Arch of Septimius Severus (Leptis Magna)
لَبْدَة (in Arabic)
The Arch of Septimius Severus, in 2006
|Alternative name||Lepcis Magna|
|Condition||Restored to original state|
|Official name||Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna|
|Criteria||i, ii, iii|
|Designated||1982 (6th session)|
The Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211) ruled through a program of dynastic succession, militaristic power and architectural revival. He was the first Emperor born in the provinces since Hadrian and Trajan. Idolized for his military successes, having been declared emperor by his troops, Septimius is most well known for his Parthian victories from 194-195. With the military success of the emperor came a dramatic building program in Rome as well as the emperor's city of birth and the world heritage site, Leptis Magna. Part of said building programs, erected to celebrate the triumph of the Parthian victories were two arches dedicated in Rome as well as one dedicated in Leptis Magna. Leptis Magna stands apart from the building programs of Rome, The commemorative arch of Leptis Magna stands as testament to the Severan dynasty, military might, urban revitalization as well as divine acceptance.
With the Emperor’s significant presence in the province, it comes at no surprise that a triumphal arch was erected in Leptis Magna. While the exact date is not agreed upon, it is generally accepted that the Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna was erected on the occasion of the Severus’ African tour in 203. Built as a tetrapylon, the four-way arch marks the intersection of the two most significant urban roads, the cardo, north-south direction, and the decumanus maximus, the main east-west thoroughfare of this once-prominent port city of the Roman Empire in Africa. The city as well as the arch fell into ruin and was abandoned after barbarian invasions of the late 5th century. Justinian later appropriated Leptis Magna, utilizing sculpture from the arch in his great basilica .
The Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna, discovered in ruin after the First World War in 1928, once stood as a symbol of the Severan dynastic and militaristic program. When Giacomo Guidi discovered the arch, it was completely fragmented, showing only the base structure, buried underneath the sand. The grand arch, after extensive excavation and reconstruction, appeared to have been decorated in ornate deeply drilled floral and iconographic programs. The central arch made of a limestone core and a marble facing featured elaborately decorated panels. There are four primary frieze panels, depicting the imperial family in scenes of the triumph, procession, sacrifice, and Concordia Augustorum. With the claim to rule justified only by a military power, Septimius Severus worked to establish a dynasty and a dynastic succession, he therefore placed a significant emphasis on the role of his family and his future.
Beyond the central attic frieze, the arch is relatively uniform on all sides. Framed by eight Corinthian columns that support a broken pediment, the arch is ornate featuring the blending of Hellenistic elements. Not typical of Roman architecture, the Arch’s broken pediment draws from an eastern tradition extending from Asia to Palestine. Beside the columns are corinthian pilasters decorated in deep-drilled vine scrolls, between which are trophies supported by captive barbarians. All eight spandrels bear Victory holding a wreath and a palm branch, commemorative of the triumph. Above the columns is a frieze decorated with acanthus above, which is frieze of erotes holding garland. All four exterior faces share these basic decorative elements, varying only in the central frieze decoration.
The northeast frieze, facing the rival city of Leptis, Oea, depicts the triumph. Similar in representation to the arch of Titus and The Arch of Marcus Aurelius, the program depicts galloping horses with riders in an attempted illusionistic manner. Like Titus, the togatus are depicted in a horizontal field, showing vivid movement as the togatus riders are shown with great attention to the detail in the fabric of their togatus. In front of these is the chariot driven by a quadriga, or four horses shown in profile. They carry three central figures: Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and Geta, showing the dynastic succession.
As an element of legitimacy, Septimius Severus adopted himself into the Antonine family, therefore elements of their imperial arts perfectly attribute to his dynastic intentions. Although typical triumphal scenes depict a slave or Victory holding a crown above the victor, there is none present; instead, the chariot is decorated with images of Cyble, Hercules and Venus. The divine iconography aligns a contemporary scene with the divine, a symbolic program used by emperors such as Trajan as well as the alignment of both Roman and eastern deities. The Triumph is preceded by togatus accompanied by female captives.
A similar pictorial program is followed on the other relief friezes. The costuming is deeply drilled as to show the definition of the folding with little attention paid to the body forms underneath. While elements of the arch are “severan baroque”they do not adhere to the baroque ideology of motion. The other reliefs depict ritual and civic activities involving the family. This seeks to show the succession of the family, as well as the military successes against the Parthians. The repetition of captives shows the significance of the victories and the approval of the gods. Both Roman and Provincial gods are present in the relief scenes, seeking to declare the role the Severans would play in Rome and their desire to aid the Provinces.
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