Family and education
Born on 11 April 145 at Leptis Magna (in present-day Libya) as the son of Publius Septimius Geta and
Fulvia Pia, Septimius Severus came from a wealthy and distinguished family of equestrian rank. He had Italian Roman ancestry on his mother's side and descended from Punic – and perhaps also Libyan – forebears on his father's side.
Severus' father, an obscure provincial, held no major political status, but he had two cousins, Publius Septimius Aper and Gaius Septimius Severus, who served as consuls under the emperor Antoninus Pius r. 138–161. His mother's ancestors had moved from Italy to North Africa; they belonged to the gens Fulvia, an Italian patrician family that originated in Tusculum. Septimius Severus had two siblings: an older brother, Publius Septimius Geta; and a younger sister, Septimia Octavilla. Severus's maternal cousin was the praetorian prefect and consul Gaius Fulvius Plautianus.
Septimius Severus grew up in Leptis Magna. He spoke the local Punic language fluently, but he was also educated in Latin and Greek, which he spoke with a slight accent. Little else is known of the young Severus' education but, according to Cassius Dio, the boy had been eager for more education than he had actually got. Presumably Severus received lessons in oratory: at age 17 he gave his first public speech.
Around 162 Septimius Severus sought a public career in Rome. At the recommendation of his relative Gaius Septimius Severus, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180) granted him entry into the senatorial ranks. Membership in the senatorial order was a prerequisite to attain positions within the cursus honorum and to gain entry into the Roman Senate. Nevertheless, it appears that Severus' career during the 160s met with some difficulties.
It is likely that he served as a vigintivir in Rome, overseeing road maintenance in or near the city, and he may have appeared in court as an advocate. At the time of Marcus Aurelius he was the State Attorney (Advocatus fisci). However, he omitted the military tribunate from the cursus honorum and had to delay his quaestorship until he had reached the required minimum age of 25. To make matters worse, the Antonine Plague swept through the capital in 166.
With his career at a halt, Severus decided to temporarily return to Leptis, where the climate was healthier. According to the Historia Augusta, a usually unreliable source, he was prosecuted for adultery during this time but the case was ultimately dismissed. At the end of 169 Severus was of the required age to become a quaestor and journeyed back to Rome. On 5 December, he took office and was officially enrolled in the Roman Senate. Between 170 and 180 his activities went largely unrecorded, in spite of the fact that he occupied an impressive number of posts in quick succession. The Antonine Plague had thinned the senatorial ranks and, with capable men now in short supply, Severus' career advanced more steadily than it otherwise might have.
The sudden death of his father necessitated another return to Leptis Magna to settle family affairs. Before he was able to leave Africa, Mauri tribesmen invaded southern Spain. Control of the province was handed over to the Emperor, while the Senate gained temporary control of Sardinia as compensation. Thus, Septimius Severus spent the remainder of his second term as quaestor on the island of Sardinia.
In 173 Severus' kinsman Gaius Septimius Severus was appointed proconsul of the Province of Africa. The elder Severus chose his cousin as one of his two legati pro praetore, a senior military appointment. Following the end of this term, Septimius Severus returned to Rome, taking up office as tribune of the plebs, a senior legislative position, with the distinction of being the candidatus of the emperor.
c. 175 Septimius Severus, in his early thirties at the time, contracted his first marriage, to Paccia Marciana, a woman from Leptis Magna. He probably met her during his tenure as legate under his uncle. Marciana's name suggests Punic or Libyan origin, but nothing else is known of her. Septimius Severus does not mention her in his autobiography, though he commemorated her with statues when he became Emperor. The Historia Augusta claims that Marciana and Severus had two daughters, but no other attestation of them has survived. It appears that the marriage produced no surviving children, despite lasting for more than ten years.
Marciana died of natural causes around 186. Septimius Severus, now in his forties, childless and eager to remarry, began enquiring into the horoscopes of prospective brides. The Historia Augusta relates that he heard of a woman in Syria of whom it had been foretold that she would marry a king, and so Severus sought her as his wife. This woman was an Emesan Syrian named Julia Domna. Her father, Julius Bassianus, descended from the royal house of Samsigeramus and Sohaemus and served as a high priest to the local cult of the sun god Elagabal. Domna's older sister, Julia Maesa, would become the grandmother of the future emperors Elagabalus and Alexander Severus.
Aureus with Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta
Bassianus accepted Severus' marriage proposal in early 187, and the following summer the couple married. The marriage proved happy, and Severus cherished his wife and her political opinions, since she was very well-read and a student of philosophy. They had two sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus (later nicknamed Caracalla, born 4 April 188) and Publius Septimius Geta (born 7 March 189).