Roman Emperors from the Severan Dynasty and their reigns
The Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD) was a crucial period in Roman history, established by Septimius Severus after his triumph in the Year of the Five Emperors. Hailing from Leptis Magna in modern-day Libya, the dynasty blended North African influences with Roman governance.
Their more than four-decade rule saw major cultural and political shifts, and confronted challenges like internal strife and military threats. Caracalla, a prominent figure, granted Roman citizenship to all free men, while emperors like Elagabalus and Alexander Severus are remembered for their controversial reigns. Preceding the Crisis of the Third Century, the Severans’ era encapsulates both the peak of Roman imperial might and the early signs of its decline.
Septimius Severus (reigned: 193–211 AD)
Lucius Septimius Severus was the Roman emperor from 193 to 211. Born in Leptis Magna, present-day Libya, he rose through ranks under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.
In 193, following Emperor Pertinax’s death, Severus grabbed power, defeating Didius Julianus, and later vanquished rivals Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus in separate battles.
Septimius annexed the Kingdom of Osroene, expanded the empire’s eastern boundary to the Tigris, defeated the Parthian Empire, and enhanced the Limes Arabicus.
He also campaigned in Africa, extending the Limes Tripolitanus. His sons, Caracalla and Geta, were named co-emperors, and with his second wife Julia Domna, they established the Severan dynasty.
In 208, he bolstered defenses in Britain, and launched a massive invasion of Caledonia in 209. However, an illness struck him in 210, leading to his death in Eboracum (now York, England) in 211. His dynasty preceded the Crisis of the Third Century.
Caracalla (reigned: 198–217 AD)
Caracalla, born as Lucius Septimius Bassianus in 188 AD, was a Roman emperor from 198 to 217 AD and part of the Severan dynasty. He was the elder son of Emperor Septimius Severus and Empress Julia Domna.
After his father’s death in 211, he ruled jointly with his brother Geta, whom he had murdered later that year, making him the sole ruler. While he was disinterested in administrative duties, relying heavily on his mother for governance, Caracalla was known for the Antonine Constitution, which granted Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire.
Other notable aspects of his reign include constructing the Baths of Caracalla, introducing the antoninianus currency, and initiating various massacres. Although he started a campaign against the Parthian Empire, he was assassinated in 217 before its conclusion. Historical accounts, both ancient and modern, often depict Caracalla as a tyrannical and cruel leader.
Geta (reigned: 209–211 AD)
Publius Septimius Geta was a Roman emperor who co-ruled with his father, Septimius Severus, and his older brother, Caracalla. He was granted the title of Augustus in 209, a title his brother Caracalla had already held from 198.
After their father’s death in 211, the plan was for the brothers to jointly rule the empire. However, their relationship was contentious, and they were unable to cooperate effectively. This deep-seated animosity between the brothers reached its tragic climax when Geta was murdered in December 211, just months after their father’s death, leaving Caracalla as the sole emperor.
Macrinus (reigned: 217–218 AD)
Marcus Opellius Macrinus, reigning from April 217 to June 218 alongside his son Diadumenianus, was unique as he was the first Roman emperor from the equestrian class, and never visited Rome during his rule.
Originally serving under Emperor Caracalla as a praetorian prefect, he conspired to assassinate Caracalla, subsequently becoming emperor. Although Macrinus initiated diplomatic reforms to restore Rome’s economy and stabilize relations with neighboring kingdoms, his increased military expenses and fiscal changes caused unrest among the Roman military. Caracalla’s aunt, Julia Maesa, exploited this discontent, leading a rebellion that elevated her grandson, Elagabalus, as emperor.
Macrinus was defeated at the Battle of Antioch in June 218, attempted to flee, but was captured and executed. His son, Diadumenian, shared a similar fate. Following their deaths, the Senate erased all records of them, a practice known as “damnatio memoriae.”
Elagabalus (reigned: 218–222 AD)
Elagabalus, born as Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus around 204, became the Roman emperor from 218 to 222 as a teenager. Hailing from a distinguished Arab family in Emesa (Homs), Syria, he was deeply involved in the worship of the sun god Elagabal.
His ascent to power at age 14 was facilitated by his grandmother, Julia Maesa, who led a revolt against Macrinus, Caracalla’s successor. His reign was marked by religious upheavals, as he promoted the deity Elagabal over Jupiter and insisted that Roman leaders participate in these new rites.
Furthermore, Elagabalus’s personal life was filled with scandals, involving multiple marriages, alleged relationships with male courtiers, and reports of prostitution.
His controversial actions alienated many, leading to his assassination at age 18, orchestrated by Julia Maesa and discontented Praetorian Guard members. Historically, Elagabalus has been heavily criticized for his eccentricity and perceived decadence, but some modern scholars view him as a misunderstood figure with genuine religious convictions.
Alexander Severus (reigned: 222–235 AD)
Alexander Severus, born Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander (208-235), was a Roman emperor who ruled from 222 to 235 and was the final emperor of the Severan dynasty.
He became emperor following the assassination of his cousin, Elagabalus. Both were grandsons of Julia Maesa, who played a significant role in elevating Elagabalus to the throne. Alexander’s reign, lasting 13 years, was marked by prosperity and was the longest sole emperorship since Antoninus Pius.
Notably young when he assumed power, he was only surpassed in age by Gordian III. While he successfully countered threats from the Sassanid Empire, his diplomatic and appeasement tactics against Germanic tribes were unpopular with the Roman army. This discontent led to a conspiracy, culminating in the assassination of Alexander, his mother, and close advisors.
His death ushered in the Crisis of the Third Century, characterized by widespread turmoil and instability in the Roman Empire.
Accomplishments and Key Facts of the Severan Dynasty
- The dynasty was founded by Septimius Severus after he emerged victorious in a civil war following the assassination of the emperor Commodus.
- Septimius Severus undertook successful military campaigns in the East and Africa, expanding the empire and securing its borders.
- Severus implemented legal reforms, many of which were compiled later in the “Digest” of the Emperor Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis.
- Also, Emperor Severus increased the pay of the Roman legions, reinforcing the importance and prestige of the military in Roman political life.
- Construction of the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum to commemorate his Parthian victories.
- Septimius Severus’ son, Caracalla, granted Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire, a revolutionary act that extended legal rights and the ability to serve in the Roman legions to more people but also broadened the tax base.
- Caracalla commissioned the Baths of Caracalla, one of the largest and most luxurious public bath complexes ever built in Rome.
- Another notable Severan emperor, Elagabalus, is often remembered for religious controversies and his attempt to replace the traditional Roman pantheon with the eastern sun god Elagabal. His reign, however, was short-lived due to his unpopular actions and personal eccentricities.
- Women of the Severan dynasty, particularly Julia Domna, Julia Maesa, and Julia Soaemias, played prominent roles in political and cultural life, a rarity in Roman history. Julia Soaemias Bassiana (180 – 11 March 222) was a Syrian noblewoman and the mother of Roman emperor Elagabalus, who ruled over the Roman Empire from 218 to 222.
- Over the course of the Severan dynasty, there was a shift in power away from the Italian peninsula and more towards the provinces.
- The dynasty’s generous military pay and other expenditures led to financial strains, with Caracalla debasing the Roman currency.
- The dynasty ended with the assassination of Alexander Severus, marking the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century, a period where the empire nearly collapsed under the pressures of invasions, civil war, plague, and economic depression.