Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus became emperor at the age of 19; he had accompanied his father on his
last campaigns, but he had not his father's sense of duty and he preferred to reach a peace
agreement with the Marcomanni and return to Rome.
He was a strongly built man and he identified himself with Hercules; he soon became popular among the lower classes as he enjoyed taking part personally in the fights between gladiators.
Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius had both at least formally respected the role of the Senate and had ruled the empire with the support of the Roman aristocracy. Commodus gradually lost this support and over the years became more and more isolated, even in his own family; his hard reaction to unrest in various provinces of the Empire and grievances in Rome and his claim of being a god increased the number of those who plotted against him.
In 192 praetorians, members of the emperor's inner circle and of the Roman aristocracy, commanders of legions all took part in a conspiracy to kill Commodus. His lover Marcia poisoned him and then he was strangled by a wrestler.
The Senate decreed his damnatio memoriae and this may explain why the memory of Commodus is so bleak.
Colonna Antonina: Roman infantry and cavalry; two portraits of Marcus Aurelius
Commodus celebrated his father by erecting in Campo Marzio a column similar to that of Trajan: its reliefs portray the two campaigns conducted by Marcus Aurelius against the Marcomanni. The column was located on a high base next
to Via Flaminia (today's Via del Corso): the street level was some 20 feet lower
than it is today; the reliefs were therefore very high reliefs, with the sculptures almost fully
projecting out of the background, so that they could be seen from a great distance.
An interesting comparison between the two columns shows that while Trajan is always portrayed in a side view, in some instances Marcus Aurelius is portrayed frontally: this is regarded as a first sign of the move from a true to life (side view) representation of the emperor to a (frontal) symbolic one which will become more evident in the next centuries. Commodus erected also an arch to celebrate his father: the arch is lost, but some of its reliefs were used to decorate Arco di Costantino; other reliefs were found in 1515 near SS. Luca e Martina.
The death of Commodus was followed in the next six months by that of his two successors
(Pertinax and Didius Julianus): in Britain, Syria and Pannonia (western Hungary) the legions elected their own emperors;
eventually Septimius Severus, the commander of the legions in Pannonia, managed to defeat his
opponents and become the sole emperor.
Septimius Severus was born in Leptis Magna (in today's Libya), a major trading post of Roman Africa. He strongly relied on the army to retain his power and to maintain the support of his legionaries in 197 he waged war against the Parthians. He sacked their capital Ctesiphon and briefly restored the authority of Rome over Mesopotamia. It was one of the last Roman campaigns which yielded a large number of slaves. He limited the power of the praetorians by stationing a legion of trusted soldiers at Albano.
Septimius Severus associated his two young sons Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (known as Caracalla, after caracallus, a short Gaul tunic he used to wear) and Publius Septimius Geta with the throne.
In 208, accompanied by his two sons, he started a campaign in Britain to quell the rebellion of some local tribes and to protect that province from Caledonian raids. He died at Eboracum (York) in 211, possibly poisoned by his own son Caracalla.
Arco di Settimio Severo: detail of the western side
Septimius Severus spent most of his time in power outside Rome, but he nevertheless
promoted an enlargement of the
he also placed at its entrance from Via Appia the Septizodium,
a sort of gigantic fašade, part of which still stood until 1586 when Pope Sixtus V
pulled it down to use its columns and marbles for the decoration of the many monuments he built in Rome.
A large arch was erected in the Forum to celebrate his campaign against the Parthians: the quality of the decoration shows that, notwithstanding the economic crisis and the decrease in population which had hit the empire in the last decades of the IInd century, the quality of the works of art in Rome was still high.
Septimius Severus had endeavoured to publicize his family as a happy one
where all members (including his wife) shared the responsibilities of rule.
This portrait soon proved to be false as Caracalla hastened to arrange the assassination of his brother Geta, accusing him of having made an attempt on his life. He decreed his brother's damnatio memoriae and had his name erased from all inscriptions. He also arranged the killing of his own wife.
Caracalla understood that by killing his brother he had undermined his own power and to restore his popularity he issued the Constitutio Antoniniana, granting Roman citizenship to freemen throughout the Roman Empire; there were also economic causes behind this decree as it enlarged the number of taxpayers. Many provincial towns, especially in Africa, e.g. Volubilis and Cuicul, erected triumphal arches to him.
Caracalla, following his father's policy, tried to maintain the support of the army by increasing the legionary pay and by providing the soldiers with benefits and facilities, including baths for the legion at Albano.
In an attempt to gain his father's military reputation, he waged war against the Parthians, but his campaign was inconclusive and eventually Macrinus, head of the praetorian guard, relying on the growing dissatisfaction with Caracalla's leadership, managed to have him killed at Carrhae and to be proclaimed the new emperor by the troops.
Arco degli Argentieri: (left/centre) reliefs from which Geta was
removed; (right) inscriptions on the same arch (first line) and in Arco di Settimio Severo (fourth line)
where the name of Geta was replaced by other words
In 204 the guild of the Argentari erected a small arch in honour of Septimius
Severus; knowing that his two sons would have been the next emperors and that
Septimius Severus had already given them official responsibilities, these shrewd
tradesmen thought it wise to decorate the arch
with portraits of both Caracalla and Geta.
In 212 they had to quickly erase all references to Geta, even though this meant damaging the symmetry of the decoration and rewording (using narrower letters) the inscription.
The Senate took care of doing the same on the Arch dedicated to Septimius Severus: the holes of the erased bronze letters which do not match the inscription are evidence of the change required by Caracalla.
In Rome he built the gigantic baths which bear his name.
Macrinus continued without success the campaign against the Parthians; in the meantime
the financial situation of the Roman Treasury had so worsened that he had to reduce the benefits
granted to the army by Caracalla. By doing this Macrinus signed his death sentence:
in 218 at the instigation of Giulia Soemia, Caracalla's niece, the troops rebelled and
killed him. Varius Antoninus, the fourteen year old son of Giulia Soemia, became the
new emperor .
The young emperor was a follower of the cult of Elegabal, a black stone (most likely a meteorite) worshipped in Syria: Varius added to his name that of Heliogabalus and tried to impose on the whole empire the same faith: the old gods were replaced by just one deity, Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun), with the aim of having this god accepted by the several monotheist beliefs (including the Christian one) which especially in the eastern provinces of the empire were already prevailing on the traditional Greek and Roman polytheism. This was neither the first nor the last attempt made by an emperor to promote the amalgamation of the different religions and cultures of the empire.
Musei Capitolini: inscriptions related to citizens from Palmyra in Syria who lived in Rome, both with small Palmyrene inscriptions: (left) gravestone of Habib who lived 32 years (IInd century AD): (right) altar to the gods of the fatherland Malakbel (Sun) and Aglibol (Moon) (235 AD); see other eastern reliefs showing gods shaking hands
The implementation of this cult was based on orgiastic ceremonies,
which, although not uncommon in the Ancient World, had aspects which alienated Heliogabalus the support of both the Senate and the army.
He was forced by his grandmother to adopt as co-emperor his younger cousin
Alexander Severus. Heliogabalus apparently had in mind to assassinate his cousin, but his plan was discovered and
he was killed by the praetorians, together with his mother and those who had taken part in his
The memory of Heliogabalus was for centuries that of a madman; towards the end of the XIXth century his extravagances attracted the attention of the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who saw in the young emperor a precursor of the Decadent movement.
Mithraeum of S. Clemente: altar to the god and reliefs
on its sides portraying the two torch bearers Cautes and Cautopates; by holding their
torch up or down they indicated the rise and fall of the sun and more in general the cycle of life
Mithraism, the cult of the Persian god Mithra, is one of the
oriental religions which became popular in Rome,
especially in the military.
Its Roman version had points in common with Freemasonry: it was a fraternal organization
which required its members to abide by some basic moral standards and to keep secrecy
about the ceremonies; there were
seven grades of initiation associated with the planets. The members regularly met in small
rooms having the aspect of a cave and long benches on both sides; there they had a common meal and attended their rites: a significant
difference from what occurred in the temples where the ceremonies took place outside the god's cell.
Other aspects of Mithraism had points in common with the Christian faith: a concept of resurrection, distribution of bread and water (or wine), fast as a mean of purification and a sort of baptism.
For their meetings the followers of this belief built many Mithraea, some of which have been discovered under churches or other Roman buildings. The most interesting of these halls are under S. Clemente, S. Prisca, Palazzo Barberini and at Ostia. The worship of Mithra was very popular among the legionaries in Gaul, Britain, and along the Rhine and Danube borders.
Alexander Severus was just thirteen year old when he became emperor;
the Senate provided him with a group of advisors who helped him in gradually
restoring an effective administration and the authority of the central government.
At the age of 22 Alexander Severus thought the time had come to show his ability to lead the Roman legions. In 231 he waged war against the Sassanids who in 224 had defeated the Parthians and by 226 had definitely replaced them as the new eastern neighbour of the Roman Empire. The campaign was inconclusive; the Sassanids preferred to retreat and eventually the cost of the expedition was such that Alexander Severus had to levy new taxes; he had also to face a threat from the Marcomanni on the German border.
In 235 Alexander Severus was killed by his own soldiers at Mogontiacum (Mainz) where he was coordinating the defence of the Roman towns along the Rhine.
Alexander Severus built the last Roman aqueduct, named after him Aqua Alexandriana. The aqueduct supplied water to baths built by Emperor Nero on the site of today's Palazzo Madama and which were restored by Alexander Severus and renamed after him Thermae Alexandrinae. Of these baths very little is left: two columns now in Piazza de' Crescenzi and two columns which were used by Bernini to replace missing ones in the portico of the Pantheon.
The fifty years which followed the killing of Alexander Severus are called by historians the period of the military anarchy because during it 22 emperors were acclaimed by the troops. They often ruled for just a few months and on a limited part of the empire (read about the Year of the Six Emperors). When eventually this troubled period came to an end, the nature of the Roman Empire and the role of Rome had dramatically changed: the Senate and the Roman aristocracy lost their political influence; they had no say in financial matters as the Senate had been deprived of the right of issuing new coins: the emperor was no longer the highest institution of the Republic, but a monarch: while Augustus and the other great emperors were portrayed on coins wearing a wreath of laurel, the emperors of this period wore a gold crown with sun rays (see some silver coins at Tongeren in Belgium). Rome became just one of the cities of the empire and many emperors did not even care to visit it.
(left) Musei Vaticani: Philip the Arab (244-249); (centre) Antiquarium Palatino: Gallienus (253-268); (right) Museum of the City of Brescia at Santa Giulia: Claudius Gothicus (268-270) or Aurelian (270-275)
The Sassanids, led by Shapur, repeatedly defeated the Romans and the emperors were forced to accept humiliating peace treaties. In 260 an independent Gallic Empire was proclaimed by Postumus, commander of the legions along the Rhine and in 267 Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra founded an independent Empire which controlled Syria and Egypt. The defences along the Danube did not manage to contain the pressure of German/Gothic tribes; in 267
the Heruli, a small tribe living along the Lower Danube crossed the river,
raided Greece and sacked Athens. Other tribes crossed the Alps and raided towns in Northern Italy (e.g. Verona).
In 268 Claudius II managed to stop the raids south of the Danube and was therefore given the appellation of Gothicus; his successor Aurelian in 272 conquered Palmyra and in 273 put an end to the Gallic Empire. The worst of the crisis of the IIIrd century was over.
There is little evidence of Roman monuments built by the emperors of this period.
Emperor Decius (249-251) (who ordered one of the most severe persecutions of the Christians,
whom he charged with spreading a pestilence) built on the Aventine new baths, which most likely
made use of existing buildings (their only remaining evidence is underground).
Emperor Gallienus is remembered by a small arch dedicated to him (but the arch was already in place) and
by the ruins of a funerary monument along Via Appia.
The only significant addition to the monuments of Rome reflected the need to provide the city with a defence in case of attack: Emperor Aurelian felt that, after nearly 500 years during which no enemy had threatened Rome, the city needed the protection of defensive walls.
It was a decision difficult to accept and maybe for this reason many gates (20) reduced its negative impact: often the gates were larger than they are now: the image above (left) shows the original size of Porta Latina (side towards Rome) and how its ceiling was lowered in the early Vth century by Emperor Honorius (outer side); in addition to the traditional doors the gates were closed (in case of threat) by a vertical sliding door. The Emperor built also a Temple to Sol Invictus of which only two columns remain.
The following links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page; they open in another window:
Bust of Commodus as Hercules between two tritons at Musei Capitolini - Rome.
Busts of Pertinax and Alexander Severus at Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence.
Bust of Septimius Severus in Musei Capitolini.
Septimius Severus reproaches Caracalla of having plotted to kill him by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805).
Caracalla and Geta by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1907).
The Baths of Caracalla by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1899).
The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888).
XI - From Diocletian to Constantine
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero
VIII - The Flavian Dynasty
IX - From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius