The African Emperor? The Life, Career and Rise to Power of Septimius Severus

Peace, one and all…

As recently promised, here’s the first chapter of my MA dissertation. The title of the work is ‘The African Emperor? The Life, Career and Rise to Power of Septimius Severus’. I submitted it to the University of Wales Lampeter, Dept. of Classics in September 2001. The chapter given here is the introduction to the work. Bibliographical information will be given in the last section.

Please feel free to make use of it. However, academic convention, civility and personal honesty all dictate that you acknowledge use of it. And, remember, Allah is a witness over all things…

That said, enjoy!


Septimius Severus, emperor of Rome from 193-211CE, was one of the most difficult and yet one of the most intriguing men of antiquity. Today, some eighteen hundred years after his death, he still excites strong emotions amongst students of ancient history, stimulating both intense regard and intense animosity in almost equal measure.The elusive figure behind the legend remains both complex and enigmatic. Born into one of Roman Africa’s leading families, most probably in 145CE, he had a fairly ordinary senatorial career before becoming part of a conspiracy to topple the emperor Commodus and, in the chaotic period afterwards, he launched his own, ultimately successful, bid for power[1]. After defeating two rival claimants in four years of civil war, Septimius became the undisputed ruler of the Roman world in 197CE.
It is perhaps fitting that Septimius’ personality was similarly complex. Although he was a keen student and stood in awe of the liberal arts, religion and history in particular, he removed books of sacred lore from Egypt, closed the tomb of Alexander the Great and mutilated the famous statue of Memnon[2]. He was also as capable of ruthless cruelty as of open-handed generosity. Those who stood in his way were persecuted without mercy, whilst his close supporters were treated with patient indulgence[3]. ‘Towards friends not forgetful, to enemies most oppressive’ is Dio’s judgement (Dio 77(76). 16.1).

It is therefore no surprise to discover two distinct historical traditions, which ancient writers were unable to reconcile fully[4]. The Historia Augusta remarks that:

‘the senate declared that Severus either should never have been born at all or never should have died, because on the one hand, he had proved too cruel, and on the other, too useful to the state’ (HA Sev. 18.7-8).

Modern writers, deeply affected by this dichotomy, have been equally attracted and repelled by the character of Septimius. To Gibbon, he was a tireless and able ruler and yet fatally flawed; he was inherently deceitful, had a ‘dark and jealous temper’ and was ultimately the ‘principal author of the decline of the Roman Empire’[5]. This harsh verdict sprang largely from Gibbon’s own unconscious acceptance of ancient stereotypes. Africans, the descendants of Hannibal, were innately unfaithful and could not therefore be trusted; an African emperor would therefore possess these qualities in larger measure. Miller, writing in the early twentieth century, is characterised by many similar ideas. He praises his ‘realism unembarrassed by historical sympathies or scruples’ whilst elsewhere, he remarks that ‘To such a man the Roman tradition was alien’[6]. Miller felt that Septimius’ unsubtle approach to government sprang directly from his Punic background. He describes the period as a kind of Carthaginian revenge, Septimius being a ‘New Hannibal on the throne of the Caesars’[7].Later writers, conscious of this failing, sought to bring Septimius within the Greco-Roman fold. Where before he had been the archetypal other, he now became the ‘Roman Bureaucrat’[8]. This re-evaluation was given further impetus by the growth of epigraphic studies. The increasingly sophisticated analyses of senatorial career patterns demonstrated that Septimius’ own progress stood firmly within the traditional framework of patronage. This process reached its logical conclusion with the attempt of one scholar to argue that Septimius was, in fact, from a family of Italian émigrés[9].

Despite these advances, intense debate regarding Septimius’ heritage, and its ultimate significance, continues[10]. As we have seen, this is due in part to our own historical prejudices. It is in large measure also due to the ambiguous nature of the evidence itself. Septimius is clearly connected with Africa in the literature of the period, whilst his own imperial propaganda (largely, but not restricted to, the coinage and inscriptions) makes frequent mention of his home city and province. In spite of many tantalising remarks, there are few unequivocal statements of the emperor’s true allegiances. To use one particularly clear example, the Historia Augusta remarks enigmatically that the Septizonium was built in the capital so as to ‘…strike the eyes of those who came to Rome from Africa’ (SHA Severus 24.3). Does this mean, as some have thought, that Septimius was thereby somehow rewarding his fellow compatriots with a monument in their honour in the capital, or does it merely reflect what our sources believed his motives to be? Also, as this is an isolated reference, in an ambiguous source, we may even justifiably question its veracity. In any case, the complexity of the relationship between Septimius and Africa is made clear. By any measure therefore, Africa plays a key role in understanding Septimius and his era, which any informed discussion must address.

During the initial research for this dissertation it soon became apparent that the key to the larger question lay within Septimius’ relationships with his senatorial peers. The central question of the place of Africa and Africans under Septimius can only be addressed by first examining his route to power. Before any attempt to study the character of Septimius’ principate can be undertaken, it is necessary to examine the pillars upon which his reign was based. In other words, we must acquaint ourselves fully with those responsible for helping Septimius into power.

Given the range and intended scope of this paper, it is not the objective here to undertake an exhaustive biographical study. Rather, focus will be given to three particularly significant aspects, which it is hoped, will shed valuable light on the wider question. Thus in Chapter One, we will explore the connections of Septimius and his family to their apparent home city. We will examine the historical development of Lepcis and look closely at the impact of Roman rule upon native traditions. We will then take a detailed look at the origins of Septimius’ family (the gens Septimii). This will necessitate an in-depth examination of the relationship between individual members and will involve recourse to much epigraphic and prosopographical evidence, though with due recognition of the limits of such techniques.

In the second chapter, focus will be given to the development of Septimius’ earlier career, from his first official post in the mid-160s CE up to his first provincial command in Gaul in 188CE. We will examine his rise through the ranks chronologically, and attempt to isolate significant episodes where his connections with the wider Roman world become clear. The second chapter will also attempt to discuss the principal features of Romano-African society, its concerns and preoccupations. Although due consideration will be given to the constraints of space, such an analysis is vital; before we can properly understand the impact of Africa and Africans on Rome and Septimius, we must first understand Rome’s effect on Africa.

In the third chapter, the present study will conclude with an examination of Septimius’ later career, from 189CE until the defeat of his last rival Clodius Albinus in 197CE. In an influential article, Birley has argued that an emerging African faction, which had its ultimate victory with Septimius’ own accession, orchestrated the key events of this latter period. To test this theory, a step-by-step examination of the significant events and principal characters will be necessary.

Before we can begin, we must pause for a moment and examine our source material. Despite some significant gaps, the literary, epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological record for the Severan period is relatively full. Given this, it is expedient that we look at them in greater detail.

Arguably the most accurate source for the Severan period is the Roman History of the senator Dio Cassius Cocceianus. Born at Bithynian Nicaea to a wealthy senatorial family, most probably in 163-164CE, Dio was ‘…the only man who knew Severus personally and left a judgement of him to posterity’[11]. Dio’s career, which saw consulships in c.204 and 229, though not outstanding, brought him into contact with the emperor and many of the period’s chief figures[12]. For the Severan era itself, Dio’s work is only extant in two late epitomes, which despite some faults are remarkably close to the original where it is possible to check[13].

Despite a tendency to wander, Dio’s work is generally reliable. Firstly, as we have seen, he knew the emperor personally. Secondly, as a senator, Dio was present himself during certain key episodes[14]. As a senior consular, Dio also had access to senatorial archives[15]. Moreover, despite some examples of gross sycophancy, his overall view of Septimius remains remarkably balanced[16]. Finally, notwithstanding a certain chronological weakness and a penchant for archaisms, Dio’s work is a substantially trustworthy account of the Severan period.

The work of the Greek writer Herodian forms our second major written source. Like Dio, Herodian was Septimius’ contemporary. However, unlike Dio, Herodian is an altogether more shadowy figure. Little is known about him for certain. It is possible that he lived between approximately 180 and 238CE, it is also possible that he was a junior senator[17]. His work is divided into 7 books and chronological precision is not a strong point[18]. He is somewhat naïve, literary style frequently takes precedence over accuracy and the distortion of events to fit rhetorical devices is common[19]. Herodian is sometimes guilty of basic errors and occasionally he omits significant material[20]. Yet despite these faults, he does supply us with some otherwise unknown information and seems to have been genuinely interested in his subject[21].

The collection of imperial biographies, known today as the Historia Augusta, forms the period’s third major literary source. The Historia, which is arguably the most notorious historical work of antiquity, claims to be the work of six authors writing under Diocletian and Constantine. Current scholarly consensus rejects this however, and holds a single author responsible, most probably writing under Theodosius[22].

Despite this apparent agreement, intense debate regarding the work’s likely sources and the relative strengths and weaknesses of individual lives continues. Although an in-depth discussion of these important problems is well beyond the scope of this short introduction, a few relevant points can be made. The vita Severi is of most relevance to the present study. Although generally accurate, there is much invention, archaism and outright fabrication, as well as serious dislocation of events. Also, the later stages of the vita are compressed into a virtual summary, the author becoming bored with ‘minor details’ (HA Sev. 17.5)[23]. The other relevant lives are of varying quality. The lives from Antoninus Pius through to Didius Julianus are of generally good quality, with much otherwise unknown material. The lives of Septimius’ challengers Clodius Albinus and Pescennius Niger, and other more ephemeral figures, are virtual fictions[24]. Scholars, long aware of a qualitative difference in the earlier lives, have argued that the editor of the Historia made use of a number of older literary sources[25]. Syme argues that the basic source of the earlier lives was Ignotus, an unattested and otherwise unknown author, ending his account during the reign of Caracalla[26].

Our other literary sources may be summed up briefly. The Church Father Tertullian makes a few references to the state of Africa and Christianity under Septimius[27]. Given Septimius’ penchant for legal matters, rescripts (imperial replies to legal petitions) are understandably plentiful[28]. The ‘uneven and at times incongruous’ De Caesaribus of Aurelius Victor, most probably written around 358CE, devotes a fair amount of space to Septimius. Apart from some anecdotal references to the emperor’s thirst for learning, it is mostly erroneous[29]. Eutropius’ Breviarium, written at much the same time, is of much the same quality and is described by Jones as ‘an elegant summary for gentlemen who had not the patience to plough through Livy’[30]. The scattered and confused references found in other such late writers need not delay us here[31].

Inscriptions form the second major source of evidence. African cities, which had their own traditions of inscribing records on stone, swiftly adopted the Roman ‘epigraphic habit’, to judge from the region’s approximately 40,000 extant Latin inscriptions. Septimius’ home city of Lepcis has a wealth of such inscriptions. These documents are vital in a number of ways. Firstly, the languages inscribed on these monuments are an important indication of social change. The survival of Punic and Libyan inscriptions helps reveal the complexity of Tripolitanian culture. Latin inscriptions, and their social and spatial contexts, illustrate the width and depth of Romanisation in Lepcis. As will become clear in Chapter one, such information is vital in assessing Septimius’ early life.

Inscriptions from elsewhere in the empire are also important to this study. These documents record vital information about the origins, careers and outlooks of the imperial aristocracy. They can also illustrate the connections between individuals and groups. For instance, the Septimii are recorded on a number of inscriptions that help us to reconstruct, with some degree of accuracy, the family’s relationships with Lepcis and the wider empire[32]. Inscriptions can also help reveal developing trends. Thus the social, administrative, political and military changes of the Severan era are all illuminated by epigraphic material. There are however, some significant drawbacks, which are worth noting. The primary disadvantage of epigraphic evidence is its selectivity. In general, only especially noteworthy events are recorded, which means that much of the day-to-day information, of the type vital to modern historians, is missing. Secondly, the survival of inscriptions is based entirely upon random factors. This makes statistical analyses especially difficult. Thirdly, inscriptions rarely allow access to the mentalities of the ancient world. As Wallace-Hadrill points out, ‘Inscriptions only divulge formalities, not the background of patronage and intrigue that in practice made a career’[33].

The Roman coinage is another meaningful source of information. Successive emperors used the coinage as a means of disseminating official propaganda. The use of subtle and richly symbolic imagery helped the imperial government to highlight specific themes; coin issues could emphasise an emperor’s strength, mercy or religious beliefs.

Septimius’ manipulation of the coinage was particularly adept. For example, the literary sources indicate that Septimius declared before the senate that he would take Pertinax as a role model[34]. Thereafter, virtually his entire coinage makes reference to his apparent mentor. The name Pertinax is added to Septimius’ official nomenclature[35]. During mid-193, a special denarius commemorating the consecration of Pertinax was issued[36]. An especially significant issue recalls another important episode. Dio states that shortly before Pertinax’ death, Septimius dreamt that a horse threw Pertinax from the saddle, which was then given to him[37]. This dream, widely publicised as an omen, was made reality in 201 when an equestrian statue was set up in the forum. A sestertius issued shortly afterwards bears a depiction of this statue, with the legend SEVERVS PIVS AVG and OPTIMO PRINC SPQR TR P VIII SC (Figure 13)[38]. Other issues publicise Septimius’ religious piety towards Lepcis’ ancestral deities, Liber Pater and Bacchus, and his dedication of a temple at Rome to Eshmun, whilst others still honour his home province of Africa[39].

It is important to bear in mind however, that the coinage has its own peculiar drawbacks. Firstly, coins need not always reflect the actual will of the emperor under whom they were minted; some are better understood as a kind of bureaucratic ‘default setting’. Secondly, there is a limit to the amount of information that even the most tantalising coin can reveal. Issues honouring Africa do not by themselves disclose Septimius’ true feelings. Despite these drawbacks, this study will make repeated recourse to numismatic material where appropriate.

Archaeological evidence forms another useful body of information. There are two distinct types of archaeological data relevant to the present study. Firstly, there are the material remains of Tripolitania, Septimius’ birthplace. The wealth of the region’s native culture is a significant factor in determining its cultural allegiances. Hence it is an essential part of illustrating the environment in which Septimius spent his formative years. Fortunately, Tripolitania has been increasingly surveyed in recent years, its fascinating economic, social and military history are now being increasingly brought to light[40]. Secondly, archaeology is an extremely useful means of assessing Septimius’ own building programmes, and the ideological content within them. Two of his projects are of special relevance. The complete refurbishment of Lepcis under Septimius reveals a mass of vital data, especially in how the emperor wanted to be publicly perceived[41]. The remains of Severan building work at Rome and elsewhere form another category, of which the remains of his Triumphal Arch at Rome is the most important example. In any case, the part to be played by archaeological research in this study is made clear.

This introductory chapter has attempted to explore the current fascination with Septimius and his era. The principal factor behind Septimius’ appeal has been shown to be his provincial origin. The ambiguity and debate surrounding his apparent African heritage has in many ways made him the archetypal example of historical uncertainty and scholarly misconception. It is with these ideas in mind that our true examination of the emperor’s background can begin.

[1] Septimius’ date of birth is disputed. HA Sev. 1.3-4 states plainly that Septimius was born ‘six days before the Ides of April, in the first consulship of Severus and the second of Erucius Clarus’ (HA Sev. 1.3-4); that is, on 8th April 146. Elsewhere, a number of conflicting dates are given. Towards the end of the vita (HA Sev.22.1), the author contradicts himself, stating that Septimius died at the age of eighty-nine. The same claim is repeated in the largely fictitious Life of Pescennius Niger (HA Nig.5.1). Although these fantastic claims do not definitively refute a date of birth in 146CE, they do seriously wound the author’s credibility as a truthful witness. Dio, in his summation of the reign, disagrees somewhat; he states that Septimius was sixty-five years, nine months and twenty-five days old when he died on 4th February 211CE (Dio 76 (77). 15.2, 17.4). According to Dio’s calculation therefore, Septimius was born on 11th April 145CE. See Birley (1970), p.65; Septimius, App. 2 no. 27; Syme (1971b), 42; Barton (1972), 71. Cf. Platnauer (1918), 38; Hammond (1940), p.139; Magie (1960), 371, who all argue for 146CE.
[2] HA Sev 17.3-4; Dio 76.13.1-2.
[3] Alfoldy Senat, p.122.
[4] See Herodian’s account of Septimius’ march on Rome (2.9.9-14.3) which is full of the author’s admiration for the emperor. For his accusations of duplicity see 2.9.13 and 2.14.3-4, amongst others.
[5] Gibbon (Womersley ed. 1994), 140, 148, 150.
[6] Miller (1939) 24.
[7] Miller, op. cit., 26. See also, Platnaeur (1918), 38; Graham (1902), 75-80.
[8] The title of Hammond (1940), pp.137-174.
[9] Barnes (1967), pp.97-104.
[10] Birley Septimius, App. 2.
[11] L. Cassius Dio Cocceianus, henceforth Dio, seems to have been from a senatorial family first appearing in the Julio-Claudian period. He may also have been related to the famous second century rhetorician Dio of Prusa. The evidence is presented by Millar (1964), 9-11; Syme (1971d), pp.135-145; PIR 2 C492.
[12] For Dio’s career see Millar, op. cit., 15-24; Syme, ibid. Dio first rose to prominence during Septimius’ early years, when he wrote a pamphlet on the ‘dreams and portents which gave Severus reason to hope for the imperial power’ (73 (74) .23.1-2).
[13] The History, which seems to have originally contained eighty books, has only partially survived. Books 36 to 54 (from 68 to 10BCE) have survived in their substantially original form. Books 55-60 (from 9BCE-46CE) survive in sizeable fragments. Scraps of books 79-80 (from the death of Caracalla to midway through the reign of Elagabalus) are also extant. Two epitomes of Dio’s work still survive, one written in the eleventh century by Xiphilinus of Trapezus (books 36-80) and another in the twelfth century by Ioannes Zonaras. See Millar, op. cit., 1-3.
[14] Such as the night on which Didius Julianus was acclaimed emperor, Dio 73.12.2-5.
[15] See 77 (76). 16.4-5.
[16] For enthusiastic passages, see 74.1.3-5; cf. HA Sev. 7.1-3; Her. 2.14.1. For criticisms, see 74.4.1-5; 74.5.6-7; 76.16.1-17; Millar, op. cit., 138-140.
[17] Whittaker (1969), x-xviii, xxxiii, suggests that Herodian may have been present in Rome during the last years of Commodus until 193CE, though this is uncertain.
[18] Rather than give firm dates, Herodian commonly uses phrases such as ‘for a few years…’ (1.8.1), and ‘soon after this…’ (1.9.7; 1.10.1). Reference to events occurring ‘after one or two days…’ (2.6.3), and ‘after one or two days…on the third day…’ (7.4.6; 7.8.9) should therefore be treated with caution: Whittaker, op. cit., xxxix-xl.
[19] Naiveté: Her. 4.11.9. Style: 2.9.3.
[20] At 1.9.1 he neglects to mention the presence of Ulpius Marcellus in Britain, whilst in 2.2.10 he seemingly forgets to refer to Pertinax’ vital donative to the Praetorian Guard. More seriously, however, he fails to mention Severus’ second Parthian war, which he undoubtedly knew about (see 3.5.1ff). Although generally in awe of Septimius’ military achievements, he fails to record the formation of the new provinces of Numidia and Mesopotamia (3.10.1-3; 3.7.7-8).
[21] Commodus’ presence in the north during his father’s northern wars is only recorded by Herodian (1.5.3), as is Niger’s alliance with foreign kings (3.1.2-3). See Whittaker, op. cit., xlii; lii-liii
[22] See Syme (1971a), pp.1-16.
[23] In HA Sev. 20.2, Caracalla is said to be Severus’ son by his first wife. This is contradicted at 3.9 and 4.2 where Caracalla’s correct parentage is given. Between HA Sev. 14.11-16.7, the author loses his way during the second Parthian war in 198CE; a long interpolation, datable to 203CE, then appears, followed almost as suddenly by a return to 198CE. See Birley Septimius, 206; Magie (1960), 403-405; Syme (1971b), pp.30-53; Syme (1971d), pp.135-145.
[24] See Magie, op. cit., xii-xxxiv; Syme (1971b), pp.30-31.
[25] See Birley Septimius, 206-207 for a summary.
[26] Syme (1971b), pp.51-52; largely followed by Leaning (1989), pp.548-565.
[27] Glover (1966), 120-125.
[28] See Honore (1962), pp.-162-232.
[29] Bird (1994), xii-xiv; xv. Victor makes the false claim that Severus was responsible for building Hadrian’s Wall: De Caes. 20.
[30] Jones (1973), 1010. The Breviarium was probably written during Eutropius’ spare time. The work is full of erroneous and legendary material; Brev. 20 states that Caracalla married his mother Julia. See Bird (1993), vii-lvii.
[31] See Birley Septimius, 207.
[32] See Barton (1977), pp.1-13.
[33] Wallace-Hadrill, op. cit., 6.
[34] Her. 2.14.3.
[35] The name Pertinax is found on virtually all Severan coinage. See BMC V, 21-25 for a few examples of this otherwise ubiquitous issue.
[36] BMC V, 25, nos. 36 & 37, pl.6.6 & 6.7. The obverse legend reads DIVVS PERT PIVS PATER. The reverse shows an eagle standing upon a globe with the legend CONSEC[RAT]IO.
[37] Dio 74 (75). 3.2-3.
[38] BMC V, 624, no.801a; Hill (1977), 24 no.802; Hill (1989), 68 n.141.
[39] See Hill (1977), nos. 64a, 84, 102, 280, 285, 300, 303, for Liber Pater and Bacchus. The temple of Eshmun is referred to in Hill, op. cit., nos. 890-892; Hill (1989), 31. For Severan coins referring to Africa, see Hill (1977), nos. 69, 94, 110, 875, 914.
[40] Mattingly & Hitchner (1995), pp.165-213.
[41] See Ward-Perkins (1993), passim.

3 thoughts on “The African Emperor? The Life, Career and Rise to Power of Septimius Severus

  1. Wa alaikum salaam Dynamite Soul,

    Thank you for your kind thoughts. 🙂

    Allah bless you.

    Truly, this paper feels like another world sometimes!

    Abdur Rahman

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