Gold aureus consecration coin of Septimius Severus

Roman
Early 3rd century AD

The second funeral of the Roman emperor

Septimius Severus (reigned AD 193-211) was coincidentally the first of two Roman emperors to die at York while campaigning in Britain. (The second was Constantius I, in AD 306). His body was cremated in York before the ashes were taken by his sons to Rome to be interred in the mausoleum of Hadrian (nowadays the Castel Sant'Angelo). It was customary at the time for emperors to have their predecessors consecrated as gods. The contemporary historian Herodian wrote that for this reason a wax effigy of Septimius was made to stand in for his body for the ceremony of apotheosis (the transition to godhood) held in Rome. In fact, before the ceremony itself began the effigy was treated by doctors and the court as if he was only just dying!

After much ceremony the effigy was placed on a funeral pyre just outside the city on 'the field of Mars'. Described in detail by Herodian, who probably actually saw it, the pyre was in fact a whole wooden building with several stories (looking rather like a huge wedding cake), and decorated with statues. Filled with brushwood, the structure was set alight and as the flames took hold an eagle was released from the top story, 'taking the soul of the emperor from earth to heaven, the Romans believe. After that he is worshipped with the rest of the gods', (Herodian, IV, 2).

This consecration coin shows the pyre very much like Herodian's detailed account. The new title of the dead emperor 'DIVO' (divine) proclaims his godly status.

Find in the collection online

More information

Bibliography

R.A.G. Carson, Principal coins of the Roman-1, vol. 2 (London, The British Museum Press, 1980)

Herodian, History, (translated by C.R. Whittaker) (London, Loeb, 1969)

A. Birley, Septimius Severus, the African (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1971)

Dimensions

Diameter: 20.000 mm
Weight: 7.210 g

Museum number

CM BMC Caracalla & Geta 26

Location

Find in the collection online



Search highlights

There are over 4,000 highlight objects to explore