This Libyan general in the Roman legions, born in Leptis Magna in 146 A.D., was a protégé of Marcus Aurelius, and took power by force of arms in 193 A.D. He married a Syrian woman and inaugurated a new dynasty – the first of color in the Roman world. On gold coins that depict him with his wife and two children [right], his face, unlike theirs, is bronze. Source
The assassination of Commodus, followed by the short reign of Pertinax and the auction of the empire to Didius Julianus, led to civil war and the rise of Septimius Severus. Though the concept of the soldier emperor was not a new development (i.e. Vespasian, Trajan), Severus’ life was strictly of the military, both before and after his accession to rule Rome. His victory led to a moderately stable administrative reign, though his continued military exploits would strain the treasury and his somewhat harsh measures would taint his relationship with the aristocracy.
Severus was born April 11 AD 145 in the North African (modern Libya) city of Lepcis Magna and was of Italian heritage on his maternal side and most likely of paternal Punic origins. Though African, there is little evidence to suggest that Severus was anything other than of typical Mediterranean stock. Assertions that he was the first “black” emperor based on his African heritage fails to account for the semitic origins of the Punic (Phoenician) people and his maternal Italian heritage. (Though, it is entirely possible that Severus’ paternal North African roots did include some native Berber influences.)
Reared in a family that included at least two consuls (cousins of Severus’ father), the young future emperor received a quality education and was likely prepped for future service in Roman government. In the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Severus gained entry into the Senate and continued to procure imperial favor throughout the reigns of both Marcus and his son Commodus. He served as a quaestor in Hispania Baetica then the same in Sardinia after a political reorganization of the two provinces forced a transfer. This was followed by a command as a legionary legate under the proconsul of Africa and by promotion to Tribune of the Plebes by Marcus Aurelius.
He was married to Paccia Marciana at about this time (roughly AD 175), but the marriage was childless and Paccia died young, approximately 10 years later. Various military and political commands in Hispania and Gaul through this period strengthened his relationship with both Marcus Aurelius and Commodus and helped him build an influential base in the west. Severus was remarried to Julia Domna, the daughter of Julius Bassianus, who was the high-priest of the Syrian god Elagabalus (which incidentally greatly influenced a later member of the Severan imperial dynasty: Severus’ great nephew Varius Avitus Bassianus who became known as Elagabalus). Severus and Julia had two children, Lucius Septimius Bassianus (Caracalla) and Geta, born in AD 186 and 189 respectively
In the latter part of the reign of Commodus political disharmony and imperial mismanagement led to several plots against the emperor’s life. This forced Commodus to appoint his most trusted commanders into positions of importance. Among these were three men who would all later vie for the throne themselves; Pescennius Niger was appointed to govern Syria, Clobius Albinus to Britain and Septimius Severus to Pannonia. Provincial loyalty and support from the bulk of the military may have provided some sense of security to Commodus abroad, but it did little to secure his position in Rome.
He was assassinated December 31, AD 192 and the potential for civil war was only averted by the wise Senatorial appointment of the respected Pertinax as Commodus’ successor. However, dissatisfaction among the Praetorians led to the murder of Pertinax just short of 3 months after his accession (March 28, AD 193). The auction of the empire by the praetorians to Didius Julianus immediately sparked an open revolt among the legions. Already angered by the death of their preferred Commodus, this act was intolerable and the legions in Syria proclaimed their own commander Niger as emperor within days of Pertinax’ death. By April 9, the Pannonian legions had done the same for Severus.
Clodius Albinus in Britain had designs of his own, and support from a considerable political faction, but Severus was well aware of this possibility. In a shrewd political move, the 48 year old Severus offered to make the younger (approx. 5 years) Albinus his Caesar (imperial heir) in exchange for loyalty and support (though we can surmise from later evidence that this was truly just to keep him temporarily pacified). Leaving Niger behind him in the east, Severus marched for Rome, and the reign of Didius Julianus was doomed. The legions of the western provinces rallied behind Severus, leaving Julianus without any defensible position.
Attempts to assassinate his opponent, negotiate a settlement and to finally abdicate his position all failed, and ultimately the praetorians took matters into their own hands, eliminating Julianus. The Senate immediately confirmed Severus as the legal princeps and he entered Rome as both a deliverer and force of vengeance. The murderers of Pertinax were immediately purged and the troublesome praetorians disbanded but reconstituted with recruits from among his own loyal legionaries.
He increased the urban cohorts (effectively the city police) and the vigiles (firefighters) and raised the annual pay rate of the legions, thereby assuring their loyalty. He made several administrative arrangements to secure a capable functioning government in Rome, and was free to focus his attention to see east where rival claimant Pescennius Niger had no attention of abandoning his own cause.