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Marble statue of the emperor Septimius Severus

 

Height: 198.000 cm

Gift of King George III

GR 1802.7-10.2 (Sculpture 1944)

Room 70: Roman Empire

    Marble statue of the emperor Septimius Severus

    Roman, about AD 193-200
    Found at Alexandria, Egypt

    'It is good to see the statue of Septimius Severus, the first African emperor of the Romans, on display. He is seen by many as a very important figure in the historical timeline of black people in Britain. He died and was buried at York. It is the only image of Septimius Severus I've seen to date that shows him with the features and looks of a North African. Seeing this statue in this gallery makes me feel that at last the African presence in ancient Britain is being acknowledged.' Fowokan George Kelly, of Jamaican origin

    Septimius Severus was the first Roman Emperor born in Africa. He ruled between AD 193 and 211. Although his family was of Phoenician rather than black African descent, ancient literary sources refer to the dark colour of his skin and relate that he kept his African accent into old age. He was an accomplished general who, having defeated his internal enemies in a series of civil wars, went on to victories at the furthest frontiers of the Empire, from Mesopotamia to Britain, where he died, at York (Eboracum) in AD 211.

    He is shown with his characteristic forked beard and tight curled hair, and is wearing military dress. The statue is not carved fully in the round, but is flat and unfinished at the back, suggesting that it was part of an architectural design. It probably stood in a niche which decorated a public building or monument such as a bath building or a fountain-screen. Much of the statue's detail would have been added in paint.

    Severus' two sons Caracalla and Geta were instructed by their father on his death-bed to 'pay the troops, get on with each other and ignore everyone else'. Within a year, however, Caracalla had murdered his brother and reigned alone, with all vestiges of Geta's image and name removed from buildings, official inscriptions and dedications; a process known as 'Damnatio Memoriae'.

    A.H Smith, A catalogue of sculpture in -2, vol. 3 (London, British Museum, 1904)

    C. Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman emperor (London, Thames & Hudson, 1997)

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