Septimius Severus: The African Who Became Roman Emperor

Septimius Severus was the first African-born Roman emperor, who ruled from 193-211 CE. He was born in the North African city of Leptis Magna, which is located in present-day Libya. Despite his humble origins, he rose to become one of the most successful and respected emperors in Roman history.

Septimius Severus: The African Who Became Roman Emperor

Septimius Severus enjoyed a privileged upbringing characterized by stability and wealth. His ancestral roots spanned both Roman and Punic Northern African heritage. His Roman lineage traced back through his mother, while his father’s side traced its origins to the Punic people. This blend of influences endowed Severus with a diverse cultural background. Moreover, his family’s affluence and connections within the Roman aristocracy provided him with numerous opportunities and advantages as he embarked on his path to prominence.

Severus began his public career in Rome around 162, gaining entry into the senatorial ranks thanks to the recommendation of his relative, Gaius Septimius Severus. This membership was essential for pursuing positions within the cursus honorum, the sequence of offices held by aspiring politicians, and for entering the prestigious Roman Senate. However, Severus faced a setback when the Antonine Plague struck the capital in 166, causing a significant interruption in his career. Seeking respite from the pandemic, he returned temporarily to his father’s land and birth city, Leptis Magna in North Africa, where the climate was more favorable.

In 169, after the plague had subsided, Severus returned to Rome and assumed the position of quaestor and was placed in charge of public revenue and expenditure. He quickly advanced through various posts in the Roman Senate, benefiting from the reduced competition caused by the pandemic’s toll on the senatorial ranks.

Septimius Severus: The First African to Become a Roman Emperor
Dynastic aureus of Septimius Severus, minted in 202.

Throughout his career, Severus served as governor of several provinces in the Roman Empire, further honing his leadership and administrative skills. His experiences in these positions shaped his understanding of the complexities of the empire and its diverse regions.

In 193, after a period of civil war following the assassination of Emperor Commodus, Severus emerged victorious and assumed the role of emperor. In an effort to consolidate his power, he carried out the execution of numerous Senators, accusing them of corruption and plotting against him, subsequently appointing his loyal supporters in their place. While these actions transformed Rome into more of a military dictatorship, Severus garnered popularity among the citizens for eradicating the widespread corruption that had plagued Commodus’ rule.

Severus reign was marked by a series of military campaigns aimed at expanding the boundaries of the Roman Empire and securing its borders. One of his notable achievements was the successful campaign against the Parthian Empire, located in present-day Iran and Iraq. Severus’s victory over the Parthians was seen as a significant triumph, as they had long been a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire.

Severus’s military successes were complemented by his contributions to Roman architecture. He constructed several notable structures, including a triumphal arch in the Roman Forum that bore his full name. He also built the Septizodium, an impressive complex in Rome, and took measures to enrich and fortify his native city, Leptis Magna, against desert nomads. One of his most impactful endeavors in the region was the expansion of the Limes Tripolitanus, a defensive frontier zone of the Roman Empire situated in what is now Tunisia and northwest Libya. This expansion played a crucial role in maintaining stability and prosperity in the region.

Another noteworthy military endeavor was his conquest of parts of modern-day Scotland, where he led an army of 40,000 soldiers. To maintain control over the region, Severus ordered the construction of fortifications along Hadrian’s Wall, a massive defensive barrier that stretched across northern Britain. By doing so, he effectively curtailed the ability of the Scottish tribes, particularly the Caledonians, to raid Roman Britain.

Septimius Severus: The First African to Become a Roman Emperor
Gold bust of Septimius Severus [de] found in 1965 at Didymoteicho in Northern Greece
Unfortunately, Severus’ reign came to an end when he fell ill during his campaign in Britain and passed away in Eboracum (York) on February 4, 211. He was buried in the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome.

Severus left behind a complicated legacy, particularly in regard to his family. He had a wife named Julia Domna and two sons, Caracalla and Geta. Despite Severus’ intentions for his sons to rule jointly, their power-sharing arrangement failed, resulting in the assassination of Geta by Caracalla.

Septimius Severus achieved remarkable success during his reign. Through his military victories, political skills, and architectural endeavors, he left a lasting impact on the Roman Empire.

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.



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