Septimus Severus Revisited
Beginning with Edward Gibbons in the late Nineteenth century, L. Septimus Severus has been the man that historians have loved to hate. Historians have maligned his rule as brutal and ineffectual. Gibbons, in his treatise The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, called Septimus "the principle author of the decline of the Roman Empire" (Gibbons 141). However, these historians have overlooked the importance of Septimus Severus' reforms. Septimus made important changes to the government and military, as well as dealt with human rights problems. This essay will examine these reforms and Severus' role as a reformer.
Septimus Severus was born in Lepcis Magna in northern Africa. He was married to a oriental whose name and exact origin are unknown (Lewis 105). He ascended to power in June of 193 during the Roman Civil War, when he defeated the emperor Julianus (Hooper 467). He was so popular that the "soldiers refused to go on campaign unless he led them" (Graham 274). Due to his experiences and relationships throughout the empire, Septimus Severus had a much broader view of Rome than his previous counterparts, giving way to many of his reforms.
The first action undertaken by Septimus was to reform the Praetorian Guard. The Guard's make-up had always been privileged open to "[none] but Italians, Macedonians, Spaniards and Illyrians" as well as made up of mostly men from better families (Smith 495). Septimus changed this by taking soldiers from the frontier legions, ensuring that the Guard's troops would not be exclusively from the "Imperial" areas (Cary and Schullard 491). At the same time he purged the old Guard so that the new one would not be tainted (Syme 187). This was an important step, since now provincials would have better access to the higher pay, the relative safety of Rome and the increased chance of promotion that the guard offered. (Birley, Septimus Severus and the Roman... 64-65)
This new change was very strategically important. It ensured that the Guard would be made up of men who had experienced frontier war, that the Guardsmen sent to senior posts in legions would be better acquainted with legionary traditions and legionary behavior, and it created a sense of unity between the Guard and the Legions which "hitherto had been absent" between the two (Smith 495).
Another important military reform made by Severus was an increase in military pay. Septimus Severus was the first emperor since Diocletian, to increase pay for soldiers (Watson 188). This pay raise brought the pay for a regular private to about 450 denarii (See Appendix A) . If one considers that the average price of wheat was about 16 denarii this would ease the economic burden quite considerably for the average soldier, as well as decreasing the likelihood of a military uprising (Bartlett 1).
Money however, was not a substitute for love. Since the beginning of the Roman republic soldiers had not been allowed to marry. However, these soldiers could father children and have women that they treated as "wives." (Campbell 154). Unfortunately, these "wives" and the illegitimate offspring of these unions had no claim on intestate succession and none by "querella inofficiosi testamanti." (Campbell 154). These problems caused serious social and legal problems. A case heard by Eudaemon in 142 reflects the seriousness of the problem:
Octavius Valens and Cassia Secunda had produced several children during Valens' military service in an auxiliary regiment. Eudaemon states clearly that the children could not be legitimate and so could not become citizens of Alexandria. Valens persists with his petition and is obviously baffled: "What have the children done wrong ?", he protests. But Eudaemon, who is beginning to lose his patience must uphold the law, although he has been willing to explain the problem carefully to the soldier: "I have treated you well by explaining in detail what I could have said very briefly; but what you desire is impossible; neither this boy nor your other sons are Alexandrian citizens (Campbell 155).
Septimus Severus realized the problem so in 197 changed the law, ensuring that soldiers could have "a genuine marriage" for themselves (Watson 134).
As Platnauer remarks in his book The Life and Reign of Septimus Severus, "the principate of Severus marks an epoch in the refining and in the civilizing of a legionaries life" (169). The Reign of Severus saw the rapid rise of scholae or clubs. Besides just beings clubs, these scholae worked like an insurance company with "each member contributing so much of their pay and receiving in exchange a lump sum in case of degradation, illness or discharge" (Platnauer 169). While at the same time each scholae also had its own "credit union" to manage the money that would come from these insurance proceeds (Platnauer 169).
Severus also changed land laws so that soldiers could have land near their scholae in order to establish homesteads (Cambridge 32):
...soldiers are forbidden to own purchase landed estates in those provinces in which they serve...except in the case where the Treasury sells their central estates for Severus and Antoninus made an exception of such cases (Brand 134).
As one can see, this land reform law enabled soldiers to start families and maintain a normal household.
Veterans also saw a marked improvement in their life under Severus. Veterans were excused from militia service in their home towns. They could also now enter the Roman Civil Service, with high paying jobs like that of Equestion procurator. Indeed, most procuratorships were held by veterans. (Platnauer 166). This was a great inducement for a young man as well, for he could gain these priveleges at the end of his term.
While the average Roman soldier obviously benefitted from the reforms of Septimus Severus, many other Roman subjects also benefitted.
One group that benefitted greatly, were the provincials. Many towns throughout the Empire were given municipal rights (Platnauer 196). While some town like Tyras in lower Moesia, recieved immunity from the portorium Illyrici (the vestigial in force over all the Danube provinces). (Platnauer 196).
Town councils, which had existed in Egypt for many years before the Roman Empire, were re-instated during the reign of Severus, bringing local rule again to Egypt (Bowman 3). While the city of Alexandria in Egypt was allowed to have its own Senate and a considerable measure of self government. This was important in its own right as Alexandria was one of the largest cities and most important trading ports in the Empire.
According to Plautnauer in Life and Reign of Septimus Severus, "the provincials recognized the care and munificence of Severus, and were not slow to testify their gratitude..." (198). Severus was very happy to receive this and was not slow to increase infrastructure enhancements throughout the provinces (Platnauer 198-199). Probably the most convincing proof of the excellence of the new provincial governments are the numerous inscriptions praising Septimus throughout the Empire (Platnauer 207).
A great example of these inscriptions can be found in Ostia. According to Meiggs in Roman Ostia:
Few Emperors can have been more popular at Ostia than Septimus Severus...After a period of confusion in the empire, when disintegration threatened, he gave the appearance of strength. Like Vespacian he set himself to restore stability, discipline, and trade...(80)
Obviously Septimus Severus was appreciated throughout the empire.
For all these important reforms in the provinces, much of Severus' legacy exists in his humane legislation. In the words of Rostovtzeff in Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, "the legislation of the Empire was never more humane than in the age of the Severi" (405). Under the reign of Severus one can see the beginning of laws protecting minors and laws ensuring a wife's claim on the money she brings to her husband at the time of her marriage. "The rigor of certain enactments whereby the children suffered for the sins of the fathers was abated".(Platnauer 181). Slaves were no longer viewed exclusively as chattel property and Severus increased judicial control over slavery cases (Platnauer 182). To make sure that the poor were not treated like slaves, Septimus handed out free corn to over two hundred thousand recipients (Rickman 181). Other more technical reforms included laws regulating inheritance, laws fixing advocate's fees, and "the introduction of the principle that in the case of disputed points custom and precedent should constitute a final appeal" changing the previous unfair version in which it was at the descretion of the magistrate (Platnauer 182).
Septimus brought a system of fairness to the incurring of debts. He made sure that the individual was responsible for the individual's own debts. Formerly, collective responsibility was the law of the land and a mother, father, cousin or even a village could be responsible for someone else's debts. (Lewis 108). For example, if a father ran up large debts irresponsibly his adult male son could be held responsible, even if he had no knowledge of the debt. Evidence of these changes can be found in the responsa in Appendix B.
Another important change was to make orphaned minors wards of the state. Before this time they were to be sold into slavery or left alone on the street. Saying "If you take guardians for the orphans out of (the regular) order, a judge will be assigned (to hear their suit) for their lands against those in possession." as well as "If you are entitled to the assitance due to immature age the province will decide your suit for release" and "If you are entitled to assitance due to immature age, the governor will decide your suit for fraud" (Lewis 187). Septimus was the first Emperor to make sure that children were taken care of in this way.
Before the reign of Severus, those surrendering their property would be liable to bodily harm as well. Severus began not only to make this illegal, but also to provide official protection. This meant that from now on one could not be beaten for failure to pay a single denarius that was owed, for the offending party would have to risk the rath of the local "police." For information relating to this, see the responsa in Appendix B.
As Rostovtzeff said "the policy of Septimus Severus towards the humble was a policy of protection..." (406). Septimus was most concerned from pleas like these:
[the local officials, they say in one petition, [appear in the villages]...doing no good but squeezing the village by unbearable requisitions of goods and by fines, so that, exhausted by the immense expenditure for these visitors and for the multitude of colletiones, it has been forced to give up even its public bath and has been deprived of the necessary means of substanance (Rostovtzeff 413).
Septimus answered their calls by reigning in the collectors and making local farmers exempt from the municipal liturgies paid on Royal lands (Rostovtzeff 409).
These farmers were important to the Roman Empire, since the grains that they produced were to feed all of the Roman peoples. Septimus Severus realized that this could not be left to chance thereby offering inducements to farmers to produce corn (Rickman 88). He also organized a "merchant marine" to transport the grain throughout the Empire from a base in Alexandria (Rickman 129).
While organizing this marine, Septimus also added improved production methods. Septimus brought government corn supply under the control of one person. (Rickman 253). He added increased irrigation and corn distributing machinery (Rickman 158). This was extremely important for two reasons. The first was that corn production was the lifeblood of the Roman Empire. The second was that the army needed firm estimates of corn supply for its troops, and without standardized production this would not have been possible. Indeed, Septimus managed corn supply so well, that at the time of his death he left a supply of seven years worth of corn (Rickman 234) !
The very commodity that made Septimus' family rich, also made the people of Rome rich (Birley, The African... 28). Septimus'' hometown of Lepcis Magna in recognition of his great leadership and kindness decided to give all the people of Rome free olive oil (Birley, The African... 150).According to Birley in The African Emperor "the quantities involved were very substantial" (150). Obviously, the town wanted to repay Septimus' extreme generosity with extreme generosity of its own.
While the above changes were important, Severus' changes to the legal system would have a more lasting effect, being carried on until the end of the empire. Severus began his changes by giving control over judicial cases to the prafectus urbi for cases originating with 100 miles from Rome and to the prafectus praetorio for all other cases. . (Cary and Schullard 494). This change would not have been as important had Septimus not appointed such distinguished jurists as Aemilius Papinianus to the prefecture (Cary and Schullard 494).
One benefit of this system was that now a prefect could exercise the same powers as a consul had during the Roman Republic (Cary and Schullard 494). In the words of Cary and Schullard in A History of Rome "Severus [came up with] the principle that the law was a respecter of persons..." (494). This took away the destructive effect of having laws that were decreed which occured during the Empire and instead brought the law more in line with the fair interpretation that occured during the Republic. It also brought a facade of democracy that soothed the Roman people.
These changes and reforms made Septimus, most importantly loved by both the Roman people and the Military. As an early Emperor he needed to make sure that the people (or at least the soldiers) supported him, since there were many challenges to his throne. He succeed brilliantly as a popular dictator.
When Septimus Severus died, his ashes were placed into a purple urn. Upon handing Septimus' urn to his sons, Cassius Dio told them, "You will hold a man that the world could not hold" (Birley, The African 188). His sons obviously did not live up to the great legacy of Septimus Severus, driving Rome deeper into destruction, and in the process eventually murdering almost anyone that they could get their hands on. In fact, Caracalla immediatley killed his brother Geta, and then killed the doctor who would not kill Septimus quick enough for Caracalla (Hooper 471) Possibly this is a reason why so many authors have neglected Septimus' greatness as a reformer and leader.
Septimus obviously loved Rome and the Roman people, while at they same time they returned his love with gifts, affection and trust. His rule brought prosperity to Rome and for the first time poor provincials were able to participate in this prosperity as well as rich merchants.
In the book of the times of the Roman Empire, Septimus was the protagonist. He was not the "author" as Gibbons stated, but instead a very important character. Septimus Severus knew what a better Rome could be and so he made it that way. He changed the lives of many ordinary and extraordinary people. Therefore, instead of being the author of the decline of the Roman Empire, Septimus was hero of a sad but enriching tale.
Roman Pay Scales After Severus
Force Pay Before Sev. Pay After Sev.
Privates + Immunes (155,000) 300 450
Sesquiplicarii (10,000) 450 675
Duplicarii (2,000) 600 900
Privates + Immunes
(135,000) 200 300
Sesquiplicarii (8,000) 300 450
Duplicarii (1,600) 400 600
Privates + Immunes
(7,000) 300 450
Sesquiplicarii (200) 450 675
Duplicarii (40) 600 900
Privates + Immunes
(6,000) 500 750
Sesquiplicarii (175) 750 1,125
Duplicarii (35) 1,000 1,500
Privates + Immunes
(10,000) 1,000 1,500
Sesquiplicarii (300) 1,500 2,250
Duplicarii (60) 2,000 3,000
Privates + Immunes
(1,000) 500 750
Decurions (30) 1,000 1,500
Ordinary Sailors (25,000) 150 225
Sesquiplicarii (700) 225 350
Duplicarii (150) 300 450
Ordinary (2,000) 5,000 7,500
Primi Ordines (200) 10,000 15,000
Primi Pili (50) 20,000 30,000
Selected Responsa to petitions of Severus
"Obey the decisions."
"To Ulpius Heraclanus also known as Kallinikos:Extending the time of our indulgence we have revoked the penalties imposed on Alexandrians and Egyptians."
"Even though your request that the sale of the mortgages be invalidated is unjustified, nevertheless the governor of the province will order that you recover possession of the lands held without agreement."
"Women are not prevented from borrowing money or repaying it for others."
"The decisions regarding inspections have generally looked to the interests of Egyptians."
"It is not just heirs named in wills be ejected from possession, even if the wills are alleged to have been forged"
"Since many still petition to be freed from being forced, contrary to prior edicts, to pay levies for others as if on mutual surety, we have deemed it necessary to reaffirm our previously proclaimed edict on this matter, viz. That no one is forced to pay levies of another -neither a father for a son, nor a son for a father, nor anyone else - nor... Suffer extortion(?) under the claim of any such collection. If anyone is detected collecting levies of another from anyone, he will suffer no ordinary danger"
"Since you are surrendering your property under our benevolence, you will suffer no penalties whatever after your relinquishment. Even before this we were moved to legislate that persons making this relinquishment are not to be held responsible for civic or private obligations nor liable for any other repayment, but are to be released without bodily harm and to be freed from liturgies by reason of their pecuniary contribution. Therefore, as many are now placed in a proximate situation, we have taken cognizance that persons who have relinquished their property have been unjustly deprived of their (civic) privileges.
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