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Rise of a Military Monarchy

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Author: Elizabeth Mazurek
The Severan Dynasty of the 3rd century CE.

Bust of the emperor Marcus Aurelius

The Rise of a Military Monarchy:  The Severan Dynasty

The 3rd century

Dates Events


M. Aurelius dies; Commodus reigns


Commodus is killed and civil war breaks out


Septimius Severus rules, battling a number of other claimants


Civil War


Severan dynasty ends


Rise of Diocletian

One of the most difficult, confusing, and misunderstood periods of Roman History

  1. There are two halves in the study of third century Rome.
    1. The Severan emperors
    2. A time of politcal turmoil, having 26 different emperors in 50 years
  2. There is a lack of reliable written accounts
    1. Cassius Dio wrote summaries
    2. Herodian: A Greek contemporary who wrote Historia Augusta
      1. These were biographies from Hadrian to Diocletian
    3. Greek and Latin Christian writters:
      1. Tertullian
      2. St. Cyprian - both from Carthage and "trained as lawyers"
  3. None of these is of the caliber of Tacitus
  4. Therefore, the archeological records are very important for balancing biases in literature.

Trends in the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century

The Roman Empire in the mid 3rd century

The Roman Empire’s North and West in the ‘Age of Crisis’

This map was prepared to accompany the The Romans from Village to Empire by Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel Gargola and Richard J.A. Talbert, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Copyright 2004, Ancient World Mapping Center:
This item may be reproduced and redistributed freely for non-profit, personal or educational use only. For all other uses, you must obtain prior, written permission from the copyright holder(s). The authorship, copyright and redistribution notices may not be removed from the map or altered

  1. Decline in population:
    1. M. Aurelius' army brought back plague from Parthia
  2. Empire's borders severely threatened:
    1. German tribes and Goths across the Rhine and Danube
    2. Parthians out East
  3. Decline in economic production; inflation
    1. The silver content of the denarius is lowered progressively
      1. Marcus Aurelius: 75%
      2. S. Severus: 50%
      3. Gallienus: less than 5%
    2. Gold coins not devalued, which were used to pay off barbarians
  4. Shifts away from classical culture
    1. Eg. in the pagan sphere: Plotinus' Neoplatonism
    2. Eg. in the Christian sphere: Christianity's increasing popularity
    3. The cultural hegemony of the 2nd c. between Rome and provinces is ephemeral
    4. People began to imagine themselves as individual entities
      1. An independence of self-characterization, separate from the state
      2. More focus on the spiritual union with the divine or the brotherhood of man


What might Augustus have found especially new or different about the ways in which the Severans exercised power?

From M. Aurelius to Septimius Severus

Marcus Aurelius

Bust of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, photo by John Gruber-Miller. Rights for non-commercial use with attribution to Accessed from on 6/25/10.

Photo by John Gruber-Miller, courtesy of the VROMA project


Bust of  the emperor Commodus. Photo by R. Scaife, courtesy of the VROMA project at Accessed from on 7/12/10.

Photo by R. Scaife, courtesy of the VROMA project

  1. Commodus, reigns from 180-192.  He was 1 of 12-15 children of Aurelius and Faustina
    1. He was the only to survive to adulthood, showing the high infant mortality rates
    2. Principate was still conceived as an hereditary office
    3. His tyrannical behavior led to his assassination
  2. The crimes and assassination of Commodus
    1. Dio Cassius:  "A Greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or crime."
    2. He humiliates the senate by selling the consulship to the highest bidders
    3. His sister Lucilla tries to assassinate him, supported by senators
      1. Failed attempt led to grim treason trials
    4. His concubine Marcia, with the help of a his wrestling partner, succeed in their attempt
    5. Consider Gladiator's portrayal of Commodus, which won best picture in 2000.
  3. Civil War, 193-197. The Imperial succession- still a violent and volatile process.
    1. Why is there no procedure in place?
    2. In Rome: Pertinax vs Didius Julianus
      1. Pertinax an aged senator, but was too stingy with the praetorians
      2. Julianus - rich senator who buys the principate from the praetorian guard
        1. People of Rome gather in the circus to protest, calling for Niger to take the throne and restore honor
    3. The provinces: Niger/Syria, Albinus/Britian, Severus/ Pannonia
      1. It's a race to Rome, a race which Severus wins
      2. Severus was of north African descent.
        1. He was well educated
        2. He had an active career:
      3. Praetor in Spain
      4. Lawyer in Rome
      5. Governor in Pannonia
    4. The significance of Severus' accession
      1. Was it similar to Vespasian?
  4. Lepcis Magna, North Africa - home of Septimus Severus
    1. Roman culture spread through urbanization.
    2. There is a basilica, theatre, and market in the town center.
    3. It is a good example of why the provinces were caught up in the succession of power.
      1. They stood to benefit if their governor was made princeps.

Septimius Severus, 197-211 CE

A bust of Septimius Severus. Photo by Ann Raia.  Rights for non-commercial use with attribution to  Accessed from on 7/12/10.

Photo by Ann Raia, courtesy of the VROMA project

  1. Severus vs. the senate
    1. Senate was not happy with S. Severus because he gained power through the militar
    2. He ordered dozens killed on conspiracy charges
  2. Military officers become the new aristocracy
  3. Improved conditions of the army life
  4. Severus' military campaigns
    1. Parthia - retaliated against their support of Pescenius Niger
    2. Britain - starting in 208, sought to rebuild Hadrians wall.  Died while there.

Caracalla, 211-217 CE

  1. Presented as tyrant in sources
  2. Granted citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire in 212
  3. Was preoccupied with border wars, especially against Parthia
  4. Built the largest bath complex of ancient Rome, which opened in 216
  5. Was assassinated by praetorian prefect, Macrinus
  6. Macrinus then became emperor from 217-218


Bust of the emperor Caracalla. Photo by R. Scaife. Rights for non-commercial use with attribution to R. Scaife (AICT) and vroma. Accessed from on 6/25/10.

Photo by R. Scaife, courtesy of the VROMA project

Significance of Severan Dynasty

  1. Defense of the empire's borders is crucial
  2. Ascendancy of military and provincial aristocracy
    1. Severus' improvements to military life
  3. Ascendancy of provinces
    1. Caracalla edict bestowing citizenship on all free individuals
  4. Emperor's authority now rests on his divinity
    1. See inscription to Alexander Severus and his mother, Julia Mamea (below).
  5. Stage set for the civil wars of 234-284

Dedicatory Inscription to Alexander Severus and his mother Julia Mamea

Fortunae reduci Aug., imp. Caes. M. Aureli Severi Alexandri Pii Felicis Aug., pontif. max., trib. postest. XII, cos. III p.p., et Juliae Mameae Aug., matris Aug. nostri et castrorum et senatus et patriae totiusque domus divinae, splendidissimus ordo Siccensium devotus numini maiestatique eorum...

[In honor of] the fortunate return of Augustus, Commander in Chief Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, Pious and Blessed Augustus, chief priest, in his 12th year of holding tribunician power, in his 3rd year of holding the consulship, father of the fatherland, [in honor of the fortunate return] of Julia Mamea Augusta, mother of our Augustus and of the army barracks, the senate, the fatherland, and of the entire divine [imperial] household, [dedicated by] the most illustrious senate of the Siccenses [citizens of Siccensis] and [a senate] devoted to the divinity and majesty of [the imperial household]...


What might Augustus have found especially new or different about the ways in which the Severans exercised power?

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