Born and brought up in Libya, the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus is sometimes referred to as Rome’s Black Emperor. But did you know he also came to Scotland?

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus was born into a provincial aristocratic family in AD 145. He grew up in the Roman town of Leptis Magna, in modern-day Libya. Sources from the time refer to his multilingual ability, suggesting he spoke Latin, Greek and Punic. As an adult, he went to Rome to embark on a senatorial career.

In the early AD 190s he became governor of Upper Pannonia, a Roman province which included parts of modern-day Austria and Hungary.

map showing the Roman Empire

Map of the Roman Empire. Upper Pannonia is shown as Pannonia Superior.

AD 193

The Roman Emperor Commodus (who you may remember from the movie Gladiator) was murdered in AD 192. This plunged the Empire into a struggle for succession.

Severus was proclaimed Emperor by his soldiers at Carnuntum in April 193. He completed the defeat of his rivals the following year.

Severus in Britain

Severus spent much of his reign travelling throughout the Roman Empire, spending only a few years at its heart in Italy.

Classical sources tell us there was trouble in Britain. This gave Severus the excuse he needed to remove his sons from a life of luxury in Rome. By then in his 60s and suffering from gout, it was to be his last campaign.

This triumphal arch in Rome commemorates Severus's victories, but once he became emperor he spent little time there

This triumphal arch in Rome was erected in AD 203 to commemorate Severus’s victories in Parthia, but once he became emperor he spent little time in the city to see it

After basing himself in York, we are informed that Severus invaded Caledonia. Archaeological evidence includes forts at Cramond (north-west of Edinburgh), and at Carpow (to the west of Newburgh, on the south side of the River Tay).

We also have evidence of a number of large marching camps, including the largest ever recorded in Europe. This would have held:

  • Septimius Severus
  • His entourage
  • A considerable baggage train
  • The largest Roman military force seen in Scotland

Marching camps are difficult to date due to the nature of their occupation. They may have been used for only a few days or weeks, leaving behind less of the debris we see in more permanent bases. However, it is plausible that some date to Severus’s campaigns.

One of these, a 166-acre camp in the Scottish Borders known as Trimontium, represents the latest Roman occupation at that site. A stretch of another is visible as an upstanding earthwork at Black Hill just outside the fort at Ardoch.

aerial view showing a patch of ground where a Roman camp used to be

Remains of the Roman temporary camp at Ardoch

And finally…

Septimius Severus died in York in February 211, leaving the conquest of Scotland incomplete. One of his sons murdered the other and returned to Rome to claim the Empire, but was himself murdered some six years later. Hadrian’s Wall continued as the Roman frontier in Britain, and Scotland remained unconquered.

As October is Black History Month, we thought it important to share this story as an example of the ethnic diversity in Roman Britain. We can’t verify the exact tone of his skin, but we can say Severus was born and brought up in Libya, he was the first Roman Emperor from Africa, and he came to Scotland.

If you would like to learn more, The Hunterian Museum is doing a series of short Insight Talks for Black History Month.

As part of the series Dr Louisa Campbell, an HES-supported post-Doctoral fellow, will speak on ‘Diversity at the Northern Limit of the Roman Empire’. You can attend her talk at 1pm on Tuesday 24 October 2017.


About Author

Rebecca Jones

Rebecca is our Head of Archaeology and World Heritage. She has a PhD in Roman Scotland from the University of Glasgow and her research interests focus on Roman camps and Roman frontiers. She is co-Chair of the International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies.

  • george donaldson

    Severus came to Scotland to get control over small kingdoms who were demanding to high a price for their goods in the roman market place. If you see this Rebecca, you should consider moving away from the marching camp theory: my evidence is growing by the day. I also found your book very helpful to my research.

  • Steve Exeter

    I’ve recently published a book about the life of Severus, focusing in detail on the influence of his wife Julia Domna and their two sons.

    Severus follows the amazing true story of a rebellious boy who grew up in an African province and became the first Black Caesar of the Roman Empire, the head of a dynasty that would lead Rome through bloody civil wars and rapidly changing times.

    As a young man, Severus hates the Romans and conspires to humiliate them. What begins as a childish prank unfurls into a bloodbath that sends Severus careening into his future. Through a tragic love affair, dangerously close battles and threats both internal and external, Severus accrues power — and enemies — in his unlikely rise to become the most powerful man in the ancient world.

    There is old world magic and tradition clashing with new world expectations. Severus has political intrigue, romance and familial drama. Treachery from his advisors and his own wife gets closer every day and his son emerges as a ruthless and disturbed emperor-in-waiting.

    Even in its ancient setting, the book addresses timely questions of home, family and parenting, immigration and assimilation. What has a man abandoned when he fights against something he used to believe in? Is it growth? Is it betrayal? Who gets to rule and what makes a good leader? There is also the eternal, unanswered question: is history always doomed to repeat itself?

    The book is available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback format: