In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Severans

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Narratives
  • Biographies

Classics The Severans
Stéphane Benoist
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0185


The reigns of the Severi (193–235), from Septimius Severus (the founder of the dynasty) to the last emperor Severus Alexander, symbolize the evolution of the Roman Empire, after the two first centuries of the Principate, and before the so-called crisis of the 3rd century AD: we can observe the progressive transformation of an imperial republic to a monarchical state. The lack of available historical resources made the historians of the 18th and 19th centuries quite unfair to the Severan period, whose status was to be an “entre-deux,” after the supposed peaceful century of the Antonines and before the unsuccessful wars of the 250–270s, the transformations of the Tetrarchy, and then Constantine’s reign. But thanks to the numerous inquiries in the late 20th and early 21st centuries from epigraphic and numismatic sources, the accounts of the Severan period have been profoundly renewed, and our understanding of what was the Severan Empire has improved. We must consider the almost traditional approach of the imperial function and cult by Septimius Severus and his successors, their collective attitude toward cities and citizenship, the increasing appreciation of the role of the equites, and above all the jurists within the imperial council, the reforms pursued within the army, and the impact of the imperial patronage within the art and culture in Rome and in the main provincial cities. The literary evidence, mainly the so-called senatorial historiography (Cassius Dio and the Historia Augusta), has deliberately limited our comprehension of the attitudes of Severan emperors and of what we should analyze as a discourse: the rhetoric in attendance to the princes, ceremonies to commemorate emperors and imperial family (domus divina) in Rome (adventus, triumphus, funus) and outside (adventus), and monuments that participated in the conception of an empire whose project was to assert its eternity (Roma Aeterna). Maybe two themes could be selected in order to characterize this almost half-a-century of Roman history: the universality assumed with the grant of Roman citizenship in 212 by Caracalla, and the eternity proclaimed during the secular games of 204 under Septimius Severus.

General Overviews

Three important events have renewed our general understanding of the Severan period. First of all, a new international society devoted to the study of the Severi has been created in the 1990s in Italy and has organized a colloquium whose publication (Dal Covolo and Rinaldi 1999) was the first to present such a specialized volume dedicated to many aspects of the reigns of the Severan emperors. Then it was from a cultural perspective that an edited collection of essays was released a few years later (Swain, et al. 2007), and finally, thanks to the commemoration in 2011 in Rome of Septimius Severus’s death, another series of papers, these founded on precise case studies, was published (De Sena 2013).

  • Dal Covolo, Enrico, and Giancarlo Rinaldi, eds. 1999. Gli imperatori Severi: Storia, archeologia, religion. Rome: LAS.

    NNNThese are the acts of the first congress of the “Severan Studies,” organized in 1996 by the International Center of Studies on the Severan Period. The different perspectives developed during this colloquium offer a comprehensive study from a variety of points of view.

  • De Sena, Eric C., ed. 2013. The Roman Empire during the Severan dynasty: Case studies in history, art, architecture, economy and literature. American Journal of Ancient History 6–8. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias.

    NNNTo commemorate the 1800th anniversary of Septimius Severus’s death, a conference was organized in April 2011, and twenty papers have recently been published and distributed in four sections: “Severan History and Literature,” “Urban Transformations,” “Aspects of Society and Economy,” and “Art and Ideology.”

  • Swain, Simon C. R., Stephen J. Harrison, and Jas Elsner, eds. 2007. Severan culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    NNNThis collection of essays offered to Ewen L. Bowie provides a broad approach to what can be considered “culture” under the Severi: from literature and culture, to art and architecture, and finally to philosophy and religion.

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