February 4 — The Death of Emperor Septimius Severus

On this day in the year 211 C.E., the Emperor Septimius Severus died in York, England, after becoming ill on his military campaign to conquer Great Britain. His story is a fascinating one about the participation of people from the fringes of the Roman Empire’s political machine.

Severus was born on April 11, 145 in Leptis Magna, a city of what is today Libya. At the time, northern Africa was considered a province of the Roman Empire. His mother was descended from Italian nobility. His father was more of a local lad, and may have had Berber blood — perhaps giving Severus the golden skin with which he is depicted.

Family portrait of Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla and a rubbed-out spot where his other son, Geta, once appeared

Severus went to Rome seeking his fortune as a teenager, joining some of his cousins who had done well in the court of the Emperor Antonius Pius. He moved through the ranks of minor official stations until, at the age of 25, he became a quaestor — the first step on the long political ladder of ancient Rome. Severus turned out to be a good climber.

Septimius Severus, always depicted with thick hair and a beard

His first marriage was to a woman from Leptis Magna and produced no children. Severus then married a wealthy and noble Syrian woman whose horoscope had foretold she would marry a king. Julia Domna became his formidable wife and later, mother to a Roman Emperor.

Julia Domna

Severus rose to be the governor of a province under the mad emperor Commodus. Pertinax, who succeeded Commodus, was soon murdered by the emperor’s bodyguard, the Praetorian Guard — leaving the imperial seat vacant. Severus’ troops (perhaps encouraged by bribes) declared him emperor, and Severus rushed back to Rome.  For the next few years, he fought multiple claimants to the throne, ultimately prevailing.  Having secured his throne, he declared his sons, whom we know as Geta and Caracalla, to be his heirs.

Caracalla, eldest son of Severus

Severus was a successful military leader, and defeated the Parthians in the wars of 194 – 199, for which the Arch of Septimus Severus in the Roman Forum (top of this post) was built.  He died in Britain in 211, having expanded the Roman Empire to two million square miles.

Upon Severus’ death, Caracalla and Geta succeeded as joint emperors. It didn’t last long. Caracalla promptly murdered his brother and had his images destroyed — hence the blank spot on the rondel above. Just a few years later, Caracalla was also gone, having died at 29.

The Severan dynasty would limp ahead for a few years, thanks to the manipulations of Julia Domna’s family, but it would all end in the chaos known as the “Crisis of the Third Century.”