Alexander Severus (who is also referred to as Severus Alexander) became Rome’s emperor when possibly aged only 11. To begin with he was only a figurehead for his dominating mother, and even in adulthood he found it impossible to assert his own authority.
It is not known exactly when Alexander was born – sources differ between 211 and 209 – but his birthplace was Arca Caesarea in Judea. Little is known about his father, Gessius Marcianus, but his mother was to play a much more important role in his life and that of the Empire.
Julia Mamaea was the sister of Julia Soaemias, who was the mother of Emperor Elagabalus, and the two Julias were the daughters of Julia Maesa, who was the sister-in-law of Emperor Septimius Severus and the aunt of Emperor Caracalla. The three Julias were determined to preserve the power of the Severan clan for as long as they could, although they had their own ideas about how this should be done.
Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea used their sons as levers to gain power for themselves, but this led to a sibling rivalry that took a violent turn when the bizarre behaviour of Elagabalus made many Romans think that Alexander, despite his youth, would have been a better holder of the office. Elagabalus, backed by his mother, tried to engineer the murder of Alexander but the plan backfired when he was the one who ended up as the murder victim, together with his mother.
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The death of Elagabalus in 222 brought Alexander Severus to the throne, with the real power being wielded by the two surviving Julias, mother and daughter. When the elder Julia died in 223 or 224, this left Julia Mamaea in effective sole charge of the Empire. She gave herself some very exalted titles, including “Mother of the Whole Human Race”.
Nobody was left in any doubt as to who was in charge. A marriage was arranged for Alexander, his bride being a high-born Roman girl named Sallustia Barbia Orbiana. However, Julia soon came to see her as a threat to her own position, and her reaction took the form of insults directed at Orbiana’s father, Lucius Seius Sallustius. He took refuge in the camp of the Praetorian Guard, but that smacked of treason to Julia. She promptly had Sallustius executed and Orbiana banished.
However, despite her murderous jealousy and utter domination of her son, Julia Mamaea did not do a bad job as far as running the machinery of government was concerned. She was tolerant in matters of religion, encouraged building projects that improved the city’s facilities, and promoted cultural activities throughout the Empire.
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Things were not so rosy on the eastern borders. In 225 a new threat arose in the shape of Ardashir, a ruthless warrior prince who overthrew the king of Parthia (in what is roughly modern Iran) and founded a new regime that is generally known as the Sassanid dynasty. Ardashir sought to restore the might of ancient Persia, which meant conquering Rome’s possessions in the region.
It was some time before the threat was recognized for what it was, but eventually (in 230) Alexander and his mother headed east at the head of an army. They first had to deal with a mutiny in Egypt, but were then able to launch an assault on Sassanid positions in Mesopotamia. The campaign was far from decisive, due largely to poor tactics, but at least it led to Ardashir’s temporary withdrawal and enabled Alexander to return to Rome and celebrate a triumph of sorts.
The next challenge came from Germany. Alexander and Julia Mamaea set off in 234 and based themselves at Mainz, from where they hoped to advance across the Rhine to counter the troublesome German tribes on the other side. However, Alexander then decided to buy the Germans off rather than fight them.
This did not go down well with the troops, who were generally unhappy about the weak leadership being shown by their mummy’s-boy emperor. Instead they chose a new candidate for emperor, this being a rough-hewn former shepherd from Thrace (northern Greece) named Maximinus.
When it became clear to Alexander that this mutiny would succeed he threw a teenage tantrum (despite now being 26 years old), condemned Maximinus for his disloyalty and blamed his mother for getting him into this mess. It did him no good – as soon as Maximinus’s men arrived at his camp they murdered both Alexander and Julia Mamaea. This happened in March 235 and marked the end of the Severan dynasty.
However, the reign of Maximinus has been seen by some historians as the beginning of fifty years of crisis and chaos that were far worse than what had gone before.