31 Days of History: York’s African Emperor

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In 208AD the Roman emperor Septimius Severus took up residence in York along with family, his elite guard and his extensive entourage.  His presence made the York the focal point of the Roman Empire for the full three years of his stay, and also brought with it a strong element of African influence.

Septimius Severus hailed from Leptis Magna in the Roman province of Africa, a province which covered what is now Tunisia and part of the Libyan coast. He was an accomplished and highly ambitious general who had risen through the ranks and seized power in a military coup after the death of the emperor Pertinax. His wife, Julia Domna was from Syria, the descendant of the priest kings in the temple of Baal.

Marble bust of the Emperor Septimius Severus © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The couple’s two sons, Caracalla and Geta, were the main reason behind Severus’s decision move to the edge of the empire.  Aged just 19 and 20 at the time, Severus wanted to remove them from the distractions of Rome and felt the discipline of a military campaign would do them good. He had designs on the unconquered territory which lay to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. It would be a crowning achievement to conquer Britannia in its entirety for Rome. This, however, was not to be. The Caledonians refused to engage in battle, preferring guerrilla warfare tactics, and the lands on the northern edge of the empire remained unconquered.

The presence of Severus’s imperial court in York brought many new cultural ideas from fashion and foods to mystery cults and religions. One such cult was that of Serapis, an Egyptian god particularly favoured by the emperor. The dedication stone of York’s temple of Serapis is in the Yorkshire Museum.

Curling tongs and bun rings found from the Severan period suggest local women were adopting Julia Domna’s hairstyle of curly hair tied back in a bun, a typical African style of the time. The hairstyle is clearly shown on a head pot at the Yorkshire Museum, thought to represent Julia. Head pots are a uniquely African style of pottery, and many examples of these have been found in York.

Severus died in York in AD 211. His funeral was arguably the biggest state occasion ever to be held here. In accordance with Roman tradition he would have been cremated at the highest point in the city, which was just outside York in Acomb. A huge procession would probably have taken his body there. Today in Acomb there is a place known as “Severus Hill,” held by tradition to be the site of the cremation.

The most enduring legacy of Severus’s visit was the status it brought to York. The prolonged presence of an emperor brought the highest prestige and long after the Roman period, York continued to be the economic, military, religious and political centre for the north of England.

Find out more about Severus at:

The Yorkshire Museum

The museum has four inspiring Roman galleries which tell the story of Roman York and its people. There are many Severus related exhibits.

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