`for the secret of empire was now revealed, that it was possible to make an emperor elsewhere than Rome' - The senator and historian Tacitus, early second century.'
hen Marcus Aurelius died there was no doubt about the succession. Commodus was now eighteen and had been ruling as co-emperor with his father since the end of 176. In a sense, Marcus' death meant that the empire had just one emperor instead of two. It was the first time that an emperor was succeeded by a son born during his reign, and Commodus boasted that he was `born to the imperial purple'. The last four emperors had all been adopted by their predecessors and each had assumed power at a mature age and proved to be capable rulers. This had worked well, but had never been a deliberate plan, since none of the emperors had had a son to succeed him. Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian were childless - Hadrian, and probably also Trajan, showed more passion in their affairs with boys than women - and Antoninus Pius had a daughter, but not a son.
It was only chance that Commodus outlived his father, for several brothers, including his twin, died in infancy. Marcus Aurelius had a healthy, legitimate son, and it would have seemed odd to all concerned had he ignored his son and groomed someone else for the succession. Nor would an adopted heir ever have felt secure while such an obvious rival was alive. Later, with hindsight, many Romans and plenty of modern scholars criticised the failure of the wise philosopher to recognise the inadequacy of his son. This is unfair, and it is doubtful that they would have been generous to a man who had executed his own son to clear the path for an adopted heir.'
Fortune dictated that in i8o Marcus had a son old enough to succeed, but still young and inexperienced. The record of young emperors was not good, and only the sixteen-year-old Nero had been younger when he came to power. It was hard for anyone, let alone an inexperienced youth, to resist the temptations of effectively absolute power. In a court where almost everyone was jockeying for position and influence, a ruler was unlikely to be told unpleasant truths or restrained from folly. Hollywood has consistently portrayed Commodus as a monster - most recently in Gladiator - and several of our ancient sources agree with this judgement, depicting him as vicious, even in childhood. Dio, who began his senatorial career under Commodus, thought the emperor `not naturally evil, but simple minded' and easily led astray. He certainly showed little enthusiasm for the work of being emperor. This was less a question of shaping great policy and more about responding to appeals and dealing with problems as they were brought to his attention. An emperor needed to be available, open to requests from individuals and communities, ready to give rulings based on law and precedent. During one of his many journeys Hadrian was pestered by a woman, but brusquely said that he did not have the time to deal with her. Her yelled response - `Then stop being emperor' - immediately made him stop and listen to her petition. Marcus Aurelius was renowned for the time he devoted to hearing any case brought before him. A conscientious emperor spent long hours in often dull work.'
Commodus, however, was not interested. Within a few months he returned to Rome from the Danube and never again left Italy, where he became obsessed with the sports of the circus and arena. Privately, he raced chariots on his estates, but he was less reticent about displaying his other skills in the Colosseum. Days were devoted to watching the emperor slaughter animals with javelin or bow. He also appeared as a gladiator, usually fencing with blunt weapons, but sometimes fighting bouts with sharpened blades, although care was taken to ensure that the emperor came to no harm. While the emperor played, the task of running the empire passed into other hands. A series of court favourites wielded massive influence and power, often becoming rich in the process. None were senators, several were equestrians and others were slaves and freedmen of the imperial household. Some were capable, others utterly corrupt and many somewhere in between, but the empire was not supposed to function this way. It had always been true that anyone with access to the emperor gained importance in relation to their ability to sway his decisions. Yet such power was always precarious, and in turn each of Commodus' favourites lost his trust; others were sacrificed because of their unpopularity. All were executed. Unlike his father, the young emperor had no hesitation in ordering the deaths of his subjects, including many senators and equestrians. From early in the reign there were a succession of real or alleged plots to murder Commodus. Each brought a new wave of arrests and executions.4
As the years went by, Commodus' behaviour became increasingly bizarre. Dio recalled one occasion when the emperor decapitated an ostrich in the arena and then moved towards the rows of seats occupied by the Senate:
holding the head in his left hand and in his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many indeed would have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded others near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our jaws we might conceal the fact that we were laughing.'
Not everyone may have found Commodus' antics as comic and disturbing as the senators. Some Romans were obsessed with gladiators and perhaps responded to the emperor styling himself the `Amazon-like, left handed sword-fighter', or dressing and acting as Hercules. The praetorian guard who were the main military force in Rome enjoyed the lax discipline and licence granted to them.6
Yet after twelve years many members of the court had wearied of life under such a capricious ruler and a palace conspiracy succeeded where other attempts had failed. The prime movers were the chamberlain Eclectus, Commodus' favourite mistress Marcia and Aemilius Laetus, one of the two prefects in command of the praetorian guard. It was rumoured that Marcia had accidentally discovered an execution order including their three names. Another story claimed that on i January 193 Commodus planned to kill both the consuls and then process from the gladiatorial barracks dressed for the arena to become sole consul for the year. Instead, on New Year's Eve Marcia poisoned the emperor's beef. When he vomited and began to show signs of recovery, the conspirators sent in an athlete who strangled him to death. The Caesar born to the purple was thirty-one when he died and had reigned for more than twelve years.7
Pertinax: The Freedman's Son
Commodus left no heir, and anyway the conspirators would not have wanted a new emperor likely to avenge his death, so they looked instead for a successor from the Senate. During the night some of the conspirators visited the house of the sixty-six-year-old Publius Helvius Pertinax. Contemporaries believed that he had not been involved in the plot, and most historians accept this. It was an indication of the nervous mood of the times that Pertinax sent a representative to see the corpse before he was willing to accept that the emperor was dead. Reassured, he then went straight to the camp of the praetorian guard. Laetus paraded the soldiers and they were told that Commodus had died of natural causes. Pertinax promised each soldier 12,000 sesterces to recognise him as the new emperor.
Only after securing the praetorians' loyalty in this way, did Pertinax seek approval from his fellow senators. In the early hours of i January messengers were sent summoning the Senate to an extraordinary meeting. There was an element of farce when Pertinax and his attendants found the Senate House itself locked, and no one was able to track down the doorman who kept the keys for some time. As a result, Rome's high council met at first in the nearby Temple of Concord. Pertinax made a speech declaring that he did not want to accept imperial rule, pleading age and infirmity. A good emperor was not supposed to want power and there was a long tradition of feigned reluctance. The senators knew how the conventions worked and pressed him to accept the supreme office. Almost all were grateful that Commodus was gone, and in the following days they issued an almost hysterical decree abusing his memory and repeatedly demanded that his corpse be dragged through the streets on a meat hook and degraded. Doubtless many of those who had done well under the previous regime were all the more vocal now in their condemnation. However, Pertinax had already given orders for a proper burial, no doubt eager to avoid upsetting the praetorians.'
Pertinax was a distinguished senator, but his career had been highly unorthodox and his background was in marked contrast to the Caesar born to the purple. His father was a freed slave who had done very well in the lumber trade in northern Italy. The young Pertinax had received a good education and spent most of his twenties working as a schoolteacher. Tiring of this, he asked his father's patron to secure him a commission in the army and was eventually made a prefect in command of a cohort of auxiliary infantry. This was an equestrian position and Pertinax must have become a member of the order at this point if he had not already been enrolled in its ranks.
The teacher proved himself a gifted soldier in the arduous wars of Marcus Aurelius' reign, rising through the equestrian ranks. In 175 the emperor made Pertinax a senator in the field - writing to the Senate to notify them - and placed him in command of a legion. He seems to have rewarded other equestrians in the same way. An inscription recounts the career of one Marcus Valerius Maximianus who was commanding a cavalry unit when `he killed with his own hand Valao, the king of the Naristae' during the campaigns on the Danube. As a reward he was subsequently made a senator and placed in command of a succession of legions. Marcus Aurelius seems to have been eager to promote talent, but it is also probable that the impact of the plague, combined with the losses from campaigns, meant that there was for a while a shortage of senators of the right age and ability to provide enough senior officers for the army.
Pertinax went on to govern a number of provinces and, late in his career, began holding some of the civil posts normal for a senator. Apart from a temporary fall from grace early in Commodus' reign, he continued to flourish and was one of the few intimates of Marcus Aurelius to survive his son's reign. By 193 there seems to have been little objection to his becoming emperor from his fellow senators, including those who had once sneered at him as the son of a freedman. From the beginning the new emperor made a public effort to break with the recent past and return to the style of rule of Marcus Aurelius. A public auction was held, selling off the decadent luxuries from Commodus' palace, including the male and female slaves who had pandered to his sexual needs or his perverse sense of humour. Gossips claimed that Pertinax secretly arranged to rebuy and keep some of these for himself.
Yet some of his attempts to erase the corruption of his predecessor and his ministers upset those who had done well under the old regime. Of more concern was a growing discontent amongst the praetorian guard, who resented the new stricter discipline and feared that even tighter controls might be imposed in due course. Pertinax was an experienced soldier and had something of a reputation as a martinet. Half of the cash donative promised to the guardsmen was paid from the profits of the auction, but the emperor made the mistake of boasting in a public speech that he had paid the soldiers fully, giving them as much as Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus on their accession. This was untrue, for they had given 20,000 sesterces per man. In the first weeks of his reign, elements within the guard twice tried to proclaim an alternative emperor. Order was quickly restored in each case, and Pertinax kept his promise never to put to death a senator by not punishing the men put forward. Yet he did order the execution of a number of the soldiers, which only added to the resentment of their comrades.'
On the morning of 28 March between 20o and 300 guardsmen marched from their camp to the palace on the Palatine Hill. They were not part of the normal changeover of sentries, but the palace staff admitted them immediately for many of them still had fond memories of Commodus. Aemilius Laetus covered his head with a hood and made himself scarce rather than confront the mutinous troops. Only the freedman Eclectus stood by the new emperor. Pertinax could have met force with force, summoning the equites singulares Augusti, the imperial guard cavalry whose record of loyalty to each emperor was unblemished and who were based nearby, separate from the praetorians. Instead, he decided to confront the mutineers, hoping to shame them back to duty. Dio thought his decision brave, but foolish. For a moment the guardsmen were overawed, until one broke the spell and slashed at the ageing emperor. Eclectus struck down two soldiers before he, too, was hacked to pieces. Pertinax had reigned as emperor for just eighty-seven days.'°
By this time Laetus had returned to the camp and regained a measure of control over the praetorians - some even accused him of having been behind the murder. He was now approached by Pertinax's father-in-law, who currently held the prestigious administrative post of urban prefect and wanted to be named emperor. The officers of the guard were willing to listen, but were also nervous that a relative might choose to avenge his murdered predecessor. Two of them went down to the Forum and found an alternative candidate, the emperor's consular colleague Didius Julianus. The latter processed up to the praetorian camp accompanied by his attendants, but could not at first gain admission. From outside the gate he gestured up to the men on the ramparts, indicating with his fingers the size of the donative he was willing to pay. Eventually he was admitted, and men shuttled back and forth between the two bidders. Julianus won the contest by promising to give 25,000 sesterces to each guardsman. With all such donatives to secure loyalty, it is important to remember that centurions probably received ten times as much and more senior officers even larger sums. If the guardsmen did well, their commanders, and most of all their two prefects, stood to become very wealthy indeed."
With the praetorian guard behind him, Julianus was duly recognised as emperor by the Senate and granted the imperial powers by formal decree. He was a reasonably distinguished senator, but he could not escape the stigma of having so blatantly bought the empire. On his first appearance he was mobbed by a crowd and there were then protests in the Circus Maximus. Rome itself could be held in check by the armed might of the praetorians, but this was not true of the rest of the empire. As news of the shameful `auction' spread, the governors of the three provinces with the strongest military garrisons - Britain, Upper Pannonia on the Danube and Syria - refused to recognise Julianus and claimed the throne for themselves. The fate of the empire would be decided by the army for the first time since Nero's death in 68 had led to civil war.'2
A wall around the provinces: The Roman Army
The Roman army was the largest and most disciplined fighting force before the modern era, but it was not especially large in comparison to the size of the empire. At its core were the thirty legions, recruited from Roman citizens and each consisting of around 5,000-5,500 men at full strength. A legion was divided into ten cohorts, which were usually 480 strong, apart from the first cohort, which numbered Boo. The legions were supported by auxiliaries, recruited mainly from non-citizens. These were not organised at any level higher than the cohort or ala - the name given to the similarly sized regiments of cavalry. There may have been somewhat more auxiliaries than legionaries by the end of the second century. In addition there was the navy, which was very active patrolling the sea lanes and protecting merchant trade from piracy. Rome was garrisoned by the praetorians - at nine cohorts of Boo men apiece, equivalent to a strong legion - and the singulares, as well as the paramilitary urban cohorts and the vigiles, who acted as firemen and night police. All told, the empire's armed forces numbered some 350,000- 375,000 men, a rise of no more than Io-15 per cent from the days of Augustus. This at least was its strength on paper. In reality, like most armies throughout history, many units were more or less under strength for much of the time. Even taking the highest theoretical figure for the number of men in uniform and the very lowest estimate for the empire's population, there were more than 130 civilians for every soldier.
Large parts of the empire rarely saw a soldier, and never an army. The overwhelming bulk of the army was stationed near the frontiers in stonebuilt bases, each surrounded by its own civilian settlement. In the eastern provinces the pattern was different, with troops in Syria, Judaea and Egypt being stationed in or near the big cities of the region, partly to control their volatile populations. The army was by far the largest source of manpower available to the emperor, so small detachments of soldiers were found dotted throughout the provinces acting as administrators, policemen, traffic regulators and engineers. There were also the frumentarii, or `grain-men', troops responsible for ensuring that the soldiers were supplied with the huge quantities of food needed every day. The complex network of agents required to perform this had expanded its role and come to provide a source of intelligence reports for the emperor, spying on soldiers and civilians alike."
Yet, on the whole, the army lived a separate life away from mainstream civilian society. Citizen legionaries and non-citizen auxiliaries were alike long-service professionals who joined up for twenty-five years. The army preferred volunteers, but conscription was also employed when necessary. Marcus Aurelius enrolled gladiators and other freed slaves during the crisis following the plague, but this was exceptional. However, the levies mentioned in our sources may sometimes have been little more than a press-gang. Legionaries received 1,200 sesterces a year - in contrast, praetorians had an annual salary of 4,000 sesterces and only had to serve for sixteen years.
Pay had remained static since the end of the first century, so that it is probable that its value in real terms had declined. It had never been especially generous and was comparable to the daily rate received by an agricultural labourer, with the distinction that army pay was guaranteed year in, year out. This was set against the hardship and risks of a soldier's life, especially when war broke out. Even units stationed in the most peaceful of provinces were likely to experience a major campaign at least once during the twenty-five years of a man's service. Elsewhere warfare was far more frequent. Even peacetime service was not without its hazards. Surviving unit rosters mention soldiers who drowned, were killed by bandits or ended up sick in hospital for one reason or another. Letters written by convalescent soldiers in Egypt mention being hit by a missile while quelling a riot, as well as a bad bout of food poisoning.14
All but the smallest military outposts had a bath house and hospital, probably making a soldier's life healthier than that of poor civilians. This did not all come free - a man's pay was subject to deductions for food, clothing and equipment, not to mention contributions to the cost of festivals and the burial club, which would deal with his remains if he died during service. In addition the soldier was fed a reasonably balanced diet - which included meat, in spite of the persistent myth that legionaries were vegetarian - and for most of his service was accommodated in a stone-built barrack block with a tiled roof, eight men sharing a pair of rooms. Conditions were crowded, but no more so than the insulae of the cities - few in the ancient world enjoyed as much private space as we are used to today. If a man survived to be honourably discharged, he was rewarded.
Legionaries received either a plot of farmland or a cash bounty, while auxiliaries were granted citizenship. Yet there were other disadvantages to balance against this. Soldiers were legally barred from marriage and existing marriages were officially annulled on enlistment. Very many ignored this, taking a wife - often a local girl - and raising families. For a long time the unofficial liaisons of auxiliaries had been acknowledged when they were discharged, with any `wife' or children also receiving citizenship. This had been restricted in the middle of the second century. It was much harder for legionaries to gain legal recognition of their children, and so permit them to inherit. Several emperors legislated to assist this, but the evidence from papyri suggests that retired soldiers and their descendants often had to fight hard to benefit from these decrees in practice."
An educated soldier stood a good chance of promotion, especially if he had influential friends to provide him with a letter of recommendation. A letter survives written by a soldier who joined a legion in Egypt in 107 and, thanks to his connections, was quickly made a clerk. He gleefully told his father that he had only light duties while his fellow recruits were outside breaking rocks. It is hard to know how many recruits to the army were literate, given that we know so little about standards of literacy in the wider population, but they were probably a minority. Discipline in the army was brutal, with floggings and executions being awarded for a range of offences. Leave was a privilege rather than a right, and this and other favours were all too often only available by bribing an officer.
Italians showed little enthusiasm for joining the legions after the first century, preferring the softer and better-paid life of the units stationed in Rome. Some men doubtless joined the ranks of the army for the best of reasons, fulfilling the military theorists' ideal for a recruit. Such high quality recruits may have been especially common in the auxilia, many coming from societies that still greatly admired the warrior virtues. It was also common for sons of soldiers to enlist, often having grown up in and around army bases, and the army welcomed such recruits. Denied legal status, these men had their place of birth listed as `in the camp' (in castris). Yet the majority of recruits, especially to the legions, may well have joined because they had little choice and the army would feed, clothe and pay them regularly. One emperor complained that only vagrants were attracted to the legions. It is also notable that only those guilty of the most serious crimes were barred from military service."
If many soldiers were the failures of civilian life, then this will have reinforced the real sense of the unit as their home. Each legion had a number - the sequence was not logical and there were several First, Second and Third legions - and a name, often supplemented by additional titles and honours. Auxiliary units also had their titles, and all regiments of the army had a strong sense of their own identity. Commanders often encouraged different units to compete with each other and at times the rivalry led to brawling. Unit pride was an important part of military effectiveness, as was the encouragement of individual bravery. Conspicuous courage was rewarded by decorations and status, as well as sometimes promotion and wealth. Like pay, all such medals were nominally awarded by the emperor, whether or not he was physically present. Similarly, recruits joining the army took an oath of loyalty to the emperor and the state. This was regularly renewed. Each regiment also had the imagines, images of the emperor and his immediate family, which were kept with the unit's standards in a shrine within the headquarters building.'
The emperor controlled the army and took every care to remind the soldiers of their personal loyalty to him. When he did visit a base or lead an army on campaign, he would talk to a unit as `his' legion or cohort. Yet the army was spread over a wide area and most soldiers would never even see their commander-in-chief, so inevitably others exercised day-to-day control. Senators provided the most senior officers. As part of his career a senator in his late teens or early twenties normally spent one to three years as the senior tribune and secondin-command of a legion. Later, at about thirty, he would become a legion's commander (legatus legionis) for a similar period of time. Finally, he would become the legate in charge of a province and its army, a legatus Augusti. A privileged handful followed this with a second governorship in charge of one of the three most important military provinces. Each contained three legions and as many auxiliaries. Three years was the average term for a governor in any province, but exceptions were made. Avidius Cassius had been in Syria for much longer than this, but his abortive coup was an indication of the potential threat such long-term commands presented.
Equestrians provided the army with the bulk of its other senior officers. A normal equestrian career involved a man being appointed as prefect in charge of an auxiliary cohort. This would be followed by a spell as one of the five junior equestrian tribunes in each legion and then the command of a cavalry ala. Successful men moved on to administrative and financial posts as imperial procurators, and perhaps the governorship of one of the smaller equestrian provinces. Equites also commanded the units in Rome, and control of the praetorians was normally shared between two prefects with equal power. Equestrian provinces usually did not include substantial forces because the senatorial legate of a legion could not be made subordinate to an equestrian. Egypt was an exception and in this province the governor and the commanders of the two legions were equestrian prefects. No emperor wanted to trust another senator with control of an area so vital for the grain supply to Rome.18
The centurions were the backbone of the army. This was a grade of officer rather than a specific rank. The more junior commanded a century, of which there were six to a cohort, each with a nominal strength of eighty (never Ioo in this period). The senior centurion of the six commanded a legionary cohort. Most important of all was the primus pilus, the commander of the first cohort, who immediately became an equestrian after this post. All centurions were paid many times the salary of an ordinary soldier and needed a good standard of education. Some reached the post after joining the army in the ranks, but it is a mistake to think of them as akin to modern sergeant-majors. Rather more had been appointed directly to junior administrative or command posts before being commissioned. Others were directly appointed from civilian life without any prior military experience. Pertinax had initially wanted to become a centurion in this way, but his patron had been unable to secure him a commission, which gives a good indication of the status of these posts. It is equally revealing that some equestrians became centurions instead of following the more conventional career. As we have seen there was no single `middle class' in the Roman world. Yet there were many people of middling income, with a reasonable standard of education even if they fell short of the purity of language expected of the higher levels of the elite. There is a very good chance that the majority of centurions were directly commissioned and came from this social level.'9
The rank and file were rarely posted from one unit to another, and usually spent their entire service with the same regiment. Many centurions also appear to have remained with the same unit for long periods, although others are known to have served in a succession of different legions, sometimes in widely separated provinces. The more senior ranks moved around far more, and it was rare for a senator to serve more than once in the same province. Pertinax, during his long and unorthodox career as first equestrian and then a senatorial officer, served on all the major frontier zones of the empire apart from North Africa. The Romans did not prize specialists as highly as modern institutions, especially when it came to making appointments to senior posts. As importantly, the emperors were keen to prevent too close a bond developing between commanders and soldiers through long service together. The Republic had been destroyed and Augustus had created the Principate in wars fought between armies more loyal to their generals than the state. On the whole the system he created worked well, and the army remained loyal for the best part of two centuries. It was only when a dynasty ended completely that there was the prospect of legion fighting legion. When it did break down the initiative for rebellion tended to come from the top, and most of all the senatorial governors. A key role was also played by other officers, and especially the centurions."
An Emperor from Africa
The army of Upper Pannonia lay nearest to Italy, and the legate of the province, Lucius Septimius Severus, did not fail to capitalise on the advantage this gave him. He had served under Pertinax earlier in his career and it may be that he was also party to the original conspiracy against Commodus. It was especially convenient that nearby Lower Moesia with its two legions was currently controlled by his brother. Severus marched quickly to Italy; he and his bodyguard - probably the governor's singulares, picked cavalrymen chosen from the auxiliary alae in his province - are said not even to have taken off their armour in their brief stops to sleep. There was no serious resistance, for Julianus did not have a proper army. A desperate attempt to train elephants taken from the games to carry towers and fighting crewmen in the tradition of classical warfare ended in absurd failure when the creatures refused to carry these unfamiliar burdens. Dio and other senators were highly amused. Julianus grew desperate and had Laetus and Marcia murdered, but soon even the purchased loyalty of the praetorians was withdrawn. Abandoned by everyone, he was killed in the palace by a guardsman. Severus arrived and in a spectacular display of power paraded his army through the city; the Senate duly proclaimed him emperor. Word was sent for the praetorians to arrest the murderers of Pertinax and then to parade without weapons or armour. Severus surrounded them with his own legionaries and then harangued them for their treachery. The murderers were executed, and the remainder dishonourably discharged from service and banned from coming within Ioo miles of Rome. New praetorian cohorts were formed from the pick of Severus' own legionaries."
There still remained the two other claimants to the throne. Severus did a deal with the legate of Britain, Decimus Clodius Albinus, giving him the title of Caesar, and making him his junior colleague. The bulk of his forces then went east to fight Gaius Pescennius Niger in Syria. The Severans won a series of battles, culminating in the final victory at Issus in 194 - coincidentally near the site of one of Alexander the Great's victories over the Persians. Niger was killed in the pursuit. Severus had not been present at any of the battles, but did then supervise a brief campaign against the peoples beyond the frontier. Returning from the east in 195 he provocatively named his seven-year-old son Caesar without apparently consulting Albinus. Civil war was renewed, resulting in a climatic battle two years later outside Lugdunum (modern Lyons in France) where the British legate had set up his main base. Dio claims that the armies involved were massive, no fewer than 150,ooo men being fielded by each side, which would have added up to the vast majority of the entire army. This is obviously an exaggeration, but it may be that Albinus in particular had raised large numbers of levies since 193. The bulk of the regular army had rallied to Severus. Even so, the fighting was fierce, and at one point Severus himself was unhorsed and narrowly escaped death or capture. There were rumours that his new praetorian prefect deliberately delayed entering the battle in the hope that both leaders would be killed. However, in the end he led the great cavalry charge that won the day. After four years of civil war and turmoil, the empire had a single unchallenged ruler once again. The conflict had been far worse and more prolonged than the `year of four emperors', which followed the death of Nero.22
There was nothing exceptional about Severus' career before 193 - rather like that of Vespasian, who had emerged as victor in 69. They were senators each with a reasonably distinguished career, but it is doubtful that under other circumstances either would have been considered potential emperors. Each man had simply found himself as legate in charge of a large army at a time when there was a power vacuum at the centre, and then had played his hand well - if especially ruthlessly in the case of Severus. In many ways Severus was a typical member of the Senate in this period. He was born in Lepcis Magna (in modern Libya), which had originally been founded by Carthaginians. Carthage itself had been destroyed in 146 Bc by a Roman army, the culmination of three massive conflicts with Rome. Even so, Severus grew up with Punic as his first language, and his Latin was always tinged with a provincial accent, which tended to turn an `s' into a `sh' sound. He may well have pronounced his name Sheptimius Sheverus. Dio says that he desired more education than he actually received, but this should be judged by the exceptionally high standards of the Roman elite. One sixth-century source claims that he was dark skinned, but the only coloured portrait of him to survive shows a fairly Mediterranean complexion. He was from North Africa, just as Trajan and Hadrian were from Spain, but this did not make him any less Roman. His father was not a senator, but the family had been involved in politics for several generations. The African provinces produced a good number of senators in this period, including Clodius Albinus. There is no suggestion that any of these men thought in a distinctively `African' way.13
Severus had won the war, but knew that this did not in itself guarantee his long-term survival. He quickly promoted his two sons to positions of prominence even though they were still infants, marking them down as his heirs to show that his death need not mean a return to civil war. He also looked to the past to give legitimacy to his new dynasty. At first he associated himself closely with Pertinax, for it was useful to appear as his just avenger. However, in an unprecedented step, he declared himself the adopted son of Marcus Aurelius, whose prestige was far greater. One senator caustically congratulated him on `finding a father'. More disturbingly, this led to an official rehabilitation of Commodus, who had now become the emperor's adopted brother. Senatorial opinion was shocked, but Severus' attitude towards the Senate steadily hardened. His reign began with proclamations that he wanted no senator to be put to death, but before the civil war was over he had ordered many such executions.
There was also resentment and fear of the power wielded by the new praetorian prefect, Plautianus, who was another native of Lepcis Magna. Malicious gossip claimed that he and Severus had been teenage lovers. It is clear that the emperor trusted him and permitted him great patronage and influence, so that in time there were rumours that the prefect was planning to seek the throne himself. In the end Plautianus was executed, after a death-bed condemnation by Severus' brother. So much power was not supposed to be wielded by favourites, especially ones from outside the Senate, and Plautianus' spectacular rise and fall inevitably took others with him. It was a dangerous time to be successful for any senator. Severus spent little time in the Senate - he was away from Italy for most of his reign - and rarely bothered to flatter its members or make them feel secure.14
There were other signs that the emperor was worried about maintaining power. He raised three new legions - I, II and III Parthica - and stationed the II Parthica not far from Rome at Alba. It was the first time a legion had been permanently stationed in Italy since the creation of the Principate. Together with the expanded guard units, Severus had an army of some 17,000 men at his immediate disposal. Scholars have often liked to see this as the creation of a strategic reserve, which was supposedly shown to be necessary during the savage wars of Marcus Aurelius' reign. In fact, it had far more to do with the potential threat of a provincial governor rebelling against the emperor. Keeping the army loyal was vital for the emperor. In an effort to secure the soldiers' goodwill, Severus raised their pay and also removed the ban on marriage. Raising the new legions created a lot of new positions for officers - for instance, no fewer than 177 centurions' commissions. Given that many were probably posted in from other units, this meant that a large number of men would owe their initial commission or a step in promotion to Severus. A similar desire to bind the army to him encouraged his foreign wars. From 197202 Severus campaigned in the east, leading an army down the Euphrates to sack the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon and creating a new province of Mesopotamia. From 208-211 he was in Britain, supervising a series of massive campaigns against the Caledonian tribes of what is now Scotland."
Foreign wars offered military glory free from the taint of winning victories over fellow Romans. The Arch of Severus, which still stands next to the Senate House in the Forum at Rome, commemorates his Parthian War. It was also no coincidence that Severus chose to operate in the two regions that had provided his rivals in the civil war. There was doubtless some military necessity, since the armies on each frontier as well as the prestige of Rome can only have been weakened when troops were drawn away to fight and die in an internal struggle. It also gave units that had fought on opposite sides in the civil war the chance to campaign side by side under the same leader. Most importantly, Severus had the chance to reward and promote the officers in each area, showing his trust in them, and retiring or posting elsewhere any whose loyalty was suspect. Not everything went well, for there was some tension in the army when it failed to take the city of Hatra, but in general the objectives were achieved. Severus' reorganisation of the east again reveals his concern for his own security. Syria was divided into two provinces, with two and one legions respectively. Mesopotamia was garrisoned by the newly raised I and III Parthica. The province's governor was an equestrian prefect like the one in Egypt, and both the legions were also commanded by equestrians. This was also true of II Parthica at Alba. The process was not quite complete until a year or two after Severus' death, when Britain was also divided, but from then on no province would contain - and hence no governor command - more than two legions."
Septimius Severus was a good emperor, who did his best to rule the empire well, but he was also a man who had won power through military force and feared that someone else might follow his example. This insecurity guided his decisions at all levels. None of this might have mattered too much if he had founded a dynasty that proved solid and enduring. In the last years of his life he made his sons Caracalla and Geta joint heirs. This was a risk, since only in the case of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus had a pair of emperors worked well together. Severus often criticised Marcus for having chosen Commodus as his successor, and so preferring blood to talent, but he was faced with the same problem. As long as Caracalla and Geta were alive, they would inevitably have posed a threat to any alternative emperor. If only one succeeded, then the other would always represent a potential challenge, especially since the pair loathed each other from an early age. Severus is said to have hoped that taking them on campaign would be better for them than remaining in Rome with its many opportunities for vice, and perhaps also teach them to work together. He was disappointed. Stories even circulated that Caracalla tried to murder his father in his eagerness to succeed. Severus' health was anyway failing badly, after years of being plagued by gout. On 4 February 211 the sixty-five-year-old emperor died at Eburacum (modern York) and his two sons jointly inherited the throne. It is claimed that his last advice to them was simple - `Live in harmony, enrich the soldiers, and despise everyone else.'17