From Severus to Severe

December 11, 2015

Tracing a word back to its origins offers a fun experiment, even a well-known word that is easily understood. This simultaneously enables the ancient contexts and the word to come alive. For example, reading about the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, the word 'severe' often comes to mind, which is not entirely a coincidence. Severus was severe in his treatment of enemies, opponents and those who felt entitled to goods without earning them. His strict policies did restore an element of harmony to the Roman world, and for a short time, the people enjoyed adequate food and peace. However, when Severus softened his strict authority over the Praetorian guards, they became lazy, indulgent and vain. As a result, the Roman world once again crumbled. Ironically, a certain severity somehow maintains a balance against easy and appealing luxuries that seem to condemn a nation. Severus was felled by illness, but the walls were already disintegrating about him.

For today's blog, the import rests on the fact that Severus, trained in the military, devoutly adhered to a militant view of his person and the majority of his rule. His name, Severus, is the root of the word that we currently use to mean 'severe'. In contemporary diction, we understand this word in a variety of ways, all of which relate back to Severus's policies and attitude. Today's blog looks at the various current definitions of severe (as defined by Merriam-Webster) paired with citations regarding Severus' character and reign (all taken from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). May they both come alive.


Severe, adj., from Latin Severus. First known use: 1548.

1] rigidly restrained in style, taste, manner, etc. simple, plain or austere.

“Till the reign of Severus, the virtue and even the good sense of the emperors had been distinguished by their real or affected reverence for the senate, and by a tender regard to the nice frame of civil policy instituted by Augustus. But the youth of Severus had been trained in the implicit obedience of camps, and his riper years spent in the despotism of military command. 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. He disdained to profess himself the servant of an assembly that detested his person and trembled at his frown; he issued his commands, where his request would have proved as effectual; assumed the conduct and style of a sovereign and a conqueror, and exercised, without disguise, the whole legislative as well as the executive power.”


2] rigidly exact, accurate, or methodical: severe standards

“The uncommon abilities and fortune of Severus have induced an elegant historian to compare him with the first and greatest of the Caesars. The parallel is, at least, imperfect. Where shall we find, in the character of Severus, the commanding superiority of soul, the generous clemency, and the various genius, which could reconcile and unite the love of pleasure, the thirst of knowledge, and the fire of ambition? In one instance only they may be compared with some degree of propriety, in the celerity of their motions and their civil victories. In less than four years (A.D. 193-197), Severus subdued the riches of the East, and the valour of the West. He vanquished two competitors of reputation and ability, and defeated numerous armies, provided with weapons and discipline equal to his own. In that age, the art of fortification, and the principles of tactics, were well understood by all the Roman generals; and the constant superiority of Severus was that of an artist who uses the same instruments with more skill and industry than his rivals.”


3] causing discomfort or distress by extreme character or conditions, as weather, cold, or heat; unpleasantly violent, as rain or wind, or a blow or shock.

“[H]is unforgiving temper, stimulated by avarice, indulged a spirit of revenge where there was no room for apprehension. The most considerable of the provincials, who, without any dislike to the fortunate candidate, had obeyed the governor under whose authority they were accidentally placed, were punished by death, exile, and especially by the confiscation of their estates. Many cities of the east were stript of their ancient honours, and obliged to pay, into the treasury of Severus, four times the amount of the sums contributed by them for the service of Niger.”


4] difficult to endure, perform, fulfill, etc. : a severe test of powers.

“Such rigid justice, for so he termed it, was in the opinion of Severus, the only conduct capable of ensuring peace to the people, or stability to the prince; and he condescended slightly to lament, that, to be mild, it was necessary that he should first be cruel.”


5] harsh; unnecessarily extreme: severe criticism, severe laws.

“Yet the arts of Severus cannot be justified by the most ample privileges of state reason. He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin; and however he might occasionally bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation.”


6] serious or stern in manner or appearance: a severe face.

7] grave; critical: a severe illness

“The contemporaries of Severus, in the enjoyment of 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.”

Synonyms: brutal, extreme, hard, harsh, intense, rigorous, serious.

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