Bust of Severus Alexander
|26th Emperor of the Roman Empire|
|Reign||11 March 222 – 18/19 March 235|
1 October 208|
Arca Caesarea, Syria Phoenicia Province (modern Akkar, Lebanon)
|Died||19 March 235 (aged 26)
Moguntiacum, Germania Superior
|Father||Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus|
|Mother||Julia Avita Mamaea|
|Roman imperial dynasties|
The Severan Tondo
|—with Caracalla and Geta||209–211|
|Caracalla and Geta||211–211|
|Severan dynasty family tree
Year of the Five Emperors
Crisis of the Third Century
Severus Alexander (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus; 1 October 208 – 19 March 235) was Roman Emperor from 222 to 235. Alexander was the last emperor of the Severan dynasty. He succeeded his cousin Elagabalus upon the latter's assassination in 222, and was ultimately assassinated himself, marking the epoch event for the Crisis of the Third Century — nearly fifty years of civil wars, foreign invasion, and collapse of the monetary economy.
Alexander was the heir apparent to his cousin, the eighteen-year-old Emperor who had been murdered along with his mother Julia Soaemias by his own guards, who, as a mark of contempt, had their remains cast into the Tiber river. He and his cousin were both grandsons of the influential and powerful Julia Maesa, who had arranged for Elagabalus' acclamation as emperor by the famous Third Gallic Legion. It was the rumor of Alexander's death that triggered the assassination of Elagabalus and his mother.
As emperor, Alexander's peace time reign was prosperous. However militarily Rome was confronted with the rising Sassanid Empire. He managed to check the threat of the Sassanids, but when campaigning against Germanic tribes of Germania, Alexander attempted to bring peace by engaging in diplomacy and bribery. This alienated many in the legions and led to a conspiracy to assassinate and replace him.
Under the influence of his mother, Alexander did much to improve the morals and condition of the people, and to enhance the dignity of the state. He employed noted jurists to oversee the administration of justice, such as the famous jurist Ulpian. His advisers were men like the senator and historian Cassius Dio and it is claimed that he created a select board of sixteen senators, although this claim is disputed. He also created a municipal council of fourteen who assisted the urban prefect in administering the affairs of the fourteen districts of Rome. Excessive luxury and extravagance at the imperial court were diminished. He also restored the Baths of Nero in 227 or 229 - they are sometimes also known as the Baths of Alexander after him.
Upon his accession he reduced the silver purity of the denarius from 46.5% to 43% — the actual silver weight dropping from 1.41 grams to 1.30 grams; however, in 229 he revalued the denarius, increasing the silver purity and weight to 45% and 1.46 grams respectively. The following year he decreased the amount of base metal in the denarius while adding more silver – raising the silver purity and weight again to 50.5% and 1.50 grams. Also during his reign taxes were lightened; literature, art and science were encouraged; and, for the convenience of the people, loan offices were instituted for lending money at a moderate rate of interest.
In religious matters, Alexander preserved an open mind. It is said that he was desirous of erecting a temple to Jesus, but was dissuaded by the pagan priests. He allowed a synagogue to be built in Rome, and he gave as a gift to this synagogue a scroll of the Torah known as the Severus Scroll.
In legal matters, Alexander did much to aid the rights of his soldiers. He confirmed that soldiers could name anyone as heirs in their will, whereas civilians had strict restrictions over who could become heirs or receive a legacy. Alexander also confirmed that soldiers could free their slaves in their wills. Additionally, he protected the rights of soldiers to their property when they are off on campaign  and reasserted that a soldier's property acquired in or because of military service (his castrense peculium) could be claimed by no one else, not even the soldier's father.
On the whole, however, the reign of Alexander was prosperous until the rise, in the east, of the Sassanids  under Ardashir I. Of the war that followed there are various accounts. According to Herodian, the Roman armies suffered a number of humiliating setbacks and defeats, while according to the Historia Augusta as well as Alexander's own dispatch to the Roman Senate, he gained great victories. Making Antioch his base, he marched at the head of his troops towards Ctesiphon, but a second army was destroyed by the Persians, and further losses were incurred by the retreating Romans in Armenia.
Nevertheless, although the Sassanids were checked for the time, the conduct of the Roman army showed an extraordinary lack of discipline. In 232 there was a mutiny in the Syrian legion, who proclaimed Taurinus emperor. Alexander managed to suppress the uprising, and Taurinus drowned while attempting to flee across the Euphrates. The emperor returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph in 233.
After the Persian war, Alexander returned to Antioch with the famous Origen, one of the greatest Fathers of the Christian Church. Alexander's mother, Julia Mammaea, asked for him to tutor Alexander in Christianity. While Alexander was being educated in the Christian doctrines, the northern portion of his empire was being invaded by Germanic and Sarmatian tribes. A new and menacing enemy started to emerge directly after Alexander's success in the Persian war. In A.D 234, the barbarians crossed the Rhine and Danube in hordes that even caused panic at the gates of Rome. The soldiers serving under Alexander, who were already demoralized after their costly war against the Persians, were further discontented with their emperor when their homes were destroyed by the barbarian invaders.
As word of the invasion spread, the Emperor took the front line and went to battle against the Germanic invaders. The Romans prepared heavily for the war against the Germanics, building a brigade of ships to carry the entire battalion across. However, at this point in Alexander's career, he still knew little about being a general. Because of this, he hoped the sole threat of his armies might be enough to persuade the Germanics to surrender. Severus enforced a strict military discipline in his men that sparked a rebellion among the Germanic legions. Due to incurring heavy losses against the Persians, and on the advice of his mother, Alexander attempted to buy the Germanic tribes off, so as to gain time.
It was this decision that resulted in the legionaries looking down upon Alexander. They considered him dishonorable and feared he was unfit to be Emperor. Under these circumstances the army swiftly looked to replace Alexander. Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus was the next best option. He was a soldier from Thrace who had a golden reputation and was working hard to increase his military status. He was also a man with superior personal strength, rising from peasantry to ultimately being the one chosen for the throne. With the Thracian's hailing came the end of the Severan Dynasty. With his own army growing with animosity and turning against him, the path for his assassination was paved.
Alexander was forced to face his German enemies in the early months of 235. By the time he and his mother arrived, the situation had settled, and so his mother convinced him that to avoid violence, trying to bribe the German army to surrender was the more sensible course of action. According to historians, it was this tactic combined with insubordination from his own men that destroyed his reputation and popularity. Pusillanimity was responsible for the revolt of Alexander’s army, resulting in Severus falling victim to the swords of his own men. This was following the nomination of Maximinus as emperor. Alexander was assassinated March 19, 235 together with his mother, in a mutiny of the Legio XXII Primigenia at Moguntiacum (Mainz) while at a meeting with his generals. These assassinations secured the throne for Maximinus.
Lampridius documents two theories that elaborate on the assassination of Alexander Severus. The first claims that the disaffection of Mammaea was the main motive behind the homicide. However, Lampridius makes it clear that he is more supportive of an alternative theory where Alexander is murdered in Sicilia, located in Britain. In an open tent after his lunch, Alexander was consulting with his insubordinate troops. They compared him to Elagabalus, a divisive and unpopular Emperor whose own assassination paved the way for Alexander's reign. A German servant entered the tent and initiated the call for the Emperor’s assassination, an attack in which many of the troops joined. Alexander's attendants fought against the other troops but could not hold off the combined might of those seeking the Emperor's assassination. Within minutes, Alexander was dead. After Alexander's death, his economic policies were completely discarded and the Roman currency was devalued. This marked the beginning of the Crisis of the Third Century, a time period in which the Roman empire came close to falling apart entirely.
Alexander was the last of the Syrian emperors and the first emperor to be overthrown by military discontent on a wide scale. His death signaled the end of the Severan dynasty and the beginning of the chaotic period known as the Crisis of the Third Century which brought the empire to near collapse.
Alexander's death at the hands of his troops can also be seen as the heralding of a new role for Roman Emperors. Though they were not yet expected to personally fight in battle during Alexander's time, emperors were increasingly expected to display general competence in military affairs. Thus, Alexander's taking of his mother's advice not to get involved in battle, his dishonorable and unsoldierly methods of dealing with the Germanic threat, and the relative failure of his military campaign against the Persians were all deemed highly unacceptable by the soldiers. Indeed, Maximinus was able to overthrow Alexander by "harping on his own military excellence in contrast to that feeble coward."  Yet by arrogating the power to dethrone their emperor, the legions paved the way for a half-century of widespread chaos and instability.
Alexander's reign was also characterized by a significant breakdown of military discipline. In 223 the Praetorian Guard murdered their prefect, Ulpian, and did so in Alexander's presence and despite the emperor's pleas. The soldiers then fought a three-day battle against the populace of Rome, and this battle ended after several parts of the city were set on fire. Dio also gave a highly critical account of military discipline during the time, saying that they would rather just surrender to the enemy. Different reasons are given for this breakdown of military discipline: Campbell points to
"...the decline in the prestige of the Severan dynasty, the feeble nature of Alexander himself, who appeared to be no soldier and to be completely dominated by his mother's advice, and lack of real military success at a time during which the empire was coming under increasing pressure."
Herodian, on the other hand, was convinced that "the emperor's miserliness (partly the result of his mother's greed) and slowness to bestow donatives" were instrumental in the fall of military discipline under Alexander.
According to Canduci, Alexander is remembered as an emperor who was "level headed, well meaning, and conscientious," but his fatal flaw was his domination by his mother and grandmother. Not only did this undermine his authority, but his mother's influence was the cause of Alexander's least popular actions (convincing him not to take part in battle and trying to buy off the warring Germanic barbarians).
Although the emperor and his rule were declared damned by the Senate at the news of his death and the ascension of a new emperor in his place, Alexander was deified after the death of Maximinus in 238.
Severus Alexander became emperor when he was 13 years old, making him the youngest Emperor in Rome's history until the ascension of Gordian III. His grandmother believed that he had more potential to rule than her other grandson, the increasingly unpopular then-emperor Elagabalus. Thus, to preserve her own position, she had Elagabalus adopt the young Alexander and then arranged for his assassination, securing the throne for Alexander. The Roman army hailed Alexander emperor on March 13, 222, immediately instilling him with the titles of Augustus, pater patriae, and pontifex maximus. Throughout his life, Alexander relied heavily on guidance from his grandmother, Maesa, and mother, Mamaea. Alexander's grandmother died in 223, leaving his mother as the sole influence upon Alexander's actions. As a young, immature, and inexperienced 13-year-old, Alexander knew little about government and the role of ruling over an empire. Because of this, throughout his entire reign he was a puppet of his mother's advice and entirely under her jurisdiction, a prospect that was not popular among the soldiers.
Alexander was married three times. His most famous wife was Sallustia Orbiana, Augusta, whom he married in 225. Sallustia Orbiana was 16 years old when marrying Alexander Severus, as the result of an arranged marriage by Alexander's mother, Julia Mamaea. However, as soon as Orbiana received the title of Augusta, Mamaea became increasingly jealous and resentful of Alexander's wife due to her excessive desire of all regal female titles. He divorced and exiled her in 227, after her father, Seius Sallustius, was executed after being accused of attempting to assassinate the emperor. Another wife was Sulpicia Memmia, a member of one of the most ancient Patrician families in Rome. Her father was a man of consular rank; her grandfather's name was Catulus. The identity of Alexander's third wife is unknown. Alexander fathered no children with all three wives.
Concerning religious matters, Alexander prayed every morning in his private chapel, and had the motto, "Do unto others as thou wouldst have them do unto thee" inscribed on his palace and upon various public buildings. He was extremely tolerant of not only Christians, but also Jews, as he continued all privileges towards Jews during his reign. Alexander also claimedly placed images of Abraham and Jesus in his oratory, along with other Roman deities and classical figures.
- In Classical Latin, Alexander's name would be inscribed as MARCVS AVRELIVS SEVERVS ALEXANDER AVGVSTVS.
- Dio, 60:20:2
- Herodian, 5:8:5
- Benario, Alexander Severus
- Canduci, pg. 61
- Southern, pg. 60
- from the chapter entitled Administrative Strategies of the Emperor Severus Alexander and his Advisers, written by Lukas de Blois in the book Herrschaftsstrukturen und Herrschaftspraxis, chapter by
- Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 33:1
- Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 15:1
- Tulane University "Roman Currency of the Principate"
- Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 21:6
- Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 21:2
- Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 43:6–7
- 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Alexander Severus"
- Campbell, pg. 221
- Campbell, pg. 224
- Campbell, pg. 239
- Campbell, pg. 234
- Southern, pg. 61
- "Severus Alexander." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 02 May. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/536782/Severus-Alexander>.
- Herodian, 6:5–6:6
- Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 55:1–3
- Southern, pg. 62
- Herodian, 6:5:10
- Herodian, 6:6:3
- Victor, 24:2
- Canduci, pg. 59
- Campbell, 54
- "Alexander Severus". Capitoline Museums.
- Library of World History: Containing a Record of the Human Race from the Earliest Historical Period to the Present Time; Embracing a General Survey of the Progress of Mankind in National and Social Life, Civil Government, Religion, Literature, Science and Art, Volume 3. New York Public Library: Western Press Association. p. 1442.
- "Severus Alexander (222–235 AD): The Calm before the Storm" (PDF). The Saylor Foundation.
- Canduci, pg.61
- Valentine Nind Hopkins, Sir Richard. The Life of Alexander Severus. Princeton University: The University Press. p. 240.
- Southern, pg. 63
- Campbell, pg. 55
- Campbell, pg. 69
- Campbell, pg. 196
- Campbell, pg. 197
- "Severus Alexander." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 02 May. 2014 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/536782/Severus-Alexander>.
- Canduci, pg. 60
- Wells, pg. 266
- Canduci, pg. 60-61
- Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 20:3
- "Alexander Severus". Jewish Encyclopedia.
- "Alexander Severus". Catholic Encyclopedia.
- Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 80
- Herodian, Roman History, Book 6
- Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander
- Aurelius Victor, Epitome de Caesaribus
- Joannes Zonaras, Compendium of History extract: Zonaras: Alexander Severus to Diocletian: 222–284
- Zosimus, Historia Nova
- Birley, A.R., Septimius Severus: The African Emperor, Routledge, 2002
- Southern, Pat. The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine, Routledge, 2001
- Benario, Herbert W., Alexander Severus (A.D. 222–235), De Imperatoribus Romanis (2001)
- Canduci, Alexander (2010), Triumph & Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of Rome's Immortal Emperors, Pier 9, ISBN 978-1-74196-598-8
- Gibbon. Edward Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (1888)
- Campbell, J.B., The Emperor and the Roman Army 31 BC - AD 235, Clarenden, 1984
- Wells, Colin, The Roman Empire, Harvard University Press, 1997
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Alexander Severus". Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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Severus AlexanderBorn: 1 October 208 Died: 18/19 March 235
Maximinus I (Thrax)
Gaius Vettius Gratus Sabinianus,
Marcus Flavius Vitellius Seleucus
|Consul of the Roman Empire
Luscius Roscius Aelianus Paculus Salvius Julianus
Tiberius Manilius Fuscus,
Servius Calpurnius Domitius Dexter
|Consul of the Roman Empire
with Gaius Aufidius Marcellus
Marcus Nummius Senecio Albinus,
Marcus Laelius Fulvius Maximus Aemilianus
Quintus Aiacius Modestus Crescentianus,
Marcus Pomponius Maecius Probus
|Consul of the Roman Empire
with Cassius Dio
Lucius Virius Agricola,
Sextus Catius Clementinus Priscillianus