Arch of Septimius Severus (Rome)

Арка Септимия Севера (Рим)


Description Arch of Septimius Severus

The Arch of Septimius Severus is a three-gate triumphal arch in the Roman Forum in Rome.

The arch was erected in honor of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta in 203 to commemorate the victories against the Parthians. Construction was decided after the first Parthian War, but only commissioned after the victory over Clodius Albinus and the second Parthian campaign (197-199).

The triumphal arch stands at the north-west end of the Roman Forum. The Via Sacra leads through the central arch in the direction of the Capitol. Since the arch was included in fortress buildings in the Middle Ages, it is still in good condition today. As can be seen in Canaletto's painting, part of the arch had disappeared into the ground in Goethe's time.

The three-gate arch, which is an outstanding example of Severan architecture in Rome, is made of travertine in the foundation area, the superstructure was made of brick and faced with Pentelic marble. From the forum steps lead up to the arch. The monument is 20.88 meters high, 23.27 meters wide and 11.20 meters deep. The central arch is 12 meters high and 7 meters wide, the two side arches are 7.8 meters high and 3 meters wide. The Arch of Septimius Severus was the largest arch in the Roman Forum at the time of its construction. 

On both sides of the passage there is an inscription that occupies the entire attic and indicates that the arch was erected by the Senate on the occasion of Septimius Severus' successful campaigns in the East. However, after his murder and the damnatio memoriae imposed on him in AD 211, the name of Getas was chiseled out of the dedication inscription and replaced by further honorary titles for Septimius Severus and Caracalla. The inscription reads:


"To the Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus, the son of Marcus, to Pius, Pertinax, Augustus, father of the fatherland, the conqueror of the Parthians, the Arabs and the Parthian Adiabene, to the Pontifex Maximus, who wielded the power of a tribune for the eleventh time, appointed Emperor for the eleventh time, Consul and Proconsul for the third time; and the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelianus Antoninus, son of Lucius, the Augustus, Pius, Felix, who has the power of a tribune for the sixth time, the consul, proconsul, father of the fatherland; the best and strongest principes, for the salvation of the state and the expansion of the dominion of the Roman people and for their extraordinary achievements at home and abroad. The Senate and the people of Rome.”

– CIL 06, 1033 = ILS 425


The attic was crowned by a quadriga with statues of the emperor and his sons. However, nothing has survived from this statue crowning. According to the coin images, the triumphal chariot with Septimius Severus, Caracalla and Geta was pulled by six horses.

The arch zone is divided by four pilasters with columns in front. The columns stand on high bases and carry composite capitals. The plinths of the columns show three-dimensional prisoner trains on three sides. The gussets above the side arches are decorated with river gods. In the spandrels above the central arch are Victories carrying trophies. Personifications of the seasons are attached below the victoria. The keystones above the side arches are decorated with deities, Mars is depicted on the keystone above the central arch. A narrow frieze runs above the side arches, on which prisoners and vanquished are presented to the goddess Roma, as well as soldiers, carts with spoils of war and allegories of the provinces.

Above the narrow frieze bands there are two large relief panels on both sides, which glorify the victorious campaigns of Septimius Severus against the Parthians and Arabs and give an insight into what happened in the war. The reliefs on the side facing the forum show the attacks on the cities of Nisibis (left) and Edessa (right) during the first campaign against the Parthians in 195 AD. On the Capitol side are the attacks on the twin cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon depicted on the Tigris during the second Parthian campaign (Seleukia on the left, Ktesiphon on the right). The painterly style of the reliefs is in the tradition of triumphal painting, which was already an important part of art in the Roman Republic and was close to folk art. This art style is also called "map style" because the depiction was carried out in an oblique bird's-eye view and by means of a highly simplified map depiction that was filled with buildings or figures in order to convey what was happening to the people.

The three-dimensional scenes of the base reliefs with prisoners of war clearly stand out in style from the four relief panels. The already mentioned bird's-eye view of the events and the linear elaboration of the reliefs give greater importance to the historical war report and serve less for representation. The purpose was to explain to the people how the war was going.


The two main sides of the arch were decorated with reliefs. On the sides of the central fornix there are the usual Victories with trophies, which fly over little geniuses that symbolize the four seasons (two on each face). On the minor arches there are similar motifs, but the personifications represent rivers. Various divinities are carved in the arch keys: Mars, Hercules, Libero, Virtus (perhaps) and Fortuna. On the minor arches runs a small frieze with the triumphal procession sculpted in very high relief. On the plinths of the columns representations of Roman soldiers with prisoners parts (four on the front and two on the shorter sides).

The most interesting part of the decoration, however, are the four large panels that occupy the space on the minor archways, where the narration of the campaigns of Septimius Severus in Mesopotamia is carved, organized in horizontal bands to be read from the bottom up, as usual in painting. triumphal and in the narratives derived from it (Trajan's column, Marcus Aurelius's column, etc.)

The scenes are:

First panel (South-East), Events of the First War of 195:
Departure of the Roman troops from the camp (lower register)
Clash between Romans and Parthians (central register)
Liberation of Nisibis and escape of the Parthian king Vologase V (upper register on the right)
Adlocutio to the army of Severus on the suggesto, with his children and senior officers (upper register on the left)
Second panel (North-East), Events of the Second War of 197-198:
Departure of the troops with the siege machines (large testudinato ram) towards Edessa, which opens the doors as a sign of welcome and sends dignitaries and banners to submit (lower register)
Subjugation of the king of Osroene Abgar VIII, whose army mixes with the Roman one and is then harangued by the emperor (central register)
Concilium imperiale in a castrum near a ram (upper register on the right)
Profectio for penetration into enemy soil (upper register on the left)
Third panel (North-West):
Approach of the Romans to Seleucia, from where the Parthians flee on horseback (lower register)
The Parties pleadingly surrender to Severus (central register)
Severus enters the conquered city (upper register)
Fourth panel (South-West):
Siege with war machines on the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon (central register), from which King Vologases escapes on foot (far right below)
Unidentified scene, with horsemen on foot in the representation of Ctesiphon (perhaps the elevation of Caracalla to the title of Augustus, which took place on that occasion, upper register on the right)
Adlocutio di Severo (upper register in the center)
A standing knight alluding to returning from expedition (top left corner)

Artistic profile
The accessory decoration follows the classic style of official art and is aimed at enhancing the eternity and universality of the Empire (the seasons, the rivers of the Earth), as well as the glory of the emperors (Victories, prisoners) with symbols and allegories. Strong is the chiaroscuro connotation.

The sculpted scenes were probably created using as a model the paintings narrating the events of the war sent from Mesopotamia to the Senate in preparation for the triumph, which was then sent back by the emperor and never celebrated. The most direct models for the reliefs were certainly the two coclid columns, namely the Trajan and Aurelian columns, in particular the second for the very essential narrative technique, here even more summarizing and schematic.

The setting of the scenes is unique, with a generic rocky landscape (obtained by piercing the surface of the marble), with hints of rivers (such as the Tigris in the North-West panel) and schematic representations of cities. The narration is continuous in some places, in others it shows isolated, instantaneous scenes. The understanding of the facts is often entrusted to eloquent gestures and easily intelligible situations.

From a stylistic point of view, some historians have identified two masters, even if at least all the panels and the frieze above the lateral arches are a unitary work, with close affinities with the column of Marcus Aurelius, of a few years earlier. Here, however, there is a tendency to isolate the figures more from the background through clear undercuts than to prefer a flat, pictorial representation.

One of the most significant panels is that of the Siege and taking of Ctesiphon, where the use of the drill is particularly evident, which creates deep areas with strong shading alternating with those in light on the surface, giving a coloristic effect already visible in some works since from the age of Antonino Pio.

But an even more striking novelty is the representation of the human figure, now flattened in mass scenes far removed from the "Greek" vision of the representation of the isolated and plastic individual. It is an evident testimony of the birth of new styles linked to the "provincial and plebeian" art that dominated late antique art and then resulted in medieval art. In fact, officials, artists and emperors themselves, coming from the provinces, brought to Rome, with an ever increasing influence, the characteristics of art typical of their territories of origin (therefore it is not correct to speak of a "decadence" of art).

Another evident sign of these new trends is the figure of the emperor who, surrounded by his generals, harangues the crowd during the adlocutio: we are not yet at the hierarchical enlargements typical of the imperial representations of the fourth century, but the emperor is already on a mezzanine, emerging on the mass of soldiers as a divine apparition.

These trends were even more evident in the Arch of Constantine of the following century.