Bust of Severus Alexander, Musei Capitolini
|Reign||13 March 222 – 19 March 235|
|Born||1 October 208|
Arca Caesarea, Phoenicia (modern Akkar, Lebanon)
|Died||19 March 235 (aged 26)|
Moguntiacum, Germania Superior (Mainz, Germany)
|Father||Uncertain, possibly Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus|
|Mother||Julia Avita Mamaea|
|Religion||Syncretism of pagan, Orphic and Christian beliefs|
Alexander was the heir to his cousin, the 18-year-old Emperor Elagabalus, who had been murdered along with his mother Julia Soaemias, by his own guards, who, as a mark of contempt, had their remains cast into the Tiber river. He and his cousin were both grandsons of the very influential and powerful woman Julia Maesa, who had arranged for Elagabalus' acclamation as emperor by the famous Third Gallic Legion. It was the rumor of Alexander's death that triggered the assassination of Elagabalus and his mother.
Alexander's 13-year reign was the longest reign of a sole emperor since Antoninus Pius. He was also the second-youngest ever sole legal Roman Emperor during the existence of the united empire, the youngest being Gordian III. Alexander's peacetime reign was prosperous. However, Rome was militarily confronted with the rising Sassanid Empire and growing incursions from the tribes of Germania. He managed to check the threat of the Sassanids. But when campaigning against Germanic tribes, Alexander attempted to bring peace by engaging in diplomacy and bribery. This alienated many in the Roman Army, leading to a conspiracy that resulted in the assassination of Alexander and his mother Julia Avita Mamaea and the accession of Maximinus Thrax. Alexander's death marked the epoch event for the Crisis of the Third Century—nearly 50 years of civil wars, foreign invasion, and collapse of the monetary economy.
The future emperor Severus Alexander was born on 1 October 208 in Arca Caesarea, Phoenicia. Of his birth name, only two cognomina are known, from literary sources: Bassianus (Greek: Βασσιανός) according to the historian Cassius Dio, and Alexianus (Greek: Αλεξιανός) according to Herodian. It seems likely that Bassianus was his family name, since several of his relatives were also called as such, and Alexianus his actual given name, which was later converted to Alexander.
The historian Cassius Dio thought Alexianus was the son of Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus, but Icks disputes this, saying the latter could not have married the emperor's mother before 212 and that Alexianus must've been fathered by his mother's first husband, who is of unknown name but of certain existence.
Severus Alexander became emperor when he was around 14 years old, making him the youngest emperor in Rome's history, until the ascension of Gordian III. Alexander's grandmother Maesa believed that he had more potential to rule than her other grandson, the increasingly unpopular emperor Elagabalus. Thus, to preserve her own position, she had Elagabalus adopt the young Alexander and then arranged for Elagabalus' assassination, securing the throne for Alexander. The Roman army hailed Alexander as emperor on 13 March 222, immediately conferring on him the titles of Augustus, pater patriae and pontifex maximus.
Throughout his life, Alexander relied heavily on guidance from his grandmother, Maesa, and then mother, Julia Mamaea. Maesa died in 224, leaving Mamaea as the sole influence upon Alexander's actions. As a young, immature, and inexperienced adolescent, Alexander knew little about government, warcraft, or the role of ruling over an empire. In time, however, the army came to admire what Jasper Burns refers to as "his simple virtues and moderate behavior, so different from [Elagabalus]".
Under the influence of his mother, Alexander did much to improve the morals and condition of the people, and to enhance the dignity of the state. He employed noted jurists to oversee the administration of justice, such as the famous jurist Ulpian. His advisers were men like the senator and historian Cassius Dio, and it is claimed that he created a select board of 16 senators, although this claim is disputed. He also created a municipal council of 14 who assisted the urban prefect in administering the affairs of the 14 districts of Rome. Excessive luxury and extravagance at the imperial court were diminished, and he restored the Baths of Nero in 227 or 229; consequently, they are sometimes also known as the Baths of Alexander after him.
Upon his accession he reduced the silver purity of the denarius from 46.5% to 43%—the actual silver weight dropped from 1.41 grams to 1.30 grams; however, in 229 he revalued the denarius, increasing the silver purity and weight to 45% and 1.46 grams. The following year he decreased the amount of base metal in the denarius while adding more silver, raising the silver purity and weight again to 50.5% and 1.50 grams. Additionally, during his reign taxes were lightened; literature, art and science were encouraged; and, for the convenience of the people, loan offices were instituted for lending money at a moderate rate of interest.
In religious matters, Alexander preserved an open mind. According to the Historia Augusta, he wished to erect a temple to Jesus but was dissuaded by the pagan priests; however, much of this book is full of falsifications and modern scholars deem it almost completely untrustworthy. He allowed a synagogue to be built in Rome, and he gave as a gift to this synagogue a scroll of the Torah known as the Severus Scroll.
In legal matters, Alexander did much to aid the rights of his soldiers. He confirmed that soldiers could name anyone as heirs in their will, whereas civilians had strict restrictions over who could become heirs or receive a legacy. He also confirmed that soldiers could free their slaves in their wills, protected the rights of soldiers to their property when they were on campaign, and reasserted that a soldier's property acquired in or because of military service (his castrense peculium) could be claimed by no one else, not even the soldier's father.
On the whole, Alexander's reign was prosperous until the rise, in the east, of the Sassanids under Ardashir I. In 231 AD, Ardeshir invaded the Roman provinces of the east, overrunning Mesopotamia and penetrating possibly as far as Syria and Cappadocia, forcing from the young Alexander a vigorous response. Of the war that followed there are various accounts. According to the most detailed authority, Herodian, the Roman armies suffered a number of humiliating setbacks and defeats, while according to the Historia Augusta as well as Alexander's own dispatch to the Roman Senate, he gained great victories. Making Antioch his base, he organized in 233 a three-fold invasion of the Sassanian Empire; at the head of the main body he himself advanced to recapture northern Mesopotamia, while another army invaded Media through the mountains of Armenia, and a third advanced from the south in the direction of Babylon. The northernmost army gained some success, fighting in mountainous territory favorable to the Roman infantry, but the southern army was surrounded and destroyed by Ardashir's skilful horse-archers, and Alexander himself retreated after an indecisive campaign, his army wracked by indiscipline and disease. Further losses were incurred by the retreating northern army in the inclement cold of Armenia as it retired into winter quarters, due to an incompetent failure to establish adequate supply lines. Still, Mesopotamia was retaken, and Ardashir was not thereafter able to extend his conquests, though his son, Shapur, would obtain some success later in the century.
Although the Sassanids were checked for the time, the conduct of the Roman army showed an extraordinary lack of discipline. In 232, there was a mutiny in the Syrian legion, which proclaimed Taurinus emperor. Alexander managed to suppress the uprising, and Taurinus drowned while attempting to flee across the Euphrates. The emperor returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph in 233.
Alexander's reign was also characterized by a significant breakdown of military discipline. In 228, the Praetorian Guard murdered their prefect, Ulpian, in Alexander's presence. Alexander could not openly punish the ringleader of the riot, and instead removed him to nominal post of honor in Egypt and then Crete, where he was "quietly put out of the way" sometime after the excitement had abated. The soldiers then fought a three-day battle against the populace of Rome, and this battle ended after several parts of the city were set on fire.
Dio was among those who gave a highly critical account of military discipline during the time, saying that the soldiers would rather just surrender to the enemy. Different reasons are given for this issue; Campbell points to
"...the decline in the prestige of the Severan dynasty, the feeble nature of Alexander himself, who appeared to be no soldier and to be completely dominated by his mother's advice, and lack of real military success at a time during which the empire was coming under increasing pressure."
Herodian, on the other hand, was convinced that "the emperor's miserliness (partly the result of his mother's greed) and slowness to bestow donatives" were instrumental in the fall of military discipline under Alexander.
After the Persian war, Alexander returned to Antioch with the famous Origen, one of the greatest Fathers of the Christian Church. Alexander's mother, Julia Mamaea, asked for Origen to tutor Alexander in Christianity.
While Alexander was being educated in the Christian doctrines, the northern portion of his empire was being invaded by Germanic and Sarmatian tribes. A new and menacing enemy started to emerge directly after Alexander's success in the Persian war. In 234, the barbarians crossed the Rhine and Danube in hordes that caused alarm as far as Rome. The soldiers serving under Alexander, already demoralized after their costly war against the Persians, were further discontented with their emperor when their homes were destroyed by the barbarian invaders.
As word of the invasion spread, the Emperor took the front line and went to battle against the Germanic invaders. The Romans prepared heavily for the war, building a fleet to carry the entire army across. However, at this point in Alexander's career, he still knew little about being a general. Because of this, he hoped the mere threat of his armies would be sufficient to persuade the hostile tribes to surrender. Severus enforced a strict military discipline in his men that sparked a rebellion among his legions. Due to incurring heavy losses against the Persians, and on the advice of his mother, Alexander attempted to buy the Germanic tribes off, so as to gain time.
It was this decision that resulted in the legionaries looking down upon Alexander. They considered him dishonorable and feared he was unfit to be Emperor. Under these circumstances the army swiftly looked to replace Alexander.
Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus was the next best option. He was a soldier from Thrace who had a golden reputation and was working hard to increase his military status. He was also a man with superior personal strength, who rose to his present position from a peasant background. With the Thracian's hailing came the end of the Severan Dynasty, and, with the growing animosity of Severus' army towards him, the path for his assassination was paved.
Alexander was forced to face his German enemies in the early months of 235. By the time he and his mother arrived, the situation had settled, and so his mother convinced him that to avoid violence, trying to bribe the German army to surrender was the more sensible course of action. According to historians, it was this tactic combined with insubordination from his own men that destroyed his reputation and popularity. Pusillanimity was responsible for the revolt of Alexander's army, resulting in Severus falling victim to the swords of his own men, following the nomination of Maximinus as emperor.
Alexander was assassinated on 19 March 235, together with his mother, in a mutiny of the Legio XXII Primigenia at Moguntiacum (Mainz) while at a meeting with his generals. These assassinations secured the throne for Maximinus.
Lampridius documents two theories that elaborate on Severus's assassination. The first claims that the disaffection of Mamaea was the main motive behind the homicide. However, Lampridius makes it clear that he is more supportive of an alternative theory, that Alexander was murdered in Sicilia (located in Britain).
This theory has it that, in an open tent after his lunch, Alexander was consulting with his insubordinate troops, who compared him to his cousin Elagabalus, the divisive and unpopular Emperor whose own assassination paved the way for Alexander's reign. A German servant entered the tent and initiated the call for Alexander's assassination, at which point many of the troops joined in the attack. Alexander's attendants fought against the other troops but could not hold off the combined might of those seeking the Emperor's assassination. Within minutes, Alexander was dead. His mother Julia Mamaea was in the same tent with Alexander and soon fell victim to the same group of assassins.
Alexander’s body was buried together with the body of his mother Julia Manaea in a mausoleum in Rome. The actual mausoleum, called Monte di Grano, is the third in size in Rome after the ones of Hadrian and of Augustus. It is still visible in Piazza dei Tribuni, in the Quadraro area in Rome, where it resembles a large earth mound. The large sarcophagus found inside the tomb in the 16th century, and which contained the emperor’s remains, is in the Palazzo dei Conservatori Museum in Rome. According to some sources inside the same sarcophagus in 1582 a precious glass urn was found, the Portland Vase, currently on display at the British Museum in London.
Alexander's death marked the end of the Severan dynasty. He was the last of the Syrian emperors and the first emperor to be overthrown by military discontent on a wide scale. After his death his economic policies were completely discarded, and the Roman currency was devalued; this signaled the beginning of the chaotic period known as the Crisis of the Third Century, which brought the empire to the brink of collapse.
Alexander's death at the hands of his troops can also be seen as the heralding of a new role for Roman emperors. Though they were not yet expected to personally fight in battle during Alexander's time, emperors were increasingly expected to display general competence in military affairs. Thus, Alexander's taking of his mother's advice to not get involved in battle, his dishonorable and unsoldierly methods of dealing with the Germanic threat, and the relative failure of his military campaign against the Persians were all deemed highly unacceptable by the soldiers. Indeed, Maximinus was able to overthrow Alexander by "harping on his own military excellence in contrast to that feeble coward". Yet by arrogating the power to dethrone their emperor, the legions paved the way for a half-century of widespread chaos and instability.
Although the Senate declared the emperor and his rule damned upon the report of his death and the ascension of a replacement emperor, Alexander was deified after the death of Maximinus in 238. His damnatio memoriae was also reversed after Maximinus's death.
Perhaps his most tangible legacy was the emergence in the 16th Century of the 'Barberini vase'. This was allegedly found at the mausoleum of the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus and his family at Monte Del Grano. The discovery of the vase is described by Pietro Santi Bartoli and referenced on page 28 of a book on The Portland Vase. Pietro Bartoli indicates that the vase contained the ashes of Severus Alexander. However, this together with the interpretations of the scenes depicted are the source of countless theories and disputed 'facts'. The vase passed through the hands of Sir William Hamilton Ambassador to the Royal Court in Naples and was later sold to the Duke and Duchess of Portland, and has subsequently been known as the Portland Vase. Following catastrophic damage in 1845, this vase (1-25BC) has been reconstructed three times and resides in the British Museum. The Portland vase itself was borrowed and near copied by Josiah Wedgewood who appears to have added modesty drapery. The vase formed the basis of Jasperware.
Alexander was married three times. His most famous wife was Sallustia Orbiana, Augusta, whom he married in 225 when she was 16 years old. Their marriage was arranged by Alexander's mother, Mamaea. However, as soon as Orbiana received the title of Augusta, Mamaea became increasingly jealous and resentful of Alexander's wife due to Mamaea's excessive desire of all regal female titles. Alexander divorced and exiled Orbiana in 227, after her father, Seius Sallustius, was executed after being accused of treason.
Alexander's second wife was Sulpicia Memmia, a member of one of the most ancient Patrician families in Rome. Her father was a man of consular rank; her grandfather's name was Catulus.
The identity of Alexander's third wife is unknown. Alexander did not father children with any of his wives.
According to the Augustan History, a late Roman work containing biographies of emperors and others, and considered by scholars to be a work of very dubious historical reliability, Alexander prayed every morning in his private chapel. He was extremely tolerant of Jews and Christians alike. He continued all privileges towards Jews during his reign, and the Augustan History relates that Alexander placed images of Abraham and Jesus in his oratory, along with other Roman deities and classical figures.
Also according to the Historia Augusta, Alexander's "chief amusement consisted in having young dogs play with little pigs." 
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- Dio, 60:20:2
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- A handful of emperors since Antoninus Pius reigned for longer than 13 years, but for some or most of their reign they were co-emperors with others and therefore they were sole emperor for less than 13 years.
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- Jasper Burns, Great Women of Imperial Rome: Mothers and Wives of the Caesars (London: Routledge, 2006), 214. ISBN 1134131852
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- Herodian, Roman history, book 6, chapter 7
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- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Alexander Severus". Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 567. Although a few phrases appear to be copied from this encyclopedia, all of them are attributed here to primary sources.
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Severus AlexanderBorn: 1 October 208 Died: 19 March 235
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with Cassius Dio
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