Septimus Severus

Septimus Severus was founder of the African dynasty of Roman emperors. He came from a family of Roman citizens who had served as imperial bureaucrats in northern Africa. He found favor with the emperor Marcus Aurelius and served in many high provincial positions.

Under Emperor Commodus, Septimus Severus was appointed the legate of the fourth legion in 191 c.e., stationed on the Euphrates. He disdained traditional Roman ways and saw himself as a soldier and ruler of the East, becoming immersed in the religion and culture. He married a member of a priestly family of Emesa and solidified his influence over the politics of the eastern provinces.

When his own soldiers killed Emperor Pertinax in 193, Severus was proclaimed emperor by his own legions of the East and by the Danube legions. Some scholars speculate that support for Severus in both the East and West make it clear that he was a part of the conspiracy to overthrow Pertinax, but there is no concrete proof.

Severus believed his destiny to rule the empire was found in careful study of the positions of the stars in the heavens. He strengthened his control over the empire by executing the prefect of the infamous Praetorian Guard and put his trust in barbarian troops over the Roman legions under his control.

Granting of land and money to troops showed his preference for the barbarians, as well as giving Roman women in marriage to barbarian officers and displaying their likeness on new coins. The Roman soldiers in the Praetorian Guard were replaced by barbarian troops from the outlying districts of the empire.

Although he had the support of many legions in the East and south of the Danube, Severus had trouble taking control of the whole empire and spent many years fighting battles against regional generals in Britain, Gaul, and Mesopotamia. Not every opponent was a rival for the title of Caesar; many simply did not want Septimus Severus to rule the empire.

After defeating every opponent, Severus shook the social circles of Rome by granting the right of every common soldier to enter the equestrian order and serve in the Roman Senate. This incensed the Roman gentry, but Severus suffered no repercussions from his actions.

He began the fifth persecution of Christians and made it a crime against the state to convert to Judaism or Christianity. Saints Perpetua and Felicity, highly revered by the church, were martyred during this persecution. Severus traveled to Britain in 208, trying to restore order to the province and gain support for a vigorous military program.

While there, he restored Hadrian’s Wall and ensured the protection of the province from the barbarian Picts to the north. He gave control over the outlying province to his sons and died amid a family feud for control of the area.