Tour of Severan Rome

October 20, 2013 at 9:41 pm (Art History)

Severan Rome – Late Empire

Welcome to Rome in the Late Empire!  Before we start our tour, we just need to go over a few ground rules.  It is imperative that the group stays together at all times.  Both the Roman economy and authority are crumbling.  Safety can only be assured if we stay together.  Secondly, beware the rhetoric of Eastern zealots, especially Christians.  The religious conviction of many of the city’s inhabitants is also declining.  Ok, now that we’ve dispensed with formalities, on to the tour!  We are now at the start of the Severan dynasty.  Our fearless emperor, Septimius Severus, took power in 193 CE, after a period of civil war.  He aligned himself with the Antonine dynasty by claiming Marcus Aurelius to be his father.  This was an ingenious ploy in a time of civil unrest, just between you and me.  Here is a tempera on wood tondo, or circular portrait, of Emperor Severus and his family from 200 CE.

Tempera on wood tondo of the family of Septimius Severus

Tempera on wood tondo of the family of Septimius Severus

Our emperor is depicted with the loose hair and beard of his declared “father” and the grey highlights of his increasing years.  His family is also pictured—his beautiful wife, Julia Domna and two sons, Geta and Caracalla.  Geta’s face was removed as damnatio memoriae, during the reign of his brother, Caracalla.  Let’s move forward to that time now…

Caracalla became emperor after his father’s death in 211 CE.  As a political maneuver, he had both his brother and wife executed.  The emperor’s distrustful disposition is well demonstrated by this next piece, a marble portrait (211-217 CE).

Marble portrait of Caracalla

Marble portrait of Caracalla

The artist brilliantly captured Caracalla’s inner turmoil through facial expression and tension.  As we move forward within the Severan dynasty, the emperor’s misgivings are substantiated when he is assassinated in 217 CE.  Three more Severan emperors suffer the same fate, culminating with Alexander Severus in 235 CE, but let’s focus on the beauty they left behind.

The most elaborate recreational complex in Rome is known as the Baths of Caracalla (212-216 CE).  They feature monstrous, vaulted chambers for a series of three baths—the tepidarium (warm/3), caldarium (hot/4) and frigidarium (cold/2).  The dome and drum enclosing the caldarium rival those of the Pantheon!

Plan of the Baths at Caracalla

Plan of the Baths at Caracalla

Other amenities include relaxing gardens, lecture halls and libraries (6) for exercising the brain, palaestras (5) for exercising the body and an enormous natatio (1) for swimming.  We’ll take a break here, so you can enjoy the facilities.

Everyone relaxed?  Great!  Now, let’s take a brief detour across the Mediterranean to the origin of the Severan family, Lepcis Magna, in modern day Libya.  The Severans made improvements to the city during the late second and early third centuries, including an updated harbor, forum, basilica and this lovely monument, the Arch of Septimius Severus (203 CE).

Arch of Septimius Severus

Arch of Septimius Severus

The monument’s attics include friezes on all four sides.  Let’s take a closer look at the frieze illustrating the emperor’s chariot procession.

Chariot Procession of Septimius Severus

Chariot Procession of Septimius Severus

As a reaction to the political and economic discord of the Late Empire, the sculptors departed from Classical traditions to adopt stylistic elements usually only seen in the art of freed slaves.  There is very little fluidity to the piece.  The emperor and his sons seem to break the fourth wall by addressing the viewer and the second row of figures appears to float behind the first.  This artistic reform will later become known as the Late Antique Style.

As we return to Rome after the fall of the Severan dynasty, I want to remind everyone to stay with the group and keep your cameras and other articles secure.  We will be navigating through about 500 years of political upheaval.  There is no architectural development during this time, but sculptors and engravers can barely keep up with the ever-changing line of “soldier emperors.”  Each general overthrows the last and the artists scramble to replace existing busts and coinage in order to legitimize the new ruler.  These intricate works, such as this portrait bust of Trajan Decius (249-251 CE), reflect the torment and insecurity of the crumbling empire.

Portrait bust of Trajan Decius

Portrait bust of Trajan Decius

The furrowed lines and appearance of nervous exhaustion are masterfully carved from the marble.  Another relevant piece is this bronze sculpture of Trebonianus Gallus (251-253 CE).  The short-lived emperor’s expression and body type reject the idealized form of earlier, Greek-inspired art.

Heroic portrait of Trebonianus Gallus

Heroic portrait of Trebonianus Gallus

During this troubled century, Romans have abandoned the funerary practice of cremation in favor of burial.  Here are two examples of ornate sarcophagi, which continue to reject Classical conventions and also shed some light on philosophical diversions from troubled times.

Ludovisi Sarcophagus

Ludovisi Sarcophagus

The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus (250-260 CE), as it will later come to be known, depicts a tumultuous battle between the Romans and one of their barbarian rivals.  The figures are literally piled on top of each other with no reference to space or scenery.  The unarmed central figure is believed to be the son of Trajan Decius, who became involved with a mystery cult of Mithras.  Oriental mystery cults grow in popularity as a form of escapism during this period, while other citizens immerse themselves in knowledge and philosophy.

Sarcophagus of a Philosopher

Sarcophagus of a Philosopher

The sarcophagus of a philosopher (270-280 CE) portrays the deceased frontally-oriented and in the role of a sage.  The scholar is between two women, who give him their full attention.  This configuration is very popular during this time and will become common on Christian sarcophagi.

How about a short hiatus from political disorder?  Let’s move forward to the social order of Diocletian’s tetrarchy, 293-305 CE.  In an effort to curb civil unrest, the new emperor Diocletian, names his three greatest rivals co-emperors.  This tetrarchy, known as Augustus of the East and West and Caesar of the East and West, is demonstrated by this porphyry (purple marble) portrait of the tetrarchs (305 CE).

Portraits of the four tetrarchs

Portraits of the four tetrarchs

This piece is interesting because the emperors have lost all sense of individuality.  The virtually identical figures are symbolic of the equal power of the rulers.  Their only distinguishing features are the beards present on the two older Augusti and the somewhat abstract style represents a complete departure from earlier works.  Diocletian retired in 305 CE.  The remaining rulers were unable to maintain political stability and the empire regressed to its previous chaotic state.  There is no need for the tour to enter a dangerous situation again.  Instead, let’s follow Diocletian into retirement in his hometown of Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia).  The former emperor had an elaborate palace built with fortified walls, major avenues and a colonnaded court.  The whole palace has a temple-like feel  so Diocletian can indulge his innate god complex.

Restored view of Palace of Diocletian

Restored view of Palace of Diocletian

I hope you all have enjoyed our tour of Severan and post-Severan Rome.  Please take the shuttle to your left to join the tour of the Constantine Empire.

Source:

Kleiner, Fred S.  Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.  Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.  Print.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: