Why We Need to Remember the Roman Empire’s Hybridity and Cosmopolitanism Today

As Italy fights over its ancient past, an exhibition about the lesser-known Severan dynasty carries powerful messages for our present moment

Antiquity, it’s sometimes easy to forget, is not confined to a fixed historical period. It’s a living, breathing field of culture and art that remains open to ideological co-option. In Italy, this has often benefited the far right. In the 1920s, Benito Mussolini famously used Roman icons – the eagle or fasces, for instance – as part of his militaristic call for the nation to toughen-up and fall in line. Today’s fascistic progeny, meanwhile, prefer a more fear-ridden narrative, based on a vague notion of a pure, white, Christian, Italo-Roman West under threat from barbarian refugees. Such a narrative resonates particularly widely in Italy, not only due to current economic anxieties but because it is deeply embedded in the collective psyche. Just last December, the Italian government re-opened its decades-long dispute with the Getty Museum over the life-sized bronze statue Victorious Youth (c. 300–100 BCE), which they demand must be returned from Los Angeles to Italy on the basis that it is an object of national heritage. Leaving aside that the statue originated in Greece and was, according to most professional judgements, legally purchased, this proved a cathartic opportunity for the media and political class to dust off the national myth: an epic tale of utopia, decadence and decline, hinged on the eternal promise of future glory.

Busto femminile con tunica e mantello e ritratto di Giulia Mamea, 222-235 AD. Courtesy: Palazzo Nuovo, Rome

Fortunately, there remain individuals and institutions at work in Italy that continue to challenge this simplistic propaganda with a more rational, fact-based and, ultimately, complex version of the ancient world, targeted at a global public. ‘Roma Universalis’ – a new exhibition at the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill, which runs until August – is a case in point. Rather than retrace the familiar territory of the Punic Wars or Christian martyrs, the curators have taken a risk and decided to shine new light on the cultural legacy of the Severan dynasty: a lesser-known group of emperors, who governed between 193 to 235 CE, and who traced their origins to Leptis Magna in modern-day Libya. This was a turbulent period, punctuated by two civil wars and the near-constant threat of a military coup on the part of the high-ranking Praetorian guard. At the same time, it represents what many historians see as the full maturity of the imperial project. As one of the curators, Alessandro D’Alessio, a project manager at the Colosseum, tells me: ‘The dynasty and Severan era constitute, in the history of the Roman Empire, a phase of crisis but also of transformation that was absolutely epochal. From the growth of a militarisation of power, to radical economic reforms, to the concession of Roman citizenship to all free citizens in the empire, to an increased role for women in the state, to new architectural styles, it’s a past with some quite direct messages for our present.’

The bulk of the exhibition, which weaves around the second floor of the Colosseum’s walkway, is constructed largely around statues and busts of the various emperors. Caracalla, a notorious tyrant, born in Gaul and remembered for the brutal murder of his brother Geta, stands out among the portraits, snarling back at the viewer through violent eyes. Yet, it was he, we learn, in his Antonine Constitution of 212 CE, who gave women equal rights to men as ‘free’ Roman citizens – in theory, at least. Then there is Severus Alexander, from Arqa in modern-day Lebanon, a more moderate reformist who oversaw some key anti-corruption legislation. Under his largely peaceful rule, the extravagant orgiastic behaviour that had come to characterize Roman officials was apparently diminished and bribery more heavily penalized. The dynasty’s most significant figure though, according to D’Alessio, was its founder, Septimus Severus. There are countless representations of this emperor, many of which present him in a positively Dionysian light, with curly hair and flowing beard. ‘Septimus was African with Italic origins,’ explains D’Alessio. ‘He travelled all the territory of the empire but seems to have struggled to speak fluent Latin. He married a Syrian woman called Julia Domna. Their success is important because it reminds us, in terms of access to power at least, that Roman society was relatively open.’  

‘Roma Universalis’, 2018, installation view, Piazza del Colosseo, Rome. Courtesy: Piazza del Colosseo, Rome

A useful map, in the section on economy and trade, shows just how vast the empire was under the Severans. Stretching from Tangiers to York to Palmyra, this period witnessed one of the largest territorial expansions after Trajan’s well-known military campaigns in Dacia. In contrast to the straightforwardly dominating colonial logic of Europe’s modern empires, Severan rule deepened the interdependence between the ‘centre’, in the Italic peninsula, and the so-called periphery of Northern Africa. It was under Septimus, for example, that works began on the great forum and baths at Leptis Magna, the ruins of which remain some of the most impressive and best preserved in Africa. In Rome, meanwhile, a triumphal arch was commissioned to celebrate the assimilation of the Parthian peoples, from what is now Iran, into the imperial fold. The exhibition includes two masterpieces of silverwork found near Baghdad, depicting beautifully gilded hunting scenes. They and other similar artefacts show how Roman aesthetic ideals spread and were adapted, with great skill, by artisans at the empire’s eastern frontier.

Despite their many achievements, the Severans never established a dynastic mythology to rival those of some of their predecessors. Their infighting was not only politically destructive, it laid waste to a great deal of archaeological evidence. Nonetheless, D’Alessio maintains that Roman culture was transformed to its very core in these turbulent 40 years. ‘The empire was already a multi-ethnic society and included people of every skin colour, language, culture, religion,’ he tells me, ‘but it was in the Severan period that it became fully unified.’ Syriac was recognized as a literary language with the expressive capacity to equal Greek and Latin. Jupiter and Sol, the Roman sun gods, were revered alongside a number of new counterparts: not only Isis and Serapis from Egypt, but also Baal and Elagabalus from the Middle East. Mythological figures were given new stories. Hercules, as patron deity of Leptis Magna, was re-invented as a bulwark against the Berbers. The figure of Medusa, usually seen as the face of the unknown Other, was etched with increasing frequency into the capital’s famously sturdy concrete. A sarcophagus depicting the origins of Rome, constructed during the Severan period, is one of the exhibition’s most intriguing artefacts. It is not, as might be expected, the usual tribute to Romulus and Remus, but is instead inscribed with a panoply of figures from across the Hellenistic world – a metaphor of Roman identity as a meeting point for perpetual outsiders.

Realizzata mediante l’unione di due parti ottenute a matrice e decorata con Marte e Orfeo attorniati da varie figure mitologiche, 290-320 AD. Courtesy: Musée du Bardo, Turin

The real power of ‘Roma Universalis’, though, is not limited to the exhibition itself but comes from its function as a frame through which to interpret the surrounding archaeological sites. The celebration of this largely overlooked history, and its impressive artistic legacy, will inevitably impact the way visitors experience the ruins of the ancient city itself. Exiting the Colosseum into the Forum, for example, where the Severan contributions to Rome have been cleverly highlighted, visitors are encouraged to reflect not only on the pomp, ceremony and beauty of the surrounding monuments, but on the hybridity and cosmopolitanism that made the Roman project so innovative. These are, in other words, the living remains of a humanistic project that Italy so happens to be the custodian of today. It’s a powerful message in times like these and I find myself asking D’Alessio whether he thinks such an intervention can make a genuine impact on the public imagination. ‘I really think so’, he replies, before adding, ‘at least for those people who are sufficiently open-minded to embrace new ways of thinking.’ 

Main image: ‘Roma Universalis’, 2018, installation view, Piazza del Colosseo, Rome. Courtesy: Piazza del Colosseo, Rome

Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Italy. He is a contributor to VICEInternazionale, and Il Manifesto among others, and author of The Invention of Sicily, which is forthcoming from Verso.

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