BMCR 2022.02.38

Le pouvoir à Rome: espace, temps, figures

, Le pouvoir à Rome: espace, temps, figures. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2020. Pp. 334. ISBN 9782271126474 €25,00.

Since Augustus stated in his Res Gestae (34) that he had had no more potestas than any of his colleagues in the magistracies (thus denying any possible constitutional basis for the emperor’s role), a great deal of scholarly attention has been devoted to understanding the particularities that defined the Roman emperor’s role, what he was and what he did, as the institution could not be considered either monarchy or Roman republican magistracy. In this context, the contribution of Stéphane Benoist is particularly interesting: it introduces a multifaceted perception of Roman imperial power, approaching the subject from three different perspectives (space, time and image). The book is organized as an article compendium that, through different studies produced over a ten-year period, illustrates certain particular aspects of Roman Imperial reality. The three large sections of the book, of four articles each, concentrate all the originality from Benoist’s works. As the author states, the book is a result of his research objectives and his scientific coherence, which invites the audience to read it as a whole where all parts add up. The historical and anthropological background of the author allows him to develop a transdisciplinary study on the history of political discourses and practices, ancient thought, and its connection with the creation of collective memory. As a longue durée study, it spans from the beginning of the Principate to the end of fourth century AD, with the aim of understanding how the discourse branches after the reinterpretation of the Republican tradition with Augustus and his successors, and then spreading over the next three centuries.

The first part is devoted to space “Espace”. The author tries to discover the overall image of Roman power in the urban landscape, and how the imperial interventions in Rome ended up appropriating most of the political scenarios of the city to legitimize the new regime. The author focuses on imperial building programs; the use of power spaces during times of conflict; and the ritual processions that establish links between the gods, the emperors and the city of Rome, considered as the cradle of imperial power and as the place where it is legitimized and expressed. Not only did the emperors modify traditional Republican spaces, but they also created new venues and monuments for their image to always be present. Urban space was, thus, modified through the intervention of new monumental and administrative policies. The author explores the emperor’s possibility of increasing the pomerium. This, together with all the other imperial building practices, would present him as conditor, a new city founder, the heir of Romulus. This aspect, developed first and foremost by Augustus, would be present for most of the High Empire, maintaining the special bond between princeps and Urbs. The fate of the City was, thus, linked to that of the prince.

Following Benoist’s research, this binding link between the emperor and Rome can be perceived more clearly during power struggles. The author uses the examples of the crisis of the year 68/69 AD and also of the military crisis of the 3rdand 4th centuries AD. During a period of civil wars, the contender that could ensure control over Rome had more chances to obtain supreme power. As the new Regime lacked a constitution that specified who could or should succeed, the contenders exploited the main places of power and lieux de mémoire as a way of obtaining legitimation through their link with the City. If the emperor was to be acclaimed in the provinces, he should head for Rome as soon as possible to legitimize his power through the control of both the City and its Senate. The turning point can be perceived after Constantine, when Rome is abandoned for a new capital city, meaning that the emperor himself would now embody all the images and representations of imperial power. On a different note, Benoist also addresses processions as a linking element between the gods and the City, but also between the City and the places where power is represented, which are both appropriated by the emperor during the first three centuries of the common era.

In the second part, “Temps”, Benoist demonstrates how imperial time is clearly interwoven with space. In order to understand the connection between the princeps, the City, the institutions, the populus, and the soldiers, it is necessary to consider the temporal aspect. Festivities devoted to the prince and his family, the calendar, etc. are, thus, considered. Caesar and Augustus took good care of the calendar and also inserted their names on it. Augustus, as pontifex maximus, inaugurated the imperial influence over the organization of civic time. This also implies that the calendar ended up full of festivities related to the emperor and his family. Private matters in the life of the domus Augusta became public celebrations and, on those occasions, spectacula took place, developing into the perfect space of communication between the princeps and the populus. Public holidays developed, therefore, into the greatest show of acquiescence of the living and dead members of the imperial family (divi et divae), and to the prince, changing the relationship between people, emperors, and gods. Even if it was the Senate who decided on the consecration of emperors, setting festivities to honor the new gods and celebrating the domus Augusta’s divine members became a way of expressing allegiance to the imperial family. The spatial sphere is always important, as an essential part of the celebration is taking place in Rome. After the inauguration of the Principate, the prince took care of the guardianship of time, matching civic and astral chronologies; this ended up mirroring the popular link with the imperial family through festivities to honour the living and dead and through the funerals of emperors, which ended up being a central issue both in the space and time of the City. In sum, it all reflects the imperial dominance over the city and the use of both spheres (time and space) to suit their own need to give sense and order to a regime lacking a constitution.

Finally, Benoist undergoes a study on imperial images as an extension of the studies on imperial power, “Figures”. The possible distortion of some princes’ images in the ancient literary sources is here considered, since the author tries to identify the changes and permanencies over time on the diverse discourses about “good princes”. This is utterly essential when considering Nero, whose image we will never be able to fully understand due to his bad press and negative portrayals. For instance, his fondness for games and different kinds of performances can be understood as a strategy to boost the means of communication between the prince and the people. Nero’s portrayal demonstrates the difficulties emperors underwent in order to establish their own images after the “perfect” model developed by Augustus. Benoist’s main ambition here is to understand the Neronian ideology in his imperial policies. The author also analyzes titles and powers in order to glimpse the Roman way of understanding imperial power. In this way, Benoist also considers the normative capacities of the princes as magister legum or pontifex maximus. The author explains that his intention is not to consider the princes’ normative power, but to fully focus on how ancient writers described appropriate and inappropriate imperial uses of law. From this perspective, the legislative capacity is a trait used to describe the good or bad emperor. There is a clear difference between those princes judging intra cubiculum and those princes that are considered ‘Masters of laws’, at least until the Severan jurists introduced the notion of the omnipotence of the sovereign. Meanwhile, the imperial monopolization of priesthoods legitimized, in some way, their legislative positions. The pontifex maximus priesthood justified their influence on legislation even in Christian times.

To sum up, the book is an essential contribution to the study of the Roman imperial era and the conception of imperial power that summarizes an impressive research process of more than ten years. At the same time, its structure around several topics also makes it useful for the researcher searching for information on a specific issue. Its results offer new insights into a field of study where everything seems to have been said. In this sense, the longue durée approach seems to be the greatest strength of the work. Benoist also makes an impressive use of all the available sources: literary, epigraphic, and archaeological. The use of these sources is also squeezed to the maximum for the reader by including many tables, indices, and images. The fact that the book encompasses ten years of research also makes it very interesting in terms of the use of scientific literature, as the most essential works are quoted, but the author also refers to new publications over the years, providing his book with a useful and up-to-date bibliography of contemporary works.

However, the long period of time the book spans also has certain negative aspects, as the information given for some topics is necessarily superficial. The results, though accurate, can be difficult to understand, for instance, when presenting the emperor as conditor through his use of architecture and his possibility of increasing the pomerium (pp. 28-36). After a full discussion of this topic, Benoits mentions the Claudian modification of the pomerium and the Lex de imperio Vespasiani. Correct as this is, it lacks a detailed chronological explanation of the evolution of imperial prerogatives that would make it clearer for the average reader. For topics like this, more emphasis on the institutional basis of the principate is always welcome. There is also a matter of contention with the statement about the censorial powers of the emperor. In page 245, Benoist makes a reference to this special prerogative using a statement about Augustus’ Res Gestae’s eighth chapter by which, in a certain way, all emperors could be understood to enjoy the possibility of making use of censoria potestas. Even if Ferrary’s contribution on the powers of Augustus is referenced[1], it should also be stated that the censor’s powers did not become a part of the imperial prerogatives until Flavian times, in order to avoid misinterpretations.[2] As I previously mentioned, this does not mean that the information is not accurate, just that some minor points could be further developed for the sake of clarity. Factual errors are, therefore, almost non-existent.

Lastly, this book should not be considered an easy read, certainly not a work for beginners. The author makes use of a lengthy introduction to the full work and also introductions to the three different sections in order to let the audience know the common thread of the single articles in each part. However, considering the very different topics covered in the articles, sometimes it is difficult to follow the section’s connection. This could have been simplified through a chapter of conclusions that gives closure to ten years of research, which would allow the author to give his overall impressions and reflection of how each block is connected to the others. It also would have helped facilitate the reading and comprehension of an overall excellent book that will, undoubtedly, become essential in the corpus of works on Roman imperial power.


[1] J. L. Ferrary, “À propos des pouvoirs d’Auguste”, Cahiers du Centre Gustave Glotz 12 (2001), 101-154.

[2] Domitian was the first to become censor perpetuus (Cass. Dio 53.18.5; 57.4.7), but it seems that Vespasian and Titus enjoyed a certain censoria potestas that could have been lifelong and, thus, introduced in the Lex de imperio of subsequent emperors. M. Hammond, The Antonine Monarchy (Rome, 1959), 85-86; B.W. Jones, ‘A note on the Flavians attitude to censorship’, Historia 21.1 (1972), 128; T.V. Butrey, ‘Domitian’s perpetual censorship in the numismatic evidence’, CJ 71.1 (1975), 26.