Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.08.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.52

Birgit Bergmann, Der Kranz des Kaisers: Genese und Bedeutung einer römischen Insignie. Image and context 6​.   Berlin; New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2010.  Pp. xx, 515.  ISBN 9783110202588.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Lee Ann Riccardi, The College of New Jersey (


By tackling the material that makes up the subject of this book, Birgit Bergmann has taken on a difficult task. Her ultimate goal is to determine how and why the corona civica, the oak leaf crown traditionally awarded to soldiers who saved the life of a Roman citizen in battle, became the exclusive privilege and symbol of the emperor. No scholar has examined this issue before. In order to do this, she had to organize and consider both literary and visual evidence about wreaths and crowns from the Republic through the Augustan period. This led her down a path long understood to be fraught with confusion and contradiction. Yet Bergmann has bravely attempted to find clarity in this material, and it is to her credit that she does at times succeed in making reasonable inferences and is able to draw sound conclusions, although many are also dubious. She will certainly be challenged on many points. Still, despite some significant flaws, there is much to praise about her efforts.

Bergmann’s most important contribution is in the investigation of this topic. This study fills a large gap in the research regarding how the official imperial headdress came to be the corona civica, rather than one of the other significant crowns used in Republican Rome, such as the laurel wreath, the gold crown, or the grass crown. It is particularly important that she—in contrast to previous scholars who have used visual examples only occasionally — has included visual sources in addition to literary ones. The former consist of sculpture in the round, reliefs, and coins, as well as medallions, silver items and gems, which are given detailed treatment in the catalogue, all with good photographs. Bergmann often struggles to reconcile both types of evidence, yet she does also manage to illuminate issues that have long seemed impossible to settle, such as the appearance and number of crowns worn by a triumphator. Unfortunately, she does not always use visual representations with sensitivity. In some cases, she acknowledges their limitations as documents of reality,1 but she fails to do so in others.2

The book began as Bergmann’s dissertation at the University of Munich, and its origin remains evident despite the adaptation to a monograph. It is filled with meticulous cataloging, lots of extensive endnotes, and several digressions about relatively tangential points. Approximately half of the book consists of text and photos analyzing the meaning of various kinds of headdress and developing her argument about the ultimate choice of the corona civica. The rest is made up of a catalogue of the visual representations she used, followed by a lengthy section of tables that lists wreaths and images of Jupiter on Republican coinage, and non-numismatic depictions of Jupiter wearing different wreaths, drawn from material in the LIMC.

The text has four major sections: 1) crowns in religious ritual, 2) crowns in triumph, 3) crowns in military contexts, and 4) the emergence of the corona civica as the crown of the emperor. In each of the first three sections, Bergmann discusses the origins and meanings of the headdress used in those contexts. Each section also includes at least one excursus on a tangential topic, which, while interesting, is rarely relevant to her overall thesis. She also adds special ‘case studies’ of the Tiberius cup in the Boscoreale set and the Palestrina Relief.

In the first section (pp. 7-35), Bergmann examines the use of wreaths in religious contexts, including those worn by participants, onlookers, and victims, as well as those offered as votives. She concludes that wearing a wreath was not mandatory for participants, although it was common, but that it was required for victims. This section also contains a long ‘Exkurs’ on the Ara Pacis (pp. 18-33) that analyzes the placement of figures wearing wreaths, veils, and the special shoes called calcei patricii, demonstrating that visual documents like these cannot be taken literally. It is an important lesson that she could have applied to some of her other examples.

Section II concerns the triumphal crown (pp. 37-108). It simultaneously contains the most persuasive and the most problematic sections of her entire discussion. The first part is probably the most cogent integration of disparate sources about the triumphal crown that has ever been written. By carefully reading the evidence, Bergmann convincingly demonstrates that there were two triumphal crowns: one made of laurel that was the true triumphal crown given to the triumphator, and a second crown of gold owned by the state that was held over his head by a public slave during the triumphal procession, to be returned after the ceremonies were over. While she is not the first scholar to make this argument, with the inclusion of the visual evidence she is the most persuasive. Unfortunately, the conclusions that follow this discussion are not so convincing. Bergmann has to deal with discordant sources that must be evaluated carefully to determine which she will follow and which she will not and why. Here, however, she often supports or dismisses evidence without explanation and thus weakens her overall interpretation. For example, she accepts without question that the gold triumphal crown was synonymous with the corona Etrusca, following Pliny (NH 33,11) (pp. 58-60), even though this forces her to dismiss Tertullian’s account (de corona 13) that the corona Etrusca was shaped like oak leaves and was worn by magistrates at the games, with no mention of its use in the triumph. She does not elaborate on why she finds Pliny’s passage more convincing than Tertullian’s. Instead, she embarks on a long discussion about the connection between oak leaves and Jupiter, ultimately concluding that there was no connection until the time of Domitian, and that therefore the corona Etrusca could not have been made of oak leaves until at least the late 1st c. AD. This conclusion also leads her into a long digression about where the centrally stored triumphal ornaments were kept (pp. 60-73): Unfortunately, as Bergmann herself acknowledges, the argument is complex and the evidence confusing. And, as with so many of her digressions, it is also ultimately irrelevant to the subject at hand.

Section III, on crowns as military decorations (pp. 109-183) contains an excellent section on the corona graminea, the grass crown that was given to acknowledge a soldier who had saved an entire legion in battle. It was the highest military honor possible during the Republic, and only seven documented cases when it was awarded are known. Bergmann follows her discussion of the origins of this crown with a particularly interesting digression on the wreaths worn by Caesar on his coinage. She persuasively argues that Caesar’s wreaths are not laurel or gold, as others have proposed, but rather grass, based on their unusual appearance as well as the importance of the corona graminea in the Republic and to Caesar himself. This crown was not given to him by the army, but rather was awarded to him by the Senate, so the military honor was already being appropriated for political purposes. Also in this section, Bergmann argues that a central medallion would originally have been placed at the summit of the wreath on the Bevilacqua Augustus in Munich. This theory is not only interesting and probably correct, but it also opens up the possibility that more Augustan oak wreaths also originally were adorned with central medallions.

The final section, on the emergence of the corona civica as the crown of the emperor, brings together many of Bergmann’s most important points, and is especially effective when, based on her previous discussion, she postulates that the corona graminea was too closely allied with Caesar and too reminiscent of the Civil War, and was therefore passed over by Augustus in favor of the corona civica.

Overall, this book presents a well-researched and interesting thesis that is ultimately compelling, and it is a useful reference that collects most of the literary and visual sources pertaining to both Republican and imperial headdress. Many of Bergmann’s arguments don’t convince, but that is not surprising, given the gaps in the evidence and the necessity for conjecture in so many areas. It is still a worthwhile read and a valuable resource for continuing debate on this important topic.


1.   E.g., in her ‘Exkurs’ on the Ara Pacis (pp. 18-33), where she notes that the wreaths and shoes worn by figures in the procession friezes were not intended to reflect an actual situation but rather to call attention to the class and highlight relationships of certain figures to each other.
2.   E.g., in her ‘Fallbeispiel’ on the Palestrina relief (pp. 98-108), where she argues that the figure in the chariot is not Trajan because it does not look enough like his other portraits.

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