Few states in history can claim to have had the power, influence, and sheer size of the Roman Empire. It’s been the subject of countless books, TV shows, and movies ranging from Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series to Spartacus. Even in media where the Roman Empire isn’t explicitly named, its presence is felt such as in A Song of Ice and Fire where Old Valyria serves as the advanced, powerful empire that preceded the fractured states that became of it.
But unlike the books’ Valyrians, the show Valyrians and real Romans were never quite as homogenously white as we conventionally think of them. At the very least, they wouldn’t have easily identified themselves as being white.
This ambiguity hovers over the identity of Septimius Severus. Born in a place that would become present-day Libya, Septimius Severus was undoubtedly the first African born emperor. However, many have claimed that Septimius Severus was black, as in, of African ethnicity. Look up his name right now and you’ll see dozens of TikToks saying Septimius Severus had been whitewashed and that he was actually African-blooded, not just African-born.
History, however, is not so straightforward, and to understand whether Septimius Severus would have been considered black in his time, we need to understand how the Romans viewed race, citizenship, and identity.
Who Was Septimius Severus?
Septimius Severus or, if you’re really patient, Lucius Septimius Severus was a Roman Emperor who served from 193 to 211 A.D. His name probably sounds familiar to you if you’re part of a Christian denomination as Septimius Severus is famous for, among other things, forbidding conversion into Christianity.
But that’s just a drop in the bucket of everything Septimius Severus accomplished during his reign.
Septimius Severus was born in Leptis Magna, one of the foremost cities of its time that commanded the coastlines and trade routes of the Mediterranean. Before you imagine Leptis Magna as a Greek or Roman city in terms of geography, it was far from the center of the empire. Instead, Leptis Magna was located in what we today call Khoms, Libya in North Africa.
This made Septimius Severus the first African-born Roman emperor. There’s no dispute on that front. The ambiguity comes from claiming he was the first black emperor of Rome. Septimius Severus’ parents were of Italic and Punic ancestry. His father, Publius Septimius Geta was Punic, alternatively called a western Phoenician. Because the western Phoenicians were Semites, this would make Septimius Severus, though a little removed, a Semite himself as it was understood in his time. It was Fulvia Pia, his mother, and member of the prominent Fulvia family (gens Fulvia) of Rome, who gave him his Roman-blooded origins.
He was said to have been an eager student, always yearning to learn more and fluent in Punic, the local tongue of Leptis Magna, as well as Greek and Latin, both of which he spoke with a Punic accent. Though Septimius Severus was taught the skill of public speaking, his accent would be a sign of what was to come in his political career.
Septimius Severus’ Rise to Power
Septimius Severus joined the senate in 173. While accounts of him describe him as mentally capable, it was his connections through his family that would help him secure a public career. Septimius Severus was recommended by his cousin Gaius Septimius Severus to none other than Marcus Aurelius, the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors.
He may not have known it at the time, but Septimius Severus had massive shoes to fill.
Septimius Severus spent most of his time during Marcus Aurelius’ reign serving as a state attorney but the Antonine Plague forced his career to a halt, giving him few safe options aside from coming back to Leptis Magna. But the Antonine Plague was more of a gift than a curse. Since it had killed many of the older senators, Septimius Severus could eschew seniority, jumping the ranks of the senate to later become senate himself.
Gaius Septimius Severus would give him a second big break: Now proconsul of Africa, he offered Septimius Severus the role of being his legatus. This sudden promotion helped him secure a senior legislative position.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for him in the Roman Empire. Following Marcus Aurelius’ death, his son Commodus became emperor and was assassinated. He was replaced by Pertinax who tried to introduce a string of reforms but was killed by his own Praetorian Guard.
Septimius Severus, wise enough not to let a good crisis go to waste, assembles an army and marches to Rome, forcibly taking emperorship with little resistance.
Septimius Severus’ Legacy
Septimius Severus’ iron grip on the Praetorian Guards and Senate, whose ranks he purged and filled with his loyalists, made him unpopular with the Senate yet effective. Commodus’ corruption made him look great in comparison and he was successful in expanding the Roman Empire to the largest it would ever be, making him incredibly popular with the Roman public.
After a long and largely successful reign, he fell ill and died in Eboracum, present-day York, England.
These days, he’s regaining that popularity for being the “Black Roman emperor”. A search for him on TikTok will quickly turn up results talking about how he was “white washed” and that, because he had come from Africa, he must have been ethnically African himself.
Was Septimius Severus Really Black?
As nice as it would be to have a black Roman emperor, no record of Septimius Severus’ life describes him as black nor would there be any reason to believe he was. His mother was an Italic Roman and his father a Semitic western Phoenician. He was certainly born in Africa, but he was no more black in his time than Elon Musk, who was born in Pretoria, South Africa, is today.
While he likely wasn’t as “white” as movies and TV shows depict the Romans, he could not have been black either. And even if he were and were not, categorizing Septimius Severus as either black or white wouldn’t reflect how Rome treated him.
Ancient Roman Attitudes on Race vs. Citizenship
The Romans themselves were not white or, to be more accurate, not white in the way we think of today. Today, we easily categorize Scandinavians, the English, and Italians as “European” and therefore white. The Romans, to put it bluntly, would not have been happy being grouped with people they believed to be “barbaric”.
Whiteness and blackness as categories did not exist for the Romans the way they do for us today. The stereotypes that racists have today of “non-whites” are eerily similar to the way the Romans viewed Northern Europeans, though many writers also had a begrudging respect for them.
Yet many “barbarians” rose to prominence in Rome anyway. “Race” as we know it was both a factor and a non-factor for the Romans. They drew “racial lines” and othered people based on differences in custom, language, and religion. To them, differences in culture were the things that truly marked someone as an other. After all, with such a massive empire, you’re bound to have a fellow Roman that didn’t look like you, but you shared gods, a language, and understood each others’ customs.
Assimilation made a Roman a Roman. Not their “race”. However, it would be remiss to pretend that Rome was a land of equal opportunity. They did use the concept of “natio”, place of origin, as a way of determining which slaves would be suited for which tasks. It’s worth noting that while 19th-century claims of scientific racism would often classify the “white European” as intelligent compared to non-whites, the Romans believed the opposite about their Briton slaves.
“I think that you will not expect any of them to be learned in literature or music.” Cicero wrote to Atticus regarding captives from Britain.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio takes it a step further, “…men born in cold countries are indeed readier to meet the shock of arms with great courage and without timidity, but their wits are so slow that they will rush to the charge inconsiderately.”
Okay, but Why Was Septimius Severus Depicted With Dark Skin?
A surviving tempera painting of Septimius Severus and his family depicts him with dark skin which has been claimed to be proof that Septimius Severus was black. There’s just one problem: He isn’t the only man in Roman art to be shown with dark skin. Notice that his features aren’t differentiated from that of his wife Julia Domna, herself an Arab from Roman Syria and also considered a Phoenician in her time, and their children.
At the time, men and women were depicted in art as having darker and paler skin, respectively, due to gender roles. Women stayed home and lived largely private lives that kept them out of the sun. Men were depicted with darker skin as they would have been outside more due to their roles in the public sphere. Whiteness and blackness in Roman art was less about race and more about gender.
Of course, given his ethnicity, Septimius Severus wouldn’t be white the way we think of whiteness today, but he seems to have had opinions of sub-Saharan Africans that would contradict him being one himself.
The Historia Augusta has this account of Septimius Severus’ campaign in Britain.
“After inspecting the wall near the rampart in Britain… just as he [Severus] was wondering what omen would present itself, an Ethiopian from a military unit, who was famous among buffoons and always a notable joker, met him with a garland of cypress. And when Severus in a rage ordered that the man be removed from his sight, troubled as he was by the man’s ominous colour and the ominous nature of the garland.”
Ultimately, Septimius Severus Can’t Be Black Because Blackness Today Is a Recent Sociopolitical Construct
It’s no question that non-white people are underrepresented in media and their contributions are downplayed compared to their white counterparts. However, the zeal with which we look for aspirational non-whites in history can be its own form of historical revision. Our modern ideas on race and ethnicity, as influenced by Gomes Eannes De Zurara and the scientific racists of the 19th century, are so removed from the Romans as to be irrelevant and unreflective of the dominant views of their time.
And besides, the Romans wouldn’t dislike Septimius Severus for being black. If there was anything “origin” related they could remotely hate him for, it would probably be because he was Punic, and by a stretch of definition, from Carthage…and he had Hannibal’s tomb covered in fine marble.
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