This portrait of the emperor Septimius Severus and his family is a rarity. The dry climate of Egypt is to thank for the preservation of this piece, the only known painted portrait of a Roman emperor. Originally, paintings of Roman rulers must have been as numerous as the costly portraits in stone or bronze that have been found throughout the Roman Empire in public and private buildings.
The tondo was painted in tempera on a white ground by a quick and expert hand. It may have been commissioned upon the imperial family’s visit to the province Aegyptus in the winter of AD 199/200. The emperor is shown frontally, his wife at his side and their two children before them. The 11-year-old Caracalla and 10-year-old Geta were the successors to the throne. Father and sons alike wear white tunics topped by the alba triumphalis, a white mantle with purple and gold borders. They are further distinguished by long ivory sceptres and thick gold crowns adorned with three large gems apiece – perhaps the esteemed corona Etrusca. The empress wears a purple mantle with gold borders. A smooth gold diadem with precious stones crowns her wig-like hairdo, while earrings and a necklace in mother-of-pearl complete the ensemble. The busts of the emperor and his elder son Caracalla at right are depicted in front of those of the wife and younger son, respectively, a clear indicator of the order of rank. In the fall of 197, Septimius Severus elevated his elder son to the rank of “Augustus” and his younger to that of “Caesar.”
The political message of the image is obvious: representing the whole family together signals harmony in the dynastic lineage, which in turn guarantees security for the Roman people and continuity for the Roman Empire. After the murder of Emperor Commodus in AD 192 and the ensuing confusion, Septimius Severus (supported by his troops) emerged as sole ruler only in AD 197. An upstart from Leptis Magna, in the province Africa (today Libya), the ruler knew how to use visual media to proclaim the start of a new dynasty. With the death of their father on February 4, AD 211, Geta and his brother Caracalla became coregents; but by December Caracalla ordered the murder of Geta and thousands of his followers in Rome. On Caracalla’s orders, the Roman senate decided to condemn Geta’s memory (damnatio memoriae).
The Berlin tondo bears dramatic witness to the consequences of this order. Geta’s face was scratched out and smeared with grime, shattering the illusion of a harmonious ruling family. That the tondo was not entirely destroyed recalls the examples of inscriptions in which Geta’s name was meticulously erased while his father’s was respected. Because Septimius Severus was in fact a god of the state, his name and image were immune to attack. Geta, however, by the ruling of the senate, lost his life, and with it his right to be deified.