Posted by: ken98 | September 29, 2009

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions – Septimus Severus

Day 14 – Ken here

(continued apology) and yes, I’m posting this very late – I was out of town, but kept up with the reading – sans-blogging – so I apologize.

We enter Chapter 6 which is a long essay on Septimus Severus, his sons, and successors (including the infamous Elegabulus, whom well meet tomorrow – or the next day.

Septimus Severus

Septimus Severus: a great success as an Emperor – his tenure as emperor also marks the beginning of a civil (commoner/non-noble/slave/below Equestrian class) bureaucratic administration. Also seen are the establishment of Prefects who are seen as more powerful than the Emperor himself (Caracalla, Septimus’ son was killed by his Prefect, who briefly became emperor, Marcrinus). It all looks very Byzantine-like.

On the eve of Disaster, Great Advances in Law

Curiously, a lot of our civil law (and esp. Roman law countries like France, Italy, or the state of Louisiana in the U.S.) come from jurists who were very much hard at work during Septimus’ reign – Papinian, Paulus, or Ulpian. These are the Pandects of the Roman Civil Law, the same ones summarized and regularized by Justininian 300 years later which directly formed the basis for modern law.

With Septimus Severus we enter the time of Civil wars (well, with his death in 208 up through Diocletian in 285), when the Roman Empire split into smaller warring territories time and again, as different armies in different parts of the Empire ceased to give their allegiance to the capital, Rome.

On the face of it, this is a natural progression from competing generals being declared Emperors and marching on Rome. Often, it took years for a general to muster men and money to make the march, more often it was more politic to allow other Emperors to self-destruct or fight among themselves and pick up the pieces as the victor later. In the interim, the “rebelling” general governed the “rebelling” provinces as if it were a mini-empire: dispensing justice, collecting taxes, defending frontiers.

SeptimusSeverus-193-211-statue in Roman Africa-Libya

SeptimusSeverus-193-211-statue in Roman Africa-Libya

A the “rebelling” emperor who successfully marched on Rome became the “official” emperor. This made his former competitors the “rebels”, and usually deceased rebels. History is, after all written by the winners.

We will see the Empire split into 3 pieces in a week or so, but this time it was different, these pieces were NOT just waiting rooms for an eventual march on Rome – but places of legend (for future generations): the lost empires of Gaul and Palmyra.

The good intentions? Septimus Severus recovered stability for the Empire, had NUMEROUS triumphs, was just, and apparently loved by the citizens of the Empire.

Arch of Septimus Severus Leptis Magna Libya

Arch of Septimus Severus Leptis Magna Libya

But, the increase in the amount of military spending (esp. the gifts to the military to ensure their continued allegiance) were financed by debasement of the silver coinage – a practice that would quickly (as it did in Germany in the 30’s) lead to runaway inflation and economic collapse. The empire needed political stability – but the price apparently was too high and the economic expectations fo the military were spiraling higher and higher out of control. The end result would be the price-controls, near-slavery of Diocletian’s reign (which resembled the first years of the young Soviet Union after the Revolution in its absolute control over economic life in the Empire). But that fate lies 70 years ahead of us at this point.

Arch of Septimus Severus, Rome, Forum

Arch of Septimus Severus, Rome, Forum

A Loyal Son of Africa

The arches commemorate Septimus Severus’ (and his sons’) victories over the Parthians (195-198). And why Leptis Magna in Libya (roman Africa)? Leptis Magna was Septimius’ hometown – just good old pork barrel hometown politics.


Not to give it away – but the trends to look for in the Crisis of the 200’s which foreshadowed the beginning of the Middle Ages and modern Europe:


Increasing reliance on large land-owners rather than cities to run the Empire,
Increasing Military, both in cost, size, and governmental focus,
Drastic economic trade decline,
Debasement of coinage (coins become practically worthless, barter replaces a money economy in around the Mediterranean),
Barbarian incursions,
Decline of the city (for the 1st time in millenia), walled towns (for the first time in centuries),
Migration of city-dwellers to large landed estates for safety and jobs, (Ruralization of the Empire)
Relative population decline

On to Caracalla –
until tomorrow


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