Septimius Severus: The African Emperor

Septimius Severus: The African Emperor

Septimius Severus: The African Emperor

Septimius Severus: The African Emperor

Synopsis

In this, the only biography of Septimius Severus in English, Anthony R. Birley explors how 'Roman' or otherwise this man was and examines his remarkable background and career.Severus was descended from Phoenician settlers in Tripolitania, and his reign, AD 193-211, represents a key point in Roman history. Birley explores what was African and what was Roman in Septimius' background, given that he came from an African city. He asks whether Septimius was a 'typical cosmopolitan bureaucrat', a 'new Hannibal on the throne of Caesar' or 'principle author of the decline of the Roman Empire'?

Excerpt

Once the Roman imperial system became well established, it did not matter much—so it can be argued—who was emperor. ‘As for the Emperor and the Emperor’s friends’, Synesius wrote in a letter, ‘and fortune’s dance…certain names shooting up like flames to a great height of glory and being extinguished—there is complete silence on these things here, our ears are spared from news of that sort. Maybe people know well enough that there always is some Emperor who is alive, because we are reminded of this every year by the tax-collectors. But who the Emperor is, that is not so clear, in fact there are some among us who think Agamemnon is still on the throne.’ Synesius could make a joke out of the remoteness of Arcadius and the sheltered ignorance of Cyrenaica. But he strongly disapproved, as he told Arcadius in his address On Kingship: the emperor should lead his armies in person, and tour the provinces to see and be seen. Septimius Severus is not known to have visited Cyrenaica; but this is one of the very few parts of the empire that he did not see. For one thing, he was the first emperor born and raised away from Rome and Italy, in his ancestral Tripolitania. His career as a senator took him to Sardinia, Spain, Syria, Gaul, Sicily and Pannonia, with a stay at Athens while out of office. Once he had seized power he spent all but four of his eighteen years as emperor on the move, notably in the east, where he extended Rome’s borders to the Tigris; in Egypt; the Balkans and Rhineland; Africa; finally remote Britain, where he stayed longer than any other ruler. Such a man deserves close scrutiny, even if it is difficult, impossible no doubt, to get beneath his skin.

His African origin is not the least remarkable aspect of Septimius. As the work of numerous scholars, archaeologists and epigraphists in the main, now makes clear, Tripolitania stood apart from the rest of Roman Africa, deeply conservative after centuries of virtual independence, with its Punic or Libyphoenician identity still strongly apparent when it finally entered Rome’s orbit under Augustus. No influx of colonial migration disturbed the dominance of the Punic élite; yet they responded with alacrity to Rome’s presence —as a free city Lepcis had won allied status long before. Septimius’ ancestors became Romans, his grandfather emerges as a knight owning land near Rome and a minor figure in

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