Severan Tondo

Severan Tondo

Roman Art (c.500 BCE - 500 CE) Origins, History, Types, Characteristics

Note: For later artists and styles inspired by the arts of ancient Rome, see: Classicism in Art (800 onwards).

The Severan Tondo: panel painting
of the Imperial Family (c.200 CE)

Marcus Aurelius' Column (193 CE)
Erected in the Piazza Colonna, Rome.
Depicts the "rain miracle of Quadi".
God rescues the Roman Legion from
destruction by barberians by
creating a terrible storm.

For several centuries Ancient Rome was the most powerful nation on earth, excelling all others at military organization and warfare, engineering, and architecture. Its unique cultural achievements include the invention of the dome and the groin vault, the development of concrete and a European-wide network of roads and bridges. Despite this, Roman sculptors and painters produced only a limited amount of outstanding original fine art, preferring instead to recycle designs from Greek art, which they revered as far superior to their own. Indeed, many types of art practised by the Romans - including, sculpture (bronze and marble statuary, sarcophagi), fine art painting (murals, portraiture, vase-painting), and decorative art (including metalwork, mosaics, jewellery, ivory carving) had already been fully mastered by Ancient Greek artists. Not surprisingly, therefore, while numerous Greek sculptors (like Phidias, Kresilas, Myron, Polykleitos, Callimachus, Skopas, Lysippos, Praxiteles, and Leochares, Phyromachos) and painters (like Apollodorus, Zeuxis of Heraclea, Agatharchos, Parrhasius, Apelles of Kos, Antiphilus, Euphranor of Corinth) were accorded great respect throughout the Hellenistic world, most Roman artists were regarded as no more than skilled tradesmen and have remained anonymous.

Of course it is wrong to say that Roman art was devoid of innovation: its urban architecture was ground-breaking, as was its landscape painting and portrait busts. Nor is it true that Roman artists produced no great masterpieces - witness the extraordinary relief sculpture on monuments like Ara Pacis Augustae and Trajan's Column. But on the whole, we can say that Roman art was predominantly derivative and, above all, utilitarian. It served a purpose, a higher good: the dissemination of Roman values along with a respect for Roman power. As it transpired, classical Roman art has been immensely influential on many subsequent cultures, through revivalist movements like Neoclassical architecture, which have shaped much European and American architecture, as exemplified by the US Capitol Building The lesser-known Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30) led to a return to figure painting as well as new abstract movements like Cubism.

For details of colours and
pigments used by painters
in Ancient Rome, see:
Classical Colour Palette.

Although Rome was founded as far back as 750 BCE, it led a precarious existence for several centuries. Initially, it was ruled by Etruscan kings who commissioned a variety of Etruscan art (murals, sculptures and metalwork) for their tombs as well as their palaces, and to celebrate their military victories. After the founding of the Roman Republic in 500 BCE, Etruscan influence waned and, from 300 BCE, as the Romans started coming into contact with the flourishing Greek cities of southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean, they fell under the influence of Greek art - a process known as Hellenization. Soon many Greek works of art were being taken to Rome as booty, and many Greek artists followed to pursue their careers under Roman patronage.

However, the arts were still not a priority for Roman leaders who were more concerned about survival and military affairs. It wasn't until about 200 BCE after it won the first Punic War against Hannibal and the Carthaginians, that Rome felt secure enough to develop its culture. Even then, the absence of an independent cultural tradition of its own meant that most ancient art of Rome imitated Greek works. Rome was unique among the powers of the ancient world in developing only a limited artistic language of its own.

Cultural Inferiority Complex

Roman architecture and engineering was never less than bold, but its painting and sculpture was based on Greek traditions and also on art forms developed in its vassal states like Egypt and Ancient Persia. To put it another way, despite their spectacular military triumphs, the Romans had an inferiority complex in the face of Greek artistic achievement. Their ultra-pragmatic response was to recycle Greek sculpture at every opportunity. Greek poses, reworked with Roman clothes and accessories, were pressed into service to reinforce Roman power. Heroic Greek statues were even supplied headless, to enable the buyer to fit his own portrait head.

An example is the equestrian bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (c.175 CE), whose stance is reworked from the Greek statue "Doryphorus" (440 BCE). See: Greek Sculpture Made Simple.

The reason for Rome's cultural inferiority complex remains unclear. Some Classical scholars have pointed to the pragmatic Roman temperament others, to the overriding Roman need for territorial security against the waves of marauding tribes from eastern and central Europe and the consequent low priority accorded to art and culture. To which we might add that - judging by the narrowness of Celtic art (c.500 BCE - 100 CE) - Roman artists weren't doing too badly. Moreover, we should note that cities in Ancient Rome were less provincial and far more powerful than Greek city-states, so that its art invariably played a more functional role - not least because Roman culture was actually a melange of different beliefs and customs, all of which had to be accomodated. Thus, for example, art quickly became something of a status symbol: something to enhance the buyer's home and social position. And since most Romans recognized the intrinsic value of Greek artistry, buyers wanted Greek-style works.

Like the Romans themselves, early Roman art (c.510 BCE to 27 BCE) tended to be realistic and direct. Portraits, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional, were typically detailed and unidealized, although later during the age of Hellenistic-Roman art (c.27 BCE - 200 CE), the Romans became aware of the propaganda value of busts and statuary, and sought to convey political messages through poses and accessories. The same PR value was accorded to relief sculpture (see, for instance, the Column of Marcus Aurelius), and to history painting (see, Triumphal Paintings, below). Thus when commemorating a battle, for example, the artwork used would be executed in a realistic - almost "documentary" style. This realistic down-to-earth Roman style is in vivid contrast to Hellenistic art which illustrated military achievements with mythological imagery. Paradoxically, one reason for the ultimate fall of Rome was because it became too attached to the propagandist value of its art, and squandered huge resources on grandiose building projects purely to impress the people. Construction of the Baths of Diocletian (298-306), for instance, monopolised the entire brick industry of Rome, for several years.

Rome's greatest contribution to the history of art is undoubtedly to be found in the field of architectural design. Roman architecture during the age of the Republic (knowledge of which derives largely from the 1st-century Roman architect Vitruvius) discovered the round temple and the curved arch but, after the turn of the Millennium, Roman architects and engineers developed techniques for urban building on a massive scale. The erection of monumental structures like the Pantheon and the Colosseum, would have been impossible without Rome's development of the arch and the dome, as well as its mastery of strong and low-cost materials like concrete and bricks.

For a comparison with building design in Ancient Egypt, please see: Egyptian Architecture (c.3000 BCE - 160 CE). In particular, please see: Late Egyptian Architecture (1069 BCE - 200 CE).

The Romans didn't invent the arch - it was known but not much used in Greek architecture - but they were the first to master the use of multiple arches, or vaults. From this, they invented the Roman groin vault - two barrel vaults set at right-angles - which represented a revolutionary improvement on the old Greek post-and-lintel method, as it enabled architects to support far heavier loads and to span much wider openings. The Romans also made frequent use of the semicircular arch, typically without resorting to mortar: relying instead on the precision of their stonework.

Arches and vaults played a critical role in the erection of buildings like the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla, the Basilica of Maxentius and the Colosseum. The arch was also an essential component in the building of bridges, exemplified by the Pont du Gard and the bridge at Merida, and aqueducts, exemplified by the one at Segovia, and also the Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus in Rome itself.

A further architectural development was the dome (vaulted ceiling), which made possible the construction and roofing of large open areas inside buildings, like Hadrian's Pantheon, the Basilica of Constantine, as well as numerous other temples and basilicas, since far fewer columns were needed to support the weight of the domed roof. The use of domes went hand in hand with the extensive use of concrete - a combination sometimes referred to as the "Roman Architectural Revolution". But flagship buildings with domes were far from being the only architectural masterpieces built by Ancient Rome. Just as important was the five-storey apartment building known as an insula, which accomodated thousands of citizens.

It was during the age of Emperor Trajan (98-117 CE) and Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE) that Rome reached the zenith of its architectural glory, attained through numerous building programs of monuments, baths, aqueducts, palaces, temples and mausoleums. Many of the buildings from this era and later, served as models for architects of the Italian Renaissance, such as Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) designer of the iconic dome of the cathedral in Florence, and both Donato Bramante (1444-1514) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), designers of St Peter's Basilica. The time of Constantine (306-337 CE) witnessed the last great building programs in the city of Rome, including the completion of the Baths of Diocletian and the erection of the Basilica of Maxentius and the Arch of Constantine.

Famous Roman Buildings

Circus Maximus (6th century BCE - 4th century CE)

Dating back to Etruscan times, and located in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills, this was the main Roman chariot racing venue in Rome, Italy. Measuring roughly 2,000 feet in length (610 metres) and 400 feet in width (120 metres), it was rebuilt in the age of Julius Caesar to seat an estimated 150,000 spectators, and again during the reign of Constantine to seat about 250,000. It is now a park.

Built in the centre of Rome by Vespasian to appease the masses, this elliptical amphitheatre was named after a colossal statue of Nero that stood nearby. Built to seat some 50,000 spectators, its intricate design, along with its model system of tiered seating and spacious passageways, makes it one of the greatest works of Roman architecture. The Colosseum was one of the key sights on the Grand Tour of the 18th century.

The Arch of Titus (c.81 CE)

The oldest surviving Roman triumphal arch, it was built after the young Emperor's death to celebrate his suppression of the Jewish uprising in Judea, in 70 CE. Standing on the Via Sacra, south-east of the Roman Forum, the Arch of Titus was the model for Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe in Paris (1806-36).

Baths of Trajan (104-9 CE)

A huge bathing and leisure complex on the south side of the Oppian Hill, designed by Apollodorus of Damascus, it continued to be used up until the early fifth century, or possibly later, until the destruction of the Roman aqueducts compelled its abandonment.

Built by Marcus Agrippa as a temple dedicated to the seven gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt by Hadrian in 126 CE, the Pantheon is a daring early instance of concrete construction. The interior space is based on a perfect sphere, and its coffered ceiling remains the largest non-reinforced concrete dome in the world. In the middle of its dome an oculus lets in a beam of light.

Baths of Caracalla (212-16 CE)

Capable of holding up to 16,000 people, the building was roofed by a series of groin vaults and included shops, two gymnasiums (palaestras) and two public libraries. The baths proper consisted of a central 185 x 80 feet cold room (frigidarium) a room of medium temperature (tepidarium) with two pools, and a 115-foot diameter hot room (caldarium), as well as two palaestras. The entire structure was built on a 20-foot high base containing storage areas and furnaces. The baths were supplied with water from the Marcian Aqueduct.

Baths of Diocletian (298-306)

These baths (thermae) were probably the most grandiose of all Rome's public baths. Standing on high ground on the northeast part of the Viminal, the smallest of the Seven hills of Rome, the baths occupied an area well in excess of 1 million square feet and was supposedly capable of holding up to 3,000 people at one time. The complex used water supplied by the Aqua Marcia and Aqua Antoniniana aqueducts.

Basilica of Maxentius (308-12 CE)

The largest building in the Roman Forum, it featured a full complement of arches and barrel vaults and a folded roof. It had a central nave overlooked by three groin vaults suspended 120 feet above the floor on four piers. There was a massive open space in the central nave, but unlike other basilicas it didn't need the usual complement of columns to support the ceiling, because the entire building was supported on arches. Moreover, its folded roof reduced the total weight of the structure thus minimizing the horizontal force on the outer arches.

Sculpture: Types and Characteristics

Roman sculpture may be divided into four main categories: historical reliefs portrait busts and statues, including equestrian statues funerary reliefs, sarcophagi or tomb sculpture and copies of ancient Greek works. Like architecture, a good deal of Roman sculpture was created to serve a purpose: namely, to impress the public - be they Roman citizens or 'barbarians' - and communicate the power and majesty of Rome. In its important works, at least, there was a constant expression of seriousness, with none of the Greek conceptualism or introspection. The mood, pose and facial features of the Roman statue of an Emperor, for instance, was typically solemn and unsmiling. As Rome grew more confident from the reign of Augustus (31 BCE - 14 CE), its leaders might appear in more magnanimous poses, but gravitas and an underlying sense of Roman greatness was never far from the surface. Another important characteristic of Rome's plastic art was its realism. The highly detailed reliefs on Trajan's Column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, for instance, are perfect illustrations of this focus on accurate representation, and have been important sources of information for scholars on many aspects of the Roman Legion, its equipment and battle tactics.

Nonetheless, as we have seen, Roman sculptors borrowed heavily from the sculpture of Ancient Greece, and - aside from the sheer numbers of portrait busts, and the quality of its historical reliefs - Roman sculpture was dominated by High Classical Greek sculpture as well as by Hellenistic Greek sculpture. What's more, with the expansion of Rome's empire and the huge rise in demand for statuary, sculptors churned out endless copies of Greek statues.

For the effect of Roman sculpture on later styles of plastic art, please see: Neoclassical Sculpture (1750-1850).

Rome didn't invent relief sculpture - Stone Age man did. Nor was there any particular genius in the skill of its carvers and stone masons: both the reliefs of the Parthenon (447-422 BCE) and the frieze of the Pergamon Altar of Zeus (c.166-154 BCE) outshone anything created in Italy. See also: Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture (241-133 BCE). What Rome did was to inject the genre with a new set of aesthetics, a new purpose: namely, to make history. After all, if an event or campaign is "carved in stone", it must be true, right? The Greeks adopted the more "cultured" approach of recording their history more obliquely, using scenes from mythology. The Romans were far more down to earth: they sculpted their history as it happened, warts and all.

Trajan's Column (106-113 CE)

The greatest relief sculpture of Ancient Rome, Trajan's Column is a 125-foot Doric-style monument, designed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus. It has a spiral frieze that winds 23 times around its shaft, commemorating the Dacian triumphs of Emperor Trajan (98-117 CE). Sculpted in the cool, balanced style of the 2nd century, its composition and extraordinarily meticulous detail makes it one of the finest reliefs in the history of sculpture. A full-size cast of Trajan's Column is on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest.

Marcus Aurelius' Column (c.180-193 CE)

Second only to Trajan's monument, this 100-foot Doric column in the Piazza Colonna also features a winding ribbon of marble sculpture carved in low relief, which illustrates the story of the Emperor's Danubian or Marcomannic wars, waged by him during the period 166-180 CE. It includes the controversial "rain miracle", in which a colossal thunderstorm saves the Roman army from death at the hands of the barbarian Quadi tribes. The sculptural style of the column differs significantly from that of Trajan's Column, as it introduces the more expressive style of the 3rd century, seen also in the triumphal arch of Septimius Severus (199-203 CE) by the foot of the Capitoline Hill. The heads of the Marcus Aurelius figures are larger than normal, to show off their facial expressions. A higher relief is used, permitting greater contrast between light and shadow. Overall, much more dramatic - a style which clearly reflected the uncertain state of the Roman Empire.

Other famous relief works of stone sculpture carved by Roman artists include: the processional marble frieze on the Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BCE) in the Campus Martius, and the architectural relief sculpture on the Arch of Titus (c.85-90 CE) and the Arch of Constantine (312-15 CE).

Portrait Busts and Statues

These works of marble and (occasionally) bronze sculpture were another important Roman contribution to the art of Antiquity. Effigies of Roman leaders had been displayed in public places for centuries, but with the onset of Empire in the late 1st-century BCE, marble portrait busts and statues of the Emperor - which were copied en masse and sent to all parts of the Roman world - served an important function in reminding people of Rome's reach. They also served an important unifying force. Roman administrators had them placed or erected in squares or public buildings throughout the empire, and affluent citizens bought them for their reception rooms and gardens to demonstrate loyalty. The traditional head-and-shoulders bust was probably borrowed from Etruscan art, since Greek busts were usually made without shoulders.

Roman statues and portrait busts are in many of the best art museums around the world, notably the Louvre (Paris), the Vatican Museums (Rome), the British Museum (London), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) the Getty Museum (Los Angeles).

Famous Portraits of Roman Emperors

Famous busts and statues of Roman leaders include:

- Statue of Augustus (Ruled 27-14 CE) (Livia's Villa, Prima Porta)
- Statue of Tiberius in Old Age (14-37) (Capitoline Museum)
- Bust of Caligula (37-41) (Louvre)
- Statue of Claudius as the God Jupiter (41-54) (Vatican Museum)
- Head of Nero (54-68) (British Museum)
- Bust of Galba (68-69) (Capitoline Museum)
- Statue of Titus (79-81) (Vatican Museum)
- Bust of Trajan (98-117) (British Museum)
- Bronze Statue of Hadrian (117-138) (Israel Museum)
- Bronze Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius (180) (Piazza del Campidoglio)
- Statue of Commodus as Hercules (180-192) (Capitoline Museum)
- Bust of Gordian II (238) (Capitoline Museum)
- Bust of Pupienus (238) (Capitoline Museum)
- Bust of Balbinus (238) (Capitoline Museum)
- Bust of Maxentius (306-312) (Museo Torlonia)
- Colossal Head of Constantine (307-337) (Basilica Nova)

Religious and Funerary Sculpture

Religious art was also a popular if less unique form of Roman sculpture. An important feature of a Roman temple was the statue of the deity to whom it was dedicated. Such statues were also erected in public parks and private gardens. Small devotional statuettes of varying quality were also popular for personal and family shrines. These smaller works, when commissioned for the wealthier upper classes, might involve ivory carving and chyselephantine works, wood-carving, and terracotta sculpture, sometimes glazed for colour.

As Rome turned from cremation to burial at the end of the 1st century CE, stone coffins, known as sarcophagi, were much in demand: the three most common types being Metropolitan Roman (made in Rome), Attic-style (made in Athens) and Asiatic (made in Dokimeion, Phrygia). All were carved and usually decorated with sculpture - in this case reliefs. The most expensive sarcophagi were carved from marble, though other stone was also used, as was wood and even lead. In addition to a range of different depictions of the deceased - such as Etruscan-style full-length sculptural portraits of the person reclining on a sofa - popular motifs used by sculptors included episodes from Roman (or Greek) mythology, as well as genre and hunting scenes, and garlands of fruit and leaves. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, sarcophagi became an important medium for Christian-Roman Art (313 onwards).

Copies of Ancient Greek Sculpture

Although the wholesale replication of Greek statues indicated a hesitancy and lack of creativity on the part of Roman artists, the history of art could not be more grateful to them, for their efforts. Indeed, it is fair to say that one of the greatest contributions of Rome to the history of art, lies in its replication of original Greek statues, 99 percent of which have disappeared. Without Roman copies of the originals, Greek art would never have received the appreciation it deserves, and Renaissance art (and thus Western Art in general) might have taken a very different course.

The greatest innovation of Roman painters was the development of landscape painting, a genre in which the Greeks showed little interest. Also noteworthy was their development of a very crude form of linear perspective. In their effort to satisfy the huge demand for paintings throughout the empire, from officials, senior army officers, householders and the general public, Roman artists produced panel paintings (in encaustic and tempera), large and small-scale murals (in fresco), and mastered all the painting genres, including their own brand of "triumphal" history painting. Most surviving Roman paintings are from Pompeii and Herculanum, as the erruption of Vesuvius in 79 helped to preserve them. Most of them are decorative murals, featuring seascapes and landscapes, and were painted by skilled 'interior decorators' rather than virtuoso artists - a clue to the function of art in Roman society.

In Rome, as in Greece, the highest form of painting was panel painting. Executed using the encaustic or tempera methods, panel paintings were mass-produced in their thousands for display in offices and public buildings throughout the empire. Unfortunately, almost all painted panels have been lost. The best surviving example from the art of Classical Antiquity is probably the "Severan Tondo" (c.200 CE, Antikensammlung Berlin), a portrait of Roman Emperor Septimus Severus with his family, painted in tempera on a circular wood panel. The best example from the Roman Empire is the astonishing series of Fayum Mummy portraits painted in Egypt during the period 50 BCE to 250 CE.

Roman artists were also frequently commissioned to produce pictures highlighting military successes - a form known as Triumphal Painting. This type of history painting - usually executed as a mural painting in fresco - would depict the battle or campaign in meticulous detail, and might incorporate mixed-media adornments and map designs to inform and impress the public. Since they were quick to produce, many of these triumphal works would have influenced the composition of historical reliefs like the Column of Marcus Aurelius.

Roman murals - executed either "al fresco" with paint being applied to wet plaster, or "al secco" using paint on dry walls - are usually classified into four periods, as set out by the German archaeologist August Mau following his excavations at Pompeii.

The First Style (c.200-80 BCE)
Also known as incrustation or masonry style, it derived from Hellenistic palaces in the Middle East. Useing vivid colours it simulates the appearance of marble.
The Second Style (c.80 BCE - 100 CE)
This aimed to create the illusion of extra space by painting pictures with significant depth, such as views overlooking a garden or other landscape. In time, the style developed to cover the entire wall, creating the impression that one was looking out of a room onto a real scene.
The Third Style (c.100-200)
This was more ornamental with less illusion of depth. The wall was divided into precise zones, using pictures of columns or foliage. Scenes painted in the zones were typically either exotic representations of real or imaginery animals, or merely monochromatic linear drawings.
The Fourth Style (c.200-400)
This was a mixture of the previous two styles. Depth returned to the mural but it was executed more decoratively, with greater use of ornamentation. For example, the artist might paint several windows which, instead of looking out onto a landscape or cityscape, showed scenes from Greek myths or other fantasy scenes, including still lifes.

Art Styles From the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire incorporated a host of different nationalities, religious groups and associated styles of art. Chief among them, in addition to earlier Etruscan art of the Italian mainland, were forms of Celtic culture - namely the Iron Age La Tene style (c.450-50 BCE) - which was accomodated within the Empire in an idiom known as Roman-Celtic art, and the hieratic style of Egyptian art, which was absorbed into the Hellenistic-Roman idiom.

Late Roman Art (c.350-500)

During the Christian epoch, the division of the Roman Empire into a weak Western Roman Empire (based in Ravenna and Rome) and a strong Eastern Roman Empire (based in Constantinople), led to changes in Late Roman art. While wall painting, mosaic art, and funerary sculpture thrived, life-size statues and panel painting dwindled. In Constantinople, Roman art absorbed Eastern influences to produce the Byzantine art of the late empire, and well before Rome was overrun by Visigoths under Alaric (410) and sacked by Vandals under Gaiseric, Roman artists, master-craftsmen and artisans moved to the Eastern capital to continue their trade. (See Christian-Byzantine Art.) The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, for instance, one of the most famous examples of Roman dome architecture, provided employment for some 10,000 of these specialists and other workmen. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian (527-565), the Hagia Sophia, together with the shimmering mosaics of Ravenna, represented the final gasp of Roman art.

To find out more about painting and sculpture from Classical Antiquity, see the following resources:

• For more about painting and sculpture in Ancient Rome, see: Homepage.

Sealing off the Highlands

Severus then divided his forces into two-thirds and one-third, with the former group marching to the Highland Boundary Fault, under the command of his son Caracalla. A series of 45-hectare marching camps were built by Caracalla which would have been capable of housing a force of that size.

Caracalla’s group was likely accompanied by the three British legions who would have been used to campaigning in the region.

The group marched south-west to north-east on the Highland Boundary Fault, sealing off the Highlands.

That meant that all the people to the south, including members of the Maeatae tribal confederation around the Antonine Wall and members of both the Maeatae and Caledonian confederations in the Lowlands above, were locked in.

Caracalla also used the Classis Britannica to seal them off by sea. Eventually, the naval fleet and Caracalla’s legionary spearheads met somewhere near Stonehaven on the coast.

Losing face – iconoclasm in ancient Rome

The meaning of statues, and of their destruction, has been in the news recently. Few societies had a more developed and complex habit of public statuary than ancient Rome. The Romans&rsquo concern to establish a lasting visual record of themselves may have grown from the tradition of exhibiting wax masks of ancestors at funerals. It was expressed in the public statues of worthies and in the private tombstones of the merely well-to-do, which often featured portraits as well as wordy inscriptions about their lives and careers.

The Roman encyclopaedist Pliny, writing about portrait art, tells us something about why people wanted their likenesses to be known: &lsquoIn my view [&hellip] there is no greater kind of happiness than that all people for all time should desire to know what kind of a man a person was.&rsquo A little further on, he mentions a series of illustrated biographies by the earlier writer Varro: &lsquoVarro was the inventor of a benefit that even the gods might envy, since he not only bestowed immortality but despatched it all over the world, enabling his subjects to be ubiquitous, like the gods.&rsquo (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 35, from a Loeb translation by H. Rackham)

The connection between image-making, ubiquity and divinity was not lost on Rome&rsquos emperors. Both the archaeological and the literary record show us that the imperial image was a deeply significant part of life and politics in the Roman empire. Augustus and his successors swiftly came to monopolise Roman sculpture, establishing official portrait types that were copied in their thousands across the empire, and circulated on millions of coins. The emperor&rsquos sculptural presence was a constant in civic spaces from Britain to Syria, and the hairstyles and features of the imperial court were widely imitated. Less benignly, disrespect for imperial statues came to be grounds for accusations of treason, as if the accused had slighted the emperor himself. Absurd prosecution on this basis was a common complaint made by later historians against the more paranoid and tyrannical emperors under both Tiberius and Caracalla, for example, men supposedly found themselves in trouble for carrying a coin with the emperor&rsquos image into a privy or brothel.

Posterity would have its revenge: one of the few checks that a polity can place on an autocrat is its capacity to shape his posthumous reputation. In Rome, effacement from the record had roots in the legal penalties for treason it is often called damnatio memoriae by historians, though this expression is not one the Romans used. Its extent and nature could vary from case to case, and might include erasing the offender&rsquos name from the official record, exile, prevention of a funeral or mourning, confiscation of assets with more or less lenient treatment of relatives and the destruction of any images, leaving the offender unknown to future generations. As Rome&rsquos rule passed to emperors, versions of this practice began to apply to them as it had to earlier criminals. Within the span of the first imperial dynasty, the practice of deifying good emperors (Augustus) and condemning the memory of bad ones (Caligula, Nero) had taken hold. Sometimes damnatio was legally enforced by a vengeful senate (as happened with Domitian, Commodus and Elagabalus) sometimes, a successor emperor seems to have encouraged a convenient chiselling-out of his predecessor (Claudius prevented the Senate from officially condemning his predecessor Caligula, but &lsquocaused all his statues to disappear overnight&rsquo) and sometimes a popular enthusiasm for statue-toppling seems to have broken out.

A Severan inscription on the Arch of Trajan in Timgad, Algeria, in which a reference to Geta has been replaced with other text. Photo: Matthew Nicholls

A perfect damnatio memoriae would leave no trace. In fact, though, its effects rarely seem to have been total. We have enough statues of Caligula and Nero to be able to recognise them, and their coins survive. And we can often see where damnatio has been carried out &ndash its effects are often a rather conspicuous erasure, not a total cancelling. Portrait heads were recut to resemble the next emperor, and stand out for looking smaller than the surrounding unedited figures (look for example at Nerva in the Cancelleria Reliefs recut from his assassinated predecessor Domitian). Geta was the murdered younger brother of the emperor Caracalla, whose touchiness about the imperial image has already been mentioned. He was so systematically chiselled out of inscriptions that obviously reworked blocks of text are prominent hallmarks of epigraphy in Caracalla&rsquos reign, while his portrait was erased with no particular attempt to disguise it. On the Arch of the Argentarii in Rome a void marks the place where Geta stood, a caduceus (Mercury&rsquos wand) left floating in the air above his vanished head in the famous painted tondo portrait of the Severan imperial family, his face is a grim featureless smear but his body remains. Similar acts of erasure can be seen all over the empire, so widespread that they must have been done by countless local officials and individuals, anxious to show compliance with this notoriously vengeful emperor.

Severan relief of the imperial family on the Arch of the Argentarii, Rome, with the figure of Geta removed. Photo: Diletta Menghinello/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The erasure of images was naturally a political gesture, often associated with a change of ruler or dynasty. Occasionally the last emperor&rsquos image became a point of contention between rival successors, as with Nero (who had a surprisingly strong popular following at his death for a while posthumous lyre-playing Neros popped up around the empire). Some images of Nero were destroyed, and others were reworked, but for a while things hung in the balance: Suetonius (in another mysterious little insight into the valency of images in the Roman world) concludes his biography of Nero by noting that for some time his followers would put his statue up on the speakers&rsquo platform in the forum, as if he were still alive and about to come back to take revenge. Eventually the anti-Neronian faction prevailed, and in one of Rome&rsquos most famous acts of statue-repurposing, a giant bronze statue that Nero had erected to himself was given a more seemly identity as the sun-god Helios and moved next to the amphitheatre whose popular name &ndash Colosseum &ndash probably derives from this colossus (later still, the statue enjoyed a brief period posing as the mad emperor Commodus, before his death brought about a further repurposing).

But as well as being a continuation of the image-making process run by and for the elites of Rome, damnatio and statue-toppling could be &ndash as we have seen recently &ndash a sort of public catharsis too. Here is the younger Pliny on the downfall of the emperor Domitian:

It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to smite them with the sword and savage them with the axe as if blood and agony could follow from every blow. Our transports of joy &ndash so long deferred &ndash were unrestrained all sought a form of vengeance in beholding those bodies mutilated, limbs hacked in pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into fire, to be melted down, so that from such menacing terror something for man&rsquos use and enjoyment should rise out of the flames. (Pliny the Younger, Panegyricus 52, from a Loeb translation by Betty Radice)

Pliny was explicitly writing here as a friend to the regime that supplanted Domitian, and was keen to excuse his own complicity in the tyrant&rsquos reign &ndash but this must have rung true to his contemporary audience, and calls to mind those crowds we have seen hauling down outsized Lenins and beating toppled Saddams with the soles of their shoes.

However hard emperors tried to shape their own images down the ages, and however hard their enemies tried to erase them, it seems that in the long view history is hard to fool. Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Geta have not disappeared from the record, but the way their images were erected, changed, defaced, used and reused has become a part of their histories, often in interesting counterpoint to the official image-making efforts of their own reigns.

4 Answers 4

There is an informative Wikipedia article.

A (reddish) purple dye extracted from Murex sea snails found on the coast of what is now Lebanon, ancient Phoenicia was a luxury product in the ancient Mediterranean world, being rare and therefore expensive and had the useful quality that instead of fading over time when worn in sunlight, it actually became brighter. Hence wearing purple was not only, arguably, an attractive colour it also demonstrated wealth.

As far as I know the Phoenician purple dye was not much exported as far as to China where a different tradition grew up that emperors wore yellow.

The Roman color purple might have been any shade of red or purple, or range of shades, as far as I know, unless an expert in Roman colors wants to elaborate. Of course anything colored with actual Tyrian Purple dye would have a known shade.

You should remember that during the Principate period the emperor was the real but unofficial absolute ruler of the Roman Republic and avoided rubbing his absolute power in the faces of the senators and aristocrats by having many different and separate powers, titles, offices, ranks, and honors granted him by the senators.

As a senator, and the Princeps Senatus, or "First Senator" (Macrinus in 217 AD was the first man to become emperor without becoming a senator first) the emperor would wear a normal senatorial toga with a broad red or purple stripe. Even the most important Romans only wore togas as formal ear, and wore tunics most of the time. Eventually the imperial tunic became the tunica palmata, all red or purple with embroidered golden palm leaves.

the "Severan Tondo" has a portrait of emperor Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna, and son Caracalla. They don't seem to be wearing any red or purple.

I am certain that a much better answer is possible.

The whole history of clothing in ancient times is more complex than we see at face value.

Tyrian purple was reserved to emperors and royalty in later times not so much because it was difficult to import and thus expensive. It became a status symbol because of its price which was due to the fact that it took 12,000 snails to produce just 1.4 grams of this dye.

David Jacoby remarks that "twelve thousand snails of Murex brandaris yield no more than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to colour only the trim of a single garment." - Wikipedia.

It was even too expensive for emperors at times!

Sometimes, however, the dye was too expensive even for royalty. Third-century Roman emperor Aurelian famously wouldn't allow his wife to buy a shawl made from Tyrian purple silk because it literally cost its weight in gold. Talk about sticker shock. - Why Is the Color Purple Associated With Royalty?

Tyrian Purple had some unique qualities:

It is said that it took 12,000 snails to produce just 1.4 grams of this dye. Because of this, it was so expensive, that the historian Theopompus reported that, "Purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver". Yet, there was a craze for this dye as a status symbol. In fact the Emperors of Byzantium made a law forbidding anybody from using it except themselves. The expression 'born in the purple' rose from this practice. In the picture, you can see the Emperor Justinian I dressed in a robe dyed with Tyrian Purple. Interestingly, unlike other dyes that faded in sunlight, Tyrian purple would become darker. - Tyrian Purple: the Colour of Kings.

Silk was also imported from China and India which meant that only the rich could afford it.

Silk and cotton were imported, from China and India respectively. Silk was rare and expensive a luxury afforded only to the rich. Due to the cost of imported clothing, quality garments were also woven from nettle.1

Wild silk, that is, cocoons collected from the wild after the insect had eaten its way out, also was known.2 Wild silk, being of smaller lengths, had to be spun. A rare luxury cloth with a beautiful golden sheen, known as sea silk, was made from the long silky filaments or byssus produced by Pinna nobilis, a large Mediterranean seashell. - Clothing in ancient Rome.

In the East, saffron dyed clothing symbolized status.

At the court of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh only the court nobility wore saffron-dyed clothes. These clothes also belonged to the typical costume of Persian kings. - Saffron.

In China Yellow dyed fabrics were reserved to the Imperial Court:

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the color yellow became exclusive to the imperial court. Civilians were prohibited from wearing yellow clothes. The clothing worn by emperors was called Yellow Robes. The carriage used by the emperor was called the Yellow House the roads walked by the emperor were called the Yellow Path the banners flown by the emperor during royal inspection tours were yellow. The seal of dynastic power was wrapped with yellow fabric. And only the imperial family could dwell in the special buildings built with red walls and yellow tiles. - Why Ancient Chinese Culture Was a World Filled with Yellow.

Damnatio Memoriae: On Facing, Not Forgetting, Our Past

On a rainy July 1st day several weeks ago, a crowd gathered along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia to cheer on construction crews as they lifted and lowered a statue of the Confederate general Thomas “ Stonewall ” Jackson from its pedestal. For many onlookers, the toppling of Jackson’s figure in their city – formerly the capital of the Confederacy – symbolized a step toward reshaping its racially oppressive past. While this incident made headlines on many national news outlets, it remains just one in a series of recent statue removals called for by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. The movement, which has grown immensely since the death of George Floyd in late May of this year, has advocated for the removal of public statues and named buildings that venerate figures from our country’s past who participated in or promoted the institution of slavery. In opposition, many prominent figures and politicians, including President Donald Trump, have leveled accusations of “wiping out history” at the individuals and groups seeking the removal of these monuments, suggesting that they instead “learn from history,” rather than destroy it.

Although watching footage and hearing news of these removals – including that of Penn’s statue of George Whitefield – may seem like something new, the practice of desecrating and destroying public monuments is one with a long history, extending back specifically to the Roman world and its practice of damnatio memoriae.

While the phrase damnatio memoriae – a “condemnation of memory” in Latin – is modern in origin, it captures a broad range of actions posthumously taken by the Romans against former leaders and their reputations. Most prevalent during the Republican and Imperial periods, this tactic generally involved the defacement of all visual depictions and literary records of a condemned individual. This could come in the form of an official decree by an emperor or the senate, or a set of actions taken by the populace – a collective act of expression by the people against an unpopular leader. The literary and archeological records show that instances of damnatio memoriae weren’t decreed with much restraint. In fact, around half of all Roman emperors received some form of the condemnation, and from Caligula in 41 CE to Magnus Maximus in 388 CE, not many could escape its wrath.

When many people think of the Roman world, statues are often among the first artifacts that come to mind. Invocations and celebrations of leaders, gods, and events, these depictions were the bread and butter of any city in the empire. Statues of Roman emperors peppered many central public spaces, serving as symbols of the state’s power. At Roman funerals, relatives of the dead invoked images of the past, donning wax face masks of their ancestors to educate future generations about their heritage. In Roman religious life, many statues and visual representations held apotropaic roles, warding away harm from those they protected.

Surrounded by these statues and images, the average Roman constantly came into contact with the faces of these omnipresent gods, leaders, and heroes, both mythical and real. Many statues served multiple purposes at once A statue of Augustus in a forum on the fringes of the empire was both state sponsored propaganda and a corporeal invocation of the emperor.

Given the proximity of these monuments to Roman life and the intertwined relationship between the two, it isn’t difficult to understand the visceral reactions many expressed toward these statues when a damnatio memoriae was declared against an individual . Pliny describes such a scene in his Panegyrici Latini , discussing the damnatio memoriae against the emperor Domitian following his assassination:

It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to smite them with the sword and savage them with [axes, as] if blood and agony could follow from every blow. Our transports of joy—so long deferred—were unrestrained all sought a form of vengeance in beholding those bodies mutilated, limbs hacked in pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into fire, to be melted down, so that from such menacing terror something for man’s use and enjoyment should rise out of the flames (52.4-5).

For Romans like the ones whom Pliny describes, seeking and receiving the opportunity to not only watch the former emperor’s likeness topple to the ground, but also play a part in the toppling, provided them with a sense of restored justice. When reading his words, the agony of these individuals, who lost their relatives and friends to Domitian’s reign of terror, is tangible It most likely gave them a remarkable sense of solace, and perhaps even fulfilled a wish for vengeance against the emperor.

Altes Museum. “The Severan Tondo”. c. 200 CE. Source: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

Beyond literature, one surviving example that provides clear visual evidence of a damnatio memoriae is the painting of the Severan family on the Severan Tondo, now in the Altes Museum in Berlin. Before his death, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus appointed his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, to rule as co-emperors. However, as so often happens between siblings in Roman history (see: Romulus and Remus), Geta was assassinated by Caracalla, who ascended as the sole Caesar of the Roman state. Assuming his new role, Caracalla declared a damnatio memoriae against his late brother, even threatening execution to those who spoke Geta’s name. Today, the tondo clearly portrays Septimius Severus, his wife, and his son, Caracalla, as a smiling family, while Geta’s face has been not-so-subtly scraped from the portrait.

A second example, one closer to home, can be found within our own Penn Museum and references the damnatio memoriae declared against Domitian. The Puteoli Marble Block contains an inscription on one side, which once spoke in praise of the emperor. However, as Pliny above, as well as Suetonius , describe, following Domitian’s death in 96 CE, the senate, embittered by Domitian’s authoritarian rule and paranoid nature, passed a decree against him chiseling his name off all inscriptions and removing the heads from his public statues, they worked to erase his face and image from the empire. Nevertheless, the attempted erasure of the Puteoli Marble Block’s inscription wasn’t entirely successful, as one can still make out some of its words. Additionally, despite the efforts to remove his face and name from the legacy of Rome, Domitian still lives on in history as one of the most famous Roman emperors, and even today, his name recalls paranoia and abuse of power.

These unsuccessful and conspicuous “erasures” beg the question: was a damnatio memoriae truly intended to fully erase the memory of these individuals and their actions, condemning their legacies to obscurity, as its name suggests?

The Penn Museum. “The Puteoli Marble Block”. 95-102 CE.

That is certainly the view of Sarah Bond , who believes the destruction of the memory of a former emperor allowed for easier transition between rulers, serving a “cathartic purpose.” However, the apparency of these vandalisms betrays another intention. Lauren Hackworth Peterson , a professor at the University of Delaware, counters Bond, proposing that damnatio memoriae had the opposite effect on communal memory. In destroying images of their emperors through public actions, she argues, the Romans in fact created a void which “call[ed] attention to itself” these manufactured absences became monuments to both the removed statue and the events that led to its removal. According to Peterson, when a damnatio memoriae was enacted, the victim’s memory was not forgotten , but rather condemned . As classicists, this is quite clear – one can hardly say that history has forgotten Nero, Caligula and Domitian. Instead, we remember them almost exclusively for their negative attributes and decisions: the things that they did wrong. Their legacies shed light upon the nature and purpose of a damnatio memoriae – it served to reset the political landscape, not by drowning the people’s consciousness in Lethe’s stream, but instead by reshaping the narrative of the past.

Here, it’s crucial to mention that as we draw comparisons between current and ancient events and institutions, we cannot pretend that the ancient world is the same as our own. Nearly two thousand years after the infamous reign of Domitian, public statues no longer serve the same educational functions as they did then, since modern technologies and nationwide schooling have risen to fill those roles.

Still, the legacy of damnatio memoriae has extended far beyond the Romans, having become a fixture of politics and society across nations and cultures. Several years ago, Ukraine removed all statues of Lenin from the country in an effort to move on from its Soviet past. And although calls for statue removals have made national headlines in recent weeks, months, and years, the practice of damnatio memoriae in the United States has appeared throughout many pivotal moments in our nation’s history, particularly during the American revolution.

On July 9th, 1776, a group of New Yorkers, having heard a reading of the Declaration of Independence for the first time, marched from New York City Hall to Bowling Green to tear down a massive statue of King George III . While the statue was melted to make bullets for the upcoming war, its pedestal was left empty as a reminder of the revolution over two hundred years after the event, t he fence that surrounded the original monument still stands there today . The leaders of the young United States deliberately chose to leave those empty supports as their own monument, one that reminded and continues to remind New Yorkers and Americans of their fight to uproot an oppressive system. No one can say that King George III is forgotten from our history – on the contrary, he plays a pivotal role. What has changed since he rode his horse upon that pedestal is our perception of him.

The New York Public Library. “Tearing down statue of George III” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1857-01-31.

At a similar point in history, when the revolutionary war began, Benedict Arnold, a Connecticut-born colonist, joined the Continental army, distinguishing himself during the Battle of Saratoga. Despite seriously injuring his leg, his actions saved hundreds of American lives. However, just a short time later, his annoyance at not being promoted further within the American ranks eventually led him to make a secret deal to hand over West Point, an American fort, to the British for £20,000.

When we remember him today, Benedict Arnold’s name is synonymous with betrayal. But how does our country commemorate our most infamous traitor? When visiting Saratoga National Historical Park, visitors can see a short stele that depicts an odd figure: a single boot. This monument, dubbed the “Boot Monument,” recognizes how Arnold’s actions and sacrifice – the injury of his leg – during the Battle of Saratoga helped our nation gain the upper hand in the war. But as visitors take a look at the monument, they won’t see any mention of Arnold’s name, only the inscription:

In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General .”

Although it doesn’t involve the defacement that is often a hallmark of damnatio memoriae, this monument still utilizes erasure as a means of redefining national and cultural memory. This wasn’t a lack of resources or knowledge on the part of the erectors of the monument, but a deliberate act of erasure, albeit one committed pre-construction. This isn’t the only damnatio memoriae placed upon Arnold, either at West Point, among the list of officers who fought on the side of the Continental Army, there hangs a plaque that reads only, “Major General, born 1740.” These “incomplete” monuments to his memory show that we don’t need a statue with Arnold’s likeness and name explicitly carved into it to remember his deeds. As history looks back on him and his legacy, the absences of his name and figure speak more than their hypothetical presences.

Saratoga National Historical Park. “The Boot Monument”. Erected 1887. Source: The original uploader was Americasroof at English Wikipedia. / CC BY-SA

Returning to the present, many have expressed their beliefs that statues in our country should be left alone to commemorate our history, both its “good” and “bad” aspects. In defending their statements, they’ve gone as far as citing absurd comparisons to Nazi concentration camps . While there is something to be said for remembering the actions and events of our history – it’s part of our role as classicists, after all, to do just this – it is also crucial to consider how we portray this history in view of contemporary societal values. These statues tell stories from our past, but they also convey styles, tones, and moral viewpoints from the eras of their construction. The story told by a solemn stele detailed with a boot and marked with no name differs immensely in its commemoration from the one told by a statue of a man heroically riding on horseback atop a pedestal inscribed with praises.

Today, as people take to the streets to demand the removal of public statues, names on buildings, and commemorative plaques, these calls for damnatio memoriae are not acts of erasure – they are not about forgetting the past or striking individuals from our history. Rather, they are acts of creation, attempts to redefine our perceptions as a twenty-first century society. They are testaments to how the commitment to ending inequality on all fronts, especially racial inequality, has become a significant priority in our country. They are about changing the way in which we see and understand the past, and thinking actively and critically about the historical figures and household names whom we honor and glorify.

Damnatio memoriae is always going to be a fixture of society. History is a swift moving river, and our principles and perceptions change with its winding flow. Although America isn’t ancient Rome, and our morals today are not that of the Romans, many similar “Gordian knots” that troubled the ancients confront us today. In this case, it is the issue of our leaders’ legacies that we must contend with.

As classicists, we dedicate ourselves to digging deep into the past, analyzing the causes that led to an effect thousands of years ago. We spend each day looking at different perspectives from ancient history, pulling together various narratives and trying to never let a single account define our view of antiquity. Now, as we bear witness to these contemporary acts of damnatio memoriae , we must look at our present with the same mindset. History casts a long shadow, but rather than obscuring our memory with darkness, its shade offers us an opportunity to face our own past and take thoughtful action in our present. We have the chance to shape the way in which future generations will remember us, and if we do so carefully, it won’t be our own faces that they see tumbling down from pedestals one day.

Mati Davis is a senior in the College of Arts and Science studying Classical Studies with a minor in Computer Science.

Sara Chopra is a junior from Princeton, NJ studying Classical Studies, Consumer Psychology, Art History, and Ancient History.


Septimius Severus (193–211)

Lucius Septimius Severus was born to a family of Phoenician equestrian rank in the Roman province of Africa proconsularis. He rose through military service to consular rank under the later Antonines. Proclaimed emperor in 193 by his legionaries in Noricum during the political unrest that followed the death of Commodus, he secured sole rule over the empire in 197 after defeating his last rival, Clodius Albinus, at the Battle of Lugdunum.

Severus fought a successful war against the Parthians and campaigned with success against barbarian incursions in Roman Britain, rebuilding Hadrian's Wall. In Rome, his relations with the Senate were poor, but he was popular with the commoners, as with his soldiers, whose salary he raised. Starting in 197, the influence of his Praetorian prefect Gaius Fulvius Plautianus was a negative influence the latter was executed in 205. One of Plautianus's successors was the jurist Aemilius Papinianus. Severus continued official persecution of Christians and Jews, as they were the only two groups who would not assimilate their beliefs to the official syncretistic creed.

Severus died while campaigning in Britain. He was succeeded by his sons Caracalla and Geta, who reigned under the influence of their mother, Julia Domna.

Caracalla (198–217)

The eldest son of Severus, he was born Lucius Septimius Bassianus in Lugdunum, Gaul. "Caracalla" was a nickname referring to the Gallic hooded tunic he habitually wore even when he slept. Upon his father's death, Caracalla was proclaimed co-emperor with his brother Geta. Conflict between the two culminated in the assassination of the latter. Reigning alone, Caracalla was noted for lavish bribes to the legionaries and unprecedented cruelty, authorizing numerous assassinations of perceived enemies and rivals. He campaigned with indifferent success against the Alamanni . The Baths of Caracalla in Rome are the most enduring monument of his rule. He was assassinated while en route to a campaign against the Parthians by a Praetorian Guard.

Geta (209–211)

Younger son of Severus, Geta was made co-emperor with his older brother Caracalla upon his father's death. Unlike the much more successful joint reign of Marcus Aurelius and his brother Lucius Verus in the previous century, relations were hostile between the two Severid brothers from the very start. Geta was assassinated in his mother's apartments by order of Caracalla, who thereafter ruled as sole Augustus.

Interlude: Macrinus (217–218)

M.M. Opelius Macrinus was born in 164 at Caesarea. Although coming from a humble background that was not dynastically related to the Severan dynasty, he rose through the imperial household until, under the emperor Caracalla, he was made Prefect of the Praetorian Guard. On account of the cruelty and treachery of the emperor, Macrinus became involved in a conspiracy to kill him, and ordered the Praetorian Guard to do so. On April 8, 217, Caracalla was assassinated traveling to Carrhae. Three days later, Macrinus was declared Augustus.

His most significant early decision was to make peace with the Parthians, but many thought that the terms were degrading to the Romans. However, his downfall was his refusal to award the pay and privileges promised to the eastern troops by Caracalla. He also kept those forces wintered in Syria, where they became attracted to the young Elagabalus. After months of mild rebellion by the bulk of the army in Syria, Macrinus took his loyal troops to meet the army of Elagabalus near Antioch. Despite a good fight by the Praetorian Guard, his soldiers were defeated. Macrinus managed to escape to Chalcedon but his authority was lost: he was betrayed and executed after a short reign of just 14 months.

M. Opelius Diadumenianus was the son of Macrinus, born in 208. He was given the title Caesar in 217, when his father became Emperor. After his father's defeat outside Antioch, he tried to escape east to Parthia, but was captured and killed before he could achieve this.

Elagabalus (218–222)

Born Varius Avitus Bassianus on May 16, 205, known later as M. Aurelius Antonius, he was appointed at an early age to be priest of the sun God, Elagabalus, represented by a phallus, by which name he is known to historians (his name is sometimes written "Heliogabalus"). He was proclaimed emperor by the troops of Emesa, his hometown, who were instigated to do so by Elagabalus's grandmother, Julia Maesa. She spread a rumor that Elagabalus was the secret son of Caracalla. This revolt spread to the entire Syrian army (which, at the time, was swollen with troops raised by the Emperor Caracalla, and not fully loyal to Macrinus), and eventually they were to win the short struggle that followed by defeating Macrinus at a battle just outside Antioch. Elagabalus was then accepted by the senate, and began the slow journey to Rome.

His reign in Rome has long been known for outrageousness, although the historical sources are few, and in many cases not to be fully trusted. He is said to have smothered guests at a banquet by flooding the room with rose petals: married his male lover - who was then referred as the 'Empress's husband', and married one of the vestal virgins. Some say he was transgender, and one ancient text states that he offered half the empire to the physician who could give him female genitalia.

The running of the Empire during this time was mainly left to his grandmother and mother (Julia Soamias). Seeing that her grandson's outrageous behavior could mean the loss of power, Julia Maesa persuaded Elagabalus to accept his cousin Alexander Severus as Caesar (and thus the nominal Emperor to be). However, Alexander was popular with the troops, who viewed their new Emperor with dislike: when Elagabalus, jealous of this popularity, removed the title of Caesar from his nephew the enraged Praetorian Guard swore to protect him. Elagabalus had to beg the troops to let him live, and this humiliation could not last for long.

Alexander Severus (222–235)

Born Marcus Julius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus, Alexander was adopted as heir apparent by his slightly older and very unpopular cousin, the Emperor Elagabalus at the urging of the influential and powerful Julia Maesa— who was grandmother of both cousins and who'd arranged for the emperor's acclamation by the Third Legion.

On March 6, 222, when Alexander was just fourteen, a rumor went around the city troops that Alexander had been killed and this triggered his ascension as emperor. The eighteen year-old Emperor Elagabalus and his mother were both taken from the palace, dragged through the streets, murdered and thrown in the river Tiber by the Praetorian Guard, who then proclaimed Alexander Severus as Augustus.

Ruling from the age of fourteen under the influence of his able mother, Julia Avita Mamaea, Alexander restored, to some extent, the moderation that characterized the rule of Septimius Severus. The rising strength of the Sassanid Persian Empire (226–651) heralded perhaps the greatest external challenge that Rome faced in the 3rd century. His prosecution of the war against a German invasion of Gaul led to his overthrow by the troops he was leading there, whose regard the twenty-seven-year-old had lost during the affair.

His death was the epoch event beginning the troubled Crisis of the Third Century where a succession of short-reigning military emperors, revolting generals, and counter claimants presided over governmental chaos, civil war, general instability and great economic disruption. He was succeeded by Maximinus Thrax, the first of a series of weak emperors, each ruling on average only 2 to 3 years, that ended fifty years later with the Emperor Diocletian ordered split between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.

The Severan Tondo - the only surviving ancient painting of a Roman emperor

It shows Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna, and their sons (and future emperors) Caracalla and Geta. Geta’s face was scratched out after Caracalla killed him (he wanted to rule alone) and issued a damnatio memoriae to destroy any record of Geta.

I have seen this painting last week in the "Altes Museum" in Berlin!

Cool! One of the main reasons I went to Berlin was to see this and take this photo (Caracalla is my favourite Emperor). Berlin has fantastic museums!

Septimius Severus was one of few Phoenician-descended Roman Emperors. Apparently, during his reign, a good percentage of his senate were also Phoenician-descended. He spoke Latin with a Phoenician accent.

Severus also famously covered Hannibal’s tomb in fine marble. His reign marked the zenith of Hannibal appreciation within the Empire.

Makes sense how he destroyed Rome.


Calling someone "Phoenician" in the 3rd century is a bit of a stretch x)

My Latin teacher showed us this image when we were talking about damnatio memoriae

The image is probably an example of imperial portraits that were mass-produced to be displayed in offices and public buildings throughout the Roman Empire as part of Roman legal procedure, some documents had to be signed in front of an image of the emperor, which gave them the same status as if signed in his actual presence.

I think there is a quote by Seneca in a letter to Marcus Aurelius, describing how common painted portraits of the emperor was, not only in state offices, but also in shops and regular peoples' homes.


The installation of Septimius Severus as Emperor of the Roman Empire in 193 CE heralded an unprecedented period during which the Roman Empire was guided by a series of powerful women. Coins from the period bear portraits of these women and attest to their importance in the politics of the time.

The women featured here include the matriarch Julia Domna, her daughter-in-law Publia Fulvia Plautilla, her elder sister Julia Maesa, Julia Maesa's two daughters Julia Soaemias and Julia Avita Mamaea, and Julia Paula and Aquilia Severa who both married the Emperor Elagabalus, the son of Julia Soaemias.

Julia Domna

Julia Domna (170-217 CE) was from an extremely wealthy Syrian family. Her father, Julius Bassianus, was of the royal house that ruled the city of Emesa (modern day Homs). He served as high priest to the local cult god Elagabal. According to the Historia Augusta, Septimius Severus married Julia Domna because her horoscope predicted that she would wed an emperor [ 1 ].

Julia Domna and Septimius Severus had two sons, Lucius Septimius Bassianus (Caracalla) born in Lyons in 188 and Publius Septimius Geta born in 189. When Severus became emperor in 193, Julia Domna accompanied him in his campaigns against rivals such as Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. Later, Julia Domna joined Severus in his campaign against the Britons that started in 208. When Severus died in York in 211, his will directed that Caracalla and Geta were to rule as joint emperors. Julia Domna became the mediator between the two sons. After Caracalla had Geta murdered, Julia's relationship with Caracalla became strained but she continued to support him. Julia accompanied Caracalla on his fateful campaign against the Parthian Empire in 217. She died in Antioch shortly after Caracalla was assassinated and Macrinus assumed the emperorship. According to Cassius Dio, at first Julia plotted to wrest control of the Empire from Macrinus for herself but then, after hearing stories of how much the people in Rome had hated her son Caracalla and were welcoming his demise, Julia refused food to hasten her own death from a preexisting cancer of the breast [ 2 ].

Julia Domna

Denarius (silver, 2.90 g). Minted in Rome 216 CE.
Obverse: bust of Julia Domna (wife of Septemius Severus) facing right, IULIA PIA FELIX AVG.
Reverse: Venus enthroned facing left, VENUS GENETRIX.
Sear 7106 RIC 388c BMCRE 434. Photograph by Randy Butler.

Publia Fulvia Plautilla

Publia Fulvia Plautilla was married to her second cousin Caracalla in 202 CE. Although Plautilla came with a magnificent dowry, this arranged marriage between the fourteen year old Caracalla and slightly older Plautilla was not a happy one. Cassius Dio comments that Caracalla despised her and that Plautilla was a shameless profligate [ 3 ]. Unfortunately for Plautilla, three years into the marriage her father, Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, one of the wealthiest men in the world, fell from favor with Septimius Severus, He was executed for treachery and his family properties were confiscated. Caracalla immediately divorced Plautilla and she was sent into exile in 205 CE. Caracalla never remarried. Plautilla was strangled on Caracalla's orders shortly after Septimius Severus died in early 211 CE.

Publia Fulvia Plautilla

Denarius (silver, 3.12 g). Minted 202 CE in Rome.
Obverse: bust of Publia Fulvia Plautilla facing right, PLAVTILLAE AVGVSTAE.
Reverse: Plautilla (left) and Caracalla (right) celebrating their marriage, PROPAGO IMPERI.
Sear 7073 (this coin) RIC 362 BMCRE 236. Photograph by Barry Rightman.

Julia Maesa

Julia Maesa, Julia Domna's elder sister, was married to a Syrian noble named Julius Avitus. They had two daughters Julia Soaemias (mother of Elagabalus) and Julia Avita Mamaea (mother of Severus Alexander). After the murder of her nephew the Emperor Caracalla and the suicide of her sister Julia Domna, Julia Maesa returned to Syria. There, she instigated a successful plot to eliminate Macrinus and install her grandson Elagabalus as Emperor.

Julia Maesa

Denarius (silver, 3.71 g). Minted 218-220 CE in Rome.
Obverse: bust of Julia Maesa (sister of Julia Domna, mother of Julia Soemias and Julia Mamaea) facing right, IULIA MAESA AVG.
Reverse: Pudicita seated left, drawing out veil from shoulder with right hand and holding sceptre in left hand, PUDICITA.
Sear 7756 RIC 268 BMCRE 76. Photograph by Randy Butler.

Julia Soaemias

Julia Soaemias Bassiana (180-222 CE) was the elder daughter of Julia Maesa and Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus. She was the mother of the Emperor Elagabalus. When her cousin, Caracalla, was killed in 217 and Macrinus ascended to the imperial throne, Julia and her mother plotted to replace Macrinus with her second son, Bassianus. Julia and her mother spread the rumor that the thirteen-year-old boy was Caracalla's illegitimate son. In 218 Macrinus was killed and Bassianus became emperor with the name of Elagabalus. Since Elagabalus was a minor, Julia became the de facto ruler of Rome.

Julia Soaemias

Denarius (silver, 2.72 g). Minted 220-222 CE in Rome.
Obverse: bust of Julia Soaemias (mother of Elagabalus) facing right, IULIA SOAEMIAS AVG.
Reverse: Venus standing holding apple and scepter, VENUS CAELESTIS.
Sear 7719 RIC 241 BMCRE 49. Photograph by Randy Butler.

Julia Cornelia Paula

Julia Cornelia Paula was the first wife of the Emperor Elagabalus. Elagabalus married her in 219 CE shortly after he had arrived in Rome. Julia Paula belonged to an ancient and wealthy aristocratic family. Elagabalus divorced her in 220 CE so that he could marry Julia Aquilia Severa.

Julia Paula

Denarius (silver, 3.34 g). Minted 220 CE in Rome.
Obverse: draped bust of Julia Paula (first wife of Elagabalus) facing right, IULIA PAVLA AVG.
Reverse: Concordia enthroned left holding patera and resting left arm on throne, star in field, CONCORDIA.
Sear 7655 RIC 211 BMCRE 172. Photograph by Randy Butler.

Julia Aquila Severa

Julia Aquilia Severa, was the second (and fourth!) wife of Emperor Elagabalus. Because Julia Aquilia Severa was a Vestal Virgin this was a scandalous act.

Aquilia Severa

Denarius (silver, 2.91 g). Minted 221 CE in Rome.
Obverse: draped bust of Aquilia Severa facing right, IULIA AQVILIA SEVERA AVG.
Reverse: Concordia standing left, sacrificing over lighted altar and holding double cornucopia, star in right field, CONCORDIA.
Sear 7679 RIC 226 BMCRE 184. Photograph by Randy Butler.

Julia Avita Mamaea

Julia Avita Mamaea was the mother of Severus Alexander, the last Emperor of the Severan dynasty. Julia Maesa convinced her grandson, the Emperor Elagabalus, to adopt her other fourteen year-old grandson Alexander Severus as his heir shortly before Elagabalus and his mother Julia Soaemias were murdered by the Praetorian Guard. Alexander Severus was acclaimed emperor and ruled from 222-235 CE. Julia Avita Mamaea and her mother became regents for Alexander.

Julia Mamaea

Denarius (silver, 2.90 g). Minted 231 CE in Rome.
Obverse: diademed bust of Julia Mamaea (mother of Severus Alexander) facing right, IULIA MAMAEA AVG.
Reverse: Pietas standing left, sacrificing over altar and holding box of incense, PIETAS AUGUSTAE.
Sear 8213 RIC 346 BMCRE 821. Photograph by Randy Butler.

  1. ↑ Quenot, Michael (1991). The Icon: Window on the Kingdom. St Vladimir's Seminary Press. p.㺐. ISBN  0-88141-098-5 . <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. ↑ Hiesinger, Ulrich W. (1969). "Julia Domna: Two Portraits in Bronze". American Journal of Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America. 73 (1): 39–44. doi:10.2307/503372. ISSN�-828X. JSTOR� – via JSTOR. Some idea of the impression such ornaments would have produced may be derived from the painted tondo from Egypt with shows Julia Domna with pearl pendent earrings and a jeweled diadem and necklace. Unknown parameter |registration= ignored (help) <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. ↑ Vincent Rondot: Derniers visages des dieux d'Égypte, Paris 2013 ISBN 978-2840508571, p. 33

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