After the death of Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus (r. 180 – 192 CE), there was civil conflict, and a general named Septimius Severus became master of the Roman world. His family portrait was painted with tempera on wood and it features himself, his wife, Julia Domna, and his two sons, Geta and Caracalla. What makes this piece so interesting is the use of gray in Severus’ hair, showing him in his later years (something that was not common in the art representing rulers; usually sculptures and paintings showed rulers in their prime). It is also interesting how there are only three faces shown in the painting when there is supposed to be four.
What happened to Severus’ son, Geta?
In 211 CE, Caracalla succeeded his father as emperor, he had Geta killed and his face erased from the portrait, damning him and his memory forever. According to Fred Kleiner, “the Severan family portrait is an eloquent testimony to the long arm of Roman authority, which reached all the way to Egypt in this case.” He implies that Roman Government used damnatio memoriae (or damnation of memory) as a political tool, symbolizing the great power rulers had over their own people.
Credit: KLEINER, F. R. E. D. S. (n.d.). Gardner’s Art through the ages: A concise global history. CENGAGE LEARNING.