Erased from memory: the Severan Tondo

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)


Additional resources:

More on Damnatio Memoriae

Klaus Forschen, The portraits of Roman emperors and their families,” in The Emperor and Rome: Space, Representation, and Ritual, edited by Björn C. Ewald and Carlos F. Noreña (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Eric R. Varner, Mutilation and Transformation : Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture (Brill 2004)



[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:03] In the era of Photoshop, we’ve learned not to trust images, not to trust photographs, but maybe we should never have trusted images.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] A case in point is this tempera painting of an ancient Roman emperor and his family. This is the family of Septimius Severus.

Dr. Zucker: [0:20] We think that there were numerous family portraits of emperors. This was a way that they could project their identity throughout the empire.

Dr. Harris: [0:28] The empire is enormous.

Dr. Zucker: [0:29] Most of them have not survived. This is a rare example. This was found in Egypt. This is tempera painting. That’s the same material that was used during the late medieval and into the beginning of the Renaissance.

[0:40] This is a wonderful and rare example of the early use of tempera. It shows four figures, or I should say, it had shown four figures.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] It did. One of those faces was scraped away.

Dr. Zucker: [0:50] Let’s actually tell the story and explain what’s happening here.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] It’s a family drama.

Dr. Zucker: [0:55] After Marcus Aurelius died, his son took over reign of the empire.

Dr. Harris: [0:59] Marcus Aurelius was known as a good emperor. When there began to be upheavals, Marcus Aurelius unified the empire.

Dr. Zucker: [1:06] Marcus Aurelius was also an author. He was a philosopher.

Dr. Harris: [1:09] He was known to be very wise.

Dr. Zucker: [1:11] 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 seize power.

Dr. Harris: [1:26] What we see Septimius do is not unusual in the history of Roman emperors. He seeks to identify himself with Marcus Aurelius.

Dr. Zucker: [1:34] He actually says that he is Marcus Aurelius’s son.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] He fabricates an identity for himself that connects him to Marcus Aurelius. In portraits, he makes himself appear like Marcus Aurelius.

Dr. Zucker: [1:47] 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 a Syrian priest.

[2:00] She’s wearing what look like quite beautiful pearls around her neck and dangling from her ears. They look out at us as wise and substantial figures.

Dr. Harris: [2:08] They look like an emperor and an empress. 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.

Dr. Zucker: [2:23] Now, what’s interesting is [that] generally, when we find ancient objects, we find fragments. We find things that are broken, we find elements missing. In this case, this was purposeful. This portrait had been rendered early, when the elder emperor was in power.

[2:36] 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.

Dr. Harris: [2:45] The law states that any images of his brother Geta should be eradicated throughout the empire.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] 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.

[3:02] When you look at this portrait, you are forcefully reminded of the act of erasure. It is the activity of removing this person that seems to have been most important.

Dr. Harris: [3:11] It’s true. Today we might expect that change to be hidden.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] 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 this political manipulation of history.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] 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.

[3:40] We’re reminded of not only how images have propagandistic purposes, but also how the likeness of someone could have power.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] This is an image that’s nearly 2,000 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.

[4:01] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Erased from memory: the Severan Tondo," in Smarthistory, July 11, 2020, accessed July 19, 2024,