Alexander Severus

Alexander Severus
Alexander Severus
26th Emperor of the Roman Empire

Bust of Severus Alexander
Reign 222 – 18 / 19 March 235
Full name Marcus Julius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus
(from birth to adoption);
Caesar Marcus Aurelius Alexander (from adoption to accession);
Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus
(as emperor)
Born October 1, 208(208-10-01)
Birthplace Arca Caesarea, Syria Phoenicia Province (modern Akkar, Lebanon)
Died March 18 or 19 235 (aged 26)
Place of death Moguntiacum, Germania Superior
Predecessor Elagabalus
Successor Maximinus Thrax
Consort to Sallustia Orbiana
Sulpicia Memmia
Royal House Severan
Father Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus
Mother Julia Mamaea
Roman imperial dynasties
Severan dynasty
Severan dynasty - tondo.png
The Severan Tondo
Septimius Severus 193198
-with Caracalla 198209
-with Caracalla and Geta 209211
Caracalla and Geta 211211
Caracalla 211217
Interlude: Macrinus 217218
Elagabalus 218222
Alexander Severus 222235
Severan dynasty family tree
Category:Severan Dynasty
Preceded by
Year of the Five Emperors
Followed by
Crisis of the Third Century

Severus Alexander (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus;[1] 1 October 208 – 18 March 235) was Roman Emperor from 222 to 235. Alexander was the last emperor of the Severan dynasty. He succeeded his cousin Elagabalus upon the latter's assassination in 222, and was ultimately assassinated himself, marking the epoch event for the Crisis of the Third Century — nearly fifty years of civil wars, foreign invasion, and collapse of the monetary economy.

Alexander was the heir apparent to his cousin, the eighteen-year-old Emperor who had been murdered along with his mother by his own guards, who, as a mark of contempt, had their remains cast into the Tiber river.[2] He and his cousin were both grandsons of the influential and powerful Julia Maesa, who had arranged for Elagabalus' acclamation as emperor by the famed Third Gallic Legion. It was the rumor of Alexander's death that triggered the assassination of Elagabalus.[3]

As emperor, Alexander's peace time reign was prosperous. In military conflict against the rising Sassanid Empire, there are mixed accounts, though the Sassanid threat was checked; however, when campaigning against Germanic tribes of Germania, Alexander apparently alienated his legions by engaging in diplomacy and bribery, and they assassinated him.


Early Reign

Alexander was born at Arca Caesarea[4] on 1 October, 208, with the name Marcus Julius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus.[5] Alexander's father, Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus was a Syrian Promagistrate.[6] His mother Julia Avita Mamaea was the second daughter of Julia Maesa and Syrian noble Julius Avitus and maternal aunt of Emperor Elagabalus.[7] He had an elder sister called Theoclia and little is known about her. Alexander's maternal great-aunt was empress Julia Domna (also Maesa's younger sister) and his great-uncle in marriage was emperor Lucius Septimius Severus. Emperors Caracalla and Publius Septimius Geta, were his mother's maternal cousins.[8] In 221, Alexander's grandmother, Maesa, persuaded the Emperor to adopt his cousin as successor and make him Caesar and Bassianus changed his name to Alexander.[9] In the following year, on March 11, Elagabalus was murdered, and Alexander was proclaimed emperor by the Praetorians and accepted by the Senate.[10]

When Alexander became emperor, he was young, amiable, well-meaning, and entirely under the dominion of his mother.[11] Julia Mamaea was a woman of many virtues, and she surrounded the young emperor with wise counsellors,[12] under the administration of the jurist and praetorian praefect Ulpian.[13] She watched over the development of her son's character and improved the tone of the administration.[14] On the other hand, she was inordinately jealous.[15] She arranged for Alexander to marry Sallustia Orbiana, the daughter of a noble Patrician family, but grew so jealous of Sallustia’s influence over her son that she had her banished from court.[16] She also alienated the army by extreme parsimony,[17] and neither she nor her son were strong enough to impose military discipline.[8]

Mutinies became frequent in all parts of the Empire; in Rome, the Praetorian Guard became infuriated by the actions of the praetorian praefect Ulpian.[18] A three day riot broke out in Rome between the people and the Praetorians, and it only ended with the death of Ulpian, who was hunted down and killed at the feet of the Emperor.[16] Another mutiny forced the retirement of Cassius Dio from his command.[19] In the provinces of the Empire, in Illyricum, in Mauritania, in Armenia, in Mesopotamia and in Germania, fresh mutinies perpetually broke out, as his officers were murdered and his authority was disregarded.[16]

Alexander’s reign contained some of the last major building works constructed in Rome before the reign of Diocletian. The last of the eleven great aqueducts, the aqua Alexandrina,[20] was put into service in 226;[8] he also rebuilt the thermae Neronianae along side the Basilica Alexandrina in the Campus Martius in the following year and gave them his own name.[21]

Persian and German wars

On the whole, however, the reign of Alexander was prosperous until the rise, in the east, of the Sassanids.[12] Of the war that followed there are various accounts. According to Herodian, the Roman armies suffered a number of humiliating setbacks and defeats,[22] while according to the Historia Augusta[23] as well as Alexander's own dispatch to the Roman Senate, he gained great victories.[24] Making Antioch his base, he marched at the head of his troops towards Ctesiphon,[12] but a second army was destroyed by the Persians,[25] and further losses were incurred by the retreating Romans in Armenia.[26] Nevertheless, although the Sassanids were checked for the time,[24] the conduct of the Roman army showed an extraordinary lack of discipline.[17] In 232 there was a mutiny in the Syrian legion, who proclaimed Taurinus emperor.[27] Alexander managed to suppress the uprising, and Taurinus drowned while attempting to flee across the Euphrates.[28] The emperor returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph in 233.[24]

The following year he was called to face German invaders in Gaul, who had breached the Rhine frontier in several places, destroying forts and over-running the countryside.[29] Alexander mustered his forces, bringing legions from the eastern provinces, and crossed the Rhine into Germany on a pontoon bridge.[30] Initially on the advice of his mother, he attempted to buy the German tribes off, so as to gain time.[17] Whether this was a wise policy or not, it caused the Roman legionaries to look down on their emperor as one who was prepared to commit unsoldierly conduct.[31] Herodian says "in their opinion Alexander showed no honourable intention to pursue the war and preferred a life of ease, when he should have marched out to punish the Germans for their previous insolence".[32] These circumstances drove the army to look for a new leader. They chose Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus, a Thracian soldier who had worked his way up through the ranks.[33]

Following the nomination of Maximinus as emperor, Alexander was assassinated (on either March 18 or March 19, 235), together with his mother, in a mutiny of the Legio XXII Primigenia at Moguntiacum.[33] These assassinations secured the throne for Maximinus[8]

The death of Alexander is considered as the end of the Principate system established by Augustus.[17] Although the Principate continued in theory until the reign of Diocletian, Severus Alexander's death signalled the beginning of the chaotic period known as the Crisis of the Third Century which brought the empire to near collapse.[17]


Denarius of Severus Alexander

Alexander was the last of the Syrian emperors. Under the influence of his mother, he did much to improve the morals and condition of the people, and to enhance the dignity of the state.[8] His advisers were men like the famous jurist Ulpian, the historian Cassius Dio and a select board of sixteen senators;[18] a municipal council of fourteen assisted the urban prefect in administering the affairs of the fourteen districts of Rome.[34] Excessive luxury and extravagance at the imperial court were diminished.[35] Upon his accession he reduced the silver purity of the denarius from 46.5% to 43% — the actual silver weight dropping from 1.41 grams to 1.30 grams; however, in 229 he revalued the denarius, increasing the silver purity and weight to 45% and 1.46 grams respectively. The following year he decreased the amount of base metal in the denarius while adding more silver - raising the silver purity and weight again to 50.5% and 1.50 grams.[36] Also during his reign taxes were lightened; literature, art and science were encouraged; the lot of the soldiers was improved;[37] and, for the convenience of the people, loan offices were instituted for lending money at a moderate rate of interest.[38]

In religious matters Alexander preserved an open mind. It is said that he was desirous of erecting a temple to Jesus, but was dissuaded by the pagan priests.[39] He allowed a synagogue to be built in Rome, and he gave as a gift to this synagogue a scroll of the Torah known as the Severus Scroll.[40]


Alexander was married three times. His most famous wife was Sallustia Orbiana, Augusta, whom he married in 225.[8] He divorced and exiled her in 227, after her father, Seius Sallustius, was executed after being accused of attempting to assassinate the emperor.[28] Another wife was Sulpicia Memmia. Her father was a man of consular rank; her grandfather's name was Catulus.[41]

See also

External links

Media related to Severus Alexander at Wikimedia Commons


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources


  1. ^ In Classical Latin, Alexander's name would be inscribed as MARCVS AVRELIVS SEVERVS ALEXANDER AVGVSTVS.
  2. ^ Dio, 60:20:2
  3. ^ Herodian, 5:8:5
  4. ^ Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 1:2
  5. ^ Canduci, pg. 60
  6. ^ Benario, Severus Alexander
  7. ^ Dio, 79:30:3
  8. ^ a b c d e f Benario, Alexander Severus
  9. ^ Herodian, 5:7:4
  10. ^ Southern, pg. 59
  11. ^ Zonaras, 12:15:1
  12. ^ a b c Southern, pg. 61
  13. ^ Zosimus, 1:10
  14. ^ Dio, Book 80
  15. ^ Herodian, 6:1:9
  16. ^ a b c Gibbon, Ch. 6
  17. ^ a b c d e Canduci, pg. 61
  18. ^ a b Southern, pg. 60
  19. ^ Dio, 80:26:2
  20. ^ Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 25:4
  21. ^ Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 25:3
  22. ^ Herodian, 6:5-6:6
  23. ^ Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 55:1-3
  24. ^ a b c Southern, pg. 62
  25. ^ Herodian, 6:5:10
  26. ^ Herodian, 6:6:3
  27. ^ Victor, 24:2
  28. ^ a b Canduci, pg. 59
  29. ^ Herodian, 6:7:2
  30. ^ Herodian, 6:7:6
  31. ^ Zonaras, 12:15
  32. ^ Herodian, 6:7:10
  33. ^ a b Southern, pg. 63
  34. ^ Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 33:1
  35. ^ Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 15:1
  36. ^ Tulane University "Roman Currency of the Principate"
  37. ^ Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 21:6
  38. ^ Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 21:2
  39. ^ Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 43:6-7
  40. ^ 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Alexander Severus"
  41. ^ Historia Augusta, Life of Severus Alexander, 20:3
Alexander Severus
Born: 1 October 208 Died: 18/19 March 235
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Roman Emperor
Succeeded by
Maximinus I (Thrax)
Political offices
Preceded by
Gaius Vettius Gratus Sabinianus,
Marcus Flavius Vitellius Seleucus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Elagabalus
Succeeded by
Marius Maximus ,
Luscius Roscius Aelianus Paculus Salvius Julianus
Preceded by
Tiberius Manilius Fuscus,
Servius Calpurnius Domitius Dexter
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Gaius Aufidius Marcellus
Succeeded by
Marcus Nummius Senecio Albinus ,
Marcus Laelius Fulvius Maximus Aemilianus
Preceded by
Quintus Aiacius Modestus Crescentianus,
Marcus Pomponius Maecius Probus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Cassius Dio
Succeeded by
Lucius Virius Agricola ,
Sextus Catius Clementinus Priscillianus

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  • Alexander Severus — [si vir′əs] A.D. 208? 235; Rom. emperor (A.D. 222 235) …   English World dictionary

  • Alexander Severus — (Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander) (208–35)    Emperor of Rome 222–35. Born in Phoenicia, Alexander was adopted by the Emperor Heliogabalus, and after his foster father’s murder, succeeded him as emperor. Alexander continued the friendly policy… …   Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament

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