Septimius Severus: The Years 201-203

Arch of Septimius Severus on the Forum Romanum.

Now chronology becomes so confused and uncertain that I will discuss multiple years at once. My reconstruction is in large part based on speculation and there are only a few dates that we know for certain. We know that Septimius Severus became consul for the second time on 1 January 202, together with his eldest son, the future emperor Caracalla. We also know that the emperor’s praetorian prefect Fulvius Plautianus, who like Septimius was from Leptis Magna in Africa Proconsularis, was consul in 203. So let us try to reconstruct what other events took place between 201 and 203.

Return to Rome

Assuming the emperor’s excursion to Egypt was so lengthy that he spent part of 201 in the province, we can assume he returned to Rome via the eastern route. As consul, he was expected to spend at least part of the year in Rome itself. Herodianus writes:

“When he had settled affairs in the East, Severus returned to Rome, bringing with him his sons, who were then about eighteen years of age.[1] On the journey he handled provincial problems as each situation demanded, and paid a visit to the troops in Moesia and Pannonia. His trip completed, he was welcomed as “Conqueror” by the Roman people with extravagant praise and adoration.”

So Septimius would have again travelled through Palestine and Syria, the Taurus Mountains, Asia Minor, the Balkans and finally Italy, before entering the Eternal City. A visit to the garrisons in Moesia and Pannonia would have been especially apt, as it had been these forces that had won him his imperial robes. Septimius Severus had been declared emperor in April or May of 193, and had actually been emperor since June of that year, so in April, May or June of 202 he would have celebrated the first decade of his reign (the number zero was unknown to the Romans, so a decade was celebrated after nine years were completed). The Decennalia must have been a grand spectacle, with presents for the population, rewards for the soldiers and games in which many wild animals were killed, including – according to Dio – an elephant and a crocota, possibly an hyena. It is possible that around this time, a ban on female gladiators was instituted. For his victories in the East over the Parthians, the emperor started the construction of a triumphal arch on the Forum Romanum, which would be completed the following year (see the image above).

Bust of Caracalla (Capitoline Museums, Rome)

Bust of Caracalla (Capitoline Museums, Rome)

Also around this time, the marriage between Caracalla (named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) and Fulvia Plautilla, daughter of the praetorian prefect Plautianus, took place. Septimius and Plautianus were old friends and probably distant relatives. They were both from Leptis Magna in Africa, and according to a less than favourable tradition mentioned by Herodianus, the latter had actually been the former’s lover. In any case, the emperor favoured his friend, had made him a praetorian prefect and nominated him for the consulship of 203. The marriage between Caracalla and Plautilla, however, did not prove to be a happy one. Caracalla loathed the girl and her father, and refused to sleep with her or even live with her under the same roof.


Septimius Severus was a native of North Africa and never forgot his roots. His home city of Leptis Magna had for centuries been in Carthage’s zone of influence and after the destruction of the latter by the Romans had seen a fusion of Berber, Punic, Greek and Roman cultural elements. In 111 BCE, the citizens of Leptis had become ‘friends and allies of the Roman people’. Septimius in his youth probably spoke Punic and since he was from a family of Roman equestrians, he learned Latin as a second language. He spoke the language well, despite retaining a slight African accent until old age (he would probably have pronounced his name as Sheptimius Sheverus). According to the Historia Augusta, the emperor had a sister who spoke no Latin at all. Septimius seems to have been quite ashamed of her.

It is to Historia Augusta that we must turns for some information on Severus’ African campaign of – presumably – 202-203. In fact, this campaign is so poorly documented that we can describe it in one line:

“He freed Tripolis, the region of his birth, from fear of attack by crushing sundry warlike tribes”.

The Arch of Septimius Severus in Leptis Magna (photo: David Gunn).

Tripolis refers to the three most important cities in the region: Oea (modern-day Tripoli in Libya), Sabratha and Leptis Magna. The region was often harassed by the Garamantines, a nomadic Berber tribe that frequently crossed the Sahara border – the Limes Tripolitanus – to pillage Roman territories. Although details of the expedition have not survived, it seems to have been launched in late 202 or early 203, when temperatures were still tolerable. The military intervention must have been a success and will have led to a more secure border. It may also have been around this time that Septimius Severus created the imperial province of Numidia, further to the West, which was split from the province of Africa. It was the legate of Numidia, and not the proconsul of Africa, that commanded the sole legion in the region, Legio III Augusta. Earlier dates for the creation of Numidia as a province are also given, but it seems reasonable to me to assume Severus created it when he was actually in North Africa.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 64-69;
  • Jona Lendering, Limes Tripolitanus;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 571-573.


[1] Incorrect, in early 202, Caracalla would have been 13 or 14, Geta about 12 or 13.

Updated 30 December 2022.


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