Parthians: Scenes from the Arch of Septimius Severus (early third century CE)

Information and descriptions: The Arch of Septimius Severus (measuring 20.88 meters high x 23.27 long x 11.2 deep) is a triple-vaulted triumphal arch located in the north-eastern corner of the Forum in Rome over the “Sacred Way” (Via Sacra) on the approach towards the Capitoline Hill. The structure was built in 203 CE to celebrate Septimius Severus’ victories in campaigns (195–199 CE) against the Parthian empire with now heavily worn reliefs depicting Parthian soldiers and their Eastern allies. The first photo illustrates the full monument. The subsequent three photos are captures of the relief panels replicated identically on all four pedestals of the Arch of Septimius Severus (i.e. the bases of its four columns). The first photo captures the left-hand pedestal relief, which depicts a Roman soldier leading a Parthian prisoner. The second photo captures the central relief, which depicts three Parthian prisoners and, perhaps, a Roman guard awaiting the arrival of their respective peers from the left and right hand reliefs. The third photo of the right-hand pedestal relief depicts another Roman soldier leading a Parthian prisoner towards the group on the central relief. The fourth photo captures a portion of the large relief above the right-hand (small) archway on the south-facing side of the arch, which depicts the Roman siege of Edessa, the capital city of the Osroene kingdom. The upper right portion of the relief (unseen) depicts the surrender of king Abgar of Osroene to emperor Septimius Severus.

Comments (by Daniel Mitchell): The Parthians and other Eastern allies depicted on the arch of Septimius Severus are virtually indistinguishable from one another, since all are portrayed in a uniform manner commensurate with stereotypical Greco-Roman depictions of Easterners. All Eastern figures wear long beards, the Phrygian cap (a soft, conical-shaped hat with the top folded forward), pants or trousers and sleeved coats. Sometimes the figures also wear a cloak or cape. This consistent image of the Easterner permits viewers to clearly distinguish them from Romans. In fact, it is not likely that the dress of both the Parthians and their Eastern allies would be so uniform.

Another way the artisans distinguish different peoples here is with regard to size: Roman figures are always depicted as taller than the Parthian figures. The Parthian figures would stand inches below their Roman counterparts, were they not wearing Phrygian caps to augment their height. The reduced stature of the Parthians suggests both their physical and martial inferiority to the Romans.

In various ways, the visual ethnography of this monument serves to emphasize the superiority of Romans over others. The Parthian empire remained the last power with the potential to challenge Roman dominance over the Mediterranean, and the Romans were acutely aware of this reality. Ultimately, the arch is a work of propaganda intended to legitimize the rule of the Severan dynasty. The monument may also try to legitimize Septimius Severus’ position as emperor with reference to his success in defeating Rome’s foreign enemies (i.e. Parthia) in order to distract away from the reality that he had obtained his position by defeating fellow Romans in the civil war of 195 CE (the so-called “year of the five emperors”). Furthermore, the depictions of battles, sieges, and prisoners serve to glorify the Roman conquest of Parthian-controlled Mesopotamia as righteous action against a worthy foe, when in reality Severus’ campaigns were likely predicated on obtaining Parthian loot to fill Rome’s coffers, which had been drained during the civil war.

Works consulted: F. Coarelli, Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, revised by J. J. Clause and translated by D.P. Harmon (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2014).

Source of images: Photos by A. Hunter Wright (full monument; CC BY-SA 3.0), Amphipolis (left-side relief of pedestal with [possibly] Caracalla and Parthian prisoner; CC BY-SA 2.0), Kimberly Cassibry (central relief of pedestal with multiple Parthian prisoners; CC BY-SA 4.0), Jon Lendering (right-side relief of pedestal with Roman soldier and Parthian prisoner; CC0-1.0), and “Slices of Light” (capture of Eastern defenders at Edessa; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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