of the gold coin features the portraits of Geta (right), Julia Domna (centre) and Caracalla (left).

Septimius Severus: Quick Facts

Busts of Septimius Severus

Busts of Septimius Severus at the Glyptothek museum in Munich, Germany

Born: Lucius Septimius Severus

Date of birth: 11 April 145

Place of birth: Leptis Magna, Roman Province of Africa

Died: 4 February 211

Place of death: Eboracum, Roman Britain (present-day York, England)

Aged: 65

Parents: Fulvia Pia and Publius Septimius Geta

Spouses: Paccia Marciana, Julia Domna

Children: Caracalla, Geta

Dynasty: Severan

Predecessor: Marcus Didius Julianus

Successors: Caracalla and Geta

Best known for: Founding the Severan dynasty in A.D. 193

Julia Domna (c. 160-217 AD) – wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. She was the mother of Roman emperors Caracalla and Geta.

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