A succession of emperors, at best incompetent at worst insane. Exceptions might be found in Severus, who improved conditions in the army, and Aurelian who tried to stem the centrifugal tendencies of the empire.

We see women openly exercising power for the first time.


The previous eighty-four years had seen just five emperors; during the next 104, there were twenty-nine. Alone of the “five good emperors”, Marcus Aurelius had a son, Lucius Aurelius Commodus, whom he nominated as his successor.


Commodus (Digital reconstruction by Richard Sebring)

Commodus had had elder brothers who died early. He was only 19 when he became emperor, and he proved a latter-day Nero. Like Nero, he showed initially some grasp of affairs; like Nero, he got himself into the hands of favourites and corruptible freedmen, his private life was a disgrace, and his public extravagance prodigious; like Nero, he fancied himself in the circus; and like Nero, he died ignominiously - an athlete was suborned to strangle him in his bath in AD 192.

There followed a similar ominous pattern of events such as had unfolded after the death of Nero. Commodus was succeeded by Publius Helvius Pertinax, prefect of Rome and a former governor of Britain. He was murdered three months later by the imperial guard, who offered the empire for sale to the highest bidder in terms of imperial hand-outs. The winner was Didius Salvius Julianus, an elderly senator, but there were three other serious contenders out in the field, each with several legions behind him.

Lucius Septimius Severus (AD 146 - 211) in Pannonia was nearest to Rome, which he entered and captured on 2 June AD 193. Didius was put to death on the orders of the senate. Having disbanded the imperial guard and replaced it with his own men, Severus set about coming to terms with his two rivals, Pescennius Niger in Syria, and Clodius Albinus in Britain. He defeated them in turn, Niger at Issus in AD 194, and Albinus in Gaul in AD 197.

septimius severus

Severus (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Severus was born in Leptis Magna, Africa. A professional soldier, he campaigned energetically to maintain the empire’s frontiers in the east, and spent the last two-and-a-half years of his life in Britain, fending off the northern tribes.

Severus made a number of changes to the administration of justice both in Rome and Italy, and in the provinces of the empire. Within the army, the top jobs went to those with the best qualifications, not necessarily those of the highest social rank. He improved the lot of legionaries by increasing the basic rate of pay to match inflation (it had been static for a hundred years), and by recognizing permanent liaisons as legal marriages - up till then legionaries were not allowed to marry. His philosophy of rule, which he impressed upon his two unruly sons, Caracalla and Geta, shortly before his death, was to pay the army well, and take no notice of the senate.


(Above) Caracalla (AD 188 - 217), nicknamed after a Gaulish greatcoat, in military uniform c. 215 (VRoma: AICT). (Below) Geta (AD 189 - 212) (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Severus had nominated his sons to rule jointly after him, and counselled them to get on with each other. Caracalla resolved the arrangement by murdering his brother, but observed his father’s professional advice by increasing the pay of the army by 50 per cent, thus initiating a financial crisis. Some sources suggest that it was to repair the situation that he granted full citizenship to all free men in the Roman empire. Whether or not that is so, it is to him in AD 212 that is attributed the final step in the process of universal enfranchisement which had begun in the third century BC. He was assassinated in Mesopotamia while attempting to extend the eastern front.

Julia Domna

Julia Domna. The Roman tradition that women took no part in public life was conclusively broken by the wife of Septimius Severus, Julia Domna. When Caracalla became emperor, she dealt with petitions and with her son’s correspondence (in Latin and Greek), and held soirées and receptions for philosophers and scientists. Note the artistic development whereby a drill has been used on the eyes to indicate the ring of the iris and the pupil. (Antikensammlungen: Richard Stoneman)

Caracalla was succeeded by Macrinus, commander of the imperial guard, who never got to Rome, being defeated and killed in AD 218 by detachments of his own troops, who supported the depraved and arrogant Elagabalus (AD 204 - 22), a cousin of Caracalla. Elagabalus was lynched by his own guards, having nominated as his successor his young first cousin, Alexander Severus.

Alexander Severusjulia Mammaea

Alexander Severus (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal) and his mother Julia Mammaea (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal).

Alexander Severus was only 16 when he took office. That he ruled moderately successfully for thirteen years was due partly to his sensible nature and willingness to take advice, and partly to his mother, Julia Mammaea, niece of Julia Domna, who recognized who would give the soundest advice. Alexander took his mother on campaign with him in AD 234 in Germany, where they were both murdered by mutinous soldiers the following year.

The new emperor was Maximinus, a giant of a Thracian peasant who had risen through the ranks to be commander of the imperial guard. In AD 238 the senate tired of him, and put up their own candidate. In the ensuing confusion, five emperors died, including Maximinus, who had invaded Italy and been murdered by his own troops.


Maximinus. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

The survivor was Gordian III, only 13. With the help of a regent he enjoyed civil and military success until he too was murdered, in AD 244, while in Mesopotamia collecting animals to take part in his triumphal procession in Rome for his victories in Persia.

gordian III

Bronze medallion of Gordian III, showing the Circus Maximus with the emperor as victor in a six-horse chariot race. Gladiators and wrestlers compete in the foreground. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

While the next fourteen emperors came and violently went, the hostile peoples outside the frontiers gathered themselves for the kill. In Germany, the Goths, Franks, and Alamanni established the permanent threat to the Roman empire which contributed to its ultimate annihilation.


Gallienus (Museo Archeologico Nazionale: René Seindal)

Gallienus (c. AD 218 - 68), joint emperor with his father Valerian from AD 253, carried on alone until he was murdered, after Valerian had been captured by the Persians in AD 259. Aurelian (AD 214 - 75), who became emperor in AD 270, temporarily averted the threats from outside the empire, and dealt with two dangerous outbreaks of separatism. The breakaway dominion of Gaul, with its own senate, had survived for several years when its fifth ruler surrendered to Aurelian’s army in AD 271. The influential city of Palmyra, under its formidable regent Zenobia, threatened Roman rule throughout the east. The city was finally destroyed after Aurelian had negotiated two hundred kilometres of desert at the head of his troops. Zenobia was brought back to Rome to walk in Aurelian’s triumph, after which she was granted a generous pension.

Aurelian wall

Aurelian built the great defensive wall round Rome itself. Finished after his death, it was about 20 km long, 4 m thick, and 7.2 m high. (Photograph copyright © William P. Thayer 2000)

Aurelian was murdered by his own staff, after which the dreadful game of musical thrones continued until AD 284, when yet another commander of the imperial guard, Diocletian (AD 245 - 313), a Dalmatian of obscure but humble origin, emerged to be proclaimed by the troops.

Believe it or not:

Commodus fancied himself also in the arena, where he defeated all his opponents (the fights were fixed), and from the safety of the stands slaughtered wild beasts and ostriches with javelin and bow. He took the official title of Hercules, also a killer of wild beasts, and in private dressed up as the god.

Pertinax was the son of a freedman who ran a felt-maker’s shop. He abandoned a career as a teacher to join the army, and through graft as well as industriousness amassed several fortunes while serving as a provincial governor. A notorious disciplinarian, he was appointed governor of Britain in AD 185 to snuff out any signs of mutiny in the army, which had tried to acclaim as emperor one of their own legionary commanders. He thought he had succeeded, until the troops invited him to stand as imperial nominee. He refused. Then there was a real revolt. One of the legions went on the rampage, and in the fighting Pertinax was badly injured and left for dead. Having recovered, and restored order by exceptional brutality, he asked to be relieved of his post on the grounds of his unpopularity with the troops.

In his bid for the imperial throne, Clodius Albinus received moral support from aristocrats in Gaul and Spain, and military backing from Spain. After he had set up his headquarters in Lyon and won a battle against the governor of Lower Germany, his troops ranged through Gaul doing much as they liked. Numerianus, a schoolmaster in Rome, threw up his job and went to Gaul, where he pretended to be a senator sent by Severus to raise an army against Clodius. In this way he collected a small force, with which he made successful guerrilla attacks on Clodius’s cavalry. Severus, believing Numerianus to be a genuine senator, sent him commendatory despatches, with orders to enlarge his force. Numerianus obliged, and among other booty sent to Severus 70 million sesterces which he had captured. After the war, he went to Severus, told him the truth, and, instead of demanding wealth and status, accepted a small country house and a modest pension.

After the death of Clodius, the situation in what is now Scotland was so confused and fluid, that the new governor of Britain was forced to resort to bribery of the tribes there in return for a sort of peace. It is possible that two caches of coins unearthed in Birnie, north Morayshire, in 2000/01 represent some of this money.
Severus was hyper-superstitious, as the following anecdote suggests. “After inspecting [Hadrian’s Wall] at Carlisle, as Severus returned to the nearest guest-house not only as victor over the Caledonians but also having established a permanent peace treaty, he wondered what omen would present itself. Just then, a black soldier, who was a well-known buffoon and regarded himself as a bit of a joker, came up to him with a wreath of cypress twigs. When Severus, thoroughly disturbed at being presented with a funeral garland and by someone of the colour associated with death, angrily ordered him to be removed from his sight, the man jocularly remarked, ‘You have been everything, you have conquered everything, now may the conqueror be a god.’ When Severus subsequently reached town, and wanted to perform a sacrifice, owing to a mistake on the part of the local soothsayer, he was first taken to the temple of the goddess of war, and then supplied with sacrificial animals that were black. He abandoned the sacrifice in disgust and retired to the local imperial residence, only to find himself, through the negligence of the temple attendants, pursued right to the door by the herd of black cows” (Historia Augusta, Severus XXII. 4--7). It was probably in the light of these, and maybe other, omens, that Severus remained in York, where he died on 4 February 211.
After the death of Severus in Britain, Caracalla and Geta did not speak to each other on the journey back to Rome with their mother, and subsequently spent much time and effort trying to poison each other. As both were closely attended by soldiers and beefy personal bodyguards, any other method of murder was likely to fail. Finally, Caracalla persuaded Julia Domna to invite them both to a private meeting of reconciliation in her apartment. When all three were closeted together, in rushed two centurions, who stabbed Geta to death in his mother’s arms.
The five emperors who died in AD 238 were Maximinus, Gordian I, his son Gordian II, Pupienus, and Balbinus. Gordian III was the son of a daughter of Gordian I. Of Gordian II, it has been said, “Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation” (Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I. 7).
During the rule of Gallienus (AD 253--68) so many military men in various parts of the empire proclaimed themselves emperor that they became known collectively as the “thirty tyrants”. One of them, Gaius Licinius Postumus, actually got away with it; having assassinated one of Gallienus’s sons and the commander of the imperial guard, he established the dominion of Gaul.