If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Severan Tondo: Damnatio Memoriae in ancient Rome

The ancient Roman Emperor Septimius Severus used a family portrait to fabricate a connection to the respected Marcus Aurelius. When his son Caracalla took power, he erased his brother Geta from the portrait, demonstrating how images can be manipulated for political purposes. A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris in front of The Severan Tondo, c. 200 C.E., 30.5 cm, tempera on wood (Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen, Berlin). Created by Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    Did not Mao Tse-tung do similar "erasures" of people who fell out of favor? And did not Mao's successor, Hua Guo-feng restyle his hair to more closely match that of Mao? These phenomena seem to repeat themselves.
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

(light music) - [Narrator 1] In the era of Photoshop, we've learned not to trust images, not to trust photographs but maybe we should never have trusted images. - [Narrator 2] A case in point is this tempera painting of an ancient Roman Emperor and his family. This is the family of Septimius Severus. - [Narrator 1] We think that there were numerous family portraits of emperors and this was a way that they could project their identity throughout the empire. - [Narrator 2] The empire is enormous. - [Narrator 1] But most of them have not survived. This is a rare example and this was found in Egypt. This is a tempera painting. That's the same material that was used during the late medieval and into the beginning of the renaissance. But this is a wonderful and rare example of the early use of tempera and it shows four figures or I should say, it had shown four figures - [Narrator 2] It did. One of those faces was scraped away. - [Narrator 1] Let's actually tell the story and explain what's happening here. - [Narrator 2] It's a family drama. - [Narrator 1] After Marcus Aurelius died, his son took over reign of the Empire. - [Narrator 2] And Marcus Aurelius was known as a good emperor. When there began to be upheavals, Marcus Aurelius unified the empire. - [Narrator 1] And Marcus Aurelius was also an author. He was a philosopher. - [Narrator 2] He was known to be very wise. - [Narrator 1] He really stood for all that was good in the empire. After his son's death however, the empire fell into disarray and there was a period of real violence. The last man standing after this period of upheaval was Septimius Severus. He was an African-born general and he was able to see his power. - [Narrator 2] What we see Septimius do is not unusual in the history of Roman emperors. He seeks to identify himself with Marcus Aurelius. - [Narrator 1] And he actually says that he is Marcus Aurelius's son. - [Narrator 1] He fabricates an identity for himself that connects him to Marcus Aurelius. And in portraits, he makes himself a peer like Marcus Aurelius. - [Narrator 1] You can see that in the long beard and the long hair which were both symbols of Marcus Aurelius. Septimius Severus is in this portrait on the upper right. You can see large jewels in his crown. You can see his wife who was the daughter of the Syrian priest. She's wearing what looked like quite beautiful pearls around her neck and dangling from her ears. They look out at us as wise and substantial figures. - [Narrator 2] They look like an emperor and an empress. And they have that sense of authority about them. Below them are their two children. The one on the right is Caracalla, and the one whose face has been obliterated is Geta. - [Narrator 1] Now what's interesting is generally when we find ancient objects, we find fragments, we find things that are broken, we find elements missing. But in this case, this was purposeful. This portrait had been rendered early when the elder emperor was in power. When his son, Caracalla rose to power he actually has his brother murdered and goes even further which is to pass a law that damns his brother's memory. - [Narrator 2] The law states that any images of his brother, Geta, should be eradicated throughout the empire. - [Narrator 1] What's fascinating is that this image was made and existed in Egypt that is at the edge of the Roman Empire and yet this law made its way all the way there and was followed. When you look at this portrait, you are forceably reminded of the act of erasure. It is the activity of removing this person that seems to have been most important. - [Narrator 2] It's true. Today we might expect that change to be hidden. - [Narrator 1] You know, it reminds me a little bit of the 1930s when Stalin had photographs manipulated so that people who had become politically expendable were removed from photographs that included Stalin. It is his political manipulation of history. - [Narrator 2] It's a rewriting of history that Septimius Severus did by making himself look like Marcus Aurelius and that his son did by having the image of his brother eradicated. I think we're reminded of not only how images had propagandistic purposes but also how the likeness of someone could have power. - [Narrator 1] This is an image that's nearly 2000 years old and yet we're reminded that images can both bestow extraordinary power and can be used as a violent means to erase one's place in history. (upbeat music)