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Septimius Severus

Updated on July 6, 2020
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Jade is a graduate of Aberdeen University in Philosophy, Anthropology and Teaching.

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Septimus Severus was Born 145/6 in what is now Libya. His mother was from an influential Roman family but his father was carthaginian.

Though Severus' race in terms of skin colour is unknown he is African and managed to progress from his role as governor of Upper Pannonia (parts of todays Hungary, Austria and Bosnia) to Roman Emperor.

Following the assassination of emperor Commodus in 192 he led his army into Rome and was recognised by the senate as emperor by 193. Thus Severus became the first African ruler of the Roman Empire.




He ruled Rome as a military dictator or what is sometimes described as a military monarch due to his successful founding of a dynasty. His legitimacy as leader came from the army rather than any political institution which was very different to the norm of Roman leadership. He was an excellent general and extermely successful on the battlefield. Though he is also considered a successful administrator. He used his power to reform the system and made sweeping changes to the Army. A provincial man himself (described by his biographer Anthony Birley as Romes 'first truly provincial emperor') he helped many provincials and those from poor backgrounds to rise in the Roman government. He was keen to secure the support of the people and he made himself popular with his lavish donations and by staging games.


He also oversaw the most extensive reforms of the laws of the empire in over a century. He enforced many changes to alter administration of justice such as removing italian courts from senatorial jurisdiction in an attempt to reduce corruption in the administration of justice. This was part of his campaign against senatorial privilege. He marginalised both the senate and the italian aristocracy that had traditionally played an essential role in the roman government. Severus would even often appoint commoners and non-italians to high office and governorships. Although his focus on military expansion was expensive for the empire, Severus was a strong and capable leader. Under Severus, the Roman Empire reached it greatest extent – more than 5 million kilometers.

Side Note - Africa

During his time as Emperor he remained loyal to his native Africa and did much to help that region of the empire which, despite its wealth, had been neglected. His patronage brought a great deal of prosperity to the African provinces and he brought to them an era of peace and stability.

Impact on Britain

Britannia was a troubled province of Roman rule and there was periodic unrest along the northern boarder throughout the 2nd century AD. Around 207 an appeal was written to Severus warning that the province was in danger of being overrun. Severus responded by bringing a strong force of 50,000 men with him to Britain in the spring of 208.

He established York as his imperial capital and in 209 launched the first of two assaults against those in the north of the province (which would be southern parts of Scotland today). They re-strengthened and crossed Hadrians wall and hammered through the scottish boarders.

The campaign became a grinding guerrilla war in the most horrific conditions. The local tribes did not meet the Romans in open battle and instead used partisan tactics against them taking advantage of their knowledge of the landscape. However, the roman's outnumbered the locals and this eventually led to the scottish tribes sueing for peace. Severus commemorated this victory and reoccupation of abandoned territory by titling himself Britanicus.

This 'success' and peace was short lived as in 210 AD the scottish tribes revolted again. In response Severus gave his famous order to kill all the natives his troops came across. This second campaign was more brutal than the first and resulted in peace along the northern boarder for four generations, the longest period in pre-modern times. Archaeological information is emerging to suggest that this was because of a major depopulation event indicating that something close to genocide was committed by the romans in the central and upper midland valley.

Following this Severus' succumbed to illness and died in York in 211 AD.


The first African and first proper provincial Roman Emperor was successful in many ways and his influence was very far reaching. He could arguably be considered one of the great Emperors of Rome and his actions undeniably altered the life of many Britons, though perhaps not for the best for many of them.

Histories such as this are a reminder that we don't live in a world with isolated societies – we are all interconnected. A person from Africa became the emperor of much of Britain as part of his rule of 5million kilometers of land and I imagine members of the Roman empire will have moved to Britain and their future generations may still call it home today.


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