Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.11

David S. Potter, Prophets and Emperors. Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1994.  Pp. x, 281.  ISBN 0-674-71565-9.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by John Vanderspoel (
Word count: 1966 words

In recent years, the links between religion and Roman authority have been investigated more thoroughly than they have previously. Earlier, books and articles tended to focus on religions individually and/or descriptively, with religious beliefs and practices the most important issues addressed. Of late, however, religion as a social and cultural phenomenon has become a topic of choice. Consequently, studies like those of G. Anderson, Sage, Saint and Sophist. Holy men and their associates in the Early Roman Empire (1994), J.B. Rives, Religion and Authority in Roman Carthage from Augustus to Constantine (1995), and D.R. Edwards, Religion & Power. Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Greek East (1996), among others, have appeared with some frequency. In some ways, S.R.F. Price, in Rituals and Power. The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (1984), established an approach which others have followed in their different ways.

P.'s book is a worthy example of the newer approach, though his technique differs somewhat from the books noted above. Unlike Anderson, for example, who offers an almost bewildering variety of sages and sophists, to inject into a reader's mind an image of an Empire bristling (literally, sometimes) with such figures, and thereby generates a sense of the purposes and programmes of his subjects, P.'s discussion operates more as a discussion of some underlying ideas, with individuals mentioned and treated as evidence to support the conclusions; it is not a sequential, or chronologically-oriented, discussion of emperors' dealings with prophets and oracles. Each technique has its merits. P. is particularly successful in making his conclusions almost inexorable, not only individually, but also in total. For, unlike many books which are little more than a series of individual studies, P. argues toward a goal: his final chapters depend heavily on what has gone before and cannot be fully understood without reading the earlier portions. This is a positive feature, as it makes the book a single entity.

In the first chapter, 'Prophecy and Cult' (1-57), P. discusses some of the parameters of his study, including the notions of 'active and passive religious experience' (4 ff.) -- his terminology -- and 'inductive and subjective prognostication' (15 ff.). Under the inductive he includes discussions of astrology and dreams, both to establish their frequent occurrence for divination and to distinguish them from his true subject, oracles and prophets, which he terms 'agents of subjective divination' (22). The bulk of the chapter treats the variety of oracles and prophets available in the Empire, concluding that all inhabitants, by and large, accepted prognostication, but not necessarily in the same way. Though sceptics existed, even Christians were not among them: by ascribing the results of oracles and prophets to demons, they were accepting the possibility of divine inspiration. In other words, to use P.'s distinctions, Christians, like others, accepted the 'passive side' of cult, the possibility of being acted upon, as compared to active religious experience, i.e., the practices performed by the human being toward the divine.

P. amplifies this in his second chapter, 'Scholars, Poets and Sibyls' (58-97). Moving through territory sometimes familiar, sometimes not quite so familiar he treats the antiquity, even in the ancient world, of prophecy and discusses sources available to ancients as well as to moderns including literature, where oracles and prophecy are a feature of the narrative. A considerable portion of the chapter is given over to a treatment of sibylline prophecy, as an example of his main points. P., of course, knows this material well, having traversed it in an earlier book as evidence for the events of the eastern part of the Empire in the third century A.D. (Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire. A Historical Commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle [1990]), but his purpose here is not an interpretation of content. Rather, to quote the final sentence of the chapter, collections 'provided a constant reminder to people in all walks of life that the Gods or god cared about them, their present circumstances, and their future.'

The third chapter, 'Prophecy and the Informed Public' (98-143), is perhaps the most difficult conceptually, because the point is not as self-evident as those in earlier chapters. To put it succinctly, P. shows that the informed and literate public often employed prophecy and oracular literature after the fact to explain and react to historical events, imperial pronouncements, etc. Here, for the first time, the Roman administrative apparatus plays an important role in the discussion, as P. argues that the Empire's inhabitants' main experience of distant power was divine power and that, consequently, it was only natural for reaction to the often distant, often nebulous, Roman administration and its high officials, especially the emperors, to reflect the response to the divine. P. begins carefully, with a treatment of a tendency to connect unrelated events, such as Norbanus' blast on a trumpet at dawn 1 January A.D. 19, the subsequent collapse of a statue of Janus and the death of Germanicus in Syria later in the year, which called to mind another prophecy about a triple three-century cycle. From further examples, it is clear that unusual occurrences brought a tendency, by reinterpreting an old one or creating a new one, to discover prophecies that predicted the event and perhaps forecast punishment or reward, but, above all, that gave subjects a stance, a point of view, in regard to an event or a group of events. P. then treats the communication of an emperor with his subjects, using examples to show that audience perceived the image more than the reality of power, in part due to the difficulty of obtaining information other than the official; indeed, any news was so rare that rumour and falsehood had as likely a chance of acceptance as truth, which did not easily displace erroneous knowledge once established. P. closes the chapter with a treatment of the image of the emperor in the Sibylline oracles, revealing how imperial information, be it news or pronouncements, was transformed into a cohesive form that subjects could understand and, even more importantly, trust. Less clear is the issue of ubiquity: how much of the population was familiar with all this? Perhaps, in the end, that doesn't matter: Rome ruled through a few élites (relatively speaking), who translated for, or maybe to, the majority, as recent studies have shown (most succinctly, P. Brown, in an early chapter of his Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity, 1992).

The topic of the fourth chapter, 'Prophecy and Personal in the Roman Empire' (146-182), follows logically. Once the reader has seen that ancients accepted the value and truth of prophecy and that historical events and personages were viewed through the medium of prophecy, it is but a small step to the concept that manipulation was a possibility for emperors and others. Horoscopes, dreams, oracles, prophecy, all these and more were at the service of emperors and aspiring emperors, for belief in the phenomenon ensured acceptance of the message. Thus, to take one example, Septimius Severus' horoscope and some prophecies mandated his progress to the throne and created adherents where otherwise there may have been none or few. His military skills and achievements were, no doubt, important, but belief in the inevitability of victory, or, in the case of possible rivals, the simple fact that Septimius had got his prophecies out first, will have been an incitement on one hand and a deterrent on the other. It is hardly surprising that consultation of prophecy was regulated and that transgressions could lead to charges of treason and capital punishment. This chapter is the goal to which the previous material has argued; after nearly 150 pages on the nature and importance of prophecy in the Roman world, the prophets and emperors of the title have finally come together. As the foregoing analysis has attempted to show, P. has crafted his material with great skill. The heart of the book's argument is no longer a surprise or easy to dispute, because the first three chapters have laid the groundwork so well. That emperors and candidates for the throne manipulated their subjects or intended adherents by using belief in the validity of prophecy against them is, in consequence, not in doubt; inevitably, scholars will differ in their interpretations of some details. I shall note only one point here: not discussed at length in either this or the previous chapter is imperial cult, a surprising omission in that the semi-divine status of emperors would seem to provide, if not an avenue for the transmission of prophecy to the ruled, at least a helpful environment where an emperor's prophetic claims for himself might be more readily accepted. If this is not so, because, perhaps, it simply was not necessary, a reader is nevertheless interested in the relation of imperial cult to prophecy.

The final chapter, 'Eastern Wisdom in Roman Prophetic Books' (183-212), appears to be something of an afterthought. P. treats the presence of non-Graeco-Roman elements in prophetic literature; the Chaldaean tradition and Zoroastrianism provide the main additional material. P. includes a discussion of Christianity, whose increasing prominence diminished the need for importing any other kind of prophecy. A native religion, despite its Semitic origins, universal Christianity provided the only truth that was necessary and slowly replaced other forms of divine inspiration and intervention. Thus, to take an example not in P.'s book, by the end of the fourth century Christians were as ready to proclaim that God had raised up the dust storm at the Frigidus River in favour of Theodosius' army as non-Christians were to credit Aeolus and other deities; all saw a divine hand, but Christianity denied the validity of anything other than itself. Essentially, the chapter returns to the nature and development of prophecy, already treated earlier, though it might be said to show a different relationship between power and prophecy, i.e., the ability of the ruling power to turn prophecy off when it was no longer needed; it is hardly a surprise that some oracles of the ancient world ceased to operate during the fourth century.

A brief 'Epilogue' (213-216) reprises the main points and has a few more words about the impact of Christianity on the relationship between power and prophecy. The notes (219-271) and an index (273-281) follow. Unfortunately, the book lacks a bibliography, a problem amplified by the use of short titles after the first citation of a work. Far too often, a reference in a note requires a time-consuming and frustrating journey backwards, page by page, in search of the first citation. If the reason for this omission was the publisher's wish not to frighten the general reader, it is an insult to assume that such a reader would not simply ignore what he or she doesn't wish to peruse; if it was cost, I, for one, would gladly pay a bit extra to avoid all those minutes searching for a reference that must exist. P.'s scholarly readers, too, will be unfamiliar with some works he cites and will not easily resolve all the short titles into full references, never mind finding an item vaguely recalled. I shall forbear to comment on the practice of removing notes from the bottoms of pages, where they belong. These last points are matters of production and should be regarded as such. Enough has been said to indicate the considerable value of P.'s book and its place among other recent works in their approach to power, religion, culture and society in the Roman empire. P. has written a book which does not fail to make its point; indeed, often it does not seem to be making a point at all, so naturally does it lead the reader to its conclusions. No student of the relationship between prophecy and power in the Roman world, and perhaps elsewhere, should leave this book unread.

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