Tag Archives: racism

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What An Arch Can Tell: a Story of Hate in the Ancient Rome

On today’s post I would like to talk about a monument that gives us the opportunity to dig into different aspects of the Roman Society.

The Arch Of Septimius Severus

Leaning down the slopes of the Capitoline hill, the massive marble profile of the Arch of Septimius Severus is one of the most characteristic images of the Roman Forum…. I’m quite sure that if you have been in Rome and visited the Forum, you have a picture of it.

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It was dedicated in 302 to celebrate the emperor’s victory over the Parthians, a population that ruled one of the biggest empire of the ancient world, spanned between Turkey and Iran.

There is too much to say about the triumphal arches and the Triumphus, that we would need another post for it…in the meanwhile take a look here :-)

Who Was Septimius Severus?

Septimius Severus was a Roman general who, while in 193 was leading the legions in Cornutum (Lower Austria), was acclaimed as an emperor by his own soldiers, after the death of the previous emperor Pertinax. In the meanwhile all over the Roman empire the soldiers acclaimed other three emperors…too many for just one city and so, after a bloody war, Septimius Severus smote all the rivals and became the only ruler in 197.

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Anyway there is still something that you should know about him: if you are imagining a genuine Roman, born and raised in the Urbs, well, you are totally wrong! He was indeed born in Leptis Magna, corresponding to the modern city of Lebda, Libya… yes, he was African! Longer before Barack Obama, Romans had their own black ruler and with such a less clamor than today!

Actually on Roman time no one cared about the color of someone’s skin. Racism, as we are used to think of it, didn’t exist in the ancient Rome. What really mattered was just being a Roman citizen, or not. This could make the difference in many crucial occasions. Of course citizens had more rights than the strangers. For example, when someone was sentenced to death there were different kinds of execution:  less cruel for the citizens, imaginatively cruel for the strangers.  Not such a great benefit you could think…but I’m quite sure that your thought would be different if you were going to be eaten slowly by a lion instead of being quickly beheaded!

When Saint Paul was imprisoned and was going to be judged in Jerusalem for his Christian preaching he asserted his citizenship saying “Civis Romanus sum”… translated “Eat my shorts! I’m a citizen and I have the right of a fair trial in Rome!”

Actually what that also mattered was the census, money as always. But at least no one was discriminated for his race or religion (“And what about the Christians?” you may ask. Well, this is another topic that needs another entire post. Anyway just let me say about this that God wasn’t the real problem. Politics was. Trust me :-) )

A Multicultural Society

Rome had a very multicultural society. People from all over the Roman empire (that at its apex spanned from Spain to Iran and from Britain to North Africa) lived in Rome and you could see people of any culture and religion and listen almost each spoken language.

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Indeed Septimius’ family was really multicultural too: he married Julia Domna a Syrian girl daughter of the supreme priest of El Gabal (there had been an horoscope predicting that she was destined to become a king’s wife. And that’s why Septiums married her….Ah the love!). Together they had two sons, Caracalla, born in 188 in Lugdunum (France) and Geta, born in 189 in Rome.

A Dysfunctional Family

Geta was the younger son and, as sometimes happen in every age,  he was often neglected by his father. Of course this generated conflicts and rivalries between the brothers, often moderated by Julia. If you are thinking to the typical skirmish between brothers, well, wait for the rest of the story…

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We started with the arch that – despite they were just teenagers – was indeed dedicated also to Caracalla and Geta and this is what we expect to find on the inscription but wait…look carefully at the fourth line from the top: it was clearly erased and rewritten. And, no worries, you don’t need to learn Latin, I can tell you: there is no mention of the poor Geta.

The Disappearance Of Geta

In 208 Septimius went to Britain to fight the local tribes: that war was a hard life. Four years later, when he was almost near to die, he decided to name his two sons as co-emperors: this meaning they were supposed to rule together after the death of their father.

It is said that Septimius’ last words to his sons were: “Love your brother, enrich the soldiers and scorn all the other men”…Well Caracalla got 2 of 3. Let’s see…

Enrich The Soldiers: Done

He made a currency reform to raise the money to increase soldiers’s wage.

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Love Your Brother: Failed!

As I wrote before, there was a huge rivalry between the two brothers, but Caracalla solved it in the most drastic, and efficient actually, way: he murdered Geta in the arms of their mother! Hard co-ruling? Maybe. But  Geta was murdered soon after his father’s death! Probably the main reason was just Caracalla’s hate for the world…and here we are at the third point…

Scorn All The Other Men: Done, Well Done!

For this last warning we have plenty of examples…
Around 205 he had his father in law, Plautianus, assassinated. Soon after, he exiled his wife Fulvia Plautilla and her brother to Lipari island…and this was just a happy period: later they have been, of course, killed.

Is this not enough? Family doesn’t count? Well, after Geta’s death, in Alexandria of Egypt was performed a comedy in which Caracalla was twitted because he had said (true story) that he had killed Geta for his own legitimate defense. Come on guys! Are you kidding me? Did you trust in Caracalla’s sense of humor? Of course they were punished: 20.000 citizens of Alexandria were put to death!

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The Hate Pays Off

So much hate had consequences: in 217 Caracalla was murdered by Julius Martialis, the officer of his own bodyguard as a revenge for having killed Martialis’ brother.

So much hate deserve to be remembered too: the Renaissance politician and writer Machiavelli in his masterpiece “The Prince” mentioned Caracalla as an example of the cruel and ruthless prince (in chapter 19, “That one should avoid being despised and hated”). Anyway Machiavelli didn’t criticized him for his cruelty (that had made his father great) but for having kept with him a bodyguard whose brother he had killed before.

The Inscription

Finally: why the inscription was erased? Because, as if having been killed weren’t enough, Geta had also the damnatio memoriae, usually reserved to those who had sullied the Roman reputation.

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Geta’s name was erased from each Roman monument, as his portraits (look that above!), as if he never existed!

Poor Geta!So finally this post is a small compensation for him: all cheer Geta! :-)

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Pictures Credits:

  • View of the Arch of Septimius Severus – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1774
  • View of the Arch of Septimius Severus – CC BY 2.0 – Jean Christophe Benoist
  • Bust of Septimius Severus – II sec. AD – Glyptothek,  Munich
  • Map of the Roman empire at its greatest extent- CC BY-SA 3.0 – Tataryn77
  • Inscription of the Arch of Septimius Severus – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Arienne McCracken
  • Denarius of Caracalla – 217 AD
  • Geta and Caracalla – Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1907
  • Tondo showing the Severan dynasty, 199-200 AD – Berlin, Antikensammlung