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An Alternate History of the Roman Empire: The Later Severans

By Tim Venning

Bust of Geta in the Louvre

In the last three articles we set up a possible timeline in the Roman Empire wherein Marcus Aurelius survives longer and so a lot of the instability that followed him is avoided. In this one we'll follow it out further. In reality, Caracalla ruled as sole Emperor from killing his brother Geta early in 212 until he was assassinated , by the roadside while relieving himself, by a ‘hitman’ near Carrhae in western Mesopotamia (near present Iraqi/ Syria border) in 217. This was during his invasion of the Parthian empire, and probably halted a plan to annex at least Mesopotamia as far as the Persian Gulf – he spoke of himself as emulating Alexander. In this timeline Caracalla dies first instead and it's Geta whose sole Emperor.

Geta Severus ruled in 218-28, dissolute, lazy and extravagant but less vicious than Caracalla and content to preside at official functions and leave governance to a clique of veteran Severan ministers, generals and Imperial Household officials. Nor did he bother to resume the wars in either Parthia or Germany, though his chief minister Papinian (d 226) kept up rigorous supervision of the armies and rotated commanders regularly to prevent disaffection and keep potential rebels from building up a client-base in one army. Geta was also persuaded to put out ‘feelers’ to the old nobility and take more of them onto his Council so that the appearance of government with the Senate was restored, but this was style not substance. Real control remained with the Severan ministers, usually lower-born provincials. Geta’s reliance on his mother Julia Domna’s advice and his declaring her ‘Mother of the Senate’ to add to her earlier role as ‘Mother of the Camp’ (an honorary title stressing her Army patronage, used by several Empresses since Agrippina in the early 50s) also aroused resentment.

The Syrian multi-millionairess, who had inherited huge estates around Emesa from her ‘High Priest’ father and had installed her elder niece Julia Soaemias’ teenage son Varius Bassianus (Elagabalus) as the new ‘High Priest’ there in 217, was seen as the real ruler of the Empire by some. She was particularly resented as importing ‘foreign’ Syrian and other Middle Eastern religious sects’ personnel to Rome to be patronised at her court which was seen as ‘un-Roman’. She was also a patron of the rising cult of the literary novel, which had spread in the mid-late C2nd among aspiring writers (mostly Eastern and Greek urban provincials) following on from precedents from the Hellenistic era and which popularised imaginative adventures and romance plus reality-based and imaginary travel. The novels were often based on ancient myths and took on the imaginary adventures of minor characters in these stories, including the quest of the Argonauts and the Trojan War. The leading novelist of the era was indeed from Julia Domna’s own home town in Syria – Heliodorus of Emesa (d 229), the author of the ‘Aegyptica’ which was read out in instalments at Julia Domna’s court by the writer after he became her protégé and was invited to Rome in 204. He duly received an Imperial grant of land and a pension under Geta, who was more interested in culture than his militaristic father and even had inopportune pretensions as a poet – and a circle of aspiring, mostly Eastern, novelists as well as poets operated around Julia Domna and her daughters from around 200 to 230. Septimius, by contrast, had only been interested in writers and poets who played up the heroic legends of the Trojan War and the journey of Aeneas the Trojan exile prince to Italy to found the Empire’s ‘parent state’ of Alba Longa, and in 203 he had commissioned assorted writers of his wife’s circle who had composed material on the Trojans to provide official poems for performance at the Ludi Saeculares in 204.

Statue of the Goddess Cybele. Photo by Marshall Astor and shared under the CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

For the first time under Julia Domna, an Imperial court even admitted a few leaders of the usually despised and ‘seditious’ sect of the Christians, who had been seen as rebels and social upstarts who bizarrely worshipped an executed Jewish agitator and had been rumoured for two centuries to hold orgies at their secret ‘dinners’ where lower-class women and slaves were welcome. Septimius had despised them as unpatriotic pacifists who decried military service, and like Marcus Aurelius though he had not actively hunted their sect down he had let private prosecutions of them for ‘sedition’ and ‘insulting the gods’ go ahead – as with the executions at Carthage of Perpetua and others in 203. Julia Domna, however, even invited some of their egalitarian civic leaders, ‘bishops’, to her soirees and let them make converts among her court, to the horror of respectable senators. Nonetheless the more established Eastern cults of Isis (Egypt) and Cybele (Syria) were more prominent and achieved more success among court ladies and she even invited her great-nephew’s shrine at Emesa and other leading Eastern cults to send priests and objects of veneration to be shown at her new temple for the major Eastern cults on the Palatine. There sacred statues surrounded a dominant larger golden statue of Venus, the patron goddess of the Imperial Family since the time of Augustus. The senator-run traditional cults of the ‘Olympians’ and other, local gods in Rome declined invitations to participate in ceremonies at this temple even with the Empress-Mother in charge, and dark rumours emerged that a foreign, Eastern Empress inviting foreign gods to Rome dishonoured its patron gods and would bring their wrath on Rome.

Julia Domna died in 225 – only to be succeeded in influence by her more politically astute younger sister Julia Maesa, who was interested in politics rather than religion and was soon invited by Geta to attend Senate debates (from a public viewing-gallery not from the Senate House senatorial seats) to the horror of traditionalists. Geta did not have an heir as he had only four daughters by his wife and they were still under-age in the mid-220s, and upon his deathfrom drink in March 228, aged 39, a family coup was launched by Julia Maesa to keep the throne in the family. (In OTL she staged a revolt against Caracalla’s murderer and successor Macrinus in 218.) Her younger daughter Julia Mammea, the ambitious wife of minor senator Gessius Marcianus who was one of the Severans’ Syrian protégé imports to the Senate in the 200s, assisted her in putting the latter’s son Alexianus on the throne as ‘Alexander Severus’, aged 19. (In OTL Alexianus became Emperor at only 14 years of age and so had less power, he was good at conciliating the elites, but was distrusted by army as his mother’s unmilitary ‘stooge’. Coming to the throne slightly later changes some of that perception).

Born in late 208, in his father’s Phoenicia not Rome, Alexianus was in fact as ‘foreign’ as his grandmother and great-aunt, but Mammaea had shrewdly had him brought up by traditionalist Roman tutors as a respectable upper-class Roman boy and taught advanced philosophy and rhetoric in a family milieu frequented by old senatorial families. Indeed, it was supposed that as soon as Caracalla was dead and Geta was only producing daughters she had an eye on the throne for Alexianus, and she cultivated the support of both Papinian and later the rising jurist-turned-administrator Ulpian, deputy Praetorian Praefect from 222-8. Arguing that Alexianus was a ‘safe’ potential heir whose appointment to succeed the increasingly befuddled, ailing Geta would bring in the old Senate families at last to back the Severans. Maesa appears to have deserted the potential claims of her elder daughter Julia Soaemias, rumoured to have been her cousin Caracalla’s mistress, and the latter’s son Bassianus, ‘High Priest’ of the family shrine to the god Elagabalus at Emesa (Homs, Syria), who stayed in Syria through the 220s. (In real life Bassianus was used as Maesa’s candidate for the throne in 218 as allegedly Caracalla’s illegitimate son and took the name of ‘Elagabalus’ as Emperor; he was killed in a coup in 222.)

You may notice at this point that many of the characters we're using were born after the death of Marcus Aurelius and so a strict purist take on AH would give them different personalities and birth dates. This work won't be doing that, it is a thought exercise on how the Roman Empire, as it existed, could be more stable and so will be using purely OTL figures to emphasis that point. We will not be removing OTL enemies of the Romans or creating new Roman figures.

Julia Maesa (d. 229 ) and her daughter Mammea ruled under Alexianus as ‘Emperor Alexander Severus’ as in OTL, aided by a council of Senators. The young and easily influenced Emperor was eager to please both his family and his council of senators and was often seen as having little mind of his own, but he observed all the traditional religious ceremonies in an annual round of ritual, reassuring the senatorial family priests of these cults, and banished from court the more disliked of his great-aunt Julia Domna’s proteges including the Christians. He married (as in OTL) Seia Sallustiana Orbiana, daughter of the ambitious senatorial minister Seius Sallustianus Orbianus, who occupied a series of leading posts under his son-in-law but was kept from his goal of the ‘Caesarship’ by the jealous Mammea – and the new Empress gave her husband only daughters so there was no son to consolidate the dynasty. Other major figures at court included the ex-actor turned soldier Valerius Comazon Eutychianus, a legionary legate in Syria in the late 210s transferred to Rome as a reliable administrator by Julia Maesa who Geta took up as a boon companion at his boozy court and ended up as Praefect of Rome in 220-5. (In OTL he was a coup-leader for then adviser to Elagabalus.)

The Praetorians were less powerful than in OTL as Pertinax and Septimius Severus had kept them under control and so did Geta, and there was no precedent of the ‘sale of the Empire’ in 193 as in OTL to inspire them to arrogance and rebellion. The Guards were unable to intimidate the later Severans, and Septimius had stationed a loyal Pannonian legion near Rome at Alba Longa to keep an eye on them. The key figure in controlling the Praetorians and keeping them out of politics was an administrator and jurist rather than a career soldier, the new Praetorian Praefect Domitius Ulpianus who was in office in 224-232 after serving as Praefect of the ‘Annona’ (the Rome grain-supply) and was the first man from this sort of background to gain this office – but he had had earlier served in the army and the Guard in the 190s and had many fellow-officers there to back him up. The provincial armies had been given more pay and privileges by Septimius in the late 190s, and this was extended by new ruler Geta in 219 in case they resented the loss of their admired Caracalla and blamed him for it. After the overthrow of the weakening Parthian monarchy under Artabanus V by its Sassanid vassals, the sub-kings of (central) Persia, in 226, Alexander faced the new threat of a determinedly centralising monarchy in Persia. This claimed the inheritance of the ancient Achaemenids, used its own ancestral capital of Istakr or Persepolis as the new imperial capital as the Achaemenids had done, and created a large and aggressive new army led by armoured cavalry units (‘cataphracts’) . These were better-protected than the Roman cavalry and so less vulnerable than the Parthians’ cavalry had been to the Roman archers, as the Roman frontier troops soon found – and from 228 Persian cavalry raids started to penetrate the frontier and cut off and starve out isolated Roman garrisons around the upper Tigris.

Coin depicting Ardashir I. Photo by the Classical Numismatic Group and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

The first Sassanid ‘Great King’, Ardashir (ruled 226-40), attacked Roman Mesopotamia around Nisibis and Edessa in the first major Roman-Sassanid clashes in 231-2; Alexander was called on to emulate his namesake and his relatives Septimius and Caracalla and save the Roman East from Ardashir’s boasts of immanent conquest and despite his lack of any military training or skill could call on a solid body of veteran Severna officers who had fought in Britain and Germany plus a few elderly survivors of the Severan campaign in Mesopotamia in 198. In 232 Alexander opened the gates of the Temple of Janus and headed East, with his mother and wife accompanying him - plus his father-in-law, who ended up dead of a mysterious complaint in Syria and was rumoured to have been poisoned by Mammea. Alexander defeated Ardashir in a series of wary manoeuvres and occasional armed clashes in the plains around Nisibis in 233, due to a mixture of the weight of Roman numbers, skilful generals (such as the future emperor Decius who had fought local tribal rebels in Armenia and knew the terrain and enemy tactics), plus a large contingent of Arab cavalry mercenaries and new, heavier and less easily penetrable corselets for the Roman cavalrymen to wear.

The still ‘raw’ and under-trained Persian army was pushed back and broke up to flee into the hills or the lower Euphrates marshes, breaking the drainage-ditches to flood the surrounds of Ctesiphon, as Alexander advanced, and he surrounded Ctesiphon but pulled back as his army was exposed to hit-and-run raids on its supply-lines. He could not progress beyond central Mesopotamia as the Persians blocked the Zagros Mountains passes into the Istakr region, and in 234 the nervous Emperor returned to the advance after a winter in safer territory back at Nisibis and entered but retreated from hilly Media. His troops grumbled that he was a half-Syrian coward who preferred luxuries to campaigning and blamed his mother Mammea as his capable Praefect Ulpianus had died in epidemic in the camp (in OTL he was killed by rioting soldiers in 223/7). In the end, the status quo was preserved in an insincere treaty of peace later in 234, with rebellious vassals who resented the loss of their Parthian-era autonomy stirred up to revolt in eastern Persia by Roman subsidies and Ardashir anxious to deal with them, and Alexander claimed his setting up new fortresses east of the upper Tigris (around OTL Mosul and Arbela) to protect the Eastern frontier of vassal Armenia as a major success but lost these to a Persian attack in 238.

Nobody was convinced by Alexander’s victory Triumph back in Rome late in 234, and the frontier – entrusted to the highly capable Decius – remained under threat. Alexander fared no better when he started a campaign in central Germany to punish recent raiders around Moguntiacum (Mainz) in 235, though he campaigned East of the Elbe and got ambushed in the Harz mountains and pulled back with his headquarters staff, leaving his senior officers to extricate the men. There was no recent tradition of successful mutiny unlike in OTL, and a good showing by capable Roman generals (former junior officers hand-picked for promotion by Pertinax and later by Septimius Severus) fighting the Germans, so Alexander was not assassinated as in OTL and his loyal Danube troops put down a mutiny on the middle Rhine after he fled his riot-hit camp just in time. (In this version he had adequate warning; he did not in OTL and he and his mother were both lynched and replaced by the leader of the mutiny Maximinus, who comes nowhere near power here.)

However Alexander had no sons, and had a weak constitution after bouts of illness on the Mesopotamian campaign in 234; he died heirless in March 242 aged 34 in Rome a few months after the death of his mother Mammea – who had urged him to divorce his wife and marry someone who could give him a son but had been ignored for once. The Senate, called on by the surprised ministers under Alexander’s friend and new City Praefect Quartinus to help choose a new ruler, selected a ‘stopgap’ ruler, the (real-life leader of the rebellion against Maximinus and disputed ruler of 238 in OTL) the elderly Gordian I, aka Marcus Antonius Sempronianus Gordianus. This octogenarian senator, a distinguished ex-governor of long and uncontroversial if unimportant service across may regions over five decades, was best known as an amateur philosopher and writer and a former host of an upper-class literary circle, his educated (and literary pretentious) connections inherited from his distant relative the distinguished 130s-160s Athenian orator/ philosopher Herodes Atticus who had been a mentor of Marcus Aurelius.

As he was also supposed to be connected via the Sempronii to the 1st Century BC social and political reformers the Gracchi and their consular family, he was acceptable to the old Senatorial families as a hoped-for ‘new Marcus’ and to the Severan administrators as a capable official of long service – and both factions probably hoped to manipulate him, given his uncontroversial career and lack of known opinions. He was duly backed by the senior Severan ministers led by Quartinus and the new Praetorian Praefect Timisetheus. The latter was thus the ‘strongman’ minister of the 240s as in OTL , but in this version for the elderly civilian Gordian I, aged over 80, and his inexperienced son Gordian II not for the latter’s nephew Gordian III, and he did not die during the Persian campaign. The Gordians had to rely on him to keep the troops loyal, but did not face a war in Persia yet as the new Great King Shapur was facing revolt from his restive sub-kings in Media who had been paid by Alexander Severus’local governors and sent some pro-Roman Arab cavalry by Alexander’s rich kinsmen running the temple of Elagabalus in Emesa (Homs) in Syria . The Gordians’ regime was also backed up by an unprecedented (since the 160s) number of ministers chosen directly from the Senate to pay tribute to the latter’s role , led by sexagenarian veteran ex-governors Decimus Caelius Calvinus Balbinus and Marcus Clodius Pupienus Maximus (briefly emperors in 238 in OTL). The emperors were aided by a formal board of twenty senior senators , the ‘Vigintiviri’), chosen by long service and good reputation, but in practice this graceful acknowledgement of a ‘partnership’ in governance with them by Gordian I was soon sidelined in making actual policy by the master of intrigue – and getting things done rather than endlessly debating – Timisetheus.



  • Marcus Aurelius 161-190

  • Pertinax 190-197 (and co-ruler, titular, Titus Aurelius 190-2)

  • Septimius Severus 197-218

  • ·

  • (Caracalla, co-ruler 198-217)

  • ·

  • Geta Severus, 218-228

  • ·

  • Alexander Severus, 228-242

  • ·

  • Gordianus I, 242-243.

  • ·

  • Gordianus II, 243-251.

  • ·

  • Gordianus III, 243-252.

In this timeline, by having more straight transfers of power and less coups, plus no controversial emperors like Elagabalus, the upper structure is more stable and so better able to cope with the coming 3rd century crisis. In the next few articles we'll see the effects of that starting with the reigns of Gordianus II and III as this Empire is tested very nearly to the point of breaking by civil war and external invasions.


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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