BMCR 2006.07.06

Imaginary Kings: Royal Images in the Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome. Oriens et Occidens 11

, , Imaginary kings : royal images in the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome. Oriens et occidens ; Bd. 11. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2005. 231 pages, 20 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3515087656 €63.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The latest volume in the quickly expanding Oriens et Occidens series investigates various aspects of royal imagery and ideology in the ancient Mediterranean and near east. Though the geographical focus of the volume, like that of its predecessors in the series, is very much on the oriens, there are some notable gaps in coverage: nothing on the pharaohs, for example, and very little on near-eastern monarchs before the rise of the Achaemenids. In another respect, however, the volume is actually more wide-ranging than the subtitle implies, since most papers aim to assess the nature of a monarch’s public image, broadly conceived, and therefore consider, in addition to images and imagery, all sorts of non-visual evidence. The results are mixed. While the volume as a whole does not break any new ground in our understanding of monarchy in the ancient Mediterranean world, the individual papers are lively and several offer insights that will be of interest to specialists in the different areas and periods covered.

The volume comprises an introduction written by the editors, O. Hekster and R. Fowler, and chapters on Achaemenid Persia (L. Allen), Demetrios Poliorketes (P. Thonemann), Commagenian royalty (M. Facella), Sulla (M. Gisborne), Parthian royal ideology (Fowler), Roman emperors (Hekster), and the “kingly” priests of the Roman Near East (T. Kaizer). All of these studies, with the exception of Thonemann’s, originated as papers delivered in 2003 to a seminar at Merton College, Oxford.

In their introduction (9-38), Hekster and Fowler set out some methodological principles for the study of royal imagery, ideology, and legitimacy, and explain the chronological and spatial parameters of the volume. Their central thesis is that “visibility lies at the heart of power” (9). By “visibility” they refer both to the monarch’s physical presence (esp. in royal rituals and on the battlefield) and to his “documentary” presence (esp. through symbols such as statues or coins); what they mean by “power” is less clear, but seems to be connected both to the concept of the monarch’s legitimacy (26 ff.) and to the state’s military force, administrative competence (25), and capacity to exact surpluses (24). The conflation here of the monarch and the state (cf. 10), separate actors that should be kept conceptually distinct from one another, is analytically imprecise and potentially misleading. Both visibility and power are set in the context of “royal ideology,” defined as “the entire scheme or structure of public images, utterances and manifestations by which a monarchical regime depicts itself and asserts and justifies its right to rule” (16). Missing from this otherwise reasonable definition — and from the volume in general — is consideration of the effects of this “structure.” As a result, it is difficult to understand how, precisely, visibility relates to power. The introduction as a whole is otherwise strong and thorough. Most of the questions and key terms (e.g., “propaganda”) will be familiar to scholars working on these subjects, but the discussion is clear and the bibliography extensive and up-to-date (through 2002), and the introduction can therefore be recommended to students and non-specialists as a useful way into this body of scholarship.

In the second chapter (39-62), Lindsay Allen examines representations, both visual and literary, of a highly-charged royal ritual: an audience with the Achaemenid king. She begins with the depiction of audience scenes on two monumental reliefs at Persepolis, and then traces the dissemination of this imagery, and the attendant ideals of access and communication, in other media and from places both within and outside the Achaemenid empire. Her treatment of seal images from the satrapal capital of Daskyleium (48-50) is the best illustration of her main argument that the image of the royal audience scene was frequently adapted in local contexts to meet local concerns.

Peter Thonemann’s engaging study of Demetrios Poliorketes’ self-representation at Athens (63-86) is based on the interpretation of a single fragmentary inscription, a much debated prescript of an Athenian decree from either 296/5 or 282/1 ( IG II 2 644). Arguing that the terminological and calendrical anomalies in the text indicate a violent disruption of the Athenian civic year in 296/5, Thonemann suggests that Demetrios’ dramatic return to the city and the start of a new civic year were carefully timed to coincide with the City Dionysia festival, an elaborate synchronism in which Demetrios could represent himself to the Athenians as tragic king (and in a manner far more systematic than Plutarch implies: Dem. 34). We often think of representation as being in the service of power, but this compelling reconstruction, set in the context of other calendrical reforms in the ancient and early modern worlds, reminds us that power sometimes served representation.

The fourth chapter (87-103), by Margherita Facella, considers the changing self-representation of Commagenian dynasts and how their “propagandistic efforts” were perceived by Romans. Emphasizing the dual Greek and Persian cultural heritage of the Commagenian kingdom, and its location in a strategic zone between the empires of Parthia and Rome, she uses monuments, inscriptions, coins, and portraiture to chart a shift in the accent of the royal image from one of philhellenism to one of philoromanism. Facella does not pursue the question of how the subjects of Commagene might have reacted to this change, but her analysis of Roman writers, especially Cicero, shows that the Romans themselves often viewed the philoromanism of Commagenian kings with skepticism.

In the fifth chapter (105-23), Matthew Gisborne investigates the use of royal symbolism in the Roman Republic, especially in the ceremony of the triumph, and suggests that Sulla’s exploitation of such symbolism marked a turning-point in late-Republican self-representation. In places the argument is overstated (L. Aemilius Paullus’ triumph over Macedonia did not necessarily evoke “regal dominion” over kings, 109), inconsistent (Gisborne claims that archaic monuments in the Forum had only limited regal associations by the late Republic, 116, but could nevertheless function alongside Sullan monuments to bolster the dictator’s association with Rome’s kings, 120), or untenable (few readers will be persuaded that Sulla ordered the massacre of the Antemnians in emulation of Romulus, 121), but the basic point that Sulla played a key role in shaping the dynamics of late-Republican political discourse is surely correct.

Richard Fowler’s wide-ranging survey of Parthian royal ideology (125-56) seeks to demonstrate that the limited evidence available for reconstructing this ideology is insufficient to support the proposition that it drew exclusively or even primarily on Achaemenid models. Analysis of monumental art at Behistun and of royal titulature, portraits, and “virtues” consistently reveals the influence of multiple sources in the making of Parthian royal imagery and ideology, from which Fowler concludes persuasively that the Parthians, like all the other regional powers in the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia after the collapse of the Hellenistic kingdoms, were actively and creatively experimenting in the representation of royal power.

In his study of Roman imperial vision and visibility (157-76), Olivier Hekster explores some of the ideological nuances of Roman emperors seeing and being seen. Following a discussion of the link between vision and power and a brief synopsis of Bentham’s Panopticon, Hekster concentrates on the visibility of the emperor at spectacles in the city of Rome. He stresses the reciprocity of vision between the emperor and the audience, contrasting this dynamic with that of the inspector and prisoners in the Panopticon. The evidence Hekster cites for the canons of imperial behavior at the games is well known, but his remarks in the conclusion (175), that the public behavior of orators and emperors might have been shaped by similar forms of normative pressure, and that depictions of persons gazing upon the emperor were a standard feature of imperial iconography, are illuminating and worth pursuing further.

The last chapter (177-92), by Ted Kaizer, examines the evidence for “kingly priests” (not “priestly kings”) in the Roman Near East. Sober analysis of what is known about priestly status and functions in Palmyra, Hierapolis, Hatra, Baalbek, Baetocaece, Emesa and other sites, mainly from inscriptions but also from iconographic and literary sources, leads Kaizer to the inescapable conclusion that we simply do not know enough about priests in the Roman Near East, or about the effects on them of Roman imperial structures, to be able to pronounce on the “kingliness” of their power.

Most readers of collections like this one will consult only the chapter(s) most relevant to their research and teaching. But it is also worth considering what the scholar who reads from cover to cover can expect from the volume. The introduction represents this book as an analysis of the relationship between images and power in the “interconnected societies” of the ancient Mediterranean and western Asia (9-10), and as an examination of the “parallels” and “appropriations” in these societies’ representations of monarchic power (35). As a set of empirical case-studies on these questions, the volume is quite successful on the second count, less so on the first. The papers diligently cite and discuss the substantial evidence for all sorts of intercultural borrowings, exchanges, echoes, and re-workings in the creation of royal ideologies, and the cumulative picture that emerges is one of dynamic interaction and ideological fluidity between the societies under consideration. In this respect the volume may be welcomed as a useful contribution to the cultural history of ancient Mediterranean and near-eastern monarchy.

The volume does not, however, explain the effects (if any) of imagery and ideology on monarchic power. In fact, the problem of the specifically ideological basis of monarchic power is never tackled head-on. I suspect that this stems from a failure (or unwillingness) to discuss explicitly what power is and what it does. Historians now have at their disposal many different theories of power. Power may be understood, for example, as the capacity of an actor within a social relationship to impose his will (Weber); as the discursive production of knowledge, meaning, and “truth” (Foucault); as the control over human and material resources (Mann) — to take just three influential formulations. Or power may be conceptualized as something else entirely. The point is that any analysis of the relationship between image and power has to include a definition of power. Common sense will not do. None of the papers in the volume provides such a definition, and consequently none successfully addresses the question of how and to what extent imagery and ideology helped to produce the specific outcomes sought by the monarchic regimes in question. Despite the rich empirical content of the volume, it does not leave the reader with a better understanding of the relationship between royal images and royal power.

It should also be noted that the introduction raises the expectation that the papers will adopt a comparative perspective (“the articles in this volume deploy parallels from both the modern world and other cultures,” 11; 10, 36), which is not really the case. Few papers incorporate comparative evidence for royal imagery and ideology from societies outside the ancient Mediterranean (only the introduction and the chapters by Thonemann and Hekster), and none, with the partial exception of the introduction, adopt a comparative approach. Passing references to parallels and contrasts in other times and places can be suggestive, as, for example, when Hekster notes that Roman emperors, unlike many other monarchs, were routinely condemned for going about in disguise (157-60), but these sorts of ad hoc comparisons, like those in the introduction, have only limited explanatory potential. Sustained comparative analysis tends to be more helpful (cf. Thonemann’s treatment of calendrical reforms following the French Revolution, 80-82). Comparative analysis is especially illuminating when it is employed in a systematic manner, and here Hekster’s paper provides a good example of a missed opportunity. He can offer no explanation for why imperial invisibility was bad (“whatever the exact causes,” 162), despite having hinted at one in his observation that Rome was a society “founded upon systems of patronage” (160) and one in which “life [was] lived in the open spaces of the city” (161, quoting Holt Parker). These remarks make up the rudiments of a hypothesis about Roman attitudes towards imperial visibility, a hypothesis that could have been tested, in principle, through systematic comparison with other monarchical societies that did and did not share these features. Now I do not mean to suggest that interpretation of royal imagery and ideology depends on comparative analysis, but its use, promised by the introduction, could have enhanced several of the papers in the volume.

Imaginary Kings, then, is most successful as a collection of empirical case-studies on a set of related topics. Though the volume as a whole does not fulfill the ambitious program of its introduction, the individual chapters are stimulating, thoughtful, and equipped with ample and up-to-date references to modern scholarship. The editors should be thanked for bringing these papers to the wider readership they deserve.1


Ch. 1. “Imagining Kings: From Persia to Rome,” O. Hekster and R. Fowler (9-38).

Ch. 2. “Le roi imaginaire: An Audience with the Achaemenid King,” L. Allen (39-62).

Ch. 3. “The Tragic King: Demetrios Poliorketes and the City of Athens,” P. Thonemann (63-86).

Ch. 4. ” Φιλορώμαιος καὶ Φιλέλλην : Roman Perception of Commagenian Royalty,” M. Facella (87-103).

Ch. 5. “A Curia of Kings: Sulla and Royal Imagery,” M. Gisborne (105-23).

Ch. 6. “‘Most Fortunate Roots’: Tradition and Legitimacy in Parthian Royal Ideology,” R. Fowler (125-56).

Ch. 7. “Captured in the Gaze of Power: Visibility, Games and Roman Imperial Representation,” O. Hekster (157-76).

Ch. 8. “Kingly Priests in the Roman Near East?” T. Kaizer (177-92).


1. The production of the volume is somewhere between adequate and mediocre. The presence of a misspelling (“succesfull”) and a typo (“Trinty”) in the very first sentence of the Preface (7) does not inspire confidence, but in general the errors of this sort that crop up here and there do not mar the presentation too severely. There are, however, signs of minimal revision between oral delivery and written text (“… but we can look today at a representative sample,” 145), and of inconsistency in editorial conventions (in some chapters, for example, footnotes are placed inside periods and commas, in others, outside). The quality of the illustrations, arranged on glossy pages at the end of the volume, is fair, but the numismatic images accompanying Gisborne’s chapter are indecipherable.