The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 23

The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire” with a stable economy, a strong government and superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a rollercoaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Alexander Severus, the second youngest emperor ever to rule Rome.

Alexander Severus

Alexander Severus

Alexander Severus

Marcus Julius Gessius Alexianus (Alexander Severus) was born in the city of Caesarea in 208 to Gessius Marcianus and Julia Avita Mamaea, niece of Julia Domna – second wife of Emperor Septimius Severus.

After the death of the bizarre Emperor Elagabalus, Alexianus, who had assumed the name Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, was confirmed by the Senate as emperor, making him the second youngest to ever sit on the throne. However, the young emperor would never be granted any real authority as the government would be placed firmly in the hands of his mother and grandmother. Although Alexander’s authority was limited, there was one individual he fought to protect, even in strong opposition to his mother and the Senate: the historian and Senator Cassius Dio who had been named consul for the second time.

Julia Mamaea, known as Mother of the Emperor, the Camp, the Senate and the Country, established a 16-man committee of senators to advise the young emperor, an attempt to mend the rift between the imperial throne and Senate.

Remembering the excesses of his predecessor and hoping to avoid controversy, in 227, Julia Mamaea felt the need to marry the young emperor into a respectable Patrician family. She chose the family of Seius Sallustius Macrinus whose daughter, Gnaea was the intended bride. Unhappily for both Alexander and Gnaea, the emperor’s mother became jealous of the young bride and threw her out of the palace. Her father, who some believe had received the title of Caesar, found safety for both of them in the camp of the Praetorian Guard. This was viewed as an act of rebellion, consequently, she was exiled and he was executed. Alexander would never remarry.

While the empire had remained in relative peace during the reign of Emperor Elagabalus, such was not the case with Alexander. Despite unrest in the army and without military experience, Alexander and, of course, his mother moved eastward to address growing tension within the provinces, arriving in Antioch in 231. In 226, the Persian King Ardashir (Artaxerxes) had overthrown the Parthian King Artabanus and assumed complete power as the Parthian ruler, moving quickly into Mesopotamia which was an obvious threat to the eastern provinces of Rome. Despite a failed uprising in Egypt and without the full support of his army, the emperor decided to launch an assault on Ardashir.

Unfortunately, the extreme caution of Alexander and the lack of a coordinated attack resulted in heavy losses and what could only be called a fiasco.  Although considered a “qualified success” since the Persian forces did not advance, Alexander returned to Rome in 233 with morale within the army seriously damaged and the emperor labeled a coward. In contrast, Ardashir would establish the Sassanid dynasty that would rule Persia for over 400 years.

While still suffering from a lack of military support, Alexander and his mother decided to cross the Rhine and battle the Germans who had been attacking and plundering Roman fortifications in eastern Gaul. Again, he entered the fight without a definite plan and without the full respect of the army. Combined with Julia’s reductions in military expenditures as well as cuts in pay, the army realized the inadequacies of Alexander and sought a new emperor.The man they chose was Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus or Maximinus Thrax, a barbarian from Thrace. He would become the first of what historians call “The Barracks Emperors.”

In 235, Maximinus was awarded “the purple,” a symbol of imperial authority, by his troops. They quickly moved towards Alexander’s camp. Alexander and his mother were murdered and according to some sources, their bodies were returned to Rome.

The new emperor, though, would never set foot in Rome. Unfortunately, the imperial throne could not be easily awarded and following the death of Alexander there occurred what is called “The Year of the Six Emperors.” It would be some time before Gordian III would sit without opposition upon the imperial throne.

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