Two bust sculptures in the archaeological collection of the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire, de la ville de Geneve (MAH)

Rendezvous with a Venerable Couple

Written by: Dmitry Galkin

Septimius Severus (145–211), archaeological collection of the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire, de la ville de Geneve (MAH), image courtesy of MAH

Septimius Severus (145–211) and his wife Julia Domna (c.170-217) lived in the period that preceded the deep crisis of the Roman empire. Moreover, the rule of Septimius Severus, who tried to imitate Marcus Aurelius, and conjoin the conservative internal policy and the external expansion of the Roman empire was a clear sign of upcoming turmoil.

One of the sculptures in the MAH shows Severus with flowing hair and beard, perhaps more appropriate for a philosopher than for a successful military leader.  Severus, was an important figure who seized power in 193, won the civil war against two rival claimants, defeated the Parthian Empire and had several important victories in Britain, Libya and Arabia.

Such a combination of the refined appearance of an educated man and an evident military genius had also been the most famous features of Marcus Aurelius, Septimius’s sponsor and mentor.

Severus, who was born on 11 April 145 at Leptis, Magna, (in present-day Libya) belonged to a rich and influential equestrian family, however, he still needed a promotion to the Senatorial ranks to get an opportunity to achieve the highest public offices of the Empire. He achieved this thanks for Marcus Aurelius, who granted him access to the Senate.  However, even prior to this, Severus had managed to build an impressive career. When he was just 28 he became a tribune of the plebs (as the emperor’s candidate). This state office, despite its diminishing political influence, remained symbolically important. It was considered to be the best position for the young man to start studying how a state is governed. Severus had strong reasons to be grateful to Marcus and definite political motives to resemble him in public appearances. Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, strove to appear as the new Hercules (he was officially depicted in that way) and imitated not philosophers but gladiators. Under his governance the economic situation worsened and he used violent repression to retain power.

Severus tried to imitate the image of Marcus Aurelius because he wanted to stress that he continued the policy of the last “good emperor” and had nothing in common with his monstrous son, Commodus. The same tactic was used by Pertinax, the unfortunate predecessor of Severus, who came to power after Commodus was slain on January 1, 193. Pertinax proclaimed the end of the policy of lavish spending and tried to govern in cooperation with the Senate. Commodus, according to his biographer, was “detested by the Senate that he in his turn was moved with cruel passion for the destruction of that great order” (Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Sev., XVIII). But good intentions were not sufficient to restore the order in the state. And Pertinax couldn’t (and maybe didn’t want to) use force. New contradictions between the Senate and the Emperor emerged, the financial situation remained the same and low military pay rates discouraged the army. Though Pertinax rejected such plans he didn’t gain popularity and support in troops. Therefore Pertinax (despite his cognomen that means persistent in Latin) could not prevent a new coup and was overthrown and murdered after three months of being in power.

Septimius Severus was capable of using force and wasn’t afraid to be violent. He strengthened the state, provided a boost to the economic growth, defeated his rivals and suppressed opposition in the Senate. His contemporaries claimed that he either should never have been born at all because he was too cruel or never should have died because he was an extremely efficient and well-educated ruler. After his death most of the achievements of his 18-year reign (he died during the military campaign in Britain in Eboracum, the present-day York) were lost in a rather short time.

New economic crises caused social and political disorder which extinguished the dynasty established by Septimius Severus.  Its last representative, Severus Alexander, was a tolerant and thoughtful young man who was assassinated in 235. His death marked the beginning of a dreary period known as the “Crisis of the Third Century”. As the biographer of Septimius Severus put it, “the Roman Empire became a thing for freebooters to plunder” (SHA, Sev., XIX).

Unfortunately it should be admitted that his wife Julia Domna bears the responsibility for the catastrophe that occurred with the Severan dynasty.

Julia Domna (170- 217), archaeological collection of the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire, de la ville de Geneve (MAH), image courtesy of MAH

Her sculpture portrait displayed in MAH shows her approximately in her late 30s. So it might have been made in the last years of  Septimius’ reign or even after his death (he was 25 years older than his second wife and when he died she was just 41).  Septimius Severus was succeeded by his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, and in accordance with his will were to divide power ruling as joint emperors.

Julia Domna belonged to the rich and powerful Syrian family derived from the dynasty of kings-priests of Emesa (present-day Homs). She tried in vain to reconcile the ruling brothers who despised each other.  Shortly after the brothers succeeded their father, Caracalla murdered Geta.  After this, Julia managed to maintain a relationship with Caracalla and was able to retain political significance and influence. She accompanied Caracalla during the Parthian campaign during which Caracalla was assassinated by Macrinus.

Julia Domna committed suicide when she heard about the death of Caracalla.   Due to this she unfortunately wasn’t witness to the restoration of the Severan dynasty after Septimius in which women played an extraordinarily significant role. But the policy of Julia Domna, who considered governing of the empire to be a family business, prevailed.  Eventually it led to a social crisis which destroyed political institutions which hindered an emperor (or a small group around him) to govern the state at his sole discretion.

So it would be interesting to visit the MAH of Geneva to see the couple who witnessed and even started the processes that in the end ruined the Roman civilization.