After the untimely murder of emperor Pertinax, the Roman Empire was thrown into a state of chaos. The Praetorian guard, who had orchestrated the assassination, put the Imperial throne up for grabs, via auction. Didius Julianus won the bid, becoming emperor, but in spite of this, there were three generals still contending for the throne.
These three generals were Clodius Albinus, of the Britain army, Pescennius Niger, of the Syrian army, and Septimius Severus, of the Pannonian army. Each man was in charge of three legions. And all had their eyes on the same prize. But only one would come to claim it.
Septimius Severus was born April, 11, 145 AD, in Lepcis Magna, Libya. At the time, Africa was a province of the Roman empire. Shortly after his 18th birthday, Severus came to Rome where he was made senator by Marcus Aurelius. After several civil and military appointments, he attained the governorship of Upper Pannonia in 191. This was only two years before the ascension of emperor Julianus.
After hearing the news of Pertinax’s assassination, Severus, still stationed in Pannonia, gathered up his forces. He wanted revenge against the Praetorian guards. His plan was to avenge Pertinax, remove Julianus, and be declared emperor by the senate and people of Rome.
The location of his province, Ilyricum (modern Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia) gave Severus closer access to Italy, placing him at an advantage over his competitors, Albinus (also of African origin) and Niger.
Severus was a man bred to fight. Short of stature, but strong of mind and militarily robust, he was loved and praised by his troops. For their aid in helping him “take back Rome,” Severus promised his soldiers a higher payment: twice the amount that Julianus had paid for the throne. Resisting food and rest, Severus spent many sleepless nights marching there at the head of his army.
On their journey to Rome, Severus’s army defeated all in their path, conquering both Ravenna and its navy, the Hadriatic fleet. Emperor Julianus, aware of his coming, prepared the eternal city for war, building up defenses. Initially, he was hoping that the senate would declare Septimius Severus a public enemy. He sent everything, from consular ambassadors to negotiate with the general, to private assassins to dispatch him. He even appealed to the gods’ mercy through sacrifices and magic ceremonies.
Aware of the forces against him, Severus surrounded himself with 600 men to guard against conspiracy, who stayed with him night and day during his march. Surprisingly, he was able to claim the throne without bloodshed. Any troops and ambassadors sent out to stop him were received into his company, rather than killed.
Severus’s emissaries absolved the guards in Rome of their role in the crime against Pertinax, on the condition that they abandon the perpetrators (assassins), and turn them over to justice. The Praetorians then seized the assassins and, before the senate, officially renounced Julianus. After the senate acknowledged Severus as emperor, they sentenced Julian to death. He was taken to a private apartment and, like his unfortunate predecessor, beheaded, having only ruled for nine weeks.
But the business with the Praetorian guards wasn’t finished yet. Severus “invited” them to meet him on an open plain outside of Rome. There, his Ilyrian army surrounded them. Severus stripped the guards of their rank and honors, and banished them 100 miles from the capital.
Shortly after Pertinax’s funeral and divine honors, conferred by the senate, Severus left Rome. He later defeated his foes for the throne while abroad: Niger and Albinus. Proving his mercy once more, Severus, once home, pardoned 35 senators who had supported the cause of Albinus.
Severus’s rule has come to be characterized as a time of peace and prosperity for the Roman people. His judgment, as emperor, was one that often favored the poor, and he was known for putting on large, grandiose shows, and distributing food and provisions on a more equitable basis. He provided many cities with public monuments, restored many buildings that had been ravaged by fire, and to his birthplace, Lepcis Magna, added baths, temples, and colonnaded streets. The most famous of his buildings was the Severan arch, constructed in the Forum, which commemorates his Parthian victory, depicting scenes from the war.
Severus was especially popular among the his brothers-in-arms, the Roman soldiers. He increased their pay tremendously and allowed them to collect large sums from public festivities. He allowed soldiers now to live with their wives, instead of restricting them to their barracks.
But with this reformation came abuses of power. The Roman government gradually fell into military despotism as the soldiers became decadent over time. The policy of Severus only exacerbated this when the Praetorian praefect was appointed head of the army, as well as finance and law, and came to represent the emperor in every branch of administration. One praefect, Plautianus, was so corrupt that he nearly caused a rebellion, prompting Severus to have him executed.
Severus was more of a military leader than a politician, having lived much of his life by the sword. This military mindset carried over to his rule as emperor. He was not in favor of intermediaries, and exercised both legislative AND executive power himself. In that he behaved as more of a monarch, much like Louis XIV, feeling his role was one of absolute power. Trusting only his instinct, Severus flooded the senate with slaves imported from the Eastern provinces. He chose people that he knew would be submissive to his authority. In this way he made his will and his alone dominant over the Roman people.
Other military campaigns during his rule included his war with the Parthians. He captured their capital, Ctesiphon, in the east, killing many of its inhabitants and enslaving as many as 100,000 afterwards. The Parthian treasury was completely emptied of all its funds. As a result, North Mesopotamia once more became a Roman province.
Through a marriage with second wife Julia Domna, he produced two children: Caracalla and Geta, who would later come to rule the empire together. Unfortunately, it ended with sibling bloodshed: Caracalla, out of jealousy, murdered his brother, claiming the empire all for himself.
Severus’s last campaign was spent in North Britain, past the Hadrian Wall, where he attempted to take Scotland. Frail and diminished of his former strength, Severus was not able to accomplish this, and the “conquest” ended in failure. Only shortly after he died at York on February 4th, 211 AD at the age of 65, having ruled for 18 years. The senate later rewarded him with divine honors, deifying the war emperor as one of Rome’s greatest protectors.
Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Abridged Edition. 1776-1789
Scarre, Chris. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Rome. 1995. Thames & Hudson Ltd, New York. Print.