Chapter 5

The decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire

The military monarchy: Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and Septimius Severus, AD 161–211

Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180) was a child of the Pax Romana. Like Trajan and Hadrian, he was Romano-Spanish, his elevation a further testament to the ‘provincialization’ of the imperial elite. Brought up and educated in the circle around Hadrian, he studied under top philosophers, became a convinced Stoic, and produced his own tract, Meditations, which has survived. Then he spent 23 years serving Antoninus Pius, 15 of them as a close advisor. He embraced the Hadrianic vision of the empire as a commonwealth of peoples, and, under Antoninus, tried to live up to the Stoic ideal of public service and noblesse oblige. True to the spirit of the age, his succession was seamless. Made Antoninus’s adoptive son, married to his daughter, advanced through a series of top political posts, he already enjoyed full imperial power at the time of his patron’s death. The accession was therefore automatic and uncontested. Though ostensibly sharing power with Lucius Verus – also Antoninus’s adoptive son and nominated successor – the latter was a weak and dissolute young man, and it was always Marcus Aurelius who truly ruled. Yet Marcus stands as a figure of Tolstoyian tragedy, for his probity and good intentions were of no account in a reign dominated by storm and strife. Overextended, no longer subsidized by war and plunder, sinking slowly in the global geopolitical balance, the empire was invaded and devastated on a scale not seen since the time of Hannibal.

The first year of the new reign was a disaster. The Tiber burst its banks and flood-damage was widespread. Famine gripped parts of Italy. Border wars erupted in Britain and Upper Germany. Worst of all, King Vologases III overran Armenia, installed a Parthian puppet, defeated the Governor of Cappadocia, and then swept on down into Roman Syria, scattering the legions before him. It took time to organize a Roman counter-attack – not least because Lucius Verus was put in nominal command – but when it came, a steady succession of victories pushed the Parthians back, out of Armenia in AD 163, out of northern Mesopotamia in AD 164, and finally out of southern Mesopotamia also in AD 165; the Romans even penetrated into Media in the Zagros Mountains in AD 166.

Parthia was a declining power. Its occasional acts of aggression were the spasms of a weak, and weakening, political order. Momentary successes were due to surprise, and once Rome’s legions were marshalled, the Parthian forces were invariably unable to meet them in pitched battle. But, just as Trajan had been in AD 115, Lucius Verus was overextended with his army on the Gulf. Of this, the young emperor was oblivious: he toured the Greek cities of the East calling himself Armeniacus, Hercules Pacifer, Parthicus Maximus, Medicus (Conqueror of Armenia, Hercules the Peacemaker, Great Conqueror of Parthia, Conqueror of Media). Marcus also celebrated, holding a triumph in Rome, taking the title pater patriae (father of his country), and giving his two sons the titleCaesar. But Marcus, if not his co-emperor, understood the limits of power, and the eastern settlement he imposed reflected this: Armenia was restored as a Roman buffer state, but there was no repeat of Trajan’s mistake in trying to hold Mesopotamia; the Romans pulled back to a safer line that could be held in strength. Even so, fate charged a terrible price for the Parthian War.

In AD 165, in the sweltering heat of the Mesopotamian summer, a deadly contagion was imported into the camps of the Roman army. It may have started at Seleucia, a city sacked by the Roman army in violation of an agreement. The story went around that a soldier had broken open a casket in the Temple of Apollo and unwittingly released ‘a pestilential vapour’. The contagion kept its grip through the winter, and then flared up again the following summer. The Roman army retreated in a chaos of physical and moral collapse. The survivors reaching Syria brought the plague with them, and during AD 167 it swept across the Roman world. We do not know what it was. The Greek doctor Galen records fever, pustules, skin rash, and the spitting of blood. Perhaps it was smallpox. What is clear is that it was both virulent and persistent, a spectre of death haunting the army barracks and urban backstreets through all the long years of Marcus’s reign and into the next. ‘From the frontiers of the Persians to the Rhine and Gaul,’ reported the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, ‘the foul touch of the plague polluted everything with contagion and death.’(1) ‘Such great pestilence devastated all Italy,’ explained Orosius, ‘that everywhere estates, fields and towns were left deserted, without cultivators or inhabitants, and relapsed into ruins and woodland.’(2) An outbreak in AD 189 – perhaps of the same contagion – killed 2,000 people a day in Rome. Some communities may have lost 25 per cent or more of their population. The plague emptied the tribute-bearing farms and frontier-holding forts of the Roman Empire with a power Vologases could never have imagined.

The same year the plague reached Italy – already weakened by bad harvests and famine several years running – a huge force of Germans crossed the Danube, defeated a Roman army of 20,000, passed over the Julian Alps, and descended into northern Italy. Led by Ballomar, King of the Marcomanni, they were a great tribal confederation that included Marcomanni, Quadi, Vandals and Lombards. Nothing like it had been seen since Marius had defeated the Cimbri and Teutones 250 years before. Roman countermeasures were desperate. Slaves, gladiators and brigands were enrolled in the army. Germanic barbarians were recruited. Reinforcements were rushed in from the East. The palace treasures were sold off at auction to raise funds. Marcus Aurelius took the field in person (as, again, did Lucius Verus, though he died soon after, in AD 169). For several years fighting raged across the empire’s Danubian provinces, and then, in AD 172–175, the emperor carried the war forwards into Germany. His aim was perhaps to destroy German military power so completely that no further invasion of imperial territory would be possible; perhaps also to create a buffer zone north of the Danube that would protect Roman territory. But forward aggression brought new enemies into the fray – notably the Sarmatians – and the war dragged on. A pause in AD 175–177 was followed by renewed fighting against Marcomanni, Quadi and Sarmatians in the final years of Marcus’s reign.

The world was changing fast. The barbarian peoples of the North had evolved from loose tribal associations into proto-states ruled by kings. Contact with Rome had been a decisive influence. The emperors offered a model of autocratic power to tribal leaders. Subsidies and diplomatic missions enhanced the power of Roman clients. A steady flow of luxury goods, whether traded or given in gift-exchange, increased the patronage of those who controlled them. Above all, the threat posed by the Roman imperial army encouraged confederation, a forging of larger polities, obedience to kings who, by commanding thousands instead of hundreds, could offer both protection and plunder. In the past, great German leaders like Arminius, the victor over Varus at the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, had been the elected commanders of temporary alliances; now, increasingly, they were reigning monarchs whose power lasted as long as they could keep their thrones. The Germans had become more redoubtable foes. Ten years fighting in the forests and mountains of the North had taught hard lessons. Rome, too, had to change. After the stopgap measures of AD 167, longer lasting reforms were set in train. It was in Marcus Aurelius’s German wars that what has been called ‘the military monarchy’ first took shape.

The authority of the state over the bodies and property of its citizens was increased: birth registers were introduced; control over the estates of minors was taken from families and given to civil servants; fathers lost control of the rewards paid to sons on military service. In this and other ways, intermediary institutions – families, guilds, local towns – were displaced as the central state entered into a direct relationship with the civilians on whom it depended for tribute and recruits. Central government interfered increasingly in local affairs: the cost of games and shows was tightly regulated; expenditure on public buildings was reined in; new burdens were imposed on towns and villages, including the provision of food, lodging and transport to the army. Resources were not to be wasted on largesse and grandeur; they were to be husbanded for the war effort. Devastated border areas were repopulated by defeated barbarians, organized in tightly regulated communities under obligation, in return for their land, to perform military service. Other defeated barbarians were enrolled directly into the standing army.

Much has been written about the ‘barbarization’ of the Roman army. In fact, the army had always recruited barbarians, and if the proportion was now increased, this was a prerequisite of imperial survival. When, as sometimes happened, revolts broke out among barbarian soldiers, these invariably were rooted in specific abuses, not in some general ‘nationalist’ aspiration to bring down the empire. The army was reformed in other ways, too. New regional commands were created, with control over army groups extending across several provinces, and some units were withdrawn from the front-line to form mobile reserves stationed in back-areas. Promotion on merit became more common. The army, always the principal avenue of social advancement, became yet more open to promotion from the ranks, with numerous equestrian officers reaching the highest positions in Marcus’s service. Inherited rank mattered less; the embattled empire put a premium on professionalism.

Centralized power, cuts in municipal spending, an increase in the burdens imposed on citizens, new barbarian frontier settlements, the reorganization of the army, new military strategies, a career more open to talent: all these are features of the emerging military monarchy. The essence of it was a shift of wealth and power away from citizens, families, towns, even the provinces as a whole – away, that is, from what might be called ‘civil society’ – to the state, the army, the frontiers, and the imperial aristocracy. Here was the first stage in a long process in which the burden of imperial defence – previously subsidized by plunder from wars of conquest – was shifted from expropriated foreign enemies to the civilian population of the empire itself. By one of history’s many ironies, Marcus Aurelius, the would-be philosopher-king, was experienced by most of his subjects as a ruthless warlord.

In another respect, too, events in Marcus’s reign heralded the epoch of imperial decline. The empire still retained battlefield dominance. It would continue to do so until at least the campaigns of Belisarius in the second quarter of the 6th century AD. The combination in Late Roman and Early Byzantine armies of accumulated military expertise, superb drill and discipline, high-tech armour and weaponry, and first-rate organization, logistics and engineering usually ensured tactical success, even against numerically much superior opponents. The problem was strategic: concentrated force could be applied only in one or two places at any time, leaving the rest of the empire – whose frontier lines were thousands of miles long – relatively exposed. With the empire’s military centre of gravity temporarily in the East during Marcus’s Parthian War, the defences of continental Europe had been weakened, and it was then that the Germans had broken through. Once the weight of the army had been shifted back, not only were the Germans driven out, but the war was successfully carried into their homeland. This see-sawing of military strength would characterize the whole history of the Late Empire; ever shifting from one threatened front to another, the emperor’s mobile army groups would no sooner have plugged one gap than another would gape open elsewhere. This, moreover, was not simply a military problem: the chronic threat of localized frontier collapse that henceforward afflicted the empire imposed a huge strain on its political structure.

The first responsibility of the state, after all – of any state – was to protect the national territory. A state which could not do this lost legitimacy. From the time of Marcus onwards, emperors were rarely able to ensure comprehensive, all-round security. The military monarchy was forced to prioritize, concentrating men, military hardware, supplies and financial reserves where they were most needed. This draining of resources to the main battlefronts left officers defending other frontiers dangerously weak. Forts, towns and villas were open to attack. A century of stable frontiers, fixed garrisons and local recruitment, moreover, had forged strong bonds between soldiers and the districts where they served. Many men were defending families, homes and farms nearby. The growing centralism of the Roman state was therefore contradicted by the growing regionalism of its army groups. The military monarchy aimed for a more centripetal empire as the state apparatus at its command was pulled apart by centrifugal forces. The rebel officers of Late Antiquity – like those of AD 69 – may often have been motivated by careerism. Their prospects of advancement dimmed during years passed in garrison forts that were distant from the emperor, the mobile army, and fields of victory. Promotion was faster on active service under the eye of the commander-in-chief. But whatever personal motives drove the successive military revolts of the period, sections of the civil elite often gave strong support: a usurper emperor, one who used local revenues for local protection, often seemed a better prospect than a ‘legitimate’ ruler a thousand miles away.

In AD 175, Avidius Cassius, the leading commander under Lucius Verus during the Parthian War, and afterwards effective plenipotentiary for the whole of the East, rose in revolt. Marcus Aurelius had never visited the East. Lucius Verus had earned only opprobrium. The region had been devastated by plague. It had also been drained of tribute and manpower to defend the West against the Germans. Avidius Cassius found a mass base in both the army and the eastern elite for his challenge. In fact, the revolt collapsed after three months when its leader was assassinated by a centurion. Even so, the legitimate regime had received a shock, and Marcus spent a year touring the East, purging the army and administration of rebels, rallying loyalist support, and presenting himself as ‘Saviour of the West’ and ‘Beneficent Conciliator of the East’. To strengthen the dynasty, his teenage son Commodus was first made consul, then styled Augustus and granted tribunician power, and finally, in AD 177–178, advanced to formal equality with his father as co-emperor. The political situation stabilized – for the moment. But an old fissure had reopened. If a fracturing of the Roman imperial aristocracy on regional lines was a recurring feature of Late Antique politics, the greatest fracture line of all, and the one along which the empire would eventually divide for good, was that between East and West. It had been there in the struggles between Caesar and Pompey, Octavian and Antony, Vespasian and Vitellius. The revolt of Avidius Cassius was not on this scale – but it was the dress rehearsal for a major struggle 20 years later.

The Antonine regime survived the coup of AD 175 because the imperial elite remained broadly united behind Marcus Aurelius. By the time of his death in AD 180, not only was the East resettled, but the German War effectively won. His son and successor, eager to escape the inconveniences of frontier life and return to the pleasures of the capital, quickly imposed a settlement. The Germans, drained by the violence, were ready to make peace on Roman terms. Deserters and prisoners were to be returned, contingents of mercenaries supplied, and an annual corn tithe paid. War on Rome’s allies was banned, partial disarmament imposed, and the time and place of tribal assemblies regulated. In return for accepting this client status, all Roman garrisons were to be withdrawn from German territory, and Roman subsidies would be paid to native rulers. Again, as in the East, the policy was not to conquer but to pacify; not, that is, to risk overextending Roman lines, but to liquidate military threats and restore the old frontiers. Marcus Aurelius had done his work well: the Rhine-Danube line was destined to hold, more or less, for two generations.

The son was a striking contrast to the father. Returning in haste to Rome, he sacked old ministers, promoted favourites, showered the mob with handouts, and indulged his personal fascination with the games. Commodus had himself portrayed as the Greek hero Hercules. The emperor appeared in person in the Roman arena. Gladiators were included among his courtiers. Not for a century had Rome seen such rampant faction and corruption at court, and nowadays, in a more army-dominated empire, less tolerance was granted to playboy emperors. The reign of Commodus was punctuated by plots and purges, the first, involving the emperor’s sister, as early as AD 182. The tension inside the palace reflected the fears of courtiers subject to a mentally unstable master whose favour was whimsical and unpredictable – not least because Commodus’s instinctive response to waning popularity was to sack and execute a leading minister. Within five years of his succession, Commodus faced a major military revolt. The commanders of the British and Danubian legions sent troops to Rome to overthrow the government of the Praetorian Prefect Tigidius Perennis. Commodus, true to form, abandoned Perennis to his fate, allowing him to be outlawed by the Senate and then lynched by a detachment of soldiers.

Because on this occasion the emperor himself survived and the soldiers returned to their frontier bases, factional politics quickly revived. Isolated from the governing class by a wall of contempt and hostility, Commodus turned to those outside it. Finally, in AD 187, a freedman called Cleander from Phrygia in Asia Minor, formerly the emperor’s Chamberlain, was made Praetorian Prefect. The appointment broke the monopoly over this office of the equestrian order. Cleander, moreover, used his position to enrich himself and his entourage by selling magistracies, governorships, honours, legal decisions, and anything else in the gift of government. There were no less than 25 consulships awarded in a single year. Freedmen became senators. The whole finely graded Roman imperial system of rank and privilege was threatened. For a time, terror kept the lid on opposition in the capital, but growing disorders in the provinces gave urgency to the crisis of leadership. Border wars erupted in Dacia, Germany, Mauretania and, above all, Britain, where military mutinies increased the threat to frontier security. Meantime, deep within the empire the rising burdens of the military monarchy provoked popular revolt.

Around AD 187 an army deserter-turned-bandit called Maternus spread ‘insecurity throughout Gaul and Spain’. Details are minimal. The xrevolt is described as a ‘war of deserters’ which involved ‘countless numbers plaguing Gaul’. This looks like a serious outbreak of peasant revolt, in which army deserters reinforced endemic social banditry, and the two fused with wider rural discontent to mobilize large numbers and create a mass resistance movement. Were this not the case, it is unlikely that the classical writers would have recorded the event at all. They report, moreover, that large-scale military operations were required to suppress the rebels, and that before this could be done, Maternus had marched towards Rome with the explicit intention of assassinating Commodus and replacing him as emperor. In the event, Maternus was betrayed, captured and beheaded, and his movement dissolved back into the countryside from which it had emerged. But the rising was a measure of growing stress within imperial society. There would be many more like it in Late Antiquity.

Meantime, increasingly insecure, Commodus became megalomaniac and murderous. Contemporary inscriptions show him claiming a ludicrous list of names and titles: Lucius (his personal name), Aelius (Hadrian’s family name), Aurelius (Marcus’s family name),Commodus (another personal name and the one by which we know him), Augustus (emperor), Herculeus (reincarnation of Hercules), Romanus (embodiment of Rome), Exsuperantissimus (supreme being), Amazonius (conqueror of the Amazons),Invictus(unconquered), Felix (blessed by the gods with good fortune), and Pius (faithful and dutiful). The months of the year were to be renamed in the emperor’s honour. Rome was hence-forward to be called Colonia Commodiana. The emperor’s features now graced the old Colossus of Nero. Coins announced a new golden age of peace and prosperity (felicitas saeculi). Or they referred to the loyalty (fides) and unity (concordia) of the army under the leadership of His Highness the Supreme Being (summus exsuperantissimus). In December AD 192 the emperor appeared in the arena in the guise of Hercules and slew a large number of wild beasts. He then announced that he would appear before the Roman people on New Year’s Day as both consul and gladiator. He missed the appointment. Terrified by his lunacy – that it would destroy them all – Commodus was assassinated by his closest courtiers. A bizarre alliance of equestrian prefect, freedman-chamberlain, pro-Christian concubine and professional wrestler organized to strangle the emperor in his bath-tub.

The Praetorian Prefect Laetus then offered the throne to an elderly senator with a distinguished record of imperial service. Pertinax was duly acclaimed by the Guard and formally empowered by the Senate. But he afterwards paid the soldiers only half their promised donative, and, when faced with mutiny in consequence, executed some rebels on the evidence of a slave. Laetus then led a second attempt against the emperor: a detachment of soldiers entered the palace, and Pertinax, who had reigned for just three months, was cut down by a member of his own German bodyguard. The Praetorian Guard were then in control of the capital, and their only interest lay in maximizing the amount they could extort for their services. The empire was put up for auction at the Praetorian Barracks. The price reached 6,250 denarii per man, and the matching offer of Marcus Didius Julianus, a wealthy senator, was preferred over that of his rival, since the latter was Pertinax’s father-in-law, who, it was feared, might seek vengeance for his relative’s murder. The Guard carried Julianus to the Senate and secured ratification of their decision.

The Guard was less successful, however, in its attempts to disperse the large numbers of demonstrators who then besieged the palace. The new regime’s opponents passed a resolution calling on Pescennius Niger, the Governor of Syria, to intervene in defence of constitutional government. Around the same time, Septimius Severus, Governor of Upper Pannonia, called on his troops to avenge the murder of Pertinax and punish the arrogance of the Guard; he was immediately acclaimed emperor. Clodius Albinus, the Governor of Britain, meanwhile, was acclaimed by the legions in Britain. The Roman Empire faced a second ‘Year of Four Emperors’. It had shattered in an instant into regional fragments, the rule of Julianus and the Guard in Rome contested by rival usurpers representing, respectively, the Eastern, the Danubian and the British legions. The high command and officer corps of each army group viewed its rivals with suspicion and jealousy; each faction was determined to win the empire for itself, lest it be uncoupled from the gravy train of promotion and largesse; each, too, found wider support among local landowners and city authorities, eager to ensure that revenues and soldiers were not siphoned away to fight distant wars. As in AD 69, a corrupt regime and a military coup had destroyed the legitimacy of central government, opening a contest for power which revealed the hidden fracture-lines cutting across the empire.

Severus had the advantage of a central position. He was also cunning, ruthless and decisive. He secured his right flank by bribing Albinus with the title of Caesar and the prospect of eventual succession. He then force-marched his army across the Alps into northern Italy, capturing Ravenna and its fleet. Julianus attempted to improvise a defence of Rome, but late payment of their donative and the prospect of a clash with the Danubian legions drained the Praetorians’ enthusiasm for war. Severus offered the guardsmen their lives if they handed over the murderers of Pertinax and stood themselves down. The Guard took their chance: Severus was proclaimed emperor, and Julianus was outlawed and murdered in his palace. Severus was then formally invested with imperial power by a delegation of 100 senators at a meeting outside Rome – the visitors having first been searched for hidden weapons, the emperor receiving them surrounded by 600 bodyguards. Severus then approached the city. The Praetorians were paraded without arms, demobilized, and exiled beyond 160 km from Rome. A new Guard was recruited from frontier legionaries. The Senate was conciliated: Severus justified his actions as the avenger of Pertinax; he promised to rule according to the principles of Marcus Aurelius and not to execute any senators; two of his daughters were married to the two senators nominated for the consulship the following year. He appealed, too, for the good favour of the People, with handouts, games, and a care for the bread-supply. There was a civil war going on: Severus needed all the friends he could get; above all, he needed a secure capital before turning to confront his main enemy: Pescennius Niger.

The eastern legions were no match for the Danubians in a straight fight, but Niger enjoyed widespread support in the East, and his strategy was a sensible one of proactive defence. His appeal to the officers, officials and client-rulers of the eastern provinces was compelling: local resources for local defence; Italy, the Danube, the Rhineland, distant Britain, these were foreign countries. The East he turned into a fortress, establishing two strong lines of defence, one at the Straits, the second at the passes into Syria over the Taurus Mountains. Severus forced the first line by seizing the city of Perinthus, crossing the Hellespont, and capturing Cyzicus on the far side. He then pushed inland and defeated Niger again at Nicaea, at which point the eastern forces fell back on their second line. Three battles in AD 193 thus gave Severus control of Asia Minor. The following year he turned Niger’s defence of the mountain passes, crossed into Syria, and won the fourth, and decisive, battle of the campaign at Issus. Niger himself was run down and killed by Severan cavalry. His head was displayed at Byzantium – gateway to the East and still holding out under siege – for the edification of its defenders. The victor remained a further year in the East. Cities that had supported Niger – especially Antioch – were devastated, plundered, and permanently reduced in status. Those that had supported Severus were promoted to colonies and given construction subsidies. The property of Niger’s supporters was confiscated and added to the imperial estate. Recalcitrant local tribes were suppressed. Formal peace was made with Parthia. Only in the winter of AD 194–195 did Severus finally head west, returning to Europe after completing his eastern campaign by capturing – and devastating – Byzantium.

Victory gave confidence to the new regime. Caracalla, Severus’s eight-year-old son, was made Caesar, displacing Albinus, whose support was dispensable after the destruction of Niger. Seeking legitimacy, the dynasty now claimed descent from Marcus Aurelius; and who, in the circumstances, would see fit to deny it? Emperor-worship replaced the cult of the standards in the legions. Severus’s Syrian wife was honoured as Mater Augusti (Mother of Emperors) and Mater Castrorum (Mother of the Military Camps); soon it would emerge that she was actually a goddess, Juno Caelestis, Juno of the Heavens, no less, a Romanized version of the ancient Punic Tanit who was worshipped in Severus’s native North Africa. The emperor and his family were being elevated into gods on earth; the imperial cult was assuming central ideological significance; older concepts like the Senate and People of Rome were being supplanted. The military monarchy was acquiring a religious form.

Albinus, the former ally now redundant, was recast as usurper and outlaw. But he, like Niger in the East, had a strong base of support among the officers and landowners of the north-west provinces, and his supporters promptly reiterated their acclamation of him as emperor. But Albinus was fighting against the odds. Though he crossed the Channel with the bulk of the British army, he won only modest support from the legions on the Continent; notably, the great army-bases on the Rhine stood aloof. Even so, nothing was certain in the shifting sands of civil war. Severus had problems in his rear: rumours of disloyalty demanded a flying visit to Rome, a studied display of magnanimity, and a fresh dole-out to the mob. And when the campaign was resumed and battle finally joined outside Lyons on 19 February AD 197, matters were long in the balance. Severus led his men into a trap – a minefield of concealed pits harbouring sharpened stakes – and was himself at one point in grave danger when thrown from his horse. The battle lasted through the day, and the casualty list was horrendous. But the British legions finally broke and ran, and as they did so, battle turned to massacre. Albinus himself was trapped in a building and committed suicide. The body was brought to Severus – who ‘feasted his eyes on it’ according to the historian Dio Cassius. The head was cut off and sent for display in Rome. The rest of the corpse was trampled and degraded before being tipped into the Rhône, along with the bodies of Albinus’s murdered wife and sons. Lyons, meantime, suffering the fate of Antioch and Byzantium, was put to the sack. Severus’s police agents then fanned out across Gaul, Spain and Britain to track down and destroy the broken remnants of Albinus’s party. Thus did the Roman imperial elite – which prided itself on bringing civilization to the world – conduct its private feuds.

Severus, master of the world, commander of its most powerful army, could now dispense with the niceties of diplomacy and law. The military dictatorship, which had been ashamed to speak its name for two centuries, now openly declared itself. The spirit of the age would be encapsulated by Severus many years later in oft-quoted deathbed advice to his sons: ‘Live at peace with one another, enrich the soldiers, and despise everyone else.’(3) A united dynasty and a loyal army: these were now the very essence of Rome – and certainly all that was necessary to power. The rest existed only as the servants and suppliers of the all-powerful state. The Senate, once courted and honoured, was cowed into obedience with a purge of former supporters of Niger and Albinus: 64 members were brought to trial, and 29 condemned to death and loss of estates. The purged Senate was then neutered, losing its power to propose legislation and appoint magistrates. The legal fiction of a ‘restored Republic’ was finally dissolved. As the Senatorial Order sank – its members even lost their immunity from torture in treason cases – the inexorable rise of the Equestrian continued. New provinces and legions were now commanded by equestrians instead of senators. The Praetorian Prefect became a high court judge, the head of the civil service, and the emperor’s overall deputy. The old state treasury (aerarium) was downgraded into the city finance department for Rome, and an enlarged imperial treasury (fiscus) henceforward received the revenues from both imperial and senatorial provinces, and from the emperor’s private estates. The streamlining of the dictatorship involved a stripping away of its Republican crust.

The army, meantime, was purged, enlarged and reformed. Just 25 legions strong at the end of Augustus’s reign, Marcus had raised it to 30, and now Severus increased it again to 33. One legion was stationed at Albanum a mere 32 km from Rome: reinforcements if needed for the reconstituted Praetorian Guard, the Urban Cohorts, and the Nightwatchmen stationed in the city. Within the army, aristocratic privilege, a barrier to talent and efficiency, was further broken down. The Praetorian Guard was now recruited from across the army, becoming a kind of officer training corps, from which men promoted from the ranks might eventually graduate as centurions. The status of junior officers was elevated, as centurions, previously always commoners, were sometimes promoted to equestrian rank, making them eligible in due course for further promotion to tribune or prefect. Terms improved also for the rank and file. Pay was increased – from 375 denarii for legionaries and 1,250 for guardsmen to 500 and 1,700 respectively. Legionaries were granted the right to marry during service, so that the offspring of relationships with native women would have Roman citizen status. Veterans’ privileges were extended to include, for instance, a lifetime’s immunity from personal service in their native towns after retirement. Amenities were improved at army bases – in North Britain, under Severus and his immediate successors, inscriptions record new or reconstructed barrack-blocks, bath-houses and aqueducts, as well as drill-halls, armouries, headquarters-buildings and granaries. It was not quite a new model army, but it was an army thoroughly reformed and rededicated to the service of the emperor.

All of this cost. So, too, did a generous programme of largesse and public works. Six bounties paid to the mob and the soldiers are estimated to have totalled some 220 million denarii. There were lavish games in Rome. The fiscus funded the imperial post – an empire-wide system of roads, state motels and changing stations. It also paid out to revive the old alimenta system, whereby loans of capital were made to support Italian farmers, and the interest on these provided a primitive form of social security for the support of poor citizen families. Not least, Severus mounted a huge building programme, both in Rome and in favoured cities of the empire. North Africa especially benefited – above all, Leptis Magna, the emperor’s home town.

Severus has been acclaimed as ‘the black emperor’. The fact that Severus was African has been cited as evidence that Rome was colour-blind, free of racism, a genuinely multicultural commonwealth. Septimius Severus was no more ‘black’ than Julius Caesar. Politically, culturally and racially, he was part of the broad Mediterranean elite that ruled the Roman Empire. Just as the blood of Etruscans and Samnites flowed in the veins of Italian nobles (like Augustus or Vespasian), and that of Celts and Iberians in those of Spanish ones (like Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus), so did the blood of Berbers and Carthaginians flow in the veins of an African noble like Severus. Yet, no less than any of his predecessors, Severus was classically educated, thoroughly Romanized, and, one has to assume, every bit as contemptuous of barbarians, peasants and slaves as other members of his class. We are told that ‘he retained a trace of an African accent into old age’.(4) No doubt: he probably knew Libyan, Punic and Greek as well as Latin, and it would have been most surprising if the Latin of Leptis Magna had sounded like that of Rome; an ‘African accent’, in other words, was a Roman provincial accent, not a foreign one.

Leptis was one of the three great cities that formed Tripolitania (today the north-west coastal region of Libya). Like nearby Oea and Sabratha, it was a great entrepôt, receiving grain and olive oil from the rich estates along the coast, and, from trans-Saharan desert caravans, salt, gold, semi-precious stones, ivory, slaves, wild animals for the arena, and natron for use in embalming and glassmaking. Already fabulously rich, Leptis scaled new heights of grandeur when its most illustrious son became emperor. A great marble-faced complex – forum, basilica, colonnaded street, four-way arch – was constructed by the Wadi Lebda which led down to the harbour. The harbour itself was lined with new warehouses and provided with a new lighthouse at its entrance. A circus for chariot racing was built beside the amphitheatre on the edge of town.

Despite the lavish spending, the regime remained solvent; indeed, Severus’s successor inherited a bulging fiscus. The Severan military monarchy had achieved a spectacular resolution of the financial crisis that had almost crippled imperial defence under Marcus Aurelius. Like the great civil wars of the Late Republic, those of AD 193–197 had effected a massive transfer of wealth from the defeated to the victors. The wreckage of army-camps and sacked cities had yielded rich booty. The estates of the dead and the fled had been annexed to the imperial estate. The post-war police terror had produced further crops from the condemned and expropriated. Severus had emerged from his wars against Niger and Albinus richer than all his predecessors, and a special treasury, the res privata principis, was established to handle the new acquisitions. His regime had triumphed by plundering the estates and cities of the empire – by waging war not only on civil war factions, but on civil society itself. Added to this were new hauls from foreign war. With his domestic enemies dead, the governing class cowed, the army thoroughly reformed, and revenues pouring into the treasury, Severus had been able to take the offensive in the East, where the Parthians, seeking to benefit from the Roman civil war in the West, had launched an attempt to recover lost territory. In the late summer of AD 197, Severus had marched his Danubian veterans and three new legions raised in his Balkan power-base to confront the traditional enemy. As so often when faced by all-out effort, the Parthians melted away before the Roman advance, and Mesopotamia was overrun. Now, as before at Antioch, Byzantium and Lyons, the streets of Ctesiphon succumbed to an orgy of massacre, destruction and looting by Severan soldiery. The war then followed a familiar pattern: the opening blitzkrieg was followed by a tedious war of sieges, while Roman strength was sapped by disease and long supply-lines. Even so, Parthian power was crumbling – it was destined to succumb to the Sassanians, a new breed of invading warlords from Iran, within a generation – and Severus held on to far more of Mesopotamia than any of his predecessors. It was easily enough of a victory to merit a grand tour of the eastern provinces – Syria, Palestine and Egypt (AD 199–202) – before returning in triumph to Rome, where the booty of the war was consumed in handouts, games and monuments.

At the beginning of the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire looked stronger than ever. The civil wars were over. The Parthians had been crushed. Northern Mesopotamia had been annexed. The army had been enlarged and professionalized. The treasury was full. There was a construction boom in the imperial cities. Streams of merchant ships crisscrossed the Mediterranean. Farms were peaceful and prosperous.

And yet so little was truly secure. The military monarchy had imposed heavy burdens on the people of the empire. Discontent festered in remote villages. The pressure valves of constitutional opposition had been shut down – the rotting heads and mangled corpses of the dictator’s enemies discouraged criticism. The ruler, the court, the upper echelons of the state machine, the army high command, these commanding heights of power were no longer rooted in the institutions of civil society. Little vestige of accountability remained. The state had been elevated above society – dominating, exploiting, siphoning resources. It had become an end in itself, a self-perpetuating mechanism of power. The empire had thus acquired a distorted form, its parts unbalanced and out of kilter, the head swelling as the limbs shrivelled.

Even before the old dictator died, in the bogs and glens of the British North the imperial leviathan, lashing out into the mist and drizzle, was reduced to despair by bands of blue-painted skirmishers. Slowly dying, gout-ridden, carried about on a litter, Septimius Severus remained to the end a man of blood and iron. ‘Let no one escape utter destruction at our hands,’ was the chilling injunction to his men; ‘let not the infant still carried in its mother’s womb, if it be male, escape from its fate.’(5) But they did escape, and it was Severus who was taken by fate, early in AD 211, at the city of York, shortly before the new campaigning season opened. Maybe, after all, blood and iron would not suffice to save the Empire.

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