Lucius Septimius Severus was the first Roman Emperor from North Africa. He was born in Lepcis Magna (modern-day Libya) in 145 A.D. to Publius Septimius Geta and Fulvia Pia. Septimius travelled to Rome shortly after his 18th birthday and trained in a variety of civil and military positions. In 191 A.D., he was appointed governor of Upper Pannonia, a Roman province along the Danube.
The murder of the Emperor Commodus in 192 A.D. set off a crisis in the Roman Empire. Commodus’ praetorian-selected successors, Pertinax and Marcus Didius Julianus, were unpopular choices and both were assassinated after only a few months in power. In this vacuum, Septimius, Pescennius Niger, and Clodius Albinus in Britain were each declared emperor by his respective legions. When Septimius marched on Rome with his troops in April of 193 A.D. to avenge Pertinax’s death, the Senate bowed to his authority and bestowed on him the imperial title. To further cement his authority from potential usurpers, Septimius battled Pescennius Niger in Syria and gave Clodius Albinus the title Caeser, thus ensuring his status as successor. However, in 195, Septimus also named his 7 year old son Caracalla Caesar, which prompted Clodius and his 40,000 man army to cross into Gaul. Septimius easily defeated Clodius in 197 A.D., thus establishing the new Severan Dynasty.
The reign of Septimus ushered in a new age of public works and patronage in Rome. He constructed the so-called Septizonium, a massive colonnade attached to the imperial palace on the Palantine Hill and a triumphal arch in the Roman Forum to celebrate his victory over Parthian forces. In the Roman provinces, he initiated large building projects, including in his birthplace. He also improved the living condition of the military, increased soldiers’ pay and permitted them marry.
Portraits of Septimius have been grouped into four main types, with significant variations. As F. Johansen informs (p. 8 in Roman Portraits III), “Septimius was never content with his official portrait. This suffices to explain why he altered his appearance from that of a soldier to someone apparently resembling, successively, Antonius Pius, Marcus Aurelius and finally, Serapis, the Alexandrian deity.” The present portrait displays his mature visage, as seen in the creases on his brow, naso-labial folds, sunken eyes and pronounced cheekbones. His long curly beard forks below his mouth and, most distinctively, there are four locks of curls falling to the forehead, which fits firmly into the fourth type of Severus-Serapis. For a similar example in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, also persevering the askew proper-right eye, see no. 4 in Fleming, op. cit.
Here, the Septimius' adoption of the Serapis' characteristic hairstyle is purposeful, indicating the Emperor wanted to note both his African heritage and connect himself to the deity’s association with renewal and life after death. Following the deadly civil wars of Septimius' early years, a new dynasty was resolutely entrenched in Rome and the Empire was on the verge of another golden age. The Serapis-type portrait was introduced in about 200 A.D. after the imperial family visited Egypt and the Sanctuary of Serapis in Memphis in 199-200 A.D. (see D.E.E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture, p. 320). The Serapis-type portrait of Septimius is thought to reflect the famous cult state of Serapis by Bryaxis that stood in the god’s temple in Alexandria.