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An Alternate History of the Roman Empire: Pertinax and the Severans

By Tim Venning

Possible statue of Pertinax. Photographed by Codrin.B -and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

In our reality, Pertinax came to power as the candidate of Commodus’ assassins in December 192 but was overthrown by the Praetorian Guard in March 193 after attempting to restore discipline among them. In the previous article however we discussed a scenario wherein Pertinax succeeds by arrangement with Marcus in 190 and isn't overthrown. What would his rule look like? This article gives one possibility.

In this reality Pertinax ruled for six and a half years to March 197, dying aged 70. A strict and highly moral widower, with little family and no social graces, he chose to immerse himself in work and rarely left Rome or its vicinity. As such he enlarged the palace administrative bureaucracy to enable it to cope with the constant flood of letters to the Emperor asking for his advice and decisions, legal matters, and intelligence reports more smoothly and quickly, and he also set up a more coherent ‘chain of command’ in each of six separate departments there which dealt with different matters (e.g. legal business, finance and taxes, public buildings, and maintaining the roads and bridges). He boasted of the amount of work that he got through in a day and expected his subordinates to work just as hard, and the more capable and successful of the latter who received his plaudits often ended up on retirement from his service with senatorial rank and honorary posts in Rome plus substantial pensions to invest in property. This increased the flow of equestrians and freedmen into the Senate and into property-owning in Italy, though it was his successor Septimius that was blamed by most later observers as he reigned for longer and exacerbated this. Senators who wanted Imperial favour had had to patronise and profess an interest in philosophy as well as public duty under Marcus Aurelius. Now it was the latter alone that counted and any who wanted the consulship or a senior praetorship had to show their capability in service as a ‘model’ provincial governor or City of Rome official first.

But Pertinax scrupulously observed the rites of the official cults in Rome and treated the Senate with public politeness however much he ignored their advice if it contradicted his own opinions in private, and he stressed his role and self-identification as the heir of the dutiful and tradition-supporting Augustus and Nerva and neglected to praise either the ‘Greek’ Hadrian – whose cultural interests he did not share – or the military strongmen Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, and Trajan. He sternly refused to leave the throne to his ‘inadequate’ middle-aged son Justus, a minor senator who had married well into an ancient family. Justus had no military and little administrative experience and so lacked the backing to challenge it. After calling various senior provincial governors to Rome for assessment in 195-6, Pertinax bequeathed the throne to his favourite military protege, Septimius Severus (aged 52). Severus was currently governor of upper Pannonia (the upper Danube province of western Hungary) from 191 and was appointed by Pertinax as ‘Caesar’ in late 196. This was recognition of him being the most reliable and ruthless but pragmatic frontier commander – and as a man of considerable talent and ambition one who could well revolt if denied the throne. After all Severus had a large force of troops devoted to him plus the adherence of his brother Geta’s provincial command next-door in Dacia.

He was selected in the manner that (childless) Emperor Nerva had appointed senior provincial governor and general Trajan to succeed him in 97-8. When Pertinax died in March 197 Septimius Severus, then in Rome but with his trusted lieutenants running the armies in Pannonia and ready to send him troops at a moment’s notice as he ordered on his accession, was unsuccessfully challenged by the current governor of Britain (since 191), the wealthy and respected military veteran Clodius Albinus, born around 145, (as he was in real-life 193-7). Albinus came from Hadrumentum in Numidia and was an ‘eques’ not a nobleman by origin, but had been made a senator and (173-6) governor of Bithynia by his patron Marcus Aurelius. A shrewd and honest ‘self-made’ man of recorded probity and better known to the Senate (where he had friends and relatives, including his past associate Didus Julianus whose mother came from his home-town), he had a longer record of service than Septimius and probably many senators would have preferred him as ruler. Probably gambling on this, he was backed by the army in Britain as he declared himself Emperor in April 197 and crossed to Gaul. Part of the Lower Rhine legions under their governor joined him but the pro-Septimius minority retreated up-river to Argentorate (Strasbourg) to join the pro-Septimius legions of Upper Gemany under their governor Marius Janiculius, Septimius’ old colleague from Pannonia.

Bust of Clodius Albinus in the Capitoline Museum. Photo taken by Francesco Bini and shared under the CC BY 3.0 licence.

In OTL Septimius had to deal with Didius Julianus and Pescennius Niger, Governor of Syria, too in 193 and so had to negotiate an uneasy truce with Albinus, ITTL Septimius could tackle him at once as there were no other challengers. Albinus was accepted as Emperor in Gaul and the governors and legionary commanders of the provinces there stood aside from intercepting him, possibly after being bribed by Didius Julianus who the distrustful Pertinax had exiled to his Belgican estates on rumours of a conspiracy and was supposed to be after the throne himself. But Septimius secured the Alpine passes with the help of loyal troops sent South from Rhaetia and crossed into the Rjone valley in July to secure Massilia, and he duly won the battle of Lugdunum (Lyons) to secure the throne in late August 197, more easily than in OTL where his troops had already had to fight Pescennius in Syria in 194 and were nearly defeated by Albinus’ fresher army. Luckily, his officers spotted the Albinan troops digging pits in front of their battle-line the night before the battle and piling leaves on top, so Septimius could tell his generals to avoid those places and stopped his charge just before the main line of pits. This confused the waiting Albinan troops who were braced for a cavalry assault; a Severan cavalry force then sprang into action from behind their infantry’s right wing which opened up to let them out, and smashed into the Albinans from the flanks. Their main ‘square’ was driven in on itself, and the Severan left wing then charged too, avoided the pits, and surrounded the ‘rebels’ who were forced to fight on a narrow front where many could not draw their swords and a hail of arrows was hitting their rear ranks inside the ‘square’.

Albinus was unhorsed and killed and most of his men surrendered; Septimius massacred his opponent’s officers as a warning to rebels and stuck their heads on the walls of surrendered Lugdunum in an act of calculated terror that drove the remaining Albinans to surrender quickly and take advantage of an amnesty but which did Septimius’ reputation among executed rebels’ relatives in Rome no good. After the war Septimius purged the military commands in Britain and on the Rhine, sent off captured rebel troops in small detachments to serve in faraway Asia and Africa, and executed Julianus too for good measure, seizing his wealth. But he shrewdly soon showed himself as the soldiers’ friend to win over military support in the ranks and deter treacherous officers from plotting revolt as their men were now unlikely to follow them. He made speeches to military parades as he toured the Rhine, Danube, Dacian and Marcomannian frontiers in 197-9 stressing that he had risen from provincial origins to office and riches himself and any successful soldier could do the same and that the army were the ‘backbone’ of the Empire and had saved it on many occasions ever since the heroic consul Camillus drove back the Gauls from Rome in 390 BC. The implication was that Albinus the ‘traitor’ had also relied on Rome’s enemy, the Gauls.

Moreover, he raised military pay for all ranks by 20 % in 198 and started to promote – and publicise that he was promoting – former ‘ranker’ soldiers turned officers to legionary commands and even governorships in the outer, frontier provinces (where military experience was more necessary for governors in case of invasion). By the early 200s some of his early proteges, a few of which he had persuaded Pertinax to promote on his behalf in 196-7, were even in the Senate or serving as ‘aediles’ and ‘quaestors’ in Rome. His Praefects of the ‘Watch’ / Vigiles (i.e. the Roman fire-service and police) and of the City in Rome were all ex-provincial ‘rankers’ and equestrians from 197 to 218 and many of the early ones had served under him on the Danube pre-197, and the more old-fashioned and traditionalist Roman nobles sniffed that he was filling the Senate with uneducated foreigners as Caesar had filled it with trousers-wearing Gauls. This was supposed to be a form of revenge by the paranoid and abrupt, uncouth Septimius for the rumoured Senatorial backing for Albinus, but in fact it was a calculated policy of broadening the government’s clientele to bring in provincials who were personally loyal to Septimius and his dynasty and it foreshadowed his later extension of the Roman citizenship to all provincials.

He also encouraged retired soldiers to move into other professions and use their expertise there for Rome’s benefit, e.g. in trade and commerce and also as government contractors for State-related building work or transporting goods to the army and the capital, and tax-concessions duly encouraged this and supported such enterprising characters as the Emperor’s personal clients. As a harsh but fair military ‘careerist’ he was also inclined to take a dim view of those middle-class citizens, the ‘new rich’ in particular, who had made enough money to enter the local ‘curial’ offices in each provincial town (and provincial capitals) that were the backbone of their governance and also paid most of their taxes and funded civic building and the civic Games, and unlike the more relaxed and genial ‘Antonines’ from 96 to 180 he imposed legal requirements for all with the requisite financial resources to register as ‘curiales’ and serve on civic bodies. These laws were also enforced by touring inspectors and when the Emperor toured a province he checked up on this and fined ‘dodgers’, adding extra money to his treasury to pay for his wars, but though this was also unpopular it was originally an idea of the work-obsessed , dutiful Pertinax’s and the latter had discussed it with his deputy Septimius in 196. It was also former members of Pertinax’s Imperial administrative staff who drew up the new regulations and imposed and ran it under Septimius, although he was the one blamed by grumbling ‘curiales’ and some elegantly cultured noble poets in Rome wrote that he had imposed a new ‘Iron Age’ of declining civilisation and military rule on Rome to replace the ‘Golden Age’ of Marcus Aurelius.

Bust of Septimus Severus,

As there had been a lesser civil war than that which really occurred in 193-7, there was no need of the stern repression which Septimius really launched, and less power was given to the ambitious new Praetorian Praefect Plautianus, Septimius’ close friend and henchman from his Tripolitanian home town of Leptis Magna . But Septimius, lacking a political clientage in Rome and only from a middle-class family living for two generations in North Africa not even Italy, still relied on his African friends and a ‘Leptis mafia’. Among then were his brother and unofficial adviser Septimius Geta (d 204), former governor of Cilicia in 190-4 and Cappadocia in 194-6, and his own clever and ambitious second wife Julia Domna from Emesa (Homs) in Syria. She was the elder daughter of the local ‘High Priest’ of the shrine of the god Elagablus or Baal at Emesa, centre of a venerable local cult, and so could bring some of her father’s shrine’s treasury to Rome to help the Emperor ‘s finances.

Septimius, a master of ‘spin’, made the most of his role as the adopted heir of the incorruptible Pertinax, who was called in his posthumous elegies the ‘New Cato the Elder’ for his stern morals and modest lifestyle. But, though Septimius called himself the ‘seventh of the good emperors’ and the ‘new Trajan’ , his brusque manner and fondness for rounding up and executing ‘secret partisans of Albinus’ in Gaul and Britain after his victory won him no enthusiasm in aristocratic circles in Rome. Furthermore his refusal to give the usual tranche of offices to senior senators, who he distrusted and suspected had opposed his accession, and his favouritism for his own ex-juniors in his various provincial commands and for North Africans aroused resentment and caused several serious plots in the late 190s. The clique of ‘new men’ around Septimius were led by Cornelius Anullinus, Marius Maximus, Fabius Cilo, Valerius Pudens, and Valerius Lupus (the latter governed ex-rebel Britain in 198-203), along with, Julia Domna’s younger sister, Julia Maesa’s Romano-Syrian husband Avitus Alexianus. These all held senior governorships in the late 190s and early 200s, though Septimus also had a few long-term senatorial or ex-Marcus Aurelius governmental backers such as Domitius Dexter. Tiberius Claudius Severus Proculus, a grandson of Marcus via one of his younger daughters, another grandson of Marcus called Marcus Annius Libo (consul in 204), and Marcus’ revered mentor Fronto’s grandson Victorinus were also senior figures in terms of administrative jobs, Proculus and Victorinus were consuls together in 200, but they and Libo were kept away from real power. Other senators, mostly former allies of Marcus’ sons-in-law Mamertinus and Pompeianus, were also given posts but no real influence and were in any case enemies of the older dynasties. The latte were sidelined ruthlessly, and Septimius’ use of the Senate as a decorative ‘front’ to the real location of power in the Palace led to endless grumbles but only a few plots, which were quickly dealt with by Plautianus who paid well for information and was not too scrupulous as to whether accusation were genuine or trumped-up .

Septimius made the nomination of all provincial governors explicitly by himself with the Senate just required to vote to ratify them afterwards rather than allowing the latter some leeway in making nominations as the previous century’s rulers had done. Though in practice the senatorial nominations had almost always been put forward by an Imperial ‘trusty’ of men approved by the Emperor beforehand so this was a change in law rather than deed, as Septimius’ senate allies pointed out when old friends of Marcus’ protested at this snub. It was the sense that Septimius, not even an Italian, did not bother to respect the normal courtesies of ‘joint rule’ by Emperor and Senate that caused ill-will, and he was libelled in private as the ‘Punic Sulla’ , i.e. a despot ruling by brute force and from the same region as Rome’s arch-foe Hannibal. He also caused disquiet by building an ostentatious new hall at the Southern end of the Palace on the Palatine Hill to dispense justice, the ‘Septizodium’, an arched building in the Eastern Hellenistic style with some hints of Parthian influence which overlooked new terraced gardens that fell away down to the valley below. This was designed by a Syrian architect chosen by his Syrian wife Julia Domna and was seen as ‘un-Roman’ and too reminiscent of the grandiose buildings of Nero. Especially since its decoration showed the Emperor sitting in majesty attended by the ‘seven planets’ of astrological significance – and the Emperor’s dispensing justice here not in the usual Forum Romanum basilicas like Marcus was seen as too monarchic.

Plautianus, as his chief of security and the dispenser of military patronage as Praetorian Praefect, achieved great influence and was accused of selling offices at his disposal and showing favouritism to his cronies, though he was efficient and reliable and to Septimius that was what counted. He was even allowed to put up statues to himself in his home-town of Leptis in company with those of the Emperor, and was accused by alarmed Italian ‘old nobility’ critics and revenge-seeking sidelined relatives of Marcus Aurelius of attempting to secure the succession for himself as an able and experienced minister in place of Septimius’ young sons, Caracalla (born 188) and Geta (born 189). In fairness, at this point in the early 200s Septimius’ sons were too young to rule should he die and his capable wife Julia Domna was forced to operate in the background as the Senate would never accept rule by a woman so if Septimius did consider him for rule it would have been as a co-emperor and protector to his sons, as Marcus had chosen Pertinax to rule with his young grandson in 190. Septimius’s elder and more forceful son Caracalla, who was required by his father to marry Plautianus’ daughter Plautilla in 202 to cement that minister’s position close to the Imperial Family, resented his boasts that under Caracalla he would be the real ruler, and though the spoilt and extravagant Caracalla was as capricious high-living as Commodus had been he was a far better military ‘learner’ and a natural general and he was also utterly ruthless. Making the most of his father’s doting on him and refusing to see him as a potential tyrant, Caracalla had Plautianus accused of a supposed plot and killed in 204, then divorced his unwanted wife. Septimius distrusted the Senate throughout his reign and relied on a small clique of his ex-officers and fellow-Africans plus individual provincial Italian and Syrian ‘new men’ who were dependant on his patronage and had not powerful families to aid them, but he had no need for mass-killings apart from a brief brutal reaction in 197-8 to assorted charges against certain senators of encouraging Albinus.

Septimius launched an invasion of Parthian Mesopotamia as far as their capital , Ctesiphon, in 198 to sack the latter and carry off huge amounts of loot for his Triumph in Rome. The war followed an attack by new Parthian king Vologaeses on the frontier-city of Nisibis and was presented as a reply to Parthian insolence. In reality, it was more a question of Septimius ‘showing the flag’ and taking personal charge of the large and potentially disaffected armies in Syria and Roman Mesopotamia (the upper Euphrates) than of conquest despite his ‘spin’ boasting that he was emulating Trajan. He did enrol a refugee brother of Vologaeses who fled to his army as his nominee for the Parthian throne and if a substantial part of the Parthian nobility had defected to this man Septimius might have emulated Trajan and created a new puppet-king who would cede territory to him, but the Parthian elite remained loyal to their king so he did not press the issue. His main military objective, achieved with a large siege-train and mining engineers to burrow under walls, was the capture of the semi-independent, pro-Parthian desert city of Hatra whose lords had been raiding Roman lands and trading caravans.

He did create a new province of Upper Mesopotamia, centred on the annexed Greco-Syrian principality of Edessa and the cities of Dara and Nisibis, and rebuild major fortifications on the upper Euphrates and upper Tigris, and he also recruited new Arab cavalry regiments from the locals in eastern Syria to add a new element to the Roman army and had them used as archers to counter-act the long-standing Parthian reliance on cavalry archers. There would be no repeats of the Roman defeat by Parthia at Carrhae in 53 BC provided that they kept up their new predominance in cavalry archers. As an officer who had served in Syria, and married his second wife there, in the mid-late 180s Septimius understood the local military situation and the potential of Arab horsemen better than most senior generals on this frontier who had been moved from earlier commands in the West or North and not studied it in depth. He proclaimed himself ‘Parthicus Maximus’ in 198, but his actual achievements in destabilising Parthia and protecting the Empire were more limited than he pretended.

Bust of Caracalla. Picture taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen and shared under the CC BY 2.5 licence.

His ostentatious march on Ctesiphon was also accompanied by his elder son Caracalla as a military ‘mascot’ to get the half-Syrian boy known to the troops and attuned to military life , thus avoiding the trap of a princely life of luxury turning him off campaigning as had occurred to Commodus, and probably the expedition inspired Caracalla’s desire to emulate Alexander and overrun all of Parthia which he was to urge his father to do in the 200s. But instead Septimius, having spent the winter of 198-9 in Egypt and all of 200 in Syria and Asia Minor, returned to Rome in early 201 to plan a Northern war. As a reaction to recent Caledonian attacks South across Hadrian’s Wall, which had taken advantage of Septimius reducing the British legionary garrisons and purging many officers in 197 over supposed support for the ‘rebel’ Albinus.

At the time the vigilant Emperor had sought to reduce the threat from the armies in the North West by cutting them back and bringing in his own loyalists, with no local experience, to command there. This had led to Caledonian chiefs in the local kingdom of the ‘Maetae’, a tribal coalition centred on Atholl and Fife, demanding ‘protection money’ to stay quiet and, when not paid, attacking Hadrian’s Wall. Now Septimius planned a major British expedition, though this took years to organise and get his new troops for North-west Europe trained and in the meantime he paid a long visit to his North African homeland with his family (and Plautianus) for games at Leptis Magna to open his new civic buildings there in 202. In 204 he celebrated the ‘Ludi Saeculares’, the usually centennial Empire-wide Games in Rome that were supposed to be held on each centenary of the capital’s foundation (AD 47, 147 etc) after a half-century instead for a change on a dodgy chronology. This was used to show off his munificence as a patron and bring the Empire’s citizens and athletes together in the capital as his clients – possibly as a snub to the still resentful and muttering Senatorial dynasties.

In 208 his British campaign finally took place (as in OTL), with six legions brought to Britain for a major Imperial-led advance North from the Tyne to the abandoned Antonine Wall and then on into Fife where he set up a new military base at Carpow on the lower Tay, supplied by sea by his navy. He and his sons then led armies to overrun and ravage the eastern lowlands of Caledonia as far as the Moray Firth in 209, with propaganda from his poets that his great predecessor Titus (ruled from 79 to 91) had left it to his general Agricola to conquer Caledonia but the conscientious Septimius did his campaigning in person. Caracalla, keen to show off but also a capable commander and popular with his men for his superficially pleasant charisma and ‘common touch’ (though he had a vile temper), also did well on the campaign. In 210 he was entrusted with ravaging the inland hills and glens and bringing the retreating Maetae to surrender and stop their people from starving, but his atrocities and collection of captured Caledonian girls as his body-slaves and prostitutes showed his more brutal side and Geta, younger and blander but equally fond of drink and showing off, was seen as a ‘safer’ commander by the generals around Septimius.

Caracalla, risking his life in some unnecessary exploits and boasting that he was emulating Alexander who had also taken risks, eventually tricked the Maetae tribal leaders into a battle by hiding most of his troops from them in a forest and then springing an ambush. In the aftermath of this victory he marched on to Loch Ness and Loch Linnhe to link up with the fleet, and the local warlords came to terms and accepted Rome’s requirements to pay tribute and surrender an annual levy of their restless young men to the Roman army. (These were re-deployed to distant Africa and the East, as Marcus had done to the Marcomanni’s levies.) Septimius secured a return of the Empire’s Northern frontier Northwards from Hadrian’s Wall to the Antonine Wall in central Scotland in a treaty in spring 211, and he set up submissive tribal vassal-kingdoms to the NE in the lowlands as far as Buchan and Moray. Caracalla, ‘Caesar’ from 198 and co-emperor (‘Augustus’) in title as well as reality from mid-211 due to the successful British war in which he had been a major participant, then persuaded his father to let him lead the second Parthian War in 215 (which in real life was his own effort as Emperor).

Caracalla probably aimed to use victory in the East to seize power and murder his jealous brother Geta on his return. The latter had been given a command on the lower Rhine to push back German raids there in 212-13 and had marched as far as the Elbe but his partisans’ flattery that he was the ‘new Germanicus’ was spoilt by his father refusing to let him annex any new territory which would be too expensive. The over-indulgent Septimius ignored warnings against Caracalla’s murderous intentions by Geta’s father-in-law Praetorian Praefect Papinian and other advisers, and Geta insisted on another military command, on the lower Danube, in 216-17 so he would have troops handy to resist if Caracalla tried to mount a coup and kill him on his return from the Parthian expedition. The ‘new Alexander’, as Caracalla called himself, had acquired his father’s permission to take Ctesiphon (already sacked by Septimius on a prestige-hunting expedition there in 198) and annex Lower Mesopotamia as far as the Persian Gulf, and the defiant Parthian king Artabanus was lined up for deposition in favour of one of his relatives who had turned up in Rome offering to rule on the Severan dynasty’s behalf if he was lent an army. But Caracalla intended to use his success to bring some of his troops to Rome for the victory Triumph and Games and then have his returned brother, present for a supposed family reunion, killed in an ambush. His intentions towards his father, now ailing with arthritis and, since an illness in winter 215-16, largely confined to his suburban villas, were unclear but alarmed ministers led by Papinian feared the worst. Caracalla was however murdered en route to the war in Mesopotamia, in a ‘hit’ by the roadside near Carrhae, in April 217 aged 29. This may have been due to partisans of Geta fearing what he would do when he had a victorious army behind him and prestige as defeater of Parthia. Thus when Septimius Severus died in February 218 (aged 72, nine years older than he reached in OTL) Geta became emperor, aged 29.

This describes one possibility for a more stable Rome. Septimius Severus is less of an autocrat as less insecure but still harsh and Caracalla's tyranny is avoided as he predeceases his father. In the next article we will follow this timeline we have created further and explore how sole rule by Geta (in OTL assassinated by his brother) could turn out.


Timothy Venning is a respected Historian who won the London University History Prize in 1979 and whose latest straight history book is Cromwell's Failed State. He has also written multiple books of counter factual essays including Caesars of the Bosphorus, Eternal Caesars, King Charles or King Oliver and King Henry IX, all published by Sea Lion Press, and If Rome Hadn't Fallen.


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