A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rome's Severan Emperors: Libyan Founder, Two Emperors from Homs in Syria

We talked about Libya much of last year, and have been horrified by Homs much of this. This post is about both places. But not in this millennium, or even the last one.

Two aspects of the way history is usually taught in the West militate against our understanding the real flavor and fabric of the Classical world. One is the tendency to see some sort of sharp division between the Late Roman Empire and the "Middle Ages"; a division that was real enough in Western Europe but much less sharply demarcated in the Mediterranean. The other is the tendency to equate the Roman Empire with Italy, and assume all the Emperors thought like Italians.

We tend to assume that the "Roman Empire" fell, as far too many schoolchildren have had to learn, in 476 AD, when the Emperor Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman Emperor, died. In some legalistic sense that may be true. But there was still a Roman Emperor in Constantinople, and would be until 1453; there had been periods when there was no Emperor in the West, so authority simply devolved on the East, and in 476 nobody knew there wouldn't be another Western Emperor after a few years of vacancy, as had happened before. And Romulus Augustulus didn't have much power, anyway. But we can argue the periodization another time.

I want to address the other point, and emphasize a dynasty of Emperors which was largely Punic/Libyan and Arab/Syrian in its ancestry, the Severans. A dynasty who dominated the imperial title from 193 to 235 AD, the Severans had personal roots in what today we would call the Middle East, and also waged several of their campaigns there. One even brought the worship of his Syrian god to Rome itself.

The founder of the dynasty, Lucius Septimius Severus (145-211; Emperor 193-211), was born at Leptis Magna in the province of Africa Proconsularis, which embraced what is today Tunisia and the Tripoli region of Libya. Leptis Magna remains one of the best preserved Roman ruins anywhere,. in what is now Libya. His mother is said to have been from Italy, his father a local of either Punic (Carthaginian) or local Libyan ("Berber," Amazigh) extraction. Severus' first wife was also from the region, but died without leaving sons. His second wife, Julia Domna, was to be a power in her own right. She was a Syrian from Homs, known as Emesa in Greek and Latin, and said to be of Arab descent. Her ancestors were hereditary priests of Baal in Homs, and she was educated and a devotee of philosophy, and commissioned the biography of Appolonius of Tyana by Philostratus. She seems to have been one of those formidable and politically powerful wives often encountered in Roman (and later, Byzantine) history, and familiar to viewers of I, Claudius or Rome.

Severus campaigned against Parthia and also in his native North Africa, and he and his Syrian Empress left two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were to share the imperial throne. They fell out (of course) and Geta was killed, leaving Caracalla as sole emperor.

When Caracalla died a non-Severan, Macrinus, took the throne, but while preparing to fight Persia his Syrian troops, the Legio III Gallica, revolted and declared support gor Bassianus, a young relative of the Severans. Though Bassianus would officially reign as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, he is remembered in history as Elagabalus (or in Greek, Helioganbalus), for the Syrian god he imposed on Rome.

He and his successor are listed among the Severan emperors, though their blood link is not to Severus but to Julia Domna. Elagabalus was a grandson of her sister, Julia Maesa. He was raised in Homs as a priest of the god known to the Romans as Elagabalus (Aramaic El Gabal, the El of the Mountain). His grandmother's wealth reportedly won the IIIrd Legion over to him, as well as a story he was a son of Caracalla, and he replaced Macrinus.

He also displaced Jupiter. His god Elagabalus was assimilated with the Roman Sol Invictus (the unconquered Sun) and declared to be above Jupiter in the Pantheon. A black meteoritic stone worshipped in the temple in Homs was brought to Rome and installed in a temple on the Palatine Hill. Nor was that all. Elagabalus rejected many Roman traditions, married several wives (one of them a Vestal Virgin), and soon lost popularity with the Army. He also had himself publicly circumcised. He allegedly conducted homosexual affairs and may have engaged in other public behavior that violated what Rome expected of its Emperors, at least in public.

His grandmother, Julia Maesa, had had two daughters. One, Julia Soaemias, was the mother of Elagabalus. The other, Julia Avita, had a son, Severus Alexander. Julia Maesa persuaded the Emperor to make his young cousin Caesar, the position next in line to the imperial title. He did, and the troops soon killed Elagabalus and his mother and installed Severus Alexander as Emperor. The grandmother, however, remained the imperial grandmother. Elagabalus reigned only four years and Severus Alexander would reign 13, but he's less remembered, being more effective much less miniseries-worthy. Born in what is now Lebanon and raised at least partially in Homs, he was another Syrian emperor, and ruled for 13 years, proving far more popular than his notorious cousin.

With his assassination, the period of the semi-dynastic Roman Principate dissolved into a crisis of civil war, ended only by Diocletian late in the century. The Severan or Syrian emperors, though founded by a Libyan, left a mixed reputation behind, from fairly solid (Severus) to downright scandalous (Elagabalus).

This Wikipedia image (Creative Commons license) may clarify things (with pictures!), though you'll probably need to click on it to enlarge it enough to read.

No comments: