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This Week In History

The death of Septimius Severus. February 4, 211.

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By 210, Septimius Severus‘ campaigning had made significant gains in Britain, despite Caledonian guerrilla tactics and heavy Roman casualties. The Caledonians sued for peace, which Severus granted on condition they gave up control of the Central Lowlands.

The Caledonians, short on supplies and feeling their position was becoming desperate, revolted later that year along 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 fatally ill. He withdrew to Eboracum and died there in February 211. He is famously said to have given the advice to his sons: “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men” before he died.  Although his son Caracalla continued campaigning the following year, he soon settled for peace. The Romans never campaigned deep into Caledonia again: they soon withdrew south permanently to Hadrian’s Wall.

Upon his death, Severus was deified by the Senate and succeeded by his sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were advised by his wife Julia Domna.

Though his military expenditure was costly to the empire, Severus was a strong and able ruler. According to Gibbon, “his daring ambition was never diverted from its steady course by the allurements of pleasure, the apprehension of danger, or the feelings of humanity.” His enlargement of the Limes Tripolitanus secured Africa, the agricultural base of the empire where he was born. His victory over the Parthian Empire was for a time decisive, securing Nisibis and Singara for the Empire and establishing a status quo for Roman dominance in the region until 251.

In order to maintain his enlarged military he debased the Roman currency drastically. Upon his accession he decreased the silver purity of the denarius from 81.5% to 78.5%. However, the silver weight actually increased, rising from 2.40 grams to 2.46 grams. Nevertheless, the following year he debased the denarius substantially because of rising military expenditures. The silver purity decreased from 78.5% to 64.5% — the silver weight dropping from 2.46 grams to 1.98 grams. In 196 he reduced the purity and silver weight of the denarius again, to 54% and 1.82 grams respectively. Severus’ currency debasement was the largest since the reign of Nero, compromising the long-term strength of the economy.

 

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