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Alexander Severus (M. Aurelius Alexander Severus), 222-235 A.d.
Both the senate and the army joyfully concurred in the elevation of Alexander Severus; and the former body, lest any competitor should appear, hastened to confer on him all the imperial titles and powers. On account of his youth and his extremely amiable disposition he was entirely directed by his grandmother and mother, but Maesa dying soon after his accession, the sole direction of her son fell to Mamaea. [The statues and •coins of this woman show that she was a pagan, though the contrary has been inferred from the correspondence with Origen.] Nevertheless in her guidance of public affairs she exhibited a spirit of wisdom, justice, and moderation such as had not appeared in any preceding empress. Her enemies laid to her charge the love of power and the love of money, and blamed her son for deferring too much to her; but their accusations are vague, and no act of cruelty caused by avarice stains the annals of this reign.
The first care of Mamaea was to form a wise and upright council for her son. Sixteen of the most respectable of the senate, with the learned Ulpian, Ihe praetorian prefect, at their head, composed this council, and nothing was ever done without their consent and approbation. A general system of reformation was commenced and steadily pursued. All the absurd acts of the late tyrant were reversed. His god was sent back to Emesa; the statues of the other deities were restored to their temples; the ministers of his vices and pleasures were sold or banished, some of the worst were -drowned; the unworthy persons whom he had placed in public situations were dismissed, and men of knowledge and probity put in their places.
Mamaea used the utmost care to keep away from her son all those persons by whom his morals might be corrupted, and in order to have his time fully occupied she induced him to devote the greater part of each day to the administration of justice, where none but the wise and good would be his associates. The good seed fortunately fell into a kindly soil. Alexander was naturally disposed to every virtue, and all his efforts were directed to the promotion of the welfare of the empire over which he ruled.
The first ten years of the reign of this prince were passed at Rome and devoted to civil occupations. His daily course of life has been thus transmitted to us. He usually rose early and entered his private chapel (lararium), in which he had caused to be placed the images of those who had been teachers and benefactors of the human race, among whom he included the divine founder of the Christian religion. Having performed his devotions he took some kind of exercise, and then applied himself for some hours to public business with his council. He then read for some time, his favourite works being the Republics of Plato and Cicero, and the verses of Horace, and the Life of Alexander the Great, whom he greatly admired. Gymnastic exercises, in which he excelled, succeeded. He then was anointed and bathed, and took a light breakfast, usually of bread, milk, and eggs. In the afternoon he was attended by his secretaries, and he heard his letters read and signed the answers to them. The business of the day being concluded, his friends in general were admitted, and a frugal and simple dinner followed, at which the conversation was mostly of a serious instructive nature, or some literary work was read out to the emperor and his guests.
The dress of Alexander was plain and simple, his manners were free from all pride and haughtiness; he lived with the senators on a footing of friendly equality, like Augustus, Vespasian, and the wiser and better t222-232 A.D.]
emperors. He was liberal and generous to all orders of the people, and he took an especial pleasure in assisting those persons of good family who had fallen into poverty without reproach. Among the virtues of Alexander was the somewhat rare one in that age of chastity. His mother early caused him to espouse a lady of noble birth named Memnia, whom however he afterwards divorced and even banished to Africa. The accounts of this affair differ greatly. According to one, the father of the empress formed a conspiracy against his son-in-law, which being discovered, he was put to death and his daughter divorced. Others say that as Alexander showed great respect for his father-in-law, Mamrea's jealousy was excited, and she caused him to be slain and his daughter to be divorced or banished. It appears that Alexander soon married again. We have already observed that a portion of the civil jurisdiction had fallen to the praetorian prefects. This imposed a necessity that one of them should be a civilian, and Mamtea had therefore caused this dignity to be conferred on Ulpian. From the love of law and order which distinguished this prefect, he naturally sought to bring back discipline in the praetorian camp; the consequence was that repeated attempts were made on his life, and the emperor more than once found it necessary to cast his purple over him to save him from the fury of the soldiers. At length (228) they fell on him in the night; he escaped from them to the palace, but they pursued and slaughtered him in the presence of the emperor and his mother. Some slight actions on the German and Moorish frontiers were the only occupation given to the Roman arms during the early years of the reign of Alexander, but in the year 232 so powerful an enemy menaced the oriental provinces of the empire, that the presence of the emperor became absolutely requisite in the East. The Parthians, whom we have had such frequent occasion to mention, are said to have been a Scythian (i.e., Turkish) people of the north of Persia, who, taking advantage of the declining power of the Macedonian kings of Syria, cast off their yoke (250 B.C.), and then gradually made themselves masters of the whole of Persia. Their dominion had now lasted for five hundred years, and their power had from the usual causes, such as family dissensions, contested successions, and such like, been long on the decline; and in the fourth year of Alexander Severus (226) a native Persian, named Artaxerxes (Ardashir), who pretended to be of the ancient royal line but who is said to have been of humble birth and a mere soldier of fortune, the rebel, and Artabanus was defeated and slain. Artaxerxes then assumed the tiara, and his line, which existed till the Mohammedan conquest, was named the Sassanian, from the name of his father. Affecting to be the descendant of the ancient Achaemenians, Artaxerxes sought to restore Persia to its condition under those princes. The Magian or Light religion resumed the rank from which it had fallen under the sway of the Parthians, and flourished in its pristine glory. As the dominions of the house of Cyrus had extended to the coasts of the ^Egean Sea, Artaxerxes ordered the Romans to quit Asia, and when his mandate was unheeded he led his troops over the Tigris. But his ill fortune induced him to attack the invincible Atrae, and he was forced to retire with loss and disgrace. He then turned his arms against the Medes and some other of the more northern tribes, and when he had reduced them he again invaded Mesopotamia (232). Alexander now resolved to take the command of his troops in person. He left Rome, followed by the tears and prayers of the people, and proceeded
through Illyricum to the East. On his march the strictest discipline was maintained, while every attention was paid to the wants of the soldiers and care taken that they should be abundantly supplied with clothes and arms. The emperor himself used the same fare as the men, and he caused his tent to be thrown open when he was at his meals that they might perceive his mode of life.
Alexander halted at Antioch to make preparations for the war; meantime he sent an embassy with proposals of peace to Artaxerxes. The Persian in return sent four hundred of his most stately men splendidly clothed and armed to order the Romans to quit Asia; and if we can believe Herodian (for the circumstance is almost incredible), Alexander was so regardless of the laws of nations as to seize and strip them, and send them prisoners to Phrygia. It is also said that while he was at Antioch, finding that some of the soldiers frequented the Paphian grove of Daphne, he cast them into prison; and that when a mutiny broke out in the legion to which they belonged, he ascended his tribunal, had the prisoners brought before him, and addressed their comrades, who stood around in arms, dwelling on the necessity of maintaining discipline. But when his arguments proved of no effect, and they even menaced him with their arms, he cried out, in. imitation of Caesar, " Quirites, depart, and lay down your arms." The legion obeyed, and the men, no longer soldiers, took up their abode in the houses of the town instead of the camp. After a month the emperor was prevailed on to pardon them, but he punished their tribunes with death; and this legion was henceforth equally distinguished by valour and fidelity. P,.^s ^| ^n Citation of Alexander the Great, the
Ws , emperor formed six of his legions into a pha
lanx of thirty thousand men, to whom he gave higher pay. He also had, like that conqueror, bodies of men distinguished by gold-adorned and silver-adorned shields — chrysoaspids and argyroaspids. 1
The dettiils of the war cannot be learned with any certainty. One historian says that Alexander made three divisions of his army; one of which was to enter Media through Armenia, another Persia at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates, while the emperor was in person to lead the third through Mesopotamia, and all were to join in the enemy's country; but that, owing to the timidity of Alexander, who loitered on the way, the second division was cut to pieces, and the first nearly all perished while retreating through Armenia in the winter. This account labours under many difficulties; for the emperor certainly triumphed on his return to Rome; and in his speech to the senate on that occasion he asserted that of 700 war elephants which were in the enemy's array he had killed 200, and taken 300; of 1000 scythed chariots he had taken 200; and of 120,000 heavyarmed horsemen he had slain 10,000, besides taking a great number of prisoners, c Notwithstanding this report to the senate, the Romans were [233-235 A.d.]
probably beaten in this war, though the Persians likewise suffered great loss. The latter made no further attempts on Mesopotamia for some years." The Germans had taken advantage of the absence of the emperor and the greater part of the troops in the East, to pass the Rhine and ravage Gaul. Alexander therefore, leaving sufficient garrisons in Syria, led home the Illyrian and other legions, and having celebrated a triumph for the Persian War at Rome, where he was received with the most abundant demonstrations of joy, he departed with a large army for the defence of Gaul. The Germans retired at his approach; he advanced to the Rhine and took up his winter quarters in the neighbourhood of Mogontiacum (Mainz), with the intention of opening the campaign beyond the river in the spring (235). The narratives of the events of this reign are so very discordant that we cannot hope often to arrive at the real truth. In no part are they more at variance than in their account of the circumstances of the emperor's death. We can only collect that, whether from his efforts to restore discipline, from the intrigues of Maximin, an ambitious officer who had the charge of disciplining the young troops, or from some other cause, a general discontent prevailed in the army, and that Alexander was assassinated in his tent, either by his own guards or by a party sent for the purpose by Maximin, and that his mother and several of his friends perished with him. The troops forthwith proclaimed Maximin emperor, and the senate and people of Rome, deeply lamenting the fate of the virtuous Alexander, were forced to acquiesce in the choice of the army. Alexander had reigned thirteen years. Even the historian least partial to him acknowledges that towards his subjects his conduct was blameless, and that no bloodshed or unjust condemnations stain the annals of his reign. His fault seems to have been a certain degree of effeminacy and weakness, the consequence probably of his Syrian origin, which led to his extreme submission to his mother, against whom the charges of avarice and meanness are not perhaps wholly unfounded.1 Dion Cassius, whose history ends with this reign, gives the following view of the numbers and disposition of the legions, at this period. Of the twenty-five which were formed by Augustus, only nineteen remained, the rest having been broken or distributed through the others; but the emperors, from Nero to Severus inclusive, had formed thirteen new ones, and the whole now amounted to thirty-two legions. Of these, three were in Britain, one in Upper and two in Lower Germany, one in Italy, one in Spain, one in Numidia, one in Arabia, two in Palestine, one in Phoenicia, two in Syria, two in Mesopotamia, two in Cappadocia, two in Lower and one in Upper Mcesia, two in Dacia, and four in Pannonia, one in Noricum, and one in Raetia. He does not tell us where the two remaining ones were quartered, neither does he give the number of men in a legion at this time, but it is conjectured to have been five thousands
KENAN'S CHARACTERISATION OF THE PERIOD
On principles less disastrous than those of unbridled military despotism, the empire might have survived the ruin of the Roman spirit in the death of Marcus Aurelius, might have given peace to Christianity a century earlier and have avoided the streams of blood shed to no purpose by Decius and 1 The Life of Alexander, by Lampridius, in the Augustan History, f is, as Gibbon observes, "the mere idea of a perfect prince, an awkward imitation of the Cyropaedia." [The best rulers had to bear the charge of avarice.] [180-235 A.D.] Diocletian. The part of the Roman aristocracy was played out; after having worn folly threadbare in the first century, it had worn virtue threadbare in the second. But the hidden forces of the great Mediterranean confederacy were not exhausted. Thus, after the downfall of the political edifice founded on the sovereignty of the family of Augustus, a provincial dynasty, that of the Flavians, was found to restore the empire, even as after the downfall of the edifice built up by the adoptions of the Roman aristocracy, there were found provincials, Orientals and Syrians, to restore the great association in which all men found peace and profit. Septimius Severus did, without moral grandeur but not without glory, what Vespasian had done. It is true that the representatives of this new dynasty are not to be compared to the great emperors of the second century. Even Alexander Severus, who equals Antoninus and Marcus in kindliness, is very inferior to them in intelligence and greatness of soul. The principles of the government are detestable; men outbid one another for the favour of the legions; a price is set on mutiny; none approaches the soldier except with purse in hand. Military despotism never took a more shameless form; but military despotism can be long-lived. Side by side with hideous spectacles, under the Syrian emperors, what reforms do we find! What progress in legislation! What a day was that when, under Caracalla, all free men dwelling within the empire attained equal rights!We must not exaggerate the advantages offered by such equality; yet in politics words are never wholly void of meaning. Many excellent things had been inherited. The philosophers of the school of Marcus Aurelius had disappeared, but their place was taken by the masters of jurisprudence. Papinian, Ulpian, Paul, Gaius, Modestinus, Florentinus, Marcian, during years of execrable evil, created masterpieces and actually brought the law of the future into being. The Syrian emperors, though far inferior to Trajan and to the Antonines as far as political traditions are concerned, inasmuch as they were not Romans and had none of the Roman prejudices, often give proof of an openness of mind which would have been impossible to the great emperors of the second century, all of whom were intensely conservative. They permitted and even encouraged colleges or syndicates. They went to extreme lengths in this matter, and they would have organised the trade guilds as castes with a distinctive garb. They flung the doors of the empire wide open. One of them, that noble and pathetic figure Alexander Severus, the son of Mamsea, almost equalled in his plebeian goodness the patrician virtues of the great age; the loftiest ideas pale before the honest effusions of his heart. It was in religion above all that these Syrian emperors inaugurated a liberality of mind and a tolerance unknown before.1 The Syrian women of Emesa, Julia Domna, Julia Msesa, Julia Mamaea, Julia Sosemias, beautiful, intelligent, venturous to the point of utopianism, are hampered by no tradition or conventionality. They dared to do what no Roman woman had ever done; they entered the senate, took part in its deliberations, and practically governed the empire, dreaming of Semiramis and Nitocris. It was a thing that such a woman as Faustina would not have done for all her
f1 The substitution of the Syro-Phoenician sun-god by Elagabalus naturally recalls the monotheistic reformation of Amenhotep IV (Khun-aten) in Egypt more than sixteen centuries before. In Amenhotep's day, Syrian influence predominated at the Egyptian court, as it did at Rome in the beginning of the third century A.d. That the culminating result of this should have been so much the same in both cases is a matter that seems to call for at least passing notice.]