The previous eighty-four years had seen just five emperors; during the next 104, there were twenty-nine. Alone of the “five good emperors”, Marcus Aurelius had a son, Lucius Aurelius Commodus, whom he nominated as his successor.
Commodus (Digital reconstruction by Richard Sebring)
Commodus had had elder brothers who died early. He was only 19 when he became emperor, and he proved a latter-day Nero. Like Nero, he showed initially some grasp of affairs; like Nero, he got himself into the hands of favourites and corruptible freedmen, his private life was a disgrace, and his public extravagance prodigious; like Nero, he fancied himself in the circus; and like Nero, he died ignominiously - an athlete was suborned to strangle him in his bath in AD 192.
There followed a similar ominous pattern of events such as had unfolded after the death of Nero. Commodus was succeeded by Publius Helvius Pertinax, prefect of Rome and a former governor of Britain. He was murdered three months later by the imperial guard, who offered the empire for sale to the highest bidder in terms of imperial hand-outs. The winner was Didius Salvius Julianus, an elderly senator, but there were three other serious contenders out in the field, each with several legions behind him.
Lucius Septimius Severus (AD 146 - 211) in Pannonia was nearest to Rome, which he entered and captured on 2 June AD 193. Didius was put to death on the orders of the senate. Having disbanded the imperial guard and replaced it with his own men, Severus set about coming to terms with his two rivals, Pescennius Niger in Syria, and Clodius Albinus in Britain. He defeated them in turn, Niger at Issus in AD 194, and Albinus in Gaul in AD 197.
Severus (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)
Severus was born in Leptis Magna, Africa. A professional soldier, he campaigned energetically to maintain the empire’s frontiers in the east, and spent the last two-and-a-half years of his life in Britain, fending off the northern tribes.
Severus made a number of changes to the administration of justice both in Rome and Italy, and in the provinces of the empire. Within the army, the top jobs went to those with the best qualifications, not necessarily those of the highest social rank. He improved the lot of legionaries by increasing the basic rate of pay to match inflation (it had been static for a hundred years), and by recognizing permanent liaisons as legal marriages - up till then legionaries were not allowed to marry. His philosophy of rule, which he impressed upon his two unruly sons, Caracalla and Geta, shortly before his death, was to pay the army well, and take no notice of the senate.
(Left) Caracalla (AD 188 - 217), nicknamed after a Gaulish greatcoat, in military uniform c. 215 (VRoma: AICT). (Right) Geta (AD 189 - 212) (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)
Severus had nominated his sons to rule jointly after him, and counselled them to get on with each other. Caracalla resolved the arrangement by murdering his brother, but observed his father’s professional advice by increasing the pay of the army by 50 per cent, thus initiating a financial crisis. Some sources suggest that it was to repair the situation that he granted full citizenship to all free men in the Roman empire. Whether or not that is so, it is to him in AD 212 that is attributed the final step in the process of universal enfranchisement which had begun in the third century BC. He was assassinated in Mesopotamia while attempting to extend the eastern front.
Julia Domna. The Roman tradition that women took no part in public life was conclusively broken by the wife of Septimius Severus, Julia Domna. When Caracalla became emperor, she dealt with petitions and with her son’s correspondence (in Latin and Greek), and held soirées and receptions for philosophers and scientists. Note the artistic development whereby a drill has been used on the eyes to indicate the ring of the iris and the pupil. (Antikensammlungen: Richard Stoneman)
Caracalla was succeeded by Macrinus, commander of the imperial guard, who never got to Rome, being defeated and killed in AD 218 by detachments of his own troops, who supported the depraved and arrogant Elagabalus (AD 204 - 22), a cousin of Caracalla. Elagabalus was lynched by his own guards, having nominated as his successor his young first cousin, Alexander Severus.
Alexander Severus (left) (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal) and his mother Julia Mammaea (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal).
Alexander Severus was only 16 when he took office. That he ruled moderately successfully for thirteen years was due partly to his sensible nature and willingness to take advice, and partly to his mother, Julia Mammaea, niece of Julia Domna, who recognized who would give the soundest advice. Alexander took his mother on campaign with him in AD 234 in Germany, where they were both murdered by mutinous soldiers the following year.
The new emperor was Maximinus, a giant of a Thracian peasant who had risen through the ranks to be commander of the imperial guard. In AD 238 the senate tired of him, and put up their own candidate. In the ensuing confusion, five emperors died, including Maximinus, who had invaded Italy and been murdered by his own troops.
Maximinus. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)
The survivor was Gordian III, only 13. With the help of a regent he enjoyed civil and military success until he too was murdered, in AD 244, while in Mesopotamia collecting animals to take part in his triumphal procession in Rome for his victories in Persia.
Bronze medallion of Gordian III, showing the Circus Maximus with the emperor as victor in a six-horse chariot race. Gladiators and wrestlers compete in the foreground. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)
While the next fourteen emperors came and violently went, the hostile peoples outside the frontiers gathered themselves for the kill. In Germany, the Goths, Franks, and Alamanni established the permanent threat to the Roman empire which contributed to its ultimate annihilation.
Gallienus (Museo Archeologico Nazionale: René Seindal)
Gallienus (c. AD 218 - 68), joint emperor with his father Valerian from AD 253, carried on alone until he was murdered, after Valerian had been captured by the Persians in AD 259. Aurelian (AD 214 - 75), who became emperor in AD 270, temporarily averted the threats from outside the empire, and dealt with two dangerous outbreaks of separatism. The breakaway dominion of Gaul, with its own senate, had survived for several years when its fifth ruler surrendered to Aurelian’s army in AD 271. The influential city of Palmyra, under its formidable regent Zenobia, threatened Roman rule throughout the east. The city was finally destroyed after Aurelian had negotiated two hundred kilometres of desert at the head of his troops. Zenobia was brought back to Rome to walk in Aurelian’s triumph, after which she was granted a generous pension.
Aurelian built the great defensive wall round Rome itself. Finished after his death, it was about 20 km long, 4 m thick, and 7.2 m high. (Photograph copyright © William P. Thayer 2000)
Aurelian was murdered by his own staff, after which the dreadful game of musical thrones continued until AD 284, when yet another commander of the imperial guard, Diocletian (AD 245 - 313), a Dalmatian of obscure but humble origin, emerged to be proclaimed by the troops.
A succession of emperors, at best incompetent at worst insane. Exceptions might be found in Severus, who improved conditions in the army, and Aurelian who tried to stem the centrifugal tendencies of the empire.
We see women openly exercising power for the first time.
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