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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Four stars, but not quite five..., 22 May 2012
JPS - See all my reviews
This review is from: Septimius Severus: The African Emperor (Roman Imperial Biographies) (Paperback)
This is a very interesting book about a rather original "African Emperor", as Anthony Birley has subtitled his biography of Septimius Severus. It is a scholarly book, impeccably researched, but with the flipsides that this can sometimes imply. I happen to like history books, and this is putting it mildly. However, I was a bit put off by this one and will try to explain why.

Birley has done an excellent job in showing the importance of the "African connection" (or, perhaps more accuratly, the Punic/Phoenicien connection) for Septimius Severus and his reign. However, to do this, he treats the reader with intricate explanations about family links and backgrounds, who was posted where, where did he come from, who was he married to, etc, etc... While both necessary and useful, because it illustrates both the importance of the "African connection", the integration of aristocratic provincial families and their coming to supreme power in the Empire, this is at time "heavy going", hard to read and hard to follow for a so-called "general reader".

Another point that Birley shows, but choses not to emphasize too much, is the ambiguïty of this character of which we know relatively little and whose actions may be subject to various interpretations. A review from the Independent stated that Septimius SEverus "is rehabilited as an able if ruthless leader and a remarkable man." Other reviewers have tended to take this statement at face value and reproduce at least parts of it in their respective reviews. Having re-read recently this book, some ten years after having bought it, this is NOT quite the point made by the book. As an Emperor, Birley insists on Septimius' talents as an organizer, as an administrator and reformer (he travelled throughout the Empire about as much as Hadrian had), and as having a keen interest in law.

His military abilities are more mixed, or perhaps more original. Although reputed for the speed of his marches, he does not seem to have been a top strategist or tactician. In fact, during both of the civil wars and then against Parthia and again in Britain, you get the distinct impression that he left the fighting to other, perhaps more talented, generals, and behaved more as an overseer, an overall chief rather than a commander in the field. This does not mean that he was not an able commander. If anything, he had some very talented and loyal commanders to command in the field. That he was able to pick them, to delegate to them and to give them the means to get on with winning the wars in itself tells us something about his leadership qualities. But, interestingly enough, he does not exactly appear as the kind of "soldier-emperor" that Trajan strived so heard to appear as.

However, he was fully and perfectly aware of the key political role played by the army and the importance of "keeping the soldiers sweet". He is in fact know for privileging this above anything else, whatever it might cost to the Empire and its economy. More than anything else, Septimius seems to have been, according to Birley, a political animal and a survivor. Here again, the picture of an "able if ruthless leader" needs to be qualified, as it is in the book. He allowed his praetorian prefect to humiliate his wife, to believe as if and behave as if he was almost the imperor's equal and he allowed him even more power than Sejanus had ever had under Tiberius, according to Bailey. It is only at the eleventh hour that he eliminated him. The same - or even worse - happened with his son Antoninus, which we know as Caracalla. He knew that it was not suitable and would murder his younger brother on the slightest occasion but did not really do anything about it, although, to be fair, he was both old and ill by this time. A similar impression is given by his purges of the Senate: that of letting a situation get worse and fester before stricking brutally. So, ruthless certainly, at times, but one cannot help wandering to what extent some of this could have been avoided.

Finally, there is the "big" historic question, with Septimius Severus being seen as partly responsible for the so-called third century crisis. Birley shows how much this is derived from hindsight. However, you cannot escape the conclusion that he considerably increased military expenditures to keep the army happy, but also as a result of his own need for legitimacy, with both the Parthian wars and the Wars in Britannia to emulate and exceed Trajan's achievements. The last set of campaigns, at least, would have come at a huge cost with very little tangible achievement to show for it. The roots of the third century crisis, starting with the increased debasement of coinage (inflation) that appeared under Commodus, were therefore allowed to grow. The favors granted to the regional armies and their role as "emperor-makers" pre-existed, of course, but had become even more important by the end of his reign.

Accordingly, and as Birley's conclusion tends to show, the record of this very energetic Emperor is very mixed, but maybe it was simply impossible to do better...
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Septimius Severus: The African Emperor (Roman Imperial Biographies)
Septimius Severus: The African Emperor (Roman Imperial Biographies) by Anthony R Birley (Paperback - 11 Mar 1999)
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