'Septimius Severus: The African Emperor', by Anthony R. Birley

'Septimius Severus: The African Emperor', by Anthony R. Birley

Anthony R. Birley (1937) is a historian little known in Spain, although with a great career in the Anglo-Saxon world. His most relevant work in the Spanish language is “Adriano. The biography of an emperor who changed the course of history”(Peninsula, 2003, republished by Gredos in 2010; original from 1997), followed by“Marco Aurelio. The portrait of a humane and righteous emperor”.

Now, under the banner of the Gredos publishing house, it reaches our bookstores "Septimius Severus: the African emperor”(2012), an issue that although relatively short (it does not reach five hundred pages) deserves the attention of those readers in love with the intricate intrigues that forged this empire.

In this richly illustrated and fascinating biography, Birley traces the rise to power of Lucius Septimius Severus (145-211, emperor since April 197) whom the same author describes as «a remarkable phenomenon […], a product of Africa and of an African city where the settlement of Italians had been unusually low»(Pp. 289-290).

Descendant of Phoenician settlers settled in Tripolitania, Septimio maintained throughout his life a marked African accent, although that did not prevent him from achieving a perfect Latin diction. His rule marked a turning point in the history of Rome, largely due to his well-fueled ambition and dedication to the battlefield. Initially, Birley is introduced to the origins of Septimius, as his own city of birth (the African Leptis Magna in Libya) was a perfect example of how a «free State»In a colony (and municipium) Roman.

Birley has composed a work that escapes from the common biography. He presents us with the ambition of a skillful character who was able to climb the ranks of the cursus honorum, holding positions of greater importance, until he finally managed to occupy the imperial throne. He legitimized his position by having himself adopted into the family of Marcus Aurelius, and masterfully rose above his rivals in the fight for Roman rule.

It is true that he knew how to surround himself with good generals and allies, being the military glory an ever present goal in the mind of Septimius. The last words that he addressed to his children on their deathbed (collected by Dio Cassius in book 76 of his Roman History), are quite well known among historians and they read thus, «do not disagree with each other, give money to the soldiers and look down on everyone else». Words that were spoken by a man who had created himself, and who was apparently fully aware of it.

In the annexes to this volume, Birley loosely dismembers the sources about the roman emperor, in addition to performing a great job of epigraphy and numismatics, as well as an elaborate prosopographic analysis of great value.

Anthony R. Birley, Professor of Ancient History at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf and at the University of Manchester, and an author with a passion for Roman Britain and the biographies of great emperors, concludes this work with a confusing image of Septimius Severus.

He presents us the multifaceted and sometimes conflictive character (and cruel) of the enigmatic emperor, of whom it is not possible to clarify if he was the «typical cosmopolitan bureaucrat", a "new Hannibal on the throne of Caesars" or the "main architect of the decline of the Roman Empire». For now, we hope that this biography will be as well received as its predecessors were, and we say goodbye with a quote from Birley himself «the African emperor who died in Britain must remain an enigma»(P. 290).

Video: The Arch of Septimius Severus, portal to ancient Rome