BMCR 2020.10.24

Gaining and losing imperial favour in late antiquity : representation and reality

, , , Gaining and losing imperial favour in late antiquity : representation and reality. Impact of empire, Roman Empire, c. 200 B.C.-A.D. 476, volume 36. Leiden: Brill, 2019. xi, 255 p. ISBN9789004407695 €116,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The essays collected in this volume are revised papers originally presented at the conference titled ‘Gaining Imperial Favour: Competition and Cooperation in Late Antiquity’, which was held at Tübingen, Germany in December 2016. The work aims to apply modern sociological approaches to the study of court politics in the later Roman Empire. Of particular interest for the authors are political processes of competition in which certain individuals or groups try to win imperial favour. Such interactions are examined according to their sociological realities and representations in discourse.

Georg Simmel (1858-1918) and Bertram Raven (1926- ) provide the book’s theoretical framework, which is given an overview in the Introduction (1-5). Simmel’s ‘sociology of competition’ follows a triadic model, in which two parties compete to win the favour of a third party. Applied to the late Roman imperial court, it is the emperor and his inner circle that represent this third party for whose favour others must compete. Such competition has a socially binding effect on the parties as rules are established that either govern or limit the rivalry. Whereas Simmel’s theory discusses competition in terms of operations and results, Raven’s Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence emphasises efforts by an agent to modify a target’s behaviour using various means (or ‘power bases’) as resources for effecting such change. Raven’s approach is directed toward interactions between petitioners and rulers, while Simmel’s model is used to explain what happens among the petitioners themselves (5).

Neither model has been previously applied to studies of late Roman court politics, though some historians of classical antiquity have used Simmel’s sociology of competition in their work. However, this present volume contains the first attempts to employ Raven’s theory in the field of history. Five of the book’s nine chapters engage with Simmel, while only two utilise Raven in their analysis. Intriguingly, two remaining essays make use of both theoretical approaches.

The book is divided into three parts, each comprised of three chapters. Part 1 deals with the political realities of competition at court in terms of its configurations and outcomes. Isabelle Künzer highlights the significance of the imperial court as a constantly shifting network of alliances characterised by conflict as well as competition. The emperor’s power to grant or withhold favour through court ceremony along with distributing titles and privileges is discussed by Christian Rollinger. These are followed by Vedran Bileta’s study of the increasingly dominant presence of military officials at higher levels of the court.

Part 2 deals with the role of language in terms of rhetorical strategies, and contains the book’s most interesting chapters. Bruno Marien demonstrates Symmachus’ use of rhetoric in his letters as a means of seeking the political rehabilitation of his son-in-law, Nicomachus, following the latter’s participation in a failed revolt. Kamil Cyprian Choda describes how John Chrysostom’s use of biblical archetypes won the approval of his audience at Antioch, but alienated the powerful in Constantinople—particularly the empress Eudoxia—resulting in his exile and death. Maurits Sterk de Leeuw examines Cyril of Alexandria’s controversial use of ‘blessings’ for buying favourable influence with courtiers at Constantinople in hopes of gaining imperial support for his theological views.

Finally, Part 3 provides case studies of groups who attempted to fend off their rivals’ influence by portraying them pejoratively. Martijn Icks explores the continuing importance of imperial accessibility to traditional elites as revealed by their complaints about the emperor’s seclusion, which reflect their own concern about losing influence and status to palace bureaucrats. Fabian Schulz considers competition between Homoean and Nicene Christians who vied for Jovian’s support as he first took his throne. The role of divination in the rise and fall of poet and grammarian Pamprepius (a Rasputin-like figure in both his efforts and their failure) under the emperor Zeno is analysed by Regina Fichera in the book’s final chapter. Each chapter has its unique focus and perspective, making this a brief but well-rounded addition to studies of late Roman politics between the fourth and fifth centuries. In this regard, the chapters by Bileta, Choda, and de Leeuw are particularly successful in presenting diverse points of view, different types of parties vying for favour, and the varying outcomes of such competition.

The book is placed on a trajectory of scholarship in recent decades moving away from theories first propounded by sociologist Norbert Elias (3-4). According to the editors, such studies treat the gaining and losing of imperial favour as having only minor importance (4). Yet, imperial favour is hardly inconsequential to Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s chapter in an earlier volume—whose definition of the Roman court is accepted by the editors of the present work, and which centres explicitly on the negotiation of access to such favour.[1] While Wallace-Hadrill’s scope in that chapter is limited to the early empire until the reign of Marcus Aurelius, it contains much that could also be applied to the later period following Diocletian’s reforms. For example, his received definition of the court, its ‘theatrical’ elements, and the court as the ‘space within which newcomers gained access to power’ are each likewise apropos to the later Roman Empire.[2] Furthermore, Rowland Smith observed (around the same time that Wallace-Hadrill’s chapter appeared) that the assumption is far from new that the application of theoretical models can meaningfully increase our historical understanding.[3]

This volume, therefore, represents a focused re-interpretation rather than a wholly innovative approach. Its main contribution, according to the editors, lies in applying the theories of Simmel and Raven to specific case studies relative to the late Roman imperial court. Uses of Simmel’s triadic model are particularly persuasive, especially in the first three chapters. Marien employs Raven’s model in chapter 4, arguing that Symmachus’ prestige among his influential social network was the power base that enabled him to press for and overcome obstacles standing in the way of Nichomacus’ restoration. Fichera implements Raven’s theory in chapter 9, where she contends that Pamprepius’ expertise in the art of divination formed the power base facilitating his increased influence with a powerful general named Ilus. By extension, the failure of Pamprepius’ prophecies proved to be his undoing. However, it is unclear that any new insights are generated by the use of Raven’s model in these chapters. Both Marien’s argument that Symmachus’ influence was based on prestige and Fichera’s conclusion that Pamprepius’ fall was precipitated by changed perceptions about his prophetic skills border on stating the obvious.

However, this approach proves fruitful in two ways for de Leeuw’s discussion of Cyril’s gifts of blessings. First, he uses Simmel’s theory to describe the rules of competition between theological factions contending for imperial support after the Council of Ephesus in 431. Second, he applies Raven’s model to address questions of legitimacy regarding Cyril’s questionable methods used in his attempts gain such favour. Schulz also makes use of both Simmel and Raven in his chapter dealing with opposing theological factions seeking imperial support upon Jovian’s succession, but with less definitive results. As Schulz demonstrates, Jovian’s ambivalent initial response does not easily conform to Simmel’s model where the ruler could be expected to side with one party or the other. His use of Raven’s paradigm proves more useful, but only with a series of qualifications.

The value of pursuing historical analysis through modern sociological theories is assumed, rather than discussed. Each chapter meets with varying levels of success in persuasively experimenting with the models of Simmel and Raven. It is also questionable just how much of a contribution is made in terms of how this methodology generates new insights. Overall, however, it is a well-structured volume whose chapters provide a pleasantly surprising variety of perspectives and specific areas of focus in a brief amount of space.

Authors and titles

1. “The Greatest Glory Is Always Habitually Subject to Envy’—Competition and Conflict over Closeness to the Emperor at the Roman Court in the 4th Century’, Isabelle Künzer
2. ‘The Importance of Being Splendid: Competition, Ceremonial, and the Semiotics of Status at the Court of the Late Roman Emperors (4th-6th Centuries)’, Christian Rollinger
3. ‘The venatio in the Emperor’s Presence? The consistorium and the Military Men of the Late Roman Empire in the West’, Vedran Bileta

Part 2: Watch Your Words: the Role of Language in Gaining or Losing Imperial Favour
4. ‘Symmachus’ Epistolary Influence: the Rehabilitation of Nicomachus Flavianus through Recommendation Letters’, Bruno Marien
5. ‘Losing the Empress’ Favour: on the Margins of John Chrysostom’s Homily 48 on Matthew’, Kamil Cyprian Choda
6. ‘Buying Imperial Favour: Cyril of Alexandria’s Blessings’, Maurits Sterk de Leeuw

Part 3: Attack as the Best Defence: Resisting Unwelcome Influence
7. ‘Kept in the Dark: Narratives of Imperial Seclusion in Late Antiquity’, Martijn Icks
8. ‘Jovian, an Emperor Who Did Not Bow to Heretics and Infidels? A Critical Reading of the Petitiones Arianorum, Fabian Schulz
9. ‘Divining to Gain (or Lose) the Favour of Usurpers: the Case of Pamprepius of Panopolis (440-484)’, Regina Fichera


[1] Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, ‘The Roman Imperial Court: Seen and Unseen in the Performance of Power’ in Royal Courts in Dynastic States and Empires: A Global Perspective (Jeroen Duindam, Tülay Artan, and Metin Kunt, eds.; Leiden: Brill, 2011), 91-102 at 95-97.

[2] Wallace-Hadrill, ‘Roman Imperial Court’ in Royal Courts (Duindam, et. al., eds.), 97-98, 100-101.

[3] Rowland Smith, ‘Measures of Difference: The Fourth-Century Transformation of the Roman Imperial Court’, American Journal of Philology 132:1 (Spring 2011), 125-151 at 128.