Order and Chaos
The first 80 years of the second century AD were a time of great prosperity for the Roman Empire. Under Trajan, the Empire attained its greatest geographical extent and under his successor Hadrian, the Empire became more Hellenistic in outlook and cultural initiatives fluorished. Edward Gibbon referred to this period as a sort of Golden Age for Rome, a century in which people were happy, the economy was prosperous (because of successful military ventures in the East), and the rulers were just and enlightened. Everything that was supposed to signify Romanitas was present in this time. The rulers of this time are retrospectively called the Five Good Emperors, although much of their "goodness" comes from the fact that some of them don't do anything too great or controversial and simply live long enough to reign for more than a year at a time. In 180 AD, however, Commodus -- the son of the last good Emperor Marcus Aurelius -- began a 12 year reign characterized by eccentric behavior and total political mismanagement. When Commodus is assassinated on the last day of the year 192, his shoes are filled by the prefect of the city of Rome, one Pertinax. Pertinax lasts until the end of March when he is killed and the support of the army (and thus control of the Empire) is auctioned off to Didius Julianus. Three revolts break out in the provinces with three rival claimants in what is known as the Year of the Five Emperors. Finally, a Libyan general named Lucius Septimius Severus rose to the forefront, cutting a deal with one claimant, Clodius Albinus, and killing the other, Pescennius Niger. Septimius Severus then reneged on his deal with Albinus and in 197, finally put down the last threat to his hegemony of the Roman state.
Although there had previously been several effective Emperors who had had military backgrounds, it was not until the time of Septimius that the Empire entered into what might fairly be termed a military dictatorship. Rather than the military being an external organ of the state, the state seemed to become an internal organ of the military. Septimius followed the example set forth by the Flavians, namely that earning and keeping the support of the military was the surest way to attain and retain power. It was impossible to fight Septimius, and his opponents all met the same fate: death by the sword. None of this, however, prevented Septimius from being popular with the people of Rome. He brought a much-needed sense of order to a land that had not seen very much of it for quite a while. He, like later rulers such as Diocletian, viewed the advent of Christianity in a highly negative fashion, seeing it as disloyalty personified. Christians (and Jews, incidentally) were the only religious group in the Empire who as a matter of metaphysical honour refused to sacrifice to Roman gods. The gods were the protectors of the state and the Emperor was the one who was supposed to watch out for the gods' interests on Earth; therefore, anti-religiosity in Rome was thought to be indicative of a desire to see the fall of the state and a personal sleight against the Emperor. This tradition goes back to at least the time of Nero, when Christians were persecuted for their (apparently nonexistent) part in the Great Fire of Rome that destroyed something like half the city -- supposedly Christians were revelling in the fire as it seemed to them to be the end of persecution and the vaunted reign of Christ. Opposition, whether it be religious or military, was not tolerated.
Founding a Dynasty
In 198, he named his elder son, Lucius Septimius Bassianus, his co-Emperor. Lucius was given to wearing a type of cloak in vogue with the Gauls called a caracal, which earned him the nickname Caracalla. This was a move on Septimius' part to ensure a clean succession upon his death as he was not inclined to let Rome (or his family legacy) fall to another general who might seize power in the exact same way he had. Caracalla accompanied his father on various campaigns, including the one in Britannia that would ultimately claim the latter's life. While in England, Septimius took the unusual step of naming another co-Emperor, his younger son Publius Septimius Geta. In 211, Septimius died after a brief illness in York and his two sons were accepted as his successors. It is said that he gave his sons this simple piece of advice on his deathbed: "take care of the army and to hell with everybody else." The original idea seemed decent enough: Caracalla would command the army and Geta would handle the political aspect of things. Unfortunately, neither Caracalla nor Geta liked the idea of sharing power with the other, not even with the division of labour that, in all honesty, suited them to their abilities. The brothers traded barbs with one another publicly and privately, until finally after months of discord, Caracalla simply had Geta killed, issuing a damnatio memoriae. History has chosen to remember Geta as an innocent victim of a capricious and jealous brother, but the evidence doesn't really support this notion. Geta would have done the same had Caracalla not made his own move. There were no mutinies or uprisings as a result of Caracalla's act of fratricide, which indicates that he followed his father's advice pretty decently and that had Geta acted first, he probably would have encountered stiff resistance.
Caracalla really made no effort to hide his crime, and the people found it more ridiculous than they did offensive. When a Hellenistic city ridiculued him for it, Caracalla laid siege to it and killed thousands of people. Caracalla was more brutal than he was crazy, which is shown by his awareness of the fact that the Roman economy was soon going to be in a state of turmoil. To this end, he took the "enlightened" step of granting citizenship to former slaves so he could tax the sizable fortunes that many of them had accumulated by virtue of their ability to engage in trades forbidden to Roman aristocrats. He had only one great public work that is known, namely the eponymous Baths of Caracalla, the construction of which spread across the majority of his six year reign. In 217, Caracalla was killed in Syria while relieving himself on the side of the road. Naturally, a succession crisis erupted when his praetorian prefect Macrinus declared himself Emperor and was recognized as such by the Senate. Macrinus wasn't a bad ruler, but he wasn't popular with the military, which was a death sentence by that time. Indeed, he ruled for only about a year before being deposed and executed by forces loyal to his fearsome successor: a 14 year old boy who wanted to be a girl.
The Next (and Final) Generation
Although Caracalla had been killed, his female relatives had been spared. Caracalla's aunt, Julia Maesa, spread a rumor that her grandson, Varius Avitus Bassianus, had been the incestuous product of her daughter Soaemias and her nephew Caracalla. This was patently false, but the army was looking for any pretext to rid themselves of Macrinus and avenge their fallen patron, and declared Varius Emperor in 218. Varius was known as Heliogabulus or Elagabalus given his status as a priest to the Syrian sun god El-Gabal. Upon the successful ouster of Macrinus, the Senate was forced into accepting Elagabalus as Emperor. As with Nero and Agrippina, it was the older, more experienced women in his family who called the shots at the time of his accession. Unlike Nero, though, Elagabalus was fine with this. Like another young ruler, Commodus, Elagabalus was content to leave the affairs of state to others while he bathed in his own eccentricities and decadence. His mother and grandmother, however, didn't do him much good. They were both named "Augusta," a highly venerated position for a Roman woman that carried a lot of weight. They appointed cronies whom the Senate found distasteful and Elagabalus didn't do much better, taking a series of male lovers and attempting to have them named to prominent positions in government. He even attempted to have a charioteer named Hierocles made Caesar because of his large member. He scandalized polite society by marrying a Vestal Virgin, which sort of defeated the purpose of being one. Actually, he married on five different occasions until proclaiming Hierocles his husband and saying he would give half the Empire to any surgeon skilled enough to give him female genitalia. What shocked Roman sensibilities was not the fact that he was engaged in a homosexual relationship, but rather that he was the Emperor and he was willingly taking the passive role in the affair.
As you might expect, revolts plagued Elagabalus all through his reign. In addition to his sexual peculiarities, his religious blasphemies didn't win him too many friends either. In the style of the Egyptian heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, Elagabalus sought to revolutionize Roman religion by instituting the worship of the Romanized version of his god, Sol Invictus (which, really, doesn't seem like such a bad thing). The forces of reaction were against him, however, and he was forced to deal with uprisings by the military that gave him his station to begin with. Maesa realized she was losing control of the sitation and forced Elagabalus to share his rule with his more popular cousin Alexander Severus, who was 13 years old at the time. Elagabalus resented this, and in 222 evidently ordered Severus and his mother, Avita Mamaea, killed after agreeing to the arrangement the previous year. The soldiers went on a rampage and although the order was not carried out, they killed Elagabalus and his mother and threw their bodies into the Tiber River. Alexander Severus was now in control at 14 years of age.
Mamaea was a far better advisor than her sister and Alexander's early years were carefully and competently managed. He was not depraved or scandalous and maintained good relations with the soldiers -- for a while. He had some military successes in the later part of his reign, but he too was plagued by various revolts across the Empire. He faced the Parthians in the East and the Germans in the North and though he evidently defeated the former in some limited engagements, he could not find a way to subdue the latter. He bribed the Germans, much to the disgust of his soldiers who were convinced that he was no better than his predecessor. Eventually, in 235, he and his mother were killed in a mutiny and replaced by a Thracian soldier named Maximinus.
The Severan Dynasty was responsible for the death of the system set up by Augustus more than 200 years prior to its establishment. Following the death of Alexander Severus, Rome entered into what is alternately known as the Military Anarchy or (more popularly) the Crisis of the Third Century. During the crisis, which ran from 235 to 284, not a single Emperor died of natural causes. Revolts sprung up in virtually all of the provinces and many of them seceded from the Empire, with Gaul, Hispania, and Brittania coalescing into the Gallic Empire (which retained a far more "Roman" character than Rome proper) and Egypt, Syria, and Palestine forming a Parthian client state called the Palmyrene Empire. Additionally, the Roman economy spiralled out of control and the Germans and Parthians attacked the frontiers. All of the Emperors who came about in this era were military men and at times it was unclear as to who the legimitate Emperor was at a given time. The economic situation was so desperate that upon his rise to power, Diocletian fixed prices for goods and made it a crime punishable by death to alter them. In many ways, the Severans set the stage for the fall of Rome, which was a long, painful process. Still, there was sense of hope and nostalgia throughout it all: in 248, Philip the Arab presided over the 1000th anniversary of Rome and held spectacular games for a nation sorely needing some relief. Naturally, he was assassinated the very next year. Rome was irreversibly on the decline, but it would enjoy a few brief moments of recaptured glory in the fourth century in the West and then for several centuries later in the East.
Five Good Emperors | Severan Dynasty | Crisis of the Third Century