11

The Severan Dynasty: Odd Emperors and Interesting Women (211–235)

Caracalla was a bad lot, Elagabalus worse, and Severus Alexander remains a vague figure for want of evidence. The women, after Septimius’ death, were the backbone of the dynasty. It would be interesting to see what Tacitus would have made of them . . .

Colin Wells1

Divided and Ruling: Caracalla (211–217) and Geta (211)

When Septimius Severus died, Caracalla was twenty-two years old and Geta twenty-one. The tradition paints the younger brother in quite idealized terms as kind, courteous and popular, although the Historia Augusta refers to him overdoing the food, wine and sex; Caracalla appears as a distorted caricature: an angry young man prone to cruelty, violence, debauchery and megalomania. He was never officially called Caracalla. That was a nickname that referred to his dress sense:

[He] invented a costume of his own, which was made in a rather foreign fashion out of small pieces of cloth sewed together in a kind of cloak [caracalla/caracallis]; and he [. . .] wore this most of the time himself, in consequence of which he was given the nickname Caracallus.2

The name stuck, and by the fourth century Caracallus had become Caracalla.

The two brothers seethed with mutual hostility and pointedly refused to cooperate on any significant policy areas. Amicable co-existence as joint Emperors being completely out of the question, they split the imperial palace down the middle, and even considered doing the same with the Roman Empire. They abandoned that idea after some heavy emotional blackmail from their mother Julia Domna, and concentrated on plotting one another’s downfall instead. In December 211, after initially intending to perpetrate the act at the Saturnalia festival but being too obvious about it, Caracalla talked Geta into attending a meeting with himself and their mother to talk about a possible reconciliation, but had him struck down by his soldiers (or struck him down himself):

When Geta saw them, he fled for safety to his mother, hung upon her neck, clung on to her bosom and breasts, moaned and howled: ‘Mother who gave me birth! Mother who gave me birth! Help me! I am being slaughtered!’.3

Damnatio memoriae followed as Caracalla tried to erase all record of Geta’s existence from inscriptions, coins, sculptures and paintings. Every possible epigraphic and visual reference to him has been eradicated from the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum and from the four-faced arch at Lepcis Magna, and especially striking is a painted tondo found in the Fayum that depicts Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta, except that Geta’s face has not only been erased, but smeared with excrement.4

Caracalla: The Brutal Populist

Sources hostile to Caracalla took a very nostalgic and idealized view of this victim of fratricide, but it was not until Elagabalus came to the throne in 219 that Geta’s reputation was officially restored and his mortal remains finally laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Caracalla paid a generous donativum to the troops, and then went in for a purge of Geta’s supporters: friends and associates; anyone who had lived in his half of the imperial palace; all his attendants; anyone who had the slightest acquaintance with him, be they athletes, charioteers, singers or dancers; distinguished Senators including on the flimsiest charges by anonymous accusers; both Praetorian Prefects, Papinianus and Patruinus; governors and procurators friendly to Geta; numerous members of the imperial family; and, as he had threatened long ago, his own wife Plautilla. The Praetorian Guard ran amok among the population of Rome in an orgy of pillage and bloodshed that lasted over a fortnight and caused 20 000 deaths.

Caracalla seems to have had a secure grasp of the pressure points of Roman politics, since the soldiers immediately received a 50 per cent pay rise. This of course increased the pressure on the treasury. Given that Ulpian defined tributum (tribute, taxes) as what is ‘paid to the soldiers’,5 a military pay rise would entail a concomitant tax hike. And there were plenty of soldiers to pay. Dio Cassius gives us a valuable list of the legions and their dispositions in his day (he was working on his history during Caracalla’s reign, and a comparison with the inscription from Marcus Aurelius’ time6 illustrates the way the legions were sometimes relocated in response to changing military needs):

Province

Legions

Germania Superior

VIII Augusta, XXII Primigenia

Germania Inferior

I Minervia, XXX Ulpia (omitted by Dio)

Spain

VII Gemina

Africa

III Augusta

Egypt

II Traiana

Cappadocia

XII Fulminata, XV Apollinaris

Syria

III Gallica, IIII Scythica, XVI Flavia

Arabia

III Cyrenaica

Judaea

VI Ferrata, X Fretensis

Mesopotamia

I Parthica, III Parthica

Upper Pannonia

X Gemina, XIV Gemina

Lower Pannonia

I Adiutrix, II Adiutrix

Upper Moesia

IIII Flavia, VII Claudia

Lower Moesia

I Italica, XI Claudia

Noricum

II Italica

Raetia

III Italica

Dacia

V Macedonica, XIII Gemina

Italy

II Parthica

Upper Britain

II Augusta, XX Valeria Victrix

Lower Britain

VI Victrix

In 212, Caracalla issued an edict known as the Constitutio Antoniniana, which granted Roman citizenship to virtually all free inhabitants – male and female – of the Empire.7 Rather strangely, it was not mentioned on the coinage, and Dio is cynical about it, arguing that it was intended to increase revenues by vastly increasing the number of people liable to tax. Yet it was a deeply significant moment in the extension of ‘Romanness’ across the Empire’s ethnically diverse population. From now on any free man or woman born in Britain, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Syria or wherever could say those famous words, ‘I am a Roman citizen’, even though by this time the most important privileges of citizenship only applied to the higher of the two citizen classes, the honestiores (Senators, Equites, army officers, etc.), as opposed to the humiliores (everyone else). In law thehonestiores were subject to less severe punishments – rarely death, and never forced labour in the mines, crucifixion or being thrown to the beasts.

Other revenue-raising policies included requiring the Senators to pay heavy contributions, doubling inheritance and emancipation taxes, and frequently levying the aurum coronarium (a contribution in gold to the Emperor that was originally collected on the occasion of triumphs, imperial accessions, anniversaries and adoptions, but which metamorphosed into a general ad hoc tax), which hit the more prosperous urban classes particularly hard. To counter the effects of a general upward trend in inflation, Caracalla created a new silver coin, the antoninianus, which was intended to replace the denarius at double its value, even though it only contained about one and a half times its worth in precious metal.

Another major part of Caracalla’s expenditure was the construction of the vast, state-of-the-art Thermae Antoninianae (Baths of Caracalla), a complex that impresses visitors to Rome even now:

Among the public works which he left at Rome was the notable Bath named after himself, the cella soliaris of which, so the architects declare, cannot be reproduced in the way in which it was built by him. For it is said that the whole vaulting rested on gratings of bronze or copper, placed underneath it, but such is its size, that those who are versed in mechanics declare that it could not have been built in this way.8

In 213 Caracalla embarked on a tour of the provinces, moving to Gaul, campaigning in Raetia against the Alemanni (also spelled Alamanni or Alamani = ‘All Men’), and taking on the Cenni, a Germanic tribe whose warriors were said to have used their teeth to pull out the missiles that had wounded them so that they could keep their hands free for unimpeded fighting. Caracalla assumed the cognomen Germanicus Maximus, but also became quite fond of the local tribesmen. He chose some of the strongest and most handsome for his personal bodyguard, but also liked to dress up as a German in a short, silver-embroidered cloak and blond wig. At one point he visited the shrine of the Celtic healing-god Grannus, and having then moved down via Thrace into Asia Minor he also visited the healing sanctuary of Asclepius at Pergamum, where his treatments included dream therapy. He also started channelling Alexander the Great in an overt way. His portraits show an interesting combination of a tough grumpy old soldier crossed with a hint of Alexander, and Herodian says that he filled all Rome with statues and paintings designed to suggest that he was a second Alexander. He started wearing Macedonian-style clothing, and visited the site of Ilium (Troy) where he performed rituals at the supposed Tomb of Achilles.

By 215 Caracalla had made his way to Antioch in Syria, after which he set off for Alexandria, ostensibly to visit the city that Alexander had founded and to pay his respects to the god Serapis, whom his father had also venerated. Unfortunately he was also bearing a grudge. The Alexandrians had given him a glittering welcome, but they were also fond of joking at his expense. Whatever the real cause, he assembled the young men of the city on false pretences, and surrounded them with his troops.

While slaughtering the Alexandrians and living in the sacred precincts, [Caracalla] sent word to the Senate that he was performing rites of purification on those very days when he was in reality sacrificing human beings to himself at the same time that he sacrificed animals to the god.9

The massacre left the mouths of the Nile and the entire shore ar ound the city stained red with blood.

Caracalla’s real ambition, however, was to ape Alexander and Trajan by conquering the East. He relocated to Antioch and sought to exploit the internal tension in Parthia between two rival claimants to its throne: Vologaeses V and Artabanus V. Caracalla backed the latter and agreed to marry his daughter. The Romans crossed the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and moved deep into Parthian territory, where they were welcomed with flowers, wild dancing, pounding drums and copious amounts of alcohol. But when the Parthians abandoned their horses and put their quivers and bows away, Caracalla gave the order to attack. The Romans slaughtered a great number of the Parthians, took large amounts of booty and prisoners, and marched away unopposed. En route they burned towns and villages, and Caracalla gave free rein to his soldiers to carry off as much of anything they wanted as they could.

The Roman army wint ered at Edessa (modern sanlıurfa in Turkey). Doubtless Caracalla was very pleased with himself at the time, but a retrospective analysis of the situation a decade into the future might have made him alter his opinion. He had made a significant contribution to the demise of the Parthian Empire, but with its takeover by the Sasanian dynasty in Persia under Ardashir I (c.223–c.240), and especially his successor Shapur I (c.240–c.270), Rome was out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Like his hero Alexander the Great, Caracalla was fated to die in the East. His trusted friend Flavius Maternianus (or Materianus) either uncovered or fabricated a plot against him involving the Praefectus Praetorio M. Opellius Macrinus. Unfortunately for the Emperor, the letter recommending Macrinus’ elimination accidentally found its way into the possession of its intended victim, who therefore got his retaliation in first. On 8 April 217 Caracalla was heading for Carrhae in order to honour the god Lunus (the Semitic male moon-deity Sîn), but as he was taking a toilet break Macrinus’ accomplices took his life. Responsibility for the actual assassination devolved onto a disaffected ex-soldier called Martialis, although the story had it that he was in turn cut down by Caracalla’s German or Scythian bodyguard(s).

The Historia Augusta describes the late ruler as ‘the most unfeeling of human beings, in a word a fratricidal, incestuous enemy of his father, mother, and brother’,10 b ut the army were upset by his death. His ashes were sent to Julia Domna at Antioch, from where they were transported to the Mausoleum of Hadrian at Rome. Caracalla was deified at Macrinus’ request.

Macrinus versus the Imperial Women: 217–218

Macrinus, born c.165 in Caesarea in Mauretania (modern Cherchell in Algeria), has the distinction of being the first Roman Emperor to come from a non-Senatorial background. The armies in the East seem to have been unaware of his possible involvement in Caracalla’s assassination, and they saluted him as Emperor on 11 April 217. But the women of the imperial family would ensure that his reign was brief.

The new Emperor hoped to make some sort of accommodation with Artabanus V, but the Parthian smelled Roman vulnerability and took the offensive. The upshot was a hardfought battle in the vicinity of Nisibis, followed by a rather inglorious peace treaty under which Rome retained Mesopotamia by buying off the Parthians at an extortionate price. Other settlements were reached with the Armenians and the Dacians, who had also taken the change of Emperor as an opportunity to attack the Romans. None of this was doing Macrinus’ public image a great deal of good, and neither did he endear himself to the populace when he stayed on in Antioch, despite Rome suffering a particularly violent electrical storm that caused a fire which damaged the Colosseum and caused flooding in the Forum. He also had difficulties in matching Caracalla’s free-spending relationship with the army, whose allegiance started to waver.

In terms of his dynastic arrangements, Macrinus got his eight-year-old son Diadumenianus made Caesar, but he seems not to have reckoned with some incredibly feisty, formidable and politically active imperial women who were not going to allow the Severan dynasty to go down without a fight. When Caracalla’s mother Julia Domna had heard of her son’s death, despite her hatred for him ever since the murder of Geta,

she was so affected that she dealt herself a violent blow and tried to starve herself to death.11

Dio relates that she flirted with the idea of seizing power herself before going back to Plan A and starving herself – she was already terminally ill with breast cancer – although Herodian hints that her suicide was forced onto her by Macrinus.12 She was, nevertheless, deified, leaving her recently widowed sister Julia Maesa to preside over a family that included her two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, and their respective sons, Varius Avitus Baddianus and Alexianus Bassianus (see Genealogy Table 4).

Whether it was Julia Maesa who came up with the scheme herself (she certainly had the wherewithal to buy the allegiance of the legions), or whether it was Eutychianus and Gannys, some family ‘friends’ from Emesa, is unclear. But someone certainly decided to have Avitus, who looked a lot like his cousin Caracalla, proclaimed Emperor. He, Julia Soaemias and Julia Maesa were smuggled into the camp of Legio III Gallica near Emesa, and on 15 May 218 the fourteen-year-old boy was duly acknowledged as Caracalla’s illegitimate son but legitimate successor, under the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Macrinus responded to the uprising of the ‘False Antoninus’ (a slur that Dio continually makes) by declaring war on Avitus, Alexianus, their mothers and their grand mother, and unofficially associating his own son Diadumenianus with the throne. When battle was joined, the pro-Severan army

made a very weak fight, and the men would never have stood their ground, had not Maesa and Soaemias [. . .] leaped down from their chariots and rushing among the fleeing men restrained them from further flight by their lamentations.13

This turned the battle in their favour. Macrinus was defeated, and although he escaped from the battle, he was duly captured and executed, as was Diadumenianus. Their severed heads were stuck on pikes, their names erased from inscriptions and papyri, and Diadumenianus suffered the further indignity of having one of his honorific inscriptions thrown into a latrine at Ostia. The Severan dynasty was back with a vengeance.

Religious Fanaticism and Weird Sex: Elagabalus, 218–222

Although Rome’s new fourteen-year-old Emperor was acclaimed by the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, he is usually known as Elagabalus (occasionally Heliogabalus), after the sun god Elagabal of Emesa, whose high priest he was. Rome seldom did well under teenage Emperors, and Elagabalus’ reign was no exception, although many of the tales of his bizarre sexual practices sound like the typical uncorroborated stories that crystallized around many ‘bad’ Emperors. We might note that whatever he allegedly got up to, the day-to-day running of the Empire seems to have carried on perfectly competently.

After Macrinus had been done away with, the Roman armies in the East sided with Elagabalus, who spent the last half of 218 at Antioch and then at Nicomedia eliminating Macrinus’ supporters. One prominent victim was Gannys, even though he had assisted Elagabalus’ rise to power. The pretext was that he was forcing the boy to live in a respectable manner, but Gannys was also said to be the lover of the Emperor-mother Julia Soaemias, and may well have been turning into something of a threat. In any case, regardless of their relationship, the real beneficiaries of Gannys’ death were Julia Soaemias herself, and Elagabalus’ grandmother Julia Maesa.

Having wintered in Nicomedia, the Emperor and his family set off for Rome in the spring of 219 with a weird companion: a conical black stone. Apparently the stone was worshipped as though it had been sent from heaven, and it had various small projecting pieces and markings that people liked to believe formed a rough picture of the sun. As a manifestation of the Emperor’s eponymous god Elagabal, the stone was installed on the north-east corner of the Palatine Hill where an enormous new temple called the Elagabalium was erected to accommodate it. Rome’s traditional religious sentiments were shocked by the cult practices:

I will not describe the barbaric chants which Sardanapalus [i.e., Elagabalus], together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to Elagabal, or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms, in fact actually shutting up alive in the god’s temple a lion, a monkey and a snake, and throwing in among them human genitals, and practising other unholy rites, while he invariably wore innumerable amulets.14

The Sardanapalus reference is a smear by Dio. He was a stereotypical ‘Oriental’ mythical Assyrian king, noted for his effeminacy.

A second temple was erected on the edge of Rome, and at midsummer the black stone was transferred there from the temple on the Palatine along a route paved with gold dust in a chariot drawn by six white horses, while the Emperor ran backwards in front of it holding the reins, looking up into the ‘face’ of his god. If this wasn’t bad enough, Elagabalus intended to make Elagabal Rome’s principal deity over and above Jupiter, and declared that the religions of the Jews and the Samaritans, and the rites of the Christians had to be transferred to the temple.

Of course, the sun god needed a wife, and Elagabalus opted for Vesta, whose sacred fire was transferred to the Elagabalium along with the sacred objects held in her shrine, notably the Palladium, the sacred statue of Athena which Aeneas had reputedly rescued from Troy and was tended by the Vestal Virgins. This was all too much for Roman public opinion, though, and an alternative spouse was eventually selected: the Carthaginian moon goddess Caelestis, aka Tanit, who also had a large stone that was the focus of her worship.

Elagabalus was also involved in a number of earthly marriages – up to five in some sources. Almost as soon as he had arrived in Rome in 219 he had married the noble Julia Cornelia Paula, who was proclaimed Augusta, only to be divorced when no child was immediately forthcoming. In 220, to universal opprobrium, he married Julia Aquilia Severa. She was a Vestal Virgin, and this was a horrendous violation of Roman law. Elagabalus’ justification for his actions sounds incredibly lame:

He sent a letter to the Senate asking to be forgiven his impious and adolescent transgression, telling them that he was afflicted with a masculine failing – an overwhelming passion for the maiden. He also informed them that the marriage of a priest and a priestess was both proper and sanctioned.15

But Severa was unable to produce an instantaneous heir, and she too found herself divorced, this time in favour of Annia Aurelia Faustina, a great-granddaughter of Marcus Aurelius. The marriage took place in July 221, but by the end of the year Elagabalus was back with his true love, the Vestal ex-Virgin Severa.

Although each of his wives held the title of Augusta, the real power lay with their mother-in-law and her mother. Soaemias and Maesa, both also called Augusta, seem to have managed affairs of state pretty adeptly, and they were so powerful that they were invited to meetings of the Senate – the only two women we know of to have been offered this privilege. Maesa was honoured as Augusta, Mater Castrorum et Senatus (‘Mother of the Army Camp and the Senate’), and Soaemias as Mater Castrorum et Senatus et Totius Domus Divinae (adding, ‘and the Whole Divine House’). They even set up a Senaculum (‘Women’s Senate’) chaired by Soaemias, although rather than functioning as a feminist think-tank it became a forum for discussing female protocol and fashion – who could wear gold or jewels on her shoes, who should make the first move in kisses of social greeting, and so on – and later satirists and moralists, like Erasmus in his Senatulus of 1529, used it as a vehicle to attack what they saw as female vanity and the ludicrousness of a female parliament. In essence, the tradition uses these women to reflect on Elagabalus. The author of the Historia Augustawrote that he was totally under Soaemias’ control,

so much so that he didn’t carry out any public business without her permission, although she lived like a complete whore and practised every type of disgusting activity in the palace.16

Lewdness was the order of the day. Elagabalus’ supposed extreme sexual proclivities became notorious.

He may have had several wives, but he also had lots of illicit extra-marital intercourse, delighted in harnessing teams of naked women to a wheelbarrow and making them drive him around on their hands and knees, and is himself depicted nude and ithyphallic on a cameo that shows him brandishing a whip over two fashionably coiffured naked women who are pulling his chariot.17 However, it was his feminization, and the way he conducted his man-to-man relationships, that caused the real disgust. This started with his fashion sense. Julia Maesa advised him that wearing his purple and gold priest’s outfit – complete with necklaces, bracelets and a tiara – would look not only foreign and barbaric but effeminate too. But to no avail – he enjoyed his transvestism:

He had the whole of his body depilated, deeming it the chief enjoyment of life to appear fit and worthy to arouse the lusts of the greatest number [. . .] By night he would go to the taverns dressed in a wig, and work as a landlady. He often went to the best known brothels, drove out the working girls, and became a prostitute himself.18

Some things got him particularly aroused:

Men who were hung like donkeys (onobeli) were avidly sought out from the whole city and from the sailors.19

The onebeli received high-ranking posts on the basis of the size of their manhood, while his charioteer, a Carian slave called Hierocles, became his ‘husband’ and the partner in some S&M-style role play:

[This ‘woman’ Elagabalus] wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his ‘husband’ and beaten, so that he had black eyes.20

However, transsexual games were not enough. He wanted the real thing:

He asked the doctors to engineer a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an inci sion, offering huge fees for doing this.21

Hand in hand with this went some astonishing feasting. On the menu were camel-heels, peacock and nightingale tongues, flamingo brains, heads of parrots, fish cooked in blue sauce to make them look like they were in the sea, peas with gold pieces and rice with pearls. Even his dogs were fed on goose livers, and his lions on pheasants. Yet this did not necessarily mean glorious over-indulgence for the party-goers: some were seated on airpillows, which deflated during dinner; others were offered desserts made from wax, wood, ivory or stone; and we hear of parasites being bound to a turning water wheel and being called ‘Water-Ixions’ after the mythological transgressor of the divine order.22

Another thing that upset the aristocracy was Elagabalus’ appointment of men of lowly origin to lofty government positions, such as P. Valerius Comazon, who ascended from a family of professional entertainers to become Praefectus Praetorio in 218, the charioteer Cordus who became prefect of the Vigiles, and Claudius, a barber who took over the grain supply. Rome’s Establishment would not tolerate a situation like this for long, and neither would the army. Inevitably, Elagabalus was faced by constant challenges to his position: Legio III Gallica soon turned against him and tried to make their commander Verus Emperor, although he was executed; an officer of Legio IIII Scythica based in Syria named Gellius Maximus also declared himself Emperor, but suffered the same fate; and Seleucus, a figure of uncertain identity, also failed.23

Julia Soaemias stuck by her son, but his grandmother now started to look at other possibilities. The rift between the Augustae became apparent when, in an attempt to diffuse the tensions, Elagabalus agreed to adopt his younger cousin called Alexianus Bassianus, who assumed the name Marcus Aurelius Alexander, and the title of Caesar, on 26 June 221. The family was now split between Elagabalus, backed by his ambitious mother Soaemias, and Alexander, supported by his politically wily mother Julia Mamaea (Soaemias’ sister) and his grandmother Julia Maesa.

Towards the end of 221 Elagabalus tried to have Alexander murdered, but the attempt backfired. Nobody would do the deed. By March the following year Elagabalus was well and truly sick of Alexander’s popularity, but the Praetorians, who had been carefully cultivated by Mamaea, had had enough of him:

[Elagabalus] made an attempt to flee, and would have got away somewhere by being placed in a chest, had he not been discovered and slain, at the age of eighteen. His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other, while his was thrown into the river.24

The Historia Augusta relates that Elagabalus was slain whilst taking refuge in a latrine, and that his corpse was shoved into a sewer before being hurled into the Tiber. He acquired the derogatory nickname Tiberinus as a result of this, to go with his unsurpassed collection of others: False Antoninus; the Assyrian; Sardanapalus; Gynnis (= ‘Womanish Man’); and Tractitius (derived from the Latin for ‘to drag’). Needless to say, he suffered damnatio memoriae, although Gilbert and Sullivan have made sure he never quite faded into obscurity: the song ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’ from The Pirates of Penzance (1879) contains the classic line: ‘I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus.’

The ‘Miserly Woman and the Timid, Mother-dominated Youth’: Alexander Severus, 222–235

Rome immediately acquired another teenaged Emperor. Indeed, if it is correct that Alexander had been born in Arca Caesarea (Arqa in modern Lebanon) in Phoenicia on 1 October 208, he had just become the youngest Emperor that Rome had ever had. He is generally known as Alexander Severus (or Severus Alexander). The historian Dio was Consul in 229, but only a tiny scrap of this particular part of his history survives, which is all the more frustrating given that Alexander advised him to spend his consulship away from Rome, because he could not guarantee his safety. It would be wonderful to know why that was.

Officially Alexander Severus’ father was Gessius Marcianus, but although there were rumours about him being an illegitimate child of Caracalla it was really his mother Mamaea who mattered most:

Completely dominated by his mother, he did exactly as he was told. This was the one thing for which he can be faulted; that he obeyed his mother in matters of which he disapproved because he was over-mild and showed greater respect to her than he should have done.25

Alexander’s grandmother Julia Maesa also wielded a great deal of power, so much so that, in reality if not in theory, Rome was being governed by women. After Maesa’s death in 223 or 224, Mamaea became not merely Mater Augusti et Castrorum et Senatus et Patriae (‘Mother of the Emper or, the Army Camp, the Senate and the Fatherland’), but even Mater Universi Generis Humani (‘Mother of the Whole Human Race’).

Mamaea used the expertise of the jurists Ulpian and Paulus, who were Prefects of the Praetorian Guard and members of Alexander’s consilium, but still found the Praetorians problematical. There had already been violence between them and the city populace when Ulpian fell foul of them one night in 223 or early 224. He had eliminated their previous commanders, Julius Flavianus and Geminius Chrestus, but the soldiers exacted their revenge by murdering him, even though he took refuge with Alexander and Mamaea in the palace.

Further difficulties arose in relation to Alexander’s marriage to the blue-blooded Sallustia Barbia Orbiana. When she took the title of Augusta it put Mamaea’s nose severely out of joint:

Although [Alexander] loved the girl and lived with her, she was afterward banished from the palace by his mother, who, in her egotistic desire to be sole empress, envied the girl her title.26

Orbiana’s father L. Seius Sallustius may also have been raised to the rank of Caesar, but in 227, when Mamaea’s insults became too much for them to endure, he took refuge in the Praetorian camp. This was interpreted as an act of treason, and Mamaea had him executed, while Orbiana was banished to Libya. This was not what Alexander wanted, but he was totally dominated by his mother.

Yet compared to the predecessor’s reign, Alexander’s was relatively calm, and Mamaea tried to put the politics of consensus at the heart of her regime: relations with the Senate were cordial; religious equilibrium was restored when the black stone was sent back to Syria and the Elagabalium on the Palatine Hill was converted to the Temple of Jupiter Ultor; Apollonius of Tyana, Christ, Abraham and Orpheus are all said to have received due respect; building projects improved the face and facilities of Rome; jurists held high office; literary figures like Dio Cassius held consulships; and the Greek cultural movement known as the Second Sophistic continued to flourish, especially in the great cities of Athens, Pergamum, Smyrna and Ephesus. Philostratus, who published his Lives of the Sophists under Alexander Severus, had coined this phrase to describe the activities of celebrity itinerant orators from c.60 to 230.27 They would improvise virtuoso declamations on moral or Greek historical dilemmas: Leonidas Inspires his Men to Fight to the Death;Which Side of a Woman is the Most Pleasing, Front or Back?; Is Water or Fire More Useful?; or more frivolous themes like In Praise of Baldness. Synesius argued that

Just as man is the most intelligent, and at the same time the least hairy of earthly creatures, conversely it is admitted that of all domestic animals the sheep is the stupidest, and that this is why he puts forth his hair with no discrimination, but thickly bundled together. It would seem that there is a strife going on between hair and brains, for in no one body do they exist at the same time.28

Synesius also observed that none of the hairy Spartans survived the defeat by the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BCE,29 and now after some three centuries of domination by the Parthians, the Persians were resurgent. A new and highly ambitious ruling dynasty called the Sasanids, under the capable and ruthless Ardashir I (c.223–c.240), had come to power in their old Iranian heartland. Ardashir was originally a Parthian vassal, but he had overthrown the last Parthian king, Artabanus V, and once he was officially installed as Shahanshah (‘King of Kings’) he aimed at restoring the Persian Empire to its former majesty. This would inevitably entail the conquest of practically all of Rome’s Eastern possessions. Rome had a new enemy in the East.

In 230 Ardashir’s army made an incursion into the Roman province of Mesopotamia, took Nisibis and Carrhae, and menaced Syria. Alexander Severus responded by heading east, accompanied by his mother and advisers, and picking up troops from the Danube frontier en route. Before he could launch a counter-offensive, his administration had to face down a mutiny by Legio II Traiana in Egypt, but once this was dealt with he led one of three salients back against the Persians. The Roman assault met with mixed results and both sides suffered heavy losses, but at least a settlement of sorts was reached in 233 that allowed Alexander to return to Rome and celebrate a somewhat spurious triumph. For his part, Ardashir refrained from attacking Roman territory for the remainder of Alexander’s reign: there would be plenty of opportunity for his son Shapur I (Saporin Latin) in the years to come.

There was no respite for Alexander Severus in Rome:

The governors in Illyria reported that the Germans had crossed the Rhine and the Danube Rivers, were plundering the Roman Empire, and with a huge force were overrunning the garrison camps on the banks of these rivers, as well as the cities and villages there.30

Alexander and his mother based themselves at Moguntiacum (Mainz) in Germania Superior in 234, and with the Roman forces bolstered by the return of soldiers from the East, preparations were put in place for a major offensive. A pontoon bridge was constructed over the Rhine, but early in 235 Alexander made what was literally a fatal mistake. He tried to buy the Germans off. This may have been sensible – Herodian tells us that, ‘the avaricious Germans are susceptible to bribes and are always ready to sell peace to the Romans for gold’31 – but the army, who already had issues about their pay and conditions and didn’t like the fact that the Empire was being run by a mummy’s boy (or by his mummy), looked on it as a shameful exhibition of weakness:

Alexander was doing nothing courageous or energetic about the war; on the contrary, when it was essential that he march out and punish the Germans for their insults, he spent the time in chariot racing and luxurious living.32

They turned to a semi-barbarian ex-shepherd from Thrace called Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus. This gritty character had risen rapidly through the ranks, and although he was prone to rioting ‘in a barbarian way’ and could ‘hardly speak Latin’,33 Alexander had put him in charge of training new recruits. In February or March 235, as the soldiers were mustered for their normal drill they decked out Maximinus in the imperial purple and proclaimed him Emperor. He accepted after the normal show of reluctance, and then moved to catch Alexander unawares.

The Emperor was in camp at Vicus Britannicus (modern Bretzenheim) fairly close by, and he was made aware of the situation before the rebels got to him, but instead of using this to his advantage he threw a teenage tantrum (even though he was twenty-six years old):

Bursting from the imperial headquarters as if possessed, weeping and trembling, he denounced Maximinus for his disloyalty and ingratitude, and listed all the favours he had done the man.34

His soldiers’ loyalty lasted just as long as it took Maximinus’ men to arrive:

Clinging to his mother and, as they say, complaining and lamenting that she was to blame for his death, he awaited his executioner. After being saluted as Emperor by the entire army, Maximinus sent a tribune and several centurions to kill Alexander and his mother.35

The killings brought the S everan dynasty to an end. Maximinus ordered the usual damnatio memoriae of Alexander and Mamaea, who had their names and titles expunged from inscriptions and their portraits mutilated. However, three years later, Alexander Severus was deified by the Senate and his name was re-inscribed on many of the damaged inscriptions. It was an indication of the confusion that was about to engulf the Roman world.

1   Op. cit. p. 268.

2   Dio 79.3.3, tr. Cary, E., op. cit. Cf. Historia Augusta, Caracalla 9.4.

3   Dio 78.2.3, tr. Kershaw, S.

4   Berlin, Staatliche Museen, inv. 31.329. See Varner, E. R., Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Imperial Roman Portraiture, Leiden: Brill, 2004, pp. 173 ff.

5   Digest 55.126.27.

6   CIL 4 3492 = ILS 2288. See above, p. 213.

7   Ulpian, Digest 1.5.17; Dio 78.9.5.

8   Historia Augusta, Caracalla 9.4, tr. Magie, D., The Scriptores Historiae Augustae with an English Translation by David Magie, Volume II, Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1924. The cella soliaris (the precise meaning of this is obscure) is probably the massive frigidarium (cold room) of the bath complex, which also contained a swimming pool.

9   Dio 78.23.2, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

10   Historia Augusta, Caracalla 11.5, tr. Kershaw, S.

11   Dio 79.23.1, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

12   Dio 79.23–4; Herodian 4.13.8.

13   Dio 79.38.4, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

14   Ibid. 80.11.

15   Herodian 5.6.2, tr. Echols, E. C., op. cit.

16   Historia Augusta, Elagabalus 2.1, tr. Kershaw, S.

17   Wheelbarrow (pabillum): Historia Augusta, Elagabalus 29.2; cameo: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Médailles, 304.

18   Historia Augusta, Elagabalus 5.5, tr. Magie, D., op. cit; Dio 80.13.2 f., tr. Kershaw, S.

19   Historia Augusta, Elagabalus 8.7, tr. Kershaw, S.

20   Dio 80.15.3, tr. Carey, E., op. cit.

21   Ibid. 80.16.7, tr. Kershaw, S.

22   See Kershaw, S., op. cit., 2007, p. 286.

23   The fifth-century historian Polemius Silvius adds Uranius, Sallustius and Taurinus to the list of usurpers.

24   Dio 80.20, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

25   Herodian 6.1.10, tr. Echols, E. C., op. cit.

26   Ibid. 6.1.9.

27   The First Sophistic designates the art of rhetoric in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

28   Synesius, In Praise of Baldness, 5, tr. Fitzgerald, A., The Essays and Hymns of Synesius of Cyrene: Including the Address to the Emperor Arcadius and the Political Speeches, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.

29   See Kershaw, S., A Brief Guide to Classical Civilization, London: Robinson, 2010, p. 93 and p. 138.

30   Herodian 6.7.2., tr. Echols, E. C., op. cit.

31   Ibid. 6.7.9.

32   Ibid. 6.7.10.

33   Historia Augusta, The Two Maximini, 3.1; 2.5.

34   Herodian 6.9.1, tr. Echols, E. C., op. cit.

35   Ibid. 6.9.6.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!