In a very British if widely unnoticed rite, the city managers of York last Feb. 4 unveiled a bust of a Roman emperor to mark the precise anniversary of his death in their town 1,800 years earlier.
Emperor Septimus Severus, a native of North Africa, had for three years vainly tried to subdue elusive Caledonian insurgents north of Hadrian’s wall. Then, in the year 211, he apparently succumbed to pneumonia at age 64, having devoted much of his 18-year reign to stretching his empire. On his deathbed, when shown his cremation urn, he is said to have exclaimed, “You will hold a man that the world could not hold!”
What is historical trivia in Yorkshire has a timely resonance in today’s Libya, his homeland. Born in Leptis Magna, then a major Roman port 81 miles east of Tripoli, Severus was known as the “African Caesar” because of his origins, regional accent and swarthy complexion.
Originally a Phoenician settlement, Leptis Magna swelled into a metropolis during his reign (A.D. 193 to 211), complete with triumphal arches, a vast forum, innumerable inscriptions, and an amphitheater seating 50,000.
Among the best preserved Roman ruins, the old port today offers silent witness to the glory that was once Libya. Successive campaigns by Italian, German and British archaeologists have bared a veritable Louvre of classic sculptures.
Not only was Severus the first North African to govern the Roman Empire, but his reign was ostensibly a success. He imposed a tolerable stability at home even as he tightened Rome’s hold in Europe and expanded frontiers in Africa and the Middle East (where he annexed Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq).
Can it be that Muammar el-Qaddafi saw himself as a new African Caesar? His own birthplace was in coastal Surt, not far from Leptis, and his officials strove energetically to gain Unesco’s designation of Leptis Magna as a World Heritage Site. The ruins were a favored destination for Western pilgrims, often shepherded by Qaddafi’s sons. Despite reports in February that Qaddafi was cunningly hiding missiles in Leptis Magna, knowing the World Heritage Site was excluded from NATO target lists, no such ploy has been confirmed.
In one sense, the affinity between Qaddafi and Severus is striking. Classical historians agree that the emperor owed his ascent to his massaging the armed forces, especially the elite Praetorian Guard, during a chaotic struggle among five imperial claimants. The emperor’s last words to his sons are said to have been: “Pay the troops; get on with each other; and ignore everybody else.” (The two ruled jointly after his death until one slew the other.)
A compelling contrary verdict is rendered by Edward Gibbon in his monumental “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Gibbon seemed to anticipate Qaddafi. He describes Severus as a native of Africa who “concealed his daring ambition, which was never diverted.” In Gibbon’s view, Severus was a consummate charlatan who “promised only to betray” and who “flattered only to ruin.” Though he claimed to be bound by oaths and treaties, “his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation.”
Once anointed as emperor, Severus ordered the wholesale slaughter of all suspected opponents, among them two score senators. As supreme ruler, he “considered the Roman Empire his property” and courted the populace with cheap grain and continuous games, while lavishing favors on his soldiers. As an administrator, Gibbon writes, “His haughty and inflexible spirit could not discover, or would not acknowledge, the advantage of preserving an intermediate power, however imaginary, between the emperor and the army.”
Overall, Gibbon offers a devastating epitaph to the ancient world’s prototype to our own age’s martial messiahs: “The contemporaries of Severus in the enjoyment of the peace and glory of his reign, forgave the cruelties by which it had been introduced. Posterity, who experienced the fatal effects of his maxims and example, justly considered him as the principal author of the decline of the Roman Empire.” Words surely not found in history textbooks in Qaddafi’s Libya.
Karl E. Meyer, co-author most recently of Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern East and editor emeritus of World Policy Journal.