Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.01.09

Gregor Weber, Kaiser, Träume und Visionen in Prinzipat und Spätantike.   Historia Einzelschriften 143. Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2000.  Pp. xiv, 585.  ISBN 3-515-07681-6.  DM 166.  



Reviewed by Thomas M. Banchich, Canisius College (banchict@canisius.edu)
Word count: 721 words

Weber's book, a slightly abbreviated version of his 1998 Catholic University of Eichstätt Habilitationschrift, is excellent in virtually every respect. Its central concern is an understanding of the place of accounts of the dreams and visions of Roman emperors up to Maurice within the context of what, since another Weber (Max) is sometimes termed Herrschaftssoziologie the "Sociology of Dominion." In addressing that concern it provides a model of clarity of organization and argumentation as Weber consistently combines attention to the problems inherent in analysis of the texts which are the primary sources for his chosen topic with an impressive control of ancient evidence and modern scholarship. As a result, in the view of this reviewer, he never asks questions of the evidence for which that evidence, when carefully considered, cannot supply answers. In short, then, his is one of those rare works worth studying for the importance of its topic, its method, and its execution.

Careful discussion of the processes involved in an individual's choice to articulate a dream or vision, the form that articulation takes, the reception of the finished product, and the methodologies best suited to appreciating these phenomena occupy most of Weber's first three chapters. For his purposes, whether a dream was actually dreamt or never dreamt, a vision actually seen or never seen, makes no difference, since accounts of dreams and visions are, Weber observes, transmitted through speech, which, in turn, modern man must analyze in individual and cultural contexts. Before an actual dream was related firsthand, a decision must have been made to select that particular instance of dreaming from a broader range of like experiences. This choice often had as much to do with a dreamer's recollection of his dream as with the dream itself, though, ultimately, no control now exists to gauge the degree of difference. Certainly some elaboration likely occurred between recollection and articulation, and, if the initial articulation of a dream came to be set in a literary context, this Literarisierung--in Weber's view and, more important, for his precise purpose--obliterates any meaningful distinction between an account of an actual dream and a dream as literary construct. This holds even if the medium through which we know the dream is not literary, for it remains unavoidably text. A process of selection and exposition figured, too, in dreams and visions found in the writings of ancient dream interpreters whose typical concern was to demonstrate their own competence. Another factor to which Weber is especially attentive is the dependence of the form taken by dreams and visions in texts on what individual authors thought would be important to and be accepted by those they addressed. From these chapters emerges a subtle picture of how accounts of dreams and visions confirmed the special status of rulers, all the while being contingent on that very status.

Chapter 4 begins with preliminary remarks on dreams and visions in the day-to-day routine of emperors, with particular attention to personal testimony of Roman rulers about their dreams and visions and to the dissemination of that testimony. A consideration of Roman imperial and late antique dream/vision motifs, along with an investigation of those same motifs as they appear in earlier ancient texts, comes next, after which Weber turns to chronological analyses of each of the following motifs: birth and childhood; promises of dominion; achievement of victory and divine interference in battle; the exercise of dominion; special abilities and divine encouragement; and impending death. Chapter 5 handles in sophisticated fashion the interrelated phenomena of Literarisierung and the goal of winning of acceptance--legitimization--of an emperor in the eyes of various individuals and groups. Next come two appendices, the first of which reviews scholarship on dreams and visions; the second, modern psychoanalytic theory. Extensive bibliographies of texts and translations, reference works, corpora and collective works, and secondary literature--the last of these comprising twenty-six pages--follow. Weber ends with valuable indices of all the dreamers, dreams, symbols, messages (e.g. names of successors) and individuals with which he has dealt, and, finally, a Quellenregister.

All concerned with what the ancients thought to be the nature of dreams and visions, with the processes through with ancient dream experience has reached us, and, most of all, with the history of the place of dreams and visions within the framework of a "Sociology of Dominion" will profit from Weber's scholarship.

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