BMCR 2020.09.33

Imperial Panegyric from Diocletian to Honorius

, , Imperial Panegyric from Diocletian to Honorius. Translated texts for historians, contexts, 3. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020. 312 p.. ISBN 9781789621105. £80.00.

Panegyric of Late Antiquity is a ‘monster’. Between the accession of emperor Dioclectian in 284 and the death of emperor Honorius in 423 there are more than 60 extant panegyrics written by 22 individuals. It is, however, not only the sheer magnitude of such a collection which poses a challenge to us. We encounter both Christian and pagan authors, both people from the imperial entourage and people who met the emperor for the first time, both western and eastern officials. They all have various agendas, from covering up military defeat to emphasizing a triumph over the barbarians, from convincing social elites to justifying controversial imperial decision-making. Thus, as the editors of the volume rightly point out, every scholar must take into account the different contexts and references in this manifold and fascinating corpus, and consider the context of each individual speech, however challenging the task might be, in order to identify what lies behind the numerous topoi and the rhetorical language that offers a glimpse into what was at stake at the time the text was composed. In doing so, we receive a lot in return. During the past few decades, many scholars have demonstrated that these texts are not useless one-sided adulations, but rather highly complex and instructive insights into the interaction between the emperor and his Akzeptanzgruppen. Thus, as sources panegyric texts are as valuable as they are difficult to decipher.

The volume attempts to give a “consciously comparative approach” (3) to the vast range of panegyric texts in Late Antiquity. This approach to the subject is not only reasonable, but also necessary and long-awaited, as there is much research on specific authors, but barely any analysis which examines communal and individual aspects from a bird-eye perspective.[1]

In the introduction, which offers a concise and valuable overview of the various characteristics of the panegyric of Late Antiquity, the editors touch upon several key aspects: definition of the genre, outline of research, and value of the genre as a source. Among many useful remarks, the editors note that the influence of Menander Rhetor’s treatise should not be overestimated. In too many studies Menander is still considered the most influential predecessor for authors in the 4th and 5th century.

The volume is structured in four parts which provide the framework for the volume’s comparative approach. The four sections deal with major recurring structural and thematic elements of 4th and 5th century panegyric. In the first part, three chapters (Pernot, Rees, Karla) explore the theoretical foundations of the genre and discuss whether and how theoretical treatises shaped panegyric practice in the time from Diocletian to Honorius. In the second section, two chapters (Washington, Tougher) examine how the imperial image – the central concern of panegyric texts – was shaped when Julian focused on Eusebia as the key reference point in his second panegyric and how Julian’s praise of his senior partner had an impact on later panegyric written about him. Three contributions (Corke-Webster, Burgersdijk, Chenault) then offer some considerations on how we can trace the author’s personal strategies and biases within panegyric texts, e.g. Christian, philosophical or regional agendas. The last section deals with figures which lie outside the relationship between the praise-giver and the praised. The contributions analyze to what extent usurpers (Omissi), barbarians (Stone) and the audience (Ross) play a role within the texts and how they added to the argument of the author.

Not every chapter of the volume delivers on the introductory promise of comparing different authors or aspects throughout the period from Diocletian to Honorius. But whenever it is done, some insightful results come to light. Belina Washington, comparing Julian’s oration to Eusebia with Claudian’s Laudes Serenae, convincingly demonstrates how the challenge of praising a woman offered some advantages for the author in return: he could present his skills as an orator on a more advanced level and at the same time mitigate potential critique as he was operating from a sheltered position.

Shaun Tougher, analyzing the panegyrics of Julian on Constantius II and Eusebia vis-à-vis the speech of thanks to Julian by Claudius Mamertinus, focuses on an interesting constellation. He shows that both panegyric texts, although written in Greek and Latin respectively, depended on each other, and illustrates how general tropes—such as Constantius’ image in the Caesares—shaped panegyric texts in both languages.

Omissi’s contribution to the topic of the Civil War in the late Roman panegyrical corpus also provides some interesting considerations. Whereas Omissi’s first point, namely that authors like Pacatus often focused on civil wars, is not so new, as a civil war continued to be a delicate issue and Roman casualties needed to be justified afterwards, Omissi’s second consideration touches upon the intriguing possibility that the accumulation of panegyric texts after a civil war might have influenced the common historiography which often drew heavily from these texts.

Alan Ross’s chapter on the audience in panegyrical texts succeeds in outlining a complex subject and ends with some notable conclusions on how the orators handled the often precarious context of performance by scripting a part for their audiences within their speeches through a variety of direct addresses, thereby controlling potential interjections.

Robert Stone’s concise contribution shows how panegyrical authors developed new strategies to justify controversial measures taken by their emperors, such as the integration of the Goths after 378 by Theodosius. Stone’s observations will certainly lead to other studies in the future which will analyze what these strategies tell us about ongoing discussions both at the court and among the military and social elites of the empire.

One should not blame the editors for not having covered all possible topics or authors. The volume is – as they explicitly state at the beginning—a first shot at a vast range of texts which cannot be dealt with comprehensively within one book.

At the same time, this volume encourages and invites other scholars to deal with panegyric of Late Antiquity more generally and to emphasize the individual characteristics of this genre instead of viewing it as a mere continuation of previous panegyric. It also engages in the debate about which works—apart from the canonical texts—should be treated as panegyric and how e.g. Eusebius’ descriptions of Constantine’s life relate to the texts of Themistius, Symmachus and the like. Corke-Webster’s chapter is particularly enlightening in this context, as the author lucidly demonstrates that not only did Eusebius’ panegyrical experiments praise a Christian emperor, but also they implicitly marked his limits in the ongoing wrestle for power between imperial authority and the bishops of the empire.

In sum, this is a very worthwhile study to read. It both instructs readers with some general outlines and encourages them to consider several interesting key details of panegyric of Late Antiquity.


[1] To the individual studies mentioned by the editors (Vanderspoel, Nixon-Rodgers, Tougher, Whitby, Hägg/Rousseau, Rees) one could perhaps add M. Mause: Zur Darstellung des Kaisers in der lateinischen Panegyrik, Stuttgart 1994.