Two Arches, Two Emperors


A discussion of the Triumphal Arches of Augustus and Septimus Severus, located in the Forum Romanum

The Forum Romanum was seen as the centre of the Roman World. During the principate the political centre shifted away from the forum, but the symbolism of it remained, especially during the Triumphal processions. The Triumph was a religious ceremony where a conquering general paraded through the city of Rome from the Campus Martius to the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter, this allowed the people of Rome to view all the war booty and any captives that the general had captured in the course of the war. During the principate this honour was limited to the Imperial family.

Plutarch provides a description of the triumph of Aemilius Paullus in 167 BC:

“People built benches in the circus…and the forum, lined all other parts of the city which afforded a view of the procession, and changed into clean clothes to watch the spectacle. Every temple was opened, with garlands and clouds of incense everywhere; large numbers adjutants and lictors held back the crowds, which surged uncontrollably into the middle of the route and ran from one place to another, and tried to keep the roads open and clear.” (Plutarch, Aemilius Paullus, 32)

It was an event that drew everyone together and emphasised the Roman-ness of the crowds, compared to the ‘barbarians’ in the procession.

It was incredibly common for the victorious generals to build something to commemorate their victories, and to literally set their triumph in stone. These monuments lined the Triumphal route, as a reminder to other generals about the victories of there predecessors, and as a challenge for them to overcome.

In this post I want to discuss the triumphal arches of the Emperors Augustus and Septimius Severus. Discussing the features of these monuments help to reveal the ideology of the emperors who built them, and I also hope to show that the placement of Severus’ arch was deliberate, aiming to make the greatest statement about his victories.

The Arch of Augustus

Denarius of Augustus, RIC I 267

This monument was built as part of the celebrations of Augustus’ Triple Triumph in 29 BC. However, it is no longer extant, and the exact location is uncertain, though we know it in the eastern half of the Forum near the Temple of Castor. But this does not matter, since depictions of the arch survive in coins.

On this example, it shows a quadriga pulling the triumphant Augustus, this statue group was likely made of bronze. The inscription is “Imperator Caesar”, which means, Caesar the Conquering General, but it has a double meaning, since Augustus in this period was known as Imperator Caesar. This monument is way for him to monumentalise his military prowess, and to justify the adoption of the name ‘Imperator’, which was without precedent in Rome. The ambiguity, as demonstrated by the coin’s legend, helps to normalise it, and by using a traditional form to celebrate his victory he was further making the connection between himself and military victory.

Some traces of the arch survive, indicating that it was richly decorated, but no fragments of relief sculpture survive. This puts the arch in a transition period between the roles and functions of Republican and Imperial arches, since Republican arches “were simply huge statue bases, used for permanent military commemoration” (Welch (2006) 506), but Augustus’ was moving in the direction of more decoration, which was the hallmark of imperial arches.

The Arch of Septimius Severus

Due to the chaos that led to his rise to power, Septimius Severus had not spent any long periods in Rome prior to 203 AD. From 203-208 he and his family stayed in Rome and attempted to leave their mark on the city.

A Roman leading Parthian prisoners

The arch is in celebration of his campaigns against the Parthians, but is also meant to reaffirm his that he “restored the Republic and expanded the dominions of the Roman people”. Restoration is a key theme that Severus wanted to get across, this is why he made it clear that he was responsible for so many restorations in the city.


The reliefs show captured Parthians as part of the triumphal procession, as well as episodes taken from the campaigns. The relief of the captured prisoners is meant to commemorate and make permanent the triumph he celebrated. The way the episodes from the campaign are rendered is very similar to how the relief on the column of Marcus Aurelius is done. Severus went to great lengths to link himself with Marcus Aurelius, going as far as to have himself adopted by the deceased emperor in order to cement his legitimacy, it is tempting to see this as a way of showing the continuity between him and his adopted father.

This theme of continuity and restoration is clearly demonstrated by the positioning of this arch in the forum, it is opposite that of Augustus. Creating a dialogue between the two emperors and, using the associated older monument as a way of enhancing the prestige of the newer one. Septimius Severus tried to imitate Augustus as a refounder of Rome, this is most obvious in the restorations and inscription I have previously mentioned, and in the fact that he held the Ludi Saeculare, games that represent the start of a new age. The Arch is a part of this, drawing on the past to solidify Severus’ position in the present.


Plutarch, Roman Lives, trans. Waterfield, R. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999)

Claridge (2010, revised) Rome: An Archaeological Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Welch (2006) ‘Art and Architecture in the Roman Republic’ in A companion to the Roman Republic, ed. N. Rosenstein and R. Morstein-Marx, 496-542.



Figure 1 Arch of Septimius Severus (Photo by Alexander Z. Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Figure 2 Denarius of Augustus, RIC I 267 (Photo by CNGCC BY-SA 2.5)

Figure 3 A Roman leading Parthian prisoners (Photo by Amphipolis, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Figure 4 Relief Panal from the Arch of Septimius Severus (Photo by Radomil, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)



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