Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.02

Frank Kolb, Herrscherideologie in der Spätantike.   Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 2001.  Pp. 274.  ISBN 3-05-003432-7.  EUR 19.80 (pb).  



Reviewed by Chris Epplett, History, University of Lethbridge (christopher.epplett@uleth.ca)
Word count: 1966 words

The later Roman Empire, and in particular the changes brought to it by Diocletian and Constantine, has long been a popular topic among ancient historians. Apart from standard works such as A. Alföldi's The Conversion of Constantine and Pagan Rome (1948), a number of more recent works have dealt with various aspects of this period, such as J. Elsner's Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph (1998). Kolb's work, part of the Studienbücher: Geschichte und Kultur der Alten Welt series, is one of the most recent works concerned with this period. Kolb's aim is not to write a comprehensive work covering all aspects of late imperial ideology but in particular to discuss monarchic representation in late antiquity, a topic that has previously been somewhat overlooked by scholars (pp. 23-24).

Kolb's book is divided into two sections. The first, and most important, (pp. 19-140) discusses the changes in imperial ideology from roughly the foundation of the tetrarchy to the end of the fourth century, with three different chapters focusing on the tetrarchy, Constantine, and his successors. The second section, 'Materials' (pp. 143-254), is basically an extended appendix, with detailed discussions of various literary and artistic sources such as coinage that are referred to in the first part of the text. The book concludes with a four-page bibliography, list of illustrations, and index (p. 257-74).

As noted above, Kolb begins his discussion with the accession of Diocletian and the formation of the tetrarchy. In general, the author stresses that, although Diocletian was certainly innovative, he did not represent as complete a break with preexisting tradition as has sometimes been claimed by scholars. The connection between the emperors and the divine, for example, an important feature of tetrarchic ideology, was not a new idea. As Kolb notes, Roman emperors had been associating themselves with deities like Jupiter or Hercules since the beginning of the empire (pp. 36-37). Similarly, the concept of multiple emperors, which was a prime feature of the tetrarchy, had at least superficial antecedents, such as when Marcus Aurelius elevated Lucius Verus to the rank of Augustus and made his two sons Caesars (pp. 27-29). Even proskynesis in the presence of the emperor, said by a number of sources to be an innovation of Diocletian, appears to have been practiced informally as early as the reign of Septimius Severus (pp. 39-40). This is not to say that Diocletian and the tetrarchy produced nothing new; among the innovations of the period were the wearing of purple as an imperial attribute, and the stress on the similitudo and concordia of the emperors in contemporary literary and artistic propaganda (pp. 32-33; 49). In general, however, Diocletian and his colleagues took various preexisting trends and molded them into a new and formal court ceremonial emphasizing the exalted status of the ruler in tetrarchic ideology.

In the next section of his work, Kolb discusses the reign of Constantine and his contribution to imperial ideology. The author first of all notes one major difference between Constantine's reign and that of his immediate predecessors; while the tetrarchic period saw emperors chosen based on merit and ability rather than familial connections, Constantine reintroduced the principle of heredity into the imperial succession, beginning with his own imperial claim based upon the rule of his father, Constantius (pp. 59-61). In another break with tetrarchic tradition, both Constantine and his rival Licinius established individual styles of portraiture to emphasize particular aspects of their respective propaganda rather than using the 'homogeneous' portrait style of their predecessors (pp. 61-63). In other respects, however, Constantine did not represent a dramatic break with the tetrarchs, at least in the early part of his reign. Like Diocletian and his colleagues, Constantine also associated himself with the divine from the outset of his reign. It was only the divinity that Constantine eventually associated himself with that marked him off from the tetrarchs. At the outset of his reign, Constantine associated himself with Apollo and Sol Invictus, deities that linked him respectively with Augustus and his alleged ancestor, Claudius Gothicus. As Kolb notes, this situation began to change near the time of the battle of the Milvian Bridge. As early as 311, judging from contemporary panegyric, Constantine began to associate himself with a nondescript mens divina rather than any specific god. More dramatic changes in the divine ideology of Constantine occurred later in his reign, particularly after his victory over Licinius in 324. According to contemporary panegyric, the emperor, unlike his tetrarchic predecessors, no longer regarded himself as divine but as being assisted and protected by the deus (pp. 63-70).

Although Constantine, unlike the tetrarchs, no longer made the claim that he himself was divine, he still was accorded an elevated status in contemporary propaganda. Through frequent association with Christ and the apostles in the work of writers like Eusebius, Constantine's unique position was made abundantly clear to his subjects. As Kolb notes, although the emperor himself could no longer be regarded as divine, the actual imperial office (watched over by God) still was, which of course magnified the status of the individual holding that office. In addition, to judge from contemporaries like Eusebius, Constantine by no means saw himself as a servant of the Christian Church. The emperor instead regarded himself as the 'overseer' of the Church, responsible for spreading one unified Christian faith, a position that was not warmly received by all Christians throughout the empire (pp. 70-72).

Although Christianity became the favoured state religion under Constantine, the emperor, to judge from contemporary literary and artistic propaganda, still attempted to appeal to his pagan subjects as well. As Kolb notes, the style of imperial representation adopted by Constantine, apart from artistic and literary propaganda linking him with Augustus, was largely based upon that of his imperial predecessors, with little overtly Christian symbolism. Even late in Constantine's reign, the amount of overt Christian imagery and propaganda to be found on imperial coinage was relatively slight. The title Invictus (associated with Sol) did indeed disappear from Constantine's coinage after 324 but was replaced only with the more religiously neutral epithet of Victor. In a similar fashion, the radiate crown (another symbol of Sol) also disappeared from imperial coinage in the latter part of Constantine's reign, and the Chi-Rho monogram instead began to appear. According to Kolb, however, the appearance of the latter symbol in imperial art was only sporadic until the reign of Theodosius, when Christianity was much more firmly established as the state religion (pp. 72-75).

Kolb concludes his discussion of Constantine with some of the innovations introduced during his reign. In terms of imperial portraiture, Constantine, after his final victory over Licinius in 324, was responsible for introducing the 'holy' portrait-type into imperial imagery, a style that would influence subsequent portraiture into the Middle Ages. Such portraits of Constantine, which depicted him gazing upwards, were meant to suggest the emperor's spirituality, a personality trait also emphasized by contemporary panegyric. The expression on the portraits and the diadem worn by the emperor were also meant to be reminiscent of Alexander the Great; like the Macedonian, Constantine also had a 'world mission', namely, converting the world to Christianity (pp. 84-85). Another 'innovation' of Constantine was the founding of Constantinople as the new Christian capitol of the empire. Yet, as Kolb points out, even in taking this decisive step, Constantine was, in some respects, following the pattern of his tetrarchic predecessors. It was not uncommon for emperors to found their own residences, and certain features of Constantine's new city, such as the close proximity of palace and stadium, mirrored tetrarchic palace complexes. Apart from the scale of Constantine's endeavor, however, one difference between Constantinople and previous imperial palace complexes was the inclusion of Christian churches in Constantine's city, made prominent through their close proximity to the imperial palace and their inclusion in imperial ritual (pp. 80-84).

In the final section of his discussion, Kolb outlines the further changes to imperial ideology under Constantine's successors. According to the author, explicit Christian elements were only gradually added to imperial ritual and propaganda, as they had been during the reign of Constantine. Individuals were still proclaimed emperor, at least ostensibly, based upon their lineage and/or ability. In the mid 4th century, as shown in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus, the actual legitimacy of a ruler depended upon his acclamation by the Roman army (or parts thereof), following the precedent of 3rd century imperial acclamations. As Kolb points out, however, imperial acclamations did undergo important changes in the later 4th and 5th centuries. In this period, emperors usually remained in their capitals and did not take the field in person, which meant that, practically speaking, they could no longer be acclaimed by any substantial portion of the army. Instead, the civil officials and populace of the capital began to take the leading role in acclaiming the emperor. The increasing involvement of urban church officials in such acclamations can also be seen by the increasing stress on the religious duties of the emperor in these speeches (pp. 91-102).

The same period also saw gradual changes to imperial representation in both written and visual propaganda. In the later fourth century, when the empire was divided between a number of rulers, various means were adopted to make clear their relative auctoritas, within the imperial hierarchy. More senior emperors, for example, were allowed to wear more elaborate diadems than their colleagues (pp. 105-08). In contemporary artwork, seniority was clearly indicated by one emperor being depicted substantially larger than his junior colleagues or above and between them. As Kolb notes, such formalized representations often gave a more accurate view of the power relationships within the imperial hierarchy than official written documents. Although Theodosius, for example, was officially the junior of Valentinian II because of his later dies imperii, visual propaganda like the Missorium of Theodosius made abundantly clear that Theodosius in reality held a position of power over his much younger colleague (p. 102-05).

A difference of opinion regarding the nature and role of the emperor also existed in written sources of the later fourth century. While some writers like Themistius now felt that the emperor's primary duty was to spread civilization (and religion) to the barbarians, others such as Synesius argued that a ruler should still display his ability by defending the frontiers against them (pp. 125-28). Another continuing controversy concerned the supposed 'divine status' of the emperor or lack thereof. Constantine's successors, for example, no longer found it politically prudent to boast of an exalted status by being equated with Christ or the apostles, as Constantine had been (pp. 131-33). In the view of writers like Ambrose of Milan, the emperor himself no longer possessed any divine power but owed his 'sacral aura' entirely to his affiliation with God and the Church (pp. 133-38).

Although Kolb's book is not a long one, it does provide an excellent discussion of imperial representation and ideology in late antiquity. The author shows that even Diocletian and Constantine, rulers famous for the important and dramatic changes they brought to the empire, did not, as some suggest, completely break with preexisting tradition but drew upon it in formulating their own conceptions of the empire and imperial ideology. In a similar fashion, the Christianization of the empire and the associated changes in imperial ideology did not occur in one fell swoop under Constantine but continued as a gradual process long after his death. One particular strength of Kolb's work is its use of a wide variety of sources to support its argument; apart from numerous panegyrics and other written sources, the author also makes reference to relevant pieces of visual propaganda. In particular, Kolb makes good use of contemporary coinage as evidence for his discussion. In short, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in late imperial ideology and representation.

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