Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.04

Achim Lichtenberger, Severus Pius Augustus: Studien zur sakralen Repräsentation und Rezeption der Herrschaft des Septimius Severus und seiner Familie (193-211 n. chr.). Impact of empire, 14.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2011.  Pp. x, 478; 96 p. of plates.  ISBN 9789004201927.  $238.00.  

Reviewed by Clare Rowan, Goethe University (

This monograph, which represents the author's Habilitationsschrift, explores the sacral image of Septimius Severus and his family, as well as its ancient reception. Lichtenberger asks to what extent Severus' non-Roman origins influenced his reign, to what extent Severus' reign saw a tension between 'Roman' and 'non-Roman' values, and to what extent the emperor's sacral ideology was adopted in the provinces. Lichtenberger remains cautious throughout this exploration, providing a welcome voice of reason on many of the rather overenthusiastic interpretations of Severan material and ideology (e.g. pp. 245-6). Ultimately Lichtenberger concludes that the emperor's North African origins cannot be hidden, but this aspect of Severus' reign did not conflict with traditional Roman values. In this sense, we find in Lichtenberger's work a tempered presentation of Severus as an 'African' emperor.

Lichtenberger begins with a summary of scholarship to date and an overview of the ancient evidence. His introduction to the relevant ancient texts is cursory at best, but a more detailed overview of the coinage and other materials (e.g. gems) is provided. Lichtenberger then identifies the different ways a member of the imperial family may be connected with the divine: he/she might be shown to be under the protection of a particular deity, compared with a god, or assimilated to one. The last two categories are not easy to separate, but Lichtenberger emphasises the importance of studying imperial titulature, and argues that when a member of the imperial family is shown with a god's attribute, we should consider him/her assimilated to the god in question (p. 25).

Then comes easily the longest chapter in the book, Di Patrii, where Lichtenberger explores the role of Liber Pater, Hercules and other 'African' deities in the reign of Severus. Lichtenberger demonstrates that the Punic antecedents of Liber Pater and Hercules were still acknowledged in the Severan period, and then goes on to detail the evidence regarding the role these two gods played in Severus' rule. The evidence is set out according to genre (e.g. coin evidence, followed by epigraphic evidence, followed by gems, etc). This has the unfortunate consequence of reading much like a catalogue, and a reader who wishes to know about , for example, the role of ‘African’ deities in the Saecular Games, will be forced to consult several different sections (e.g. pp. 51, 66-9, 80), and the author himself is often forced to refer back to evidence presented much earlier. A thematic discussion of the evidence may have been better than the catalogue-style format. But the willing reader is rewarded. To the impressive list of material collected this reviewer can make only two small comments. One issue of Nicaea might be added to the list of provincial coinage: the coin shows a goddess standing between Hercules and Liber Pater (Lindgren Collection I, 143) and is an obvious response to imperial ideology. And in his discussion of the epigraphic evidence from Petra (p. 69), the author might have mentioned that the governor responsible (Q. Aiacus Modestus) was an officiating priest at the saecular games, adding a further nuance to this particular "reception" of imperial ideology.

Lichtenberger sees an 'African' slant on coinage at the beginning of Severus' reign, which he suggests may have been aimed at securing the support of an 'African' party (p. 172). The existence of such a party remains, as Lichtenberger himself admits, controversial. The author provides a context for this discussion by considering the sacral image and building programme of every non-Roman emperor from Nero to Galerian. This overview identifies two distinct phases: those emperors before Elagabalus, who integrate their home deities into the Roman pantheon and whose hometown building programmes might be interpreted as public displays of pietas, and those rulers who come after. The activities of Elagabalus meant that the introduction of a new god into the Roman pantheon was discredited, and so emperors restricted themselves to traditional Roman deities. But building programmes in imperial hometowns continued, taking on a more imperial aspect (with the construction of palaces and other official imperial buildings), which Lichtenberger links with the growing importance of the Illyrian soldier base as a source of power, and a sense of 'regionality'. Lichtenberger places Severus somewhere between these two phases: though his embellishment of Lepcis Magna might be interpreted as an act of pietas, his coinage appears to target an 'African' home region, similar to what occurs later under the Illyrian emperors.

Lichtenberger notes that Hercules and Liber Pater (Dionysus) also had 'Roman' associations: he argues that the presentation of the gods individually on coinage, rather than together, is connected to Severus' adoption into the Antonine dynasty, which saw a toning down of 'African' associations.1 In general Lichtenberger might have done more to address the multiple associations these and other deities may have had, and the extent to which the viewer would have seen them (and other initiatives of Severus, like the Septizodium) as 'African'. Much of the contextualisation of material as 'African' is done with the use of later Latin sources, which are not necessarily the most reliable.Within the same lengthy chapter Lichtenberger examines the evidence for the imperial family's association with Dea Caelestis, Aesculapius-Eshmun, and Sarapis. Here the assessment of the evidence is mainly negative (and rightly so), but Lichtenberger notes that the Severan restoration of the Serapeum in Rome means the idea that Severus' portrait consciously recalled that of Sarapis cannot be ruled out (p. 120).2

In the third chapter Conservator Augusti Lichtenberger explores the role of Jupiter and Juno. Again a full catalogue of evidence is presented, with Lichtenberger concluding that there is not much evidence to suggest that Severus was assimilated to Jupiter during his reign, or that he used Jupiter differently to preceding emperors. The representation of the emperor with the aegis of Jupiter is interpreted as a sign of the god's protection.

In chapter 4, Aeternitas Imperii, Lichtenberger explores the assimilation of the imperial family to Sol and Luna. Here, Lichtenberger argues, there was a direct assimilation to the gods. This is clear enough from the numismatic evidence. The author's assertion that Severus is represented as Sol on the reverse of one imperial issue (RIC 102) is let down by the poor reproduction of the coin in question: the coin, represented 1:1, is too small to allow the reader to see if the god really is shown with Severus' trademark divided beard (p. 223). Overall the book would have benefited from larger reproductions where there were particular points of iconography in question, or where the original is very small (e.g. image 65. Overall the quality of the plates is mixed, since many images are taken directly from other published works). In contrast to previous chapters, Lichtenberger finds significant amounts of provincial evidence to support his theme here, particularly provincial coinage. Radiate and lunar crowns appear to have been used by cities that were particularly favoured by Severus (p. 240), and might be seen as a panegyric-style honour for the emperor. A lengthy discussion of the Septizodium in Rome is also presented: Lichtenberger suggests that a surviving sculptural fragment may represent a lion, and hence Africa (p. 259). He suggests the Septizodium may have come from a 'North African milieu', but notes that, in view of the paucity of evidence, the surviving piece of sculpture may also reference the Tigris and the Parthian War.

In the following chapter, Restitutor Urbis, Lichtenberger explores the possible associations created by the Severan building programme in Rome. Though variations on the restitutor theme are known under earlier emperors, Lichtenberger argues that under Severus the message became more personalised and connected with the person of the emperor. The author only explores cultic buildings in detail, but a list of all Severan building activity in Rome is provided at the end of the book. Lichtenberger sees in Severus' building programme a mixture of 'North African' and 'Roman'. Particular focus is given to the rebuilding of the temple of Pax after the fire of AD 192, and the resulting Forma Urbis. Lichtenberger speculates as to whether some of Severus' coinage with Pax referred to the rebuilding of this area of Rome, but the evidence ultimately remains uncertain, since Pax could also refer to the cessation of war, as Lichtenberger notes (p. 300). A coin of Domna is used to demonstrate an assimilation of the empress to Pax (RIC 588). In view of the legend on this coin (which refers to Domna’s role as mother of the empire and in no way references Pax), one wonders whether or not a more generic reference to the divinity of the empress was meant. The image, combined with the legend, may have held multiple associations for the viewer.

The final chapter examines familial representations of the dynasty. Here there is a large amount of evidence, with provincial numismatic representations of the family listed at the back as an appendix. Spoerri Butcher suggested that for Asia Minor under Gordian III different denominations were given different portraits of the imperial family;3 this may explain the variety of representations on provincial coinage under the Severans, but Lichtenberger provides only a brief overview of the evidence (p. 342), meaning that more detailed interpretations must be left for future research. Lichtenberger identifies instances of the assimilation of members of the imperial family to a variety of gods and goddesses in the provinces (notably in the Peloponnese), noting that most of these instances stem from local contexts and concern the imperial women, Domna and Plautilla. Lichtenberger admits that the liberty taken by eastern cities in assimilating the imperial women to the divine is not easy to explain, but suggests that the image of Domna as mater castrorum was not as specific as the emperor's public image and might have led to a variety of interpretations in the east of the Empire (p. 378).

In his conclusion Lichtenberger emphasises the stark regionality of local representations of the imperial house, and notes that although Jupiter, Liber Pater and Hercules acted as tutelary deities in Severus' reign, the emperor was really assimilated only with Sol (p 382). He argues that Severus presented a mixture of both the Roman and the African in his reign. In his exploration Lichtenberger brings together an astounding amount of evidence (including seals, gems, cameos, coins, inscriptions and sculpture), meaning that his book will be a central reference work in the field for a long time to come. I have presented some small quibbles here, but overall Lichtenberger takes a considered approach to the evidence and presents varied images of the Severan dynasty, in which the variations in and between official and local representations is clearly displayed.


1.   In the discussion of these individual representations Lichtenberger might have noted the work of Desnier, who argued that the single representation of Liber Pater on Severus' coinage drew on the god's traditional associations with the East, and was used for Severus' war against Niger, while the single representation of Hercules, civiliser of the West, was used in Severus' war against Albinus in this region. J.-L. Desnier (1994) 'Septime Sévère, rassembleur de l'Orbis Romanus', in L'Afrique, la Gaule, la Religion à l'époque romaine. Mélanges à la mémoire de Marcel Le Glay, ed. Y. L. Bohec. Bruxelles: 752-66.
2.   I see no reason why the Severan restoration of a sanctuary should trump the very sensible work of earlier scholars, who have dismissed the Severus-Sarapis idea and instead emphasised a reference to Antonine portraiture. See for example, D. Baharal (1989) 'Portraits of the Emperor L. Septimius Severus (193-211 A.D.) as an Expression of his Propaganda', Latomus 48: 566-80.
3.   M. Spoerri-Butcher, (2006) Roman Provincial Coinage VII.1. London: 71

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