Alexander Severus, Capitoline Museums, Rome
Marcus Julius Gessius Alexianus
(AD 208 - AD 235)
Marcus Julius Gessius Alexianus was born in AD 208 in Caesarea (sub
Libano) in Phoenicia.
He was the son of Gessius Marcianus and Julia Avita Mamaea, daughter of
Just like his cousin Elagabalus, Alexander had inherited the priesthood
of the Syrian sun god El-Gabaal.
Alexander first came to prominence when Elagabalus proclaimed him
Caesar (junior emperor) in AD 221. It was when he became Caesar, that
the boy Alexianus assumed the name Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander.
His entire elevation was in fact part of a plot by the powerful Julia
Maesa, grandmother to both Elagabalus and Alexander, to rid herself of
Elagabalus and instead substitute him on the throne with Alexander. It
was her, together with Alexander's mother Julia Mamaea who had persuaded
Elagabalus to promote his cousin.
However, emperor Elagabalus soon changed his mind about his supposed
heir. Perhaps he discovered that Alexander was the greatest threat to
his own life. Or perhaps he simply grew jealous of the popularity his
young cousin enjoyed. In either case, Elagabalus soon sought to have
But, with the young Caesar guarded by the rich and powerful Julia Maesa,
this attempts failed.
Finally, Julia Maesa made her move. The praetorian guard was bribed
and Elagabalus, together with his mother Julia Soaemias, were murdered
(11 March AD 222).
Alexander Severus ascended unopposed to the throne.
Government remained in the hands of Julia Measa, who ruled as regent
until her death in AD 223 or 224. With the death of Maesa power passed
on into the hands of Julia Mamaea, the young emperor's mother. Mamaea
governed moderately, advised by an imperial council of 16 distinguished
And so Elagabalus' sacred Black Stone was returned to Emesa under her
rule. And the Elagaballium was rededicated to Jupiter.
Laws were revised, taxes were marginally lowered and a building and
repair programme for public works was started.
Meanwhile the senate should see a limited revival of its authority and
standing, most of all its dignity as it for the first time in a while
was being treated with respect by the emperor and his court.
And yet, despite such good government, encountered serious trouble
early on. Rome struggled to accept to be ruled by a woman. Was Julia
Mamaea's rule not as firm as that of Julia Maesa, it only encouraged a
revolt by the increasingly hostile praetorians. At some point there was
even fighting in the streets of Rome, between the ordinary people and
the praetorian guard.
These outrages might well have been the reason why the execution of
their commanders Julius Flavianus and Gemininius Chrestus was ordered.
Sparked off by these executions, either in late AD 223 or early 224, the
praetorians staged a serious mutiny. Their leader was a certain Marcus
Most prominent victim of the praetorian revolt was the praetorian
prefect Domitius Ulpianus.
Ulpianus had been a distinguished writer and jurist, as well as being
Mamaea's right hand man in government. Her chief advisor killed, Julia
Mamaea found herself humiliatingly forced to publicly thank the mutinous
Epagathus and was required to 'reward' him with the post of governor of
Later however, Julia Mamaea and Alexander had their revenge by managing
to arrange for his assassination.
In AD 225 Mamaea organized a wedding for her son with the daughter of
a patrician family, Cnaea Seia Herennia Sallustia Orba Barbia Orbiana.
The bride was elevated to the rank of Augusta on her marriage. And
possibly her father, Seius Sallustius Macrinus, also received the title
However, trouble was soon to arise. Its reasons are not quite clear.
Either Mamaea was too greedy to share power with anyone else, or perhaps
the new Caesar Sallustius was plotting with the praetorians to take
power himself. In any case, in AD 227, both father and daughter fled
into the camp of the praetorians, where Sallustius was taken prisoner by
imperial order and executed. Orbiana was thereafter exiled to Africa.
After this episode Mamaea would not tolerate any potential rival to her
power at court.
But apart from such power struggles at court, a far greater threat
should emerge. This time from the east. The Parthians finally crumbled
and the Sassanids gained supremacy within the Persian empire. The
ambitious king Artaxerxes (Ardashir) now sat on the throne of Persia and
almsot immediately sought to challenge his Roman neighbours. In AD 230
he overran Mesopotamia from where he then could threaten Syria and other
provinces. Having at first attempted to negotiate a peace, Julia Mamaea
and Alexander alas set out for the east in spring AD 231 at the head of
a large military force.
Once in the east a second attempt at a negotiated settlement was made.
But Artaxerxes simply sent back message that he demanded the Romans to
withdraw from all the eastern territories he claimed. Just as with the
praetorians, Alexander and Mamaea struggled to keep control of the army.
The Mesopotamian armies suffered all kind of mutinies and the troops
from Egypt, the Legio II 'Trajan' also revolted. It took some time to
bring these troubles under control, before finally a three-pronged
attack was launched upon the Persians. Of the three prongs none fared
very well. All three suffered heavy losses. The northernmost column did
well by driving the Persians of of Armenia. The central column, led by
Alexander himself through Palmyra towards Hatra failed to achieve any
significant advance. The southern column meanwhile was wiped out
completely along the Euphrates river.
However, the objective of driving the Persians out of Mesopotamia was
Alexander and Mamaea therefore returned to Rome to hold a triumphal
march through the streets of the capital in the autumn of AD 233. The
military though was little impressed by their emperor's performance.
But already while the war against the Persians had been occupying the
emperor and his mother, to the north a new menace had began raising its
The Germans were becoming restless north of the rivers Rhine and Danube.
Most of all the Alemanni were cause for worry along the Rhine.
So in AD 234 Alexander and Mamaea set out for the north where they
joined the legions on the Rhine at Moguntiacum (Mainz).
There preparations were made for a German campaign. A bridge of ships
was constructed to carry the Roman army across. But Alexander by now
knew hismelf no big general. He therefore hoped that the threat of war
alone might be enough to bring the Germans to accept peace.
It worked indeed and the Germans agreed to sue for peace, given that
they would be paid subsidies. However, for the Roman army this was the
final straw. They felt humiliated at the idea of buying the barbarians
off. Angered, they mutinied and hailed one of their senior officers,
Julius Verus Maximinus, emperor. With Alexander camped at Vicus
Britannicus (Bretzenheim), Maximinus gathered his troops and marched
against him. On hearing this, Alexander's troops mutinied and turned on
Alexander and Julia Mamaea were both murdered by their own troops (March
Some time later Alexander's body was returned to Rome where it was
laid to rest in an especially made tomb. He was deified by the senate in