Die Goldbüste des Septimius Severus

Gold- und Silberbüsten römischer Kaiser

Mit Beiträgen von Alessandra Giumlia-Mair und Fotografien von Thanos Kartsoglou. With English summary. Résumé français.

Die intakt erhaltene Goldbüste des Kaisers Septimius Severus aus Nordgriechenland ist ein ausserordentliches Zeugnis der römischen kaiserlichen Porträtkunst. Sie gehört zu einer Gruppe von nicht mehr als sechs Kaiserbildnissen aus Gold, die wir aus der Antike kennen.

Zusammen mit der berühmten Goldbüste des Kaisers Marc Aurel von Avenches ist sie wohl die bedeutendste Vertreterin einer Gattung, die in der Antike sehr viel häufiger gewesen sein muss und gewissermassen als mobiler Stellvertreter des Kaisers im Kult, in der Armee und bei öffentlichen Amtshandlungen fungieren konnte.

Die Büste wurde vor über 50 Jahren durch Zufall entdeckt. Umso erstaunlicher ist es, dass sie bis heute so gut wie unpubliziert ist. Dass es Frau Dr. de Pury-Gysel gelungen ist, von der griechischen Antikenbehörde die Erlaubnis zu erwirken, die Goldbüste im Original studieren und monographisch veröffentlichen zu dürfen, kann ihr nicht hoch genug angerechnet werden, zeugt aber gleichzeitig von ihrem durch eine jahrelange Forschungstätigkeit erworbenen wissenschaftlichen Renommee.

In ihrer Studie nähert sich Anne de Pury-Gysel der Goldbüste aus unterschiedlicher Richtung an. Neben den primären Aspekten der Fund- und Forschungsgeschichte, dem historischen Kontext, der Herstellungstechnik und der stilistischen Einordnung steht die Frage nach der Bedeutung und Funktion der Kaiserbildnisse, die in dieser umfassenden Form bisher noch nie behandelt wurde.

Indem sie nicht nur das Einzelwerk aus Nordgriechenland, sondern die Gattung der bislang bekannten dreizehn Gold- und Silberbüsten als Ganzes in den Fokus nimmt, schafft die Autorin mit ihrer Studie ein Referenzwerk, das in der Forschung zweifelsohne eine breite Rezeption finden wird.

Prof. Dr. Martin Guggisberg, Leiter Fachbereich Klassische Archäologie, Universität Basel


In June 1965, a gold bust-length portrait of the emperor Septimius Severus in armor came to light by chance at the site of the Roman town of Plotinopolis in Thrace, a former Greek settlement rededicated by Trajan in honor of his wife, Plotina. The bust, fashioned by hammering and engraving 23-karat sheet gold, weighs 980g (3 Roman pounds) and is 25cm high. The portrait is truly a masterpiece of the metalworker’s art and is, in my judgment, the finest extant image of a Roman emperor in precious metal. It is regrettable that, more than a half-century after the discovery of this Severan bust housed in the small regional archaeological museum in Komotini, Greece, it is still virtually unknown. But the Plotinopolis portrait has now received the meticulously documented and lavishly illustrated monograph it has long deserved, and for that we must be grateful to the authors and the publisher.

The handsome volume, with superb photos of the Severan bust by Thanos Kartsoglou, opens with two chapters on the provenance, the (scant) scholarship to date, and a detailed description of the gold portrait by the primary author, Anne de Pury-Gysell. The findspot unfortunately does not provide any information about the bust’s original location, how it was displayed, or its function. An appendix to the second chapter by Alessandra Giumlia-Mair is a technical analysis (in English) of the gold alloy and the bust’s method of manufacture. Giumlia-Mair believes that the metal for the portrait was obtained by melting imperial gold coins circulating in Thrace. The remnants of a bronze brace on the back of the hollow bust suggests that it was attached to a bracket and that the portrait may have been carried on a pole in a procession. Literary sources and representations in art indicate that precious-metal portraits such as the Plotinopolis bust were portable proxies for the emperor in diverse civic, military, and religious contexts. The date of the portrait is probably early in the reign of Septimius Severus, that is, the very end of the second century, because it conforms to what both Anna Marguerite McCann and Dirk Soechting have identified as the first portrait type of the emperor.1

The quality and rarity of the Plotinopolis bust on their own justify a monographic publication, but Pury-Gysell has used the Severan portrait as the springboard for a very valuable general discussion of Roman imperial portraits in gold and silver, with chapters on gold as a symbol of power, the ancient texts mentioning gold images of emperors, and the role of portrait busts in the imperial cult and as key elements of military standards. Indeed, all but one of the extant portraits of an emperor in either gold or silver were found in the provinces, the exception being the silver bust of Galba from Herculaneum, which is also the earliest example—all the more remarkable because of the emperor’s short-lived (seven-month) reign ending in assassination and decapitation. 

Part II of the Librum monograph is a catalogue of every known Roman imperial portrait in gold or silver with multiple color photos of each piece. These include well-known images, such as the gold bust of Marcus Aurelius from Avenches in Switzerland and the silver bust of Lucius Verus from Marengo in Piedmont at an Alpine crossing (both, like the Galba and Septimius Severus busts, portraying the emperor in cuirass), as well as many little-known examples, numbering 13 in all. Most date from the Late Empire and the identifications of several are very tenuous. Almost all are singular finds or without any provenance, but the Marengo bust was part of a large silver treasure uncovered in 1928—the highlight of the archaeological collection of Turin’s Museo di Antichità. Of those precious-metal portraits that consist of the head alone (as opposed to a bust) the most interesting has been known since at least 1010. This is the head of the gold-and-bejeweled Romanesque reliquary of Sainte Foye (Saint Faith) at Conques, France, here identified as most likely a portrait of Valentinian I, although the head has also been considered a reused Roman parade helmet with a generic face and a portrait of Charlemagne—all curious choices for the image of a girl-martyr that underscore the rarity of ancient precious-metal spolia even a thousand years ago.

In sum, Die Goldbüste des Septimius Severus is a most welcome publication that should inspire further studies of the phenomenon of depicting emperors in gold or silver (no comparable portraits of empresses survive, which may be an additional explanation for the reuse of a male head for the Sainte Foye reliquary). Anne de Pury-Gysel’s new book merits a place in every research library on Roman portraiture. 

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.35/Reviewed by Fred S. Kleiner, Boston University


Weitere Rezensionen:




Autor/en Anne de Pury-Gysel
Format: 184 Seiten, zahlreiche Abbildungen, Hardcover, 245 × 305 mm
Verlagsort Basel
Jahr: 2017
Sprache/n Deutsch, Englisch (Französisches Summary)
Gewicht 700
Preis (CHF) 65 CHF
Preis (EUR) 65 EUR
ISBN: 978-3-952454-26-8
DOI: 10.19218/3952454268