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Lepcis Magna: Arch of Septimius Severus (1)

Lepcis Magna: Phoenician colony, later part of the Carthaginian empire, the kingdom of Massinissa, and the Roman empire. Its most famous son was the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211).
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Arch of Septimius Severus

This is the Arch of Septimius Severus, seen here from the southwest, as one would have seen it when one approached the city of Lepcis Magna from the countryside. You are looking along the Cardo to the northeast; the arch in the distance was dedicated to Trajan. Severus' arch was erected for Lepcis' most famous son, the man who was emperor of Rome from 193 to 211.

The monument cannot be dated precisely, but it is likely that the citizens of Lepcis started the construction as soon as possible: immediately after their fellow citizen had become emperor and had stabilized the Empire after the wars of the Year of the Five Emperors (193). This is confirmed by the fact that the defeated enemies, so common on an honorific arch, are Parthians, who had been defeated twice by Severus at the beginning of his reign., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine

Had the arch been erected later, we would have seen African Garamantes, who were pacified in 201/202 and against whom the Limes Tripolitanus was built. (The forts at Bu Njem, Gheriat el-Garbia, and Ghadames were built at this time.) This photo shows the southwest face ("frieze D"), which represents a familiar theme from the imperial propaganda: Concordia.

The central scene shows the friendship (concordia) within the imperial family: the emperor is shown shaking hands with his sons, Caracalla and Geta (the head is a replica; the original was stolen by an allied soldier during the Second World War). To the left we can see the empress, Julia Domna, and to the far left is the goddess Roma. The two men to the right are the praetorian prefect, Plautianus, and the emperor's brother Publius Septimius Geta.

Caracalla is shown as a tall young man, not quite grown-up, and this offers a clue for the moment of completion of the arch: in the early 200's, when he was about sixteen, seventeen. This coincides with the emperor's visit to Lepcis Magna in 202-203, when he rebuilt many monuments in his hometown, like the Severan Forum, the Basilica, the Temple of the Septimians, and the Port.

On this photo, we see some of the citizens of Lepcis Magna. If we assume that constructing the arch lasted from 194 to 202, we cannot be very far from the truth. Eight years, however, is a long time, especially when we take into account that the core of the four piers was already there. This can be deduced from the fact that it is made of local limestone, found at Ras el-Hamman. The quarries, however, were closed by the age of Septimius Severus, and we must therefore  assume that the inner structure is older, and was merely redecorated. This is confirmed by the fact that the limestone was measured in Punic cubits, which had been replaced by Roman feet before the age of Severus. Perhaps, the work was interrupted, and hurriedly completed when the emperor announced his visit.

This may also explain the different quality of artwork. Several reliefs are beautifully carved, like the column on the picture below, and other parts of the decoration look like routine work by artists who were certainly talented but no geniuses. However, many details will for some time remain unclear, because the arch as we see it today is essentially a reconstruction. The foundations and part of the structure were excavated in the 1920's, but many parts the decoration have been found elsewhere. It is likely that the missing parts of the Concordia frieze are still buried somewhere near the arch, as you can see on this photo. For the time being, however, the exact chronology of the construction of this monument will remain unclear.

The overall design is daringly baroque, although it is not completely novel. In the first place, it faces four directions (quadrifrons), and not two. This is not unique but rare, although a similar arch, dedicated to Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, can be found in the nearby city of Oea (modern Tripoli). As always, we can see captive barbarians on the sockles, trophies on the pier itself and Victories in the spandrels. However, the broken pediment in the upper part is very unusual, and so is the extensive (but poorly preserved) decoration underneath the groin vault, which matches the frieze in the attic.

Here is one of the captive barbarians. The combination of tunica, mantle, and trousers betray that he is a Parthian. Next to him is a splendid representation of a vine with grapes.

The same themes, but now on the opposing corner: a female captive, vines, and grapes. The latter is an extremely common motif in Lepcis Magna, because one of the city's two protective deities was Shadrapa, a Phoenician healing god who was usually associated with Dionysus or Liber Pater, gods associated with the cult of wine. Vines and grapes can be seen everywhere in the city. The other protective god was Milkashtart, a hypostasis of the macho god Melqart associated with the goddess of love, Astarte. The Greeks and Romans believed that Melqart was identical to Hercules, and he figures on the arch of Septimius Severus as well.
Above the female captive, one can discern this trophy, the ancient Greek system for victory. We can see a helmet, two shields, two tunics, and greaves. The hexagonal shields are not Parthian; they were popular among the tribal warriors from Germania. As we have already seen, there is a striking disparity in quality, and the core of the four piers is older than the decoration. It is possible, but far-fetched, that the arch was originally designed to celebrate the Parthian victory of Lucius Verus (161-169) and the Germanic wars of his co-ruler Marcus Aurelius (161-180).
In the spandrels, we can see the winged Victories that are part of almost any Roman triumphal arch (an exception is the arch of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus in Tripoli, which is decorated with griffins). Like the other original reliefs on this page, it is today in the Archaeological Museum in Tripoli, which has an entire room dedicated to the Arch of Septimius Severus.
This is the second Victory on the southwestern face. She carries a laurel wreath and a palm branch. The combination of conventional themes and unusual, almost rococo elements like the broken pediment suggest that the designer was born somewhere in the eastern provinces of the empire, where this type of decoration was less uncommon than in Italy.
Finally, a photo of the broken pediment and some high quality decoration, again  from the southwestern face.

Like the arch at Oea, the corners of the monument at Lepcis Magna were directed to the four corners of the compass. The groin vault to which the four gates gave access, covered the crossroads of the main streets of the city, the Cardo (which leads from the center out of town) and the Decumanus, the road along the coast that started in Alexandria in Egypt and continued to Carthage and beyond. In other words, this was the point where all roads from Lepcis Magna began, and distances were measured from the arch. Indeed, there is a milestone at a stone's throw from the arch.

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© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 28 May 2007
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