3 Apr 2014
London, New Bond Street

"Do not disagree with each other, give money to the soldiers, and scorn all other men" were Emperor Septimius Severus' dying words to his sons

A Roman marble portrait head of the Emperor Septimius Severus is set to go under the hammer in the Bonhams Antiquities auction in London on April 3. Estimated at £120,000-150,000, the work is dated to approximately 194 A.D.

Septimius Severus was the first African Roman Emperor. He was born in Leptis Magna (present-day Libya) in 145 A.D. and reigned from 193 A.D. until his death in Britain, in York, in February 211 A.D., having travelled virtually the entire length of the Roman world.

Having gained power under the Emperor Commodus (the last Emperor of the Roman Antonine Dynasty) as commander of the Pannonian legions, he was one of the five claimants for the Imperial throne after the assassination of Commodus in 192 A.D. He was proclaimed emperor by his legions, at which point he travelled immediately to Rome and defeated his rivals.

His second wife, Julia Domna, was also born outside of Rome (in the province of Syria) and together they championed eastern cults and invested a great deal in the North African provinces. The pair were also keen scholars of philosophy, astrology and mysticism and Septimius Severus spoke several languages.

During the latter part of his reign, Septimius Severus led a relatively successful campaign in Britain, fortifying Hadrian's wall as well as reclaiming land up to the Antonine wall (the northernmost of the two great walls), but faced much hardship whilst attempting to conquer all of Scotland. Forced to retreat due to ill health, he died in 211 A.D. at Eboracum, a fort and city in Roman Britain which was to become York.

He was subsequently deified.

As well as reinstating the Antonine wall, Septimius Severus also modelled his portraiture in the Antonine style, presumably to help defend his claim to the throne and strengthen his dynastic ambitions. He even retrospectively had himself adopted into the Antonine family in 196 A.D.

Septimius Severus' portrait types have been divided by scholars into four main groups. This lot can be identified as an example of the earliest and rarest type, the "accession type", produced between 193 and 196 A.D. during his struggle for the empire.

Madeleine Perridge, Head of Antiquities at Bonhams says: "This is an important and striking portrait of a man who was born in relative obscurity in the Roman province of North Africa, but who rose to become Emperor of Rome."


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to www.bonhams.com

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