Severus, the first African-born emperor of Rome you should know

Mildred Europa Taylor September 29, 2021
Septimius, marble bust, found on the Palatine, Rome; in the British Museum, London. Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum; photograph, J.R. Freeman & Co. Ltd.

Lucius Septimius Severus came from a prominent family. Becoming Rome’s first African-born emperor and founding a dynasty, Severus was born in AD 145 in Leptis Magna, Libya. His mother was from an influential Roman family while his father was Carthaginian. Severus went to Rome in AD 162 when he was in his teens. There, his mother’s family helped him climb the political ladder. He gained entry into the senatorial ranks thanks to his cousin Gaius Septimius Severus, who recommended him to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

According to History, Severus rose through the ranks of the cursus honorum — public offices held by aspiring Roman politicians. He gained entry into the Roman Senate in AD 170 and was given a senior position in the Roman Army in AD 173 after his cousin became proconsul of the Province of Africa. In two years, Severus had married a woman from his home city of Leptis Magna but she died after about 10 years.

Severus, who became governor of Gaul while living in the city of Lugdunum (now Lyon in France), married again and had two sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus, who was later nicknamed Caracalla, and Publius Septimius Geta. Severus continued to rise in politics. In AD 191, the then emperor Commodus made Severus governor of Upper Pannonia, covering parts of today’s Hungary, Austria and Bosnia.

Commodus was assassinated the following year, and in AD 193, his successor Publius Helvius Pertinax was declared emperor. Pertinax’s reign did not last as after only 86 days, he was assassinated by a Praetorian Guard (household troops of emperors in Rome) after Pertinax had tried to insist on stricter discipline within the ranks of the Praetorian Guard.

What the Praetorian Guard did next was to auction off the emperorship to the highest bidder. History notes that a rich senator known as Didius Julianus offered the most money and got the job. But this didn’t go down well with many in Rome. Thus, three other people turned up as rivals to the imperial throne. They were: Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain; Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria; and Severus, who was governor of Gaul.

Severus had the advantage over the others because he commanded the largest army closest to Rome. Severus also got the support of Albinus after promising to give him the title of Caesar. In other words, Severus told Albinus that he will earn a place in the imperial succession if Severus succeeded in his quest to be emperor.

In June 193, Severus marched on Rome declaring himself the avenger of Pertinax, according to History. Even before entering the city, the Senate declared him emperor. Julianus was executed after having ruled for just 66 days. Severus, right after becoming emperor, dissolved the Praetorian Guard that was in existence and filled its ranks with soldiers who were loyal to him. He raised three new legions and defeated Niger, the governor of Syria at the Battle of Issus.

Severus, who had hopes of founding a dynasty, failed to give Albinus the title of Caesar and rather declared his eldest son Caracalla as Caesar. Albinus, who felt betrayed, marched into Gaul with his forces. There, they clashed with Severus’ forces in what was known as the battle of Lugdunum. Severus defeated Albinus and gained full control over the Roman Empire. He then executed members of the Roman Senate who had thrown their weight behind Albinus.

After successful campaigns in the Near East and Africa, Severus in 208 took his sons Caracalla and Geta with him to Britain. But he began ailing. Suffering from gout, he passed away in AD 211 at the age of 65. His troops acclaimed his two sons Caracalla had Geta as joint emperors, as stated by History Today. But sources say that when the brothers went back to Rome, Caracalla had Geta murdered the following year.

Today, Severus is remembered as a successful consolidator of Roman power. Though he is said to have ruled Rome as a military dictator, he did bring stability and left behind an empire spanning some 5 million square kilometers, the largest it had ever been, according to History.

What’s more, he was popular among the Roman people, particularly soldiers. Apart from increasing the wages of soldiers, he allowed them to have wives after ending the ban on marriage. With that, he got the support of these soldiers who helped secure his reign.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 29, 2021


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