Emperor Septimius Severus and His Successors

From the Lecture Series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

Septimius Severus was from a town in North Africa, called Lepcis Magna, in what today is Libya. As the first African emperor, he marked a transition of power from the capital to provincial regions. His marriage was also a manifestation of this transition.

Dynastic aureus of Septimius Severus, minted in 202. The reverse feature the portraits of Geta, Julia Domna, and Caracalla.
Severus hoped his and Julia’s sons would be joint emperors after him, but the brothers didn’t get along well as they were always fighting and had different personalities. (Image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / CC BY-SA 2.5/Public domain)

Julia Domna: Her Role in the Roman Empire

Julia Domna was from a Syrian town called Emesa. Septimus Severus had been posted to Syria in 180 A.D. when he was 35 years old. Having a zest for religion and mysticism, he must have visited the city of Emesa famous for its temple of the sun god, Elagabal. There, he might have met Domna, who was the daughter of the high priest.

However, they didn’t marry then as he was already married. But his wife died five years later when he was the governor of Gaul. He proposed to Julia Domna from a 2,000-mile distance and this was accepted by her or her father. Then she traveled west to marry him. Why would he marry a girl from a city at the other end of the empire? Maybe because he had learned about a horoscope that predicted she would marry a king.

Julia took an active role as an empress, accompanying Severus on many wars and advising him on ruling issues. She was also enthusiastic about intellectual and cultural matters, so she helped a group of authors, philosophers, and artists grow and thrive. She had such a prominent role in helping her husband rule the country that she received the title Mater Castrorum, ‘Mother of the Camp’. She was also acclaimed through coins and imperial monuments featuring her.

Out of a fierce rivalry with Fulvius Plautianus, the Praetorian Prefect and Severus’s advisor, she was accused of adultery and discredited. But, when he was proved to have lied, he was executed, and Julia restored to her position.

Severus especially supported the military to which he owed his power. He grew the number of legions to 33, increased the legionaries’ payments, and granted veterans more benefits. It is also speculated that Julia had a hand in a huge amendment to a rule regarding the army. The rule banned soldiers from getting married or acknowledging their children while they were serving in the army. She revoked this rule that had caused deep dissatisfaction among soldiers and created several rebellions.

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Severus’s Successors

A painting showing Geta dying in his mother's arms.
Caracalla treacherously killed his brother and became the emperor of Rome. (Image: José Luiz/Public domain)

Perhaps the biggest problem of Severus’s reign was who would be his successor. He hoped his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, would be joint emperors. But the brothers didn’t get along well as they were always fighting and had different personalities. Geta, Julia’s favorite, was more composed while Caracalla, the older one, was more selfish. 

After the death of Severus in 211, the empire was passed on to Geta and Caracalla jointly, but they continued to be enemies. They resided in separate parts of the palace, with different bodyguards, and closed all the doorways that connected their places of residence. They could not agree on any order, nullifying each other’s decisions. They did agree on dividing the empire, but they did not agree on how to do that.

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Caracalla Takes Over the Empire

This hatred ended in the treacherous murder of Geta at the hands of his brother. Caracalla lured Geta into a meeting with his mother but then arranged for some centurions to stab him. It didn’t end there, though. His hatred toward Geta was so deep that he had anyone who had the slightest relation to Geta slaughtered. Ten thousand people were killed, and the memory and name of Geta were removed from all records. All portraits of him were destroyed. Even a family portrait featuring the boys and parents found in Egypt shows Geta’s face rubbed off.

A portrait showing Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta, whose face is erased.
Caracalla had the memories and pictures of Geta erased. (Image: Altes Museum/Public domain)

Caracalla had similar interests to Commodus, such as killing wild animals and chariot driving. He enforced some policies that were well-received by the public and the army. He increased the payment to soldiers and extended citizenship to all free people who lived in the empire. Although holding citizenship was not as advantageous as it had been, and it was not an effective measure, it was still considered a momentous act.

Caracalla also tried to improve his status through military accomplishments. Thus, he went to the German borders and fortified the strongholds protecting the border. Then, he campaigned against the Parthians, although he didn’t gain much. He had a huge fascination toward the feats of Alexander the Great, and tried to follow in his footsteps. It was one of the reasons he headed for the east.

Eventually, in 217 A.D., Caracalla was killed by one of his bodyguards while he was traveling to Edessa. The killer had been acting on the orders of the Praetorian Prefect, a man named Macrinus, who became the next emperor.

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Common Questions about Emperor Septimius Severus and His Successors

Q: Was Caracalla a good emperor?

Caracalla was a successful emperor, although he had treacherously killed his brother. He had similar interests as Commodus, such as killing wild animals and chariot driving, but he didn’t show them publicly.

Q: How did Caracalla die?

Caracalla was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. He was killed while he was traveling to Edessa. The killer had been acting on the orders of Macrinus, who became the next Roman emperor.

Q: What was Julia Domna known for?

Julia Domna was a Roman empress married to Septimius Severus. Since she had a great interest in intellectual activities and nurtured philosophers, authors, and artists, she had great influences in the society as Severus’s counselor.

Q: How did Caracalla gain power?

Caracalla and his brother, Geta, became joint emperors after their father, Septimius Severus, died. However, due to the hatred toward his brother, Caracalla killed Geta and became the emperor.

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