Arch of Septimius Severus
To reach this spot, we’ve walked the via Sacra, the principal road of the Forum, dedicated to processions celebrating war victories, the “Triumphs”. When a Roman general had killed at least 5,000 enemies and conquered new territories, he could then enter victoriously into the city, dressed in his armor. He would pass along the Via Sacra, under the triumphal arches, until he reached the Temple of Jove on Capitoline Hill.
There was no better place in Rome than the Forum to celebrate its victories. The processions were majestic, rich in color and sound and involved the whole population: it was the best way to show the world Rome’s power. High level politicians opened the ceremonies, followed by actors doing scenes from the battles.
The show was enriched with music and dance. The spoils of war were triumphantly exhibited so that every citizen could admire the treasures taken from the enemy: arms, jewels, works of art, even exotic animals, not to mention the prisoners trudging along in chains.
Only then, towards the end of the procession, standing on a golden chariot pulled by four white horses, came the victorious warrior, acclaimed by the riotous crowd that made way for his passage.
Finally, the soldiers who had participated in the war, yelling and singing, happy for their victory and most of all, for the pay they had just received.
The procession ended on the Capitoline Hill, at the Temple of Jove, with a sacrifice to thank the gods. Sometimes the sacrifice was the killing of the head of the enemy army: the loser, humiliated, was killed without pity in front of the authorities and all the people.
The Arch of Septimius Severus, built right where the Via Sacra began its rise toward Capitoline Hill, celebrated the conquest of a new territory for the Empire as well as the victory by Septimius Severus and his two sons, Caracalla and Geta against the Parti, a people of what is now Romania, sworn enemy of Rome.
The arch is completely covered in marble and decorated with sculpted panels that illustrate the most important moments of the military campaign. Dominating at the center is Mars, god of war, with two statues of winged Victory on the sides.
The inscription above can still be read, that dedicated to Septimius Severus and his sons. When the emperor died, Caracalla didn’t want to share imperial power with his brother and so decided to grab the throne with the classic technique of “homicide”.
The name of Geta was removed from the arch’s inscription. Eliminating names from statues and destroying their faces was considered a damnatio memoriae, a way to tell the people that that particular person was to be forgotten.
In fact, Geta was never again remembered and Caracalla went down in history as one of Rome’s cruelest emperors.