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date: 30 June 2022

Septimius Severus, Luciusfree

, Roman emperor, 193–211 ce

Septimius Severus, Luciusfree

, Roman emperor, 193–211 ce
  • Anthony R. Birley


  • Roman History and Historiography

The Septimii were of Punic origin, his mother's family (Fulvii) of Italian descent. His equestrian grandfather, probably identical with the poet Statius' friend Septimius Severus, was the leading figure at Lepcis Magna under Trajan; his father held no office, but two Septimii were already senators when Severus was born (145). One of them secured senatorial rank for him from M. Aurelius; he and his brother P. Septimius Geta (1) had normal careers under Marcus and Commodus. Consul in 190, by now with a second wife, Iulia Domna, and two young sons, he became governor of Pannonia Superior in 191 through the praetorian prefect Q. Aemilius Laetus, a fellow-African. Twelve days after P. Helvius Pertinax's murder (28 March 193) he was proclaimed emperor at Carnuntum (9 April) as avenger of Pertinax, whose name he assumed. Backed by all sixteen Rhine and Danube legions he marched on Rome, securing the support of Clodius Septimius Albinus, governor of Britain, by granting him the title Caesar. By 1 June, 60 miles north of Rome, Severus was recognized by the senate; Pertinax's successor Didius Severus Julianus was murdered, and Severus entered Rome without opposition on 9 June 193. The praetorians were dismissed and a new guard, twice as large, was formed from the Danubian legions; three new legions (I–III Parthicae) were raised, one of which (II Parthica) was to be based at Alba, near Rome. See legion. This, together with increases in the vigiles, urban cohorts (see cohortes urbanae), and other units, radically enlarged the capital's garrison. Army pay was raised (for the first time since ce 84) and the men gained new privileges, e.g. the right to marry (see contubernium). Then Severus moved against Pescennius Niger, proclaimed emperor in Syria in April 193. Advance forces under L. Fabius Cilo halted Niger at Perinthus; his base at Byzantium was besieged by Marius Maximus with troops from Moesia. By the end of 193 Severan generals defeated Niger at Cyzicus and Nicaea; Egypt had recognized Severus by February 194. The final encounter (spring 194), near Issus, was followed by Niger's death. Syria was divided into two provinces, Coele and Phoenice, Antioch (1) and other cities that had supported Niger being punished. Severus now launched a campaign against the Parthian vassals who had backed Niger. Most of Osroëne was annexed, perhaps other parts of N. Mesopotamia too. Severus became Parthicus Arabicus and Parthicus Adiabenicus in 195. In the same year he proclaimed himself son of the deified Marcus and brother of the deified Commodus, renamed his elder son (Caracalla) M. Aurelius Antoninus (1) and made him Caesar, and gave his wife the title ‘mother of the camp’. This clearly dynastic move led his ally Albinus Caesar to rebel and cross to Gaul with the British army. Severus hurried back west for this final civil war, won at the battle of Lugdunum (1) (19 February 197).

In a purge of Albinus' supporters 29 senators, and numerous others in Gaul, Spain, and Africa were executed. Severus left for the east in summer 197 for his Second Parthian War, invading in winter and capturing Ctesiphon, on 28 January 198. On this day, the centenary of Trajan's accession, he became Parthicus Maximus, raised Caracalla to the rank of Augustus, and made P. Septimius Geta (2) Caesar. The new province of Mesopotamia was garrisoned by two of the new legions (I and III Parthicae), with an equestrian prefect as governor. Two attempts to capture Hatra failed. After a lengthy stay in Syria, the imperial party entered Egypt before the end of 199, remaining for about twelve months: the province was reorganized, notably by the grant of a city council to Alexandria (1). At the end of 200 Severus returned to Syria for another year; he was consul for the 3rd time at Antioch, with Caracalla as colleague, on 1 January 202.

Back at Rome in early summer 202 he celebrated decennalia with lavish victory games (declining a triumph, although the arch in the Forum had already been voted by the senate), followed by Caracalla's marriage to Fulvia Plautilla, daughter of the seemingly all-powerful praetorian prefect C. Fulvius Plautianus. In the autumn the imperial family sailed for Africa: their native Lepcis, Carthage and Utica received ius Italicum, while Severus crushed the desert tribes beyond Tripolitania. From 203 to 208 he remained in Italy, holding Secular Games in 204. Early in 205 Plautianus was killed and replaced by Papinian (Aemilius Papinianus), who, with his fellow-jurists Ulpian and Paulus (Domitius Ulpianus, Iulius Paulus), made the Severan era a golden age of Roman jurisprudence. In 208 minor hostilities in Britain gave an excuse for another war, which Severus supposedly thought would benefit his quarrelling sons. The entire family, with Papinian, elements of the guard and other troops, crossed to Britain that year and took up residence at Eburacum (York). Severus and Caracalla led two campaigns in northern Scotland, with the professed intention of conquering the whole of Britain; a new advance base was built at Carpow on the Tay, and victory was claimed in 210 with the title Britannicus for Severus and his sons, the younger becoming Augustus at last to ensure a joint succession. Long a victim of gout, Severus died at York on 4 February 211, leaving his sons the advice ‘not to disagree, give money to the soldiers, and ignore the rest’. See britain, roman.


  • Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Severus 13.”
  • Cassius Dio, 72–76.
  • Herodian, 2–3.
  • Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Severus.
  • H. Mattingly, E. A. Sydenham, and others, Roman Imperial Coinage (1923–1967), 4. 1.
  • A. M. McCann, The Portraits of Septimius Severus (1968).
  • A. R. Birley, The African Emperor Septimius Severus2 (1988).