Septimius Severus was born in what is now Libya in North Africa in the year 146. He joined the army and rose to high positions under emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.
He was commander-in-chief of the legions stationed in Pannonia and Illyria (the western Balkans and what is now western Hungary) in 193 when Emperor Pertinax was killed. His troops declared Septimius to be the new emperor and he promptly marched on Rome.
In Rome a new emperor had been declared by the Praetorian Guard, this being Didius Julianus who had bought his way to the top job by promising huge bonuses to members of the Guard. However, as Septimius approached the confidence of the Guard evaporated and that of the Senate grew. Septimius was able to do a deal with the Guard, the Senate ordered the execution of Didius Julianus, and Septimius did not have to fight his way into Rome.
One of Septimius’s first acts was to disband the Praetorian Guard and execute the assassins of Pertinax.
Septimius had not been the only potential new emperor. In the east, the legions had decided that the governor of Syria, Pescennius Niger, was the man for the job, so Septimius’s next task was to see off this threat to his position. This was achieved when the forces in question met at Issus in southern Turkey and Pescennius Niger was killed.
Byzantium had not accepted Septimius as the new emperor so he promptly laid siege to the city. This turned out to be a lengthy affair, strung out over two years, so while part of his army maintained the siege, Septimius campaigned in Mesopotamia.
Eventually Byzantium was overrun and Septimius took his revenge on its inhabitants by levelling the walls and executing all the soldiers and senior officials that could be found.
He was able to return to Rome in 196, only to discover that there was yet another challenger to his authority, namely Clodius Albinus who was the preferred choice of the troops in Gaul. This threat was ended in February 197 when Albinus was defeated and killed at the Battle of Lugdunum (modern Lyons in France).
The next threat came from the east, in the form of a Parthian invasion of Mesopotamia. This involved a 3-year campaign for Septimius – not only did he subdue the Parthians but he was also active in Palestine, Egypt and Arabia.
In Rome at last
Septimius Severus had spent very little time in Rome since being declared emperor, but in 202 he was at last able to get on with the business of government from his capital city.
He spent the next seven years restoring stability to Rome, this having been noticeably absent during the reign of Commodus and the period of chaos that followed his assassination in 192. However, Septimius’s tactics did not make him popular in some quarters, given that he was a soldier first and foremost and not particularly adept at the skills required by a politician.
His final campaign
In 208 he left Rome once again, never to return. Trouble was brewing in Britannia, caused by incursions of Caledonians from north of Hadrian’s Wall. Septimius, accompanied by his sons Caracalla and Geta, journeyed north to deal with the crisis, part of the solution being to oversee work to strengthen the Wall.
Septimius Severus died at Eboracum (York) on 4th February 211, from natural causes. He had decreed that his sons should rule as co-emperors, probably because did not trust either of them to be able to do the job competently on their own. His lack of trust turned out to be well founded, although events probably did not turn out the way he had envisaged. The chaos that Septimius Severus had curtailed was about to make an unwelcome return.