Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.25

Marietta Horster, Bauinschriften römischer Kaiser. Untersuchungen zu Inschriftenpraxis und Bautätigkeit in Städten des westlichen Imperium Romanum in der Zeit des Prinzipats. Historia Einzelschr. 157..   Stuttgart:  Steiner, 2001.  Pp. 496.  ISBN 3-515-07951-3.  EUR 97.00.  

Reviewed by Ralf Behrwald, Universität Bamberg (
Word count: 1944 words

The imperial building inscriptions discussed in the volume under review are documents of imperial self-representation in two ways: first, they are (often the only) testimonies for buildings which might serve imperial (self-) representation, and secondly, they served propagandistic aims in themselves. Ancient viewers were aware that the relation between these texts and the "real" building achievements of certain emperors could be problematic. To have provided ample material for the discussion of this problem is not the least merit of the book under review, which derives from Marietta Horster's PhD dissertation submitted to the University of Cologne in 1995. It is based on a catalogue of all imperial building inscriptions (except for milestones) from the western part of the empire found outside of Rome -- a catalogue of roughly 200 pages which in itself forms an impressive achievement and will be of great use to everyone dealing with these texts, as it offers a detailed discussion and up-to-date bibliography of every text.1 In her discussion, however, H. goes well beyond this and more often than not includes building inscriptions from the eastern part of the empire. Thus, an overall picture of imperial building activities and their epigraphical evidence emerges.

H. begins with a discussion of general characteristics of imperial building inscriptions (chapter I), of other epigraphical testimonia to imperial construction (chapter II) and the epigraphy of fortification works (chapter III). Size, material and design of imperial building inscriptions could vary extremely, but especially for rebuilding inscriptions (usually smaller than the original texts), H. stresses that there was no significant difference between imperial and private epigraphy. In Rome, excessive application of inscriptions was known (and criticized) as a vice in emperors of so different a reputation as Domitian and Trajan. Although the same is not reported from outside the capital, H. discusses the Roman cases known from literary sources (p. 20-30) in order to establish a set of rules that governed the epigraphical habit in cases of restoration or reconstruction. These rules are checked against the epigraphical evidence from Rome and the provinces (p. 31-38), where imperial rebuilding inscriptions naming the original founder are very rarely attested. One may conclude that outside Rome emperors were under less restraint and could more easily suppress the mention of original builders when they chose to act as rebuilders. In addition, H. concludes that if emperors are rarely attested as rebuilders of earlier emperor's buildings in the provinces, that might indicate that an imperial foundation did not constitute a close link with the imperial house. The town could not expect such a building to attract further imperial attention, and, if rebuilding was necessary, this usually would have to be done by the local community itself.

H. proceeds to analyze the terminology of imperial building inscriptions. She discusses imperial titulature and its abbreviations, arguing from the homogeneous character of inscriptions of one emperor that probably these texts were drafted at the emperor's seat (a practice that might have gone out of use in Severan times). Inscriptions involving the military, however, might have been formulated by the officers who set them up (resulting in a larger quota of mistakes). Different verbs used in imperial building inscriptions would stress the appropriate imperial virtus. For instance, imperial cura might be emphasized by verbs traditionally associated with magistrates such as faciendum curavit, while the financial aspect could come out most clearly in the use of dare, which according to H. in imperial building inscriptions is a firm proof of imperal funding. Accordingly, the nuances of reficere as against restituere (which does not have to imply building activities at all) are discussed. Furthermore, H. discusses the cases where buildings are named, where the community receiving a benefaction is mentioned and where information on financing is given. Here (pp. 67-72), against Panciera and others, H. argues that the difference between "private" imperial patrimonium and the fiscus tended never to be neglected and is exactly mirrored by the inscriptions. The same, according to H., holds true for the difference between formulas like ex auctoritate Caesaris, iussu Caesaris or the mention of a beneficium/indulgentia, which reflect varying degrees of imperial involvement.

In the next chapter, H. goes beyond the imperial building inscriptions and discusses other inscriptions that attest the building activities of Roman emperors. These do not figure prominently among imperial virtues in honorific inscriptions set up by the provincials. In the names of buildings, even an attribute derived from an emperor's name ("Augustan", "Julian" vel sim.) is, as H. demonstrates, no clear indication of imperial munificence, especially in the East, where such attributes occur frequently. Turning to the emperors' names on brick stamps, H. can show that there is no compelling reason to deduce imperial building activity (or imperial largesse, sponsoring local buildings) from them: bricks might be reused or simply bought from imperial (or legionary) figlinae. On the other hand, imperial inscriptions on fistulaein most cases seem to be indicative of imperial largesse.

Inscriptions from city fortifications are discussed in a separate chapter. Looking back to earlier usage, H. stresses the importance of the local administration in defense works both in republican Italy and (in few cases) the provinces. In financing these large, long-term projects, benefactors would only rarely contribute, among them Roman leaders of the civil wars. This role was taken up by Augustus, especially in his new colonies. The tradition of locally administered fortification, however, ceases after him; now, only the redesigning of city gates as honorary monuments can be organized by a community alone. From Tac. Hist. 5.12, H. concludes that a ius muniendi had come into existence, with local communities having to obtain permission for the erection of new fortifications. But this remains a difficult question: When Tacitus speaks of the ius muniendi of Jerusalem, the city was formally no part of the empire but of Agrippa's client kingdom. As H. herself must admit (134), the fortification of Jerusalem probably was a political rather than a juridical problem. From legal texts, however, it can be gathered that at least from the second century onwards, provincial towns had to obtain the governor's permission when they wanted to build or rebuild towers or walls. And epigraphically, after Augustus the emperor becomes almost ubiquitous in inscriptions of fortifications, even if they were not financed by him. Other indications are needed if an imperial policy is to be reconstructed, as H. can demonstrate in the case of fortified settlements in Mauretania Caesariensis. A systematic policy of fortifying every colony at the moment of her foundation, stated by earlier scholars, is plausibly refuted by H. who argues that no connection between legal status and defence works existed. The erection of walls, towers and gates could respond to imminent danger, but in other cases it could also be an expression of civic pride.

Turning to matters of building organisation, H. discusses the role of the military in urban construction (chapter IV), other imperial personnel involved (chapter V), and imperial participation in local funding (chapter VI). Local communities might have to pay for the engagement of military in local construction. While there are surprisingly few case of the military being involved in city fortifications, H. discusses a larger number of aquaducts constructed under supervision of military engineers or with the participation of troops. However, the overall picture that emerges from H.'s discussion is one of relatively little epigraphical evidence for construction activities of the Roman army. As H. remarks in her very brief discussion of this phenomenon, there is no proof for in imperial policy of using the army as efficient work force. Instead, literary sources when relating such works tend to stress the motive of upholding military discipline during peacetime.

Among the personnel involved in imperial building, only the governors are epigraphically well attested. In most cases, only the emperor would be mentioned in the inscription of a building donated by him. As a consequence, the discussion of other officers (correctores, curatores etc.) can adduce only a few cases, mostly known from honorific inscriptions.

Discussing partial financing of buildings by emperors, H. stresses the fact that building inscriptions rarely ever mention such a fact. The use of marble from imperial quarries need not be an indicator of such imperial largesse, as this marble (in much the same way as military main-d'oeuvre) may simply have been bought by the towns. Only in a few cases (mostly attested in literary sources and involving prominent places like Athens) can contributions of an emperor to larger building projects be proven.

In her concluding chapter, H. turns to the motives -- both explicitely mentioned and deduced by modern scholars -- for imperial building. H. is sceptical of modern interpretations; to her, imperial building was far too patchy and irregular to serve a consistent programme. If the inscriptions attest to imperial rebuilding after a variety of catastrophes, most literary sources only mention help after earthquakes. And even the inscriptions more often than not pass over the reasons for imperial building activities.

And indicators are few that might help modern scholars reconstruct the motivation for single imperial building activities. Towns in the vicinity of imperial estates had a good chance to gain the emperor's attention, and even better were the chances of his hometown or place of birth. Among Italian towns, a close distance from Rome enhanced the chances to obtain imperial buildings. And in the course of founding new colonies, the emperor might participate in building activities.

If all these factors, in the eyes of H. do not permit the reconstruction of regional "building programmes", the same holds true for the choice of the types of building sponsored by the emperor. In a remarkable contrast to Rome, outside the capital the inscriptions do not permit tracing an emperor's preference of one special type of building (as for instance sanctuaries of the imperial cult). Only a tendency to refrain from financing municipal curia houses or theatres seems detectable to H., who interprets this as a conscious policy to leave space for local citizens' engagement. An economic motivation according to H. can be detected for harbour buildings, but a deeper concept of economic development or redistribution was alien to imperial building activities. For both the romanization and urbanization of the empire, H. is sceptical of a conscious imperial policy, and in both cases she attributes only small importance to imperial building activities.

The monographic part of the book is followed by a detailed catalogue of all imperial building inscriptions from the western provinces. The discussions of single inscriptions in this catalogue are lucid and useful, and for some inscriptions they include new restorations or interpretations.

Despite occasional slips (such as the main goddess of Ephesos turning out to be "Artemisia"2), this is generally a reliable and solid book. H. has presented a concise, well-based and well-argued case: imperial building in its often erratic, unsystematic approach closely followed the tradition of municipal euergetism. In the provinces, apparently, no emperor pursued a defined plan or "building policy". H.'s results fit tightly into the overall picture of an emperor more often responsive and deciding on a case-to-case basis than following his own, long-term plan: a picture that was presented by F. Millar a quarter of a century ago and that long since has won general approval.

Of course, in a book that denies a conscious imperial building policy, long-term changes that never were intended by any single emperor might have been given more attention, such as the relatively large amount of imperial reconstruction works, a tendency whose programmatic aspect might have been looked at more closely. Nevertheless, both the voluminous catalogue and the monographic part constitute a real step forward in the interpretation of imperial building activities and their epigraphic echo.


1.   It is unfortunate that some pieces of information will be found in the text that have not been entered into the catalogue (e.g. p. 145 n. 75 on the original location of the inscription from Emona, cat. X 4).
2.   P. 104. Neither Hierapolis nor Laodikeia belonged to Lycia-Pamphylia, but to Asia, to which H. wrongly attributes the Bithynian town of Nikaia (p. 138 n. 62).

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