Septizonium Vetus


Illustration from B. Gamucci, Le Antichità della Città di Roma, 1580
Figure 1. The remains of the Septizodium/Septizonium with its fragmentary inscription visible in the first story architrave. Engraving with etching after Giovanni Ambrogio Brambilla, 1582, published by Claudio Duchetti, republished after 1691 by Domenico De Rossi, 47.3 x 32.4 cm, Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2012.2.16 (source: Michael C. Carlos Museum).
Figure 2. Reconstruction of the Septizonium by Christian Hülsen, 1886 (from Septizonium des Septimius Severus, pl. 4).
Figure 3. Ligorio’s reconstruction of the Septizodium, which he labels the Septizonium Vetus, as a colonnaded structure of seven stories.
Figure 4. Marble fragment of a reclining river god discovered during archeological excavations of the Septizonium, 120 x 120 cm, Rome, Palatine Museum, Inv. 425524 (source: K. Cupello).
Septimius Severus


Septizonium Vetus


Until the late 16th century, the vestiges of an elusive imperial monument, commonly known as the Septizonium or Septizodium (Figure 1), stood at the foot of the SE corner of the Palatine Hill where the Via Appia reached the Circus Maximus. The Septizonium was a monumental public fountain complex or nymphaeum dedicated to the emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 C.E.) and his son Caracalla (r. 198-217 C.E.). The dedication of the monument is dated to either 202 or 203 C.E. (Lusnia [2004] 108; Lusnia [2006] 196). Originally measuring 93-95 m long and 29.87 m high (Pisani Sartorio [1999] 270), the Septizonium presented a theater-like, three-story façade of alternately projecting and receding sections which screened the accumulated architecture of the Palatine (Figure 2). An array of costly polychromatic stones, including grey granite, alabaster, white marble, africano, pavonazzetto, cipollino, and giallo antico, would have combined with water features and sculpture to create an impressive sight (Pisani Sartorio [1999] 269-70). This feature together with the combination of vertically and spirally fluted columns led to the belief that the Septizonium made use of spoliated materials (e.g. Gamucci [1580] 82), but this has proved to be false. The richness of its materials is what led Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) to order the destruction of what remained of the Septizonium so that the stones could be harvested for his building projects. The work was carried out between 1588 and 1589 by Domenico Fontana, who fortunately kept detailed records (Stevenson [1888]). Today nothing of the Septizonium exists above its foundations.

The Septizonium has a complicated historiography owing to the nature of the available ancient testimony and the confusion surrounding its name. Septizonium is the name provided in the regionary catalogues (the Curiosum and Notia), the  lists of Rome’s important monuments compiled in the 4th century C.E. and attributed to the authors Publius Victor and Sextus Rufus in the 16th century. These catalogues, arranged according to Rome’s 14 regions, were incredibly important for the creation of Ligorio’s map. Two ancient literary sources make mention of the Septizonium. The 4th century C.E. historian Ammianus Marcellinus (15.7.3) refers to the monument, which he calls the Septemzodium, as a nymphaeum constructed by Marcus … imperator (read the passage here). This erroneus attribution most likely refers to the beginning of the dedicatory inscription, which named Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 C.E.) as the father of Septimius Severus. In fact, the inscription in its entirety seems to have been a testament to the genealogy which Septimius constructed for himself. He claimed Marcus Aurelius as his adopted father and rehabilitated the memory of Marcus’ condemned son Commodus (r. 181-192 C.E.) as his deified brother. Septimius could therefore claim descent from the series of “good emperors” beginning with Nerva (r. 96-98 C.E.). Reconstruction of the Septizonium’s now lost inscription, originally located on the architrave of the first story, has necessarily relied upon a written commentary found in the 9th century Codex Einsidlensis and visual renderings such as the engraved view in Figure 1 (CIL VI 1032, 31229; Lusnia [2006] 196). The second ancient text to discuss the Septizonium is the troublesome compilation of imperial biographies known as the Historia Augusta, typically ascribed to the 4th or 5th century (read more at According to the biography of Septimius Severus, the Septizonium was intended as an entrance to the imperial residence on the Palatine meant to visually confront travellers on the Via Appia, particularly those from the emperor’s home province of Africa.

Cum Septizonium faceret, nihil aliud cogitavit, quam ut ex Africa venientibus suum opus occurreret. Nisi absente eo per praefectum urbis medium simulacrum eius esset locatum, aditum Palatinis aedibus, id est regium atrium, ab ea parte facere voluisse perhibetur.

When he [Septimius] built the Septizonium he had no other thought than that his building should strike the eyes of those who came to Rome from Africa. It is said that he wished to make an entrance on this side of the Palatine mansion—the royal dwelling, that is—and he would have done so had not the prefect of the city planted his [Septimius'] statue in the centre of it while he was away. (Historia AugustaSeverus, 24.3-4, trans. D. Magie)

Like many other architects and antiquarians from the Renaissance onwards, Ligorio allowed the root of the monument’s title (sept) to guide his reconstruction of the Septizonium as an edifice with seven stories (Figure 3). He clearly had in mind the remains still visible at the time of the map’s creation (Figure 1).

Many reconstructions from the Renaissance onwards conceptualized the Septizonium as a structure sub-divided into seven vertical or horizontal architectural zones. How these zones ought to be defined, however, was an issue continually under discussion (e.g. Roisecco [1750] 448). It also happens that ancient astrology counted the main planetary bodies as seven: Sun-Sol, Moon-Luna, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. For this reason some speculated that the Septizonium originally incorporated astrological concepts in some way, perhaps in its decorative scheme (Lusnia [2004] 524).

In the year following the publication of Ligorio’s map, a remarkable discovery infused the mystery surrounding the Septizonium with additional evidence. Fragments of what we call the Severan Marble Plan or the Forma Urbis Romae were uncovered at the Basillica of Santi Cosma e Damiano, located next to the Temple of Faustina and Antoninus on the northern side of the Roman Forum. The Forma Urbis was an intricately detailed map of the city rendered in plan view and carved into 150 slabs of marble, which altogether measured approximately 18 x 13 meters or 60 x 43 feet. The map was produced at some point between 202/203 and 211 CE in the co-emperorship of Septimius Severus and Caracalla and was mounted to a wall in the Flavian forum commonly referred to as the Templum Pacis. Unfortunately, only 10-15% of this massive marble map currently exists. Please visit the Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project to learn more about the Forma Urbis, the history of its study and reconstruction, and the efforts to create digital models of the fragments. An annotated bibliography is also available on the Stanford website.

Among the remnants of the Forma Urbis are a few fragments that retain portions of the Septizonium (see Stanford fragment 7abcd). We have parts of the monument’s name (in the form of Septizodium) and the southern section, consisting of two hemi-cycles and an anta fronted by a colonnade. One of the hemi-cycles contains a small square which may represent the statue base for the image of Septimius Severus mentioned in the passage quoted above. Given the fact that the fragments of the Forma Urbis preserve only a partial footprint of the Septizonium, the original form and function of the monument remained matters of conjecture until the 1980s (Chini and Mancioli [1986, 1987-88, 1989-90]; Iacopi, Pisani Sartorio and Tedone [1986]; Pisani Sartorio, Chini and Mancioli [1987]; Iacopi and Tedone [1990, 1993]; see also Pisani Sartorio [1999] 270; Lusnia [2004] 521-22; Longfellow [2011] 164-72 ). Archeological excavations located the foundations of the Septizonium in precisely the location shown on the Forma Urbis and affirmed details of the reconstructions proposed by Hülsen (Figure 2) and others near the turn of the 20th century. The excavations also confirmed the presence of hydraulic components, including a porphyry water basin and a single fragment of figural decoration (Figure 4).

The sculpture in Figure 4 represents a half-draped river god reclining against either a tiger or a wolf. For those who argue for a tiger, the Tigris river is represented (e.g. Lusnia [2004], 522). For those who argue for a wolf, the Tiber river is represented (e.g. Longfellow [2011], 170-72). Whatever its identity, the animal’s body has a cutting for a pipe that would have caused water to flow from its mouth. Interestingly, one of the additional names applied to the remains of the Septizonium in the medieval period was Septisolium, seven tubs. This term retained the memory of water despite the fact that the Septizonium’s function was no longer known.

The Septizonium partially collapsed at some point in the medieval period and the sections that remained standing became part of the fortifications built by the Frangipani family in the 10th century. Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) took refuge here when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (r. 1084-1105) marched upon the city in 1084 (Pisani Sartorio [1999] 269-70).

For the designation of the Septizonium as a tomb, see the Septizonium Severi.


K. E. Cupello


Sources Available from the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) at Emory University

  • Donati, A., Roma vetus ac recens, 3rd ed. (Rome 1725) 338-39.   [available online]
  • Gamucci, B., Le antichità della citta di Roma raccolte sotto brevita da diversi antichi & moderni scrittori, 2nd ed. (Venice 1580) 81-4.   [available online]
  • Roisecco, G., Roma antica, e moderna, vol. 1 (Rome 1750) 447-48.   [available online]

Other Rare Book Sources

  • Marliani, G. B., Urbis Romae Topographia (Rome 1544) 68.

Secondary Sources

  • Chini, P. and D. Manicioli, “Il Settizodio, saggi di scavo considerazioni preliminari,” BullCom 91 (1986) 241-62.
  • Chini, P. and D. Manicioli, “Il Settizodio,” BullCom 92 (1987-88) 346-53.
  • Chini, P. and D. Manicioli, “Il Settizodio,” BullCom 93 (1989-90) 104-07.
  • Claridge, A., Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, 2nd ed. (Oxford 2010).
  • Coarelli, F., Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, J. J. Clauss and D. P. Harmon trans. (Berkeley and Los Angeles 2007).
  • Gorrie, C., “The Septizodium of Septimius Severus Revisited: the Monument in Its Historical and Urban Context,” Latomus 60.3 (2001) 653-70.
  • Hülsen, C., Das Septizonium des Septimius Severus. Programm zum Winckelmannsfeste der Archäologischen Gesellschaft zu Berlin 46 (Berlin 1886).
  • Iacopi, I., G. Pisani Sartorio and G. Tedone, “Il Settizodio,” BullCom 91 (1986) 498-99.
  • Iacopi, I. and G. Tedone, “Il Settizodio severiano,” Bollettino di archeologia 1-2 (1990) 149-55.
  • Iacopi, I. and G. Tedone, “La ricostruzione del Settizodio severiano,” Bollettino di archeologia 19-21 (1993) 1-12.
  • Iacopi, I., M. A. Tomei and P. Meogrossi, “Complesso Severiano,” BullCom 91 (1986) 486-98.
  • Longfellow, B., Roman Imperialism and Civic Patronage: Form, Meaning, and Ideology in Monumental Fountain Complexes (Cambridge and New York 2011).
  • Lusnia, S., “Urban Planning and Sculptural Display in Severan Rome: Reconstructing the Septizodium and Its Role in Dynastic Politics,” AJA 108.4 (2004) 517-44.
  • Lusnia, S., “Redating the Septizodium and Severan Propaganda,” in C. Mattusch, A. A. Donohue and A. Brauer, eds., Common Ground: Archaeology, Art, Science, and Humanities. Proceedings of the XVIth International Congress of Classical Archaeology, Boston, August 23-26 2003 (Oxford 2006) 196-99.
  • Pisani Sartorio, G., P. Chini and D. Mancioli, “Indagini archeologiche nell’area del Settizodio severiano,” Archeologia laziale 8 (1987) 57-69.
  • Pisani Sartorio, G., “Septizonium, Septizodium, Septisolium (2)” in LTUR, vol. 4 (Rome 1999) 269-71.
  • Richardson, L., Jr.A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (Baltimore 1992) 350.
  • Stevenson, E., “Il Settizonio Severiano e la distruzione dei suoi avanzi sotto Sisto V,” BullCom (1888) 269-98.
  • Thomas, E., “Metaphor and identity in Severan architecture: the Septizodium at Rome between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’,” in  S. Swain, S. Harrison and J. Elsner eds., Severan Culture (Cambridge and New York 2007) 327-67.


July 30, 2014


K. E. Cupello, “Septizonium Vetus,” Views of Rome, accessed December 15, 2017,