Book Review: Emperor Alexander Severus: Rome's Age of Insurrection, AD 222-235


by John S McHugh

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2017. Pp. xiv, 336. Illus., maps, chron., stemma, appends., bibio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1473845815

The Last of the Severan Emperors

British academic McHugh, who has written on the Emperor Commodus and other subjects, does a masterful job in giving us this life of Alexander Severus (c. 207-235), the first ever biography of this tragic young ruler. McHugh sets Alexander within the larger framework of his rather unstable times, which presaged even more instability that was to follow.

Alexander came to power through the machinations of his mother and the Army’s devotion to the Severan Dynasty, to which he had but the slimmest of ties – the fictitious claim that he was the illegitimate son – rather than the very distant cousin – of the Emperor Caracalla (r. 211-217).

McHugh lays out the critical problems of ruling the Empire, which functioned through a complex interplay of favor, contacts, reputation and more, plus the loyalty of the Army. An Emperor had to be acceptable to the Senate, yet also hold the loyalty of the Army, which was loyal to the emperor, not to the Empire. So an emperor had also to be a soldier, or to be perceived to be one.

The empire did well during Alexander’s reign, under the guidance of his mother and some outstanding public servants, notably Ulpian and Papinian. However, despite some rather impressive civil achievements during his reign, where Alexander failed was in not being perceived as a soldier in a time of increasing military threats, but  rather as a “Momma’s boy". This lost him the loyalty of the army, and he was brutally succeeded by Maximinus Thraxan able professional soldier who was about as “un-Alexander” as possible. In less than three years Maximinus would fall in the "Year of the Seven Emperors".

There’s more, of course. McHugh touches upon such matters as the problems of running a continent sprawling empire in an age before rapid communication and the that of managing imperial finances in the absence of a banking system. And, of course, he addresses the vital question of how to regulate imperial succession when there was no “legitimate” heir.

Emperor Alexander Severus is a rich work, and valuable for anyone with an interest in the Roman Empire.


Note: Emperor Alexander Severus is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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