The Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD)

The Severan dynasty was the fourth Roman imperial dynasty consiting Septimius Severus, Caracalla, Geta, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus. They ruled the Roman Empire from 193 AD until 235 AD, when Alexander Severus was murdered by his own troops.

The Severan Dynasty Family Tree. (c) Shakko

The dynasty’s control over the Empire was interrupted by the joint reigns of Macrinus and his son Diadumenian in 217-8 AD, after the assassination of Caracalla. The Severan women, including Julia Domna, the mother of Caracalla and Geta, and her nieces Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, the mothers of Elagabalus and Alexander Severus respectively, and their mother, Julia Maesa, held great power in their own right and were instrumental in securing their sons’ imperial positions.

Under Septimius Severus

Head of Septimius Severus, 193-211 AD. Capitoline Museum.

Septimius Severus came to power in 193 AD in the Year of the Five Emperors after the emperor Pertinax was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard. Whilst governor of Pannonia Superior, he was acclaimed emperor by his troops and quickly marched on Rome and deposed Didius Julianus, who had bought the throne from the Praetorian Guard. Severus then dealt with his two rival claimants, defeating Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria, at the Battle of Issus in 194 AD and defeating Clodius Albinus, governor of Britannia, at the Battle of Lugdunum in 197 AD.

Arch of Septimius Severus in the Forum Romanum, Rome.

As well as fighting his civil war, Septimius Severus also campaigned agaist the Parthians in 197 AD and against the Caledonians in northern Britannia in 209-210 AD, whilst strengthening Hadrian’s Wall and re-occupying the Antonine Wall. He also undertook a building programme in Rome, the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Septizodium, and in his native Lepcis Magna. To pay for his military expenses, he debased the value of the Roman currency, which would go on to distabilise the economy. Severus fell ill on campaign in Caledonia and died at York in early 211 AD. He was succeeded by his two sons Caracalla and Geta.

Under Caracalla

Head of Caracalla, 211-217 AD. Capitoline Museum.

After the death of his father, Caracalla ruled jointly with his brother Geta until he had him murdered by the Praetorian Guard in late 211 AD, allowing him to rule as sole emperor. Caracalla found the administration of the empire to be boring and so left those responsibilities to his mother and court officials. He undertook two military campaigns against the Alamanni in 213-4 AD and the Parthians in 216 AD. His reign was notable for the Edict of Caracalla in 212 AD, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men within the Empire, the building of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome and the introduction of a new currency called the Antoninianus, which was a double denarius. On the 8th March 217 AD, Caracalla was assassinated by a disaffected soldier whilst on his way to Carrhae. His Praetorian Prefect M. Opellius Macrinus, who had encouraged the soldier, succeeded him.

Under Geta

The Severan Tondo, depicting Septimius Severus and his family. Altes Museum. (c) José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

After the death of their father, Geta and Caracalla returned to Rome and ruled as co-emperors but proved incapable of sharing power. The Imperial Palace was divided into two separate sections and they only met in the presence of their mother with bodyguards as they both feared assassination from the other. The stability of their joint reign was down to the mediation and leadership of their mother, Julia Domna, accompanied by other senior courtiers and generals. By the end of 211 AD, the issue was untenable. Caracalla had his mother arrange a peace meeting with his brother in his mother’s apartments, thus depriving Geta of his bodyguards, and then had him murdered in her arms by his Praetorian Guard. Caracalla then declared a Damnatio Memoriae on Geta.

Under Elagabalus

Head of Elagabalus. Capitoline Museum. (c) José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

Elagabalus was acclaimed emperor at the age of fourteen by the army in the East during a revolt against Macrinus instigated by his grandmother Julia Maesa, who was the sister of Julia Domna, in 218 AD. Prior to this, he had been the high priest of the god Elagabal. His short reign was conspicuous for sex scandals and religious controversy. He disregarded the traditional Romans gods and instead replaced Jupiter with the god Elagabal. He married four women, including a Vestal Virgin, and lavished favours on male courtiers thought to have been his lovers. This behavior alienated him from the Praetorian Guard, the Senate and the common people. In March 222 AD, he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard on the orders of Julia Maesa and was replaced by his cousin Alexander Severus.

Under Alexander Severus

Bust of Alexander Severus, 222-235 AD. Capitoline Museum.

Alexander Severus became emperor at the age of fourteen. With no experience of ruling, he relied heavily of his grandmother Julia Maesa and mother Julia Mamaea during his early reign, which was prosperous. However in 231 AD, he was confronted with the rising power of the Sassanid Empire. He managed to check the threat of the Sassanids in a series of campaigns. But when faced with the invading Germanic tribes in 234 AD, Alexander attempted to bring peace by engaging in diplomacy and bribery. This alienated the Roman army, which led to his and his mother’s assassination on the 22nd March 235 AD at Mainz by mutinous soldiers. Alexander Severus’ death marked the start of the Crisis of the Third Century.

The Roman Empire during the Third Century Crisis. (c) Times Books

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