Severus: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 5 Part 3

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Sending a severed head is rarely a sign of affection.  Severus did not hold much truck with the Senate, or anyone else who might get in his way either. 

He brought to his reign the kind of casual brutality that was perhaps appropriate to leading troops but wasn’t the norm even in the violent atmosphere of Rome. He was no psycopath.  He used force to achieve his ends rationally.  But force rather than persuasion was his preferred means.

He did not really go in for mercy or forgiveness, but he did go in for calculation.  On taking control of Rome the children of Albinus fell into his hands.  This may have been one of the reasons, possibly the only reason, Albinus was so accomodating to a rival.  Initially, they were kept in the household of Severus with his own children.  When the war broke out they were exiled. When Albinus was killed, so were they.

Rough treatment of defeated enemies was one the signatures of Severus. When famine finally forced  Byzantium to surrender, the town officials and the defending soldiers were all killed.  The walls were demolished and the city was put under the jurisdiction of nearby Perinthus. This was considered unwise even at the time.  Byzantium occupied a key strategic point between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. 

But to be fair to Severus, he rarely let his desire for revenge go so far as to actually weaken the Empire.  He mainly used violence simply as a means of maintaining power.  He was a military man.  He had come to power as a result of the military.  He maintained his position as a result of the military. 

Rome, it is true, had in reality been simply a military dictatorship since the time of  Augustus.  But where that artful tyrant had hidden reality, Severus simply saw no need to do so.  He was a wily enough character: he could have played along with the Senate if he had wanted to.  But he knew where his true power lay.  After defeating Albinus he purged the Senate of suspected supporters of his opponent.  Forty one of them were killed along with their families and retainers.  A similar fate was meted out to the officials in Gaul and Spain who had backed the wrong horse.

Severus did not keep this up.  It was just a sign of the kind of emperor he intended to be, i.e, a tough one.  He intended to rule effectively.  Corruption was stamped out in civil affairs.  But he indulged the army, raising their regular pay to hitherto unheard of levels and dishing out lavish donatives whenever a suitable occasion arose.  He created a new Praetorian Guard four times larger than the one he had dismissed.  I imagine his reasoning was that with 50,000 men under his direct control in the capital it would be difficult for one of the border generals to launch a strike at Rome and take control quickly, as he himself had done.

Up until now the Praetorian Guard had been recruited exclusively in Italy.  Severus reversed this policy, and instead picked the best troops from the legions on the borders.  These legionaries hadn’t been Italian for a long time.  So now the capital of the Roman empire was guarded  by non-Romans.  Severus himself was an African of Berber extraction.  What was nominally a Roman republic had not in reality been a republic for some time.   Increasingly, it was becoming less Roman.  And the Italians were increasingly excluded from the army, the only source of power.

The Praetorian Prefect was now the effective day to day manager of the government.  He was responsible not only for the guards themselves, but also the legal system and the treasury.   Senators were appointed from the Eastern half of the empire, where the days of the republic were not even a distant memory and where absolute monarchy was the default governing system.  The idea that the emperors themselves should be subject to the law was fading.

The first Praetorian prefect to wield these powers was Plautianus – one of the comrades in arms of Severus.  He held the post for ten years. His daughter married the eldest son of Severus. This could have been the basis for a new dynasty, but Plautianus got caught up in some internal palace politics and Severus, apparently reluctantly ordered him beheaded.

Plautianus was succeeded by Papinian.  Papinian was a lawyer.  He was quite a famous lawyer in fact.  It is interesting how often lawyers end up in this sort of position throughout history, but that is probably a subject for another podcast.  Why should a lawyer be in charge of a section of the army?  Well given that the Praetorian prefect was in charge of justice it did make some sense.  But I think the real reason was that ambitious people like Papinian had worked out that the army was now the only  game in town.

Severus was exceptionally indulgent of his soldiers.  I have already talked about the pay. On top of that discipline was relaxed.  Personal jewellery was permitted.  They were allowed to live with their wives.  What the citizens of Rome made of these highly paid and pampered foreigners lording it over them we can only imagine.  A letter has survived from the end of his reign where Severus laments the loosening of discipline and calls for a tightening up.  But an absolute ruler cannot avoid the full responsibility for the conduct of his most favoured servants.

To his contemporaries Severus would have seemed to be a success.  He fought several successful campaigns and eliminated corruption.   But his emphasis on the army at the expense of everything else must have had a harmful effect on the development of the economy.  All those well paid troops had to be paid for out of taxes.  And anyone of ability would realise that the only way to get on was to get a command in the forces. 

The shortcomings of the approach taken by Severus would not become apparent until long afterwards. But the removal of the fig leaf of the constitution was to weaken the state by concentrating even more power into the hands of an already over mighty office. Gibbon concluded:

The contemporaries of Severus in the enjoyment of the peace and glory of his reign, forgave the cruelties by which it had been introduced. Posterity, who experienced the fatal effects of his maxims and example justly considered him as the principal author of the decline of the Roman empire.

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