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Lepcis Magna: Severan Basilica



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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Severan Basilica

The Severan Basilica is perhaps Lepcis' most famous monument, after the Arch of Severus. They belong together. The arch was offered to the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) on the occasion of his visit in 203, and the emperor responded by offering the basilica, which was part of a larger project of urban renewal that is, frankly, a bit unimaginative, although the decorated columns in the basilica are splendid.

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The basilica, which is inspired on the Basilica Ulpia in Rome, belongs to the Severan Forum, which in the southwest was closed by a Temple to the Septimius family, and in the northeast by the Severan Basilica. It was about 95 meters long and 35 wide, and was divided into three naves, which were separated from each other by rows of columns made of Egyptian purple granite. At the two ends were apses. This photo shows the southeastern apse, which has a slightly raised platform that may have been used by magistrates. This suggests that the basilica was used for (among other activities) legal hearings.


This little griffin is a remarkable addition to a typical column, as it is placed between the capital and the architrave. The inscription on the architrave (IRT 428) describes how Septimius Severus started to build the basilica. This part of the text is remarkable because many of the common abbreviations, like IMP, and numerals are spelled out in full. The second part mentions how Severus' son and successor Caracalla (211-217) finished the building.


IMPERATOR CAESAR LVCIVS SEPTIMIVS PIVS PERTINAX SEVERVS AVGvstvs ARABICVS ADIABENICVS PARTHICVS MAXIMVS BRITANNICVS MAXIMVS PONTIFEX MAXIMVS TRIBVNICIAE POTESTATIS DECEM ET OCTIES IMPERATOR DVODECIES COnSvl TER PATER PATRIAE PROCOnSvl COEPIT ET EX MAIORE PARTE PERFECIT (more...)
Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus, Pius, Pertinax, Augustus, Arabicus, Adiabenicus, Parthicus Maximus, Britannicus Maximus, pontifex maximus, in the eighteenth year of his tribunicial powers, twelve times imperator, three times consul, father of the fatherland, proconsul, began [this building] and completed the greatest part of it.


IMPeratoris CAESaris DIVI SEPTIMI SEVERI PII ARABICI ADIABENICI PARTHICI MAXIMI BRITANNICI MAXIMI FILIVS DIVI MARCI ANTONINI PII GERMANICI SARMATICVS NEPOS DIVI ANTONINI PII PRONEPOS DIVI HADRIANI ABNEPOS DIVI TRAIANI PARTHICI ET DIVI NERVAE ADNEPOS IMPerator CAESar MARCVS AVRELLIVS ANTONINVS PIVS AVGvstvs PARTHICVS MAXimvs BRITANNICVS MAXIMVS GERMANICVS MAXIMVS PONTIFEX MAXIMVS TRIBVNICIAE POTESTATIS DECEM et NOVIES IMPERATOR TER COnSvl QVATER PATER PATRIAE PROCnSvl PERFICI CVRAVIT
Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Pius, Augustus, Parthicus Maximus, Britannicus Maximus, Germanicus Maximus, pontifes maximus, in the nineteenth year of his tribunicial powers, three times imperator, four times consul, father of the fatherland, proconsul, son of the deified Emperor Caesar Septimius Severus, Pius, Arabicus, Adiabenicus, Parthicus Maximus, Britannicus Maximus, grandson of the deified Marcus Antoninus, Pius, Germanicus, Sarmaticus, great-grandson of the deified Antoninus Pius, great-great-grandson of the deified Hadrian, descendant of the deified Trajan Parthicus and the deified Nerva, ordered the completion [of this building].


At first sight, the inscription appears to date the beginning of the building to Septimius' last year, because his title Britannicus Maximus and his eighteenth year if tribunicial powers are mentioned, but the text was in fact written after his death, and the makers used the emperor's fullest titulature. The long title of Caracalla can be summarized to "completed in 216", but misses the point: in an age in which people could not read silently, someone reading the inscription would mention all titles of the emperor - showing of that he was capable of reading, and effectively legitimating Caracalla's rule.

In 533, the Byzantine general Belisarius ordered the basilica of Septimius Severus to be restored. It was converted into a church, dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God. This photo shows the pulpit, which was made from an old capital. There was also a baptistery, in the shape of a cross, but we forgot to make photos of it.


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Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 1 Jan. 2008
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