The success of Septimius Severus in holding the loyalty of the governors along the European frontier and in securing acceptance by the Senate left Pescennius Niger out on a limb. There were men who would have supported him if he had a chance of success, but after Septimius’ meeting with the Senate in June 193, the result had to be either submission by Niger or a battle between the rival armies. As a biography of Niger in the collection known as the Augustan History remarks, he was rendered a pretender – the term used is tyrannos – by Septimius’ victories. However, that also means that until defeated he was a Roman emperor in his part of the Empire. He did, of course, lose and so became, after a year of power, an ‘unsuccessful emperor’.1
D. Clodius Albinus had accepted the title of Caesar and the position of heir to Septimius Severus because he was ambitious to be emperor, but did not have enough armed strength and was too far from Rome to accomplish that ambition immediately; equally he could not emulate Galba’s ploy of convening a local Senate since Britannia housed very few men of senatorial rank. He was therefore in the same situation as every other pretender to the throne that had been briefly occupied by M. Didius Iulianus. He had the power of the three legions of Britannia behind him, but his distance from Rome precluded him from gaining any senatorial investiture. The only difference between Albinus and Niger is that he lasted a little longer, and that was only because Niger posed the greater danger to Septimius and so had to be tackled first and quickly. In 195, with Niger removed, Albinus finally appreciated his isolation when Septimius raised his own eldest son, Bassianus, to the rank of Caesar and retroactively adopted himself into the family of Marcus Aurelius. He was now the son of the deified Marcus and, of all things, the brother of the deified Commodus;2 Pertinax in effect disappears from the account. Albinus’ reply was to have himself proclaimed emperor, and he gained the support of some Western governors and army units, but not the main legionary forces in the Rhineland. He was eventually defeated in battle at Lugdunum in 197 and committed suicide to avoid capture.3
Septimius’ successor would therefore be his son, now officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, known familiarly as Caracalla. By 197 he was being called, perhaps unofficially but entirely accurately, ‘emperor designate’. By the next year, Septimius named him as joint emperor with the title of Augustus. Caracalla was 9 years old at this point. Septimius’ second son, Geta, now became Caesar; he was two years younger. Septimius was taking Marcus Aurelius as his model in all this, but investing his sons at an even younger age. Caracalla was made consul in 201, and both boys were consuls in 205. There could be no doubt of Septimius’ succession intentions; it seemed that the dynasty would follow the pattern of Marcus and, even more, of the Flavians.4
The promotion of Caracalla and Geta took place in Syria, in celebration of Septimius’ successful conclusion of the Parthian War that had followed on from his defeat of Niger. It therefore involved only the army and not the Senate. It is not clear when, or even if, Caracalla was ever invested with the imperial powers by a vote of the Senate, but it cannot have been until after he returned to Rome in 202 with his father, by which time he was already being called Augustus. The brothers detested each other, so it was not possible for Septimius to nominate only one of them as his heir. If he did so, he would sign the death warrant for the other. (That is, the Gaius/Ti. Gemellus situation, and that of Claudius’ son Britannicus next to Nero, was recurring. One’s appreciation of Vespasian grows; his two sons may have quarrelled and intrigued, but they stood by each other at the end.)
Septimius Severus was only able to solve this problem by making his sons joint heirs. He died on campaign at York in 211, almost as far as he could get from Rome and still be in the Empire. The succession, ignoring the hatred between the two brothers, went smoothly enough, but Septimius had nominated the army as the guardian of his sons.5 There was, indeed, nothing to do but announce Septimius’ death and the accession to power of his sons as joint emperors, for both were already Augusti. The two did manage to return to Rome together and there conduct Septimius’ obsequies, but soon afterwards Caracalla contrived Geta’s murder. Again, this was technically no more than the reduction of the number of emperors from two to one, and all Caracalla needed to have done was announce Geta’s death. However, he had a problem, and his behaviour following his brother’s murder is revealing. Septimius’ designation of the two as joint rulers and the nomination of the army as their guardians was presumably done to guard the emperors from each other. It had not worked.
Caracalla rushed to the camp of the Guard to give his (mendacious) explanation of events, claiming to have survived a plot by his brother, who had then been killed. This was a likely enough event in the circumstances, but his own plot was clearly more advanced. It was in fact a group of Guard centurions who had done the actual killing and Caracalla at once rewarded them. The Guard as a whole would seem to have accepted the story, no doubt with a cynical nod and a wink.6
However, the Guard was not the army. Septimius’ treatment of the Guard in 193 had led him to take precautions to prevent its successor – for a force of imperial Guardsmen in Rome and with the Emperor was clearly essential – from behaving as it had done under Pertinax and Iulianus; he had stationed a legion of regular soldiers, the II Parthica legion, near Rome at Alba. Caracalla had a much more difficult task of persuasion with this legion than he had with the Guard. From the Guard barracks he went to Alba, where he was treated very coolly. The legion clearly took its role as a guardian of both emperors more seriously than did the Guard, but there was nothing the soldiers could now do. By promising the soldiers a large donative and that their conditions of service would be unaffected, Caracalla was eventually able to stifle their misgivings and to persuade them to accept him as sole ruler.7
It was much the same at the Senate, his next stop, where his lies and excuses were not well received, though they had to be accepted. The Senate would have known of his visits to the Guard and the legion, and it was clear that the senators had no real choice but to accept Caracalla’s explanation. They could not bring Geta back, the soldiers had done nothing to fulfil their guardianship role, and the Senate had no physical or armed resources. In the circumstances the cool reception of Caracalla’s speech amounted to a virtual display of opposition.8
The order in which Caracalla made his explanations reveals his clear political understanding of the distribution of power in Rome. He had little difficulty in gaining the Guard’s acquiescence, and this gave him the crucial initial support. He had much more difficulty with the legion and the Senate. Had he visited these groups in a different order he would have faced far greater problems. Without the Guard or the army behind him, the Senate might well have denounced him and this could have tipped the balance with the legion. (He had armed guards with him actually in the Senate House, just like his father twenty years before.) If they had both condemned him, it is unlikely that the Guard would have stood by him. It was a new permutation of the elements of power compared with Nerva and Trajan in 96–97.
Caracalla was always insecure on the throne. He murdered several possible competitors: the father-in-law of Pertinax, T. Flavius Sulpicianus, who had been Iulianus’ rival in the imperial auction in 193; Pertinax’ son; several of the descendants of Marcus Aurelius; and some of his own relations. These were all killed presumably because they were seen by Caracalla (and so by his enemies) as potential figureheads or leaders of conspiracies to remove him. The odd thing is that they had clearly survived his father’s reign, even though Septimius had been more murderous than most emperors. It is a mark of Caracalla’s uneasiness and vulnerability that he should have killed these people now.
Needless to say, plots followed him anyway, and his behaviour was so erratic, bombastic and murderous that it was the men closest to him who were often his targets and so in the end became his killers. The Commodus situation was thus returning (and the Gaius and Domitian situations). Caracalla began a military campaign against Parthia and while in Mesopotamia the Guard Prefect M. Opellius Macrinus organized a group of officers as a conspiracy. A soldier called Martialis who hated Caracalla sufficiently to become his killer was persuaded to act. Most of the soldiers in fact were his strong supporters, for he had raised their pay just as his father had done, but Martialis hated him for some personal reason. When he found Caracalla alone, relieving himself, Martialis killed him; then, having thoughtlessly kept his grip on the bloodstained dagger, he was himself killed by the emperor’s personal guards. This severed the link between the plotters and the murder (shades of Domitian’s killing). Macrinus then successfully dissembled his part in the murder and distanced himself from the plot; then he allowed himself to be proclaimed emperor by the soldiers.9
Macrinus did not last long. The troops he had to lead were devoted to the Severus family, no doubt because of Septimius’ and Caracalla’s generosity to them. The Senate was affronted by the fact that Macrinus was an eques, a bureaucrat and a Numidian – three unpopular elements – and that he stayed in the East rather heading at once to Rome. He had inherited a war with Parthia from Caracalla, and he could hardly leave the front to attend to the Senate’s grumblings. This did not impress the senators any more than the same situation had with Hadrian exactly a century before. Nor did Macrinus’ absence from Rome please the plebs, who began rioting at his continued absence. Caracalla had had a certain popularity among them, and though his death is unlikely to have affected them very much, the absence of the emperor reduced the donative the Romans were likely to receive, or at least delayed it, and this may have been the mainspring of the riots.
Macrinus made his son Diadumenianus his Caesar (which by now had become the title for the emperor’s heir), and he took the imperial powers to himself without waiting for the Senate to award them. This, in fact, may not have been the first time this had happened. It was hardly news to anyone, though, that the army was a decisive element in the disposition of imperial power. This was partly the result of Septimius’ actions in 193, when he took all the imperial powers except the tribunician before reaching Rome, and also of Trajan’s nomination by the army commanders a century before. Now Macrinus simply took all the powers without waiting for a Senate vote, which would in fact have been a pure formality, or so it was by this time assumed.
The Senate did not like to be so obviously ignored, but it did in the end respond positively to Macrinus’ accession, largely no doubt because it was so pleased to be rid of Caracalla. Diadumenianus was made princeps iuventutis and Caesar by a senatorial vote, and enrolled as a patrician; these actions imply that his father’s assumption of the imperial powers had been ratified. Diadumenianus was therefore also clearly identified as Macrinus’ successor.10
Having lost power to Macrinus, however, the Septimius family now regained it in much the same way as Septimius himself had originally acquired it. Septimius’ sister-in-law, Iulia Maesa, who had been ordered back to her birthplace of Emesa by Macrinus, now promoted her grandson Varius Avitus as the heir to the family fortunes. She claimed, from a physical likeness between the boy and Caracalla, that he was really Caracalla’s son. She successfully played on the affections that the army professed for the family. Macrinus was unnerved by this and fled from the battle that resulted; he had been a Palace bureaucrat, never a soldier, despite his post as Guard Prefect. His army, which had been winning the battle, naturally at once surrendered to and joined the Severans. Both Macrinus and Diadumenianus were captured and killed. This was, in effect, another coup d’état within the army.11
One of Macrinus’ major weaknesses, politically, had been the very reluctant support he received from the Senate. The newly-restored Severan regime, which controlled the army in the East as soon as Macrinus was dead, showed the same tendency to ignore senatorial prerogatives. Varius Avitus became the Emperor Elagabalus at the age of 14, assuming to himself the several titles and powers of the office while still at Antioch – and also, as it happened, while still a public enemy, according to an earlier vote of the Senate – but then so had Galba been, and others who began their imperial career as rebels. It is probable that the Senate, as soon as it was clear that Macrinus was dead and Elagabalus was in control of the army in the East, acquiesced in the usurpation and carried through the necessary votes, but it remained the fact that Elagabalus had seized power in a coup and by violence, and the Senate had had no say in the matter.12
(This sequence – Caracalla-Macrinus-Elagabalus – is a perfect example of the difficulty and pointlessness of classifying emperors as usurpers. Caracalla had usurped his brother’s position, Macrinus conspired to overthrow and kill Caracalla, Elegabalus took Macrinus’ position; all three were usurpers before becoming ‘legitimate’ emperors; all three are recognized as such in ancient and modern lists.)
The plotting was all done, of course, on the new emperor’s behalf by his backers, notably his grandmother. He was taken to Rome on a slow journey, and there he preoccupied himself with installing his own Emesan god in the temple of Jupiter, building a huge new temple, and attempting to make other religious changes. In so doing he annoyed just about all sections of Roman opinion, though this preoccupation did keep him away from everyday political affairs, so the Empire could be run by his ministers. Elagabalus was not wholly devoid of political sense, as his successive marriages to women of high political importance showed (but to be married four times during his teenage years was to invite both contempt and ridicule). As he reached the age of 18 he was still preoccupied with his religious practices, but at that age he would soon be able to free himself of his ministers. The prospect was unpleasant to all. He adopted, at the urging of Iulia Maesa and his ministers, his cousin Alexianus as his heir, who then became Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caesar; he was five years younger than the emperor. This was done in the regular way, before the Senate.13 (For the relationships, see Genealogical Table IX.)
During Elagabalus’ reign, inevitably, several men made attempts to seize power, though as with other unsuccessful attempts to assassinate emperors, they generally failed because of poor preparation, apparently imagining that all that needed to be done was to kill the emperor and everything would then be all right, a common delusion among assassins. These men are in some cases only names, though some seem to have been relatively serious threats. Many more of these evanescent claimants to power appeared during the later third century in many parts of the Empire, for a whole variety of reasons. Later, in Chapter 11, those who appeared between 238 and 284 will be considered as a set; here it is possible to look at the small group who cropped up in the reigns of Elagabalus and his cousin as an indication both of the problems of the insecure dynasty and the problems of studying the men themselves.
An example of the difficulties in studying these people is a man called Seleucus. His origin and identity are not known, but attempts have been made to identify him as a Roman senator, though it is much more likely that he was neither a senator nor Roman; the name is, of course, Greek, though some later Roman senators also had this name. His actions and pretensions, even whether he really was aiming to be emperor, are wholly unknown. He is referred to as tyrannos by the only source, the unreliable Historia Augusta, and tyrannos is the label often given to men who aimed at imperial power but failed, Pescennius Niger for example. In addition, the name Seleucus suggests he was probably a man from Syria. It is all very indefinite and it is not at all clear that Seleucus was much of a threat to Elagabalus. However, his probable Syrian origins are a link with another man. Taurinus was certainly connected with Syria in some way, though little more than that is known about him. Again he was described as a tyrannos. (For these men, see Table I.)
The Syrian connection links to Elagabalus himself and to the wider Severan family, which was half-Syrian and half-African in Caracalla’s generation. To go further would be to wander even further from the realms of uncertainty into those of pure guesswork, but it seems clear that Syria was a very distracted region between 215 and 222. There are two other possible cases in Elagabalus’ reign: ‘Gellius Maximus’, who may be the commander of the legion IV Scythica stationed at Seleukeia Zeugma, the main crossing-point over the Euphrates; and ‘Verus’, who was also located in Syria. Even less is known of the latter and he may well be merely fictitious.14
Table I: Unsuccessful Emperors, 220–238
These four are thus little more than names now, which rather suggests that they were never much of a threat. Syria had in the previous generation been the scene of Pescennius Niger’s imperial attempt (and of that of Avidius Cassius before him), of the successful coup by the bureaucrat Macrinus, who had risen from near poverty to the throne, and another by one child who was pushed on by his mother and grandmother to become the Emperor Elagabalus and another who became Alexander Severus. It may have looked an easy process, and such doings may well be imitated. Syria had been fought over twice in the last reigns and now Elagabalus had taken much of the army away with him to the west. Seleucus and Taurinus and the others (if they existed) may have fancied their chances. It would not have escaped anyone’s notice that it was first necessary to gain control of a military force, and that the Syrian garrison was now much reduced, but Elagabalus had begun with not much more than a legion.
In 222, it became clear to the ministers that Elagabalus, now 18 years old, was seriously thinking of getting rid of them. What followed has all the characteristics of a well-executed plot. A Guard riot in favour of his cousin Alexianus brought Elagabalus and his mother to the Guard’s camp for protection. Iulia Maesa then produced Alexianus, who had been rumoured to be on the list to be killed, proving he was still alive. The plot seems to have been directed at killing Elagabalus, but his mother was also killed. Alexianus was made emperor, taking the throne name Marcus Aurelius Alexander Severus. That same day, at least according to the Historia Augusta, the Senate awarded him the titles of Augustus and pater patriae (though he was only 13), and the tribunician and proconsular powers.15 The speed with which the thing was done is the most obvious clue to its having been a well-prepared conspiracy, though it tends to seem spontaneous in the Historia account. The participation of Iulia Maesa is another indication. When Elagabalus became adult she would lose her power, and by replacing him with another child she could continue in control; her death in these events suggests the participation of Alexander’s own mother, Iulia Soemias, who may have gone along with the original plot and then turned on Iulia Maesa to take her place as supervisor of the young emperor. The Guard was easily persuaded, it seems, and the Senate’s instant response shows that at least some senators knew what was going on.
In this sequence the process of succession was, in a sense, returning to its previous system: the emperor nominates a successor, dies, and then the designated successor is invested with the requisite powers by the Senate. The problem was that the emperor’s death had been caused by murder by the Guard, and it was in fact a coup by the Guard; the initial riot was no doubt a ruse to get the emperor into the camp. The Guard had never liked Elagabalus. The Senate felt the same and was clearly prepared to accept and applaud the Guard’s action. The new emperor was even younger than the dead one. He could not possibly rule, and would need to be guided by ministers and his mother, Iulia Mammaea (his grandmother, Iulia Maesa, died soon after Alexander succeeded). It would be almost a decade before Alexander would be able to assume full control.
The mess into which the central government had descended since the death of Caracalla would seem to have convinced the Senate, which included the distinguished lawyer Ulpian for a time, that it was necessary for the Senate to directly participate in the government. Macrinus had been reliant particularly on the equites and the freedmen of the bureaucracy, and on his brief control of the army in the field in the East. This seems to have been continued during the regime of Elagabalus, who, of course, took over control of that same army. The Senate was anxious to return to a position of influence, having been largely excluded ever since Septimius’ time. With the elimination of Elagabalus, most of the central government offices of state went to senators, and often to men who had entered the Senate over a decade before in Septimius’ reign; many of these were awarded second consulships.
Such a policy might have provoked the Guard, which had, so it thought, put Alexander on the throne. This may be a partial explanation for an attempted coup early in Alexander’s time. There were others, but the best-recorded case – which is not saying much – is that of Alexander’s father-in-law, who was probably called L. Seius Sallustius. He was made Caesar on the marriage of his daughter to the emperor, and so by implication was now heir to his son-in-law, though perhaps it was intended only as an honorary title or perhaps just a surname. He became dissatisfied, apparently as a result of the treatment of his daughter, through whom he no doubt expected to exercise influence, if not more; in fact, it was Iulia Mammaea, the emperor’s mother, who ruled in the Palace. Sallustius went to the Guard with his complaints, but they apparently did not react. He was arrested and executed, and his daughter was banished to Africa.16 This happened only a short time after the elevation of Alexander himself, and the Guard could scarcely have become dissatisfied with the new emperor quite so quickly. It all showed a misunderstanding of Roman politics to assume that the Guard could have put him on the throne by itself.
There was also, possibly, another rising in Syria in Alexander’s time, by a man who is referred to twice by Zosimus under his two names of ‘Uranius’ and ‘Antoninus’, as though he was two men. It is also possible that he had become confused with another Uranius Antoninus, whose rising in the next generation is better attested. This first case may thus simply be a mistake. If it did happen, it was another Syrian problem, for these men were Emesans from the home town of Elagabalus and the Severan women. The date is generally thought to be about 230 or 231, but it must be said it is not certain that anything actually happened.17
Alexander Severus survived as emperor for thirteen years. Two of our sources for his reign claim that he had a council of senators to help run the state, though they contradict each other as to numbers and composition with Herodian putting the number at sixteen and the Historia Augusta at a highly unlikely seventy.18 It does, however, seem a reasonable notion that the council existed, given the deliberate and extensive honouring of old senators that also took place. (The Historia has a long passage on the reign as a golden age of senatorial influence, which may be exaggerated but not perhaps invented.) It was clearly time that some sort of a grip was taken on events in Rome where, by report, at one point the Guard fought through the streets with the citizens for several days and lost. In fact, it is likely that the success of the Guard in foisting their candidate on the Senate was resisted by the Romans in the same way that they had been annoyed at the installation of Iulianus thirty years before and Macrinus after Caracalla’s murder. No doubt the Guardsmen also became particularly obnoxious after their success. Yet the existence of a committee of senators formed to assist in the government of the Empire under Alexander Severus fits with the reassertion of the Senate in the crisis of 193, its suppression under the Severans – no doubt resented by the senators – and the need for a measure of stability under Alexander, whose mother would have had little control over the government; it also fits with events in the next crisis.
Alexander Severus, despite his distinguished names, was not an emperor that the army could respect. In the end, still dominated by his mother, he was murdered in the legionary camp at Moguntiacum in 235. The murders (his mother was killed as well) were provoked by the news of a revolt by the officer in charge of recruits, C. Iulius Severus Maximinus. The revolt was well-prepared in a military sense, and a substantial force lay to hand for the rebels to use. At the morning parade a group of officers and men greeted their commander as emperor and put a purple cloak around his shoulders. He resisted feebly – the usual purely formal gesture of reluctance – but then publicly accepted the position in the knowledge that he had the support of the officers and most of the men. Next day he marched his men against the garrison in the camp of the emperor, some of whom he had already suborned. The emperor and his mother were swiftly killed, probably by their own soldiers.19
The new Emperor Maximinus was a professional soldier, allegedly Thracian, but from his full citizen name he came from a family that had been citizens for nearly a century.20 Like Macrinus he was an eques, and so immediately unwelcome to the Senate, but unlike Macrinus, who was a skilful administrator but had no military ability, he had considerable military experience and ability, but was neither a politician nor an administrator. The basis of his support was narrow, exclusively military support that he bought with generous donatives. He paid little heed to the Senate or the city, and does not seem ever to have visited Rome while he was emperor. He also increased taxation and attempted to tax the senators, neither policy conducive to his popularity, not least in the Senate.
He was acclaimed by the army he commanded – Alexander’s, earlier – and, as with Macrinus and Elagabalus, he assumed the imperial powers and titles by virtue of army support, perhaps without fully understanding what they meant. The Senate fell into line and voted him those powers later (on 25 March, according to an inscription) but reluctantly. His coup meant that the Senate had lost much of the influence it felt it had gained (or regained) in Alexander’s reign, and plots against him began immediately.
The two plots of which we know some details were both headed by senators. One involved a senator called Quartinus (possibly Titus Quartinus, but his full name is not known). He persuaded a regiment of Osrhoenian archers to support his bid, or perhaps he was persuaded by them. They dressed him in purple and obeyed him for no more than eight days. Their commander changed his mind after a week and killed him. The commander in turn was executed by Maximinus, despite giving himself up; he had, after all, instigated the original coup.21
Quartinus’ attempt looks to be merely opportunist. Note, however, that the Osrhoenians were a Syrian regiment, which links this plot with those in that region in the previous reign, and even with Edessa, the capital of Osrhoene, and the supposed scene of other episodes of trouble under Alexander Severus. It is hardly likely that this was merely a coincidence. Edessa’s dynasty, the Abgarids, had been pushed around in the previous thirty years as a result of being trapped between the two hostile empires of Parthia and Rome; discontent, and perhaps dynastic loyalty to the local dynasty, is very likely. Possibly the troops were also annoyed that Maximinus was concentrating on the German enemy, not those in the East.
The leader of the other plot is identified simply as ‘Magnus’, though, since he is said to be both a patrician and a consular, he was very probably C. Petronius Magnus. The plot involved some of Maximinus’ soldiers. When the emperor crossed the bridge into Germany, they were to cut the bridge and leave him stranded on the other side. The plot, as described by Herodian, was pretty amateurish. It was discovered before the expedition could set out, and executions followed. The involvement of a man of Petronius’ history suggests, as with Quartinus, a senatorial involvement.22
These plots are notable for their ineptness which, of course, only makes them typical. Only in one case, that of Quartinus, was the purple robe actually assumed, so far as can be seen, and then only for eight days and perhaps only among the men of the Osrhoenian regiment. Magnus apparently simply wanted to get rid of Maximinus; there is no sign that a replacement emperor was present or even available, so to amateurishness in intention is to be added an unpreparedness for success. No wonder the attempt failed. Attempts to tamper with military loyalty were almost bound to fail where an emperor such as Maximinus was the target. He was very popular with the soldiers and such an attempt would enrage him, for he could not but be aware that this position rested solely on the soldiers’ support. The Historia exaggerates by reporting that he executed 4,000 men for involvement in Magnus’ plot; the numbers are way too high but the sentiment that produced the exaggeration is exactly right.
Two points emerged from these pathetic rebellions in the 220s and 230s: one is that plots may be either hatched close to the emperor with the aim of killing him, though both Magnus and Quartinus were keen to get someone else to do the deed; or they could be local and distant from the court. These latter cases, in this period, were Syrian and they were surely prompted by local problems and issues in Syria and the notion that only the emperor could solve whatever problems agitated the rebels. The consideration of later cases will confirm these two types and add others.
The lesson of the previous forty years, since 193 if anybody cared to note it, was that it was necessary for an emperor to have a wide base of support, both in the Senate and the army; the people of Rome and the Guard were also useful, but hardly essential or sufficient. The support of the Senate or the army separately was good only for a short reign. Unfortunately the lesson taken from Septimius’ success was that the army’s support was enough. He had even pretended to believe it himself, if his final advice to his sons to reward the soldiers and despise everyone else is reported accurately. Septimius may have believed this at the end of his life, but in 193, when he reached Rome, he had resorted immediately to the Senate for confirmation of his position. Yet Caracalla, Macrinus and Maximinus, whose reign was to last for only three years, had assumed that the army was the one essential; the two later Severi, by contrast, relied first on the army or the Guard but then rapidly secured senatorial recognition. Despite a considerable weakening in senatorial influence, the active support of the Senate was still necessary. It also suggested, from the fates of Caracalla, Macrinus, Alexander and later Maximinus, that to rely solely on the army was suicidal and a guarantee of a short reign. The army was very liable to shift its allegiance to another soldier in the most dramatic way.
In the period from the death of Septimius in 211 to the accession of Maximinus in 235, six emperors came to power. Only one succession, Alexander’s, took place in Rome; the rest all occurred in the provinces: Caracalla and Geta at York, Macrinus in Syria and Maximinus on the German frontier. As far as we can see all of these men assumed the several imperial powers as of right on their accession, as a consequence of their acclamation. Caracalla and Geta already had them, of course, but Macrinus, Elagabalus and Maximinus simply took them and were apparently indifferent as to whether the Senate voted for confirmation or not.
Alexander took office in the regular ‘constitutional’ way, by a vote of the Senate. He also had the support of the Guard, which had just killed his cousin, and he gained that of the army, for a time. This was clearly satisfying to the senators, and the wider basis of his support, including the committee of senators, is one of the reasons for his rather longer than average reign for the time. (It is also presumably largely due to the political sense of his mother, Iulia Mammaea.)
The period as a whole, in terms of selecting and installing emperors, is therefore one of a contest between the Senate and these other power agencies, in particular the army. The Guard was usually of little account except, as ever, destructively. The Roman mob was merely helpful in rioting. It was the Senate and the army that counted, and despite the prominence and importance accorded the army by Septimius’ methods, the reign of Alexander and perhaps that of Elagabalus, shows a clear recovery of the Senate’s influence. The existence of a council of senators under Alexander marks this change, and indicates a helpful spirit of innovation among the senators.
None of these emperors survived long enough to be succeeded by a son or by another nominee, though both Macrinus and Maximinus had adult sons who they promoted as their successors, actions guaranteeing their sons’ deaths when they themselves were overthrown; Elagabalus was also succeeded by his nearest male relative, though inadvertently. In all these cases, be it noted, the designated successors resorted to the Senate for their nominations to be confirmed, the title Caesar being awarded by a vote in the House. Conciliation of the Senate was thus a priority of most emperors; even of those whose early support had solely been the army.
The contest had gone the army’s way, thanks to Septimius’ favours, and the accessions of Caracalla, Macrinus and Elagabalus seemed to confirm the army’s seniority. The Senate regained much ground by the process of the accession of Alexander. (The extravagant words of the Historia Augusta on this surely reflect some reality.) Alexander’s debt to the Guard was soon cancelled by the defeat suffered by the Guard in the fighting with the Romans the year after he succeeded, but then the Guard was never as influential as it thought it was. During Alexander’s reign the Senate returned to the centre of power with a vengeance, occupying the senior offices, advising the emperor in a permanent committee, which looks as though it may well have been that the emperor’s consilium, until then a fairly informal body, had been established on a more permanent basis and so had become responsible as much to the Senate as to the emperor.
The killing of Alexander and elevation of Maximinus as the army’s candidate was therefore a setback for senatorial power and influence, all the more galling for the hopes senators would have had of a return to power, and all the more serious in that Maximinus deliberately ignored not just the Senate but Rome itself. The two plots against him that were led by senators are thus not at all surprising, and they would seem to be a result of the Senate’s rude rejection by Maximinus. What was unusual is what the Senate did next.