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The Arch of Septimius Severus in Leptis Magna

Gregory DiPippo

Since yesterday we looked at the triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius in Oea, the modern Tripoli in Libya, today we will see another such arch in the ruins of Leptis Magna, roughly 75 miles to the east. Like Oea, Leptis was founded by Phoenician colonists in the 7th century BC, and like the rest of north Africa, came under Rome’s control after the defeat and destruction of her great rival Carthage. (It was called “Magna” to distinguish it from “Leptis Parva”, which was much closer to Carthage.) Already a prominent and prosperous place in the last years of the Roman Republic, it continued to thrive in the early years of the Empire, and was elevated to the status of a “municipium”, a self-governing city, under Nero, and a “colonia” under Trajan, entitling it to important tax exemptions.

This was the native place of the Emperor Septimius Severus, who reigned for a bit less than 18 years, from 193 to 211. On coming to the throne, he bestowed many new privileges on the city, and immediately began several major building projects: a second and larger forum, in addition to the older one of the Augustan period; a massive basilica (over 300 feet long by 130 wide); a port (which, however quickly silted up); and a long colonnaded street leading up to a monumental fountain. A large market building of the Augustan era was also rebuilt. The population rose to around 100,000, making it a rival to the two other great cities in Roman Africa, the rebuilt Carthage, and Alexandria in Egypt.

(The ruins of the Severan Basilica in Leptis Magna; image from Wikimedia Commons by SashaCoachman, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Preparatory to an official visit by Severus and his family, a triumphal arch was erected in 203 at the intersection of the two main roads that define every Roman city, the cardo and the decumanus. Like its counterpart in Rome, this arch celebrates the Emperor’s victories over the Parthians on the empire’s eastern border, but its form is much closer to that of the Marcus Aurelius in Oea, and gives us a good idea of what the latter would originally have looked like. The attic is well-preserved, where at Oea, it is now missing, exposing the outside of the cupola. Unlike the Roman arch, the two African ones are “tetrapylons”, which is to say, built on four columns, and essentially square, since they sit at the intersection of two roads. The Leptis arch’s most unusual element is the so-called broken pediment on each side, better described as “incomplete”, something which is rarely seen in Roman architecture, but was common in the East. A triumphal procession of Septimius and his sons Geta and Caracalla is shown on the attic stage of the side that faces towards Oea; as on the Roman arch, there are several reliefs with symbolic figures of the goddess Victory, military trophies, and depictions of barbarians subjugated by the Romans.

However, many of these are in very poor condition, much worse than those on the Roman arch. In point of fact, by the time the kingdom of Italy took over Libya from the Ottomans in 1911, the arch had completely collapsed, with only the base left sticking out of the sand. The surviving pieces were recovered after several years of excavation by Italian archeologists, and reassembled as they are seen today in 1928.

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