Severus Alexander

Severus Alexander

Bust of Severus Alexander
26th Emperor of the Roman Empire
Reign 11 March 222 – 18/19 March 235
Predecessor Elagabalus
Successor Maximinus Thrax
Born (208-10-01)1 October 208
Arca Caesarea, Syria Phoenicia Province (modern Akkar, Lebanon)
Died 19 March 235 (aged 26)
Moguntiacum, Germania Superior
Spouse Sallustia Orbiana
Sulpicia Memmia
Full name
Marcus Julius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus
(from birth to adoption);
Caesar Marcus Aurelius Alexander (from adoption to accession);
Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus
(as emperor)
Imperial Dynasty Severan
Father Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus
Mother Julia Avita Mamaea
Roman imperial dynasties
Severan dynasty

The Severan Tondo
Septimius Severus 193–198
—with Caracalla 198–209
—with Caracalla and Geta 209–211
Caracalla and Geta 211–211
Caracalla 211–217
Interlude: Macrinus 217–218
Elagabalus 218–222
Alexander Severus 222–235
Severan dynasty family tree
All biographies
Preceded by
Year of the Five Emperors
Followed by
Crisis of the Third Century

Severus Alexander (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus;[1] 1 October 208 – 19 March 235) was Roman Emperor from 222 to 235 and 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 50 years of civil wars, foreign invasion, and collapse of the monetary economy, though this last part is now disputed.

Alexander was the heir apparent to his cousin, the 18-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.[2] 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.[3]

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 Roman Army and led to a conspiracy to assassinate and replace him.

Domestic achievements

Denarius of Severus Alexander.

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.[4] He employed noted jurists to oversee the administration of justice, such as the famous jurist Ulpian.[5] His advisers were men like the senator and historian Cassius Dio, and it is claimed that he created a select board of 16 senators,[6] although this claim is disputed.[7] He also created a municipal council of 14 who assisted the urban prefect in administering the affairs of the 14 districts of Rome.[8] Excessive luxury and extravagance at the imperial court were diminished,[9] and he restored the Baths of Nero in 227 or 229; consequently, 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 dropped 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.[10] Also during his reign taxes were lightened; literature, art and science were encouraged;[11] and, for the convenience of the people, loan offices were instituted for lending money at a moderate rate of interest.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15] Alexander also confirmed that soldiers could free their slaves in their wills.[16] Additionally, he protected the rights of soldiers to their property when they were off on campaign[17] 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.[18]

Persian War

On the whole, Alexander's reign was prosperous until the rise, in the east, of the Sassanids [19] under Ardashir I.[20] Of the war that followed there are various accounts. According to Herodian, the Roman armies suffered a number of humiliating setbacks and defeats,[21] while according to the Historia Augusta[22] as well as Alexander's own dispatch to the Roman Senate, he gained great victories.[23] Making Antioch his base, he marched at the head of his troops towards Ctesiphon,[19] but a second army was destroyed by the Persians,[24] and further losses were incurred by the retreating Romans in Armenia.[25]

Nevertheless, although the Sassanids were checked for the time,[23] the conduct of the Roman army showed an extraordinary lack of discipline.[5] In 232 there was a mutiny in the Syrian legion, who proclaimed Taurinus emperor.[26] Alexander managed to suppress the uprising, and Taurinus drowned while attempting to flee across the Euphrates.[27] The emperor returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph in 233.[23]

Germanic War

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 Origen 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.[28]

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.[29] Severus enforced a strict military discipline in his men that sparked a rebellion among the Germanic legions.[30] 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.[30] He was also a man with superior personal strength, who rose from peasantry to ultimately being the one chosen for the throne. With the Thracian's hailing came the end of the Severan Dynasty.[31] With Severus' 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.[32] 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,[33] 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.[34] These assassinations secured the throne for Maximinus.[4]

A Denarius of Severus Alexander

Lampridius documents two theories that elaborate on the Severus' assassination. 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, that Alexander was murdered in Sicilia (located in Britain).

This theory has it that, in an open tent after his lunch, Alexander was consulting with his insubordinate troops, who compared him to his cousin Elagabalus, the 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 Alexander's assassination, in which attack 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.[33]

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.[31]


Alexander was the last of the Syrian emperors and the first emperor to be overthrown by military discontent on a wide scale.[35] 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.[5]

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.[36] Thus, Alexander's taking of his mother's advice to not 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.[36] Indeed, Maximinus was able to overthrow Alexander by "harping on his own military excellence in contrast to that feeble coward." [36] 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.[37] In 223, the Praetorian Guard murdered their prefect, Ulpian,[37] in Alexander's presence and despite the emperor's pleas.[5] 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.[38]

Dio was among those who gave a highly critical account of military discipline during the time, saying that they would rather just surrender to the enemy.[38] 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."[38]

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.[38]

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.[5] 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 Senate declared the emperor and his rule damned upon the report of his death and the ascension of a replacement emperor, Alexander was deified after the death of Maximinus in 238.[39]

Personal life

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. Alexander's grandmother believed that he had more potential to rule than her other grandson, the increasingly unpopular emperor Elagabalus, whom Alexander replaced.[40] Thus, to preserve her own position, she had Elagabalus adopt the young Alexander and then arranged for Elagabulus' assassination, securing the throne for Alexander.[41] The Roman army hailed Alexander as 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, Julia Mamaea. Maesa died in 223, leaving Mamaea as the sole influence upon Alexander's actions.

As a young, immature, and inexperienced 13-year-old, Alexander knew little about government, warcraft, or 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.[42]

Alexander was married three times. His most famous wife was Sallustia Orbiana, Augusta, whom he married in 225 when Sallustia Orbiana was 16 years old. Their marriage was arranged by Alexander's mother, Mamaea. However, as soon as Orbiana received the title of Augusta, Mamaea became increasingly jealous and resentful of Alexander's wife due to Mamaea's excessive desire of all regal female titles.[4] Alexander divorced and exiled Orbiana in 227, after her father, Seius Sallustius, was executed after being accused of attempting to assassinate the emperor.[27]

Alexander's second 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.[43]

The identity of Alexander's third wife is unknown. Alexander did not father children with any of his wives.

According to the Augustan History, a late Roman work containing biographies of emperors and others, and considered by scholars to be a work of very dubious historical reliability,[44] Alexander prayed every morning in his private chapel. He was extremely tolerant of Jews and Christians alike. He continued all privileges towards Jews during his reign,[45][46] and the Augustan History relates that Alexander placed images of Abraham and Jesus in his oratory, along with other Roman deities and classical figures.[47][48]

See also


  1. In Classical Latin, Alexander's name would be inscribed as MARCVS AVRELIVS SEVERVS ALEXANDER AVGVSTVS.
  2. Dio, 60:20:2
  3. Herodian, 5:8:5
  4. 1 2 3 Benario, Alexander Severus
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Canduci, pg. 61
  6. Southern, pg. 60
  7. 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
  8. Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 33:1
  9. Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 15:1
  10. Tulane University "Roman Currency of the Principate"
  11. Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 21:6
  12. Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 21:2
  13. Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 43:6–7
  14. 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Alexander Severus"
  15. Campbell, pg. 221
  16. Campbell, pg. 224
  17. Campbell, pg. 239
  18. Campbell, pg. 234
  19. 1 2 Southern, pg. 61
  20. "Severus Alexander". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  21. Herodian, 6:5–6:6
  22. Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 55:1–3
  23. 1 2 3 Southern, pg. 62
  24. Herodian, 6:5:10
  25. Herodian, 6:6:3
  26. Victor, 24:2
  27. 1 2 Canduci, pg. 59
  28. Campbell, 54
  29. "Alexander Severus". Capitoline Museums.
  30. 1 2 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.
  31. 1 2 "Severus Alexander (222–235 AD): The Calm before the Storm" (PDF). The Saylor Foundation.
  32. Canduci, pg.61
  33. 1 2 Valentine Nind Hopkins, Sir Richard. The Life of Alexander Severus. Princeton University: The University Press. p. 240.
  34. Southern, pg. 63
  35. Campbell, pg. 55
  36. 1 2 3 Campbell, pg. 69
  37. 1 2 Campbell, pg. 196
  38. 1 2 3 4 Campbell, pg. 197
  39. "Severus Alexander". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  40. Canduci, pg. 60
  41. Wells, pg. 266
  42. Canduci, pg. 60-61
  43. Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 20:3
  44. Browning, Robert (1983). The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Volume 2, Latin Literature, Part 5, The Later Principat. Cambridge University Press. pp. 41–50. ISBN 978-0-521-27371-8.
  45. "Alexander Severus". Jewish Encyclopedia.
  46. Grant, Michael (1973). Jews In The Roman World. Macmillan Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0684133409.
  47. "Alexander Severus". Catholic Encyclopedia.
  48. Novak, Ralph Martin (2001). Christianity and the Roman Empire: Background Texts. Bloomsbury T&T Clark;. ISBN 978-1563383472.




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Alexander Severus

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Severus Alexander
Born: 1 October 208 Died: 18/19 March 235
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Roman Emperor
Succeeded by
Maximinus I (Thrax)
Political offices
Preceded by
Gaius Vettius Gratus Sabinianus,
Marcus Flavius Vitellius Seleucus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Elagabalus
Succeeded by
Marius Maximus,
Luscius Roscius Aelianus Paculus Salvius Julianus
Preceded by
Tiberius Manilius Fuscus,
Servius Calpurnius Domitius Dexter
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Gaius Aufidius Marcellus
Succeeded by
Marcus Nummius Senecio Albinus,
Marcus Laelius Fulvius Maximus Aemilianus
Preceded by
Quintus Aiacius Modestus Crescentianus,
Marcus Pomponius Maecius Probus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Cassius Dio
Succeeded by
Lucius Virius Agricola,
Sextus Catius Clementinus Priscillianus
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