A Severan Empress from Sparta

One of the most striking portraits in the Athens National Museum is that of a Severan empress, found in 1964 in Sparta. Its precise identification has been debated. The excavators suggested Julia Mamaea, the mother of Alexander Severus (emperor 222-235 CE), but recently Lee Ann Riccardi has suggested Julia Aquilia Severa, one of Elagabalus’ wives, based on the portrait’s hairstyle. However, it is the fact that the face of the portrait has been severely mutilated that interests me the most.

The Severan empress in the Athens National Museum. Photo: TMK, October 2004. Another angle here.

The targeting of the face leaves no doubt that the portrait was deliberately mutilated. The excavators connected this with an act of (unofficial) damnatio memoriae after the death of Julia Mamaea. Even though there was no official condemnation of the memories of Julia and Alexander Severus, there are examples of portraits of them and inscriptions naming them that have been mutilated or destroyed. However, the excavators also write that the statue had been buried carefully in a 2nd century BCE public building. Statues that were mutilated because of damnatio memoriae were sometimes dumped in latrines or other humilating places, but more often they were just reused or, in the case of bronze portraits, melted down. A careful burial would therefore be unusual.

Severan empress
A close-up of the Severan empress. Photo: TMK, October 2004.

Mutilation followed by ritual burial is characteristic of early Christian iconoclasm, which makes Lee Ann Riccardi favour this interpretation. In her discussion of parallels, however, she makes the same kind of circular arguments that she critizes the excavators of the Severan empress of. This is evident with her dating of the destruction of the statue of Allat-Athena in Palmyra and her discussion of the Thames Hadrian. In fact, there are some much more intriguing examples of 4th century bronzes that were thrown into the Tiber in Rome. This does not detract from the value of this paper though. It is one of the fairly rare archaeological contributions to the discussion of early Christian iconoclasm.

Lee Ann Riccardi. 1998. “The Mutilation of the Bronze Portrait of a Severan Empress from Sparta: ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ or Christian Iconoclasm?”, AthMitt 113: 259-269.

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