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8. Septimius Severus |
The Christians pervade the imperial household

Septimius Severus is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 223, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

In the midst of murder, mayhem, betrayal, and lies, the empress calls in Origen to advise her son; the tide seems to have turned, but it has not

Septimius Severus - The Christians pervade the imperial household

Septimius Severus - The Christians pervade the imperial household
In the confusion following the death of Commodus, Septimius Severus, the Roman commander in Illyria across the Adriatic from Italy, moved quickly to secure the throne–founding a dynasty which would number five emperors, with his wife’s family central to all five.

The fate of the Christians–their fate in this life, anyway–depended upon the policies, moods, caprices, and ultimately the religious convictions of the reigning emperor. Origen had grim cause to know this firsthand. But it meant that safeguarding the Christians would involve persuading and perhaps converting the emperor himself, and in the blood-soaked era of Caracalla, this would have seemed so remote a possibility as to be preposterous.

However, before Origen died, he would see Christianity deeply infused in the imperial household, pivotally influencing the policies of one emperor and perhaps actually converting another, with Origen himself playing what was probably a key role in those developments.

Strangest of all, while the Christians stood for (and themselves usually evidenced) the mutual trust, sincerity and personal sacrifice that Jesus had enjoined upon them, the imperial household where Origen’s influence was invited and felt was one of internecine feud, constant conspiracy, palace purges, assassination, betrayal, lies, and deception, all within a family in which brother murdered brother, sister murdered sister, and two emperors on separate occasions died in the arms of their mothers, each of whom helped bring about her son’s downfall and perished along with him. Finally, it was the only era in the history of imperial Rome when the empire was run almost entirely by women, one of whom was the declared ally of Christianity and surrounded herself with Christian advisers.

Things had not gone well after the death of Marcus Aurelius in a.d. 180, about five years before Origen was born. Indeed, the conduct of the imperial court had descended sharply. Marcus’s austere Stoicism was supplanted by the eventually insane delusions of his son, heir, and successor, Commodus, a devotee of the arena who fought a reputed seven hundred public battles, many against wild animals. From the start, Commodus’s hold on office was insecure. A street assassin, sword in hand, was narrowly thwarted soon after Commodus donned the purple toga. Next came a plot by the prefect of Rome that was stifled by the execution of the man himself, along with all his kinfolk and household servants. As plot followed foiled plot, so many people were executed, says the historian Cassius Dio, that recounting them all would be tedious.

Commodus, meanwhile, slipped into insanity, commanding senators to cheer him as “first of all men” in his frequent arena appearances, donning a lion’s skin instead of a toga, proclaiming himself Hercules, son of Jupiter, and appearing in public carrying a Hercules-style club. He announced plans to designate himself the divine founder of Rome and rename the city Colonia Commodiana while retitling the months of the year after his own dozen names.

In the midst of this unpropitious household, however, a Christian made her appearance. Commodus’s mistress, a freedman named Marcia, commandeered from the estate of one of his aides, acquired a strong influence over him, even before his father died. She was one of several Christians in his immediate circle, according to records left in the late 170s by the court physician Galen. While not a Christian, Galen was an open sympathizer who wrote admiringly of the Christians’ discipline, their habitual honesty, and their fearlessness in the face of death. If only Christianity were rational, he wrote. At one point, Marcia was strong enough politically to intervene for Christians condemned to work in the Sardinian mines. Many were released, including a future bishop of Rome, Callistus.

However, neither she nor anyone else could fully control the mad emperor, and she gradually fell from his favor. When he announced to a few close friends his plans to publicly execute a number of senators in the arena, Marcia and others decided he had to be stopped, meaning assassinated. They almost botched the job. She gave him poison that he threw up, remaining very much alive, whereupon Narcissus, an athlete and his companion in arena appearances, strangled him in his bathtub. It was the eve of New Year’s Day, 193. The Praetorian Guard, who were partying, were not there to defend him.

Acting swiftly, Marcia and her co-conspirators hastened to the home of Senator Pertinax, a respected bureaucrat under Commodus’s father. Convincing him that he owed it to his now-dead benefactor Marcus to salvage the empire by accepting its crown, they escorted him to the barracks of the Praetorian Guard and declared that Commodus had died of a stroke, and that Pertinax, who could restore the high probity of Marcus’s era, was the obvious successor. The Praetorians agreed, but reluctantly, and the following day, the grateful Senate ratified Pertinax, meanwhile hearing the motion that the would-be senator-killer Commodus should be stripped of his titles, that all monuments to him should be thrown down, that his body should be dragged by a hook into the stripping room of the gladiators and buried in disgrace. All in favor? Carried. And carried out it was.

But the Praetorians were not altogether in favor, especially when they discovered, much to their discomfort, that Pertinax actually intended to restore the disciplines and the severe honesty of Marcus’s era. Their perks threatened, three hundred of them rose in revolt, and unrestrained by their officers, they marched on the palace. Pertinax, knowing their intent, walked out to meet them, declared his innocence, and cowed them into submission. However, one of their number, more brazen than the rest, strode forward and ran him through as the others cheered and joined in. Then, with Pertinax’s head held high above them on a pike pole, they marched triumphantly back to the barracks.

He had reigned for eighty-six days. The imperial crown was theirs to confer, the Praetorians now knew, so they would auction it to the highest bidder. Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire calls this an “infamous offer, the most insolent excess of military license,” which “diffused a universal grief, shame, and indignation throughout the city.”

This shame was not quite universal, however. To a certain Didius Julianus, a veteran senator, vain, old, and wealthy, the auction came as a golden opportunity to achieve a rank otherwise beyond his wildest dreams. He won the bidding, offering a staggering 6,250 drachmas to each member of the Praetorian Guard.1 The gates of the camp were instantly thrown open to the purchaser; he was declared emperor, and he received an oath of allegiance from the soldiers.

But when word of this connivance reached the frontline legions, three of their commanders, those in Britain, Syria, and Illyria, laid plans to march immediately on Rome, each aspiring to become at once Pertinax’s avenger, Julianus’s assassin, and therefore his successor. None, however, could match the qualifications of the commander in the old province of Illyria, opposite Italy along the east coast of the Adriatic. He was the best strategist and had the sharpest mind, the best troops, and the shortest distance to travel to Rome. More than any of these, he had a very cunning and ambitious wife, as ruthless as he was, every bit as ambitious, and also stunningly beautiful.

The man was Septimius Severus, a North African by birth who rose rapidly in the army and under Commodus was given a command in Syria. There he was introduced to a little girl, Julia Domna, aged nine, who was the daughter of Julius Bassianus, high priest of the crossroad center Emesa, now called Homs, about halfway between Antioch and Damascus. Whoever marries this child, the astrologers predicted, she will make into a king. Severus was devoted to astrology, and both the girl and the fable fascinated him. He was either widowed or divorced from a first wife about whom almost nothing is known.

A great deal, however, was to become known about Julia Domna. Severus eventually married her. She would become the wife of one emperor, the mother of two, and the grandaunt of two more. Her younger sister, Julia Maesa, would be grandmother to two (see accompanying genealogy diagram). More powerful than either of those Julias would be a third, Julia Mammaea, daughter of Maesa and niece of Domna, who would rule the empire through her son for thirteen critical years, aiding, abetting, and perhaps even joining the Christians, though the last is doubtful.

But the founder of this female dynasty was Julia Domna, who presented her husband with two sons, one while he was proconsul in Gaul, the second when he was filling the same function in Sicily. However, her role in her husband’s career was, first to last, far more than that of a wife. She became, in effect, his prime minister, and after his death she served in the same capacity for their elder son, popularly known as Caracalla.

An extraordinary woman, Julia Domna was learned in philosophy and she surrounded herself with rhetoricians, lawyers, astrologers, physicians, philosophers, and historians. Gibbon lists her attributes: “The attractions of beauty,” he writes, “were united to a lively imagination, a firmness of mind, and strength of judgment, seldom bestowed on her sex.” With soldiers, her popularity rivaled her husband’s. She was declared “Mother of the Camp,” “Mother of the Senate,” “Mother of the Nation,” “Mother of All the People.” At one point, in Syria, there was a popular movement to have her declared a goddess.

Spurred by his wife, Severus moved as soon as the news of the Pertinax murder reached his headquarters. His battle-hardened troops, many of them recruited from the wild Pannonians who lived along the south shore of the Danube, were on the march for Rome in short order. The Adriatic fleet went over to his side when he reached the coast, and his legions were soon at Ravenna, about 250 miles from the capital. There, both Julianus and the Praetorians were in a state of panic. The city-softened imperial guard had no stomach for a fight with, of all troops, the Pannonians. Gibbon portrays their terror:

They trembled at the name of the Pannonian legions, commanded by an experienced general and accustomed to vanquishing the barbarians on the frozen Danube. They quitted, with a sigh, the pleasures of the baths and theaters, to put on arms whose use they had almost forgotten, and beneath the weight of which they were oppressed.

The unpracticed elephants, whose uncouth appearance, it was hoped, would strike terror into the army of the north, threw their unskilled riders; and the awkward evolutions of the marines, drawn from the fleet of Misenum (the naval base near Naples), were an object of ridicule to the populace; whilst the Senate enjoyed, with secret pleasure, the distress and weakness of the usurper.

Julianus, meanwhile, had taken another precaution. Commodus’s mistress, the Christian Marcia, and her co-conspirators, were duly murdered. But neither the Praetorians nor Julianus’s makeshift fortifications around the city were of any use. The Praetorians conducted Julianus into a private apartment in the palace. There they beheaded him as a common criminal and surrendered the city without a fight. Julianus had purchased, with an immense treasure, an anxious and precarious reign of only sixty-six days, twenty days less than Pertinax. Always conscious that their own fate depended vitally on who was emperor and what were his religious views, the Christians must have seen all this violence as horrifying and looked anxiously for clues as to the attitude of the figure who now entered upon the scene.

But Severus at first gave no clues. He directed the Praetorians to assemble unarmed in a large field on the city’s outskirts. A contingent of his Pannonians surrounded them with leveled spears, and the Praetorians waited in horror for the charge. It never came. Severus denounced them for treachery and cowardice. But he did not massacre or even disband them. In effect, he fired them and ordered them out of Rome. If any came within a hundred miles of the city they would be executed, he warned. Later, he reconstituted them as an elite frontline unit whose ranks the members of other legions could aspire to join.

Forty-one senators were executed as supporters of the rival claimant generals from Britain and Syria, both of whose armies Severus shortly defeated. For the next eighteen years, peace returned to the imperial household, Severus commanding the armies first in the East and then in the North, while Julia Domna ran the government, mostly from her native Syria, doing whatever it took.

What it occasionally took, according to some historians, was her own amorous activity. If this was true, Severus, always smitten by her charms, made no recorded objection to it. Sometimes they worked together on military strategy. “It may be argued,” writes the historian Anthony R. Birley in his biography of Severus, The African Emperor, “that Severus and his wife had a keener realization of the importance of the eastern frontiers, and a shrewder perception of how they should be controlled, than any previous Roman ruler.”

While all went well in the affairs of state under Severus, however, all did not go well with the Christians. In 202, the ninth year of his reign, Severus launched the five-year persecution against Christians that claimed the life of Origen’s father, Leonides, and later those of Origen’s pupils in Alexandria. The motive for this apparently sudden crackdown is not easily explained. Severus for years had retained the services of a therapist named Torpacion or Proculus, a lifelong Christian. Moreover, Tertullian, notwithstanding Perpetua’s and other martyrdoms, wrote that it was Severus who protected Christians of high rank against the fury of the mobs. In any event, the persecution was canceled in 207 as abruptly and mysteriously as it had begun.

In 211, sixty-five years old, weary, and in ill health, Severus crossed the English Channel to direct the war against the Caledonians in the north of Britain. He took his two sons–Caracalla, aged twenty-three, and Geta, twenty-one–along with him. He had held high hopes for these boys, but neither gave him any reassurance. Caracalla was swaggering and brutish, Geta soft, ineffectual, and given to the arts. From their infancy they had harbored an irrepressible hatred for one another, dividing the court into two factions. Severus carefully favored neither, bestowing the rank of Augustus on each, so that legally Rome had three emperors. But Severus was under no illusions. The stronger of the two will destroy the weaker, he said, and then will be himself destroyed by his own vices.

All this occurred precisely as Severus had foreseen. When he died that year at York, both sons hastened south to Rome and split the empire in two, as their father had unwisely recommended. The conflict between them grew worse. While Caracalla lavished money on the army, which became his unswerving supporter, their mother, Julia Domna, sought with fervor to make peace between them. Ostensibly bowing to her wish, Caracalla met his brother in her presence to settle their differences. Instead, his soldiers rushed into the room. Geta fled to his mother’s arms, where they stabbed him to death, his blood spurting over her robe. Trying to ward off the blows, she was herself wounded in the hand. Caracalla darted from the room, screaming that his brother had tried to murder him. The story was doubted, but accepted by the Senate. The army was on Caracalla’s side and the senators knew it.

On returning to the palace he found his mother weeping, with several noblewomen, for her dead son. Enraged, he threatened them all with instant execution. One of them, Fadilla, last surviving daughter of Marcus Aurelius, he did put to death; then he began the systematic execution of every ally of his brother, a purge that claimed the lives of thousands, say the Roman histories. Mother and son were reconciled, however. Julia Domna resumed her role as prime minister, while her son gradually sank into seeming imbecility.

He left Rome a year later, never to return, and became, says Gibbon, “the common enemy of mankind,” traveling the empire, “every province by turns the scene of rapine and cruelty,” typified by his slaughter of the young men in Alexandria recounted in the preceding chapter. Finally, he was stabbed to death by a soldier in Syria. The assassin was promptly executed, and in the resulting void of leadership a lawyer serving as a commander of the Praetorians in Syria had himself declared emperor. His name was Macrinus; he would remain in office and alive for the next year.

The new emperor first ordered Julia Domna, by now aging and exhausted, to retire to Emesa, her birthplace. She refused, then quietly starved herself to death at Antioch, or so most accounts record. But her younger sister, Julia Maesa, a woman of equal beauty and ambition but without intellectual pretension who had used her court connections to accumulate considerable wealth, saw that her hour had now come. She had two daughters, both widows. The elder, Soaemias, had a son, Bassianus, who would go down in history as the emperor with the virtually unpronounceable name of Elagabalus (pronounced as E-la-GAB-a-lus), from the name of the sun god for whom his great grandfather had been high priest at Emesa. The younger and by far the brighter daughter was Julia Mammaea, who likewise had a son, Alexander (see family chart, p. 226).

Julia Maesa returned to her native Emesa, where her power and influence were greatest. The proper heir, she resolved, was not this upstart lawyer but her grandson, Elagabalus. But he had no blood relationship with Severus at all, some said. Wrong, said Julia Maesa. He was actually the illegitimate son of his mother’s cousin, Caracalla; there had been an indiscretion. The army in Syria leaned toward her grandson. Whatever his relation with the mighty Severus, he was from the same family. His grandaunt, Julia Domna, had been their heroine, the “Mother of the Camp.” Her sister, his grandmother, was wealthy and most generous. Moreover, they didn’t like the Praetorians and they didn’t like lawyers. So “Hail the Emperor Elagabalus!”

The showdown occurred in Syria. The Praetorians at first distinguished themselves on behalf of the Emperor Macrinus, driving Elagabalus’s force into a rout. But no one was going to rout Julia Maesa. Jumping from a chariot with her daughter, Soaemias, she chided the retreating soldiers for cowardice. Elagabalus, in the only distinguished act of his life, led the troops to turn and stand against the Praetorians, then to counterattack savagely. The Praetorians fled. Macrinus was caught running away and was executed.

The year was 218, and Emperor Elagabalus then began a four-year, catastrophic reign. His grandmother instructed the young emperor to leave immediately for the capital, and thus made two dismaying discoveries: first that he had a mind of his own, and second that it wasn’t a very good one. He dallied in Syria, and when he finally arrived, he scandalized the Roman populace by wearing silk, jewels and the finery of the Eastern nobility, his head adorned with a high tiara, his eyebrows blackened, his cheeks painted pink, all much to the horror of his grandmother.

In the ensuing four years, one such outrage followed another. Described by some historians as “a passive homosexual,” he took four successive wives, all promoted by his grandmother, and each failed to produce children. When he announced plans to marry one of Rome’s forbidden vestal virgins, this created another crisis. He lavished upon his male paramours the loftiest titles in the civil service–a dancer became prefect of the city, a charioteer prefect of the watch, a barber prefect of provisions. “Corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune,” writes Gibbon, “he abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures with ungoverned fury, and soon found disgust and satiety in the midst of his enjoyments.”

Very soon, it became evident to his grandmother that salvaging the family fate and fortune depended upon ending the reign of Emperor Elagabalus. She had, she knew, one card left to play: the other grandson, Alexander. At thirteen, he was four years younger than his cousin, and as different as her younger daughter was from her elder. For Julia Mammaea was rectitude itself. She lacked the glamorous beauty of her mother, aunt, and elder sister, but she was far from homely, and she was skilled in philosophy, religion, and history. Morals aside, she realized that unless an end was put to her imperial nephew, a coup by the army was inevitable, and in it the whole family would assuredly perish. Finally, she hated Elagabalus–the way he lived, the way he thought, and the peril into which he put them all. Together with her mother, therefore, she plotted his death, which would entail the death, as well, of her own sister.

Three things were necessary. First, the army must be won over. Well-placed “donatives” to the right officers, plus a claim to a blood relationship with the revered Severus, would accomplish this. The dead Caracalla was again the chosen agent. There had been two indiscretions, it seemed, with Alexander the consequence of the second. Next, and most difficult, Elagabalus must be convinced to “adopt” his cousin as his heir–for Elagabalus a suicidal move, but he must be persuaded to make it. Finally, the reigning emperor must not only be assassinated but also disgraced, so that a clear distinction could be drawn between the two cousins. Such was the plan, and both women set about carrying it out.

Winning the army was not difficult. The soldiers were embarrassed by this effeminate incumbent. The Praetorians had in fact opposed him and naturally gravitated to a rival. Alexander’s increasing presence in their camp and in public gained him a widening popularity. His grandmother undertook to solve the adoption problem. The emperor, she knew, had an infatuation with the sun worship of his ancestors which he was striving to make the state religion of Rome. She now championed this cause. Elagabalus could not adequately fulfill the role of the sun god’s high priest in Rome, she said, when he was burdened with other state affairs. Why not let his young cousin shoulder some of the more routine responsibilities?

The emperor at first refused, then conceded, then began to suspect his aunt and grandmother of plotting against him. He tried to reverse the adoption, but the Senate would not agree. He next sought to subvert his cousin to his own lifestyle. When that failed, he twice attempted to murder Alexander, but was thwarted by the Praetorians. Elagabalus’s own assassination soon followed. There are three accounts of it, the most probable and sanguinary that of the historian Cassius Dio. The assassins found the trembling emperor hiding in a palace closet and dragged him out. He fled into the arms of his mother, Soaemias. Both were then slain and beheaded. Their bodies were stripped and dragged through the streets. Elagabalus’s body was thrown into the Tiber; the fate of his mother’s body is not known. The date was March 11, 222. Two days later, his cousin, Alexander Severus, age fourteen, was declared emperor of Rome.

Alexander’s accession brought radical change both to the imperial household and to the whole conduct of the administration. Behind the change lay the complex figure of the emperor’s mother, Julia Mammaea. She was a woman of two dominant qualities. An unswerving honesty in public affairs governed her conduct up to, but not including, her personal financial interest. Second, she had inherited from her mother an insatiable avarice, says the historian Herodian, which eventually worked her own ruin and her son’s. Her mother, Julia Maesa, Herodian notes, went into a secluded retirement, died two years later and was buried “with imperial honors and deification.”

Some doubt that she was deified–it would have alienated the Christians whom Julia Mammaea strongly supported. Historians generally agree that Julia Mammaea was not Christian herself. Like many heads of state nineteen centuries later, she was a religious syncretist. All religions had good in them, she would have said, and the state should welcome them all but favor none in particular. Rome, of course, had always embraced this view, provided that Rome’s own imperial gods, including the divine emperors, were given their proper due. Rome drew the line at Christianity because the Christians refused to make this last concession.

But Julia Mammaea did not draw that line. Like her aunt, Julia Domna, she studied the great religions and philosophies, thinking, no doubt, that to accept them within the fold of the state required, at a minimum, understanding them. She raised her son in the same rigorous virtuosity she demanded from her whole household, successfully shielding him against the depravities of his cousin. But of all the empire’s myriad religions, Christianity in particular fascinated her.

Christians were numerous in her household, says the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius, and when it became the imperial household, Christians moved into high positions within the state. Long before her son’s accession, she had wanted to know more about their faith. Who, she once asked, would be a good instructor, both for herself and her son? There was a brilliant man at Alexandria, she was told, a man of widening influence among the Christians. His name was Origen. She sent for him.

Thus, Origen came into the presence of Julia Mammaea, then resident in Antioch, having been escorted there, he said, by the Praetorian Guard. The probable date was 218, four years before her son became emperor.

Origen by now had found himself leading a double life. In his beloved Alexandria, he was a man shunned by authority, deeply suspect to his bishop, on the verge of outright expulsion from the church for which his father had been martyred. Everywhere else in the Christian world, he was a man held in awe, his advice often sought to resolve conflicts between Christians, his books increasingly copied and read, his lectures in churches and public halls vastly attended.

Origen’s troubles with Bishop Demetrius had begun on his first trip to Palestine, when the bishops there, Theoctistus and Alexander, had heard him preach in their churches. On learning of this, Demetrius was shocked. He wrote to the two bishops: “It has never been heard of, and it never happens now, that laymen preach homilies in the presence of bishops.” The two bishops replied that “where there are men capable of doing good to the brethren, they are invited by the holy bishops to address the people.” Demetrius rejected their case, and from that point on, hostility grew between himself and the principal of his Catechetical School.

Caracalla’s massacre at Alexandria saw the school close and Origen take refuge back in Caesarea. When he returned to Alexandria, Origen made a connection that would soon gain his work a very wide audience. The man’s name was Ambrose, and he was a wealthy Alexandrian who had been a dabbler in various religions and philosophies. He had rejected Christianity as rationally untenable until he encountered Origen, who showed him the intellectual depth of the faith. This changed his life; he embraced Christ, and together with Origen established what can only be described as the world’s first international publishing house, dedicating all his wealth to the project.

Origen wrote the books, and Ambrose set up a copying team that duplicated and distributed them. He hired Origen a secretary and seven tachygraphers, effectively stenographers, and they established a production line. This became the vehicle which, over the ensuing decades, spread an avalanche of Origen’s works to Christian communities all over the empire. They included not only theological and philosophical treatises, but also exhaustive commentaries on the Jewish Scriptures and on many of the works that would soon become the New Testament. In total, his individual writings numbered into the thousands.2 A much-sought adviser and lecturer, he would travel to Caesarea in Cappadocia to preach, to Nicomedia to settle a dispute over biblical interpretation, and back to Arabia to confront and restore a bishop whose teachings were deemed to have strayed too far from the faith.

The need for such commentaries as Origen produced was self-evident. Gnosticism had captured and deluded the Christians in Egypt, largely by founding doctrines and theologies on isolated scriptural verses that were usually at odds with much else in the Scriptures. Only by a coherent commentary on all the books could a comprehensive picture of Christianity be drawn and taught. It was this that Origen sought to furnish. In the ensuing years, while running the school at Alexandria, he composed five books of commentary on John’s Gospel, eight on Genesis, a commentary on the first twenty-five psalms and on the Book of Lamentations, as well as books entitled On the Resurrection and First Principles and ten now assembled under the heading Miscellanies.

The task was monumental, and Ambrose was the taskmaster. “The work of editing,” says Origen in one letter, “leaves us no time for supper, or after supper no time for exercise and relaxation. Even at these times we’re compelled to debate questions on interpretation and to amend manuscripts. Even the night can’t be given over to the help of a little sleep, for our discussions extend far into the evening. To say nothing of our labor all morning.” Origen’s friendly tribute to Ambrose’s tough production demands also survives. He writes: “You’re not content to fulfill the office of a taskmaster when I’m there, but even when I’m absent, you demand that I should spend most of my time on the latest job. For my part, I’m inclined to shrink from work, and avoid the pitfall threatening those who write about God. I’d rather read the Bible than write all these books.”

How long he remained in Julia Mammaea’s household at Antioch is not recorded precisely. She was “a very religious woman,” says Eusebius. “He remained some time with her, instructing her in all that could serve to glorify the Lord and confirm his divine teachings.”

The effects of his teachings redound more visibly in Alexander, who is said in one none-too-reliable account to have placed images of Christ and Abraham before all others in his oratory, and whose policies and appointments when emperor consistently favored the Christians. At one point, he proposed to build for them a great church in Rome, but was discouraged because it could appear he was making Christianity a state religion. At another, when some Christians were disputing the ownership of a former tavern with those who wanted to restore it, he decided for the Christians. Better God be honored there, he said; Rome didn’t need another tavern. Finally, on the walls of the palace he had these Latin words engraved: Et prout vultis ut saciant vobis homines et vos facite illis similiter. They were not attributed, and the day had not yet come when Romans would instantly recognize “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” as the words of Jesus Christ (Luke: 6:31).

In one instance, Origen may have clashed with Julia Mammaea.3 As her son grew older and bolder, he began to resist his mother’s direction, especially in her habitual enrichment of herself at public expense, or at the unjust expense of others, and her vicious persecution of the woman she found for Alexander to marry. This resistance was likely due to the teaching of Origen. Christians, Origen would have said, do not exempt their leaders from the rules that apply to everybody else–a concept that Julia would not have easily embraced.

In any event, the mother-son regime made itself felt rapidly. They first sought to restore the power of the Senate, naming sixteen of its members to a council of advisers, as had Augustus. At the same time, the new regime clamped down on corruption in the courts, prohibited prostitution, closed the disreputable bars, severely punished bureaucratic graft, tried unsuccessfully to establish a national bank for the safe deposit of personal property, inaugurated an economic development plan for the city of Rome, sponsored trade associations, and launched a new imperial building program. While capital punishment was retained for criminal charges, not a single political execution occurred in Alexander’s reign, says the historian Herodian.

But the age of persecution was not over, and some Christians knew this. However sympathetic the regime might be to the Christians, and however many held posts in the imperial government, the Christians themselves noted ominous signs. Their fear of the mob mentality still weighed heavily on them. And even Alexander retained as his senior legal counsel Domitius Ulpian, a militant anti-Christian but a man who seemed ready to check the Praetorians, now back in much the same position of power they had held before Severus purged them. Twice the Praetorians tried and failed to assassinate Ulpian, and two Praetorian prefects paid for that failure with their lives. In 228, however, the Praetorians succeeded. Though Ulpian was now gone, the Christians no doubt saw that he had republished all the anti-Christian rescripts of former emperors, thereby providing clear legal grounds for a new crackdown on the Christians if and when the present regime were overthrown.

That possibility was far from remote. Beneficial though their reforms may have been for Rome, Julia and her son had made a fundamental error. They had underestimated the political power of the frontline legions. Indeed, they had come down hard on the army, cutting its pay to pre-Caracalla levels, dismissing entire legions for insubordination, and preventing semi-retired officers from drawing full pay while awaiting appointments that were never intended to be made. Finally, to enable the civil arm to regain control of the military, they turned over to the Senate the power to appoint some of the army’s top staff officers. In peace, the military grievances this caused might not matter much. But Alexander, who had never known war, was now about to experience it.

A revolution in Persia had overthrown the Parthian regime, and the new Persian king, Artaxerxes (pronounced as AR-ta-ZERK-sees), having raised an enormous army, declared a plan to seize for Persia all the provinces of the Roman Empire east of the Mediterranean and the Aegean.4 Alexander, now twenty-four, rose to the occasion, drafted new troops from every province in the empire, and set in motion plans to assemble them at Antioch for a major offensive against Persia. Tearfully, he left Rome behind and took up his position as commander of the assembled legions.

A calamity followed for which he was held wholly responsible. He and his commanders laid out a three-pronged attack, one through Armenia in the north, a second through southern Mesopotamia in the marshlands where the Tigris joins the Euphrates, and a third, the largest, under his personal command, through central Mesopotamia.

The first attack clawed its way through the Armenian mountains, defeated the Persian force sent to oppose it, then headed south to join Alexander’s main body coming up the middle. But it wasn’t there, because the emperor had canceled the main attack. The reason was never explained. The army laid it to sheer cowardice, blaming his mother, who was with him and undoubtedly feared he would be killed. Thousands of Roman soldiers perished in the retreat through Armenia.

Then a second blow fell. The Germans on the Rhine broke through and were moving south towards Roman Illyria on the Adriatic coast. Alexander and his mother rushed north, bringing elements of the Antiochian force with them. Confronted with the German horde, however, Alexander had another idea. He and his mother possessed a great deal of money, he said. He offered a bribe to the Germans if they would withdraw. They accepted, but the Roman troops were aghast. Anxious to regain the pay scale Alexander had taken from them, they were ready to fight. But now the money that had been withheld from the army was being paid to their enemies. The empire, they said, was in the hands of a woman and a mother’s boy who had surrounded themselves with Christians.

They also had a new champion: Maximinus, a giant of a man whose reputed dimensions grew with the years until legend had him standing eight feet tall and wearing his wife’s bracelet on his thumb, like a ring. According to tradition, he had once been a Thracian shepherd boy, a barbarian himself, that is, who had risen through the legions to senior rank, first through his skill in training recruits, and then through his competence in command, much of this under Alexander, who saw in the man the military capability he himself lacked.

But by now the Rhine legions, fed up with Julia’s covetous ways, Alexander’s military ineptitude, and the outrage of the German bribe, seized Maximinus and (whether in farce or in fact) forced him at sword point to accept the purple toga. Acquiescing, he told the troops they must act at once, since both mother and son were now near Mainz on the Rhine. They marched in a body on Alexander’s camp. It was March, 235.

Warned of their advance, the young emperor assembled those troops who were with him and appealed for their loyalty. At first it seemed he would get it, but as Maximinus’s contingent came into view the mood changed. The arrivees, says Herodian, jeered at the young emperor as “a mean little sissy” and as “a timid little lad tied to his mother’s apron strings.” Why, they shouted, did they not come to the side of a man who was a soldier, who had lived his life among them, and who fought the empire’s enemies with arms, not money–their money?

Herodian describes the end. Alexander ran terrified to his tent and clung to his mother, while blaming her bitterly for causing his ruin. There, Maximinus’s centurion-assassins found them both, and swords in hand, put an end to them, to the family of Severus, and to the first genuinely pro-Christian emperor.

For the next six years, the stern rule of Maximinus prevailed. Under his direction the army’s pay was raised and the most rebellious of the Rhine barbarians, the Alamanni, were thrashed so thoroughly it was another twenty years before they tried again to break out. Maximinus then combed the imperial administration, firing all of Alexander’s appointees, in particular the Christians, and executing most of them. No doubt a warrant for Origen’s arrest was issued in Alexandria. But he wasn’t there. In another twist of fate, his life was saved again, this time because Bishop Demetrius had driven him out of town.

Four years before Alexander’s assassination, Origen had been called to Greece to resolve an ecclesiastical conflict there. En route, he passed through Palestine, and once again the bishops asked him to preach. Remembering the rebuke this had caused the last time, they decided to remove the problem by ordaining him to the priesthood. But this set off a much worse explosion. Protesting that Origen could be ordained only by his own bishop in Alexandria, and that in any event his self-emasculation had disqualified him, Demetrius summoned a council of the Eastern bishops to have Origen’s priesthood annulled. When the move failed, he called a second council. This time it carried, effectively discrediting Origen as principal of the Catechetical School and forcing him out of his beloved city to Caesarea in Palestine.5 Forewarned there that he was a wanted man, Origen fled to Cappadocia, where he hid out until the Maximinus regime ended.

His publishing partner, Ambrose, wasn’t so lucky. He was arrested and jailed in Alexandria, and seemed about to be executed. Origen wrote to him what became a Christian classic of the times. Entitled Exhortation to Martyrdom, it urged Ambrose to face up to the ordeal as one who had been liberated from the limitations of bodily existence and was thereby able to behold Christ in all his fullness. But Ambrose was soon released, and the work of the publishing house resumed.

Ambrose’s release was evidence of the general chaos into which the imperial administration had dissolved. Maximinus was the first of a long line of soldier-emperors. In his experience, power was retained only by brute force, the force of the frontline army. Keep the troops happy and you can stay in office, he reasoned, and the same view now gained sway in imperial affairs. That overlooked, of course, one critical factor. There was always more than one ambitious general. Consequently, twenty-six men, most of them generals, would succeed one another as emperor over the next sixty years, many of them murdered by their own troops.

Maximinus was the first to suffer this fate. Barbarian by birth and manner, he was seen by the imperial aristocracy as ruining them with the taxes he imposed to keep the army victorious and happy. A rebellion against him broke out in Carthage and spread to Rome under the titular leadership of a father and son, both gaining brief mention in Roman history as Gordian I and II. As Maximinus assembled a huge force to advance on Rome and confront them, a counterrevolution on his behalf broke out in Carthage, where Gordian II was trampled to death in the rout of his followers, and the elder Gordian hanged himself.

The Senate then named from their own number two successor emperors. With such instability of authority, serious riots broke out in the capital, and Maximinus’s huge force began advancing upon it. But when he attacked the northern Italian trading city of Aquileia, whose citizenry had very effectively prepared themselves for a protracted siege, Maximinus, to his chagrin, found that he couldn’t take the place. Nor could he advance on Rome, because the rivers were all in flood, and he couldn’t cross them. Thwarted and furious, he turned bitterly on his own commanders, berating them for incompetence. That was the last straw. The following day, his troops quietly murdered him. Meanwhile, in the continuing riots at Rome, the senatorial emperors met the same fate at the hands of the Praetorians. These now hailed as emperor the thirteen-year-old grandson of Gordian I and proclaimed him Emperor Gordian III.

Young Gordian was to reign more than five years. That was unusual stability for the time, partly because the administrative chaos had exhausted the populace, but chiefly because of new trouble in the East. The Persians again began attacking Roman outposts in Mesopotamia, alarming and in this way uniting the empire. Painfully, the Romans pushed the invaders out of northern Mesopotamia, but neither Gordian III nor his gifted minister, Timesthius, survived the campaign. The latter died of an illness. How Gordian III perished is disputed. Persian records say he was slain in a battle; most Roman accounts say he was murdered by his troops, fomented into rebellion by Marcus Julius Philippus, known to history as Philip the Arab.

Eusebius records the report that Philip was Christian, making him the first Christian emperor, and relates that in the year 244, when Philip donned the purple toga, he was required by Bishop Babylas of Antioch to do public penance before being allowed to attend an Easter service. The penance was imposed for his role in the death of Gordian III. If true, that would have had momentous implications, then and in years to come, for it would mean that a Christian bishop had exercised authority over a Roman emperor.

There was another indication of a link between the Christians and Philip. He came from Bosra in Arabia, where a flourishing church had once sought Origen’s help in resolving a theological controversy. The Christian records mention letters that Origen wrote to Philip and to his wife, the empress Otacilia Severa, though none of this is found in Origen’s surviving works.

However, most modern authorities doubt Philip’s ostensible Christianity, pointing out that Philip’s regime was hardly beneficial to the faith. As the historian Michael L. Meckler observes, Philip was indistinguishable from other emperors in his use of pagan titles and symbols, and he made no improvements to the legal status of Christians.

Worst of all, he bought off rather than defeated the enemies on the northern and eastern frontiers, levied heavy taxes to do it, and thereby aroused the hatred of the soldiers. One in particular possessed a deep loathing of both Philip and the Christians. This was Gaius Messius Quintus Decius, Roman commander on the Danube, a devout pagan who saw Christianity not just as a nuisance, distraction, and rival to the gods of his ancestors but as a mortal malignancy afflicting the whole empire that must be stamped out completely in every nook and cranny where it appeared, until all trace of it was gone. Christians feared that a Decian coup would be followed by the most sweeping persecution they had ever known.

By Philip’s day, Origen was hard at work in Caesarea. His school there was far more of an evangelical or missionary enterprise than the one at Alexandria, and an intimately nostalgic portrait of it is preserved in the memoirs of one of its students, Gregory Thaumaturgus (the Wonder Worker). En route to law school at Beirut, Gregory heard Origen speak of Jesus Christ and was so enchanted that he abandoned law to become one of Origen’s students. The school’s goal, writes Gregory, was not simply to capture the mind of the student, but also the soul, and Origen taught not just by word but by example, pausing sometimes when explaining a difficult point to pray for God’s guidance, and to ask his pupils to do the same.

Gregory recalls the school as a vision of Heaven itself. “Both day and night,” he writes, “the holy laws are declared, and hymns and songs and spiritual words are heard; where there is perpetual sunlight; where by day, in waking vision, we have access to the mysteries of God, and where by night, in dreams, we are still occupied with what the soul has seen and handled in the day; and where, in short, the inspiration of divine things prevails continually over all.”

Yet Origen’s own most vivid memories hearkened back to another school in another era, when faith was tested by deed, and his students one by one paid for their convictions with their lives. “That was when one really was a believer,” he wrote as age crept upon him, “when one used to go to martyrdom with courage in the church, when returning from the cemeteries whither we had accompanied the bodies of the martyrs, we came back to our meetings, and the whole church would be assembled there, united, unbreakable. Then the catechumens were catechized in the midst of the martyrdoms. . . . It was then that we saw prodigies. Then faithful were few in numbers but were really faithful, advancing along the straight and narrow path leading to life.”

He, too, would finally join them. When Origen was about sixty-four, the dreaded coup occurred. The troops on the Danube rebelled against Philip, defeating his army near Verona and setting off the greatest persecution that Christians had ever endured. Origen was among the first arrested, but he was not put to death. Instead, his captors realized what a prize he would make if he could be induced to recant his belief in the Nazarene Jew, and declare his obedience to the gods of the empire.

In an early-on attempt at what a later generation would call brainwashing, Decius locked Origen in a dark cell, often with an iron collar around his neck, tortured, threatened with fire, and repeatedly tempted with freedom if he would merely give the word. Eusebius describes the torments: “The evil demon, bent on his destruction, brought all the weapons in his armory to bear, and fought him with every device and expedient, attacking him with more determination than anyone he was fighting at the time–the dreadful cruelties he endured for the word Christ, chains and bodily torments, agony in irons, and the darkness of his cell, how for days on end his legs were pulled four paces apart in the torturer’s stocks.”

But Origen remained steadfast, and Decius was never awarded his prized apostate. Bruised, battered, and greatly weakened, Origen was released in 251, Decius having perished in fighting on the Danube frontier. Origen died about three years later, at Tyre. For centuries his tomb lay in the wall behind the high altar of Tyre’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, destroyed by the Muslims during the Crusades, a calamity from which Tyre never recovered. Today, poor fishermen, who occupy the huts and hovels that stand on the site of what were once Tyre’s great palaces, speak of a vault under which lie the remains of a man they call “Great Oriunus.”

Origen towers over all others in the postbiblical period as the first great Christian theologian. He was preeminently a student of the Scriptures, and his teachings created discussions and arguments among Christians for the next three hundred years. Then in 553, what had become known as “Origenism” was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople, because its concept of the soul and of the nature of man’s resurrected body were deemed to be deeply flawed, minimizing Christian salvation, conflicting with the resurrection of the body, and creating an unnatural separation between body and soul. It was deemed to be founded on much too speculative a use of the Christian Scriptures.

How Origen might himself have responded to this rejection of his teaching is suggested by his writings, says the Christian historian Michael Green. He would simply have accepted the rebuff. “Is it all that amazing,” Origen once wrote, “that if the Lord was willing to be made a curse for slaves, that the slave should be willing to be made a curse for his brethren?” In other words, “If helping your brother costs you your reputation, what does it matter? Christ didn’t care. Why should we?” It was this attitude, says Green, that has made many Christians revere Origen ever since.

This is the end of the Septimius Severus category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 223, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Septimius Severus from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at