March 14, 2015, by Will Leveritt
On this day in 222AD Severus Alexander became emperor of Rome
Text by Annabel Rock-Clarke
Image by Kelly Grimshaw and Katy Davies
The Emperor Severus Alexander was born in AD 208, at Arca Caesarea in the province of Syria. He was the son of the Romano-Syrian noble Marcus Julius Gessius Marcianus (who had been murdered by the emperor Macrinus in 218) and Julia Mamaea, a member of the Syrian branch of the Severan dynasty. His full birth name was Marcus Julius Gessius Alexanius.Thus, on 14th of March 222, Severus Alexander became emperor at the age of thirteen, making him the second youngest Emperor in Rome’s history. Due to his age, Alexander had little knowledge of government or the changes of ruling an empire. With his grandmother’s death around the year 226, his mother Mamaea became the sole influence on Alexander’s actions during his reign. Immediately upon his accession, she was granted the title of Augusta. She also revealed a lust for money and began to confiscate much land to add to her personal wealth. Alexander seems personally to have disapproved of this but his devotion to his mother led him to take no steps to control her. She wanted her son to marry into a noble family and so arranged his marriage to Sallustia Orbiana, the daughter of Lucius Seius Herennius Sallustius Macrinus. Not long after the marriage, Mamaea became jealous of the young bride, not wanting another woman to bear the title Augusta, and eventually exiled her from the imperial palace.In 221 Alexander’s grandmother, the powerful Julia Maesa, became aware that her other grandson, the reigning emperor Elagabulus, was losing the support of the legions because of his outlandish and debauched lifestyle (see our earlier post on him). In order to secure Elagabalus’ position (and her own) she persuaded Elagabulus to adopt his cousin Alexianus as his heir and upon his adoption Alexianus took the name Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander. The emperor Elagabalus, however, became jealous of Alexander’s popularity and soon after arranged to have him assassinated, seeing him as a threat to his own position. The military and the Praetorian Guard, who were supposedly bribed by Maesa, favoured Alexander and refused to carry out Elagabulus’ orders, instead turning on him and his mother, Julia Soaemias, both of whom they murdered.
Under the influence of his mother, Alexander did much to improve the inner and outer workings of the state. Concerning the justice system, he employed notable jurists, such as Ulpian, to oversee its administration, and also surrounded himself with distinguished advisors, amongst whom was the senator and historian, Cassius Dio. Several other reforms were introduced, such as the reduction of taxes, new aqueducts and building projects. Alexander maintained an open mind towards religious matters and the Historia Augusta notes his desire to build a temple in honour of Jesus, but the pagan priests dissuaded him from doing so. Militarily, Alexander did much to aid the soldiers: they could name anyone as heirs in their will, they could free slaves in their wills, and they were promised that their property would be protected whilst they were on campaign.
The downfall of Alexander presented itself when he was campaigning against tribes in Germania. His mistake was entering into an engagement of diplomacy and bribery, which exposed him as a weak military leader in the eyes of his legions. In AD 235, troops of the commander Maximinus led a mutiny against Alexander and murdered the Emperor and his mother, marking the end of the Severan dynasty.