The Last Severan Emperor
Updated: Jul 11
Severus Alexander was the last Severan emperor. He ruled from AD 222-235, at age 13 succeeding his first cousin Elagabalus. Julia Maesa, grandmother to Elagabalus and Severus Alexander and a powerful force behind the throne, arranged for Severus Alexander to be elevated to Caesar at the age of 13 on June 26, 221.
Elagabalus, jealous, attempted assassinations and pushed for his popular cousin to be stripped of his title. March 11, 222, Elagabalus and his mother Julia Soaemias were murdered by the praetorian guard, their naked and mutilated bodies were dragged through the streets of Rome and they were thrown into the River Tiber.
Julia Soaemias (sister to Julia Mamaea, daughter to Julia Maesa, mother to Elagabalus), Augusta, AD 218-222, AR Denarius (19mm, 3.09 g, 1h), Rome mint, struck under Elagabalus, AD 218-220
Obv: IVLIA SOAEMIAS AVG, draped bust right of the empress
Rev: VENVS CAELESTIS, Venus Caelestis seated left, holding apple and scepter; to left, child standing right, raising hands.
Ref: RIC IV 243 (Elagabalus)
Note: Venus Caelestis was the Roman equivalent of the Carthaginian (Punic) god Dea Caelestis. Elagabalus strangely presided over a ceremony in the summer of 221 where he divorced the gods Heliogabal and Vesta and married Heliogabal to Venus Caelestis. This mirrored his personal divorce from Aquilia Severa and his marriage to Annia Faustina, and older women who was a friend of and perhaps selected by his Grandmother Julia Maesa. An interesting 2016 article here on the politics of Elagabalus' rise and fall.
Recognizing the style differences between mints takes a lot of practice, which I don't have for coins of this period. This next coin of Severus Alexander, is most likely a coin of the Rome mint, however it is clearly influenced by Eastern style and could be from Antioch. Perhaps a Syrian engraver in Rome or a Roman engraver in Syria? I've always had difficulty passing up a Salus reverse, and even more so this past year of pandemic. I particularly like the youthful portrait from his first year - the youngest emperor, until Gordian III in AD 238 - I also like the bold snake on this coin.
Severus Alexander, AR denarius, 222-235 AD, Rome or Antioch (?), 222 AD
Obv: IMP C M AVR SEV ALEXAND AVG, bust laureate, draped, cuirassed right
Rev: P M TR P - COS P P, Salus seated left holding patera to snake rising from altar, left elbow on arm rest
A few pages of Herodian are interesting to read, describing the plans of Julia Maesa to keep her offspring in control of Rome as her grandson Heliogabalus (Elagabalus) became increasingly unacceptable. He also describes how Alexianus became Alexander, and the control exerted by Maesa and Mamaea over the young emperor:
"...the emperor was dominated by his mother and obeyed her every command. One might bring this single charge against Alexander, that his excessive amiability andabnormal filial devotion led him to bow to his mother in matters he personally disapproved." -Herodian, History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius, 6.1.10
Here's a coin of the power behind the emperor - issued by her grateful son:
Julia Mamaea, Issued by Severus Alexander, 222 - 235 AD, AR Denarius, Rome Mint
Obv: IVLIA MAMAEA AVG, Bust of Julia Mamaea, diademed, draped, right
Rev: FELICITAS PVBLICA, Felicitas, draped, seated left, holding caduceus in right hand and cornucopiae in left hand
and his even more powerful grandmother, mother to Julia Mamaea and Julia Soaemias. Julia Maesa was the sister of Julia Domna the wife of Septimius Severus, the first Severan emperor.
Julia Maesa (grandmother of Elagabalus and Severus Alexander), AR denarius. Rome, circa AD 218-222
Obv: IVLIA MAESA AVG, draped bust to right
Rev: PVDICITIA, Pudicitia seated to left, raising veil and holding sceptre
Ref: RIC IV 268 (Elagabalus)
This may be a bit of a stretch, but the obverse on this coin has always looked a bit like the young emperor as Victory to me. This is one of 1,049 coins found between December 2004 and January 2007 in the Dereham (Norfolk) Hoard discovered by metal detectorists Pat Buckley and his wife Sally in a field outside the town of Dereham. It was the largest largest hoard of its kind ever found in Norfolk.
Severus Alexander, AR Denarius, Uncertain Eastern mint, AD 222 Obv: IMP SEV ALEXAND AVG, laureate and draped bust to right Rev: VICTOR[IA A]VG, Victory, winged, draped, advancing right, holding wreath in right hand and palm in left hand Ref: RIC IV 302
I could easily mistake this last coin for a coin of Severus Alexander:
Maximinus I, 235-238, AR denarius ( 20 mm, 2.94g, 12h), Rome, 235
Obv: IMP MAXIMINVS PIVS AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Maximinus to right
Rev: VICTORIA AVG Victory advancing right, holding wreath and palm frond
Ref: BMC 105-7; Cohen 99a; RIC 16
Here side by side are a later portrait of Severus Alexander and the portrait from this coin:
Although this coin looks a lot like the 26 year old Severus Alexander, it is a coin of Maximinus I "Thrax" who was acclaimed emperor by soldiers angered by Severus Alexander's restraint against the Alemanni who had invaded Roman territory near the Rhine. Severus Alexander was murdered with his mother in February or March 235 at Vicus Britannicus (not far from Mainz), putting an end to the Severan dynasty. It is not uncommon to find the first coins of a new emperor resembling the previous emperor - this coin likely from not long after the death of Severus Alexander. Maximinus' more prominent chin shows up on later coins of this type which were issued 325-236.