Michael Sage, Septimius Severus & The Roman Army (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Septimius Severus ranks as one of the more important Roman Emperors and he is well documented in the contemporary sources. As a military commander with no previous experience, Severus won two civil wars, defeated the Parthians, and overpowered the Caledonian tribes. Michael Sage had plenty to work from then when he came to write this biography of Severus with a military history slant.
Sage begins by placing Severus and Rome into their African context with Africa’s rise in prominence to become rich and influential. He also examines the sources that form a sound basis for understanding Severus’ reign in contrast to the previous century’s dearth. Then we move into Sage’s biography, beginning in Severus’ childhood and an early uninspiring career under the Emperor Commodus. When he fell in 192CE, which also marked the end of the Antonine Dynasty, politics at the apex of the Roman Empire fell apart. The elderly Pertinax became Emperor but he was unpopular with the Praetorians and assassinated. Julianus took up the position, but Severus reacted swiftly to dethrone him. Civil war followed in which Severus defeated Niger then Albinus. He established a ruthless control afterwards, thus securing his Emperorship.
Severus was more of an administrator than a warrior, notes Sage, yet his was a military victory. And he was soon at war again, this time with Parthia; he returned in triumph though not without a struggle. Sporadic fighting in Africa followed, but generally, Severus’ reign proved peaceful, at least from 203 to 210. Much of his time in that period was taken up with the succession (his sons hated each other with a passion), self-aggrandizement, and the political intrigues that go hand in hand with being Emperor. Severus’ last expedition was to a restless Britain and across the Wall to fight the Caledonian tribes. But he was seriously ill by this time and died at York in 211. The succession struggle that ensued was bitter but belongs to another story.
If you have read this far, you will no doubt wonder where the Roman army of the title is in all this. The answer is in the appendix where Sage describes the army at the end of the 2nd Century. Severus brought in several reforms regarding enlargement of the army, changes in command structure and terms of service. However, Sage does not dwell too long on any of these. So where does that leave us? Sage provides a well-written and confident potted biography of Severus, in which he picks his way through the various arguments that are closely tied to the sources and their interpretation of events. But other than the brief appendix, he offers little to justify the book’s title.