Septimius Severus, the African Emperor (193–211) II



Septimius Severus had become the greatest expander of the Empire since Trajan, but he doesn’t seem to have intended to annex all the territory he had just conquered. As the loot-laden army withdrew, he made two costly and unsuccessful assaults on the fortress city of Hatra. From there he moved to Palestine and then to Egypt, where he combined administration with sightseeing, taking in the embalmed corpse of Alexander the Great, a Nile cruise, and visits to the pyramids and Thebes (Luxor). From there he headed back to Syria, where in 202 he took the consulship with the thirteen-year-old Caracalla as his colleague: never before had two co-Emperors been Consul at the same time.

Having returned to Rome via the Danubian provinces and taken the opportunity to put on shows and make generous donations to the Praetorian Guard and the plebs, Septimius revisited the land of his birth. Lepcis Magna, which is now one of the most spectacular of all the ancient archaeological sites, benefited immeasurably. An unusual four-way triumphal arch straddles a major crossroads in celebration of Septimius’ victory over Parthia, and when M. Iunius Punicus erected statues to the Emperor, Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta, Septimius reciprocated as only an Emperor can. He conferred ius Italicum (exemption from tribute) on the city, which came to be embellished with some outstanding architecture: one of the most impressive Forums in the Empire, a stunning space some 300 by 200 metres surrounded by colonnades and incorporating a temple to the Genius of Septimius; an imposing basilica at least 30 metres high with columns of exotic red granite and green marble, plus white marble pilasters depicting the mythology of Hercules and Bacchus; an improved aqueduct; a first-rate port with a lighthouse; a colonnaded street that ran from the harbour to the main Hadrianic Baths, which were repaired; a new entrance to the Macellum (Market Place); and state-of-the-art athletic facilities. Dio thought this was a monumental waste of money:

He [. . .] spent a great deal uselessly in repairing other buildings and in constructing new ones; for instance, he built a temple of huge size to Bacchus and Hercules.

This may refer to the enormous temple at Lepcis: Bacchus and Hercules are not only the patron deities of the Severan family, but are commonly identified with Lepcis’ patron deities Shadrapa and Melquart, illustrating an important blending of African and Roman traditions.

By 203 Septimius and his entourage were back in Rome, and again there was lavish spending: the impressive Arch of Septimius Severus was dedicated in the Forum in 203; the Septizodium (or Septizonium) became a kind of ancient Roman Trevi Fountain on the south-east corner of the Palatine; and there were the Baths of Severus. The following year saw the celebration for the seventh, and ultimately the final time, of the Ludi Saeculares (‘Secular Games’), last held six years prematurely (they ran on a 110-year cycle) by Domitian in 88.

The End of Septimius Severus’ Reign

All Septimius’ building and festivities could not obscure the fact that tensions were breaking out. Before the Eastern campaign he had promoted C. Fulvius Plautianus to Praefectus Praetorio. Plautianus, also from Lepcis, had not only engineered the murder of his Praetorian colleague Q. Aemilius Saturninus and wheedled his way into becoming the Emperor’s closest confidant, but also had his eyes on the throne himself:

He wanted everything, asked everything from everybody, and would take everything. He left no province and no city unplundered, but snatched and gathered in everything from all sides [. . .] He castrated a hundred Roman citizens of noble birth [so that Publia Fulvia] Plautilla, his daughter, whom Caracalla afterwards married, should have only eunuchs as her attendants in general, and especially as her teachers in music and other branches of art.

Plautilla apparently had a dowry that would have sufficed for fifty women of royal rank, but her marriage to Caracalla was a disaster: he detested her and his father-in-law, not to mention his younger brother, all of whom seemed to stand in the way of him becoming sole ruler of Rome. For his part, Plautianus also treated Julia Domna so outrageously, conducting investigations into her conduct that involved torturing women of the nobility, that she was driven to study philosophy.

The denouement came in 205 when both Caracalla and Geta were Consuls. Plautianus was executed on the evening of 22 January. What really happened is not entirely clear: in Dio’s version Caracalla fabricated a supposed plot against himself and Septimius by Plautianus, and when Plautianus tried to defend himself against the accusation, Caracalla had him killed; in Herodian’s version, which reads like official propaganda, the plot was genuine, but Plautianus was betrayed by his own henchman. Caracalla now divorced Plautilla, who was banished to the island of Lipari. He never remarried.

One of the two new Praetorian Prefects who replaced Plautianus was the eminent jurist Aemilius Papinianus (‘Papinian’). This was a sign of Septimius trying to offset some of his legal workload: he was conscientious about administering the law, but needed expert guidance, and his reign is often said to have inaugurated a Golden Age of jurisprudence, notably through the talents of Papinian and two other great Roman lawyers, Julius Paulus (‘Paul’) and Domitius Ulpianus (‘Ulpian’). The influence of these men on the modern world cannot be over estimated: their view of Roman law still underlies the modern legal systems of much of Europe and America.

By this time, however, Septimius was in his 60s, his health was on the wane, and his teenaged sons were going off the rails in an orgy of sibling rivalry. He was under no illusion about what Caracalla was like, and Dio alleges that he considered putting him to death, like Septimius felt Marcus Aurelius should have done with Commodus. But he didn’t. So when the governor of Britain, another African by the name of Lucius Alfenus Senecio, sent dispatches saying that the barbarians there were in revolt and overrunning the country, Septimius was delighted: here was an opportunity both for glory and to instil some much-needed military discipline into his offspring. He and Caracalla shared the front-line command, while Geta was elevated to joint Emperor and entrusted with the logistics. Campaigns in around 208, 209 and 210 used Eboracum as the military headquarters, and saw successful salients well to the north of the Antonine Wall. Ethnic cleansing was on the cards:

Let nobody escape utter destruction at our hands, not even any child in its mother’s womb if it is male; let nobody escape utter destruction.

But events intervened.

Septimius was obsessed with astrology, and Dio says that he knew he would not return from Britain:

He knew this chiefly from the stars under which he had been born, for he had caused them to be painted on the ceilings of the rooms in the palace where he was wont to hold court, so that they were visible to all, with the exception of that portion of the sky which, as astrologers express it, ‘observed the hour’ when he first saw the light.

As Septimius’ health worsened Caracalla curried favour with the army, besmirched Geta, and attempted to persuade the doctors to hasten the old man’s end by their treatments. Dio carries a story of Caracalla trying to stab his father in the back, and only desisting when the shouts of some nearby riders warned Septimius about what was happening. But he could have waited: Septimius Severus died of natural causes at Eboracum on 4 February 211, aged sixty-five.

The British campaign was called off. Caracalla and Geta returned to Rome, where their father’s ashes were deposited in Hadrian’s mausoleum just prior to his official deification. He had left the Empire in rude financial health, but Edward Gibbon described him as the ‘principal author of the decline and fall of the Roman empire’. For the moment, though, the most pressing question was how well his two sons might, or might not, cooperate in ruling, and how they would react to his last words, quoted ‘exactly and without embellishment’ by Dio: ‘Agree amongst yourselves, enrich the soldiers and despise all the others.’


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