Thursday, 4 February 2021

The demise of Emperor Septimius Severus 4th Feb AD 211

February 4th marked the end of Emperor Septimius Severus.

Emperor Septimius Severus

The Ancient Roman Emperor Severus had been ailing for some time before he died on Feb 4th AD 211. It was documented that he had been carried in a litter while on campaign in Caledonia when he went north to subdue those nasty Caledonian rebels. The cause of his ailment may have been akin to gout, but whatever it was, Severus seemed to have found it difficult to ride and had to be carried. His health deteriorated further and he went back to Eboracum (York) probably in late AD 210. He died there on Feb 4th AD 211.

Severus had arrived in Britannia in AD 208, in a bid to quell the unrest in the north of the province. The governor of the time, possibly G. Postumianus (governorship dates are uncertain), had sent missives stating that rebels from Caledonia  (Scotland) were difficult to contain behind Hadrian's Wall. There had been many incursions of the barbarians into Roman Britain (i.e. south of the wall) and not enough soldiers to man the area properly. A good portion of the Britannic forces had been deployed in Germania in the late AD 190s and many had not returned, which left the remaining Britannic legions seriously undermanned. 

Emperor Severus decided to take on the job of whipping the Caledonian barbarians into shape and brought his two sons with him to give them a taste of action on the front line (Caracalla and Geta). It's mentioned in ancient sources that the emperor's sons were not as well-brought up as they should have been. Essentially they were both delinquents, nasty late-teenagers who seemed to hate everybody (including each other) and needed to be brought to heel. The thinking seems to have been that they would become more self-controlled, and better citizens after a spot of engagement with the Caledonian natives.


The nickname Caracalla seemed to have come from the elder son's preference for a particular style of cloak. He had a very long official title. Lucius Septimius Bassianus was his birth name. This was added to when Severus named his elder son as his co-emperor in AD 208, when the boy was only 10. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the new designation. After Severus' death he officially became Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. It's much easier to call him Caracalla! 


Geta had a much easier name to remember. Given the birth name of Publius Septimius Geta (Geta coming from his mother's family, I believe), Severus raised him to the status of Caesar (heir emperor) in 198 when the boy was only 9. The title of Augustus was later added in 209 when Severus also made Geta a joint emperor. After the death of Severus, his title was Imperator Publius Septimius Geta Augustus. 

Emperor Severus came to Britannia in AD 208 with a massive retinue. This included his wife Julia Domna, his sons and numerous officials - the amount required to effectively run the Empire from afar. He marched northwards to Eboracum (York) and made it his base. 

An immediate Caledonian campaign was not advisable after Severus arrived in AD 208, so Severus set about making huge improvements to the forts and facilities in the Hadrian's Wall area. He allocated the troops necessary to carry out this fort reconstruction - which was, in some cases, considerable. 

By AD 210, Severus was said to have left Eboracum to campaign in Caledonia with forces numbering some 50,000 men. That number is disputed by some scholars, but the archaeological evidence from Roman campaign encampments in Scotland indicates a force in excess of 30,000. There's also some conjecture about the invasion of troops into the part of Scotland north of the Antonine Wall - some believe that may have happened in AD 209 with Roman troops possibly flooding the areas twice. No written documentation states these things precisely and it may be that Severus led a first incursion and Caracalla the later one- or Caracalla may have led invasion in both AD 209 and AD 210.  Soil sampling and other pollen data suggests there may have been a punitive, genocidal slash and burn policy to destroy all the tribes north of the Forth and Clyde stretch across Scotland- i.e. north of the Antonine Wall. 

Sometime prior to Severus becoming emperor in AD 193, it appears some form of treaties had been agreed with the tribes north of Hadrian's Wall which was then considered to be the Roman Empire western boundary. The treaties obviously had deteriorated for unknown reasons and by the time Severus was ready to campaign against the tribes north of Hadrian's Wall, the local tribes had formed large alliances. Termed the Maeatae, they were a formidable force. 

Golden aureus - Julia Domna; Caracalla and Geta

Severan troops went as far north as the Moray Firth, according to encampment size estimates and designs. However, it's not known if Severus, in person, actually got that far. 

Eventually by some late point of AD 210, Severus returned to York a very ill man. There's some speculation that his death was maybe hurried on a little by intervention ordered by his elder son Caracalla. Whether or not there is any truth in this, Severus died on February 4th AD 211 in Eboracum. 

It's not clear what happened immediately after Severus' death, but Caracalla, Geta, and their very capable and managing mother Julia Domna returned to Rome soon after - along with Severus' ashes.

The sons of Severus reigned as joint emperors after their father's demise.  However, their total dislike of each other continued...but only for a short while because Geta was killed on Dec 26th AD 211 by Praetorian Guards. Probably at the bequest of Caracalla. It's not clear whose side Julia Domna was on. After Geta's death the policy of damning everything about his person happened (Damnatio Memoriae) and few images remain of him. 

The Severan Tondo
At one time there were four figures but 
it's thought the scratched out face was poor Geta. 

Caracalla then ruled alone till he, in turn, was assassinated a few years later in AD 217.

The reign of Severus needs a lot of blog posts since he was a busy man and his legacy lives on in the ruined edifices across the Empire that were created during his tenure as emperor.

I used a bit of authorial license when writing The Taexali Game- my time travel historical novel. I have both Severus and Caracalla engaging with the Taexali natives of north-east Scotland, though I have no proof they were ever there together, or even separately. However their legions and auxiliary troops surely were!

Long live the emperor! 

SlĂ inte! 

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