This biography looks at the life and times of the last of the Severan Emperors, Alexander Severus, the last Emperor before the start of the Third Century Crisis that shook the Roman world. During Alexander Severus’s reign the Empire faced wars against Persia and invasion from Germany, but in general the borders held and most of the Empire was largely untouched. This changed after Alexander’s reign, and during the prolonged crisis that followed civil wars and foreign invasion touched most parts of the Empire.
We start with a look at the world that Alexander was born into, starting with the end of the ‘Antonine Age’ of stability. This ended with the murder of Commodus, which broke a chain of legitimate succession that had lasted for a century, and left behind such a level of reference to the Imperial family that the winner of the civil war that followed, Septimus Severus, claimed to have been posthumously adopted by Marcus Aurelius!
There are a number of interesting themes here. One is the examination of the balance that each Emperor of this period had to find between keeping the Senate and the Army happy. Alexander managed to keep the Senate happy, but lost the army, while both Commodus and his successor Maximinus Thrax kept the Army happy but lost the Senate, and in all three cases lost their rule as a result.
One clear difference between Alexander’s reign and the fifty years that followed his death was that he came to the throne as a child, but survived for thirteen years. In the half century after his death few Emperors survived for more than a year or two, and hardly any died of natural causes. This was also a period in which power had slipped away from the city of Rome and the Roman elite. Septimus Severus came from Africa, Alexander Severus from a Syrian priestly family while Maximinus Thrax was a commoner from Thrace.
McHugh has made a good use of the rather limited sources for this period, and is careful to unpick their bias (especially in the contemporary work of Cassio Dio, a senior Senator and the author of a pro-Senatorian history), acknowledging the problems of their bias without losing the narrative threat. He also tells the story without getting too attached to his subject (not always the case in ancient biography), giving us a balanced view of this interesting reign.
1 - Murderers and Usurpers AD 192-211
2 - Conspiracy AD 211-217
3 - Revolt AD 217-218
4 - A Palace Coup AD 218-222
5 - Regency AD 222-223
6 - Restoring the ‘Golden Age’ AD 224-228
7 - The Empire of Alexander Severus AD 222-235
8 - War in the East AD 228-233
9 - War in the West AD 234-235
Author: John S. McHugh
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military