Tag Archives: roman forum


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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!


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.


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! :-)

If you liked the story browse for other Tales of Rome and don’t forget to follow my updates on Twitter and Facebook! And share this story!

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



Tempio di Vesta

Too bad Vestal Virgins weren’t trained as Ninjas

Time has come for another story about women in ancient Rome, this time it will be about a very special group of priestesses: the Vestal Virgins.

Vestal virgins were part of the only female priesthood in Rome and for this reason could be considered a privileged category of women…but you’ll see soon that the balance of duties and privileges was not so fair :)

Who were the Vestal Virgins?

Easy to say, they were the priestesses of the goddess Vesta, one of the most archaic and important divinities of the Roman pantheon. In few word we can say that she was the protector goddess of Rome, goddess of the hearth. Hence she was considered both protector of the Roman families and of the State (the State itself was considered as a great family).
Her temple was in the very heart of the Roman Forum, a small round temple (like the shape of an ancient hut) with a conical roof with a hole in the center: in fact the goddess’s presence inside the temple was symbolized not by a statue but by an always burning fire (and the hole was for the smoke!).

Temple of Vesta

The origin is quite easy to understand: at very beginning of the Roman history, when Rome was still no more than a small group of huts, people understood that was easier preserve a constant fire instead of re-light it each night (specially in the wet months) and, as time went by, this became the hearth of the State. No need to say that the extinction of the fire was considered by the Romans as the worst omen ever that could means the end of Rome itself. Hence to preserve the fire was the main duty of the Vestal Virgins.

The priestesses, in number of six, were drawn from their families between the age of six and ten years old. After this moment they must remain in the priesthood for thirty years: ten years learning, ten years performing and ten years teaching to the novices.



And here comes the hardest part: for those thirty years the main duty, with the preservation of the fire, was preserve the virginity. They were in fact considered so sacred that no one can neither touch them…are you starting to understand how hard was their life…and that’s nothing, you’ll see.

The rule not to be touched was really unyielding: it means DON’T TOUCH at all, with a lot of consequences. First, sex: hard to have with no touch, so, no sex. The punishment for those who broke the rule was pretty clear: death. And that’s not the worst part: because they were untouchable, they could neither be wounded and their blood could not to be spilled. So, how to kill someone without spilling her blood or even touch her? Easy: bury her alive! Yes, you got it.

The guilty vestal was dressed with funeral clothes, put on a closed litter, like a dead body, and brought in a subterranean room placed just inside the city walls (nearby the present central Termini train station) called the campus sceleratus, the Evil Field. Once there, they were buried alive in the room with just one oil lamp and a small supply of water, bread, milk and oil.

A kind of the famous scene of Kill Bill when Uma Thurman is buried alive…but unfortunately Vestal Virgins weren’t trained as ninjas!


And what happened to the man? (Because there must be a man) Well he had the same punishment of the slaves: he was simply flogged to death in the Roman Forum.
Ok, you could say, the rule is clear: no sex at all. This could be enough to avoid this horrible death, right? Not exactly.
Of course this was the punishment also in case of the extinction of the fire and that’s not enough. Because in life shit happens: if something bad happened to Rome the Vestal Virgins were often considered guilty and used as a scapegoat to please the gods. By reading ancient chronicles seems that, until the end of the Republic, the punishment of the Vestal Virgins was a kind of disguised human sacrifice to please the gods: a plague, a famine, a war defeat could be considered caused by the wrong behavior of a Vestal Virgin and in this case one girl was condemned. This happened to Oppia, Orbilia, Minucia, Tuccia…

…And rights

Anyway: big duty but also big privileges for these women. Vestal Virgins in some way could be considered the only independent women in Rome. They were not subjected to the patria potestas and, unlike the rest of Roman women, were allowed to make a will, testify in a lawsuit, own properties, be brought in a wagon within the city walls, have reserved seats for the games and, after their death, they could be buried in a special cemetery inside the city walls. And more, if a person sentenced to death had the good luck to see a Vestal Virgin on the day of the execution, he was automatically pardoned.


Among the duties of the Vestal Virgin was also the preparation of the mola salsa: this was a mixture of emmer flour and salt that was used in every official sacrifice. It was sprinkled on the head of the animals before they were sacrificed and on holy fires too. Mola salsa, sacrificed animals…does it remind something: the verb to immolate comes exactly from this!

Tweetable quote: “Too bad Vestal Virgins weren’t trained as Ninjas” – Tweet this!

If you liked the story of the Vestal Virgins browse for other Tales of Rome and don’t forget to follow my updates on Twitter and Facebook! And share this story!

Pictures Credits:

  • Reconstruction of the temple of Vesta – from “Trattato di archeologia” by I. Gentile, 1901
  • Ruins of the Temple of Vesta – CC BY 2.0 - HarshLight
  • “Dedication of a New Vestal Virgin”  – by A. Marchesini, 1710
  • “Vestale d’aprés Peytavin” – by C. Normand (1765-1840)
  • “Invocation” – by Frederic Leighton,  (1830–1896)
The Temple of Saturn

Unknown gods and familiar habits. The Temple of Saturn

In this tale we are going to talk about a pretty unknown Roman god, Saturn, who left us a very popular custom.

Who was God Saturn ?

Saturn was one of the most ancient and important divinities of the Roman religion, the legendary king who, according to the tradition, ruled Italy in the Golden Age. Archaic Roman society was a rural one, hence this Golden Age was strictly related with agriculture, and this was exactly Saturn’s field. Inside his temple was an ivory statue of him which was empty and filled with olive oil – related with agriculture: Lazio was (and still is) rich in olive trees – and whose legs were fettered with woolen strings.

Saturnalia, something familiar

After the end of the autumn planting, Saturn was celebrated with a feast, the Saturnalia, that officially lasted from December the 17th until the 23rd. In the first day the woolen strings were loosened and the priest sacrificed  a sow that was later eaten in a sacred banquet.

Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia! Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - 1880 Akron Art Museum (United States) Painting - oil on panel

Saturnalia were the most loved feast of the Roman year. During this holiday week people used to invite friends and relatives for private banquets, offering them food and small gifts, such as candles, food, small clay figurines, usually accompanied by greeting cards … Does it sound familiar? Of course it does! The Saturnalia were so popular among the Romans that when the empire became Christian (in the 4th century AD) all those habits were handed over to Christmas!
So… blame Saturn, next time you’ll be in a hurry for last minute Christmas gifts! :)

This feast had also another peculiarity, during those days social norms were reversed and restrictions were relaxed:  gambling was allowed and masters would serve their slaves. This general sense of freedom was considered to be a memory of the Golden Age ushered by the God. People used to wear the pileus, a cap normally used by the freed slave, that was more or less like the Smurfs’ hat (I swear!).

Because of the laxity this period was perfect for murders and conspiracies and many famous episodes happened during it: Catilina’s conspiracy, murder of Geta by Caracalla and also that of Commodus. Latin writer Seneca complains that because of the Saturnalia “the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures”.

The Temple

The Temple of Saturn, was built a long long time ago in the very heart of Rome, the Roman Forum. It was dedicated exactly in 498 B.C.: that’s why I said long long time ago! It’s not only old, not exactly the oldest one, but is the oldest temple officially recorded by the Pontiffs, a kind of pagan priests who were in charge of recording the most important events. According to tradition, to myth, it was erected on the same spot of an older altar built by God Saturn himself, when he founded the first village on the Capitoline Hill.

This temple, as most of Roman ones, was also used as a kind of public office: public documents were displayed on its walls. And here was also the Roman Treasury, where coins and ingots were stored, and also the official scale used for coins.

Don’t be surprised by the fact that the treasury was in this temple: as mentioned above, Saturn was a god linked with fertility and rural world and for the archaic Romans wealth consisted of harvests and cattle: the Latin word pecunia, “wealth”, comes from pecus, “sheep“… and, despite you’re not a farmer, you still preserve a memory of this link when use the English word pecuniary!

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Pictures credits

  • The temple of Saturn – All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
  • Painting  “Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia!” – Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – 1880 – Akron Art Museum (United States)
  • “Mithra killing the bull” – 2nd-3rd century AD – National Museum in Warsaw