Thanks in large part to his capable advisors, Severus Alexander’s reign was exemplary and benevolent. As Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus, he held his second consulship in 226 and his third in 229, together with the noted historian Cassius Dio. Of his principal advisors, his grandmother Julia Maesa died around 224 or 226, and two years later, in 228, Domitius Ulpianus was killed when dissatisfied praetorians revolted against him as he tried to curb their privileges (his successor as praetorian prefect was Julius Paulus, also a famous jurist). The young emperor, still a teenager, continued to rely on his mother’s advice and that of his consilium principis. Alexander also tried to cooperate with the Senate, for instance in the election of consuls, which were only nominated after careful deliberation in the Senate House. The emperor sought the consent of the Senate before appointing his praetorian prefects and left the nomination of the praefecti urbi (city prefects) to the senators themselves. The Senate was also involved in the selection of provincial governors (i.e. imperial legati) and of priests.
As emperor, Alexander was known for his religious tolerance, which set him apart from his predecessors. He reversed Septimius Severus’ harsh policy against Jews and Christians. “He respected the privileges of the Jews and allowed the Christians to exist unmolested”, according to his biography in the Historia Augusta. This curious work of semi-history also claims the emperor had in his personal lararium an eclectic set of images and portraits. He had statues of deified emperors, of which he had chosen the best, but also of “saints” (animas sanctiores) like the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, Jesus Christ, Abraham and Orpheus. Among the portraits of his ancestors was an image of Alexander the Great. The Historia Augusta further states that Alexander had plans to build a temple for Christ and make him a god. These plans were abandoned when the haruspices inspected the entrails of the sacrificial animals and “discovered” that if he built such a temple, everyone would convert to Christianity and nobody would visit the pagan temples anymore.
When a conflict emerged between a group of Christians and the owners of a tavern (popinarii) over a certain place, which had previously been public property, the emperor awarded the place to the Christians. His reasoning was that it was better that a god was worshipped there than that the place was used for profane activities like running a tavern. The emperor was fond of the well-known and popular saying “”Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris” – do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you – which he picked up in Jewish and Christian circles and which he had written down in the palace and on public buildings. Still, the emperor was not a crypto-Christian. He was very much devoted to traditional Roman religion and showed great respect to traditional priestly colleges like the pontifices, the augures and the quindecemviri sacris faciendis, the keepers of the sacred Sibylline Books. As emperor, he was a member of all three. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, his mother Julia Mamaea, while in Alexandria, had close contact with the famous Christian theologian Origenes.
The first part of Alexander’s reign was largely peaceful. The Parthians, Rome’s eastern nemesis, were embroiled in a death struggle against the forces of a Persian nobleman called Ardashir (Artaxerxes in Roman and Greek sources). The Parthian king Artabanus IV had tried to quell Ardashir’s rebellion, but was defeated on several occasions. In April of 224, his forces were annihilated by the Persians, the king himself was killed and the Parthian Empire was destroyed. Ardashir founded a new dynasty and became the ruler of the Sassanid Empire, named after his grandfather Sassan, which would arguably become a much greater threat to the Roman Empire that the Parthian Empire had ever been. But it would still be a couple of years before the Sassanid king had his hands free to execute his plans to reforge the Achaemenid Empire and claim back many territories that had been Roman for centuries. Ardashir first had to deal with Artabanus’ brother Vologases, who still controlled parts of the former Parthian Empire. For now, the Roman-Sassanid border was at peace, but it was the eerie silence before the storm.
At home, Alexander and his advisors ruled the Empire wisely and mostly without bloodshed. There were some problems in the imperial palace, however. Alexander’s mother Mamaea had arranged a marriage between her son and a girl named Sallustia Orbiana, who was the daughter of Seius Sallustius, a senator. The marriage, which took place in 225 or 226, proved to be a happy one, but Mamaea soon became jealous of the new Augusta and started to bully and abuse her and her father. Seius Sallustius fled to the barracks of the praetorians and complained to the emperor. But since Alexander did not dare stand up to his mother, Seius was executed and the emperor’s wife was chased out of the palace and banished to Africa, where she probably died some years later. Alexander may have remarried, but a second wife called Memmia, a consul’s daughter, is only mentioned in the Historia Augusta.
Alexander was bilingual, but coming from the eastern part of the Roman Empire, he preferred Greek to Latin, though he much enjoyed Cicero’s works. He was a modest man and forbade others to worship him (he would, however, be deified after his death). He also forbade men and women to bathe together, reversing the relaxed rules instituted by Elagabalus, who in turn had abolished an old ban that had been imposed by Marcus Aurelius himself. He was strict, but lenient as a judge and hated corruption. So in sum, Severus Alexander did quite well as an emperor in times of peace. But how would he fare in times of war?
- Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book 80;
- Eusebius, Church History 6.21;
- Herodianus, The Roman Histories VI.1-2;
- Historia Augusta, Severus Alexander, 3, 12, 14, 15, 20, 22, 24, 26, 27, 29, 30, 43, 46, 49, 51, 68.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 81-82;
- Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 584-586.
Updated 1 January 2023.