Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Severus, Aurelius Alexander

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Severus (2), Aurelius Alexander, emperor, born at Arca Caesarea in Syria, Oct. 1, 205 (Lampridius) or 208 (Herodian). For an account of his family see ELAGABALUS. Like him he was made in childhood a priest of the Sun at Emesa, and when his cousin became emperor he and his mother Julia Mammaea accompanied him to Rome. Mammaea took the utmost pains to educate her son and to preserve him uncontaminated by the monstrous excesses of his cousin. Created Caesar by the emperor in 221; on Feb. 1, 222 (Clinton), he became emperor on the death of Elagabalus and his mother Soaemis at the hands of the indignant soldiery. Being then at most not yet 17, the administration rested with his mother and grandmother Julia Mammaea and Julia Maesa, the latter of whom, till her death c. 225, enjoyed the greater power. Their chief minister or regent was the famous jurist Ulpian, whose appointment appears to have been due to Maesa's influence, though Mammaea afterwards acquiesced in it (Lamp. 50). He was assisted by a council of at least 70 members, 16 to 20 eminent jurists of whom formed a sort of inner cabinet (cf. Herodian, vi. i. with Lamp. 15); separate committees of this council administering different departments of the state.

The first step of the new administration was to reverse the acts of Elagabalus. The images of the gods he had collected at Rome from all parts of the empire were restored to their former shrines. His creatures were removed from offices obtained by disgraceful means. The senate, knights, tribes, and army were purged of the infamous persons appointed by Elagabalus, and the imperial establishment reduced as low as possible.

The praetorians and the army did not easily acquiesce in these reforms. Probably in order to check their mutinous spirit their prefects Flavianus and Chrestus were put to death and Ulpian made sole prefect. From some trifling cause a riot broke out between the praetorians and the people, lasting for three days. The soldiers, getting the worst of it, set fire to the city and thus checked their assailants. They could not endure the firm rule of Ulpian. Several times he had to take refuge in the palace, and was saved with difficulty by the emperor from their fury. At last, probably in 228, he was killed by the soldiers in the presence of Alexander and his mother, who were only able by a stratagem to punish the ringleader. Throughout the empire the same insubordinate spirit prevailed. The troops in Mesopotamia mutinied and killed their commander, Flavius Heracleon. The historian Dion by his firm rule in Pannonia so excited the hatred of the praetorians that Alexander was driven to the humiliating expedient of requesting him not to come to Rome during his consulship.

This spirit of mutiny was the more dangerous as this reign witnessed the Persian revolt under Artaxerxes against the Parthians, which, after three great battles, in one of which the Parthian king Artabanus fell, completely broke the Parthian power, and by the most extraordinary revival in history reestablished the kingdom of Darius in 226. As heir of the ancient monarchy he claimed all the Asiatic provinces of Rome. Such pretensions naturally produced a war. At the end of 231 or the beginning of 232 the emperor, accompanied by his mother, left Rome to fight the Persians, but returned without any decisive results to Europe, being summoned by news of the movements of the Germans on the Rhine and Danube. After a triumph at Rome on Sept. 25, 233 (Clinton), he proceeded to the Rhine frontier, where he was slain in his tent, and his mother with him, near Mayence, at the beginning of 235 (Clinton), by the mutinous soldiery.

Thus perished one of the most virtuous of the emperors. Apparently his only faults were an excessive deference to his mother and a certain want of energy. He was frugal, temperate, and chaste. He was fond of reading, preferring Greek to Latin authors. His favourite works were the Republic of Plato and the de Officiis and de Republica of Cicero. He was also fond of Vergil and Horace. He was acquainted with geometry, was able to paint, and could sing and play on various instruments. Though he attended the temples regularly and visited the Capitol every seventh day, and though he rebuilt and adorned the shrines of various deities, by a curious anticipation of Comtism, the objects of his peculiar veneration were not the gods of the various popular religions, but deified heroes and men. The private chapel in which he performed his devotions every morning contained no images of gods, but statues of canonized men, including the best of his predecessors, Alexander the Great, who might be called his patron saint, Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, Abraham, and Christ. In a smaller chapel were images of Achilles, Vergil (whom he used to call the Plato of poets), Cicero, and other great men. From his mother's intercourse with Origen (Eus. H. E. vi. 21) he would naturally have better means of learning the doctrines and practices of Christianity than any of his predecessors. It is said that he contemplated erecting a temple to Christ and placing Him among the gods. At any rate, though he did not give Christianity the status of a religio licita, the Christians during his reign enjoyed a de facto toleration. In the famous suit between the guild of cooks and the Christians for a piece of land, which according to tradition is the site of St. Maria in Trastevere, he decided in favour of the Christians on the broad ground that it was better God should be worshipped there under whatever form than that it should be given to the cooks. This decision implies a certain recognition of the right of the Christians as such to hold property, which is also implied by the life of CALLISTUS. Consistently with this, it is in the reign of Alexander that edifices set apart for Christian worship begin to appear—at any rate in some parts of the empire (cf. the letter of Firmilian to Cyprian (in Migne, Patr. Lat. iii. 1163) with Origen, Hom. 28 on St. Matthew (quoted in contra Celsum, viii. 755, in Migne, Patr. Gk. xi. 1539)). A form of the golden rule of Christian morality ("Do not do to another what you would not have done to yourself ") was so admired by the emperor that he caused it to be inscribed on the palace and other buildings. A curious anecdote of Lampridius (44) shews the emperor's acquaintance with Christian usages and also the antiquity of the practice of publishing to the congregation the names of those who sought ordination. In imitation of this the emperor caused the names of persons he was about to appoint to be published beforehand, exhorting any who had charges against them to come with proofs.

Strange to say, in later tradition the emperor, whom all writers near his time represent as a friend, nay almost a convert, to Christianity, whose chapel contained an image of Christ and whose household was filled with Christians (Eus. H. E. vi. 28), appears as a cruel persecutor. It is said that pope Callistus with many companions, St. Caecilia and her comrades, pope Urban I., and many others suffered in his reign, and that he personally took part in their martyrdom, On the other hand, no Father of the 3rd, 4th, or 5th cents. knows anything of such a persecution, but on the contrary agree in representing his reign as a period of peace. Firmilian (l.c.) testifies that before the persecution of Maximin the church had enjoyed a long peace, and Sulpicius Severus (ii. 32 in Patr. Lat. xx. 447) includes the reign of Alexander in the long peace lasting from Septimius Severus to Decius, broken only by the persecution of Maximin. Against this can be set only the evidence of late authors, such as Bede, Ado, and Usuard and unauthentic Acts of martyrs. The most famous of the alleged martyrs of this reign, St. Caecilia and her companions, are placed by other accounts in the reigns of M. Aurelius or Diocletian. All are given up by Tillemont except Callistus. His chief ground for considering him a martyr is that in the Depositio Martyrum, written in 354 (in Patr. Lat. cxxvii. 123), a Callistus is mentioned as martyred on Oct. 14, the day on which the pope is commemorated. Lipsius (Chronol. d. röm. Bischöfe, 177) acutely conjectures that this notice refers, not to the martyrdom, but to the confession of Callistus before Fuscianus mentioned by Hippolytus, as up to the Decian persecution the word "martyr" was still used in the wider sense. We may therefore conclude that all these accounts of persecutions and martyrdoms, so inconsistent with the known character of the emperor and passed over in silence by all authors for more than two cents. afterwards, are fictions of a later date.

[F.D.]