Severus Alexander
222 - 235 CE
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Julia Maesa's other grandson, Severus Alexander, was quite a relief after his mad cousin Elagabalus. In hindsight, it was a final glimpse of the relative peace and prosperity of the Severan age before the Empire plunged into 50 years of darkness. But if "all's well that ends well", er ... I'll let you judge for yourself.

Severus Alexander Denarius
About this coin:

The murder of Elagabalus was quite a relief for Severus Alexander and his mother. After being promoted at their grandmother's insistence to Caesar (essentially, "Junior Emperor"), he and Mom had been in nearly constant danger of being executed by his jealous cousin.

By comparison to his mad cousin, Alexander's reign was the picture of tranquility. The ancient historians seemed to have been rather fond of the boy, and about the only bad thing they said about him was that he was perhaps a bit too obedient to the women in his life.

Julia Maesa Denarius
About this coin: Alas, poor Julia Maesa. Unlike her sister, Julia Domna, and her two daughters, Julia Soaemis and Julia Mamaea, she was already an elderly grandmother before being immortalized on coinage. But that's better than never being immortalized, I guess.

The first of these was his grandmother, Julia Maesa. Maesa was probably the main engineer of the return to power of the Severan Dynasty, and though she probably didn't directly order the murder of her older grandson (Elagabalus), it was pretty clear that she considered him to be completely out of control, and would not be too upset if someone else did the lad in. But Maesa was already of advanced years when her more stable and obedient younger grandson officially donned the Purple, and she died just two years into his reign.

Julia Mamaea Denarius
About this coin: Julia Mamaea, the mother of Severus Alexander, was the true power for most of Alexander's reign, certainly after the death of her own mother, Julia Maesa. He rarely went against her wishes, even when he strongly disagreed with them.

But Maesa's younger daughter, Julia Mamaea, seemed to take after her mother, and she kept the reins of government firmly in her own hands. Reports have it that Alexander did not approve of some of her activities, including confiscation of others' inherited money, but he never directly defied her in anything.

Whatever her excesses may have been, the level of discontent was much lower than it had been under Elagabalus, especially since she sent the black stone of Elagabal back to Syria and restored the traditional gods of Rome to their previous prominence. She even rededicated the huge Temple of Elagabal that her nephew had constructed to Jupiter. Also, whether it was just his nature or whether his mother exercised more control over his private life, Alexander showed no tendency toward the bizarre sexual antics of his cousin.

Indeed, about the only ones who were unhappy were the soldiers. They didn't care to be governed in fact by a woman, and they didn't respect Alexander for his peaceful and pliant disposition. Early in the reign, the Praetorians assassinated the man Mamaea had appointed to be their commander, and unrest among the military plagued Alexander's entire reign.

One might be tempted to say that Alexander wasn't actually a wimpy mama's boy as he's portrayed, and that he simply agreed with her choices. But in one area, the evidence is irrefutable -- his marriage.

At mama's insistence, Alexander married a noblewoman by the name of Barbia Orbiana. Surprisingly, the marriage was quite a success -- too much so. At least that's how it appeared to mama Mamaea. Orbiana's influence on Alexander threatened Mamaea's control, and Alexander even went so far as to appoint Orbiana's father to the rank of Caesar without his mother's approval.

This was too much for Mamaea, and she vociferously threw Orbiana out of the Imperial palace. Fearing for her safety, her father took her to the Praetorian headquarters for protection. Mamaea chose to treat this as an act of rebellion. She ordered him executed, and Orbiana exiled. Alexander was clearly distraught by this, but even under this extreme provocation, he would not openly defy his mother.

Meanwhile, the world outside the Roman borders continued on. To the east, the traditional enemies of the Romans (the Parthians) were overthrown from within. Ardashir became the first Sasanian ruler of Persia when he successfully rebelled against the last Parthian king of Persia. Upon securing the throne, he then turned his attentions to retaking territories recently lost to Rome. He attacked and took the Roman province of Mesopotamia, taking the Romans by surprise.

Faced with this crisis, Alexander was forced to throw together a counter-offensive. From the beginning, it was beset with problems, including at least one mutiny in which a legion attempted to depose Alexander in favor of their own leader. This ended with the would-be usurper drowning himself in the Euphrates.

The offensive finally went off, though it was costly and indecisive. Alexander led the middle of three columns. The northern column was victorious, but Alexander's middle column failed to fight aggressively enough to do any serious damage, and this left the southern column open to devastating attack by the Persians. It ended in a stalemate, reclaiming some of the lost territory and temporarily stopping Ardashir's advances into the Roman east, but the soldiers blamed their failure to gain a decisive victory on Alexander's cowardice. This didn't stop him from celebrating a "triumph" when he got back to Rome, but the soldiers weren't really buying it.

And speaking of "buying it", the Germans then decided to try a little invasion of their own in the Roman northwest. Off Alexander went to deal with that, but he decided to try to buy peace rather than fight for it. He offered the Germans cash if they would quit invading. The charitable interpretation was that this was a ruse to give the Romans time to prepare for a serious punishing assault, but the soldiers were in no mood to be charitable -- especially since Alexander had started trying to reduce military costs, including that guaranteed loser, cutting the soldiers' pay and benefits.

Meanwhile, the soldiers had become rather fond of a large fellow named Maximinus (some reports said he was more than eight feet tall). Alexander had put him in charge of new recruits. Well, one morning the soldiers appeared, carrying the purple Imperial cloak, which they threw over his shoulders. He pretended to be surprised and reluctant, but he wasn't much of an actor and didn't really fool anyone. Maximinus's troops then headed toward the nearby camp of Alexander.

He got word before they arrived, and ran weeping from his tent, calling Maximinus an ingrate. (Sadly, his mother hadn't allowed him to learn any really good nasty names to call Maximinus, so even his cursing failed to impress anyone) His own troops assured him that they would remain loyal, but they changed their minds the next morning upon seeing the dust kicked up by Maximinus's advancing troops.

The end was not pretty. He had, of course, brought Mommy with him, and he ran to her. He clung to her, weeping, and blaming her (not without some justice) for this catastrophe, and that was where he was when the soldiers came to slaughter both of them.


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