The Arch of Septimius Severus

This Wikipage is part of the series "Roman Antiquity: Triumphal Arches on the Via Sacra" . Other parts of this series are:

The Arch of Titus Triumphal Processions The Tradition of the Arch before the Flavian Dynasty The Rhetorical Power of Triumphal Arches

Arch of Severus on the Forum Romanum in Rome [1]

The arch of Septimius Severus (latin: Arcus Septimii Severi) was built in 203 AD by the senate to commemorate the Parthian victories of Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta.

1. Historical Background
2. The Arch
3. Depictions on the Arch
4. Inscriptions on the Arch
5. Triumph accompanying the Arch
6. The problems the Arch solves
7. Sources
8. See also

Historical Background

Septimius Severus was born in 145 AD in Leptis Magna, in the Roman province Africa. He became senator during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. He later became consul, though that office had losts much of its power in Imperial Rome [2,4,7].

Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his son Commodus, a break with the past, since he was the natural son of the emperor, not an adopted son. The previous emperors simply didn't have a natural son available. Commodus was murdered in 193 AD and a civil war broke out, known as the "Year of the Five Emperors". Pertinax was proclaimed emperor in Rome. He tried to restore discipline in the Praetorian Guard, but failed and was murdered by the Praetorians [2].

Bust of Septimius Severus in the Capitoline Museums, Rome

Didius Julianus was the one who succeeded Pertinax as emperor. He bought the title from the Praetorian Guard. His reign was contested by Pertinax's father in law Titus Flavius Sulpicianus who offered all the Praetorian guards 20,000 sestertii (eight times their annual salary). However, he was outbid by Julianus who offered them 25,000 sestertii and thus won the Imperial seat. But Sulpicianus was not the only one after the throne. There were three more candidates: Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus [2].

Niger was the legate of Syria, Albinus was the legate of Britannia, Severus of Pannonia Superior and Severus' brother was legate of Moesia Inferior. Severus and his brother were closest to Rome and Julianus was decapitated by Severus in june 193. He killed those Praetorians responsible for Pertinax' death and dismissed the rest. He formed a new Praetorian Guard from men from his own legions [2].

Severus came to an agreement with Albinus who became Severus' caesar. Pescennius Niger was battled at Cyzicus and Nicea in 193 and finally defeated at Issus in 194. Upon his return from the east Severus declared his seven year old son caesar, which caused a new war between Albinus and Severus. Albinus was eventually defeated by Septimius at the battle of Lugdunum, sometimes claimed to be the bloodiest clash between Roman forces [2].

After the consolidation of the imperial throne he directly went on campaign to Syria. He wanted to attack the Parthian Empire, who had given support to Pescennius Niger in the battle for the imperial throne and a victory over the strongest foreign enemy of Rome would bring him much prestige and honor and thus cement his rule. The war lasted from 197 to 202 AD, during which the Parthian capital Ctesiphon was taken and sacked. He failed in taking Hatra however. He added the Roman province Mesopotamia to the empire during this campaign consisting of the Northern part of Mesopotamia. With this addition the empire reached its largest size [2,4].

From 208 till 2011 he was on campaign in Britannia to fight against the Caledonian tribes. He died in Eburacum (York) and was succeeded by both his sons [2].

The Arch

See also "The tradition of the arch before the Flavian dynasty"

The arch of Septimius is located on the foot of the Capitoline Hill between the Curia and the Rostra [3]. One reason for placing the arch there is that there used to be an arch of Augustus there. After the turbulent way he got the imperial throne, he needed to give legitimacy to his rule and associating himself with Augustus was one way of accomplishing this goal. Its location on the Via Sacra also ensured that all future triumphs would have to pass through his arch.

The arch itself was a three-bayed arch. The central bay is larger than those on the flanks [3]. It was built from Pentelic marble on a foundation of travertine [5]. A flight of steps from the forum side towards the arch made it readily accessible [5]. A simple and yet grandiose approach was granted, thus increasing the arch's impression. Detached from the arch, there are eight fluted columns, four standing on each side-face of the arch [6].

Roman coins depicted the arch with a chariot on top of the arch, carrying the emperor Severus and his sons [4]. This lets us infer the arch used to be coronated by such a statue. Additionally, four equestrian statues are depicted on top of the arch on these coins. None of these statues has been found [5]. Furthermore, the arch has four panels which depict military campaigns fought by Severus. On both sides of the attic an inscription has been engraved on the arch. The depictions and inscriptions will be explored in the next sections.

Depictions on the Arch

The decorations on the arch are all focused on the Parthian campaign and the triumphal celebration afterwards. The main contribution conveying the message is made by four reliefs placed above the lateral arches. They tell the story of the military conquest and are read chronologically from left to right, starting at the side facing the forum and continuing at the back side of the arch. Each panel is divided into two or three registers, which are read from the bottom upwards [3]. In the following the panels will be discussed in order.

The first panel is very poorly preserved and it is difficult to figure out what is depicted, though people have made reconstructions of it. The first of the three registers depicts the preparations for war. The second register displays a battle between Roman soldiers and Parthians. The third register shows the emperor speaking to his troops (left) and the flight of the enemy king after the liberation of a city that was besieged by the Parthians (right) [3].

The first panel

The second panel tells the story of the war against the Osroeni. The bottom register shows Roman forces attacking the city Edessa, the capital of the Osroeni kingdom, with war machines and the surrender of the city. The middle one shows Septimius talking to his troops (left) and the surrender of the Osroeni king Abgar (right). The top depicts Septimius in charge of operations and a war council [3].

The second panel

The third panel has only two registers. The bottom one depicts an attack on the city Seleucia and the Parthians fleeing on horseback. The upper register depicts the Parthians surrendering to Septimius and his entry of Seleucia [3].

The third panel

The fourth panel also has two registers. The lower one it depicts the siege of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian empire, using war machines and the flight of the Parthian king. The upper one depicts Septimius speaking to his victorious troops in front of the fallen city [3].

The fourth panel

The inspiration for the panels most likely comes from the paintings Septimius sent to Rome after the victory against the Parthians. Those paintings had to been displayed in public by order of the emperor until he returned to Rome [3].

There are also many decorative elements from which only the most important ones will be described here. First, there are Victories on the spandrels of the central arch, carrying trophies [3]. This was common in arches since the days of Augustus, and is also the case with the Arch of Titus [3].

Inscriptions on the Arch

On the attic of the arch an inscription has been engraved. We are sure about the text inscribed because it is very well preserved. The text offers us information about the identification of the arch. There are holes in the inscriptions where once bronze letters were fixed. The inscription can be found on both sides of the arch and the inscriptions are identical.

The Inscription:

Imp Caes Lucio Septimio M fil Severo Pio Pertinaci Aug Patri Patriae Parthico Arabico
et Parthico Adiabenico Pontific Maximo Tribunic Potest XI Imp XI cos III procos et
Imp Caes M Aurelio L fil Antonino Aug Pio Felici Tribunic Potest VI Cos Procos P P
optimis fortissimisque prinicipibus ob rem publicam restitutam imperiumque populi
romani propogatum insignibus virtutibus eorum domi forisque S P Q R

Inscription on the Arch of Severus

Translated it means:

To the Emperor Septimius Severus, Son of Marcus, Pius, Pertinax, Pater Patriae, Parthicus
Arabicus, Parthicus Adiabenicus, Pontifex Maximus, having held the tribunician power 11 times,
acclaimed imperator 11 times, Consul 3 times, Proconsul, and Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Caracalla),
Son of Lucius, Antoninus, Augustus Pius, Felix, having held the auspicious tribunician power 6 times,
Consul, Proconsul, Pater Patriae, Highest and Strongest Princes for having restored the State and
enlarged the Empire of the Roman people, by their visible strengths at home and abroad, the Senate
and People of Rome [made this]

The list of offical titles is a clear example of res gestae, showing what you have done in your life to proof that you are capable.

The holes in the inscription are not the result of an accident. Both Carracalla and Geta were mentioned in the inscription, but after Carracalla murdered Geta he erased the memory of his brother, a so-called damnatio memoriae [5]. The original text can still be inferred by the holes in the wall, where bronze letters used to be attached [4].

Triumph accompanying the Arch

See also "Triumphal Processions"

The triumph held was a big procession according to the normal Roman ritual of a triumph. It had its exceptions though. Septimius himself did not participate in the triumph. He excused himself saying that he could not stand up long enough in the chariot due to his arthritis. His son Caracalla did participate in the triumph in his father name. Also, the triumph was accompanied by city games, spectacles and handouts, which was not uncommon.

The problems the Arch solves

The Sevéri dynasty had to consolidate their rule, since they were a new dynasty. Such a new dynasty always had a risk of being overthrown. To consolidate his rule, Septimius declared himself son of Marcus Aurelius which allowed him to trace his line back to Nerva. Existing dynasties were more likely to be supported by the army and senate, so the suggestion that rather than a new dynasty the sevéri dynasty was a continuation of the Antonine dynasty was useful, though its remains unsure how many people actually believed the adoption was real. One senator sarcastically congratulated Severus with finding a new father [2].

Foreign victories were usually recepted favourably by the Roman people and thus every new emperor who was not yet fully secure in his rule could use such a victory. The Parthians were the most united, wealthiest and strongest of Rome's neighbours. Defeating them was likely to bring much riches and prestige to the victor. There was also a military need for the campaign. Its no coincidence that Severus campaigned in the east and Britannia, the places where his rivals, Niger and Albinus came from. Civil war weakened the border defence and enemies often made use of that fact [2].

The arch is a means to communicate his important victory to the people [8]. It shows he is capable enough to achieve victory over his enemies and wealthy enough to pay for such a magnificent building. It also serves to connect him with Augustus, giving him more legitimacy by association with the first emperor.

That Severus was not yet fully secure is clear from many things. He increased the salary of soldiers to buy their loyalty and thus prevent new civil troubles. No one could hope to overthrow the emperor without the support of at least part of the army. He also permanently stationed a large army near Rome, as a private army to protect him [2].

The arch also serves to keep the army happy. On the arch are a lof depictions of soldiers, even of soldiers in battle and conquering their enemies, which was never done before. Thus the arch also makes the soldiers proud and it creates a feeling of shared triumph between the emperor and the army.


  2. A Goldsworthy. The Fall of the West. The slow death of the Roman Superpower. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 2009
  7. Anthony R Birley: Septimius Severus
  8. Richard Brilliant: The arch of Septimus Severus in the Roman Forum

See also

This Wikipage is part of the series "Roman Antiquity: Triumphal Arches on the Via Sacra" . Other parts of this series are:

The Arch of Titus Triumphal Processions The Tradition of the Arch before the Flavian Dynasty The Rhetorical Power of Triumphal Arches