The Roman Principate: The Civil War & the Severan Dynasty
by: P. Dionysius Mus
PARS I | PARS II | PARS III | PARS IV | PARS V | PARS VI | PARS VII | PARS VIII | PARS IX | PARS X
Pertinax: The son of a freed slave, Pertinax taught school, then entered the army, commanding units in Syria, in Britain, and on the Danube and the Rhine. He earned distinction during the great invasion by German tribes in 169 CE. Given senatorial rank and command of a legion, he was soon promoted to the consular commands of Moesia, Dacia, and Syria; but under the emperor Commodus (reigned 180-192) he fell from favour, together with the future emperor Septimius Severus, during the ascendancy of the praetorian prefect Perennis. In the last years of Commodus' life, Pertinax became prefect of the city of Rome, while Severus commanded the armies of the upper Danube. When Commodus was murdered on Dec. 31, 192, the Senate met before dawn and proclaimed Pertinax (then senior marshal of the Empire) emperor. He tried to enforce unpopular economies in both civilian and military expenditure and was murdered by a small group of soldiers after less than three months in power. Didius Iulianus was his successor, and he became emperor in a rather odd way.
Didius Iulianus: A member of one of the most prominent families of Mediolanum (now Milan), Didius Iulianus had a long and distinguished public career. After commanding the legion at Mogontiacum (now Mainz), about 167, he governed north-eastern Gaul, Dalmatia, the lower Rhine, Bithynia, and Africa. When Pertinax was assassinated by the imperial guard late in March, Iulianus competed with the late emperor's father-in-law, T. Flavius Sulpicianus, in offering the guards a substantial donative (accession bounty). Backed by a group of senators who had Milanese connections, Iulianus won the bidding and was escorted by the guards to the Senate, where he encountered angry demonstrators denouncing the auction and calling for the intervention of the army. Shortly thereafter the Danube legions invaded Italy, killed Iulianus, and proclaimed their principal commander, Lucius Septimius Severus, emperor.
Septimius Severus: The son of an equestrian from the Roman colony of Leptis Magna in North Africa, Severus entered the Senate about 173 and became consul in 190. After Iulianus was murdered at Rome on June 1st, Severus entered the city without resistance several days later. He replaced the Praetorian Guard with a new 15,000-man guard from his own Danubian legions. He temporarily pacified his rival in Britain, Decimus Clodius Albinus, by naming him Caesar (junior emperor - a hint towards the development of the Dominate). In 194 he marched east and decisively defeated another rival, Gaius Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria.
Severus then headed westward to confront Albinus, who had declared himself emperor. Albinus committed suicide following his crushing defeat near Lugdunum (now Lyon, France) in February 197. Returning to Rome, Severus executed about 30 of Albinus' senatorial supporters. To justify his usurpation, he declared himself the adoptive son of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180) and claimed descent from the emperor Nerva (ruled 96-98). He also named Caracalla, his son with his Syrian wife, Iulia Domna, as co-emperor, and thus successor. Late in 197 Severus marched east to turn back an invasion of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) by the Parthians, and two years later Mesopotamia was annexed to the Empire.
By 202 Severus was back in Rome, where he spent the next six years making major changes in the structure of the imperial government. Since his power rested on military might rather than constitutional sanction, he gave the army a dominant role in his state. He won the soldiers' support by increasing their pay and permitting them to marry. To prevent the rise of a powerful military rival, he reduced the number of legions under each general's control. At the same time Severus ignored the Senate, which declined rapidly in power, and he recruited his officials from the equestrian rather than the senatorial order. Many provincials and peasants received advancement, and the Italian aristocracy lost much of its former influence.
Severus paid special attention to the administration of justice. The Italian courts outside Rome were removed from senatorial jurisdiction and put under the control of the praetorian prefect. After the fall (205) of the emperor's favourite, the praetorian prefect Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, the distinguished jurist Papinianus became prefect. Severus also drew on the advice of the renowned jurist Ulpianus in making extensive reforms of the laws. Despite his donations to the urban poor and his extensive building campaign, Severus succeeded in maintaining a full treasury. In 208 Severus, accompanied by Caracalla and his younger son, Geta, led an army to Britain to subdue the parts of the island not under Roman rule. Severus succumbed to disease at Eboracum (now York) in Great Britain.
Geta and Caracalla: Geta, the younger son of Septimius Severus and Iulia Domna, was given the title Caesar in 198, when his elder brother Caracalla became joint emperor (as Augustus) with their father. In 209 Geta was himself made an Augustus. The furious rivalry that developed between the brothers remained concealed from public view as long as their father lived, but, after Severus' death at Eboracum in February 211, the brothers formed separate military factions. Civil war threatened until February 212, when Caracalla had Geta murdered in their mother's arms in her apartment in the imperial palace.
Caracalla assumed the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and added the title Caesar because his father wanted to connect his family with the famous dynasty of the Antonines. The byname Caracalla was based on his alleged designing of a hooded cloak of that name. Another of his nicknames, Tarautas, was that of an ugly, insolent, and bloodthirsty gladiator whom he was thought to resemble. The ancient sources concerning his life and character are by no means reliable. One of them, for example, recounts that as a boy he was amiable, generous, and sensitive and only later became insufferable; but the same source reports in another context that he was fierce by nature. Modern treatments emphasize Caracalla's Syrian heritage as one of the most important elements in his character, although here, too, due caution must be applied, since Eastern origin was in no way incompatible with a high degree of Romanization. Iulia Domna herself was well acquainted with Greco-Roman culture and hired excellent teachers to give her son the best education available. It is reported that he studied the Greek orators and tragedians and was able to quote long passages from the Greek playwright Euripides; but also that he strongly despised education and educated people. This may have been the result of his passion for military life, which probably developed when he accompanied his father on his many military expeditions.
At the age of 14 he was married to Fulvia Plautilla, the daughter of the influential and ambitious commander of the imperial guard, Fulvius Plautianus; he is said to have hated Plautianus and played an important role in having him executed on the charge of a conspiracy against the imperial dynasty (that of Septimius Severus). He also exiled his own wife to an island and later killed her. Caracalla also showed considerable cruelty in ordering many of Geta's friends and associates put to death. Probably in order to regain goodwill, he granted an amnesty to exiles, a move denounced as hypocritical in ancient sources; they also slander Caracalla's most famous measure, the so-called Constitutio Antoniniana de Civitate granting Roman citizenship to every freeborn male in the Empire, as a device designed solely to collect more taxes. His expeditions against the German tribes in 212/213, when he senselessly massacred an allied German force, and against the Parthians in 216-217 are ascribed by ancient sources to his love of military glory. Just before the Parthian campaign, he is said to have perpetrated a "massacre" among the population of Alexandria, probably in response to a disturbance there.
Caracalla's unpredictable behaviour is said to have prompted Macrinus, the commander of the imperial guard and his successor on the throne, to plot against him: Caracalla was assassinated at the beginning of a second campaign against the Parthians.
Important for the understanding of his character and behaviour is his identification with Alexander the Great. Admiration of the great Macedonian was not unusual among Roman emperors, but, in the case of Caracalla, Alexander became an obsession that proved to be ludicrous and grotesque. He adopted clothing, weapons, behaviour, travel routes, portraits, perhaps even an alleged plan to conquer the Parthian Empire, all in imitation of Alexander. He assumed the surname Magnus ("the Great"), organized a Macedonian phalanx and an elephant division, and had himself represented as godlike on coins. Another important trait was Caracalla's deeply rooted superstition; he followed magical practices and carefully observed all ritual obligations.
He was tolerant of the Jewish and Christian faiths, but his favourite deity was the Egyptian god Serapis, whose son or brother he pretended to be. He adopted the Egyptian practice of identifying the ruler with a god and is the only Roman emperor who is portrayed as a Pharaoh in a statue. In the many portraits of him, the expression of vehemence and cruelty is obvious, and some sources say that he intentionally reinforced this impression, perhaps because it flattered his vanity to spread fear and terror. It is also said that he was of small size but excelled in bodily exercises, that he shared the toils of the rank and file but also weakened his virility by a dissolute life and was not even able to bear the weight of a cuirass.
A similar inconsistency characterizes the judgments about his mental state. He was said to be mad but also sharp-minded and ready-witted. His predilection for gods of health, as documented by numerous dedicatory inscriptions, may support the theory of mental illness. If Caracalla was a madman or a tyrant, the fact had no great consequences for his administration of the Empire, which may or may not have been vitally influenced by Julia Domna and the great jurists who surrounded him. He was venerated by his soldiers, who forced the Senate to deify him after his death, and there is no indication that he was especially disliked among the general population. In any case, the Roman Empire at that time was still strong enough to bear a ruler who certainly lacked the qualities of an outstanding emperor.
Macrinus and Heliogabalus: When emperor Caracalla (211-217), Bassianus' cousin, was murdered in 217, he was replaced by the praetorian prefect Macrinus. But the mother and grandmother of Bassianus won the support of the nearby troops by passing Bassianus off as an illegitimate son of Caracalla. Soon thereafter (218) the remainder of the Eastern armies deserted Macrinus.
Acknowledged as emperor by the Senate, Bassianus, by virtue of his priestly function, became generally known as Elagabalus (Heliogabalus). The family of his mother, Iulia Soaemias, were hereditary high priests of the sun-god Baal at Emesa (in ancient Syria), worshiped in that locality under the name Elah-Gabal (thus Elagabalus). He imposed the worship of Baal upon the Roman world, executed a number of dissident generals, and pushed into high places many favourites distinguished by personal beauty and humble and alien origins.
The homosexual orgies held openly by the young emperor outraged Roman opinion. He was persuaded by Julia Maesa, the real power in the government, to adopt his docile cousin Alexander as his son and heir (221). When Elagabalus changed his mind and sought to depose Alexander, the Praetorian Guards mutinied, killed Elagabalus and his mother, and made Alexander emperor.
Alexander Severus: Alexander succeded to power without incident. During his reign the real authority was held by his grandmother (until her death in 226) and his mother. The appointment of a regency council of 16 senators provided the Senate with nominal ruling power. Under this regime large sections of the civilian and military populace lost faith in the government at Rome and lapsed into lawlessness. The Praetorian Guards went so far as to murder their commander, Domitius Ulpianus, the chief minister of state, in the presence of the emperor and his mother (228). But it was his incompetence as a military leader that was Alexander's undoing.
In 230 and 231 the Persian king Ardashir I invaded the Roman province of Mesopotamia (in modern Iraq). Alexander launched a three-pronged counteroffensive (232) and was defeated when the force under his personal command failed to advance. But the heavy losses suffered by the Persians forced them to withdraw from Mesopotamia, thereby giving Alexander an excuse to celebrate a triumph at Rome in 233. Shortly afterward the emperor was called to the Rhine (at Mainz in modern Germany) to fight the invading Germanic tribe of the Alemanni. When, on advice from his mother, he ended these operations by buying peace from the Germans, his army became indignant. Early in 235 the soldiers murdered Alexander and his mother and proclaimed Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus as emperor.