Arch Enemies: Family Feuds and Damnatio Memoriae on Rome’s Arcus Argentariorum
In the Eternal City every monument tells a story. The Colosseum, funded from the sack of Jerusalem, stands as a potent symbol of Rome’s imperial might and, to many, its savagery. The architecturally awe-inspiring Pantheon, which began life as a polytheistic temple before being converted into a church, pays monumental testimony to the empire’s shift from paganism to Christianity which gained momentum under Constantine the Great.
But these monumental behemoths often overshadow Rome’s lesser-known legacy, which without the right guide remain obscure and overlooked. A perfect example is the Arcus Argentariorum (the Arch of the money-changers). Annexed to the side of the seventh century church of San Giorgio in Velabro, the arch is rarely seen by tourists as it lies well off the beaten path.
Yet the Arcus Argentariorum tells perhaps the most tragic (and quintessentially Roman) story of any monument in Rome.
Dedication to Septimius Severus is above the entrance of theArcus Argentariorum (Image: Alexander Meddings for TimeTravelRome)
The arch wasn’t dedicated by the Senate and People of Rome (SPQR) but by the argentarii et negotiantes boarii, “the money-changers and cattle traders of the Forum Boarium” in 204 AD. This is not the only trace they have left in Italy. Their name lives on in southern Tuscany’s Monte Argentario — once home to the bankers who financed the Roman Republic through the Punic Wars; today the favoured resort of bankers and a favoured retreat for the modern Roman elite.
Frieze of Septimius Severus and his wife. (Image: Alexander Meddings for TimeTravelRome)
The arch’s dedication to Septimius Severus and the imperial family is preserved in the inscription situated above its entrance. But more than the inscription, it’s the highly ornate visual programme of the arch’s internal friezes that really capture your attention. On one of the friezes, the emperor Septimius Severus is depicted with his wife and empress, Julia Domna, enjoying a splendid family day out at the sacrifices, completely in his element as a symbol of imperial piety.
Facing this sacrifice scene is a similar relief depicting the young prince Caracalla. Your eye is drawn not to the pious image of Caracalla though but to the aggressively chiselled out space once occupied by another figure. This was the space once occupied by Caracalla’s brother and co-ruler, Geta.
Geta was the most high-profile casualty of Caracalla’s tyrannical reign, a young man whose tragic death infused his short life with pathos. And the practice by which his image came to be removed from the Arcus Argentariorum was what we now call damnatio memoriae: the post mortem obliteration of one’s memory.
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Caracalla and a blank space where Geta once was represented. (Image: Alexander Meddings for TimeTravelRome)
Damnatio Memoriae on the Arcus Argentariorum
Damnatio memoriae is not a term the Romans used. The senatorial decree that ratified the desecration of one’s name and image instead went by another name: abolitio nominis (the abolition of name). But damnatio memoriae’s lack of a definition did nothing to prevent its ruthless implementation throughout the republican and imperial history. And few emperors enforced it with such ruthlessness and vigour as Caracalla.
The first prominent figure to fall from grace was Plautianus, the head of Caracalla’s Praetorian Guard and former second-in-command of the empire under Caracalla’s late father, Septimius Severus. Caracalla, now seven years into his reign, had him put to death the year after the money-changers’ dedication of the arch in 205, indicted on charges of treason.
Whether there was any truth behind the charges, it’s likely we’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that Fulvia Plautilla, Plautianus’ daughter and Caracalla’s wife, was soon to follow. Caracalla first had Plautilla exiled to Sicily before moving her to Lipari, a remote island in the Aegean Sea. There she lived the last of her six years in exile, subject to increasingly harsh treatment by Caracalla’s supporters until in 211 she was strangled on the emperor’s orders.
The money-changers had their work cut out for them, being ordered by Caracalla to remove the image of Plautilla that had once occupied the sacrifice scene. But Plautilla’s was not the most conspicuous figure to be missing from the arch’s inscription and its visual programme. This dubious distinction went instead to the emperor’s brother and co-ruler, Geta.
Geta’s Damnatio Memoriae on the Arcus Argentariorum
Close up of the arch inscription which has had Geta’s name removed. (Image: Alexander Meddings for TimeTravelRome)
From the beginning of their joint reign, Caracalla and Geta had a strained relationship. Their mutual mistrust meant that they always surrounded themselves with armed guards in case either brother made an attempt on the other. Caracalla, however, ultimately proved the more devious.
The historian Cassius Dio tells us that on December 26, 211, Caracalla asked their mother to organise a private meeting in her apartment so they could discuss a truce. Geta entered the apartment unaccompanied, as promised. But as he did the Guard Caracalla had posted outside rushed into the apartment and attacked him.
The scene Dio describes is tragic. Sensing his imminent death the 22-year-old Geta ran to his mother for protection. But she could offer him no protection from their swords, and Geta was hacked to death in his helpless mother’s arms.
We have no reason to doubt the manner of Geta’s death, or that under Caracalla’s ever-watchful eye Geta’s mother was not allowed to shed a tear for his murder. Nor do we have reason to doubt that Caracalla was concerned about what being branded a fratricidal tyrant would do to his public image.
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Tondo showing the Severan dynasty: Septimius Severus with Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta, whose face has been erased, probably because of the damnatio memoriae put against him by Caracalla, from Djemila (Algeria), circa AD 199-200, Altes Museum, Berlin. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The emperor’s response to this was to order all possible traces of Geta destroyed. The Arcus Argentariorum is one of the clearest examples of Geta’s damnatio memoriae - not just on the frieze but on the inscription where Geta’s name has clearly been removed in an attempt to erase any trace of his existence - but there are many others. Many inscriptions and images of Geta were erased across the empire; many coins bearing his portrait were removed from circulation and melted down.
Caracalla was however informed that his crime could be mitigated if he could but deify Geta and declare him a god. His response was chilling in its Machiavellian pragmatism:
“Let him be deified provided he is not alive.”
Fratricide: the rot at Rome’s foundation
The Arcus Argentariorum taps into a theme that crops up again and again in Roman history; one that was woven deeply into the Roman conscience. Fratricide. Everybody knows the story of Romulus and Remus — the twins suckled by the she-wolf whose fatal falling out led to the foundation of Rome. Few people know that many other versions of the myth existed. Saint Augustine mentions in passing a version where the twins founded Rome together; Diodorus Siculus narrates a story in which one of Romulus’ workmen, Celer, kills Remus instead.
The question we must then ask is why the Romans chose as their official foundation myth the version involving fratricide. The answer seems to be that whether through Rome’s numerous instances of civil war or the type of familial conflict monumentalised on the Arcus Argentariorum, the Romans did indeed have a tendency towards it.
The Arcus Argentariorum is just one of hundreds of monuments in the city of Rome with a rich, visible story. And thanks to the recently released app Time Travel Rome, you can now unlock their hidden history for yourself. The app precisely maps all documented sites in the city itself and the empire it once governed. Each site and monument features a well-researched, detailed history, a guide of what to see, and the ancient texts in which the site features so you can read the ancient authors as you stand in the place they describe.
Top image: Arcus Argentariorum, Rome. Source: CC BY 2.0
Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 78. Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/78*.html
Historia Augusta: The Life of Caracalla. Available at:
Historia Augusta: The Life of Geta. Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Geta*.html
L. Richardson Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (JHU Press 1992)
Harriet I. Flower, The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 2011)