Arch of Septimius Severus


  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen in severischer Zeit (um 210 n.Chr.), topographischer Kontext
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen in tetrarchischer Zeit (um 310 n.Chr.), topographischer Kontext
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen (203 n.Chr.)
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen, diocletianischer Umbau (spätes 3. Jh. / frühes 4. Jh. n.Chr.)
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen in severischer Zeit (um 210 n.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen in tetrarchischer Zeit (um 310 n.Chr.), topographischer Überblick

Constructed: 203 A.D.

Alterations: changes to the accessibility of the arches in the late 3rd or early 4th century A.D.

Function: honorific arch

Historical Context: Severan Tetrarchic

The erection of the monumental honorific arch for Septimius Severus must have had a profound impact. For over a hundred years, no substantial alterations had been made to the Forum, because the Emperors of the Antonine dynasty rarely used it as a space for spectacular Imperial self-representation (see Antonine). With the ascendancy of the Severan dynasty, this situation shifted dramatically: They ambitiously sought to put the Forum to use again in order to enhance their prestige. Nothing exemplifies this more clearly than the Arch of Septimius Severus on the west side of the Forum.

History and Ideology

Dominating the western border of the Forum, the structure possesses three archways and has survived nearly in its entirety. It was erected at the behest of the Senate in 203 A.D. in honour of the Emperor Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta. There are two reasons for the erection of this honorific monument: The dedicatory inscription on the attic of the arch states that Septimius Severus received this honour because he “restored the state and extended the empire of the Roman people” (OB REM PVBLICAM RESTITVTAM IMPERIVQVE POPVLI PROPAGATVM). This inscription is referring to two of Septimius Severus’ accomplishments that had shaped his first years in office: He ended the civil war by prevailing over his opponents and securing the Imperial rule for himself (193 and 195 – 197 A.D.); and he conducted a successful campaign against the Parthians (195 and 197/8 A.D.), which led to the creation of the new provinces of Mesopotamia and Osroene. This striking attempt to associate his victories in domestic as well foreign affairs through an ostentatious celebration of the Emperor as the saviour of the state is a clear giveaway: It shows how much Septimius Severus relied on Imperial representation to compensate for the missing legitimacy of his claim to power (he had usurped the throne, after all).

Also characteristic of the Imperial ideology of Septimius Severus was the additional presence of his sons Caracalla and Geta, who were represented on the arch – both in the inscription and the decoration. This was supposed to symbolise the harmony and legacy of the new Imperial dynasty and the permanent peace that the Severans guaranteed the Roman people. Of course, the vision that was promised here only partly became reality. After the founding figure of the dynasty, Septimius Severus, had died in 211 A.D., Caracalla had his brother Geta murdered – the harmony within the Severan dynasty was shattered. Caracalla erased Geta from the public’s memory by having Geta’s name and portrait removed (damnatio memoriae) from the inscription and ornamentation of the arch. But the Severan dynasty was to retain its dominant position: Until 235 A.D. the Severans occupied the Imperial throne.

Function and Topographical Associations

First and foremost, the Arch of Septimius Severus was meant to enhance the prestige of the imperial dynasty. As is the case with all other arch monuments, its primary purpose consisted of raising the statue of the honoured Emperor high into the air and making it stand out from all the other honorific statues and monuments – symbolising a unique honour in response to equally unique accomplishments. The Arch of Septimius Severus achieved this in an impressive fashion. The arch towered above all other honorific arches and monuments on the Forum due to its extraordinary monumentality (with a height of over 20 m) and nearly overshadowed the entire Forum.

The choice of location was similarly ingenious: Located north of the Rostra Augusti, the arch towered between the speaker’s platform and the area of the Comitium. Thus, it occupied a space which was regarded as a highly prestigious location for political self-representation: Already during the Republic, the magnificent monuments of the victorious and triumphant generals had stood along the Comitium – and possibly also the earlier honorific monuments of Augustus (Columnae rostratae Augusti and Actian Arch). Also remarkable about the location of the Arch of Septimius Severus was that it allowed the arch to tower directly above the prominent route of the Sacra Via, the most important processional way in Rome, in the area of the Comitium. The arch occupied one of the most important points on this route, and all of the triumphal processions proceeded on this street across the Forum. In this respect, the arch also functioned as a passageway. That the prestigious and not the functional nature of the arch stood in the forefront can be seen by the fact that one could only walk through the arch via steps in the Severan period, thus limiting its functionality. The middle passage was only made accessible through a road ramp during the Tetrarchy (for the individual phases, see below).

The self-representational claim of the Arch of Septimius Severus was increased through its topographical connection to other structures. To the south it engaged in dialogue with the Arch of Tiberius, to the southeast with the Parthian Arch of Augustus. It is especially this contrasting juxtaposition with the Parthian Arch (which also had three archways and was situated diagonally across from the Arch of Septimius Severus) opened up further ideological potential: Just as the arch of Augustus had displayed his victory over the Parthians, which was regarded as an important precondition for the ensuing time of peace (aurea aetas) and the restoration of the state, this new arch (which was erected 200 years later) was meant to evoke the same effect. Thus, Septimius Severus was compared with the first Emperor of Rome and portrayed as the true heir to the Imperial legacy of Augustus.

Decoration of the Arch

The rich decoration of the arch referenced Septimius Severus’ victory over the Parthians and therefore featured victories over foreign rather than inner enemies. According to the depictions on contemporary coins, a group of statutes was located on top of the attic: In the centre stood the Emperor and both of his sons in the triumphal chariot, which was being pulled by six horses (instead of the normal four); equestrian statues flanked the chariot.

The magnificent relief ornamentation covering the actual arch also highlights the military victories of Septimius Severus and his sons. In both of the spandrels above the central archway the victory goddess Victoria is displayed; she is portrayed holding a Parthian victory trophy (recognisable by means of the Parthian clothing) in her hand. They symbolically present these symbols of victory to the god of war, Mars, who is prominently portrayed on the keystones of the central arch. Above both of the side archways massive reliefs are situated on both sides showing the siege and ultimate capitulation of several of the cities in the course of the campaigns against the Parthians. The Emperor himself is depicted in all four scenes. A narrow frieze below the reliefs displays the triumphal procession for the victory over the Parthians. On the pedestals of the eight columns (four on every side) framing the entrances there are reliefs on all visible sides depicting Roman soldiers with captured Parthians.

Ruin and Reconstruction

Because the Arch of Septimius Severus was integrated into a fortress during the Middle Ages, its structure has survived nearly in its entirety (for images of its present-day condition, see below). This enables us to develop a very authentic understanding of the historical effect of this monumental arch on the ancient Forum. Uncertainties as to the reconstruction of the structure merely arise in the area of the three archways with regard to their accessibility: Here the former Severan configuration of the structure was upset by modifications carried out in the Tetrarchy.


Phase 1

  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen in severischer Zeit (um 210 n.Chr.), topographischer Kontext
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen (203 n.Chr.)
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen (203 n.Chr.)
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen in severischer Zeit (um 210 n.Chr.), topographischer Überblick

Severan Arch

Because the arch (erected in 203 A.D.) has survived in good condition, its overall structure can be reconstructed fairly reliably. First built out of travertine and bricks and then later faced with marble, the arch is 20.88 m high, 23.27 m wide and 11.20 m long. The arch possesses three archways: a large one measuring 12.17 m high and 6.77 m wide in the middle, and two smaller ones on each side, both of which are 7.70 m high and 2.97 m wide. Four pilasters as well as four pillars standing in front of them visually separate the three archways on each side. The attic, which is situated on the actual arch zone, is 5.54 m high. Both sides of the attic are decorated with the same inscription. Although the original bronze letters have not survived, the text of the inscription can be reconstructed based on the incisions that were made to install them:


To the Imperator Caesar Septimius Severus, son of Marcus, Pius Pertinax Augustus, father of his country, conqueror of the Parthians in Arabia and Assyria, Pontifex Maximus, holder of tribunician power eleven times, acclaimed imperator eleven times, consul three times, and proconsul; and to the Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, son of Lucius, Augustus Pius Felix, holder of tribunician power six times, consul, proconsul, father of his country, the best and bravest of the princeps, on account of the restoration of Republic and the enlargement of the Empire of the Roman people by their outstanding virtues at home and abroad, the Senate and the Roman people dedicate this arch.

The statues were situated on the attic and depicted the Emperor and his sons in the triumphal chariot.

Due to the rising terrain on the west side of the Forum, the east side of the arch was situated above the normal walking level of the adjoining Forum area. This difference in height was compensated through the addition of steps, which descended from the elevated position of the archways down to the Forum area.

Phase 2

  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen in tetrarchischer Zeit (um 310 n.Chr.), topographischer Kontext
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen, diocletianischer Umbau (spätes 3. Jh. / frühes 4. Jh. n.Chr.)
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen, diocletianischer Umbau (spätes 3. Jh. / frühes 4. Jh. n.Chr.)
  • Septimius-Severus-Bogen in tetrarchischer Zeit (um 310 n.Chr.), topographischer Überblick

Changes during the Tetrarchy

During the Tetrarchy, the ground level in front of the Arch of Septimius Severus was lowered on the east side yet again. Thus, in order to maintain the accessibility of the arch, a paved street similar to a ramp was added leading up to the walking level of the middle archway. The steps in the side archways, however, were carved more deeply into the foundations of the arch, making them longer in order to compensate for the change in level.

A more detailed discussion and scholarly reconstruction can be found in the wiki of the digital Forum Romanum (Erika Holter, Alexander Osterloh)


Selected Bibliography

R. Brilliant, The Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 29 (Rome 1967).

R. Brilliant, Arcus: Septimius Severus (Forum), in: E.M. Steinby (ed.), Lexicon Topograpicum Urbis Romae I (Rome 1993) 103-105.

A. Cooley, Septimius Severus. The Augustan Emperor, in: S. Swain – S. Harrison – J. Elsner (ed.), Severan Culture (Cambridge/Mass. 2007) 385-397, esp. 394-395.

S. De Maria, Gli archi onorari di Roma e dell’Italia romana (Rome 1988) 305-307.

Digital Roman Forum, Arcus Septimii Severi,

D. Favro, Construction Traffic in Imperial Rome: Building the Arch of Septimius Severus, in: R. Laurence – D.J. Newsome (ed.), Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (Oxford 2011) 332-360.

C. F. Giuliani – P. Verduchi, L’Area Centrale del Foro Romano (Florence 1987) 35-38.

I. Rollé Ditzler, Senat und Severer in Rom – Formen medialer Präsenz, in: S. Faust – F. Leitmeir (ed.), Repräsentationsformen in severischer Zeit (München 2011) 220-252, bes. 229-234.