Aphrodisias, Divine Kinship and the Accession of Septimius Severus and Caracalla

Septimius Severus and Caracalla confirm the privileged polity and laws of Aphrodisias, a city that celebrated their dynastic victories and was closely related to the empire of Rome.
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Imperial letter
Original Location/Place: 
Theatre of Aphrodisias, on the so-called “archive wall” (see commentary)
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
198 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Column 5 of a large epigraphic monument containing documents confirming the privileged status of Aphrodisias. The left side is almost complete but the right side is broken and largely lost.

156 centimetres in width and 18 centimetres in length. Letters are on average 1.8 centimetres tall.

Roman, Greek

156 centimetres in width and 18 centimetres in length. Letters are on average 1.8 centimetres tall.


Aphrodisias was a city located in the inner Anatolian region of Caria, and became a staunch supporter of Rome’s expansion during the late Republican period. This is confirmed by documents concerned with the Mithridatic wars, and especially the triumviral period (see Reynolds, Aphrodisias and Rome). Octavian strove to reward Aphrodisias’s loyalty, and, in the year 39/8 BCE, the Roman Senate decreed that this community was “a friend and ally of the Roman people” (amicus sociusque populi Romanorum = φίλη τε καὶ σύμμαχος τοῦ δήμου τοῦ Ῥωμαίων), confirming a broad range of benefits: e.g. special tax immunity, exemption from hosting Roman officials in the city’s territory, and asylum status for the local sanctuary of Aphrodite. All these texts were carved on a wall of the theatre as part of a larger collection of letters, mostly exchanged between the Aphrodisians and the Roman authorities. The so-called “archive-wall” (Reynolds, Aphrodisias and Rome, p. 33-143; cf. Jones, “Review”; and Kokkinia, “The Design”) contains therefore documents from the end of the Republic until the 3rd century CE, the point at which it was collectively set up based on the similarity in the letter forms to others in this period, and the arrangement of the epigraphic monument. The letter of Septimius Severus and Caracalla arises from this context, and will allow us to illustrate the constant diplomatic exchanges circulating between Roman emperors and provincial communities, especially those that could claim kinship ties with the ruling power.

The names of Severus and Caracalla (Ἀντωνεῖνος/Antôneinos) appear heavily abbreviated in the first line, indicating that the inscription was probably not carved during their reign. The series of Aphrodisian institutions receiving the letter, by contrast, seems to be recorded in full, despite the fragmentary state of the right side of the inscription. By addressing the magistrates (ἄρχοντες/archontes), council (βουλή/boulê) and assembly (ἐκκλησία/ekklêsia), the emperors aimed to share their message with the entire civic population of the polis as was customary in the communications between Rome and the Greek East. Hence, the date of this exchange cannot be deduced from titulature and must be inferred from the episodes that motivated the epistolary exchange. The Aphrodisians are commended for rejoicing (ἡσθέντες/hêsthentes) at the imperial victory over “insolent” (θρασυνόμενοι/thrasynomenoi) Barbarians. This incident naturally refers to the military confrontation between Rome and the Parthians, which came to an end after Septimius Severus and Caracalla conquered the Mesopotamian capital of Ctesiphon. A military papyrus from Dura Europos – under Roman control since the previous Antonine campaign – dates the Victoria Parthica of the Severansto the 28th January 198 CE (P. Dura 54, l. 14-16), and the new imperial dynasty took this opportunity to strengthen its monarchic grip. After the civil wars ensuing Commodus’s assassination, Septimius Severus could finally proclaim his absolute rule, and Caracalla was promoted to the rank of Augustus. This dynastic development underlies the reference to the “paternal partnership” (πατρῴα κοινωνία/patrôa koinônia) made in line 3 of the inscription. Following his imperial promotion, Caracalla presents himself in first person (εἰς ἐμέ/eis emé)as the authority issuing the letter, even though he was just a 10-year-old still receiving formal instruction in Greek from sophists such as Aelius Antipater. The propagandistic message of this communication is consequently clear, but the Severans should not be held solely accountable for it. Indeed, the new emperors were responding to one of the numerous diplomatic missions sent by provincial communities that wanted to gain as much imperial favour as possible. There are examples from Prymnessos (IGRR IV 672, Oliver, Greek Constitutions, no. 214) and Aizanoi (IGRR IV.566, Oliver, Greek Constitutions no. 213) from as early as 195 CE. Yet, the best illustration is provided by another inscription dated to 198 CE in which Nicopolis ad Istrum was praised for its zeal, goodwill, and loyalty, and there was “a public festival celebrating the good tidings of the Severan blessings, namely an imperial peace for all mankind once the insolent Barbarians attacking the realm were defeated and the emperors were joint in a righteous partnership” (IGBulg II.659; Oliver, Greek Constitutions, no. 217). The mission of an ambassador was also extolled, as well as a remarkable cash contribution of 700.000 denarii. The latter action corresponds to the so-called aurum coronarium, an irregular levy – close to a tax – that communities were expected to send to Rome after the arrival of reportedly good news, such as imperial victories or new accessions (see Ando, Imperial Ideology, p. 175-190; cf. IG II² 1077). Even if emperors such as Hadrian and Antoninus Pius appear to have lessened the burden (HA, Hadrian, 6.5; Ant. Pius 4.10), with Severus Alexander even writing to the provinces renouncing it (P.Fayum 20), it was never completely eliminated, as illustrated by numerous 4th century CE sources such as Libanius (Or. 18.193), Ammianus Marcellinus (XVIII.6.7), Themistius (Or. 3), and Symmachus (Ep. 2.57). A rhetorical treatise of the same period even devoted a section to instructions for delivering speeches “About the (golden) crown” (see Russell and Wilson, Menander Rhetor, p. 178-180).

Aphrodisias must have prepared a similar diplomatic mission to meet the emperors and display its pious loyalty (εὐσέβεια/eusebeia), which Septimius Severus and Caracalla commended in another letter attached to the archive-wall (I.Aph.2007 8.36; Reynolds, Aphrodisias, p. 124-127). These embassies naturally exploited strategies of persuasion, such as Nicopolis attempted with the aforementioned celebration of a festivity – very likely epinician – commemorating the Parthian victory (see Nollé, “Εὐτυχῶς”, p. 330-331). The Aphrodisian diplomats correspondingly added an even more effective argument underlined by the imperial response in line 4 of the inscription. Caracalla, together with his father, states that the city was more closely related to the empire of the Romans (Ῥωμαίων ἀρχή/Rômaiôn archê) because of Aphrodisias’s tutelary goddess, i.e. Aphrodite. These kinship claims had previously played a huge role in gaining the favour of Octavian, who, as a member of the Julian family, claimed descent from Aeneas, son of Venus/Aphrodite (see Weinstock, Divus Julius, p. 4-18). The sanctuary of the deity was accordingly granted asylum status, and the city received many other privileges, as noted above. What is more remarkable, however, is the fact that Aphrodite’s kinship ties were still relevant under the Severans; this was centuries after Octavian had died and the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to an end (see Jones, Kinship Diplomacy, p.99-102). The key to understanding the durability of this notion is contained in the text itself. By the 3rd century CE, Aphrodisias was not related to a single Roman family, but rather to the empire which Augustus initiated and succeeding dynasties such as the Severan aspired to emulate and rule. Provincial communities were well aware of the imperial claims of new rulers, and – as can be observed here – they took advantage of them. In this case, the local institutions achieved an official letter that confirmed the preservation of their advantageous polity (πολιτεία/politeia) and laws (νομοί/nomoi); this something favoured not only by the Julian Octavian, but also by the Augustan successors preceding the dynastic accession of the Severans. 

Bibliographical references: 

Menander Rhetor

Russell, Donald A., Russell, Donald A.bookMenander RhetorOxford Clarendon Press1981
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