The Deepening of the Crisis: Revolts Under Severus Alexander

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

The middle of the third century brought along with it a lot of suffering and a downturn for the Roman Empire. The reign of Elagabalus, a short one lasting only four years, was thought to be that of the worst ruler in the empire’s history. Though, his successor, Severus Alexander gave some stability to the empire, but he too had to face a number of challenges.

Roman warrior wearing iron helmet and red cloak, walking through a field.
The reign of Severus Alexander, although seemingly a period of stability, was only to be followed by a series of revolts, crises, and wars.
(Image: Serhii Bobyk/Shutterstock)

A Quick History of Severus Alexander

Severus Alexander belonged to a lineage where women were the power holders behind the scenes, and the men had simply been the puppets. 

Before Severus, his elder cousin, Elagabalus, sat on the throne. Like Severus, Elagabalus had been put to power by their maternal grandmother, Julia Maesa, who was the real power authority behind the family. But when Elagabalus had proven impossible to control, as a result of his outlandish behavior, she had had him and his mother killed, and Severus Alexander was asked to assume the throne.

After Elagabalus and his brief four years on the throne, the empire seemed to have achieved a state of stability when Severus came to the throne for a period of thirteen years. This stability only proved to be a brief pause before things started to look bad for Rome again, though. One of the major reasons for the rising problems in the Roman Empire was the emergence of new and dangerous foes on the northern and eastern borders of the empire. Among these developments, one of the most significant ones was in 224 A.D., when a revolution in the eastern Kingdom of Parthia led to the overthrowing of the existing regime by one of its former vassals, Ardashir.

Learn more about the Severan rulers.

Severus and Threats from Sassanians and Others

Ardashir's relief in the ancient necropolis of Nashq-e-Rustam in Iran.
Ardashir and his Sassanian army managed to push deep into the Roman Empire, annexing many territories as their own. (Image: marketa1982/Shutterstock)

Ardashir was a ruthless, belligerent man, formerly a Persian nobleman from the region of modern-day Iran. He founded the Sassanid dynasty and from there, began to expand his territory, invading neighboring Roman provinces, especially those of Mesopotamia. 

In 231 A.D., Severus and his mother, Julia Mamea, had to move eastward to lead a three-pronged attack against the Sassanians. The battle was expensive and inconclusive, but they claimed it to be a victory, when the most positive effect simply seemed to be a temporary suspension of Ardashir’s raid on Roman territories. 

It was around this point in time that things began to crumble around the Romans. Severus and Julia soon had to move to the empire’s northern frontier, where Germanic tribes had launched attacks on Gaul and Raetia. They were so uncertain of their military prowess that they had to hold off the Germans with a large bribe. Paying such a large bribe to barbarians did not bode well with the Roman soldiers, who had received pay cuts and their benefits had been lapsed.

The long-simmering dissent amongst the soldiers, who resented the power wielded by the Severan women, had been brewing stronger since the days of their dislike of Elagabalus, and was now reaching its precipice as they found Severus’ leadership meek and uninspiring. In fact, the Praetorian’s support had been very weak for the later Severan emperors, so weak that, at one point during Severus’s reign, they had even openly revolted and killed their own Prefect, the jurist Ulpian.

By 235 A.D., the legions in the north had had enough, and decided to rebel under the leadership of a junior officer, Maximinus Thrax. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Revolt under Maximinus Thrax

The name Maximinus Thrax literally meant ‘the big guy from Thrace’. He was supposed to be a muscular, almost seven feet tall giant, known to perform feats of astonishing strength. He was known to start as a peasant in Thrace before he got enlisted in the Roman legions and won the favor of his fellow soldiers, rising through the ranks and being proclaimed as the emperor. While the true lowliness of his origins cannot be ratified, it is true that he was not from a higher social class, and may even have been illiterate. He was despised by the aristocratic senate for what they saw as his near-barbarian birth.

In return, Maximinus didn’t like the senate, and ignored its mandates. Despite his scorn for the authority, he was a brilliant fighter, and managed to successfully drive back the Germans. 

Bust of Maximinus Thrax at the Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy.
Maximinus Thrax rose to prominence after Severus Alexander, but his hubris resulted in him getting assassinated after a series of protests and civil wars.
(Image: Capitoline Museums/Public domain)

His coins show a burly, determined-looking man with a big, square jaw. Amusingly, Maximinus also gifted the senate with an oversize self-portrait. After his German victories, Maximinus commissioned several paintings depicting him heroically charging through a swamp on his horse and slaughtering barbarians. He commanded that these be set up right in front of the senate house.

As a result of his hubris, unsurprisingly, there was a revolt against Maximinus after only three years, led by a rich North African nobleman and his son, christened Gordian I and Gordian II.
While the duo gained senatorial approval, they were soon slain by a general who was loyal to Maximinus, after which the senate named two of their own members as new co-emperors.  

There were a number of civil wars and assassinations, and Maximinus Thrax, with almost all of the imperial candidates, was killed. Ultimately, Rome went through no fewer than seven official emperors in the single year of 238 A.D. 

The death of Thrax and others in 238 A.D. ushered Rome into a period of unprecedented chaos and instability, with an extraordinarily high turnover rate of emperors. This was in stark contrast to the high point for the empire in the second century A.D., when five rulers reigned over the empire for the entire span of 80 years. There would be at least 26 official emperors in the span of the next 50 years, and dozens of others who would try, and fail, to seize the seat of power. 

This era could truly be defined as the era of the soldier emperors, whose only qualification to power would be the allegiance to the swords, as the trajectory of Thrax clearly showed. This was such a troubled time in the empire’s history, that it has been labeled as ‘The Crisis of the Third Century’ by historians. It was a period marked with rapidly changing emperors, confused politics, and broad, systemic problems. 

Learn more about the Crisis of the Third Century.

Common Questions about Severus Alexander

Q: Who was Ardashir?

Ardashir was the founder of the Sassanid dynasty. He, along with his men, attacked the Roman Empire from the Northern frontier multiple times during the rule of Severus Alexander.

Q: Why did the armies dissent under the rule of Severus Alexander?

Severus Alexander had tried to pay a huge bribe to ward off the barbarians, but this bribe did not bode well with the members of his army, who had been seeing compensation cuts. Their dissent had been simmering since the days of Elagabalus and his outlandish behavior, and was now exacerbated by Severus Alexander’s meek leadership.

Q: Who was Maximinus Thrax?

Around a little after the reign of Severus Alexander, a man named Maximinus Thrax, literally, ‘the Giant Man from Thrace’, rose to prominence in the empire. He was always at odds with the senate, but was a brilliant fighter. However, his power was not to last, as he became too full of himself, resulting in him being assassinated in 238 A.D.

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