Roman Portraiture, SPQR

Felicem diem natalem, Septimi Severe!

Septimius Severus was born on 11 April AD 145 in the African city of Leptis Magna, whose magnificent ruins are located in modern-day Libya, 130 miles east of Tripoli.

Marble bust of Septimius Severus of the Serapis style (the four “separis curls” falling into his forehead go back to a cult image of the Egyptian god Serapis) Altes Museum Berlin.

Although Severus was not a member of the Antonine Dynasty, he and his descendants had close ties with the Antonine emperors. Severus’ grandfather was a duumvir under Trajan, his cousins received suffect consulships in Rome under Antoninus Pius and his own career flourished under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. 

Septimius Severus, dates to the years after 195 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

But it does not stop here, Severus entered the Antonine Dynasty by declaring that he was Marcus Aurelius’ son. Not surprisingly, all official portraits of the emperor depict him with the long hair and beard of his Antonine “father”.

Marble bust of Septimius Severus, from Ostia, 196-197 AD Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome.

In about AD 175, he married a woman from Leptis Magna named Paccia Marciana of Punic origin, but the marriage was childless and Paccia died young, approximately 10 years later. In AD 187 Severus married Julia Domna, the daughter of Julius Bassianus, who was the high-priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus.

Julia Domna, Empress and wife of Roman Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus, c. 193 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

Together, they had two sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus (later nicknamed Caracalla) and Publius Septimius Geta.

Tondo showing the Severan dynasty: Septimius Severus with Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta, whose face has been erased, probably because of the damnatio memoriae put against him by Caracalla, from Djemila (Algeria), circa AD 199-200 Neues Museum, Berlin.

Septimius Severus restored stability to the Roman empire after the tumultuous reign of the emperor Commodus and the civil wars that erupted in the wake of Commodus’ murder.

The Arch of Septimius Severus at the northwest end of the Roman Forum. A triumphal arch dedicated in AD 203 to commemorate the Parthian victories of Emperor Septimius Severus and his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, in the two campaigns against the Parthians of 194/195 and 197-199 AD.

However, historian Edward Gibbon blames Severus for the fall of the Roman Empire because he annexed northern Mesopotamia and paid substantial bonuses to his soldiers, thereby placing taxing military and financial burdens on Rome.

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.

Bronze head of Septimius Severus, from Asia Minor, c. 195-211 AD Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen



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