Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.62 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.62

Clare Rowan, Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xvi, 303.  ISBN 9781107020122.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Julie Langford, University of South Florida (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

In this revision of her doctoral thesis, Clare Rowan demonstrates that each of the Severan emperors employed claims of divine patronage to legitimize his position and shape public opinion regarding political, military and social issues. She argues that the Severan emperors justified their reigns with claims of divine support because they lacked prominent ancestors and/or military prowess, the characteristics employed by earlier emperors to secure their principates. For her, Severan claims of divine sponsorship should be seen as a transition in imperial ideology, locating them between 2nd C emperors who advertised their virtues through personifications and associations with a variety of gods, and mid-3rd C emperors who portrayed themselves as comites of the gods. Rowan focuses primarily on numismatic evidence because it offers a unique opportunity in ancient studies, i.e. the ability "to quantify ideology."(4) Her innovative numismatic methodology demonstrates that the emperors employed 'audience targeting,' i.e., "the production of a particular coin series, with a particular message, sent to a particular audience."

Rowan handles each reign in a separate chapter, identifying the emperor's divine patrons and then contextualizing his use of divine imagery within the historical moment that it occurred. She posits that each emperor (or an imperial official familiar with the emperor’s self-promotional priorities) designed his religious program to legitimize his position, announce important events and respond to political, military and social issues. Rowan next explores ideological negotiations between imperial claims of divine sanction and provincial responses to it. In each case, she finds that provincial officials sometimes ignored the claims of divine sanction, and sometimes used civic coinage to echo them. In some cases, the provincial elite may respond to the divine claims with enthusiasm by creating a cult and a temple for the emperor's patron deity. Such actions might be motivated by the presence of the emperor in the area, by the anticipation of or thanks for an imperial benefaction; sometimes the motivation might come from some more immediate cause such as inter-city rivalries for regional prominence. Along the way, Rowan deftly dispels lingering misconceptions concerning Severus' "Africa-first" policy, Caracalla's "illness," Elagabalus' supposed attempt to replace Jupiter with his own Syrian deity, and Severus Alexander's alleged domination by his mother and grandmother. The result is a nuanced and sophisticated interpretation of the evidence that identifies not simply propaganda as communicative process, but the creation of ideologies as a collaboration between the imperial administration and provincial officials.

Rowan begins by assessing the usefulness and limitations of literary sources, monuments and most importantly, coinage and coin hoards. Rowan's use of each is grounded in the latest scholarship; she detects the political agenda and rhetorical tropes in Dio and Herodian; she is rightly wary of the problematic Historia Augusta; and she contextualizes monuments and sculptural programs within imperial propaganda. Though she finds coin catalogs useful in showing the variety of types and legends produced by imperial mints, Rowan notes that they cannot accurately indicate the frequency of types or explore their distribution patterns. To address these issues, Rowan builds upon the pioneering methodologies of Noreña, Kemmers and Manders, who employed data from coin hoards to identify what Virtues or deities were most advertised in silver coinage.1 Rowan then adapts these methodologies for Severan propaganda by compiling data from 57 published hoards throughout Britain, Europe, Asia Minor and Syria. Because these hoards were not collected based upon type, they can "provide some idea of the degree to which different coin images were present in a particularly and time period." (25)

Armed with this data, Rowan slays some hoary academic dragons, especially early 20th century colonialist interpretations of the 'foreignness' of the dynasty and its supposed 'orientalization' of the principate. In her first chapter, "Contextualising a 'foreign' dynasty," Rowan exposes the scholarly obsession with the African and Syrian origin of the dynasty as based less upon ancient evidence than the justification of colonialist agenda. Severan claims of divine support were especially prominent in the myth of the dynasty's 'orientalization' of the Empire, but Rowan demonstrates that the practice had Roman precedents that stretched back to Sulla in the Late Republic. She next explores Severus' claims for the divine support of his hometown deities, Liber Pater (Roman Bacchus/Dionysus) and Hercules. The appearance of these two gods together was novel on Roman coinage as was the identifying legend, DIIS AVSPICIB(VS). Curiously, no trace of this coin survived in the hoards; instead, nearly 1/3 of the Roman mint's output for 194 was devoted to the individual celebration of LIBERO PATRI. Though Rowan does not explicitly say so, this image, as well as the later and equally important HERCVLI DEFENS(ORI), were quite familiar to the Roman viewer and would likely not summon up images of the more exotic African deities Mlk-strt and Sdrp'. Instead, Rowan demonstrates how Severus manipulated the images and legends on imperial coinage to shape public opinion. For instance, Rowan observes that the types advertising the two Lepticine gods were timed to coincide with Severus' civil war campaigns; Liber Pater and his associations with Dionysus as the conqueror of the East was a particularly apt patron deity in the confrontation with Pescennius Niger while the civilizing reputation of Hercules Defensor proved appropriate to combatting Clodius Albinus in the West. In 207 when Severus turned his attention to Britain, the mint shifted its emphasis to Neptune, a reference, Rowan believes, to the naval support required in maintaining the campaign against the Caledonians.

In her chapter on Caracalla, Rowan explores Caracalla's numismatic celebration of the healing deities Apollo, Asclepius and Serapis. Dio famously attributes Caracalla's interest in these gods to mental and physical illness resulting from the guilt of killing his brother Geta. Rowan is rightly skeptical of Dio's explanation, noting that the senator's unabashed hatred of the emperor caused him to put a negative spin even on positive actions such as the Constitutio Antoniniana. Rowan employs hoard evidence to demonstrate a dramatic break in Caracalla's advertisement after his father's death; the earlier emphasis on the traditional imperial personifications associated with military affairs such as Virtus, Victory and Mars was abandoned in favor of claims of divine patronage. It is in this period that the healing deities make their appearance, comprising 21% of the emperor's total output for his reign. I would like to have seen Rowan acknowledge that though these figures are impressive, Caracalla continued to advertise more traditional deities like Mars, Jupiter and Sol, who, according to her data, comprise 26% of the total output. Still, Rowan's exploration of how an emperor might borrow iconography from provincial coinage in order to express his interests and activities is enlightening and implies that influence flowed from periphery to center more than has been heretofore acknowledged in modern scholarship. Though she does not explicitly address the discussion of Caracalla's path through Asia Minor that was famously proposed by Levick in 1969 and rebutted by Johnston in 1983, Rowan's observations are based on solid evidence and constitute an important contribution to the study of how an emperor's presence in an area might influence provincial types.2

Rowan next investigates Elagabalus, who supposedly attempted to supplant Jupiter's supremacy in the Roman pantheon with Syrian Ba'al. Rowan rightly sees more invective than reliable evidence in contemporary authors who slandered the emperor's clothing choices, sexual partners, reliance upon female relatives and his preference for foreign paideia. All these characteristics bespeak the well-worn oriental tyrant motif. She resists descending into the minutia of these claims as Arrizabalaga y Prado does, but sensibly sets aside literary sources in favor of finding the emperor's agenda in building projects and coinage.3 In pointing to numismatic depictions of the Roman deity and the emperor as pontifex maximus, Rowan handily dismisses the notion that Elagabalus attempted to replace Jupiter's supremacy. Instead, she sees the emphasis in state art on amalgamating religious practices rather than supplanting them. (185) She finds evidence, however, that the cult of Elagabal spread throughout the empire, sometimes in cities along the emperor's path from Antioch to Rome, but rejects the notion of "an empire-wide implementation of the cult." (185-6). Rowan's sober assessments provide some much needed correction on other points such as the emperor's 'horn', the speed with which the Elagabalium on the Palatine was constructed and the likely location of the god's summer temple. She tempers the 'madness' of the emperor by demonstrating that much of the cult worship took place on private land, further defusing literary claims of imposing Elagabal on an unwilling Roman public. In doing so, she again addresses thorny numismatic issues such as whether the appearance of a building structure on a coin represents the building's dedication, its completion or continued progress. She concludes that Elagabalus may well have "been trying to alter the nature of imperial rule by creating a system in which the emperor would rule through divine sanction as a high priest of the Emesene god," but pronounces the effort a failure.

Elagabalus' failed experiment, however, provided a foil for Severus Alexander's determinedly Roman self-presentation, as Rowan establishes in her final chapter. This tactic would serve the new emperor well since his insistence on Mars and Jupiter Ultor allowed him fashion himself both as an "avenger of Roman morals, Roman culture and Roman religion," as well as an adept military commander in the struggle against the Persians. Furthermore, the Ultor associations clearly allowed Severus Alexander to tie himself to Augustus. Less convincing are Rowan's claims that the emperor attempted to associate himself with Romulus; the type on which she relies does not mention Romulus in the legend nor does the figure carry iconography that immediately identifies him as the first king of Rome. The significance that Rowan seems to endow of this supposed connection is puzzling since she admits that the 'Romulus' types had a small presence in the hoard evidence. (236) Nonetheless, Rowan's interpretations are mostly convincing, even when she attempts to associate historical events with the types and legends of Severus Alexander's largely undated coinage.

Under Divine Auspices will prove valuable not only for those interested in Severan propaganda, but for students of Roman history in general. The implications of Rowan's innovative numismatic methods go beyond her sometimes conservative analysis and I believe she could easily made still bolder claims that have potential to reshape our notions of imperial history. Rowan's evidence points towards the existence of a sophisticated imperial propaganda machine that employed a variety of media to shape public opinion through messages tailored for target audiences. Her suggestion that archives of dies were maintained in imperial mints which allowed later emperors to restore issues of their more impressive predecessors and thus participate in their prestige is especially enticing. But it also suggests that imperial self-presentation manipulated interpretations of the past every bit as much as they attempted to shape the viewers' notions of the present and the future.

Table of Contents

1. Contextualising a ’foreign’ dynasty
2. Septimius Severus, Liber Pater and Hercules
3. Medical tourism and iconographic dialogues in the reign of Caracalla
4. Elagabalus, Summus Sacerdos Elagabali
5. Severus Alexander and the refounding of Rome
6. Divine ideology in the Severan dynasty
Appendix A. Shifting imperial ideology
Appendix B. Dies of the stone on quadriga type
Appendix C. Coin hoards


1.   Noreña, C. F. 2001. “The Communication of the Emperor’s Virtues.” JRS 91: 146–168; Kemmers, F. 2005. “Not at Random. Evidence for a Regionalized Coin Supply?” In TRAC 2004: Proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Durham 2004 Britannia. Vol. 38. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies; Manders, E. 2008. Coinage Images of Power. Patterns in the Representation of Roman Emperors on Imperial Coinage, A.D. 193-284. Nijmegen: Radboud Universiteit.
2.   Levick, B. 1969. “Caracalla’s Path.” In Hommage de M. Renard, II, edited by J. Bibauw and M. Renard, 102:426–446. Collection Latomus. Bruxelles: Latomus; Johnston, A. 1983. “Caracalla’s Path: The Numismatic Evidence.” Historia 32: 58–76.
3.   Arrizabalaga y Prado, L. de. 2010. The Emperor Elagabalus: Fact or Fiction? Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

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