BMCR 2001.05.12

Monumenta virtutum titulique. Senatorische Selbstdarstellung im spätantiken Rom im Spiegel der epigraphischen Denkmäler

, Monumenta virtutum titulique : senatorische Selbstdarstellung im spätantiken Rom im Spiegel der epigraphischen Denkmäler. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien, Bd. 34. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2000. 350, viii pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515074430 DM 120.00.

Heike Niquet has written an important book, which is a direct descendant of her doctoral dissertation supervised by Geza Alföldy and presented to the University of Heidelberg in summer 1998. The importance of self-representation in the late Roman senatorial class has long been recognised, and Niquet, who is familiar with international scholarship on the subject, explicitly refers to Beat Näf’s magisterial study Senatorisches Standesbewutsein in spätrömischer Zeit (Freiburg 1995) and D. Schlinkert’s recent contribution Ordo senatorius und nobilitas. Die Konstitution des Senatsadels in der Spätantike (Stuttgart 1996). But whereas the evidence used by Näf, Schlinkert and others was primarily literary, Niquet studies the epigraphic evidence for senatorial self-display in the late Roman period. In particular she focuses her attention on the inscriptions of the late ancient City of Rome published in CIL VI and its supplement volume recently edited by Geza Alföldy (CIL VI 8.3: Tituli magistratuum populi Romani ordinum senatorii equestrisque, Berlin/New York 2000).

The book has two parts. The first (15-109) systematically reviews different aspects of funerary and honorific monuments commemorating senators or members of their families in the fourth and first half of the fifth centuries. Niquet rightly emphasizes that inscriptions were always associated with some kind of monument and that the texts were presented to the public only in association with the monument to which they belonged. It is precisely for that reason that Niquet considers the place where a statue was erected, its form, size and the material from which it was carved. She also examines the rare cases where more than one statue was put up in honour of a powerful senator and discusses the legal, political, social and administrative implications of the erection of honorific statues. Monuments and tituli honorarii were influenced by the honorands who wanted to display themselves and their families. But senators were not completely free in their public self-advertisement; rather, the setting up of prestigious public monuments was controlled by the emperor and the senate. The majority of senators and high office-holders could expect honorific statues in the forum Traiani. Only a small group of civil officials who were in close contact with the emperor and magistri militum like Stilicho, Aëtius and Flavius Constantius were allowed to place extraordinary statues in the forum Romanum, the chief public square for imperial representation, or even on the Capitol. However, when Niquet stresses that the outstanding self-representation of the viri militares is also to be understood as a kind of compensation for their lack of family traditions, it should not be overlooked that by the end of the fourth century the civil elite of senatorial rank had been swamped by social climbers.

Niquet dedicates a separate chapter (87-109) to the phenomenon of re-using tituli and monuments in Rome. The re-use of funerary inscriptions and statues seems to have been more frequent in late antiquity than it had been in the centuries before. Niquet is not convinced that scholarship has succeeded in explaining this habit by referring to the economic crisis, the shortage of raw material, money and time, the decline of craftsmanship, or the epigraphic tradition. Yet she cautiously concludes: “Die wachsende Bereitschaft, ältere Materialien wiederzuverwerten, ist zweifellos auch und wohl in erster Linie Ausdruck mentalitätsgeschichtlicher Veränderungen, […] die dringend einer gründlicheren Aufarbeitung bedürfen” (109).

The second part of the book (111-226) examines means of senatorial self-representation in different epigraphic contexts. First, funerary and honorific inscriptions are analyzed (111-172), i.e. nomenclature and insignia of rank, the traditional cursus honorum, and the praise of moral and political values. Strict regulations set bounds to the expression of individual merits and benefactions; a traditional catalogue of virtues such as wisdom, honesty, and piety were inscribed on stone; but the favourite topic was office itself. Again, some of the highest civilian and military officials did not follow the esprit de corps and celebrated their deeds on tituli honorarii erected in prominent places like the forum Romanum.

While the official character of honorific monuments prevented expressions of individuality in the case of most senators, the sepulchral context of funerary inscriptions did allow the display of distinctive elements and the expression of religious statements. Thus pagan senators listed their priestly offices on their gravestones, while Christians confessed their belief in a faith which promised resurrection. Religious dissent, a key-theme in the literary sources of this period, is not revealed on honorific inscriptions, which were set up in public to create the impression of continuity and homogeneity (cf. 173-185). But while Niquet is prepared to explain this claim for moral and social uniformity and the amplification of stereotyped virtues by highlighting the disregard and marginalization of senators in the military administration of the late empire (cf. also 230), I should conjecture that this propagandistic advertisement of unity also reflects the great number of arrivistes within the senatorial class, who adopted and adhered to traditional patterns in order to integrate themselves and their families into the old ordo senatorius.

An illuminating chapter deals with honorific monuments of senatorial women (187-199). The inscriptions for feminae clarissimae show no more individual features than those of their fathers, husbands and sons. Women were perceived only as members of an old family and adorned with traditional epithets. Even Christian noble women rarely inscribed on their tituli those virtues for which they were praised in the writings of the church fathers. The ideological struggle about the conduct of a sancta et venerabilis femina which characterizes so many works of pagan and Christian authors (cf. e.g. J. Straub, Calpurnia univiria [1966/67], in: id., Regeneratio Imperii, Darmstadt 1972, 350-368) is not to be found in the epitaphs. In this section it would certainly have been worthwhile to compare the literary inscription set up by Jerome for the Roman aristocrat Paula in ep. 108,33 with the epigraphic evidence found in the ruins of Rome to illustrate the differences in the eulogies of noble ladies carved in stone and those written on parchment.

Finally, Niquet shows that the construction and renovation of large buildings and public squares, and the removal and restoration of statues, were meant to praise the merits and benefactions of the individual office-holder and the class he belonged to. Pagan senators may also have used the restoration of deities to glorify the illustrious past and to expose their own religious belief (201-226).

There are two learned appendices. The first (237-252) discusses in detail the posthumous funerary monuments commemorating one of the most influential Roman senators of the fourth century and his wife, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus and Fabia Aconia Paulina. Niquet concludes that the statue erected on Praetextatus’ estate on the Aventine (cf. CIL VI 1777 = ILS 1258) is to be distinguished from the other monuments dedicated to his memory and may have been set up by the Roman senate. The second appendix (253-259) deals with the genealogy of the consul in 438, Anicius Acilius Glabrio Faustus, preserved in CIL VI 37119 = ILS 8986.

Three very useful tables (262-283) list and describe (a) honorific inscriptions for members of the ordo senatorius on the Capitol or the imperial fora (“im öffentlichen Bereich”); (b) those erected in other places open to the public (“im halb-öffentlichen Bereich”); and (c) honorific inscriptions for feminae ordinis senatorii.

Niquet’s treatment of the epigraphic evidence is, so far as I have checked, completely reliable. She has competently and cautiously interpreted her assembled material and shows herself reluctant to draw far-reaching conclusions. The overall picture presented is convincing not least because Niquet does not treat inscriptions as self-contained texts. However, one would have welcomed a more sophisticated discussion of her concepts of “public (öffentlich)”, “semi-public (halböffentlich)” and “private”, which are essential for her study. Niquet confirms that, until the mid-fifth century, inscriptions and statues set up in public were a fundamental, and traditional, means by which individuals could be honoured in their lifetime and their memoria preserved after death. Then other forms of self-advertisement were adopted and developed, like the large audience halls of an aristocratic domus where clients were received. Most remarkable is the fact that the Christianization of the Roman aristocracy did not, as one would infer from the literary tradition, imply immediate and radical alteration in the epigraphic self-representation of the senatorial aristocracy. Here, the conservatism of the epigraphic habit triumphed over the new religion.