A short history of Septimius and the scene in his time
Following the assassination of Commodus in 192 CE and the selling of the empire
to the highest bidder twice in 193 who were then killed by the soldiers opposed
to them, the legions declared a governor of northern European province to be
Emperor in 193, who then defeated other claimants to be officially named as
Emperor by the Senate soon after; he was Septimius Severus. This was a man
of North African origin who lived a very full life dieing in York England.
His victory ushered in a generation of peace.
The political instability following Septimius Severusí enthronement required him to seek military legitimacy and the tension-filled frontiers of the Roman Far East were an easy choice to do so. With his two sons, Geta and Caracalla, he won victories in wars against the Parthians and Osroeni in 195 and 197 CE. These were two nations who used to exist to the southeast of the Caspian Sea. They were difficult opponents for the Romans due to their horsemanship and regularly harassed the Roman frontiers. In honour of his achievement, the Senate permitted him a triumphal entry into Rome. As part of his triumph, an arch was built to commemorate the victory in 203 CE. This is the arch that you see before you today.
Following the end of the Roman Empire in 476 CE, many Roman monuments fill into disrepair and were either destroyed or vandalized for their stones. But, luckily for us, the tourist and historian, this arch remains remarkably untouched as a church was partially built into it, thus protecting it, although parts of it would be covered over by dirt and worn out from pollution. This situation remained up to the XVIIIth Century when excavations were begun and it was exposed again.
The purpose of a Roman arch is to depict the scenes of the war and to honour the name of the victor. Each relief panel is separated into registers and depicts a separate part of the war or events related to it. Interestingly, the upper part is not dense stone but filled with interconnected rooms. There are four reliefs that form a complete story of the war to be read from the bottom up. Firstly, preparations for the war, battles with the Parthians and a speech by the emperor; secondly, the battles with the Osroeni, surrender of their king and a war council; thirdly, the attack on Seleucia, and flight and surrender of the Parthians; and fourthly, the siege of Ctespihon, capital of Parthia, and flight of the Parthian king followed by the emperorís victory speech.
As very few of us are students of Latin, the inscription reads as follows: "To the Emperor Septimius Severus, Son of Marcus, Pius, Pertinax, Pater Patriae, Parthicus Arabicus, Parthicus Adiabenicus, Pontifex Maximus, having held the tribunician power 11 times, acclaimed emperor 11 times, Consul 3 times, Proconsul, and Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Caracalla), Son of Lucius, Antoninus, Augustus Pius, Felix, having held the auspicious tribunician power 6 times, Consul, Proconsul, Pater Patriae, Highest and Strongest Princes, for having restored the State and enlarged the Empire of the Roman people,by their visible strengths at home and abroad, the Senate and People of Rome [made this]&
On various other parts of the arch and columns, you can see images of divinities, such as Mars, representations of the seasons, and Roman soldiers with Parthian prisoners. If this has really interested you, go see the Column of Trajan, the Column of Marcus Aurelius and the Arch of Titus nearby.