BMCR 2022.11.19

Dieu, le souverain et la cour

, Dieu, le souverain et la cour: stratégies et rituels de légitimation du pouvoir impérial et royal dans l'Antiquité tardive et au haut Moyen Âge. Scripta antiqua, 151. Bordeaux: Ausonius éditions, 2022. Pp. 472. ISBN 9782356134325 €25.00.

The significance of the ceremonial life of the court for late and post-Roman government has now long been recognised. In the introduction to the book under review, Audrey Becker neatly summarises decades of inter-connected work on ritual, court societies, ceremonial, legitimacy and consensus across antiquity and the middle ages (11-24). Becker’s book—a revised version of her 2018 habilitation at the Université de Lille—is a welcome contribution to a burgeoning field of inquiry within the wider study of the Roman world in late antiquity. It follows key early English language works on late ancient ceremonial in analysing moments of symbolic communication at not only late imperial, but also ‘barbarian’ royal courts, from (roughly) the late third to late sixth centuries, though with notable forays into the seventh (25-26).[1] To this end, Becker frames the book around three forms of ceremonial occasion evident both under late Roman emperors and their post-Roman successors in the West: investitures, audiences, and funerals (28-29).

Part I (‘Accéder au pouvoir) considers the changing character of imperial and royal accessions. Ch. 1 examines the strategies of legitimation evident in the discourse around the transmission of power in the Roman Empire from Augustus to Justin II (in the East) and Anthemius (in the West). Its central theme is the ongoing interplay of various forms of divine and human agency in the appointment of emperors—in the absence of a strong notion of hereditary monarchy—as well as the pragmatic choices of self-representation made by particular regimes in response to the circumstances of elevation (see esp. 53-54). Becker rightly stresses that ideas of divine election were fundamental to the legitimation of rulers across this period, even underpinning claims to dynastic succession (see esp. 53-54, 66-67). It was the manner in which this choice by god(s) was understood to have been made manifest within human society which changed over time: whether through the (unanimous) support of the people, the Senate, the army, or the civilian functionaries of the palace.

Ch. 2 pivots from the discourse to the practicalities of investiture ceremonies in the later Roman Empire. The first half of the chapter takes in several moments of development and innovation in both the imperial insignia and the ceremonial staging of accession: the increasing significance of the purple cloak (71-74); Julian’s raising on a shield (75-76) and introduction of the diadem (76-78); the move to Constantinople (78-79). The second half traces the changing character of Eastern imperial accessions from the late fourth to late sixth centuries (83-102). Becker notes two key moves: from a military event at the Hebdomon (late fourth/early fifth) to a more civilian staging in the Great Palace complex (Marcian and Leo I); and then from a (dangerously) public investiture in the Hippodrome (Leo II to Justin I) to a safer courtly audience within the palace itself (Justinian, Justin II, and Tiberius II). Becker describes how various elements combined to conjure a liminal moment where a human being ‘crossed the frontier between the secular world and the divine order, becoming an intermediary between mortals and an immortal God’ (‘franchissait la frontière entre le monde profane et l’ordre divin, devenant intermédiaire entre les mortels et un Dieu éternel’, at 101). At the same time, Becker stresses the surprisingly limited degree to which these charged symbolic occasions were recast in Christian terms before the seventh century (102-103).

Ch. 3 considers both the moment of succession and the wider problems of legitimation faced by the successor kingdoms of the post-imperial West; for Becker, ‘the question of the succession was posed that much more acutely’ (‘la question de la succession…se posa avec d’autant plus d’acuité’) because these were ‘new political constructions’ (‘nouvelles constructions politiques’: at 105). This (notably more historiographically confrontational) chapter carefully traverses several scholarly minefields. Becker argues that the raising of post-Roman rulers on shields (106-112) was a ‘Germanic’ custom, but not a standard feature of accessions; instead, it staged the restoration of military loyalty after civil war. Becker rightly stresses the ambiguities of the insignia sent by emperors to barbarian rulers as their subordinates, as well as those rulers’ own agency in recontextualising them for their own (rather more independent) ends (112-13). Particularly neat here is her close reading of Clovis’ adventus at Tours in 508 (119-23), interpreting Gregory of Tours’ notoriously difficult phrase (DLH 2.38: ab ea die tamquam consul aut augustus est uocitatus) as indicative of the citizens’ response to the deliberate ambiguity of the ceremonial occasion: ‘he was acclaimed as if consul or Augustus’ (120: ‘il fut acclamé comme s’il avait été consul ou Auguste’). It is noticeable that Becker is considerably less open to such ambiguity in her account of the return of the ornamenta imperii to Ravenna under Theoderic. Any interpretation of the Ostrogothic king as an emperor is likewise ruled out in Becker’s discussion of his staging by his panegyrists, Ennodius and Cassiodorus (129-35, esp. 132), as part of a wider account of strategies of royal legitimation in post-Roman panegyric (125-47).[2] Here Becker exposes a neat paradox: the Christian staging of post-Roman kings as appointed by God simultaneously fitted them to an imperial model and gave them an ideological autonomy from their (supposed) imperial overlords (see esp. 144). It would have been nice to see here a comparison to the similar evasions required by panegyrists when addressing members of imperial colleges, especially when the (quasi-divine) addressee was, awkwardly, a junior partner—a recurring feature of Tetrarchic panegyric (in particular).[3]

Part II (‘L’audience ou le pouvoir mis en scene à la cour’) considers the reception of ambassadors and bishops at court. Ch. 4 provides a meticulous reconstruction of the protocols of embassies to Constantinople, drawn from Peter the Patrician’s sixth-century accounts (as excerpted by the tenth-century Book of Ceremonies). Becker walks the reader through an ambassador’s itinerary across the city and through the palace to the audience chamber, to provide a vivid sense of a ‘ritual dramaturgy’ (177: ‘la dramaturgie du rituel’) designed to intimidate; some barbarian envoys nevertheless managed to wrest control of the occasion and subvert its intended ideological message (180-88). Ch. 5 brings together the fragmentary evidence for the reception of embassies in the post-Roman West. It (perhaps inevitably) operates at a much more basic level: demonstrating the existence of palaces, court functionaries, and audience chambers, and highlighting indications that—as we might expect—ambassadors were received in similar ways at post-Roman courts modelled on the palaces of emperors and provincial governors. Ch. 6 considers the reception of bishops at both imperial and royal courts across late antiquity. Becker argues that the diplomatic protocol was much the same as for other ambassadors; the key difference was the tone of the audience itself (esp. 226-27). Instead of seeking a stark demonstration of superiority, emperors and kings sought to stage their piety and humility in accepting the frank speech of bishops and monks on occasions which were considerably less spontaneous than is implied by the hagiographical accounts which record them. Becker shows how a careful combination of gestures of deference and superiority similarly shaped the conduct of Constantine, Marcian, and Reccared at the Councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Toledo (239-54).

Part III (‘Mourir au pouvoir’) considers imperial funerals. Ch. 7 discusses the treatment of the dead bodies of emperors from Trajan to Tiberius III. Becker tracks the ritual of consecratio (257-64) through to the Tetrarchy, Eusebius’ (partial) Christian recasting of Constantine’s funeral (264-80), and competing pagan and Christian visions of apotheosis in the fourth century (281-88). Noting the absence of new and distinctly Christian elements in late Roman and early Byzantine funerary rites, Becker shows how traditional practices of burial received a ‘Christian resignification’ (289: ‘resémantisation chrétienne’) in various fourth, fifth, and sixth century depositions (288-305). Particularly neat is her discussion of Justinian’s funeral, where—unlike earlier burials—the emperor’s successor did not have to accompany the corpse to its final resting place to assume power, but simply to receive the diadem. ‘It seems to me that we are very far from the theory of the two bodies of Ernst Kantorowicz’ (305 n. 250: ‘Il nous semble qu’on est très loin de la théorie des deux corps d’Ernst Kantorowicz’). Finally, Becker describes the decapitation and mutilation of defeated fourth- and fifth-century imperial contenders, as well as the (more distinctly) Christian development of mutilation in the seventh-century Byzantine Empire (305-22). Ch. 8 moves on to the funerals of barbarian kings. A survey of the inheritance practices of the different post-Roman polities finds a ‘situation… hardly different from that of the Roman Empire’ (‘la situation n’était finalement guère différente de celle de l’Empire romain’): rulers sought dynastic transmission but had to mobilise political consensus to achieve it (334). A similar conclusion could summarize the following section on royal mausolea, outwith the increased focus on proximity to the saints in Merovingian dynastic basilicas (335-44). Descriptions of these Frankish royal funerals were notable for the stress they placed on an ostentatious familial and collective mourning which Becker persuasively characterises as a demonstration of consensus to royal power in church (353). A final section considers non-burial and bodily mutilation as parallel forms of delegitimation of the (putatively) royal dead in Merovingian and Visigothic contexts (353-68).

A short conclusion summarises these three parts before providing a numbered list of overarching analytical theses (381-82): these ceremonies were (1) significant, (2) flexible, (3) only belatedly Christianised in the East, but much more rapidly so in the West, and (4) shaped in important ways by empresses and queens. Three of these four propositions seem incontestable, but the third is rather more dubious, not least in the context of the ‘liturgification’ of the Eastern imperial office in the sixth century identified by Mischa Meier.[4] Indeed, this contrast seems to require clarification in both directions. The largely traditional and secular picture of ceremonial life in Constantinople here seems to stem from the book’s exclusion (as part of its comparative framework) of the various forms of Christian ceremonial activity increasingly exploited by Eastern emperors from the Theodosian dynasty onwards. Yet this framework is also bent (in ch. 3) to allow the discussion, not only of post-Roman accession ceremonies (which seem similarly conservative), but also royal ideology as presented in letters and panegyrics marking various other sorts of occasion. It is not clear to me that we should take the intensely Christianised forms of legitimation sometimes articulated in some of these texts as constitutive of the fundamental claims of these regimes. Likewise, I would need a more comprehensive comparison to be persuaded that Christian bishops were more central (across the board) to the construction of post-Roman royal legitimacy than they were (and continued to be) for late Roman imperial authority (see e.g. 381), as opposed to being the authors whose texts predominantly survive in certain post-Roman contexts.

In her last sentence, Becker portrays late antiquity as ‘an age of experimentation’ (382: ‘un âge d’expérimentations’). This is certainly the picture which comes through from recent work on the dynamism, spontaneity, and contingency of ceremonial occasions whose intended messages of imperial legitimacy could often fall flat or be hijacked by other participants. This messier reality does appear in this book (see e.g. 84-89, 180-82, 186-88), but it is far more an account of how ceremonial was supposed to work: what was considered normal or routine, and how rulers (and their advisers) sought to control how they were perceived at particularly charged moments in their reigns. In that sense, the major contribution which Becker makes is to trace subtle shifts in the performance and perception of essential ceremonies across different political contexts in late antiquity. Above all, her book acts as a useful reminder of the enormously complex logistics and protocols—and the considerable courtly manpower—involved in the staging of divinely supported power: whether or not that message was received or understood.



[1] See esp. Sabine MacCormack, Art and ceremony in late antiquity, Transformation of the Classical Heritage 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981); Michael McCormick, Eternal victory: triumphal rulership in late antiquity, Byzantium and the early medieval West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[2] With repeated references to Jonathan Arnold, Theoderic and the Roman imperial restoration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), though sometimes perhaps making his arguments for Theoderic-as-emperor more explicit than the suggestive insinuations on the printed page: compare 117 n. 65 with Arnold, Theoderic, 95.

[3] Esp. Roger Rees, Layers of loyalty in Latin panegyric, AD 289-307 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[4] See esp. Mischa Meier, Das andere Zeitalter Justinians: Kontingenzerfahrung und Kontingenzbewältigung im 6. Jahrhundert n. Chr. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003).