Rome’s African Emperor: Septimius Severus and the Scottish Invasion
The Libyan-born Septimius Severus has gone down in history as the first African Emperor of Rome. With a thirst for power, he ruled the Roman Empire almost 2,000 years ago, declaring himself Emperor after the definitive Battle of Lugdunum in 197 AD. Obsessed with the dream of establishing a Severn Dynasty, at the end of his life he led a harrowing invasion of Caledonia (modern-day Scotland), marching north of the famed Hadrian’s Wall with an enormous army in his attempt to unify the British island under Rome. He finally died in York, having failed to achieve his objective and betrayed by his own son Caracalla.
The Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna in Libya is a well-preserved Roman ruin which bears testament to the first African Emperor of Rome. (Abdulfatah Amr / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Genesis of the African Emperor: Septimius Severus’ Rise to Power
Septimius Severus was born into a prominent and wealthy family of olive oil magnates in Leptis Magna in what is now Libya in 145 AD. Visitors to the Roman remains at Leptis Magna can admire the Arch of Septimius Severus which is still standing today and is a UNESCO protected monument. His hunger for success led him from Africa to Rome in 161, where his contacts gave him access to the powerful senatorial ranks.
Septimius was to eventually die in 211 AD in York (known at the time as Eboracum), the capital city of Britannia, the northern Roman province.
It was his relative, Gaius Septimius Severus who had spoken and recommended him to the then Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius when he first arrived in Rome. Severus rose quickly through various offices of state, known as the cursus honorum, and by the year 170 he had gained the political power he so desired by being admitted to the Senate. He was appointed as a Legatus, a senior position within the Roman Legion, as well as a mark of his class.
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His first wife Paccia Marciana also came from the same city of Leptis Magna, and their marriage lasted for over ten years, until she suddenly died in 186 of natural causes.
Septimius Severus was a believer in the art of astrology and took great care to follow any portents and omens from the spirit world. After hearing a prophesy, Septimius Severus married Julia Domna in 187, a wealthy aristocrat born in Emesa in Syria, while serving as the Roman Governor in Gaul at the city today known as Lyon in France. Together they had two sons, Caracalla and Geta, which assured Severus of his legacy and the beginning of the Severn Dynasty.
Septimius Severus with his wife Julia Domna, and his two sons, Geta and Caracalla. Note that the face of Geta has been destroyed. (José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro)
Seizing Power: Becoming the Roman Emperor
In 191 the Roman Emperor Commodus appointed Septimius Severus to serve as the Governor of Pannonia Superior which lay along the frontier with the Danube River. However, the next year Commodus himself was assassinated and his successor, Publius Helvius Pertinax, became the next Emperor, for a reign which lasted only 86 days before he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard in 193.
The following year has gone down in history as the “Year of the Five “Emperors,” whereby five men claimed the title of Emperor of Rome, Severus included.
Severus secured his hold on power at the Battle of Lugdunum which took place in February 197, against Clodius Albinus, one of his rivals. The largest pitched battle in Roman history, with up to 150,000 warriors in all, Severus gained his reputation as a ruthless warrior after slaughtering the rebels in this magnificent victory. After the battle, the head of Albunus was severed and sent to Rome. And so it was that the Libyan incumbent found himself marching on Rome, under the guise of avenger of Pertinax, only to be proclaimed the emperor by the senators.
In one fell swoop, Septimius Severus became the most powerful man in the world, and the first African to become Emperor of the Roman Empire, which stretched from the Middle East to the Atlantic, and from Africa up to Britain in the north. During the first fifteen years of his rule, he quashed the enemies of Rome, securing the borders of the Roman Empire, before his desire for glory drew him further north.
Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction had begun in 122, marked the boundary between Roman Britain south of the wall, and the “barbarian” Caledonia to the north. (drhfoto / Adobe Stock)
Emperor Severus and His Failed Scottish Invasion
Now well into his sixties, Septimius Severus was yearning to secure his legacy. And what better way than to finally unify the island of Britain under Rome, vanquishing the Caledonian barbarians and hill warriors who had been revolting against Rome along the frontier of Hadrian’s Wall.
Despite his age and failing health, he gathered his military might from the many corners of the Roman Empire and marched on Scotland on a scale never seen before. In 208, Severus led an army of 40,000 Roman troops alongside his son Caracalla, now his co-emperor. This enormous army was a true example of the multicultural might of the Romans, including Syrian archers and Spanish cavalrymen, as well as a complex chain of distribution, the remains of which have been unearthed by archaeologists along the route taken into Scotland.
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York lay at the heart of Roman Britain, and became his base camp from 208 to 211 AD, when he wasn’t invading Scotland. According to historic records, Severus entered the city not only with his large army but also with a very large number of civil servants, as well as his special units from the Praetorian Guard, which he had filled with those loyal to his cause. This later group were seen as the special or elite forces within the Roman army, charged with making sure the Roman Emperor was always safe.
The Scottish invasion was doomed from the start, mainly due to a lack of understanding about the culture and social structure of the so-called “barbarians” of the north. The area was governed by a system completely different from that of the Roman Empire, without any one leader, paved roads or even cities or towns in the Roman sense. The Caledonians were uniquely adapted to their hostile environment.
For months Severus, now elderly and unwell, was carried through the Scottish landscape searching for his enemy, as his army suffered from guerilla attacks as they marched through the unfamiliar territory.
By 209 Severus found himself near Aberdeen alongside his impatient son Caracalla as winter began closing in. Legend has it that Caracalla attempted to assassinate his father, but didn’t go through with it, during a mock surrender by a group of representative barbarian chieftains. Unable to admit defeat, the Emperor Severus issued a coin claiming victory against the insurgents. Exhausted and betrayed, he headed south across Hadrian’s Wall and back to York.
Emperor Severus reproaching Caracalla for his attempted assassination. (Public domain)
The Death of Septimius Severus and His Severn Dynasty
According to Cassius Dio, Severus recommended his sons avoid unrest by heeding his advice to “be good to each other, enrich the army, and damn the rest.” Unfortunately, they didn’t pay him any attention. After the death of their father in February 211, and his lavish funeral, Caracalla and Geta returned to Rome, having fixed the border of Roman Britain at Hadrian’s Wall once again, leaving the “barbarian” lands to the north unconquered.
Although the brothers were supposed to rule together, their rivalry led to the bloody assassination of Geta at the hands of his brother that same year, with Geta supposedly dying in his mother’s arms. A damnatio memoriae was declared and Geta’s image was removed from all record. Caracalla himself was murdered in 217 by a disgruntled soldier. Severus’ dream of a united Roman Britain and a long-lasting Severn Dynasty never came to fruition.
Top image: The first African Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus, depicted in a bust currently located in Copenhagen. Source: Vagge arcimboldo / CC BY-SA 4.0
By John S. Richardson
Birely, A. R. 1999. Septimius Severus: The African Emperor. Routledge.
Sage, M. 2020. Septimius Severus and the Roman Army. Pen and Sword Military.
Elliott, S. 2018. Septimius Severus in Scotland: The Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots. Greenhill Books.