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This Week In History

The death of Severus. February 4, 211.

In 208 Septimius Severus travelled to Britain with the intention of conquering Caledonia. He probably arrived in Britain with an army over 40,000, considering some of the camps constructed during his campaign could house this number.

He strengthened Hadrian’s Wall and reconquered the Southern Uplands up to the Antonine Wall, which was also enhanced. Severus then thrust north with his army across the wall into Caledonian territory. Retracing the steps of Agricola of over a century before, Severus rebuilt and garrisoned many abandoned Roman forts along the east coast, such as Carpow. He was supported and supplied by a strong naval force.

Cassius Dio‘s account of the invasion reads:

Severus, accordingly, desiring to subjugate the whole of it, invaded Caledonia. But as he advanced through the country he experienced countless hardships in cutting down the forests, levelling the heights, filling up the swamps, and bridging the rivers; but he fought no battle and beheld no enemy in battle array. The enemy purposely put sheep and cattle in front of the soldiers for them to seize, in order that they might be lured on still further until they were worn out; for in fact the water caused great suffering to the Romans, and when they became scattered, they would be attacked. Then, unable to walk, they would be slain by their own men, in order to avoid capture, so that a full fifty thousand died. But Severus did not desist until he approached the extremity of the island. Here he observed most accurately the variation of the sun’s motion and the length of the days and the nights in summer and winter respectively. Having thus been conveyed through practically the whole of the hostile country (for he actually was conveyed in a covered litter most of the way, on account of his infirmity), he returned to the friendly portion, after he had forced the Britons to come to terms, on the condition that they should abandon a large part of their territory.

By 210 Severus’ campaigning had made significant gains, despite Caledonian guerrilla tactics and purportedly heavy Roman casualties. The Caledonians sued for peace, which Severus granted on condition they relinquish control of the Central Lowlands. This is evidenced by extensive Severan-era fortifications in the Central Lowlands. The Caledonians, short on supplies and feeling that their position was desperate, revolted later that year with the Maeatae. Severus prepared for another protracted campaign within Caledonia. He was now intent on exterminating the Caledonians, telling his soldiers: “Let no-one escape sheer destruction, no-one our hands, not even the babe in the womb of the mother, if it be male; let it nevertheless not escape sheer destruction.”

Severus’ campaign was cut short when he fell ill. He withdrew to Eboracum (York) and died there in 211. Although his son Caracalla continued campaigning the following year, he soon settled for peace. The Romans never campaigned deep into Caledonia again. Shortly after this the frontier was permanently withdrawn south to Hadrian’s Wall.

Severus is famously said to have given the advice to his sons: “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, scorn all others” before he died on 4 February 211. On his death, Severus was deified by the Senate and succeeded by his sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were advised by his wife Julia Domna. Severus was buried in the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome. His remains are now lost.

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