Septimius Severus, the Libyan-born Roman Emperor who died at York
Longer version of article published in “ARAMCO WORLD” magazine, January-February 2020
Septimius Severus (145-211) was one of the greatest of the Roman Emperors but remains one of the least known. I have always been fascinated that this man used to the heat of his native North Africa, should die in northern England during a campaign to conquer Scotland.
Very few Roman emperors had ever wished to visit Britain, let alone dedicate the last period of their life to the exploration and conquest of this obscure island, then on the edge of the known world. As his biographer Antony Birley reminds us, “he stayed longer than any other ruler in remote Britain.”
Septimius’s army was initially successful in occupying central Scotland but the highland clans struck back over the first winter and the campaign deteriorated into a three-year-long guerrilla war of surprise raids promoting counter-terror sweeps. The natives didn’t want any of the superior gifts of civilization that the Romans offered. They preferred to live in small, dark, smoky round huts as free tribes rather than embrace a city-based life filled with all imaginable amenities and flamboyant architecture. His staff officers soon realised that this was going to be a difficult war to win decisively.
The Scottish highlanders had no cities or citadels for them to occupy or treasure for them to seize. The enemy warriors thought nothing of fighting naked and preferred to kill their wounded comrades rather than let them be taken captive. As Cassius Dio tells us “they can endure hunger and cold and any kind of hardship; for they plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water, were indifferent to the appalling weather and were able to melt invisibly into the landscape by submerging themselves into the bogs.” They could also live off their small mobile herds and off wild berries and hunting. They could never defeat a Roman army on the battlefield, but they proved a determined foe to an army of occupation tied up in garrison duties.
Britain in the Roman period was always a problem, and Scotland was the troublesome North-West frontier. Four Roman Legions were required to hold down the British tribes. They never succeeded in conquering Scotland, let alone Ireland. Roman rule over England produced three dozen cities whose excavated monuments are meagre and provincial compared to the imposing marble-clad ruins that can still be found dotted all over Roman Syria and Turkey. North Africa was another golden landscape of high culture in the Roman period, a land of six hundred self-governing cities whose vast Saharan frontier was patrolled by just one legion.
This is ancient history yet also highly relevant today. For the Roman Empire is a major foundation stone of Western civilization, it’s architecture, language, law and political aspiration. Public monuments in the capitals of the USA or Australia – for instance - still reference Roman classical columns, temple pediments, coffered ceilings and internal domes. The titles of the rulers of the former German and Russian Empires (Kaiser and Tsar) were corruptions of Caesar, while the Senate in Washington DC is named after the similar Roman institution. So it is intriguing to realise that this civilization was even more deeply rooted in North Africa, Egypt, Syria and Turkey than in the nations of Western Europe. Such avowed centres of Western European culture as Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Poland were never part of the empire. Septimius Severus makes us question all sorts of assumptions. He came from what we would now think of as an Arab and Middle Eastern background but was a very great Roman.
Septimius was born in North Africa, in the city of Leptis Magna which was famously wealthy from its export of olive oil. The ruins of Leptis Magna are in modern Libya, but most of the leading merchants and landowners of this city were proudly conscious of their links to the ancient trading cities of the Phoenician coast (within modern Lebanon and Syria). Anthony Birley judges this region to have been “deeply conservative after centuries of virtual independence.” During his reign he freed Egypt from centuries of Roman cultural suppression. He was personally pious and interested in disseminating a philosophy that provided a mystical underpinning to his revival of traditional worship in the temples. He restored public monuments and built new ones that explored new architectural themes, but with a thoroughness that would allow them to endure for thousands of years. He employed men of talent wherever he found them, from Algeria, Syria and Turkey. He expanded and secured the frontiers of the empire in half-a-dozen military campaigns (in south-eastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq and the Sahara). He also began the codification of Roman law in order to make it more fair, consistent and accessible.
This seems to have been undertaken with a new conception of the empire as a commonwealth of peoples, without an ethnically privileged ruling class. He was interested in creating a common body of faith, based on mutual respect and cross-cultural inclusion. Nor was he a one-off. His son Caracalla consciously completed many of his father’s grand building projects and succeeded in legally extending Roman citizenship across the population of the entire empire. Septimius’s reign was followed by that of a dynasty, which in various shapes and forms and adoptions included five men all proud to label themselves as Severan.
We know so much about him, because one of the greatest of the Roman historians, Cassius Dio, knew him personally. This brief description could only have come from the pen of one who knew the man: ‘He was small in body but strong, although he eventually grew very weak from gout; his mind was very keen and vigorous. He was eager for more education than he obtained and for this reason, although he was a man full of ideas, he was not a great talker. Towards friends he was not forgetful, towards enemies most oppressive; he was painstaking in everything that he wanted to achieve, but did not care what was said about him.’
In order to fully understand the scale of the achievements of this African Emperor, we need to strip away some modern assumptions and try to understand his world view. The first thing we need to get rid of is any sense of ‘national identity’. The key determining facts about any individual during the lifetime of Septimius Severus were your city, your family and your legal status. Slave labour underwrote every wealthy household, and upheld every mine, quarry and industrial complex. Slaves could be made by a condemnation in the lawcourts, acquired through war, or by trade with barbarians beyond the frontiers. Slaves had no legal rights, yet they were often freed by their owners after ten or twenty years loyal service to became freedmen, but remained under a considerable social obligation to their ex-owners.
The free Roman world was made up of a constellation of 2,500 self-governing cities, a fifth of which were in North Africa at the end of the second century AD. The period in which Edward Gibbon considered “the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” They ranged in size from ancient hilltop citadel such as Dougga with a population of 2,000 to a sprawling port-city like Carthage which numbered over 100,000. Septimius Severus’s hometown of Leptis Magna was somewhere in between, with a population of around 40,000. Each and every one of these cities, whatever its size, was dominated by a tiny minority of privileged landowners, the curialis. To be a member of this class your family had to own land worth at least 300 solidi (a gold coin) and produce an income of 30 gold coins a year. The landowners were collectively responsible for collecting the taxes on behalf of the empire, and served as priests in the local temples, and as magistrates who administered the city, and who sat in the curia, the town council. Out of love for their home town the richer magistrates often paid for new public buildings or subsidised public entertainments. Front row seats, be it in the theatre, circus track or amphitheatre, were reserved for this class of men, separated by a stone wall, the pulpitum, from the rest of the audience. They also occupied a distinct legal status, as honestiores, whose word was accepted in the courts. They could not be tortured on the instruction of a judge wishing to confirm a legal testimony or flogged at the whim of an imperial official. So within your provincial hometown, a member of the curial class was part of a highly privileged and conspicuous elite. But from the perspective of the Imperial Court in Rome they were mere chaff, just one of 65,000 provincial landowners responsible for remitting the taxes on time. Only the top 1% of this body were both wealthy and talented enough to aspire to becoming a member of the 2,000 strong senate in Rome. This composed the real ruling class of the empire.
Septimius Severus was one of this number. His wealthy North African family had been patiently aspiring towards this position over four generations. The first step towards assimilation within the elite had been to acquire sufficient landed estates within Italy to qualify as a potential senator. No bankers or merchants were permitted, unless they had turned their back on trade and invested their fortune in land. The next step was to convert their old North Africa names and provincial accents to Roman equivalents. As a young man Septimius’s grandfather had been placed in the household of Quintillian, who held the imperial chair of rhetoric in Rome. Speaking fluent and grammatically correct Latin was a vital skill if you wanted a career in the lawcourts, a vital first step on the ladder of imperial administration. Septimius’s grandfather was a new man in Roman society and had been content with a very modest public role. He became a barrister giving legal cases a first hearing to determine which court they should be sent to. But he made very useful social connections for the next generation of his family, becoming friends with the historian Tacitus, the poets Martial and Juvenal and Pliny the Younger, a literary-minded governor.
The next generation of family rose a notch higher within this competitive society: one became commander of a Roman legion and then a praetor (judge), while another rose even higher and became a consul. So when Septimius was sent to Rome as an eighteen-year-old, he was part of a well-established clan. Initially he followed in the wake of his elder brother Geta, who had made a very good start to his public career. It was Geta who achieved the vital patronage connection with Pertinax, a brilliant young man but with no aristocratic clan behind him. Indeed it was as trusted friends of Pertinax (and fully sharing his passion for administrative reform of the empire) that the two brothers made it right to the top. There were only twenty-five legions within the empire, and so the potential commanders were carefully vetted. Geta was trusted with command of two legions on the lower Danube, while his younger brother, Septimius, commanded three on the upper Danube frontier. It was an exceptional position of power for one family, which reveals how closely they were trusted by Pertinax, who at that time was running the imperial administration on behalf of the increasingly mad Emperor Commodus.
In 193 AD chance, or fortune threw down her challenge. Two haphazard imperial assassinations (first of Commodus, then of Pertinax) were followed by the disgraceful auction of the imperial throne by the Praetorian Guard. Septimius made his own bid for the throne, though in other parts of the empire the legions acclaimed two other candidates. A brutal round of civil wars left Septimius triumphant. He was fortunate to be the first to seize command of Rome and furthered this sense of legitimacy by standing forth as the avenger (and official heir) of Pertinax. He also proved strong-willed enough to crush the Praetorian Guard, who had got used to their role as king-maker.
Septimius was the man from the provinces who believed in efficient government, set against the corruption within the capital. As Anthony Birley defines him, “the first truly provincial Emperor…who spent all but four of his eighteen years as emperor on the move.” He showed his indifference for the privileged life of Rome by ruling from his military camps as he led prolonged tours through the provinces. As we have already heard, he spent the last three years of his life on the north-west frontier, running the empire (through an astonishingly efficient postal service) from the provincial city of Eboracum (York). The streets, senators and palaces of Rome were watched over by, Plautianus, a first cousin of Septimius Severus who acted as his sinister minister of interior. He had also been born and bred in Leptis Magna, and his daughter was married to Septimius’s eldest son.
What I find especially fascinating is how Septimius Severus, the product of a very successful four-generation-long campaign of assimilation within the ruling class of the Roman empire, managed to sustain parallel cultural identities. His birthplace of Leptis Magna was a trading city on the North African shore that had been founded by Phoenician merchants from the Syrian coast many centuries earlier. He seems to have been determined to stay true to this cultural connection through his choice of female partners. His first wife was not from the powerful network of Roman senatorial families but an unknown woman from his hometown. After her death, his second wife was Julia Domna, a Syrian intellectual, the daughter of the high priest of the city of Emessa, an ancient, but in Roman terms, very obscure, town on the desert frontier of Syria. She was descended from a dynasty of Arab kings, who had ruled the Syrian desert as allies of one of the Hellenistic kingdoms established by one of the heirs of Alexander the Great. This would have meant nothing to a Roman senator, but it clearly had resonance for Septimius, who spent a lot of time in the East.
As Emperor (193-211 AD) he expanded and tightened up the defences of the Arabian frontier so that it connected with the Persian Gulf. He successfully campaigned and expanded the eastern frontier against the Persian Empire, and then as a dutiful son of Leptis Magna campaigned in the Sahara and extended it’s frontier defences. These campaigns had their moments of military victory (the late Roman historian Aurelius Victor considered that “he left no battle except as victor”) but were as much about a thorough understanding of logistics and engineering as anything else. Traces of his progress are still visible throughout the empire in the enduring shape of new roads, new bridges, new storehouses and frontier fortresses. As the Augustan History tells us, “He was loved as no other…for his strictness, honourable conduct and restraint.”
Today, we can look at colour-coded maps showing expanding boundaries of the empire under different rulers of the Roman empire. The Romans also made maps, but tended to visualise space in itineraries, lists of place names which fanned out from Rome (or any administrative base) and connected port-cities with inland towns and legionary fortresses on the frontier. They were measured in distances and in the time it took to march from one to the next. The formal gatehouses, often ornamented with a triumphal arch, that the Romans delighted in building throughout the Empire were part of this visual system of imagining the world. They honoured the Emperor in their dedications, but also established a clear direction of travel for the next city, a measured starting point for the succession of milestones.
The temples that Septimius Severus restored, the new shrines and solemn processional avenues that he constructed, are clear evidence of his pious respect for the gods. He was the last Emperor to preside over an intellectually confident pagan world, where the ancient cults were honoured beside a passionate interest in the new. This was the time of Mithras, as well as the perfection of neo-Platonic philosophy, and such spiritual teachers as Apollonius of Tyana who united the traditions of Pythagoras with ideas brought back from the Buddhist and Hindu East. Temples were not always places of dreary sacrifice but housed libraries, oracles, healing-priests and intellectual teachers. Above all this, there was a conscious attempt to assimilate different traditions of belief expressed by such cults as Zeus Dolichene, Serapis and Jupiter Heliopotanus. Most of us have been brought up to consider the triumph of Christianity as inevitable, set against a decaying pantheon. So it is a shock to discover how virile, inventive and tolerant the spiritual world during the reign of the Emperor Septimius Severus was. Concepts such as the immortality of the soul and its migration, an ethical life, judgement after death and the redemptive self-sacrifice of the son of a god were already universally acknowledged. What is also surprising is the extent to which oracles and dream interpretation were mainstream activities. They were an essential part of the healing process, but could also have political overtones. Septimius Severus felt himself to have been chosen by the gods to rule, and cherished the memory of a number of events where he had been saluted by oracles and given spiritual direction and even been warned of a forthcoming assassination plot through his and other people’s dreams. The Augustan History provides us with many such instances, such as the night as a young man that “ he dreamed he was sucking the teats of a she-wolf like Remus or Romulus.”
Septimius was not a saint. He was a ruthless emperor who fought two bloody civil wars, murdered potential rivals, purged the Senate and allowed his victorious army to sack cities as a reward for their military victories. During that last war in Scotland, he gave his army the pitiless instruction (borrowed from Homer’s Iliad) to ‘Let no-one escape utter destruction, let no-one escape our hands, not even the babe in its mother’s womb, lest it be male – so let not even this escape our utter destruction.’ His last word of advice to his two sons, according to Cassius Dion was– ‘Give money to the soldiers and despise everyone else’ – seems especially bleak and cynical. Fortunately we know he did not always follow this advice. He reformed laws, reinforced frontiers, restored the temples and ornamented hundreds of cities with fountains, shrines, storehouses, processional avenues and market places. On his deathbed he is said to have turned to his secretary and asked ‘come give it me, if we have anything left to do.’ He was, at the very least, a dedicated public servant.
Our world needs more leaders who can transcend the narrow limitations of being from the West or the East, the North or the South. Septimius Severus, for all his crimes, was never guilty of that. He had a sense of a shared civilization that stretched from Iraq to the highlands of Scotland, from an oasis in the Sahara to a fortress on the Danube. It was a civilization that could encompass thousands of local loyalties, hundreds of particular beliefs and languages but accept one rule of law.
Further Reading: Septimius Severus
Cassius Dio (155-235 AD) consciously wrote in the detached and reflective style that had been perfected by the great Athenian historian Thucydides, and like his role model he had also experienced the reality of power. Both he and his father had served long careers as governors of Roman provinces. Cassius Dio also shared an emotional sympathy with Septimius Severus. He too came from a provincial city (Nicaea - modern Iznik in Turkey) of which he remained proud all his life, while remaining a passionate upholder of the power and dignity of the empire.
We can also dip into two other Roman histories of the period, though both Herodian (who covered the years 180-238 AD) and the even-less-well-regarded Augustan History were clearly written for entertainment. They seem more like a salacious gossip column on the irresponsible web than a professionally accurate chronicle. These are the three literary foundation stones from which a modern historian creates a modern study of Septimius, assisted by thousands of intimate details divulged by the ever-expanding study of Roman inscriptions, coins and archaeology.
The most comprehensive book-length study is Septimius Severus, The African Emperor by Anthony R Birley, 1972, expanded 1988.
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