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Propaganda of Emperor Septimius Severus during civil war

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Arch of Septimius Severus at night
Arch of Septimius Severus at night

The civil war of 193-197 was an extremely important event in the history of ancient Rome. After the death of Commodus, several candidates competed for the imperial purple. The ultimate winner of this conflict was to be Septimius Severus. In achieving political and military success, he was undoubtedly helped by a well-thought-out and effective propaganda program.

The fact that he controlled Rome for most of the civil war made it even easier for him to consolidate his political position. Thanks to this, he had much more opportunities to influence the main means of disseminating propaganda available at that time. One of the most important was control over the Roman mint, which minted coins that promoted Severus’ political agenda. He also had power over the Senate, which, despite its small prerogatives, still played an extremely important role in the Roman political system. He also used art, the image of his own family, and important state ceremonies and holidays.

From the very beginning of his rule, Septimius Severus was able to use his control over the capital of the Empire for political purposes. After the victory over Didius Julian, Severus made the so-called adventus, i.e. a ceremonial entry into the city. Soon after, he organized a public funeral (funus publicum) and the deification of Pertinax, murdered by the praetorians. These events were witnessed by the historian Cassius Dio, who described the adventus as the greatest spectacle he had ever seen. This event must have made a great impression on the inhabitants of Rome and showed the extraordinary prestige of the new ruler. From an ideological point of view, the funeral of Pertynaks was a much more important event. Severus legitimized his rule in this way. For his official title, he adopted the name Pertinax and declared himself the avenger of the murdered emperor. He also replaced the old Praetorian Guard with his trusted soldiers. In this way, he was trying to emphasize that he was not a usurper like the rest of the participants in the civil war, but the rightful successor of the previous emperor. Referring to the figure of Pertynax was extremely beneficial, the emperor did not reign long enough to distract the population in any way, so more or less idealized character traits could be attributed to him. The events described above were also reflected in the emperor’s monetary propaganda. One of the coins showed a portrait of the deified Emperor Pertinax with the meaningful legend CONSECRATIO. Interestingly, Severus showed respect to the family of the previous emperor, including his son. It was a very risky move because in the future it could be a threat to the dynastic policy of Severus himself.

[frame_ze_zdjeciem img=”107457″ imgw=”600″ alt=”Coin minted in honor of the consecration of Pertynaks” float=”center”]Coin minted in honor of the consecration of Pertynaks. On the obverse, the head of the emperor with the legend DIVVS PERT PIVS PATER. The reverse shows an eagle on the globe accompanied by the meaningful legend of CONSECRATIO.[/ramka_ze_zdjeciem]

Historians have also given us stories about Septimius Severus that circulated among the people of Rome. They concerned, among others, Severus’ dreams, in which the imperial purple had already been predicted to him. In one of the dreams, the future emperor was to see Pertinax fall from his horse and himself take his place.

Septimius Severus, like few other emperors so far, based his power primarily on the army. His famous deathbed words to his sons perfectly capture his attitude towards the military and its importance: Live in harmony, make soldiers rich, and otherwise you can despise everything. One of the first coin issues of the new emperor was also very telling. Septimius Severus decided to honour practically all the legions that supported his rule.

Aureus minted 193 CE The reverse shows a legend honoring the legion XIIII and two legionary signs, between them aquila.

The popular issue of legionary coins was also accompanied by a series of coins generally associated with war, victory, liberation and peace. One of the most popular motifs was, of course, the image of Victoria. Septimius Severus also appears on coins as the guarantor of peace in the state (FVNDATOR PACIS). These motifs were in line with the imperial ideology and did not constitute a new trend. Septimius Severus, from the very beginning, tried to simply present himself as a strong, invincible leader, both political and military.

The changing political situation during the civil war showed how clever and effective Severus was as a politician. He was able to adapt to the current political conditions and use them to achieve his goals. After the final victory over Niger, Severus began to change his political agenda. He abandoned the role of the avenger Emperor Pertinax to build his own dynasty. In the summer of 195 CE, he adopted his family to the family of Marcus Aurelius, i.e. to the Antonin dynasty. Officially, he claimed to be his son and thus became the brother of the hated emperor Commodus. In this way, Septimius Severus tried to create the appearance of continuity of dynastic power and refer to the times of the rule of the Antonine dynasty, commonly regarded as a period of prosperity and peace. This political turn necessarily required a change of attitude towards Emperor Commodus, who was sentenced to damnatio memoriae. After all, Severus could not be the brother of a person condemned to oblivion. So he led to the deification of the emperor so hated by the senate. This consecration also received a commemorative series of coins. However, Severus did not stop at adopting himself. He also named his son Caracalla Caesar, thus designating him as his successor.

Adoption to the Antonine family meant that the whole family was similar to their predecessors in terms of propaganda. For example, Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, took the title mater castrorum (mother of legionary camps), the same title that Marcus Aurelius’ wife Faustyna the Younger had.

Severus’ affiliation was also reflected in art. Both the emperor and his family were similar to their predecessors.

Monetary portrait of Septimius Severus on the left, Marcus Aurelius. Both portraits have a similar face shape, hairstyle, and beard.

It is also worth mentioning how Septimius Severus presented his opponents in the civil war. In fact, civil war was not mentioned in his political program, because it was considered something wicked. Officially, against Didius Julian, he led a “conciliation” expedition to Rome (expeditionis felicissimae urbicae). The expedition to Asia was directed against public enemies outlawed by the senate (felicissimae expeditionis Asianae adversus hostes publicos). During the fight with Clodius Albinus, Severus suppressed the Gallic faction (oppressit factionem Gallicanam). This example shows that “special ops” was popular a long time ago.

It is also impossible not to mention the monumental buildings built by this emperor, and above all the most recognizable of them, i.e. triumphant arch standing to this day in the Forum Romanum.

It is true that it was created a bit later, in 203 CE, and officially built to celebrate the victorious war with the Parthians, however, there are indications that this monumental monument to the victories of Septimius Severus also referred to the civil war. In keeping with Roman tradition, Severus did not manifest victory in the civil war directly. However, on the attic of the building we find a meaningful inscription: ob rem publicam restitutam – because of the reconstruction of the Republic. Thus, the Senate and the Roman people (SPQR) thanked the emperor for saving the republic from the political chaos in which it found itself after the death of Emperor Commodus.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Baharal D., Portraits of the Emperor L. Septimius Severus (193-211 A.D.) as an Expression of his Propaganda, Latomus 48 (1989), s. 566-580
  • Janiszewska D., Wojna domowa w Rzymie w latach 193-197, Poznań 2010
  • Maksymiuk K., Założenia polityki propagandowej Septymiusza Sewera na przykładzie tytułu Julii Domny - mater castrorum, Meander 54.5, 449-455
  • Mattingly H., The Coinage of Septimius Severus and his Times, Numismatic Chronicle, 1932, s. 172-183

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