Cedar Rapids (USA, Iowa), Museum of Art, the Tom and Nan Riley Collection
Helvius Pertinax was made emperor by the Senate. Unfortunately, he was murdered by the Praetorian Guard only three months after his accession. The throne was next auctioned to the highest bidder by these same Praetorians who realized that without their support no one could hold the empire. This auction, a “most disgraceful business unworthy of Rome”, is described by Cassius Dio (74.11). The winner, Didius Julianus, was emperor for only sixty-six days before his assassination.
Meanwhile, three other men asserted claims to the throne: Septimius Severus, Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. All three were commanders of Roman legions and could count on the support of their powerful armies. Space does not permit a description of the complex manipulations that eventually made Severus sole emperor and founder of a new dynasty.1
Clodius Albinus, Governor of Britain and Gaul, was declared “Caesar of the West” in 193 and made co-regent with Severus late in 195. However, these concessions to his considerable power were only the means by which Severus averted a direct conflict with Albinus until he was ready for one. Early in 197 when Severus own position was more secure, he attacked Albinus at Lugdunum (Lyons). Albinus was murdered or committed suicide on 19 February 197.
The Riley portrait may represent this ill-fated Roman. The elaborately drilled locks of hair and the treatment of the eyes are clear indications of late Antonine work. The problem is that we have no unequivocal portraits of Albinus except those on coins. A further complication is that the portraits of Septimius Severus look a great deal like those associated with Albinus, even the ones on coins. There is little scholarly agreement on the portraiture of Albinus.2 We have one ancient account of his appearance: “He was tall, with unkempt curly hair and a broad forehead. His skin was wonderfully white; many indeed think it was from this that he got his name.”3
Although all the proposed identifications show mature, bearded men with curly hair, there are many differences among them. The Riley head resembles most an example in Britain4, but the arrangement of locks above the forehead is an unusual detail that is not paralleled by any of the proposed portraits of Albinus.
1 For an authoritative account of the complicated history of this period, see A. Birley, Septimius Severus, The African Emperor (London 1971).
2 For this problem, see J. Balty, Essai d’iconographie de l’empereur Clodius Albinus [Collection Latomus 85] (Brussels 1966); A. McCann, The Portraits of Septimius Severus [Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 30] (Princeton 1968) especially 197—
3 SHA, Clodius Albinus 31.1.
4 Leconfield Collection, Petworth House (Sussex): FZ I, 91, no. 4, Beilage 62. Beilage
64 for the treatment of the eyes.