The Severan Dynasty was a Roman imperial dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire between 193 and 235. The dynasty was founded by the Roman general Septimius Severus, who rose to power as the victor of the civil war through 193, known as the Year of the Five Emperors.
Although Septimius Severus successfully restored peace following the upheaval of the late 2nd century, the dynasty was disturbed by highly unstable family relationships, and constant political turmoil, foreshadowing the imminent Crisis of the Third Century. It was the last lineage of the Principate founded by Augustus.
The Year of the Five Emperors refers to the year 193 AD, in which there were five claimants for the title of Roman Emperor. The five were Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus.
The year 193 opened with the murder of Commodus on New Year's Eve, 31 December 192 and the proclamation of the City Prefect Pertinax as Emperor on New Year's Day, 1 January 193. Pertinax was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard on 28 March 193. Later that day, Didius Julianus outmanoeuvered Titus Flavius Sulpicianus (Pertinax's father-in-law and also the new City Prefect) for the title of Emperor.
Flavius Sulpicianus offered to pay each soldier 20,000 sestertii to buy their loyalty (eight times their annual salary; also the same amount offered by Marcus Aurelius to secure their favours in 161). Didius Julianus however offered 25,000 to each soldier to win the auction and was proclaimed Emperor by the Roman Senate on 28 March.
However, three other prominent Romans challenged for the throne: Pescennius Niger in Syria, Clodius Albinus in Britain, and Septimius Severus in Pannonia. Septimius Severus marched on Rome to oust Didius Julianus and had him decapitated on 1 June 193, then dismissed the Praetorian Guard and executed the soldiers who had killed Pertinax.
Consolidating his power, Septimius Severus battled Pescennius Niger at Cyzicus and Nicea in 193 and then decisively defeated him at Issus in 194. Clodius Albinus initially supported Septimius Severus believing that he would succeed him. When he realized that Severus had other intentions, Albinus had himself declared Emperor in 195 but was defeated by Septimius Severus at the Battle of Lugdunum on 19 February 197.
Lucius Septimius Severus was born to a family of equestrian rank in the Roman province of Africa proconsularis. He rose through military service to consular rank under the later Antonines. Proclaimed emperor in 193 by his legionaries in Noricum during the political unrest that followed the death of Commodus, he secured sole rule over the empire in 197 after defeating his last rival, Clodius Albinus, at the Battle of Lugdunum.
Severus fought a successful war against the Parthians and campaigned with success against barbarian incursions in Roman Britain, rebuilding Hadrian's Wall. In Rome, his relations with the Senate were poor, but he was popular with the commoners, as with his soldiers, whose salary he raised. Starting in 197, the influence of his Praetorian prefect Gaius Fulvius Plautianus was a negative influence; the latter was executed in 205. One of Plautianus's successors was the jurist Aemilius Papinianus. Severus continued official persecution of Christians and Jews, as they were the only two groups who would not assimilate their beliefs to the official syncretistic creed.
Severus died while campaigning in Britain. He was succeeded by his sons Caracalla and Geta, who reigned under the influence of their mother, Julia Domna.
Though his military expenditure was costly to the empire, Severus was the strong, able ruler that Rome needed at the time. His enlargement of the Limes Tripolitanus secured Africa, the agricultural base of the empire. His victory over Parthia was total, establishing a new status quo in the east which secured Nisibis and Singara for the Empire. His policy of an expanded and better-rewarded army was criticized by his contemporary Dio Cassius and Herodianus: in particular, they pointed out the increasing burden (in the form of taxes and services) the civilian population had to bear to maintain the new army.
In order to maintain his enlarged military he debased the Roman currency drastically. Upon his accession he decreased the silver purity of the denarius from 81.5% to 78.5%. However, the silver weight actually increased, rising from 2.40 grams to 2.46 grams. Nevertheless the following year he debased the denarius substantially because of rising military expenditures. The silver purity decreased from 78.5% to 64.5% - the silver weight dropping from 2.46 grams to 1.98 grams. In 196 he reduced the purity and silver weight of the denarius again, to 54% and 1.82 grams respectively. Severus' currency debasement was the largest since the reign of Nero, compromising the long-term strength of the economy.
Severus was also distinguished for his buildings. Apart from the triumphal arch in the Roman Forum carrying his full name, he also built the Septizodium in Rome and enriched greatly his native city of Leptis Magna (including another triumphal arch on the occasion of his visit of 203). The greater part of the Flavian Palace overlooking the Circus Maximus was undertaken in his reign.
The eldest son of Severus, he was born Lucius Septimius Bassianus in Lugdunum, Gaul. "Caracalla" was a nickname referring to the Gallic hooded tunic he habitually wore. Upon his father's death, Caracalla was proclaimed co-emperor with his brother Geta. Conflict between the two culminated in the assassination of the latter. Reigning alone, Caracalla was noted for lavish bribes to the legionaries and unprecedented cruelty, authorizing numerous assassinations of perceived enemies and rivals. He campaigned with indifferent success against the Alamanni. The Baths of Caracalla in Rome are the most enduring monument of his rule. He was assassinated while en route to a campaign against the Parthians by a Praetorian Guard.
The Constitutio Antoniniana (also called Edict of Caracalla) was an edict issued in 212 by Caracalla which declared that all free men in the Roman Empire were to be given full Roman citizenship and all free women in the Empire were given the same rights as Roman women. Before 212, for the most part only inhabitants of Italia held full Roman citizenship. Colonies of Romans established in other provinces, Romans (or their descendants) living in provinces, the inhabitants of various cities throughout the Empire, and small numbers of local nobles (such as kings of client countries) held full citizenship also. Provincials, on the other hand, were usually non-citizens, although some held the Latin Right. The Roman Historian Cassius Dio contended that the sole motivation for the edict was a desire to increase state revenue. At the time, aliens did not have to pay most taxes that were required of citizens, so although nominally Caracalla was elevating their legal status, he was more importantly expanding the Roman tax base
Caracalla is remembered as one of the most notorious and unpleasant of emperors because of the massacres and persecutions he authorized and instigated throughout the Empire.
When Septimius Severus died in Eboracum in the beginning of 211, Caracalla and Geta were proclaimed joint emperors and returned to Rome. Regardless, the shared throne was not a success: the brothers argued about every decision, from law to political appointments. Later sources speculate about the desire of the two of splitting the empire in two halves. By the end of the year, the situation was unbearable. Caracalla tried to murder Geta during the festival of Saturnalia without success. Later in December he arranged a meeting with his brother in his mother's apartments, and had him murdered in her arms by centurions.
M.M. Opelius Macrinus was born in 164 at Caesarea. Although coming from a humble background that was not dynastically related to the Severan dynasty, he rose through the imperial household until, under the emperor Caracalla, he was made prefect of the praetorian guard. On account of the cruelty and treachery of the emperor, Macrinus became involved in a conspiracy to kill him, and ordered the praetorian guard to do so. On April 8th, 217, Caracalla was assassinated traveling to Carrhae. Three days later, Macrinus was declared Augustus.
His most significant early decision was to make peace with the Parthians, but many thought that the terms were degrading to the Romans. However, his downfall was his refusal to award the pay and privileges promised to the eastern troops by Caracalla. He also kept those forces wintered in Syria, where they became attracted to the young Elagabalus. After months of mild rebellion by the bulk of the army in Syria, Macrinus took his loyal troops to meet the army of Elagabalus near Antioch. Despite a good fight by the praetorian guard, his soldiers were defeated. Macrinus managed to escape ito Chalcedon but his authority was lost: he was betrayed and executed after a short reign of just 14 months.
M. Opelius Diadumenianus was the son of Macrinus, born in 208. He was given the title Caesar in 217, when his father became Emperor. After his father's defeat outside Antioch, he tried to escape east to Parthia, but was captured and killed before he could achieve this. P> Macrinus' short reign, while important for its historical "firsts", was cut short due to the inability of this otherwise accomplished man to control or satisfy the soldiery. In his death at the hands of Roman soldiers, Macrinus reinforced the notion of the soldiers as the true brokers of power in the third-century empire and highlighted the importance of maintaining the support of this vital faction. His reign was followed by another seventeen years of rule under the Severan emperors Elagabalus and Severus Alexander.
Born Varius Avitus Bassianus on May 16th 205, known later as M. Aurelius Antonius, he was appointed at an early age to be priest of the sun God, Elagabalus, represented by a phallus, by which name he is known to historians (his name is sometimes written "Heliogabalus"). He was proclaimed emperor by the troops of Emesa, his hometown, who were instigated to do so by Elagabalus's grandmother, Julia Maesa. She spread a rumor that Elagabalus was the secret son of Caracalla. This revolt spread to the entire Syrian army (which, at the time, was swollen with troops raised by the Emperor Caracalla, and not fully loyal to Macrinus), and eventually they were to win the short struggle that followed by defeating Macrinus at a battle just outside Antioch. Elagabalus was then accepted by the senate, and began the slow journey to Rome.
His reign in Rome has long been known for outrageousness, although the historical sources are few, and in many cases not to be fully trusted. He is said to have smothered guests at a banquet by flooding the room with rose petals: married his male lover - who was then referred as the 'Empress's husband', and married one of the vestal virgins. Some say he was transgender, and one ancient text states that he offered half the empire to the physician who could give him female genitalia.
The running of the Empire during this time was mainly left to his grandmother and mother (Julia Soamias). Seeing that her grandson's outrageous behavior could mean the loss of power, Julia Maesa persuaded Elagabalus to accept his cousin Alexander Severus as Caesar (and thus the nominal Emperor to be). However, Alexander was popular with the troops, who viewed their new Emperor with dislike: when Elagabalus, jealous of this popularity, removed the title of Caesar from his nephew the enraged praetorian guard swore to protect him. Elagabalus had to beg the troops to let him live, and this humiliation could not last for long.
The Roses of Heliogabalus is a famous painting of 1888 by the Anglo-Dutch academician Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, at present in private hands, and based on a probably invented episode in the life of the Roman emperor Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, (204-222), taken from the Augustan History. Elagabalus is portrayed attempting to smother his unsuspecting guests in rose-petals released from false ceiling panels.
Born Marcus Julius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus, Alexander was adopted as heir apparent by his slightly older and very unpopular cousin, the Emperor Elagabalus at the urging of the influential and powerful Julia Maesa who was grandmother of both cousins and who'd arranged for the emperor's acclamation by the Third Legion.
On March 6th, 222 when Alexander was just fourteen, a rumor went around the city troops that Alexander had been killed and this triggered his ascension as emperor. The eighteen year-old Emperor Elagabalus and his mother were both taken from the palace, dragged through the streets, murdered and thrown in the river Tiber by the praetorian guard, who then proclaimed Alexander Severus as Augustus.
Ruling from the age of fourteen under the influence of his able mother, Julia Avita Mamaea, Alexander restored, to some extent, the moderation that characterized the rule of Septimius Severus. The rising strength of the Sassanid Persian Empire (226-651 AD) heralded perhaps the greatest external challenge that Rome faced in the third century. His prosecution of the war against a German invasion of Gaul led to his overthrow by the troops he was leading there, whose regard the twenty-seven year old had lost during the affair.
His death was the epoch event beginning the troubled Crisis of the Third Century where a succession of short-reigning military emperors, revolting generals, and counter claimants presided over governmental chaos, civil war, general instability and great economic disruption. He was succeeded by Maximinus Thrax, the first of a series of weak emperors, each ruling on average only 2 to 3 years, that ended fifty years later with the Emperor Diocletian ordered split between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.
Alexander was the last of the Syrian emperors. Under the influence of his mother, he did much to improve the morals and condition of the people, and to enhance the dignity of the state. His advisers were men like the famous jurist Ulpian, the historian Cassius Dio and a select board of sixteen senators; a municipal council of fourteen assisted the urban prefect in administering the affairs of the fourteen districts of Rome.
Excessive luxury and extravagance at the imperial court were diminished. Upon his accession he reduced the silver purity of the denarius from 46.5% to 43% - the actual silver weight dropping from 1.41 grams to 1.30 grams; however, in 229 he revalued the denarius, increasing the silver purity and weight to 45% and 1.46 grams respectively.
The following year he decreased the amount of base metal in the denarius while adding more silver - raising the silver purity and weight again to 50.5% and 1.50 grams. Also during his reign taxes were lightened; literature, art and science were encouraged; the lot of the soldiers was improved; and, for the convenience of the people, loan offices were instituted for lending money at a moderate rate of interest.
In religious matters Alexander preserved an open mind. It is said that he was desirous of erecting a temple to Jesus, but was dissuaded by the pagan priests. He allowed a synagogue to be built in Rome, and he gave as a gift to this synagogue a scroll of the Torah known as the Severus Scroll.
The death of Alexander is considered as the end of the Principate system established by Augustus. Although the Principate continued in theory until the reign of Diocletian, Severus Alexander's death signaled the beginning of the chaotic period known as the Crisis of the Third Century which brought the empire to near collapse.
The women of the Severan dynasty, beginning with Septimius Severus's wife Julia Domna, were notably active in advancing the careers of their male relatives. Other notable women who exercised power behind the scenes in this period include Julia Maesa, sister of Julia Domna, and Maesa'a two daughters Julia Soaemias, mother of Elagabalus, and Julia Avita Mamaea, mother of Alexander Severus.
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