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Septimius Severus and the Roman Army

Septimius Severus and the Roman Army

Michael Sage
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
By Metellus Cimber II

The current spate of books about ancient Rome shows no sign of slackening and not a few of them, like this one, are issued by the British Pen & Sword military publishers. This latest volume by Professor Michael Sage is a distinguished addition to the bookshelf. Sage is a well-known classicist and author of books, articles and encyclopedia entries. He has taught in universities in the USA and Canada.

Septimius Severus was Emperor of Rome at an interesting time; which means at a time of transition and instability. The last member of the Antonine dynasty, Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius, was murdered in 192 AD. As he left no successor, this sparked a civil war among the Generals, who competed eagerly for the imperial crown. Septimius Severus emerged as the eventual victor and established a dynasty, the Severans, who reigned until 235 AD. He fought numerous campaigns, extending the Roman empire in several directions, including in Britain, where he expanded the area of Roman rule beyond Hadrian's Wall. He died in York shortly after his successful campaign against the North Britons and Picts; his ashes were sent back to Rome. He was the first Emperor from Africa*.

The book covers Severus' interesting career from his governorship of Pannonia (modern Hungary), through his war with Pescennius Niger, the siege of Byzantium and his campaign in present-day Iraq, which added northern Mesopotamia to the empire. His campaigns in Gaul against Clodius Albinus, a pretender to the imperial title; his North African campaign, which extended Roman control westward; and his final British campaign are covered in detail. The last chapters examine Severus' army reforms, which had an impact on events over the next seventy years, until the reign of Diocletian. His main weakness was family loyalty: he knew that his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, were monsters; that one was likely to murder the other, which happened; that neither was fit to rule, yet he did nothing to prevent Caracalla's accession after his own death. Geta has the distinction of having executed St Alban, the first British Christian martyr.

I enjoyed this book. I predict that serious military historians and classicists will welcome Septimius Severus and The Roman Army. It will find a place in many academic libraries. But will the general reader enjoy it? Yes, if he or she is an avid student of ancient Rome. It is packed with detail and refers to many original sources, both famous and obscure. It has exemplary Notes, Bibliography and Index. But the average reader who does not revel in detail and prefers a broad-brush approach might do better to turn to Edward Gibbon's dated but very readable Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is available in both hardback and paperback. It is more fun to peruse.

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