Thursday, 25 April 2013

Review: Septimius Severus: The African Emperor, by Anthony Birley

I actually bought this book a long time ago (Amazon indicates it was 2004), but for one reason or another I only rediscovered it recently.

Septimius Severus was a Roman emperor who ruled shortly after Commodus and the two very short-lived emperors who succeeded him. His reign predated the crisis of the third century, and some blame him for contributing to that and the strategic weakening of the empire.

The biography is full of information, but I've got to say that I sometimes found it slightly hard going. It seems a very academic book, and for that reason I would not recommend it to someone who hasn't read a bit of classical history already. The author does a good job of critiquing the available sources and doesn't hesitate to say when he suspects the ancient historians of being mistaken or just making stuff up.

The importance of Septimius' African background and the shifting approach of Rome away from an Italian-dominated Senate to one where men from the provinces held more sway is well-described.

There's quite a lot written about the period preceding his rule, from both the perspective of Lepcis Magna, his home, and the emperors of Rome. Commodus' misrule gets quite a lot of coverage, and it's interesting to see how Septimius repeated Marcus Aurelius' mistake when it came to letting a violent son take over. 

The subject and characters are interesting but the writing style could be a bit easier to read. I was slightly disappointed that after a quite lengthy treatment of the period prior to Septimius' rule there was not more written about the immediate and long-term consequences for Rome. This period was covered, but a little briefly, I felt. That said, the reigns of Caracalla, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus are concisely covered.

Now I come to think of it, it reminds me a bit of Philippe Contamine's War in the Middle Ages. Oodles of information, could've been easier to read.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. It illustrates in (occasionally a bit too much) detail the critical shift in the imperial destiny of Rome from the tail end of the Golden Age under Marcus Aurelius through the bloodletting of Commodus and the increasing belligerence of the army. Imperial strength was being spent more and more in internal fighting, and greater pay (bribes) for the army stoked inflation, making life harder for most people.

Septimius comes across as a competent man who was, although not especially morally virtuous, not prone to the savagery and widespread slaughter of Commodus or earlier emperors such as Nero (and certainly a better man than his immediate successors). His major weakness was the same as Aurelius, and had he returned the purple to the adoptive principle of the Golden Age, Rome might have lasted a lot longer.

If you enjoy this book, you might also enjoy the biographyof Aurelian, who was emperor several decades later at the peak of the crisis of the third century.


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