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Work Septimius Severus

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

L'empereur Septime Sévère

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Rives Todd

This impressive head, which originally topped a colossal statue, depicts the Emperor Septimius Severus. After the excesses of Commodus, his reign was supposed to restore order. However, this work is marked by the baroque style characteristic of the preceding dynasty: baroque tempered by the schematized formalism of the provincial art of the period. The portrait, discovered in Algeria, documents the artistic production outside of Rome as well as the loyalty of a provincial city toward the power

An emperor born in Africa

This colossal head depicts the founder of the Severus dynasty, Septimius Severus, whose reign lasted from 193 to 211 BC. Born in Leptis Magna in present-day Libya and elected emperor by his soldiers, Septimius Severus was an adept of eastern cults. His wife Julia Domna, a Syrian princess, was the daughter of a high priest of Baal. Here the emperor had himself portrayed as a devotee of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis, the Greek form of the Apis bull; the cork-screw ringlets that adorn his forehead are adopted from depictions of the deity.

Abandoning naturalism

The head itself is sculpted in an expressive style. The stylized features make the face imposing, while the upcast eyes impart an ecstatic quality which, although more moderate here than in the period of Commodus, is characteristic of  the baroque style of the early 3rd century BC. The sculptor’s chisel carved the hair and the beard rigidly and mechanically, which unpolished treatment contrasts with that used for the smooth and luminous planes of the flesh. This contrast effect is once again indicative of the art of the late 2nd century. Renouncing naturalism in this manner is in keeping with a political and religious ideology aimed at portraying the emperor as an extraordinary being.

A portrait "gallery"

The head, as well as the portrait of Julia Domna (MA 1104), belong to a group of imperial effigies discovered in the ancient city of Verecunda in Algeria. This provincial origin explains the work’s rather rustic execution, which one also finds to a greater or lesser degree in the other portraits of the group. In fact, this ensemble constitutes the output of different artists working at different dates; what’s more, the means and tastes of those who commissioned these works might have led them to opt for artists who were more or less familiar with the Roman sculptural tradition. Thus, the Verecunda portraits form a group of inconsistent quality, but one representative of the relationship between official statuary and local tradition.

Bibliography

Baratte François, « Les Portraits impériaux de Markouna et la sculpture officielle dans l’Afrique romaine », in Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, 95, 2, 1983, pp. 785-815.

Kersauson K. (de), Catalogue des portraits romains. II. Portraits d’époque impériale, Paris 1996, n° 164, p. 358.

Technical description

  • L'empereur Septime Sévère

    Entre 205 et 211 après J.-C.

    Markouna, près de Lambèse, Algérie

  • Marbre

    H. : 66 cm.

  • Missions Renier, 1851 et Héron de Villefosse, 1874 , 1874

    Empereur de 193 - 211 après J.-C.

    N° d'entrée MNB 779 (n° usuel Ma 1119)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Roman art. Late antiquity. 3rd–5th century AD
    Room 27

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