Thursday, June 25, 2015


Susann S. Lusnia, Creating Severan Rome: The Architecture and Self-Image of L. Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211). Collection Latomus, 345. Bruxelles: Éditions Latomus, 2014. Pp. 293; 64 p. of plates. ISBN 9782870312926. €59.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Félix Racine, McGill University (

Version at BMCR home site

Septimius Severus was the most active builder at Rome since Hadrian and the city would have to wait one hundred years to see a similar, though not equivalent, level of activity under Maxentius. Most of Severus' building program was completed in ten years, between his return from the war against his rival Pescennius Niger in 195 and the Secular Games of 204, pointing to an effort to transform the urban landscape at a time of dynastic assertion. Lusnia's monograph aims to situate Severus' building activity within this political context by examining the role of architecture in Severan propaganda at Rome. As one of the first comprehensive treatments of Severan architecture, it doubles as a topographical guide to building activity at Rome at the turn of the third century.1

This study opens with two introductory chapters setting out the material and ideological framework of Severus' building activity. Chapter 1 offers a brief outline of the material and economic situation at Rome in 193 upon Severus' arrival in the city. The major factor influencing the emperor's building activity in the following years was the great fire at the end of Commodus' reign, which Lusnia persuasively dates to March 192 following evidence from Galen's newly rediscovered On Freedom from Distress, which describes the ravaged area as stretching from the Temple of the Peace through the Roman Forum to the Palatine. This extensive destruction provided an opportunity for Severus to embark on an ambitious building program (financed in no small part by confiscations of his rivals' and their supporters' property), which contributed to the economic renewal of the city following a slump in building activity under Commodus.

The second introductory chapter identifies the main themes of Severan 'propaganda', together with an acknowledgement that the term itself is difficult to apply to Roman society and the surviving material evidence. These themes are, in order of chronological appearance: a series of omens circulated to attest to Severus' imperial destiny; military victories over rivals and the Parthians, together with a military role for Julia Domna as mater castrorum; and a claim to the Antonine heritage through a retrospective adoption by Marcus Aurelius. Lusnia takes the issue of the coin type restitutor urbis in 200-201 as marking the moment when the city of Rome took a central place in Severus' propaganda effort, with several building projects underway contributing to the ongoing construction of the emperor's image. It should be noted that in Lusnia's view Severus held tight control of buildings' location, plan and imagery but the emperor's frequent absences from Rome and the number of officials involved in public works must have rendered the process more diffuse than is here acknowledged.2

The remaining chapters detail the development of Severan public architecture within this physical and ideological framework. Chapters 3 and 4 examine Severus' building activity in the Forum Romanum and the Campus Martius and develop two radically different theses. In Lusnia's view, the extensive rebuilding and refurbishing of the Forum Romanum in preparation for the triumphal festivities of 202 essentially turned it into a new imperial forum of Severus. This argument rests on four elements common to imperial fora: the arch of Severus creating a monumental entrance into a self-contained and repaved forum, the basilicas Aemilia and Julia standing in for the usual porticoes framing imperial fora, the restored temple of Vespasian inscribed with the names of Severus and Caracalla overlooking the plaza, and a centrally located equestrian statue of Severus. However, the location of Severus' equestrian statue remains in doubt and it is unclear that it would have eclipsed other statues populating the forum. Whatever the merits of the 'forum of Severus' hypothesis, the addition of the arch of Severus unquestionably added a degree of unity to the inner forum through the prevalence of Parthian imagery on the arches of Augustus and Severus and on the Basilica Aemilia. Refocusing this public space intrinsically linked to the Roman state and Roman identity onto Rome's eastern neighbors is a development that speaks volumes about the long arc of imperial imagination.3

In contrast, Lusnia argues that Severus' restorations in the Campus Martius followed more traditional lines and did not alter the layout of the area. However, a Severan takeover of sorts did take place in the Campus Martius: late antique and medieval evidence indicate that Severus' restoration of the Porticus Octaviae was extensive enough to alter its popular name to Porticus Severi (p. 101). More importantly, the Secular Games of 204 monopolized enough of the Campus Martius through the use of temporary wooden theaters as well as Domitian's Odeum and the theater of Pompey (refurbished by Severus with a new decorative program echoing current imperial imagery) as to turn the whole area into a place defined within living memory by rituals associated with the Severan dynasty. The setting up of a monument in the Tarentum commemorating the Severan games (p. 113) does not have the same disruptive quality as the extensive remodelling of Forum Romanum, but the effect is the same: a Severan takeover of the area through strategically located structures. In the end, the difference between Severus' impact on the Roman Forum and the Campus Martius may be less due to the ruler's intention than to the intrinsic difference between the two locales, which Lusnia underplays. The Campus Martius, unlike the Forum, was not built around a single focal point and any message conveyed by the ruler's building activity was by definition diffuse.

Chapter 5 shifts the analysis to two areas where Severus' building activity was relatively unconstrained by previous structures and traditions: the region southwest of the Palatine around the Porta Capena and the Quirinal. Lusnia sees the building of the Septizodium and the baths of Severus southwest of the Palatine as part of a new monumental zone celebrating the Severan dynasty to visitors entering Rome through the Porta Capena and travelling along the newly opened Via Nova (p. 123). Much of this interpretation rests on the assumption that the Via Nova was created by Severus rather than Caracalla, as is still often assumed. Lusnia also presents a plausible reconstruction of the Septizodium's decoration program advertizing the imperial family's fictional lineage as well as themes found on Severan coinage. On the Quirinal, the massive and short-lived Temple of Bacchus and Hercules possibly provided a cult center for the Severan dynasty, strategically positioned facing the nearby temples of Quirinus and of the Flavians. In view of these imposing monuments to the imperial family, the Arch of the Argentarii set up by a group of merchants in the Velabrum offers the opportunity to assess one set of private individuals' reception of Severan imagery. Two elements stand out: imperial portraits and sacrificial scenes closely echo roles assumed by members of the imperial household in contemporary public events such as Severus' decennalia and the Secular Games; and the prevalence of martial themes, underestimated until Lusnia's analysis, echoes similar imagery in public monuments and may point to economic opportunities for the arch's sponsors created by the increased military presence in Rome.

The emperor's residences in Rome and their transformation under Severus are the focus of chapter 6, chiefly the restoration and expansion of the Palatine complex. Severan building activity on the Palatine centers on the construction of a new wing to the east of the Flavian palace and the refashioning of Domitian's hippodrome garden as a connector between the palace and the new wing. Lusnia's suggestion that the building of the Severan wing coincided with a consolidation of the bureaucracy at Rome (p. 165) is attractive and plausible: work on the Severan wing began after 196 (p. 168) and significant changes to the bureaucracy took place around that date, notably the reorganization of the res priuata following massive confiscations of property from Pescenius Niger's and Clodius Albinus' supporters between 193 and 197 (SHA Seu. 12.4). An equally important contribution to the landscape of power at Rome is the construction of the Sessorian palace on the Esquiline Hill, begun under Severus but completed under Elagabalus and refashioned by later ruling families. Only the residential area of the palace and its bath complex were completed under Severus but Lusnia demonstrates the existence of a pre-existing Severan plan for the circus and amphitheater completed under Elagabalus (p. 177).

Chapter 7 discusses known Severan contributions to the economic, sanitary and military infrastructure at Rome, including the building of the new camp of the equites singulares, the renovation of the praetorian camp, the repair of warehouses in the Forum Romanum, and the upkeep of the banks of the Tiber. Lusnia justifies the inclusion of these activities in her study of architecture and political power on the grounds that they had a significant impact on the urban development of Rome, yet one senses a lost opportunity. These structures were not just built and restored for practical purposes, as Lusnia details, but were also in dialogue with other monuments either thematically or through the rhythms of city life. The new camp of the equites singulares, to take just one example, is seen here only as a product of the government's involvement in changing or preserving the physical aspect of the city. But the new, expanded military camp was also a monumental symbol of the emperor's military persona, in sync with the martial themes proclaimed in celebrations, on coins and on monuments discussed in previous chapters. Together with the newly renovated praetorian camp, it also framed Rome's eastern neighborhoods and was furthermore within striking distance of the new Sessorian palace.

These chapters are supplemented by a deceptively short appendix on buildings and monuments of doubtful location or attribution. In fact, Lusnia's analysis in chapters 3-7 frequently features structures that may not be Severan but are omitted from this appendix for narrative purposes. For example, water-mills lining the Aqua Traiana on the Janiculum (pp. 187-189) were built at some point in the third century and yet are discussed in chapter 7 as an illustration of Severus' interest in economic matters. Readers will undoubtedly come to different conclusions regarding the dating, location and even existence of these and other structures and may want to re-examine the evidence for themselves. Nevertheless, Lusnia's decision to discuss them all in one single monograph provides scholars with a useful list of buildings and monuments that have been attributed to Severus, supplemented by a rich collection of documentary sources on Severus' building program and more than a hundred maps and illustrations.


1.   A. Daguet-Gagey, Les opera publica à Rome (180-305 ap. J.-C.) (Paris, 1997) still offers a solid overview of public works in the broader period.
2.   Lusnia's view is based on a generous interpretation of Dig. concerning new buildings in the provinces (the status of restorations is uncertain), ignoring the injunctions at to inscribe the name of the emperor no matter who carried out a project funded by the imperial government.
3.   Parthians on the Severan and Augustan arches held quite different roles, however, as detailed by C. Rose, "The Parthians in Augustan Rome," AJA 109 (2005), 66-67.

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