Septimius Severus is often heralded as being Rome’s first black emperor – but his father Publius Septimius Geta was of Punic origin, and heralded from Leptis Magna in Africa, a city founded by the Phoenicians who were originally from Greece.
Septimius Severus is, however, often credited as being the first black Roman emperor, as he hails from Libya.
His mother was Fulvia Pia, who was of Roman descent and was born to a noble Roman family.
The Romans frequently married for political and dynastic purposes – and governors appointed as the chief administrator of Roman law within the empire often married the daughters of local rulers. These political marriages helped ensure local co-operation within the Roman Empire, so many local governors took wives who were Syrian, Spanish or from other parts of the empire.
Foreigners were known as “peregrines” – from the Latin word peregrinus, meaning “one from abroad” or a traveller or pilgrim.
This means that the many people descended from Roman ancestors are also likely to find they have an ancestor from Syria, Spain or other parts of the empire, thanks to the practice of governors taking wives from the locality they governed.
Africa within the Roman Empire
In Africa, the Roman Empire included what is now Tunisia, as well as northeast Algeria, coastal areas of western Libya along the Gulf of Sirte.
The Roman Empire also included Egypt, which was added in 30 BC following the defeat of Mark Antony, by Octavian.
The Pharoah of Egypt, Cleopatra – Julius Caesar’s and Mark Antony’s lover – saw her Ptolemaic Kingdom annexed by the Roman Empire, comprising most of Egypt, but excluding the Sinai Peninsula, which was later conquered by Emperor Trajan.
Emperor Caracalla – Rome’s First Black Emperor?
Septimius Severus was the father of the Emperor Caracalla who, like his father, is sometimes depicted as being of African origin. Caracalla’s mother, Julia Domna, was born in what we now know as Homs in Syria.
Her family were priests of Arab origin – and she had married Septimius Severus in 187 AD, while he was governor of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis, now Lyon in France. She died in Turkey and is buried in the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome
Caracalla therefore had an African father and a mother of Arab descent – and some think he is truly Rome’s first black emperor.
The extent of the Roman Empire means that many people today whose families link to the Roman emperors may discover they are of distant mixed heritage.
The lineage of the Roman Emperors also traces back through what are known as the mythological kings – and gods and goddesses, too. This line eventually links to what is known as the Jesus bloodline. If you are a fan of Dan Brown’s novels, you will have heard about this!
Gods and Emperors
Julius Caesar and Caligula both identified themselves with gods – Caesar claiming that his family tree went back to the goddess Venus through his ancestor Aeneas.
Aeneas was a Trojan prince who became the hero of the poet Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, whose mother was Venus and whose father was the Trojan prince Anchises.
Aeneas was also a descendant of Romulus and Remus – King Romulus being the first King of Rome. Caesar was therefore claiming to be the direct descendant of the founder of Rome. However, eventually, his claim to be semi-divine cost him his life when senators feared he was about to create himself a semi-divine emperor in perpetuity.
The Roman Empire’s eternal legacy
Gods and goddesses aside, what is known is that the Roman Empire embraced not only vast territories, but the people who lived within those territories.
Movement throughout the Roman Empire was widespread – and trading relationships thrived. Who the Romans could not conquer, they traded with.
It is not possible to say whether certain Roman Emperors inherited Roman traits – or the physical characteristics of their mother or an ancestor not from Rome.
But it does mean that, as the empire was so widespread and the Romans frequently married people from different heritages, anyone with Roman heritage is also likely to find that a many times great grandparent or great aunt or uncle hails from somewhere more far flung than Rome.
It was one of the success stories of the empire – in countries occupied by the Romans, there is usually a widespread pool of artefacts from other parts of the world that were either imported or belonged to Roman citizens who originally hailed from farther afield.
It also means that sometimes some Roman emperors like Caracalla are depicted looking caucasian – and sometimes more Middle Eastern or African. We only have ancient written records – and paintings, architecture or mosaics – to inform us as to how historic figures looked, and often works of art were in the style of the time.
Septimius Severus is frequently depicted in typical classical Greek style – which the Romans adopted in their statuary; but his son Caracalla is sometimes depicted as being African.
He is a Roman emperor of mixed heritage, however – and one of the successes of an empire in which diversity was both desired and embraced.
Are you Roman?
A quick way of telling if you are a Roman? Check your earlobes and feet – long, large, fleshy earlobes are Roman, as are feet with a long second toe and gently curving toes down to the little toe! It must be all that marching!
Small, narrow earlobes? You’re Dacian!