The Severan Emperors and the Demise of the Roman Senate

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Severan Tondo depicting Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla, and Geta (with his face removed in damnatio memoriae). Source: Public domain

The Severan Emperors and the Demise of the Roman Senate

By 190 AD, the debauched life of emperor Commodus had reached a sinister summit. Never had the Roman Empire been led by such a disgraceful character. Probably mad, he identified himself with the god Hercules and tried to imitate him in every way imaginable, even in the arena. His attitude of suspicion and unhealthy anxiety concerning his personal security were responsible for attacks against the aristocracy and senate members. In 192, Commodus was strangled after a failed poisoning attempt. His death marked the end of the Antonine dynasty of Roman emperors. Following two ephemeral reigns, the Severan dynasty of emperors was established, and it would lead the Empire until 235.

During this period, the economic situation of the Empire was generally good although we witnessed the introduction of new taxes and the disappearance of important exemptions reserved for the aristocracy. The currency began to lose its value and its circulation decreased. The scarcity of precious metals and the decline in trade were undoubtedly among the causes. On the other side of the frontier (limes), the growing population of the Germanic tribes, which in contact with the Romans had begun to organize and settle down, created an ever-increasing pressure on the Empire’s defence apparatus. This permanent threat of invasion already visible under the reigns of emperor Marcus Aurelius and Commodus became one of the major concerns of the Severan emperors. From that point on, this new reality inevitably affected the history of the Empire until its fall in the West two and a half centuries later.

Septimius Severus (193-211)

Following the assassinations of emperor Commodus and then of emperor Pertinax, Didius Julianus was appointed emperor in particular circumstances, the sacred role of emperor being adjudicated by the Pretorian Guard to the highest bidder. The Senate, recalcitrant, but faced with a fait accompli, confirmed him in his new functions. Three governors acclaimed as emperors by their own armies rejected the choice of Didius Julianus. Septimius Severus, who was closer to Rome than the other two contenders, immediately made his way to the capital with an army to face Didius Julianus. Once the latter was defeated and then assassinated, a new turbulent reign began.

Septimius’s career path did not differ greatly from those of his predecessors. The first emperor born on the African continent was a member of the equestrian order when he was admitted to the senatorial order by Marcus Aurelius. Proconsul of Africa in 174, he then became proconsul of Sicily in 189, and then governor of Pannonia under Commodus. Once donning the purple cloak, Septimius retracted his promise not to crack down on the Praetorians who had supported and fought for Didius Julianus. After executing those who had assassinated Pertinax, Septimius dissolved the Praetorian Guard and dispersed its former members to reconstitute it immediately with members of his own army. From that point on, access to this elite corps, previously reserved almost exclusively for the best Italian legionnaires, was extended to provincial soldiers.


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