Firenze, Harry Potter's divination teacher poses for a photo for my walking tour on Edinburgh's Royal Mile

Hedwig, Harry Potter's postal owl

Is professor Snape descended from Roman War Emperor Septimius Severus?

During Rowling's time studying Classics at university, it’s likely she read Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ a case study to surviving and attaining glory as a ruler in 16th century Italy.

Machiavelli's book The Prince published in Italy

It has such sage advice as

And let it here be noted that men are either to be kindly treated, or utterly crushed, since they can revenge lighter injuries, but not graver. Wherefore the injury we do to a man should be of a sort to leave no fear of reprisals.

(Machiavelli pg. 4) He who is the cause of another’s greatness is himself undone.

Not outstandingly practical in the 21st century West, unless you’re particularly adept at the killing curse; while page 4 is clearly Goblin bed time reading. But things were perhaps less straightforward amongst 16th century Princes.

The Prince listed 50 years worth of Roman Emperors and singled out Lucius Septimius Severus as an outstanding example.

The rise of Septimius Severus

Septimus Severus was born in then Roman Libya in 145 AD. He moves to Rome and rises through various postings to become a governor in the Balkans with command of a legion.

In 191 the emperor is murdered in Rome and Didius Julianus bought the emperorship in an auction from the emperor’s murderers. Septimus is proclaimed Emperor by his legion and other legions join them. They march on Rome to revenge the murder.

Rome’s resistance was feeble and upon arrival he executed Emperor Julianus, the fearful senate elect him Emperor.

Bust of Italian Roman Emperor Septimus Severus

The Roman empire was vast and the Emperor faced powerful rival claimants. Pescennius Niger was head of the Roman Asiatic army based in Syria and had himself proclaimed emperor, while to the West was Clodius Albinus based in Britain, the legions there and in Gaul and Spain declared him Emperor. Niger and Clodius were nominally allied.

The sorting hat:
Or perhaps in Slytherin
You'll make your real friends,
Those cunning folks use any means
To achieve their ends.

Septimus didn’t want a war on 2 fronts, so wrote to Albinus gifting him the title ‘Caesar’, which implied he was the Emperor’s successor, Albinus also took the name Septimus, cementing his authority over his realm.

With things settled to the West, Severus set out from Rome to conquer and kill Niger. Defeating him in 194 at the Battle of Issus in Cilicia.

Flushed with victory Septimus decided he wanted absolute power and convinced the Senate to declare Albinus an official enemy of Rome. Septimius then marched to France and at the battle of Lugdunum took from Albinus his government and life.

Severus then had Albinus naked body spread out before him and and rode his horse over it in a final act of humiliation before executing Albinus' family.

Conquest Caledonia

A tireless general Septimus marched a legion of 40,000 men into Scotland, then Caledonia, to subdue the ‘barbarian Caledonians'.

Amidst the forested Highlands the Caledonians whittled the Romans down with guerilla warfare but finally sued for peace. History nicknamed Severus 'the First hammer of the Scots'.

Roman gold galleon of Emperor Septimus Severus

The Emperor was ill, heading South he died at the Roman town of Eboracum, now York in North England, allegedly having rebuilt the Yorkshire village of Snape!

The war-Emperor Severus’s last words to his two sons were “Be harmonious with each other, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.”

Machiavelli says that a smart leader ought to be both loved and feared but if only one is possible, it should be fear because that’s something within your control.

Since [ a prince ] being loved depends upon his subjects, while his being feared depends upon himself, a wise prince should build on what is his own, and not on what rests with others.

Professor Snape was unpleasant and for Gryffindor students frightening but he has little in common with his namesake Emperor Septimius Severus.

Seeing Snape

Snape was a teacher at Hogwarts from his twenties, no battling Roman emperor; he scorned many other men sure, but spent his life regretting his disharmony with Lily. Instead Snape was at the other end of Machiavelli's continuum.

Machiavelli emphasised the importance of earning respect through keeping one's word. In the Half-Blood Prince Snape makes an Unbreakable Vow, to protect Draco, on his mission to kill Dumbledore. The scene broke my heart because I knew it augured tragedy but it also made Snape’s trustworthiness shine.

General Dumbledore’s mission for Snape
Professor Snape takes the sword of Gryffindor from Dumbledore's office
"To give Voldemort what appears to be valuable information while withholding the essentials is a job I would entrust to nobody else"

As counsel to murder-happy Voldemort Snape lays layer upon layer of truth and deceit. Machiavelli said a King must be “a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.”

As a double agent, part of Voldemort’s inner circle, Snape was the fox skirting the traps of Voldemort’s lieutenant Bellatrix Lestrange whilst his confrontations with the timid professor Quirrell in the Philosopher’s Stone was an attempt to frighten a wolf in sheep’s clothing (in disguise).

Snape’s aroma

Snape stares into the mirror of ERISED reflecting his love Lily Evans
Rowling says that Snape smells of bitterness & old shoes

While his lack of grooming was "likely down to him valuing other qualities within himself".

Such as his immense bravery in the face of powerful mind reader Voldemort. Indeed for a time, with steely fortitude and walking Machiavelli's princely tightrope, Snape triumphs and survives.

Snape’s Machiavellian blend of behaviours, together with his soulful motivation, crown him Rowling’s most complex character, Prince of many fan’s hearts. But sadly not top of Rowling's list of preferred dinner companions.

The unbreakable vow

Snape makes the unbreakable vow with Narcissa Malfoy to protect her son Draco, who’s now a freshly minted Death Eater charged by Voldemort to kill Dumbledore; likely a suicide mission. Snape makes a vow of huge cost.

Professor Snape & Narcissa Malfoy make the unbreakable vow

The Greek Gods had their own version, they would swear oaths to one another by the river of the dead - Styx. If they break their vow, they are struck down, lying in a sick trance, “breathless, without voice or spirit, taking no nourishment for a year and then are cut off from the gods and their councils and feasts for nine full years” - Hesiod.

It’s all in the name

Severus, is latin for ‘strict, harsh, severe’. Rowling loves alliteration and the repition of sounds ‘S’everuss Sssnape’, sounds very much like it could be Parselmouth, the language of snakes and is suggestive of Snape’s silky and off putting manner.

After university Rowling lived in Clapham Junction, London, nearby was a street called ‘Severus Road’.

While ‘to Snape’ means to rebuke or snub a person. And he is hard on Harry, Neville, and Gryffindors generally, believing them dim.

Revenge of the half blood Prince

Snape was born to witch Eileen Prince and Muggle Tobias Snape. Emperor Septimius Severus wasn’t a pure blood either.

Septimius mother was born into an upstanding aristocratic Italian family the Fulvii, making her a pure blood. His father was of Punic ancestry - he had Carthaginian blood, the North African empire which had been an enemy of Rome for centuries.

Roman Emperor Septimius Severus & family

As the first black African emperor M.G. Dupree says Septimius “must have been aware all of his life of his own status as a kind of ‘half-blood’ among Rome’s oldest and purest noble families’.

Indeed some had supported his rivals to be Emperor and during Septimius reign, suspicious of treachery, he tried and executed many Roman senators. Were any were named Karkaroff? We don't know.

The village of Snape

During the years of Roman Britannia the village of Snape was a gridded collection of villas in North Yorkshire.

Emperor Septimius restored Hadrian’s wall to the North which crosses the entire country and Snape’s in the middle of the country, so the village may have been home to Severus' personal villa.

Rowling finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the £300 a night Balmoral Hotel Edinburgh and moved out. The next day cleaning staff found she had graffitied a statue, which leaked to the press.

The case of the Balmoral bust

OK so JK Rowling had said 2 key characters would be killed off. Well Severus died so maybe that meant Professor Snape would, after fighting barbarians? Or restoring a wall... or maybe the liberal world order?

The hotel management crushed them, telling them the bust wasn’t Hadrian thank you very much and no you can’t see the statue, it’s locked in the basement. We are an elite hotel not Mecca. The fans were left tantalised.

Bust of Hermes signed by JK Rowling in the Balmoral Hotel
JK Rowling finished writing Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows in this room...

Things have changed, the Balmoral is now immensely proud of their Rowling suite, but still need to protect their guest’s experience. You can see the turreted gothic exterior of the fabulous suite on my Edinburgh Potter Tours

Professor Snape’s abnormally large nose reaches back to Rome

Severus is a Latin name which was used for common folk as well as emperors, it meant 'severe'. Not unlike his hooked nose.

A hooked nose is popularly referred to as a “Roman nose”. But the ancient Romans themselves had their own name for it: "Aquiline". It referred to the hook on the end of an eagle's beak. The Aquiline nose was a prominent feature among Roman nobility a mark of pedigree.

Professor Snape's Roman nose

Snape’s true identity

Lily ask Snape about his argumentative father:
Doesn’t he like magic?
‘He doesn't like anything, much’,

Snape’s abusive father was a Muggle, but his mother had magic, her surname was "Prince". As Snape developed his magical capability at Hogwarts, he chose a new identifier ‘the Half Blood Prince’.

The word prince, comes from the Latin word "princeps" which means first citizen of first among citizens. It was the title given to the first rulers of Rome.

The word emperor comes from the Latin "imperator". It was originally used to denote a commander in the Roman Army. When Roman Emperors started maintaining order and asserting supremacy through the army, this is when the emperor took on the name Imperator, signalling they were Commander-in-chief of the military.

So we can divine that Snape and his mother were descended from one of the original Prince families of Roman antiquity.

Motivating Salani

Publishers were supposed to release their translation within 2 months of the English versions release. But in Italy, readers were so impatient to get their hands on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that they launched “Operation Feather” and sent an obscene number of feathers to Salani’s editors to urge them to rush the translation.

The terrible troubles of translation

The Italian translator was turbo dedicated, he recognised Rowling carefully chose character names to reflect their personality, but if he maintained the English names this flavouring would be robbed from his Italian readers.

Alas in the race to publish, there was no time to read the whole book and then begin translation so it led to flaws.

The Italian for Minister of magic Cornelius Fudge became Cornelius Caramell; they're both confectionary and it even adds alliteration, which Rowling enjoys. But the translator didn’t know what was ahead and the Minister's name loses nuance.

Suited Minister of magic Cornelius Fudge with green bowler hat

Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge fudges, or makes nonsense of, the truth. At one point Fudge imprisons Hagrid in the mentally damaging Azkaban, even though he seemingly believes he’s innocent; he does so to keep up appearances.

Fudge makes wrong decisions, for wrong reasons, the wavering ethically-spineless CEO of the wizarding world pandering to public opinion. ‘Caramell’ just sounds delicious.


J.K. Rowling herself complained that the Italian translation of Professor Dumbledore's last name was "Silente"; rather than recognizing that "Dumbledore" was an old Devon word for "bumblebee". Dumbledore's a very suitable name, it sounds cheerful and Rowling's young-old man is always buzzing around in motion.

Alas the time rushed Italian translator took the word "dumb" and translated it as "silent". Powerful figures often don’t speak much, so that’s alright yeah?

William Sutton, The Times
The Israeli translator Gili Bar-Hillel receives corrections from readers. “Every mistake will follow me the rest of my life,” she says. “The readers are young and unforgiving.”

Don't be surprised if you see translators jumping from Platform 9¾ in front of phantom trains.

Honouring the fans

In 2014 Silani revised the translations, gathering a committee of fresh minds, the original translators, who brought the regrets of hindsight, and a brilliant Italian comic punster adept at playing with words and sounds.

Taking into account every twist and turn of Harry’s complete saga they could properly honour foreshadowing, the ultimate choices of characters and give more thought to how to vividly render the world and atmosphere into Italian.

All the Italian Harry Potter book covers

Voldemort’s birth name was changed from the English Tom Marvolo Riddle, to Tom Orvoloson Riddle in Italian, to facilitate the anagram ‘Son Io Lord Voldemort’.

Mudblood had originally been translated as ‘half-blood’, not greatly worse than calling Hermione ‘brunette’; it was too literal and diffused the stigma. It was reconsidered and translated into the Italian for ‘Rotten Blood’, brutal! It likely thrilled Rowling.

Silani put things right and now Italy has one of the most faithful translations in the world. The new editions are popular in Britain amongst language students and dedicated cultural tourists who use them to pick up Italian grammar and vocabulary.

Italy's gift to Potter

JK Rowling derived the dancing spell Tarantallegra from ‘Tarantella’ from the dance which originates in Italy. It was a cure administered to victims of Tarantula bites, the idea being they would sweat out the poison. Having developed an Italian spell, she likely thought it would be fun to create a backstory.

Italy in Harry Potter mythology

Zaccaria Innocenti was an Italian warlock who, in 79 AD, broomed down into Italy’s Mount Vesuvius and cast the dancing spell Tarantallegra on himself, his legs began dancing uncontrollably on the crater’s hardened lava.

Co-incidentally or not, Vesuvius erupted shortly after destroying the city of Herculaneum and Pompeii and burning at least 1500 to death.

A werewolf founds 'The eternal city'?

Harry Potter's professor Remus Lupin asleep on the Hogwarts Express
Raggedy werewolf professor Remus Lupin is named for one of the twin founders of Rome, Remus & Romulus

When their uncle seized power from their father the baby brothers were left on the banks of the river Tiber to die.

They were saved by the God Tibernius, father of the river, sweeping them away.

Remus and Romulus suckled by a she-wolf
They were suckled by a she-wolf in a cave beneath the Palatine Hill; which the Emperor's palace would later crown

As youths Remus is captured & enslaved by their uncle's regime. The brothers overthrew their uncle, reinstating their grandfather.

Rather kindly they then clear off to found their own kingdom. In an argument over which of the 7 hills to build upon, Romulus kills Remus and founds Rome. Rowling’s Lupin also doesn’t survive to see the beginning of a new era.

Lupin’s missing brother

Professor Lupin is brotherless in Harry Potter but on Potterwatch the code word for him was ‘Romulus’, Deatheater’s not being great readers of Roman antiquity.

It’s speculated by some thoughtful fans that Remus' intense rivalry with Romulus indicates Lupin's ongoing struggle with his other side, the werewolf.

Professor Lupin’s patronus is a regular wolf. They are sociable creatures, indeed as with Romulus and Remus, Kipling’s Mowgli is also reared by wolves. But werewolves are stigmatised so the professor seldom casts his full corporeal Patronus since it might reveal his furry problem.

Professor Lupin’s coded cross

Canis l​upus is the scientific name for the wolf and in latin "Lupin" means "wolf-like". If you describe someone as "lupine" it means to "resemble a wolf", perhaps they have a sharp tooth smile, or howl, or are secretly a werewolf that eats nothing but humans.

Harry Potter's Nymphadora Tonk and a fierce wolf
Learn more about the origin of Lupin & Tonks star crossed (unlucky) marriage on my Edinburgh Potter tour

So my incredible Italian & Italophile friends you have made it so far, I salute you! I'd love you to come on my Potter tour, although beware, I don't get any briefer!

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Or learn more about my many Potter tours

Credits

Jonathan Mahoney's Remus & Romulus
Professor Remus Lupin asleep on the Hogwarts Express
Tonks & the wolf by Typical Potterhead
Cornelius Fudge by jlestrange
Portrait of Roman nose Severus by HapticMimesis
Snape & the sword of Gryffindor by Davoneous
Greek and Roman Allusions By Richard A. Spencer