#10: The Arch of Septimius Severus

Ok, the 'Arch of Septimius Severus' ya really can't miss this baby in the Forum, it's huge.

It's one of three intact remaining arches in Rome, the others are the Arch of Constantine and the Arch of Titus which had a major reconstruction.

Now this particular arch is definitely a 'male thing' that only we can understand and appreciate :-) .

It's the early third Century AD (203 AD) and no one has ever put an arch here because there is no reason to and just no room for it! No military Triumphs will pass this way as far as we know because it will have steps vs. a street leading up to and through it. Plus it's not on the traditional route.

It's in a *very crowded corner* of the Forum with temples, statues, etc and near the base of the Capitoline Hill so you must sharp turn left or right or climb stairs if going straight. Plus the Niger Lapis is directly in front of its approach and the south end invades into the Forum Square.

So it's really way out of place but if a woman was going to put an arch here she would put a nice neat and practical single arch. Because a single arch would perfectly match the single Arch of Tiberius on the other side of the Forum, so you would have a set of matching arches on each side of the Square with the Rostra in the middle.

But Septimius is 'The Man' and he can get whatever he wants and he wants to show everyone that he has the biggest...uhhh...ARCH in town. So with some major rearranging they squeeze in this huge triple arch which is even bigger that the triple arched 'Arch of Augustus' cater/kitty-cornered from this arch in the Forum.


Lucius Septimius Severus (146-211 AD) was a Roman general and later Emperor 193-211. Born in Libya, made Senator by Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 172, Consul in 190, made Commander of Legions in Pannonia (Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia area) by Emperor Commodus in 191, Commodus is assassinated in 192.

In 193 Septimius and three other boys all declare themselves Emperor that year.

Two are killed on the Palatine in the Imperial Palace. The first by his own soldiers (spear throw to the chest, his head is paraded through the Forum and streets). The second is deserted by everyone and left all alone in the Palace, a single soldier sent by the Senate kills him (Severus has a hand in this).

The last emperor-wannabe is in the east supported by the Parthian Empire (Iran and surrounding areas).

Severus goes over, finally defeats and kills him and then kicks some Parthian butt for supporting him.

This was the first PARTHIAN CAMPAIGN.

In 197 the Roman Governor in Britain revolts and declares himself Emperor. Severus goes over to Gaul where they battle and he wins. The Parthians take advantage of this infighting and revolt. Severus goes on another PARTHIAN CAMPAIGN in 197-199 and wins. These two major (sometimes the last one is listed as two separate campaigns, so three total) Parthian Campaigns are what is shown on the four Relief panels on both sides of the Arch.

Severus finally gets back to Rome in 202.

The Arch is built in 203 and the inscription is dedicated to Emperor Septimius Severus and his two sons Caracalla and Geta for basically "restoring the Republic and expanding the dominion of the Roman People". Oddly for some reason Severus doesn't have a military Triumph (parade) for these wars?

Severus' reign is a military dictatorship but he is loved by his troops and fairly well liked by the Roman people (after Commodus that is pretty easy :-) .

The Senate hates him but if you kill a few dozen Senators and replace them with your cronies that problem just tends to take care of itself. In 211 while on campaign in Britain Septimius Severus dies in York. He tells his two sons from his death bed to "get along with each other" and "to pay and treat his soldiers well and to hell with everyone else".

Right after dad dies the brothers are at each other's throats, both trying to kill the other for total control of the Empire. And when back in Rome they even split the Palatine Palace in half by walling it up the middle. Their poor mother tries everything to make them get along but it's no use.

They were going to split the Empire in half but mom talks them out of it, knowing it would only lead to a civil war between them for total control.

Later Caracalla sent a message to Geta to meet at mom's apartment so they can make peace between them. Geta shows up but Caracalla has men hidden nearby and they stab him (or he did it himself). Her youngest son is murdered before her eyes by her eldest son and as she cradles Geta in her arms he slowly bleeds to death.

Caracalla then has all traces of his brother's existence removed. It's called a 'Damnatio Memoriae' and that person's statues are torn down, all inscriptions are erased, etc as if they never existed. Caracalla went even further by killing about 20,000 people who sided with Geta no matter how remotely, like military men, friends, freedmen, servants, etc. He even killed the musicians, actors and chariot team his brother just liked! But what 'comes around, goes around' and six years later Caracalla is assassinated.

The mastermind of the plot is the Commander of the Praetorian Guard named Macrinus. But they need a patsy to take the blame (JFK conspiracy buffs take note :)).

Julius Martialis is an officer in the Imperial Bodyguard who is recruited to their cause.

Later on an overland journey when Caracalla goes to relieve himself in private away from his bodyguards, he is killed by Martialis. Suddenly everyone is in surprised shock at this event... yea right! "Oh my Gods...Martialis has killed the Emperor!" And the Emperor's Mounted Bodyguard quickly kill the 'Lone Assassin' Martialis.

Marcinus becomes Emperor but only for a short time (about a year), he's defeated in a civil war, captured and executed. Caracalla was 29 at his death and his ashes are sent back to Rome where they were laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. He was deified in 218 AD. This all leads us to the inscription at the top of the arch where we will start.


Ok step back so you can see the inscription on the top of the arch, the same inscription is also on the backside.

This arch's inscription has the most famous Roman 'Damnatio Memoriae' that survives.

The inscription was once written in gilded bronze letters (long gone) which were inset into the stone, so today you can still read it because of these carved letter insets.

The fourth line from the top used to say 'P. Septimio Getae No (Bilissimo) Caesari' or basically 'Most Noble Caesar Geta'. They know this because even though those carved inset letters were erased and new inset letters were added the original holes for those bronze letters remained. So by eliminating the new letter holes they could figure out what letter the old holes held. Caracalla replaced it with 'Optimus Fortissimisque Principibus' translated as 'excellent and strongest princes' meaning himself.

Also 'ET' was removed from the end of third line, 'et' means 'and', it was the 'and' between the long titles of Caracalla ET Geta. It was replaced with P P which means 'Pater Patriae' or 'Father of the Fatherland'.

So Geta was erased and additional titles were added to fill-in the space. The entire inscription basically reads:

To the Emperor Septimius Severus, Son of Marcus. (the following are titles) Pius, Pertinax, Pater Patriae, Parthicus Arabicus, Parthicus Adiabenicus, Pontifex Maximus. Having held the Tribunician power eleven times, acclaimed Emperor eleven times, Consul three times, Proconsul. And Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Caracalla), Son of Lucius. Antoninus, Augustus Pius, Felix.
Having held the auspicious Tribunician power six times, Consul, Proconsul, Pater Patriae. Excellent 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 (built this, shown as SPQR).


Ok there are four panels each one is over the smaller side arches on both sides of the Arch.

They show the Parthian Campaigns and are meant to be read bottom to top, each panel has two or three scenes.

The panels are meant to be read in chronological order, you start at the left panel on the Forum side and move counter-clockwise around the Arch (so the first is Forum-side/left panel, second Forum-side/right panel, third Capitoline-Hill-side/left panel, fourth Capitoline/right panel).

FIRST PANEL: Three scenes (remember start at the bottom) in a badly preserved state of the first Parthian Campaign.

Bottom: scene is the Roman Army leaving their camp.

Center: battle scene, Romans vs Parthians.

Top: On the right the Parthian King fleeing on horseback. On the left Severus addressing his victorious troops.

SECOND PANEL: Is the second Parthian Campaign.

Bottom: (left side) A Roman attack on the city of Edessa with a 'Battering ram'; (right side) City throws open its Gates, sends out dignitaries bearing standards to surrender.

Middle: (left) Severus and entourage addresses the army; (right side) King Abgar and entourage surrenders to Severus.

Top: (right) War Council in fortified Roman Camp; (left) Severus in charge heading out into enemy territory.



Bottom: Attack on Seleucia by the Tigris River and the Parthians

escaping on horseback.

Top: Parthians surrendering to the Emperor and Severus entering the

conquered city.


Bottom: Attack and fall of Ctesiphon the Parthian capitol city.

Battering ram siege tower on left, King Vologese escaping on foot on the extreme right.

Top: Severus addressing his victorious troops in front of the captured



The large middle arched passageway's keystone is Mars the God of War. On each side of Mars are reliefs of Victory (looks like an angel) carrying Trophies with a personification of each of the four Seasons at the feet of each of the four Victories.

On each of the side passageways the keystone is of lesser Gods, one is probably Hercules.

On each side of these lesser God keystones are figures of River Gods. Above these is a narrow band relief showing a Triumphal Procession with captives and war booty.

Also there are four free-standing columns and their bases on each side of the Arch. The bases are in good shape because they were buried for centuries when the Forum's ground level rose. The reliefs on the bases show Roman soldiers escorting their Parthian POWs.

Look for signs of wearing (especially on the Capitoline side) of these bases and the lower section of the columns. This damage was caused by Medieval to Early-Modern Times wheeled traffic going through the passageways.

By Medieval Times the Forum's ground level had risen so that the passageways were now level with the ground (steps are buried). By 1750 the ground level has completely blocked the side passageways except for curving arch part at the top --^--. So covering the bases and about 25% of the column.


The arch is built on a Travertine foundation and has a Travertine core, the arch is faced with banded grey/white Proconnesian marble. And actually the worst damage to this arch is from the original builders who had to cut corners with the marble. By ignoring the marble's horizontal grain things happened like columns split vertically, chunks of reliefs and projecting pieces fell off, etc.

But luckily the Arch was saved from being stripped like other buildings and monuments because the left (southern) half in the Middle Ages was the property of a nearby church.

And the right half became part of a twelfth Century fortification (Brachis Family), its fortress tower was attached to the back right side of the Arch and was still standing in the sixteenth Century. Also if you look on the side of the arch (north end) at the top there is a big hole in the attic section. I wonder? if this section was hacked out to provide a window for defending (archers) this Medieval Arch/Fort? Or just a hacked out doorway to a long gone fortification building attached? Or did that section just fall out?

Ok let's go back in time to when this Arch was just completed. A common misconception is that these buildings and monuments were all white marble like in the movies. But things like reliefs, marble statues, parts of buildings, etc were painted in bright colors. So picture all the reliefs like a painting. Now on top of the Arch there was a large bronze chariot drawn by six horses in which rode Severus being crowned by Victory. Also riding alongside him in the chariot were statues of Caracalla and Geta and we can safely assume that later Geta disappeared.

There were foot-soldiers walking alongside the chariot and a horse-mounted cavalryman statue in each corner of the Arch. By the way, it is also possible that all these statues were made of Silver! Now on the four corners of the 'Inscription Panel' there are square pillar-columns, there were adorned with bronze ornaments possibly some type of war trophies.

There were also bronze ornaments (trophies and garlands) around the plain surfaces of the inscription panel. Also picture the bronze lettering still in place.

There are steps leading up to the Arch from the street, these steps are the width of the Arch.

Now for some unknown reason about the fourth Century these steps were removed and the area in front of the Arch was lowered about eight feet. New steps were put in which now reached to below the three passageways ground level. To compensate for this steps were cut into the Arch's foundation. You can see these new steps in each of the two side passageways.

This lowering of the area in front of the Arch caused the exposure of the Arch's Travertine foundation which was then faced in marble. If you look at the very lower left corner of the Arch you will see a piece of this marble facing still in place.

Also if you look just to the left of the Niger Lapis (Black Stone) you will see three steps that lead up from the Comitium to the road that lead up to the Arch. I've always wondered if these steps were original from the time of the Comitium paving-over or were added later when the road and steps were made leading up to the Arch (either the first or second road/steps)?

Later on when behind the Rostra area look at the south side of the arch, you will see a doorway about 5 m up. It was put high up to keep people out and you would need a ladder to get to it. Inside there is a staircase that leads up to a doorway that allowed access to a walkway around the outside inscription area. You can see this doorway in the middle of the inscription on the backside of the Arch.

Another door leads up to the roof of the Arch. This was a maintenance access mainly for the cleaning and occasional repairing of the statues and inscriptions. A lot of bronze up there for the slaves to keep shiny.

Now walk up into the Arch, access is only allowed through the middle passageway.

Again try and picture these passageways richly painted and perhaps adorned with small or leafed bronze ornaments. Long after Rome fell a sculptor or stonemason set up shop in this middle passageway and he etched profiles on the walls (I couldn't find them, probably very faded and higher up). But you will see quite a bit of twentieth Century graffiti etched into the walls :=(. Also some type of business stalls were setup in the side arches and used up to the early 1800's. You will also see holes that line up about 3 m up in the passageways, these would have been to add a second floor (wooden) in the Arch. The left passageway has three ancient games etched on the floor (more on these later)

When in the middle passageway look at the left side of the doorway that goes into the left passageway there is a 'hole game' there (holes bored into the stone like ::::: ). Later walkout of the middle passageway and look into that same left passageway, there is a 'hole game' on the right side of the doorway and a faded 'circle game' (size of a pizza) on the pavement.

Ok walk through the Arch to the Capitoline side and turn around and look up at the same inscription.

In the center of the inscription is an opening like a doorway. I *believe* this was a maintenance access for the cleaning and repair of the bronze inscriptions, if so it was probably more like a removable hatch that could be taken out in one piece. There is also a doorway on the South end of the Arch and the North end has a large irregular hole (original doorway made larger to connecting Medieval building?) Or were these doorways cut through on this level when this arch was part of the Medieval fortress and church?

For more information and photos, please see Arch of Septimius Severus in A Tourist in Rome.

Next: #11.1: Mamertine Prison or Carcer of Tullianum, and the Gemonian Stairs
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