The ‘Year of the Five Emperors’ and Rome’s First African Ruler (193–211)

On his first day as Emperor, when the tribune asked for the watchword, he gave ‘let us make war’.

Historia Augusta, Pertinax 5.746


Before daybreak on New Year’s Day 193 Commodus’ cubicularius Eclectus and the Praefectus Praetorio Laetus smuggled the dead Emperor’s corpse out of the Vectilian Villa where the murder had taken place, and headed for the house of the Praefectus UrbisPublius Helvius Pertinax. A knock on the door in the middle of the night was normally an indicator of impending violence or death, but Laetus and Eclectus assured Pertinax that the tyrant was dead, and offered to install him in his place. Neither Dio nor Herodian implies that Pertinax knew anything about this scheme, and his ignorance of the plot certainly remained the official line, but both the Historia Augusta and Julian assume that he was the designated replacement from the outset, and in any case, someone had clearly informed an elderly man called Claudius Pompeianus of these events. Pompeianus was a Syrian who had married Marcus Aurelius’ daughter Lucilla after Lucius Verus died. He had once been Commodus’ mentor, but was currently living in disgusted retirement on his country estates.

Pertinax accepted an invitation to go to the Praetorian camp. There he promised the Guard a donativum of 12 000 sestertii per man in return for their support. This was quite a bit less than they had received from Marcus Aurelius, but they took the money anyway and proclaimed Pertinax Emperor. Pertinax then headed for the Senate, who were vigorously damning Commodus’ memory, where he was approached by Pompeianus. Pertinax offered Pompeianus the throne, but his offer was refused, which in turn allowed Pertinax to make the obligatory pretence of reluctance – his propaganda would claim that although he had been chosen by the soldiers he didn’t really want to be Emperor – whereupon the Senate unanimously fell into line and confirmed him as Imperator Caesar Publius Helvius Pertinax Augustus, the first in what is sometimes, and slightly erroneously, dubbed the Year of the Five Emperors.

The mere fact of Pertinax becoming Emperor tells an incredible tale of social mobility. Now aged sixty-six, he had been born in Alba Pompeia (modern Alba) in north-west Italy. His father, Helvius Successus, was a freedman, and had called his son Pertinax to reflect the ‘pertinacious’ way he conducted his own business dealings. Helvius had also invested wisely in his son’s education, sending him to Rome to study with the grammarian Sulpicius Apollinaris. Pertinax had then become a teacher in his own right, before embarking on a meteorically successful military career in Syria, Britain and the Danube, and then moving into high-level administrative posts. He became a Senator, Consul Suffectus, and held governorships in the two Moesias, Dacia, Syria and Africa, before being appointed Praefectus Urbis at Rome by Commodus. On the way he had received helpful patronage from the aforementioned Claudius Pompeianus, and also made a politically judicious but ‘open’ marriage to the ex-Consul Flavius Sulpicianus’ daughter Flavia Titiana: both partners indulged in unsuitable affairs.

On the whole, Pertinax seems to have been well respected by the Senate, possibly because he was very deferential and unthreatening:

He was a venerable old man, with a long beard and swept back hair. The appearance of his body was on the fat side [. . .] but his stature was imperial. His speaking ability was average, and he was smooth rather than affable.47

Dio, whose political career benefited from Pertinax’ accession, says that ‘he also conducted himself in a very democratic manner toward us Senators; for he was easy of access, listened readily to anyone’s requests, and in answer gave his own opinion in a kindly way’.48 But if his attitude towards the Senate struck the right tone, as did both his refusal to pander to the lewdness of imperial freedmen and his prudent management of the economy, his relationship with the Praetorian Guard proved his undoing. It only took until 3 January for them to try to invest the distinguished Senator Triarius Maternus Lascivius in his place, although he fled naked (we are not told why) to Pertinax and subsequently left Rome.

Dio tells us that

Laetus [who was now Praefectus Praetorio], however, did not remain permanently loyal to Pertinax, or, I might better say, he was never faithful even for a moment; for when he did not get what he wanted, he proceeded to incite the soldiers against him.49

This initially resulted in an unsuccessful attempt to install the Consul Q. Pompeius Sosius Falco as Emperor. Pertinax, who was at Ostia checking up on the corn supply, rushed back to Rome, blamed corrupt freedmen for his financial difficulties, lied about giving as much to the soldiers as Marcus Aurelius had done, and spared Falco’s life, although numerous Praetorians were subsequently put to death. Pertinax had sworn never to execute a Senator, but the perceived inconsistency in the treatment of the soldiers, whether this was on Pertinax’s orders or on Laetus’, pretending it was on Pertinax’s, proved fatal to the Emperor. On 28 March, 200 or 300 soldiers stormed unopposed into his residence. Either through bravery or through stupidity Pertinax tried to reason with them. The precise details vary, but one soldier took the offensive, and Pertinax was hacked down in a welter of sword-blows.

Dio’s verdict is that Pertinax

failed to comprehend, though a man of wide practical experience, that one cannot with safety reform everything at once, and that the restoration of a state, in particular, requires both time and wisdom.50

He should have said that one cannot with safety alienate the Praetorian Guard.

Sold to the Highest Bidder! Didius Julianus Buys the Empire

If the citizens of Rome had been hoping that Pertinax would be Nerva II, with a Golden Age to follow, they were to be bitterly disappointed. What they got was civil war, a series of short-lived would-be Emperors, and perhaps the most bizarre accession to date.

The soldiers who had murdered Pertinax carried his head on a pole back to the Praetorian camp, where an extraordinary series of events now played itself out. Pertinax’s father-in-law, the Praefectus Urbis T. Flavius Sulpicianus, was already at the camp, trying to find out what was going on. He wanted the Praetorians to proclaim him Emperor. But so did another senior Senator, M. Didius Severus Julianus. Essentially the two of them embarked on an auction for Roman Empire. Back in 111 BCE the African prince Jugurtha had said of Rome:

It is a city for sale, and it will meet a premature death if it finds a buyer.51

Three centuries later it did find one: in a bare-faced biddingwar, Flavius Sulpicianus offered 20 000 sestertii per soldier, but Didius Julianus used his outstretched fingers to indicate an extra 5 000. The Roman Empire was sold. Didius Julianus went to the Senate House, where the abject, terrified Senators, Dio Cassius included, conferred on him tribunician power, the title of Imperator, and the rights of a Proconsul.

Rome’s new owner was not a complete nobody. Born of mixed Italian and African origin in 137, he had been brought up at the home of Marcus Aurelius’ mother Domitia Lucilla, commanded Legio XXII Primigenia in Germany in the early 170s, served as Consul with Pertinax, who allegedly ‘always called him his colleague and successor’,52 and had held five provincial governorships. The question was, could he govern what he had just bought? According to Dio, the signs were not good:

Finding the dinner that had been prepared for Pertinax, he made great fun of it, and sending out to every place where by any means whatever something expensive could be procured at that time of night, he proceeded to gorge himself, while the corpse was still lying in the building, and then to play at dice.53

Herodian is similarly dismissive, speaking of his drinking, debauchery, luxurious living and profligate practices to the detriment of his duties to the state.54

Imperator Caesar Marcus Didius Severus Julianus Augustus’ support was precarious in the extreme: there was no guarantee that the provin cial armies would accept him just because the Prae torian Guard has sold him the world; the Senate were deeply unhappy; and the people of Rome rioted and started to agitate on behalf of C. Pescennius Niger, the governor of Syria. That might have been a manageable situation for Julianus, but two other powerful provincial governors, both from African families, now put forward their claims as well: D. Clodius Albinus in Britain, and L. Septimius Severus in Pannonia Superior.

Pescennius Niger made the first move. His four Syrian legions proclaimed him Emperor in April, but he made the mistake of trying to consolidate support at Antioch, and lost the initiative. Clodius Albinus, who like Didius Julianus’ mother came from Sousse, also declared himself in April. He could call on three legions and plenty of auxiliaries, but it was Septimius Severus, the man from Lepcis Magna in modern Libya, who was the most focused and ruthless player. He could count on the backing of some sixteen legions from the armies of the Rhine and Danube, and he was also the nearest to Rome.

Having been proclaimed Emperor by Legio XIV Gemina stationed at Carnuntum on 9 April, Septimius also made a pact with Clodius Albinus, offering him the title ‘Caesar’ (effectively from now on, ‘heir apparent’), which Albinus accepted. So with one potential rival sitting on his hands on the other side of the English Channel, Septimius could concentrate on taking Rome.

As Septimius homed in on the capital, Aquileia and Ravenna fell without resistance. Didius Julianus’ responses included threats, negotiation, magic rituals, assassination attempts and building fortifications, all of which came to nothing, since his envoys kept defecting and the Praetorian Guard, ‘demoralized by the fleshpots of the city and intensely averse to active service’,55 degenerated into a useless laughing stock:

the Praetorians did nothing worthy of their name and of their promise, for they had learned to live delicately; the sailors summoned from the fleet stationed at Misenum did not even know how to drill; and the elephants found their towers burdensome and would not even carry their drivers any longer, but threw them off, too.56

For his part, Septimius worked assiduously to undermine his rival, whose supporters melted away. Julianus realized that the game was up. Dio was present on 1 June when he summoned the Senate and asked them to appoint Septimius as joint ruler. But the compromise came far too late: Septimius had no interest in a power-sharing agreement; the Praetorian Guard changed sides; and the Consul Silius Messalla convened another meeting of the Senate, where Dio and the others voted on three motions:

We thereupon sentenced Julianus to death, named Septimius Emperor, and bestowed divine honours on Pertinax.57

Julianus was a solitary gibbering wreck in the imperial palace when he met his fate.

A [military] tribune was sent to kill Julianus, that cowardly and wretched old man who had in this way purchased with his own money his miserable death.58

Apparently his last words were rather pathetic: ‘But what terrible thing have I done? Whom have I killed?’59

Septimius Severus, the African Emperor (193–211)

When Julianus was killed on 1 June 193, Septimius Severus was still some 80 kilometres from Rome. Nine days later his army flooded into the city in triumph having put the Senate and the Praetorians firmly in their place. A hundred-strong delegation of Senators had met him at Interamna (modern Terni), where he had them searched for concealed weapons, before receiving them, armed himself and accompanied by many armed men. The Praetorian Guard were also summoned (or tricked) to meet him ‘in their undergarments’60 outside the city, where they were ‘netted like fish in his circle of weapons’.61 They were stripped of their clothing and their employment, and forbidden to come within 100 Roman miles of Rome on pain of death; anyone directly involved in the murder of Pertinax was executed. A new Praetorian Guard was recruited from Septimius’ loyal Danubian legions, but he retained Julianus’ Praefectus Flavius Juvenalis, who had conveniently changed sides when offered the chance. Septimius did install a new co-commander of the Guard though, D. Veturius Macrinus, and more significantly a fellow-African and distant relative called C. Fulvius Plautianus became the new Prefect of the Vigiles and proceeded to seize Pescennius Niger’s adult children. These changes effectively put an end to Italians dominating the Praetorian Guard and were symptomatic of changes in the balance of power right across the Empire.

Dio Cassius witnessed Septimius’ entry into Rome at first hand:

The whole city had been decked out with garlands of flowers and laurel and adorned with richly coloured stuffs, and it was ablaze with torches and burning incense; the citizens wearing white robes and with radiant countenances, uttered many shouts of good omen; the soldiers, too, stood out conspicuous in their armour as they moved about like participants in some holiday pro cession; and finally we [Senators] were walking about in state.62

Septimius posed as the avenger of Pertinax, whose name he included in his grandiose new title: Imperator Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pertinax Augustus. He provided the late ruler with magnificent obsequies in the Campus Martius: a pyre was constructed in the form of a three-storey tower adorned with ivory, gold and statues, on top of which was a gilded chariot. When the consuls set light to the pyre an eagle flew from it, symbolizing Pertinax’s deification.

Rome’s first 100 per cent African Emperor was

small of stature but powerful, though he eventually grew very weak from gout; mentally he was very keen and very vigorous. As for education, he was eager for more than he obtained, and for this rea son was a man of few words, though of many ideas. Towards friends not forgetful, to enemies most oppressive, he was careful of everything that he desired to accomplish, but careless of what was said about him.63

His family were upwardly mobile wealthy denizens of Lepcis Magna, and his future had seemed particularly rosy when, early in his career, he consulted an astrologer who gave him a reading predicting ingentia, ‘great things’. He married a woman named Paccia Marciana, moved to Rome, became a Senator, and pursued a career of governorships and military commands under Marcus Aurelius and then Commodus, which culminated in his governorship of Pannonia Superior in 191. His success was partly due to Rome’s ‘African mafia’, especially Q. Aemilius Laetus,64 and although he was totally Romanized, he never lost his local accent: in all probability he pronounced his name Sheptimiush Sheverush.65

His marriage to Paccia Marciana was childless, but his second marriage, to Julia Domna, produced two sons in quick succession: L. Septimius Bassianus (better known by his nickname Caracalla) in 188, and P. Septimius Geta the year after (see Genealogy Table 4). He had, allegedly, chosen Julia Domna because it was written in the stars that she would marry a king, but she was a colourful character in her own right: the daughter of the high priest of the sun god Elagabal at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria, striking to look at, adept at political machinations, a patroness of writers and philosophers, and well known for her scandalous love affairs:

[Septimius] kept his wife Julia even though she was notorious for her adulteries and even guilty of conspiracy.66

There is a certain amount of irony in this. Septimius prided himself on his old-school Roman qualities of rigor, disciplina, severitas, etc., and felt that Rome’s population was not living up to the morals and values of their ancestors, but when he tried to enact the old lex Julia de adulteriis67 he created a backlog of literally thousands of indictments and he had to give up the process. Even the barbarians were disgusted, if we can believe Dio’s story of a conversation between a Caledonian woman and Julia Domna. The empress was teasing her about ‘free love’ in Britain, only to get the reply: ‘We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest’.68

Septimius did not stay in Rome for long. He still had the problem of the wannabe Emperor Pescennius Niger to deal with, but first he underwent an image change where rather than working a soldierly look he took on a heavily bearded style. Then he announced that he was embarking on a Parthian War, but headed for his real target – Byzantium, where Niger was based.

It was a classic East v West clash, with Pescennius Niger’s six legions from Egypt and Syria confronting Septimius’ sixteen mighty Danubian ones. The result was a foregone conclusion: Septimius’ battle group drove Niger’s men back towards the end of 193, scoring victories near Cyzicus and at Nicaea (modern Iznik), while his fleet brought troops to lay siege to Byzantium; the provinces of Asia and Bithynia fell into Septimius’ hands; Egypt recognized his authority; and in Spring 194, in a toughly contested battle at Issus (where Alexander the Great had famously defeated Darius III of Persia), his troops deployed testudo tactics and destroyed Niger’s army. Niger himself fled but was apprehended and beheaded. However, not even the display of his severed head could induce the defenders of Byzantium to capitulate: it took more than a year to bring them to submission, after which the city’s imposing walls were torn down.

Septimius tinkered with the provincial arrangements in the East: the province of Syria was now divided into two: Syria Coele (‘Hollow Syria’), which had quite a Hellenistic cultural flavour, and Syria Phoenice, ‘Phoenician Syria’, with a more strongly Semitic one. A vicious backlash also took place against the individuals and cities that had supported Niger. Such was the extent of the reprisals that a great many people fled to Parthia rather than face Septimius’ severity. This duly provided him with a pretext to invade Parthia, and in the first half of 195 he crossed the Euphrates into northern Mesopotamia. Dio says he did this out of a ‘desire for glory’,69 but it would do him no harm to bring his and Niger’s legions together against Rome’s traditional enemy, and the Parthians could not be allowed to support his rival and the fugitives with impunity. In fact, Septimius encountered little meaningful resistance. The kingdom of Osrhoene was made into the Roman province of Osrhoena, a chunk of Mesopotamia was organized as a Roman province of the same name with two legions stationed in it, and Septimius received three salutations as Imperator as well as taking the titles Arabicus and Adiabenicus.

The elimination of Niger and the annexation of new territory was really just a prelude to more important events at Rome and in the West. Septimius sought to link himself to the Antonine dynasty by (falsely) claiming that he was the son of Marcus Aurelius; Julia Domna received the title Mater Castrorum (‘Mother of the Camp’) like Marcus’ wife Faustina; and Septimius’ elder son Septimius Bassianus, aka Caracalla, was renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. When the seven-year-old boy was given the title ‘Caesar’, Septimius’ dynastic plans were made crystal clear: Clodius Albinus had been granted this title to buy him off in the struggle with Niger, so replacing him with Caracalla was an open invitation to a fight.

Clodius Albinus had a certain amount of support in the Senate, and we hear that Septimius dispatched agents to assassinate him and put about allegations that he had been behind Pertinax’s murder. For his part, Albinus proclaimed himself Augustus (i.e., Emperor), but was declared a public enemy on 15 December. Popular unease about the situation manifested itself in a demonstration against civil war in the Circus Maximus, but events now had their own momentum. Albinus commanded the three legions of Britain, Legio VII Gemina in Spain, and forces from the Rhineland, but he was still outnumbered by an adversary who was better prepared. In February 197 the armies converged outside Lugdunum, where Septimius prevailed after some bloody fighting in which he was thrown from his horse and only escaped by throwing off his imperial cloak.70 The defeated Albinus committed suicide and Septimius rode his horse over his naked body before having it thrown into the Rhône, and his severed head was sent back to Rome.

Whereas Albinus had minted coins at Lyons professing his CLEMENTIA (‘clemency’) and AEQUITAS (‘fairness’), Septimius is said to have lauded the severity and cruelty of notorious Republican hard-men like Sulla and Marius, and deprecated the mildness of Pompey and Caesar. He argued that it was totally hypocritical for the Senators to criticize his ‘brother’ Commodus, when ‘only the other day one of your number [. . .] was publicly sporting with a prostitute who imitated a leopard’.71 The reprisals of ‘the Punic Sulla’ were savage: Albinus’ wife and children were killed, as were many of his supporters and their wives; twenty-nine Senators were put to death; and Commodus was deified. Herodian summarizes the situation very well:

But here is one man who overthrew three Emperors after they were already ruling, and got the upper hand over the Praetorians by a trick: he succeeded in killing Julianus, the man in the imperial palace; Niger, who had previously governed the people of the East and was saluted as Emperor by the Roman people; and Albinus, who had already been awarded the honour and authority of Caesar.72

In an acknowledgement of where his true power-base was, Septimius curried favour with the people of Rome by staging extravagant and exotic shows in the arena, and with the army, notably by improving the legionaries’ basic pay from 1 200 to 2 000 sestertiiand ending Augustus’ restrictions on their right to marry. Then it was time to head for the East once more. Parthia must be destroyed . . .

There was a slightly unsettled atmosphere on the Eastern frontier. The Parthian king, Vologaeses IV, had retaliated against the Roman incursion of 195 by attacking the frontier outpost of Nisibis, which had been taken during that campaign. Now, however, the Roman intentions were much more serious. The Emperor raised three new legions, I, II and III Parthica, all commanded by Equestrian prefects rather than Senatorial legates. Dio tells us that I and III were quartered in Mesopotamia but II Parthica was stationed in Italy, where it could both control Rome and function as a strategic reserve. By late summer 197 Septimius had established his headquarters at Nisibis. His invasion force sailed along the Euphrates before marching against Ctesiphon on the Tigris, which they took relatively easily. In a fate not uncommon in antiquity, the adult males were killed and the women and children enslaved, while the Parthian royal treasury was looted. Northern Mesopotamia became a Roman province once again, and on the centenary of Trajan’s accession, 28 January 198, Septimius took the title of Parthicus Maximus, named the nine-year-old Caracalla ‘Augustus’ (co-Emperor), and made his younger son Geta ‘Caesar’: essentially he now had an heir and a spare.

Septimius Severus had become the greatest expander of the Empire since Trajan, but he doesn’t seem to have intended to annex all the territory he had just conquered. As the loot-laden army withdrew, he made two costly and unsuccessful assaults on the fortress city of Hatra. From there he moved to Palestine and then to Egypt, where he combined administration with sightseeing, taking in the embalmed corpse of Alexander the Great, a Nile cruise, and visits to the pyramids and Thebes (Luxor). From there he headed back to Syria, where in 202 he took the consulship with the thirteen-year-old Caracalla as his colleague: never before had two co-Emperors been Consul at the same time.

Having returned to Rome via the Danubian provinces and taken the opportunity to put on shows and make generous donations to the Praetorian Guard and the plebs, Septimius revisited the land of his birth. Lepcis Magna, which is now one of the most spectacular of all the ancient archaeological sites, benefited immeasurably. An unusual four-way triumphal arch straddles a major crossroads in celebration of Septimius’ victory over Parthia, and when M. Iunius Punicus erected statues to the Emperor, Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta,73 Septimius reciprocated as only an Emperor can. He conferred ius Italicum (exemption from tribute) on the city, which came to be embellished with some outstanding architecture: one of the most impressive Forums in the Empire, a stunning space some 300 by 200 metres surrounded by colonnades and incorporating a temple to the Genius of Septimius; an imposing basilica at least 30 metres high with columns of exotic red granite and green marble, plus white marble pilasters depicting the mythology of Hercules and Bacchus; an improved aqueduct; a first-rate port with a lighthouse; a colonnaded street that ran from the harbour to the main Hadrianic Baths, which were repaired; a new entrance to the Macellum (Market Place); and state-of-the-art athletic facilities. Dio thought this was a monumental waste of money:

He [. . .] spent a great deal uselessly in repairing other buildings and in constructing new ones; for instance, he built a temple of huge size to Bacchus and Hercules.74

This may refer to the enormous temple at Lepcis: Bacchus and Hercules are not only the patron deities of the Severan family, but are commonly identified with Lepcis’ patron deities Shadrapa and Melquart, illustrating an important blending of African and Roman traditions.

By 203 Septimius and his entourage were back in Rome, and again there was lavish spending: the impressive Arch of Septimius Severus was dedicated in the Forum in 203; the Septizodium (or Septizonium) became a kind of ancient Roman Trevi Fountain on the south-east corner of the Palatine; and there were the Baths of Severus. The following year saw the celebration for the seventh, and ultimately the final time, of the Ludi Saeculares (‘Secular Games’), last held six years prematurely (they ran on a 110-year cycle) by Domitian in 88.

The End of Septimius Severus’ Reign

All Septimius’ building and festivities could not obscure the fact that tensions were breaking out. Before the Eastern campaign he had promoted C. Fulvius Plautianus to Praefectus Praetorio. Plautianus, also from Lepcis, had not only engineered the murder of his Praetorian colleague Q. Aemilius Saturninus and wheedled his way into becoming the Emperor’s closest confidant, but also had his eyes on the throne himself:

He wanted everything, asked everything from everybody, and would take everything. He left no province and no city unplundered, but snatched and gathered in everything from all sides [. . .] He castrated a hundred Roman citizens of noble birth [so that Publia Fulvia] Plautilla, his daughter, whom Caracalla afterwards married, should have only eunuchs as her attendants in general, and especially as her teachers in music and other branches of art.75

Plautilla apparently had a dowry that would have sufficed for fifty women of royal rank, but her marriage to Caracalla was a disaster: he detested her and his father-in-law, not to mention his younger brother, all of whom seemed to stand in the way of himbecoming sole ruler of Rome. For his part, Plautianus also treated Julia Domna so outrageously, conducting investigations into her conduct that involved torturing women of the nobility, that she was driven to study philosophy.

The denouement came in 205 when both Caracalla and Geta were Consuls. Plautianus was executed on the evening of 22 January. What really happened is not entirely clear: in Dio’s version Caracalla fabricated a supposed plot against himself and Septimius by Plautianus, and when Plautianus tried to defend himself against the accusation, Caracalla had him killed; in Herodian’s version, which reads like official propaganda, the plot was genuine, but Plautianus was betrayed by his own henchman. Caracalla now divorced Plautilla, who was banished to the island of Lipari. He never remarried.

One of the two new Praetorian Prefects who replaced Plautianus was the eminent jurist Aemilius Papinianus (‘Papinian’). This was a sign of Septimius trying to offset some of his legal workload: he was conscientious about administering the law, but needed expert guidance, and his reign is often said to have inaugurated a Golden Age of jurisprudence, notably through the talents of Papinian and two other great Roman lawyers, Julius Paulus (‘Paul’) and Domitius Ulpianus (‘Ulpian’). The influence of these men on the modern world cannot be over estimated: their view of Roman law still underlies the modern legal systems of much of Europe and America.

By this time, however, Septimius was in his 60s, his health was on the wane, and his teenaged sons were going off the rails in an orgy of sibling rivalry. He was under no illusion about what Caracalla was like, and Dio alleges that he considered putting him to death, like Septimius felt Marcus Aurelius should have done with Commodus. But he didn’t. So when the governor of Britain, another African by the name of Lucius Alfenus Senecio, sent dispatches saying that the barbarians there were in revolt and overrunning the country, Septimius was delighted: here was an opportunity both for glory and to instil some much-needed military discipline into his offspring. He and Caracalla shared the front-line command, while Geta was elevated to joint Emperor and entrusted with the logistics. Campaigns in around 208, 209 and 210 used Eboracum as the military headquarters, and saw successful salients well to the north of the Antonine Wall. Ethnic cleansing was on the cards:

Let nobody escape utter destruction at our hands, not even any child in its mother’s womb if it is male; let nobody escape utter destruction.76

But events intervened.

Septimius was obsessed with astrology, and Dio says that he knew he would not return from Britain:

He knew this chiefly from the stars under which he had been born, for he had caused them to be painted on the ceilings of the rooms in the palace where he was wont to hold court, so that they were visible to all, with the exception of that portion of the sky which, as astrologers express it, ‘observed the hour’ when he first saw the light.77

As Septimius’ health worsened Caracalla curried favour with the army, besmirched Geta, and attempted to persuade the doctors to hasten the old man’s end by their treatments.78 Dio carries a story of Caracalla trying to stab his father in the back, and only desisting when the shouts of some nearby riders warned Septimius about what was happening. But he could have waited: Septimius Severus died of natural causes at Eboracum on 4 February 211, aged sixty-five.

The British campaign was called off. Caracalla and Geta returned to Rome, where their father’s ashes were deposited in Hadrian’s mausoleum just prior to his official deification. He had left the Empire in rude financial health, but Edward Gibbon described him as the ‘principal author of the decline and fall of the Roman empire’.79 For the moment, though, the most pressing question was how well his two sons might, or might not, cooperate in ruling, and how they would react to his last words, quoted ‘exactly and without embellishment’ by Dio: ‘Agree amongst yourselves, enrich the soldiers and despise all the others.’80

46   Tr. Kershaw, S.

47   Historia Augusta, Pertinax 12.1, tr. Kershaw, S.

48   Dio 74.3, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

49   Ibid. 74.6.

50   Ibid. 74.10.

51   Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum 35.10, tr. Kershaw, S.

52   Historia Augusta, Julianus 2.3.

53   Dio 74.13.1, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

54   Herodian 2.7.1. Historia Augusta, Didius 3.8 dismisses much of this as vicious rumour, however.

55   Historia Augusta, Julianus 5.9, tr. Magie, D., op. cit.

56   Dio 74.16.3, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

57   Ibid. 74.17.4. Cf. Herodian 2.12.6–7.

58   Herodian 2.12.7, tr. Echols, E. C., op. cit.

59   Dio 74.17.5, tr. Kershaw, S.

60   Historia Augusta, Severus 6.11.

61   Herodian 2.13.5.

62   Dio 75.1.4, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

63   Ibid. 77.16.

64   See pp. 222 ff.

65   See Birley, A. R., Septimius Severus: The African Emperor, rev. edn., New Haven, Con: Yale University Press, 1988, p. 35.

66   Historia Augusta, Severus 18.8, tr. Kershaw, S. Dio, however, has nothing to say about this, and there is a strongly hostile historical tradition that seeks to discredit her.

67   See p. 51 above.

68   Dio 77.16.4 f., tr. Cary, E., op. cit. Dio found 3 000 adultery indictments when he was consul.

69   Ibid. 76.1.1.

70   Herodian 3.7.2. Dio 76.6 tells it differently, though: Severus loses, sees his men in flight, rips off his riding cloak, draws his sword, and rushes into the fugitives in the hope that he might stop the rout or die in the attempt.

71   Dio 76.8.2. If Severus was now ‘son of Marcus Aurelius’, that made him Commodus’ ‘brother’.

72   Herodian 3.7.8 tr. Echols, E. C., op.cit.

73   IRT 392, 403, 422, 434. Geta’s name was erased following his assassination in 211 by Caracalla.

74   Dio 77.16.3, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

75   Ibid. 76.14.1.

76   Ibid. 77.15.1, tr. Kershaw, S.

77   Ibid. 77.11.1, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

78   Herodian 3.15.2.

79   Gibbon, E., op. cit., vol. I, part 1, chapter 5.

80   Dio 77.15.2, tr. Kershaw, S.

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