Septimius Severus claims Antonine heritage (CIL VIII, 9317)

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Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
Castellum, Mauretania Caesarensis (Algeria).
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Now lost.
195 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Stone (?)
CIL VIII, 9317
This inscription was originally set up by the quinquennales of Castellum, a small Roman-Berber civitas in Mauretania Caesarensis (modern Algeria). Now lost, the inscription is the earliest epigraphic evidence for the claim of Antonine heritage that was made by Septimius Severus, at the beginning of his rule. This claim was to become a crucial founding principal of the Severan dynasty’s grasp on power, and demonstrates the continued importance of genealogical connections with the preceding dynasty in imperial self-presentation, and the ease with which this model was accepted by the different provincial audiences of Rome.
The inscription was discovered in Zurich in the 19th century, but is now lost and known only from its entry in the CIL. The text, although fragmentary in places, clearly attests to Septimius Severus’s claim of Antonine descent as early as 195 CE, two years before he was officially ‘adopted’ into the family by the Senate (Cooley, “Septimius Severus,” p. 386). He is described in the inscription as the “son of the divine Marcus Antoninus Pius” (divi Marci Antonini Pii…filio), “brother of the divine Commodus” (divi / Commodi frater), “grandson of the divine Antoninus Pius” (divi Antonini Pii / nepoti), and successively back to the reign of Nerva, of whom Sepimius Severus claims to be the great-great-great grandson (Nervae adnepos). This was an extraordinary claim; the first ‘African’ emperor, Septimius Severus, originated from Lepcis Magna, in Libya, from an equestrian family with senatorial connections. He had served a distinguished military career under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, acting as legate in Gallia Lugdunum before becoming consul in 190 CE, and then governor of Upper Pannonia. His troops acclaimed him emperor in April 193 CE, after the murder of Pertinax, but his position was not secure until 197 CE when he defeated Clodius Albinus at Lugdunum (Baharal, Victory of Propaganda, p. 20). However, having lived and served under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, the importance of succession and ancestry must have been clear, especially as “dynastic loyalty was largely the legacy of the troops” (Baharal, Victory of Propaganda, p. 21). The bold and fictitious claim was therefore essential in securing Septimius Severus’s position as princeps, and in weakening that of his rivals, especially Clodius Albinus, who held the military command of Britain, and whose own lineage was far more prestigious (Herodian, Roman History, 2.5.2;Cooley, “Septimius Severus,” p. 385).
The association with the Antonine emperors came in 195 CE, after Septimius Severus had defeated Pescennius Niger, the legate of Syria who had claimed the imperial throne himself after the murder of Pertinax – the first military general named emperor after Commodus’s death (for the conflict between these different military generals, see Cassius Dio, Roman History, 74-75; Herodian, Roman History, II and III; Historia Augusta, Life of Pescennius Niger; Southern, The Roman Empire, p. 27-34). Immediately following the defeat of Pescennius Niger in Syria, Septimius Severus issued bronze coins, recording his fifth acclamation as Imperator, with the legend DIVI M PII F on the reverse (divi Marci Pii filius), or ‘son of the divine Marcus Pius’ (see e.g. RIC IV.1, no. 8658). Gold coins were also minted in 195 CE, bearing the same legend (Baharal, Victory of propaganda, p. 21). This proclamation saw Severus adopt “the entire genealogy of the gens Aurelia,” in a blatant assertion of his primacy over that of Clodius Albinus; it was a bold move – Severus was still in the east following his battles with Niger in Syria, and his rival – closer to the capital as commander of the legions of Britannia – was arguably better placed to petition the Senate for their support (Baharal, Victory of propaganda, p. 21). Septimius Severus, however, understood the power of ancestral descent and so presented himself as the direct heir to the Antonines in his coinage in order to justify and legitimise his claim to power. The young Caracalla was renamed as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, which in turn caused Clodius Albinus to retaliate by naming himself Caesar. However, as Olivier Hekster has rightly noted, this counter-move by Severus’s rival was futile, for “what good was it to be Caesar of a ruler who was openly establishing a dynasty?” (Hekster, “The Roman Empire” p. 243).
It took a further two years following the dedication of this inscription before Septimius Severus was formally adopted ‘into’ the Antonine dynasty, in 197 CE, although he had continued to work hard to promote his image as their rightful descendent in a variety of ways. Coins had continued to be minted promoting the dynastic succession, and a number of inscriptions were set up by Severus himself which publically proclaimed this ‘self-adoption’; he set up a monument honouring the anniversary, the dies imperii, of Nerva’s accession to power in Rome on the 18th September 196 CE, which was again explicit in its statement of familial relationship, declaring the earlier emperor his atavus, or ‘great-great-great grandfather’ (CIL VI, 954; Birley, The African Emperor, p. 123). The early portraiture of the first Severan emperor also followed the style and characteristics of the busts of the Antonines, particularly with regard to their hair and beards (see Baharal, Victory of Propaganda, p. 23-25 and 36-38), and the literary accounts reveal the promotion of a series of weather ‘miracles’ that were said to have occurred during various of Septimius Severus’s military campaigns, which appear to have been modelled on the same climatic phenomena suffered by Marcus Aurelius, and which were alluded to in the relief imagery of his column (see Column of Marcus Aurelius).  Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta, as well as Christian authors such as Tertullian, all describe unusual episodes involving weather ‘miracles’ which ‘rescued’ Severus’s armies from certain defeat against Pescennius Niger and in his first Parthian campaign, in what must have been a deliberate attempt to present Severus’s principate as divinely sanctioned, in the same way that Marcus Aurelius was similarly favoured by the gods (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 75.1.2; 3.1; 7.6-7; Herodian, Roman History, 3.36-38; Historia Augusta, Life of Septimius Severus, p. 9.9-11; Baharal, Victory of Propaganda, p. 22; Tertullian, To Scapula, IV.5-6).
The adoption of Septimius Severus into the gens Aurelia was one of the most prominent aspects of his imperial propaganda, and likely one of the most successful. The erection of this inscription in provincial North Africa demonstrates how well Septimius Severus’s bold assertion was received by the communities of the empire; although the situation that led to the inscription’s dedication is unknown, it is clear that the new emperor’s ancestry was accepted and promoted, however obviously fictitious it might have been; even in North Africa, where his ‘real’ family history and heritage was well known, inscriptions – beginning with the text presented here –  celebrated his ‘familial’ relationship with the imperial court as far back as Nerva. Even in Lepcis Magna, Septimius Severus’s birthplace, inscriptions were dedicated that honoured the new emperor with all of the titles traditionally associated with the gens Aurelia (e.g. IRT 412, 413; Baharal, Victory of propaganda, p. 23). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the inscription presented here though is the relationship claimed by Septimius Severus with his immediate predecessor, Commodus, who is described in the inscription as his divus frater (‘divine brother’). Upon his assassination in 192 CE, Commodus was declared an enemy of the state by the Senate, who sought to abolish all trace of his problematic and narcissistic behaviour. Commodus suffered the damnatio memoriae, with his name erased from a number of official inscriptions and the name of the capital city was restored from Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana to its rightful ‘Rome’ (for the damnatio memoriae of Commodus, see Varner, Mutilation and Transformation, p. 136-155). However, as early as 195 CE, when this inscription was set up, Septimius Severus had re-cast him in a more popular light, referring to his (as yet unconfirmed) deification on his coinage and rehabilitating his memory in the process (Cooley, “Septimius Severus,” p. 385). By 197 CE he had forced the Roman senate to accept the deification of his ‘brother’, instigating “the first ever renovatio memoriae” (Hekster, “The Roman empire,” p. 243). This is especially interesting if we consider the way that Commodus’s reign is traditionally presented in the literary sources, as one of tyranny and megalomania, and which had led the Senate to condemn his memory after his death; Septimius Severus went to extreme lengths to promote the deification of his ‘brother’, which went far beyond what was necessary in the claiming of ancestral descent. To appeal for a place in the Antonine dynasty was one thing, but to ambitiously and publically promote the divinisation of an ‘enemy’ of Rome was unprecedented, and indicative perhaps of the popularity that the former emperor still enjoyed in certain communities across the empire. The memory of Commodus clearly still enjoyed some favour, particularly amongst the military, upon whose support Severus too had relied in his ascent to the imperial throne, and it was this that allowed him to pursue his deification with such determination.
Septimius Severus’s ‘adoption’ of an imperial dynasty was certainly a cornerstone of his success in the earliest years of his principate; the way that he communicated the message did, however, vary in its presentation between the centre and periphery of the empire, with more overt statements of his succession and divine approval made first in the provinces, as this inscription from Maurentania Caesarensis demonstrates. It appears that the variation of message endured for only two years, which was long enough for the new emperor to “intensively publicize the concept” of his similarity with the Antonine emperors; by 197 CE Septimius Severus had defeated his rivals and successfully targeted his programme of “mass persuasion” at the different populations of the empire, who were enthusiastic in their acceptance of his clearly fictitious, but attractive, version of dynastic succession (Baharal, Victory of propaganda, p. 40; 42).
Bibliographical references: 

“Septimius Severus: The Augustan Emperor”

Cooley, Alison E.article-in-a-bookSeveran Culture Simon Swain, Stephen Harrison, Jas Elsner385-393“Septimius Severus: The Augustan Emperor”CambridgeCambridge University Press2007

The Roman empire after his death

Hekster, Olivierarticle-in-a-bookA Companion to Marcus AureliusM. van Ackeren234-247The Roman empire after his deathChichester; Malden, MAWiley-Blackwell2012
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Septimius Severus claims Antonine heritage (CIL VIII, 9317)
Author(s) of this publication: Caroline Barron
Publishing date: Sun, 08/12/2018 - 13:46
Visited: Mon, 04/15/2024 - 15:16

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