BMCR 2019.03.33

Imagining Emperors in the Later Roman Empire. Cultural interactions in the Mediterranean, Volume 1

, , Imagining Emperors in the Later Roman Empire. Cultural interactions in the Mediterranean, Volume 1. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018. xi, 353. ISBN 9789004370890. €129,00.

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

Imagining Emperors in the Later Roman Empire is a fine collection of expert discussions on imperial representation in late antiquity. Following a general introduction, it assembles fourteen case studies of the construction of imperial figures in late-antique texts (panegyrics and historiography, but also law and papyri), coinage, and inscriptions, covering emperors from Decius in the third century to Stilicho’s consulate in AD 400. As the editors point out in their introduction, the volume does not seek to explain the nature or construction of imperial legitimacy.1 Rather, in tune with the ‘representational turn’, its contributions investigate how late-antique imperial figures were represented in different media during their lifetime and thereafter, and why. In addition to the time-span under consideration, which is larger than usual, the volume also attractively examines some less popular imperial figures of the long fourth century AD, some of whom were branded ‘tyrants,’ i.e. illegitimate, after their death, including Decius, Valerian, Maximian, Maxentius, Constantine’s sons Crispus and Constans, and Jovian. They are discussed alongside Diocletian, Constantine, Constantius II, Julian, Valentinian, Gratian, Theodosius I, and Stilicho.

The papers can be subdivided into three thematic groups. Four contributions illuminate Tetrarchic imperial representation. Following Jürgen K. Zangenberg’s discussion of Lactantius’ presentation of Diocletian and his fellow emperors, Alessandro Maranesi’s paper canvasses panegyrics and coinage to trace the establishment of Maximian’s image in pagan sources and its destruction in Lactantius and Constantinian material. His contribution highlights the influence of local interests on the Rhine border in Trier on the construction of Maximian as defender of Rome and defeater of barbarians. In a similar vein, Catherine Ware’s comparison of the presentation of Constantine in Pan. Lat. VII (6) and in Pan. Lat. VI (7) contextualizes the latter within both Constantine’s political agenda in 310 and the expectations of his audience in Gaul. With reference to local resonances (or the lack thereof), Ware is able to explain why so little attention is given to Constantine’s fictive descent from Claudius II, while the Augustan image of Constantine and the emphasis on Apollo rather than Sol is so carefully constructed in this speech. Raphael G.R. Hunsucker discusses the construction of the image of Maxentius as founder of Rome and contrasts it with the ktistic traditions of Maximian and Constantine. His discussion of the importance of Rome in Maximian’s imperial representation and his careful reading of a key inscription in Rome ( CIL VI 33856a = ILS 8935) are particularly noteworthy.2

Then follows a group of five papers that look at the sons and successors of Constantine. Diederik Burgersdijk traces the image of Crispus before his damnatio memoriae in 326 and admits that hardly any individual character traits can be extracted from the sources. George Woudhuysen’s eloquent paper looks at Constans’ image in legal and literary sources (including Libanius). Woudhuysen identifies Firmicus Maternus’ De errore profanarum religionum as a panegyrical text written in justification of Constans’ laws against pagan cults and also observes the emphasis on dynastic descent in his imperial legislation.3 He convincingly concludes that the negative image of Constans is largely due to Magnentian propaganda, yet there remains the question of why Magnentius’ short reign was able to have such a persistent effect on Constans’ image. Another understudied emperor receives attention in Jan Willem Drijvers’s discussion of Jovian’s image. Drawing on a wide range of sources – inscriptions, coinage, and legislation as well as literary evidence – Drijvers reconstructs an emperor who was keen to present himself as a new Constantine. This is explicit in the Syriac Julian Romance, which is discussed in some detail. Alan J. Ross’s close reading of Julian’s Oration 1 is another key contribution to this volume. Ross is interested in Julian’s selection of his material for the speech and demonstrates that Julian uses an earlier panegyric by Libanius as a springboard to construct his image of Constantius II. He concludes that the emphasis on Constantius’ eastern military achievements are to be explained by Julian’s wish to present his cousin as a liberator of the West, and himself as his powerful aide in Gaul. The fifth contribution is María Pilar García Ruiz’s investigation of the shifts in Julian’s image on coinage, which is illustrated by nine color images of high quality.

Finally, there are five papers on emperors from earlier or later periods. Daniël den Hengst offers a close reading of three crucial passages in Ammianus (Amm. 29.1-4, 30.5, 30.9), which highlight the eclectic image Ammianus constructs of Valentinian I. In his expert discussion, he investigates several themes of Ammianus’ image of Valentinian (anger and ruthlessness, dispensation of justice, fiscal and religious policy, education), and shows that the presentation is often contradictory, and also how Ammianus repeatedly introduces scapegoats to exculpate Valentinian’s behavior. To Den Hengst, this is Ammianus’ attempt to provide readers with a range of impressions from which they could form their own image of the emperor. Note also that Den Hengst argues that allusion is made to Valentinian’s passive knowledge of Greek and his active knowledge of Pannonian. Bruce Gibson’s case-study of Ausonius’ Speech of Thanks to Gratian delivered in Trier traces its indebtedness to Pliny’s panegyric for Trajan, in particular in its use of the notion optimus (imperator). Like Ross, Gibson thus investigates the relationship between the construction of imperial images in two panegyrics and the inherent competition (between the emperors and between the panegyrists) this implies. Further, he attractively suggests that the emphasis on Gratian’s actions in the private sphere (including the quotation of letters) allows Ausonius to elaborate on his close ties to Gratian and on the emperor’s special relationship to God, and so to construct a positive image of the emperor in a period of political turmoil. Claudian’s construction of Stilicho in his Liber Tertius De consulatu Stilichonis is the topic of Álvaro Sánchez-Ostiz’s paper. He analyzes the Roman (Republican) traditions and other literary topoi, such as traditional depictions of barbarian, employed in the speech and suggests that the detailed description of the beast hunt aimed to underline the general’s liberality.

Roger Rees looks into the recurring references to ‘freedom of speech’ ( libertas dicendi) in two Latin speeches addressed to Theodosius I in 388-389, Ambrose’s Letter 74 and Pacatus’ panegyric ( Pan. Lat. 11 (12)). It is interesting that they use the term libertas dicendi to describe freedom of speech, a formulation that is uncommon in Classical Latin, where one would expect licentia. Also, their idea of free speech is not part of the parrhésia -discourse of Greek philosophers such as Themistius (e.g. in Or. 15, 190a-b, which is also analyzed by Rees). Rather, Ambrose uses it to construct episcopal religious and spiritual authority (over the emperor), while to Pacatus the possibility of speaking freely under Theodosius reveals that he was not a tyrant like his predecessor Maximus. In both, libertas dicendi is contrasted with silence that is dangerous ( periculum silentii) because it characterizes, or leads to, tyrannical government. Ambrose and Pacatus thus construct freedom of speech as a key element of the imperial ideology of Theodosius, whose role is relegated to that of an audience.

In closing, I consider the first paper of the collection, David Potter’s masterly investigation of the depiction of Decius and Valerian from the third to the fifth century. Potter begins by examining the reflections of their religious and military policies in contemporary sources, including in papyri ( libelli) and inscriptions, as well as in the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle and the writings of Dexippus. In later sources, Decius and Valerian are increasingly discussed in the context of Romano-Persian relations; in particular Valerian’s fate at the hands of the Persians sparks the imagination of various authors. His capture is reinterpreted as evidence for Persian treachery, for the wrath and power of God (by Constantine), and for his degenerate lifestyle; in turn, Decius’ death is resettled in Gothic (or other barbarian) territory, and his fight is seen as heroic. Together, the study of their changing reflections in the sources reveals how later generations dealt with Roman military defeats and how reality is progressively dissolved into stereotypes in the process.

A particular strength of the collection is its interest in the relation between sources, and in particular between panegyrics and historiography. Several papers (Maranesi, Rees, Woudhuysen, Zangenberg) show how imperial images constructed in panegyrics can influence the representation of emperors in historiography; others trace the influence of panegyrics on later laudatory speeches (Gibson, Ross, Ware), yet others the impact of Classical texts (Ennius, Vergil) on late-antique texts (Gibson, Hunsucker, Rees, Ware), while two papers underline how two authors endow Classical terminology with new meanings ( pestifer in Lactantius, Maranesi) or create new terminology to denote a new concept ( libertas dicendi instead of licentia in Ambrose, Rees). One examines the interplay between words and coinage (García Ruiz). Another strong point is the contributors’ refusal to take their sources at face value: each imperial image analyzed is being understood as one possible presentation or interpretation of the respective emperor rather than as a reliable source for his characterization. The subjectivity of the source material is thus constantly underlined. Also, many papers address the question of the origin of certain images (the emperor himself, or the panegyrists?), and some furnish insightful suggestions on the possible motivations behind these images. Altogether, the volume powerfully demonstrates that imperial images were constantly being adapted to (new) needs by later emperors or authors, that even within the span of an emperor’s reign his image could be constructed in very different ways, and that earlier images (of other emperors or of the same one) were consciously recycled in the process.4

The volume comes without a general conclusion. Some patterns can nonetheless be observed. For instance, all papers are concerned with some sort of competition. Some discuss competing images of individual emperors in different texts and media. Others trace how ‘their’ emperors compete with other (earlier or future) emperors; note that Augustus, Trajan, and Constantine occur repeatedly as models. And yet others deal with the competition between the non-imperial ‘constructors’ of imperial images, i.e. the authors of literary depictions of emperors, concerning in particular, but not only, the competition between Christian and pagan sources. What this means is that imperial representation, whether literary or material, should never be conceived as self-contained, but always as relational. This holds in particular for the late-antique period with its manifold (religious and other) audiences. A number of contributions then highlight how those involved in the construction of imperial images were aware of this challenge, and responded accordingly or even used it to their advantage.5

In sum, this is a highly successful collection of papers which furnishes many new insights into the construction and modification of late-antique imperial images. Its discussions reveal that imperial images were subjective, dynamic, and kaleidoscopic. Its particular strength lies in the attention paid to several ‘understudied’ imperial figures, as well as in the many contributions that discuss the cross-fertilization of texts, in particular panegyric and historiography. Instead of a general bibliography, each chapter comes with its own list of sources cited. However, there is an index locorum and an index nominum. To conclude, any scholar of the representation of late Roman emperorship and its reflections in literary and material sources will find that Imagining Emperors is a highly instructive, enlightening, and enjoyable read.

Authors and titles

Introduction – Diederik Burgersdijk, Alan J. Ross
1 Decius and Valerian – David Potter
2 Scelerum inventor et malorum machinator. Diocletian and the Tetrarchy in Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum – Jürgen K. Zangenberg
3 An Emperor for all Seasons – Maximian and the Transformation of His Political Representation – Alessandro Maranesi
4 Maxentius and the aeternae urbis suae conditores : Rome and Its Founders from Maximian to Constantine (289–313) – Raphael G.R. Hunsucker
5 Constantine, the Tetrarchy, and the Emperor Augustus – Catherine Ware
6 Constantine’s Son Crispus and His Image in Contemporary Panegyrical Accounts – Diederik Burgersdijk
7 Uncovering Constans’ Image – George Woudhuysen
8 The Constantinians’ Return to the West: Julian’s Depiction of Constantius II in Oration 1 – Alan J. Ross
9 Julian’s Self-Representation in Coins and Texts – María Pilar García Ruiz
10 Jovian between History and Myth – Jan Willem Drijvers
11 Valentinian as Portrayed by Ammianus: A Kaleidoscopic Image – Daniël den Hengst
12 Gratitude to Gratian: Ausonius’ Thanksgiving for His Consulship – Bruce Gibson
13 Authorising Freedom of Speech under Theodosius – Roger Rees
14 Claudian’s Stilicho at the Urbs : Roman Legitimacy for the Half-Barbarian Regent – Álvaro Sánches-Ostiz


1. As does e.g. J. Wienand (ed.), Contested Monarchy. Integrating the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century AD. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015: BMCR 2015.11.34.

2. On the importance of Rome in late-antique imperial rule and ideology, see now also the papers in AnTard 25 (2017), introduced by M. McEvoy and M. Moser, ‘Imperial presence in late-antique Rome, 2nd to 6th centuries AD’, AnTard 25, 15-21.

3. On Constans’ rule and image, see also M. Moser, ‘Ein Kaiser geht auf Distanz: Zur Rompolitik Constans‘ I.’ AnTard 25 (2017), 41-58.

4. This complements the results of M.S. Bjornlie (ed.) The Life and Legacy of Constantine: Traditions through the Ages. London: Routledge, 2017, on Constantine’s image.

5. On the (ab)use of the communication between emperor and subjects, see also N. Lenski, Constantine and the Cities. Imperial Authority and Civic Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016: BMCR 2016.09.39.