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Faces of Roman Emperors: Nerva to the Severan Dynasty

Faces of Roman Emperors: Nerva to the Severan Dynasty

A series of facial reconstructions of Roman emperors from the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (96 CE-192 CE), the Year of the Five Emperors (193 CE) and the Severan Dynasty (193-235 CE). These photorealistic reconstructions are only best guesses at how their subjects may have appeared, based on literary and artistic evidence. Some artistic license has been taken to fill in certain details that ancient sources failed to note. Part of "Appearance of the Principate", a larger series by Daniel Voshart, made using Photoshop and Artbreeder, a neural net tool.


Caracalla ( / ˌ k æ r ə ˈ k æ l ə / KARR -ə- KAL -ə [2] 4 April 188 – 8 April 217), formally known as Antoninus (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), was Roman emperor from 198 to 217. He was a member of the Severan dynasty, the elder son of Septimius Severus and Julia Domna. Co-ruler with his father from 198, he continued to rule with his brother Geta, emperor from 209, after their father's death in 211. His brother was murdered by the Praetorian Guard later that year, supposedly under orders from Caracalla himself, who then reigned afterwards as sole ruler of the Roman Empire. He found administration to be mundane, leaving those responsibilities to his mother, Julia Domna, to attend to. Caracalla's reign featured domestic instability and external invasions by the Germanic peoples.

Caracalla's reign became notable for the Antonine Constitution (Latin: Constitutio Antoniniana), also known as the Edict of Caracalla, which granted Roman citizenship to all free men throughout the Roman Empire. The edict gave all the enfranchised men Caracalla's adopted praenomen and nomen: "Marcus Aurelius". Domestically, Caracalla became known for the construction of the Baths of Caracalla, which became the second-largest baths in Rome for the introduction of a new Roman currency named the antoninianus, a sort of double denarius and for the massacres he ordered, both in Rome and elsewhere in the empire. In 216, Caracalla began a campaign against the Parthian Empire. He did not see this campaign through to completion due to his assassination by a disaffected soldier in 217. Macrinus succeeded him as emperor three days later.

The ancient sources portray Caracalla as a tyrant and as a cruel leader, an image that has survived into modernity. Dio Cassius (c. 155 – c. 235) and Herodian (c. 170 – c. 240) present Caracalla as a soldier first and an emperor second. In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth started the legend of Caracalla's role as the king of Britain. Later, in the 18th century, the works of French painters revived images of Caracalla due to apparent parallels between Caracalla's tyranny and that ascribed to Louis XVI of France ( r . 1774–1792 ). Modern works continue to portray Caracalla as an evil ruler, painting him as one of the most tyrannical of all Roman emperors.

Condemning Memory

Damnatio memoriae is a term we use to describe a Roman phenomenon in which the government condemned the memory of a person who was seen as a tyrant, traitor, or other sort of enemy to the state. This term, which literally means “condemnation of memory,” was not used by the Romans themselves. It was first used in the 17th century. The images of such condemned figures would be destroyed, their names erased from inscriptions, and if the doomed person were an emperor or other government official, even his laws could be rescinded. Coins bearing the image of an emperor who had his memory damned would be recalled or cancelled. In some cases, the residence of the condemned could be razed or otherwise destroyed.[1]

This was more than a form of casual, politically-motivated vandalism, carried out by disgruntled individuals, since the condemnation required approval of the Senate and the effects of the official denunciation could be seen far from Rome. There are many examples of damnatio memoriae throughout the history of the Roman Republic and Empire. As many as 26 emperors through the reign of Constantine had their memories condemned conversely, about 25 emperors were deified after their deaths. The damning of memory phenomenon, however, is not unique to the Roman world. Egyptian pharaohs Hatshepsut and Akhenaten likewise had many of their their images, monuments, and inscriptions destroyed by political opponents or religious purists.[2]

27 BC – AD 14: Augustus

Octavian, the grandnephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, had made himself a central military figure during the chaotic period following Caesar's assassination. In 43 BC at the age of twenty he became one of the three members of the Second Triumvirate, a political alliance with Marcus Lepidus and Mark Antony. [16] Octavian and Antony defeated the last of Caesar's assassins in 42 BC at the Battle of Philippi, although after this point, tensions began to rise between the two. The triumvirate ended in 32 BC, torn apart by the competing ambitions of its members: Lepidus was forced into exile and Antony, who had allied himself with his lover Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, committed suicide in 30 BC following his defeat at the Battle of Actium (31 BC) by the fleet of Octavian. Octavian subsequently annexed Egypt to the empire. [17]

Now sole ruler of Rome, Octavian began a full-scale reformation of military, fiscal and political matters. The Senate granted him power over appointing its membership and over the governors of the provinces. [18] In doing so, the Senate had created for Octavian what would become the office of Roman emperor. In 27 BC, Octavian offered to transfer control of the state back to the Senate. [19] The senate refused the offer, in effect ratifying his position within the state and the new political order. Octavian was then granted the title of "Augustus" by the Senate [20] and took the title of Princeps or "first citizen". [18] Augustus (as modern scholars usually refer to him from this point) was seen by the Senate and People of Rome as the savior of the Republic, and as such he operated within the existing constitutional machinery. He thus rejected titles that Romans associated with monarchy, such as rex ("king"). The dictatorship, a military office in the early Republic typically lasting only for the six-month military campaigning season, had been resurrected first by Sulla in the late 80s BC and then by Julius Caesar in the mid-40s the title dictator was never again used. As the adopted heir of Julius Caesar, Augustus had taken Caesar as a component of his name, and handed down the name to his heirs of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. With Vespasian, one of the first emperors outside the dynasty, Caesar evolved from a family name to a formal title.

Augustus created his novel and historically unique position by consolidating the constitutional powers of several Republican offices. He renounced his consulship in 23 BC, but retained his consular imperium, leading to a second compromise between Augustus and the Senate known as the Second Settlement. Augustus was granted the authority of a tribune (tribunicia potestas), though not the title, which allowed him to call together the Senate and people at will and lay business before it, veto the actions of either the Assembly or the Senate, preside over elections, and it gave him the right to speak first at any meeting. Also included in Augustus's tribunician authority were powers usually reserved for the Roman censor these included the right to supervise public morals and scrutinize laws to ensure they were in the public interest, as well as the ability to hold a census and determine the membership of the Senate. No tribune of Rome ever had these powers, and there was no precedent within the Roman system for consolidating the powers of the tribune and the censor into a single position, nor was Augustus ever elected to the office of Censor. Whether censorial powers were granted to Augustus as part of his tribunician authority, or he simply assumed those, is a matter of debate.

In addition to those powers, Augustus was granted sole imperium within the city of Rome itself all armed forces in the city, formerly under the control of the prefects, were now under the sole authority of Augustus. Additionally, Augustus was granted imperium proconsulare maius (power over all proconsuls), the right to interfere in any province and override the decisions of any governor. With maius imperium, Augustus was the only individual able to grant a triumph to a successful general as he was ostensibly the leader of the entire Roman army.

The Senate re-classified the provinces at the frontiers (where the vast majority of the legions were stationed) as imperial provinces, and gave control of those to Augustus. The peaceful provinces were re-classified as senatorial provinces, governed as they had been during the Republic by members of the Senate sent out annually by the central government. [21] Senators were prohibited from so much as visiting Roman Egypt, given its great wealth and history as a base of power for opposition to the new emperor. Taxes from the Imperial provinces went into the fiscus, the fund administrated by persons chosen by and answerable to Augustus. The revenue from senatorial provinces continued to be sent to the state treasury (aerarium), under the supervision of the Senate.

The Roman legions, which had reached an unprecedented 50 in number because of the civil wars, were reduced to 28. Several legions, particularly those with members of doubtful loyalties, were simply demobilised. Other legions were united, a fact hinted by the title Gemina (Twin). [22] Augustus also created nine special cohorts to maintain peace in Italia, with three, the Praetorian Guard, kept in Rome. Control of the fiscus enabled Augustus to ensure the loyalty of the legions through their pay.

Augustus completed the conquest of Hispania, while subordinate generals expanded Roman possessions in Africa and Asia Minor. Augustus' final task was to ensure an orderly succession of his powers. His stepson Tiberius had conquered Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and temporarily Germania for the Empire, and was thus a prime candidate. In 6 BC, Augustus granted some of his powers to his stepson, [23] and soon after he recognized Tiberius as his heir. In 13 AD, a law was passed which extended Augustus' powers over the provinces to Tiberius, [24] so that Tiberius' legal powers were equivalent to, and independent from, those of Augustus. [24]

Attempting to secure the borders of the empire upon the rivers Danube and Elbe, Augustus ordered the invasions of Illyria, Moesia, and Pannonia (south of the Danube), and Germania (west of the Elbe). At first everything went as planned, but then disaster struck. The Illyrian tribes revolted and had to be crushed, and three full legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus were ambushed and destroyed at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 by Germanic tribes led by Arminius. Being cautious, Augustus secured all territories west of Rhine and contented himself with retaliatory raids. The rivers Rhine and Danube became the permanent borders of the Roman empire in the North.

In 14 AD Augustus died at the age of seventy-five, having ruled the empire for forty years, and was succeeded as emperor by Tiberius.

8. Vespasian

The year 69 AD was a tumultuous time for the Roman Empire. After the death of Nero and the end of his bloodline, there was a power void which multiple men fought to fill. This event became known as the Year of the Four Emperors and, as its name implies, it saw four men quickly assume the imperial title in succession.

When the year started, Galba was emperor. He was killed by the Praetorian Guard in January and replaced by Otho, recognized as new emperor by the Senate. He, however, had to contend with Vitellius, who had been proclaimed the new ruler by his troops and was marching to Rome with an army to claim the throne. Vitellius won in April and became the new emperor, while Otho committed suicide.

Meanwhile, at the edges of the empire, Vespasian, who was a renowned and respected military commander, was busy fighting in the First Jewish-Roman War. Like with Vitellius, his loyal troops in Judaea proclaimed Vespasian the new emperor, as did the ones in Egypt and Syria. Being further away, it simply took him longer to reach Rome, but he did in October. Vitellius was killed and, in December, Vespasian was proclaimed the new Emperor of Rome.

Vespasian went on to rule for almost ten years, founding the Flavian Dynasty. Undoubtedly, his biggest accomplishment was bringing some much needed stability to the empire and prevent it from fracturing completely. As a bonus, Vespasian was also the one who began construction on Rome’s most famous landmark, the Colosseum , although it was finished during the reign of his son, Titus.


Macrinus was accepted as emperor by the soldiers, who were unaware of the role he had played in the death of his predecessor. For the first time an eques had acceded to the empire after having been no more than a manager of financial affairs. The senators reluctantly accepted this member of the equestrian order, who, nevertheless, proved to be moderate and conciliatory but the armies despised him as a mere civilian, and the ancient authors were hostile to him. His reign was brief, and little is known of him. He concluded an inglorious peace with the Parthians, which assured Mesopotamia to Rome through the payment of large sums of money. And to make himself popular, he canceled Caracalla’s tax increases and reduced military expenditures. A plot against him was soon organized: two young grandnephews of Septimius Severus were persuaded by their mothers and especially by their grandmother, Julia Maesa, the sister of Julia Domna (who had recently died), to reach for imperial power. The eldest, Bassianus, was presented to the troops of Syria, who had been bought with gold, and was proclaimed in April 218. Shortly afterward, Macrinus was defeated and killed, as was his son (whom he had associated with him on the throne).

Severan dynasty (AD 193 - 235)

The Severan dynasty includes the increasingly troubled reigns of Septimius Severus (193-211), Caracalla (211-217), Macrinus (217-218), Elagabalus (218-222), and Alexander Severus (222-235). The founder of the dynasty, Lucius Septimius Severus, belonged to a leading native family of Leptis Magna in Africa who allied himself with a prominent Syrian family by his marriage to Julia Domna. Their provincial background and cosmopolitan alliance, eventually giving rise to imperial rulers of Syrian background, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus, testifies to the broad political franchise and economic development of the Roman empire that had been achieved under the Antonines. A generally successful ruler, Septimius Severus cultivated the army's support with substantial remuneration in return for total loyalty to the emperor and substituted equestrian officers for senators in key administrative positions. In this way, he successfully broadened the power base of the imperial administration throughout the empire. Abolishing the regular standing jury courts of Republican times, Septimius Severus was likewise able to transfer additional power to the executive branch of the government, of which he was decidedly the chief representative.

Septimius Severus' son, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus - nicknamed Caracalla - removed all legal and political distinction between Italians and provincials, enacting the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212 which extended full Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire. Caracalla was also responsible for erecting the famous Baths of Caracalla in Rome, their design serving as an architectural model for many subsequent monumental public buildings. Increasingly unstable and autocratic, Caracalla was assassinated by the praetorian prefect Macrinus in 217, who succeeded him briefly as the first emperor not of senatorial rank. The imperial court, however, was dominated by formidable women who arranged the succession of Elagabalus in 218, and Alexander Severus, the last of the dynasty, in 222. In the last phase of the Severan principate, the power of the Senate was somewhat revived and a number of fiscal reforms were enacted. Despite early successes against the Sassanian Empire in the East, Alexander Severus' increasing inability to control the army led eventually to its mutiny and his assassination in 235. The death of Alexander Severus ushered in a subsequent period of soldier-emperors and almost a half-century of civil war and strife.

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Antonine Dynasty (96&ndash180)

The next century came to be known as the period of the " Five Good Emperors", in which the succession was peaceful though not dynastic and the Empire was prosperous. The emperors of this period were Nerva (96&ndash98), Trajan (98&ndash117), Hadrian (117&ndash138), Antoninus Pius (138&ndash161) and Marcus Aurelius (161&ndash180), each being adopted by his predecessor as his successor during the former's lifetime. While their respective choices of successor were based upon the merits of the individual men they selected, it has been argued that the real reason for the lasting success of the adoptive scheme of succession lay more with the fact that none but the last had a natural heir.

Nerva (96&ndash98)

After his accession, Nerva went to set a new tone: he released those imprisoned for treason, banned future prosecutions for treason, restored much confiscated property, and involved the Roman Senate in his rule. He probably did so as a means to remain relatively popular (and therefore alive), but this did not completely aid him. Support for Domitian in the army remained strong, and in October 97 the Praetorian Guard laid siege to the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill and took Nerva hostage. He was forced to submit to their demands, agreeing to hand over those responsible for Domitian's death and even giving a speech thanking the rebellious Praetorians. Nerva then adopted Trajan, a commander of the armies on the German frontier, as his successor shortly thereafter in order to bolster his own rule. Casperius Aelianus, the Guard Prefect responsible for the mutiny against Nerva, was later executed under Trajan.

Trajan (98&ndash117)

In 112, provoked by Parthia's decision to put an unacceptable king on the throne of Armenia, a kingdom over which the two great empires had shared hegemony since the time of Nero some fifty years earlier, Trajan marched first on Armenia. He deposed the king and annexed it to the Roman Empire. Then he turned south into Parthia itself, taking the cities of Babylon, Seleucia and finally the capital of Ctesiphon in 116. He continued southward to the Persian Gulf, whence he declared Mesopotamia a new province of the empire and lamented that he was too old to follow in the steps of Alexander the Great. But he did not stop there. Later in 116, he captured the great city of Susa. He deposed the Parthian King Osroes I and put his own puppet ruler Parthamaspates on the throne. Never again would the Roman Empire advance so far to the east.

Hadrian (117&ndash138)

Despite his own excellence as a military administrator, Hadrian's reign was marked by a general lack of major military conflicts. He surrendered Trajan's conquests in Mesopotamia, considering them to be indefensible. There was almost a war with Parthia around 121, but the threat was averted when Hadrian succeeded in negotiating a peace. Hadrian's army crushed a massive Jewish uprising in Judea (132&ndash135) led by Simon Bar Kokhba.

Hadrian was the first emperor to extensively tour the provinces, donating money for local construction projects as he went. In Britain, he ordered the construction of a wall, the famous Hadrian's Wall as well as various other such defenses in Germany and Northern Africa. His domestic policy was one of relative peace and prosperity.

476–1453: Eastern Roman Empire

As the Western Roman Empire weakened and vanished in the 5th century, the richer Eastern Roman Empire (today known as Byzantine Empire) managed to survive and to recover its strength. In the mid 6th century emperor Justinian I managed to reconquer Italy and parts of Illyria from the Ostrogoths, North Africa from the Vandals, and parts of southern Hispania from the Visigoths.

Emperor Heraclius conducted sweeping internal structural reforms in 610, changing the face and arguably the nature of the empire. Greek language became the language of government and the influence of Latin slowly waned. The Eastern Roman Empire was under strong and increasing Greek cultural influence and became what many current historians now call the Byzantine Empire, although the Empire was never called thus by its inhabitants. They rather called it Romania, Basileia Romaion or Pragmata Romaion, meaning "Land of the Romans", "Kingdom of the Romans"), regarded themselves as Romans, and understood that their state was a direct continuation of the Roman Empire .

The Byzantine empire fell in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks led by Mehmed II with the conquest of Constantinople and the death of Constantine XI. The Greek ethnic self-descriptive name Roman survives to this day.