When The Capital Of The Roman Empire Was In England

“In this sign you will conquer.” —Motto of Constantine the Great

In A Nutshell

Rome wasn’t always the capital of the Roman Empire, and from A.D. 208–211 and again from 305–306, the capital of the empire was York. During its initial run as capital city, York was home to Rome’s first African emperor, Septimius Severus, during his campaign to stop Caledonian aggression against Roman lands in Britain. Later, York would be the place that the emperor Constantine died, and the place that his son, later Constantine the Great, would be installed as emperor. (The above photo is a statue of Constantine the Great in modern-day York.)

The Whole Bushel

Rome is the heart of the Roman Empire, that much seems pretty obvious. But it wasn’t always the capital city, and there were several times that the honor of being the center of the government of the Roman Empire was given to a city in England.

The city of York, located somewhat in the middle of England, was the capital city of the Roman Empire first from A.D. 208–211 and again about a century later.

The first time, the emperor was Septimius Severus, a uniquely fascinating individual in his own right. Born in the area that’s now Libya, Severus rose to power first in Africa as a governor, then marched on Rome to take the capital. His predecessor, Julianus, was executed in 193 and the Senate recognized Severus as emperor.

The first Roman Emperor from Africa, his family was of Phoenician descent but his ethnicity is mentioned numerous times in various texts about him. His strengths were on the battlefield, and in the process of securing his position he led his troops in a vast sweep across Roman territory, finally ending in York.

By all accounts, Severus and his men brought with them a bit of culture shock. At this point in British history, most people died in the same village in which they were born, and many thought of the next province over as foreign, so the idea of seeing a legion of soldiers from half the world away had to be overwhelming. They had been seeing the face of their Emperor on coins for some time, and suddenly, he, his family, and his retinue were there in person.

More than just an emperor, Severus was a celebrity. His rule had made massive strides in eliminating corruption throughout the government, and people respected him. They also wanted to look like him and act like him. With the arrival of the Roman retinue, people in York began eating new foods, discovering new spices, exploring new fashion trends and even began curling their hair in the Roman fashion.

By the time Severus arrived in York, he was 60 years old and had been ruling for 18 years. His presence in the city wasn’t accidental, as he and his troops were there to guard Roman interests against attempts at invasion by the Caledonians after receiving a plea from one of their British governors. It’s not known how many troops he brought with him, but it’s been estimated that there were no less than 50,000 people in his army.

Eventually, the then-ailing emperor negotiated a peace treaty with the encroaching Caledonians, but it took several years and the loss of thousands upon thousands of lives—during which time, York was officially the capital of the Roman Empire. Severus died on February 2, 211, and at his side were his sons, whom he had named co-emperors, and whom he had instructed to treat their army well. The co-rule wasn’t a peaceful one, though, and it wasn’t long after their father’s death that they left York, returned to Rome, and Caracalla was successful in his attempt at having his brother assassinated.

Almost a century later, York would find itself the capital city of the Roman Empire again, this time beneath Constantine and his son. The elder Constantine died in York in 305. Almost immediately, his army installed his son as emperor. That son would become Constantine the Great, and he would not only unite Rome once again, but—fittingly—he would also move the Roman capital to the city then known as Constantinople.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: York Minster
The York Press: New exhibition about Roman Emperor Septimius Severus at the Yorkshire Museum
Roman Scotland: The Severus Dynasty
History of York: Roman Empire Governed from York, Constantine the Great