Septimius Severus: The Year 200

The Memnon colossi, Egypt (photo: Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0 license).

The Memnon colossi, Egypt (photo: Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0 license).

Again, chronology is hazy. It is my take that Severus toured Egypt in 200. Since Egypt was an extremely important province, with extended territories, a long and rich history and much to see, I assume the emperor took his time. The Historia Augusta makes it clear that Severus thoroughly enjoyed his tour of Egypt, “because he had taken part in the worship of the god Serapis, had learned something of antiquity, and had seen unfamiliar animals and strange places”. It is worth mentioning that the cult of Serapis was a genuine product of Ptolemaic Egypt, a thoroughly “Hellenistic” cult that mixed both native Egyptian and Greek elements. The Temple of Serapis was the so-called Serapaeum, a magnificent edifice erected under the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-222 BCE). Part of the temple housed an impressive collection of books.

In Alexandria, Severus closed down the Tomb of Alexander the Great, which until then had apparently been open to the public and was visited by hordes of tourists. Severus subsequently sailed down the Nile and visited all the landmarks of Egypt. The Historia Augusta states that he made trips to the city of Memphis, to “Memnon”, to the Pyramids, and to “the Labyrinth”. Memnon refers to the two colossal statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III (14th century BCE). They are part of the Theban Necropolis (Thebes was known as Diospolis Megale or Diospolis Magna in Roman Egypt). One of the statues was reported to “sing” or “whistle” every morning. The geographer Strabo wrote:

“Here are two colossi, which are near one another and are each made of a single stone; one of them is preserved, but the upper parts of the other, from the seat up, fell when an earthquake took place, so it is said. It is believed that once each day a noise, as of a slight blow, emanates from the part of the latter that remains on the throne and its base; and I too, when I was present at the places with Aelius Gallus and his crowd of associates, both friends and soldiers, heard the noise at about the first hour, but whether it came from the base or from the colossus, or whether the noise was made on purpose by one of the men who were standing all round and near to the base, I am unable positively to assert; for on account of the uncertainty of the cause I am induced to believe anything rather than that the sound issued from stones thus fixed.”

Isis and Serapis.

“The Labyrinth” refers to a group of buildings near the pyramid and temple of Amenemhat III (19th century BCE), located near Crocodilopolis in the Fayum Oasis.


Primary sources

Updated 30 December 2022.


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