Bringing African Religion to Rome: Roma Universalis and the Severan Dynasty

Natalie Mendes is the 2018-19 Coleman-Hilton (University of Sydney) Scholar at the BSR. Here she takes a look at the current Roma Universalis. L’impero e la dinastia venuta dall’Africa exhibition at the Colosseum, and how it ties in with her own research.

Like many visitors to Rome, one of the first places I visited was the Colosseum, which is currently hosting an exhibition called Roma Universalis on the Severan Dynasty, Rome’s first African-Syrian imperial family. I wandered through an excellent collection of large marble portraits of the Severan family, models of the buildings they built throughout the empire, and artefacts attesting the immense economic growth of the period. As a student of ancient religions, however, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the section on religion.

In contrast to the wealth of displays on building and the economy the only two artefacts relating to religion were a small opus sectile portrait of Sol Invictus, and a votive dedication to Jupiter Dolichenus for the health of Septimius Severus and his family. By way of explanation, the exhibition stated that these items represented the most important aspect of Severan religion, which they described as the rise of ‘untraditional cults’ of a ‘salvific’ and ‘eschatological’ nature.

This is a carefully worded reformulation of an old theory first proposed in 1906 by historian Franz Cumont, that religion in the later Roman empire was characterised by the rise of a series of cults from ‘eastern’ provinces that predominantly focused on attaining immortality.[1] This theory has been extensively critiqued by historians, not least because it anachronistically paints these varied religions as weak and/or juvenile forms of Christianity, but also because it completely depends on our hindsight knowledge of the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 315 A.D., over 100 years after the accession of Septimius Severus.[2]

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This drastically mischaracterises the nature of, and intentions behind, the religions promoted by the Severan Dynasty. A more helpful way of thinking about these religions is as very carefully crafted public relations stunts designed to promote the emperor. The gods became emblematic of the emperor’s identity and style of leadership. In the case of the first African emperor, religion became a way of negotiating his current position of power and Rome’s colonial past.

Septimius Severus, for example, acknowledged and celebrated where he came from by issuing coins featuring the two patron gods from his hometown of Lepcis Magna in Libya, Liber Pater (Shadpra) god of wine and Hercules (Melquart), with the legend DI PATRII.[3] He also dedicated an enormous temple to these gods on the Quirinal hill.[4] Although his contemporaries remarked on Severus’ excessive expenditure, overall this expression of pride in his African hometown was accepted by his Roman elite contemporaries.

Fast forward a generation to the emperor Elagabalus, and we see his attempts to capitalise on his cultural identity were not so well received. As a child emperor his greatest claim to fame was being a priest of the god he was popularly named after, Elagabalus from Syria. He used the god as a selling point of his regime. Instead of a cult statue, the Syrian god was represented by a large cone-shaped meteorite which the emperor brought to Rome in a golden chariot, surrounded by enormous pomp and ceremony, and placed it in a new temple.[5]

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This PR stunt backfired spectacularly. The first disaster was when Elagabalus married a priestess of the cult of Vesta, one of Rome’s oldest and most sacred cults.[6] This struck a sour note with the Roman public, not least because the priestesses were meant to be virgins, a responsibility taken so seriously that the punishment for losing their virginity was being buried alive. After a short marriage, the pair swiftly divorced, and the emperor arranged a new marriage for the Syrian sun-god, to the African goddess, Caelestis.[7] Josephine Quinn has recently argued that this staged divine marriage was intended to highlight the Phoenician diasporic heritage shared by the provinces of Africa and Syria, and deliberately mirrored the marriage of the African Septimius Severus and the Syrian Julia Domna.[8] In other words, the stunt was designed to sell the emperor’s own ‘Phoenician’ cultural identity. This was not necessarily well received. Rumours spread about the emperor’s religious practices such as that he sacrificed children and castrated himself, drawing on old stereotypes about the Phoenicians, and leading his contemporaries to declare his failure as a moral leader.[9]

Even for the emperor, the acceptable limits of expressing foreign identity in Rome were still being negotiated. One famous anecdote claims that when Septimius Severus’ sister arrived in Rome she was ridiculed by the court because she could barely speak Latin, and had to be quietly shipped back to Libya.[10] Elagabalus failed to sell his brand of identity, lurching from one public relations disaster to the next. His contemporaries connected his failures as a moral leader to his eventual assassination.[11] Elagabalus was assassinated by his own soldiers, and his body was dragged through the streets of Rome impaled on a hook and thrown in the Tiber, the ultimate dishonour.[12] The stakes of this game of identity politics were very high. Elagabalus’ successor, Alexander could see where the boundary lines were drawn and reversed the rearrangement of temples by Elagabalus.[13]

The history of Severan religion offers a darker perspective on the diversity of empire. The silence of the current exhibition on the subject may reflect the difficulty of talking about it. Recently the BSR hosted a conference on Roman Britain in The Roman Empire, in which issues of identity and diversity became the focus of the discussion. Hella Eckardt spoke about her exhibition at Yorkshire Museum showcasing the diversity of Roman British society during the Empire, including the ‘ivory bangle lady’ a high-status African woman who had been buried in Britain.[14] She also described the online backlash the exhibition received. Then as now, diversity need not be founded on tolerance.

I believe we cannot hold up Rome as a shining example of the virtues of diversity, but I do believe that these stories can help us think about religion and identity in the modern world. The story of the Severan dynasty and the African-Syrian religions they brought to Rome deserves to be told, and Rome’s most famous tourist attraction would have been a powerful setting for it.


Natalie Mendes (Coleman-Hilton (University of Sydney) Scholar)

Thanks to the generosity of Mr Jeffrey Hilton and Ms Suzanne Coleman, the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney offers an Australian scholar the opportunity to travel to and reside at the British School at Rome for six months.


[1] Cumont, Franz (1906) Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain, Paris.

[2] For example see critiques in: Bonnet, Corinne and Rüpke, Jörg, Scarpi, Paolo (eds.) (2006) Religions orientales – culti misterici. Neue Perspektiven – Nouvelles perspectives, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag, and Bonnet, Corinne and Rüpke, Jörg (2009) Les « religions orientales » dans le monde grec et romain, Trivium.

[3] Rowan, Claire (2013) Under Divine Auspices, 68-84. Cf. Birley (1971) Septimius Severus, 228.

[4] Cassius Dio 77.16.3.

[5] Herodian 5.6.7.

[6] Cassius Dio 80.9.3; Herodian 5.6.2.

[7] Cassius Dio 80.12.1.

[8] Quinn’s argument is much more nuanced than the summary I have given here: Quinn, Josephine (2018) In Search of the Phoenicians, Princeton UP.

[9] Cassius Dio 80.11.1.; 80.16.7.

[10] SHA, Life of Severus, 15.7.

[11] See Cassius Dio 80.17.1.

[12] Cassius Dio 80.20.2.

[13] Herodian 6.1.3.


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