BMCR 2024.07.15

Το πρότυπο του ηγεμόνα και η imitatio imperatoris [The model of the Roman emperor and the imitatio imperatoris]

, Το πρότυπο του ηγεμόνα και η imitatio imperatoris: Διαλεκτικές επιρροής μεταξύ αυτοκρατόρων και υπηκόων στην ελληνορωμαϊκή Ανατολή (31 π.Χ. – 235 μ.Χ.) [The model of the Roman emperor and the imitatio imperatoris: Dialectics of influence between the princeps and the provincials in the Greco-Roman East (31 B.C. – A.D. 235)]. Athens: National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, 2023. Pp. 524. ISBN 9789605260484.

This book  is the first monograph of Giorgos Mitropoulos, who has already published several articles on Roman imperial power and its image in the Greek East[1]. It examines the imitation of the Roman emperor by provincials, client kings, and governors, from the reign of Augustus until that of Severus Alexander in the Greco-Roman East and especially in Greece and Asia Minor. While the influence exerted by the emperor and his image on the inhabitants of the empire has been highlighted already by many scholars, there has never been a comprehensive overview of this phenomenon. This groundbreaking book fills this gap, bringing new elements to several fields of study that have undergone significant changes in the last three decades. These include the imperial image and its dissemination throughout the empire,[2] the representation of the ideal prince and the way he was perceived,[3] as well as the dialogue between the emperor and the provincials through various forms of communication such as imperial cult.[4] Mitropoulos’s approach is also influenced by the numerous works on the so-called imitatio Alexandri, as he uses the theoretical framework established by P. Green (i.e., imitatio, aemulatio, comparatio)[5] to analyse different ways of interacting with the imperial model. One should note right away that his extensive use of these Latin terms, especially that of imitatio imperatoris, is questionable, since they were never used in this sense by ancient authors.

Chapter 1 focuses on the causes of this imitation. The political view of the ruler as an ideal, serving as a model for the rest of society, was developed as early as the Classical period. Writers such as Isocrates emphasised the importance of imitating the ruler in order to gain recognition and strengthen one’s social capital, while in Republican Rome, too, the leader was seen as an exemplum worthy of imitation. On this basis, Augustus presented himself as a model for future generations, as the Res Gestae Divi Augusti clearly show. He and his successors understood that their self-promotion as an example strengthened the legitimacy of the new regime and they encouraged it. As for the provincials, they emulated the princeps because of his superiority, his virtues, and his maiestas. The ubiquity of the image of the emperor, spread through statues, monuments, and even coins, also made it almost inevitable for the provincials to emulate him.

However, Mitropoulos notes in chapter 2 that imitation was not always encouraged by the emperors, who reserved certain practices for themselves and considered them to be strictly imperial monopolies. He therefore examines some cases where imitation of the princeps was discouraged or even severely punished. Emperors gradually restricted the establishment of public cults for mortals, as they were seen as a threat to imperial rule. Furthermore, they consistently safeguarded their preeminence in the military domain. While imperial victories were commemorated by a triumph in Rome, the victorious generals were restricted to the bestowal of the ornamenta triumphalia. In general, those who sought to emulate the emperor and challenge his authority, a phenomenon the author calls aemulatio imperatoris, were regarded as a threat and punished by an imperial power that sought to maintain its primacy.

Manifestations of imitation in the public life of Greek cities are discussed in chapter 3. From the outset, however, we are confronted with one of the ambiguities of the modern concept of imitatio imperatoris, which Mitropoulos uses to describe the imitation of the emperor himself with his specific personality as well as the imperial power and its political discourse, along with the status of the city of Rome as the capital of the empire. Similarly, the distinction between voluntary and conscious imitation and other forms of mimetism, conformism, or influence is not always clear. This tends to blur the precision of the concept and weaken its relevance. For example, it seems problematic to define the choices made by cities in their monetary iconography as a form of imitatio imperatoris, since these cities were as much concerned with imitating Roman imperial coinage as they were with the emperor and the ideology he promoted. Similarly, numerous other examples, such as the worship of Antinous or the renewal of the memory of Alexander the Great under Caracalla, are better seen as general conformity of the cities to imperial discourse rather than as deliberate cases of imitation.

In Chapter 4, Mitropoulos examines the role of the emperor as a model for the so-called ‘client kings’. Since this term is not used in ancient sources, it would have been more accurate to replace it with the term ‘kings who are allies and friends of Rome’ (reges amici et socii). By publicly emphasising their ties with the emperor and the imperial family, the imitation of the princeps directly reinforced the kings’ rule and prestige. Although the author’s book is primarily concerned with Greece and Asia Minor, the case of Herod the Great of Judea is discussed at length. By imitating the emperor, Herod demonstrated his adherence to the Augustan model, thereby increasing his political capital in the eyes of his subjects and the Roman authorities. Imitation of Julio-Claudian emperors by other client kings, particularly those of Commagene, Cappadocia, and Thrace, is less thoroughly examined, except for a few more symbolic aspects, such as the choice of names and the appropriation of imperial physical characteristics and symbols in royal coinage.

In chapter 5, the author then analyses the case of civic elite and Roman provincial governors. By imitating the emperor, these actors presented themselves as ‘mirrors of the princeps’ and were seen as models for the rest of local society. This hierarchy of imitation contributed to the spread of imperial rule in the provinces. After a rather brief discussion of the mediating role of the Roman provincial governors, the author turns to the civic elites, who expressed their imitation of the emperor mainly through euergetism. He argues that the imperial office had an impact on the traditional honorary titles given to leading aristocrats: the title πρῶτος καὶ μόνος would have echoed the Latin expression primus et solus, which Augustus used in his Res Gestae, whereas the titles of princeps coloniae and πατὴρ πατρίδος would have reflected respectively the imperial titles of princeps senatus and pater patriae. It seems more doubtful, however, to explain the limited success of the title πατὴρ πόλεως compared to that of υἱὸς πόλεως by the need to acknowledge the paternal monopoly of the emperor as pater patriae. Equally problematic is the title of μήτηρ πόλεως, which spread before the first official assumption of the title of mater by an empress. With regard to women, the imitatio imperatoris is more evident in the imitation of the female members of the domus augusta, especially the empress, by the high priestesses of the imperial cult. The rest of the chapter is devoted to the analysis of several case studies, such as Herodes Atticus, of course, but also Eurycles of Sparta, Potamon of Mytilene, and Xenophon of Kos, who imitated Augustus and his religious reforms, or Opramoas of Rhodiapolis and Vedius Antoninus of Ephesus, who emulated Antoninus Pius and his benefactions to the cities.

Chapter 6 examines how the emperor was imitated in the ‘private sphere’. Again, it is questionable whether this expression is entirely appropriate, as the author himself points out that the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ was partly conventional in antiquity. Mitropoulos begins by examining the way in which the emperor served as a model of morality in the provinces, although this is difficult to reconstruct from epigraphic sources. A number of intriguing questions are raised, though not always fully addressed, such as the influence of the imperial couple on family patterns, the imitation of the female figures of the imperial family and the virtues they promoted (like pudicitia) and the provincial reception of Marcus Aurelius’ philosophical stance. On the other hand, there is ample evidence of this imitation in their representations, especially in private portraits. It is therefore disappointing that the author gives only a brief overview of what P. Zanker first described as Zeitgesicht. Although it is beyond the scope of the book to provide a comprehensive analysis of this phenomenon, the case studies could have been developed in greater depth to illustrate the material aspects and symbolic issues of this phenomenon. In particular, it would have been possible to analyse more clearly the successive steps in this ‘cascade’ of imitation, in which the lower classes imitated the representations of the upper classes, who in turn imitated the portraits of the prince. The attitude of the imperial authorities to this process of visual imitation is another important question that could have been adressed.

Chapter 7 deals with what can be considered the apex of this mimeticism, namely the case of some provincials who identified themselves with members of the imperial family or even with the emperor himself. Mitropoulos therefore refers to them as imperatores redivivi: once again, one can question the appropriateness of this Latin term, since it is not otherwise attested in ancient literary sources. The author examines several impersonators, such as the doubles of Agrippa Postumus and Drusus, the three false Neros and the false Caracalla. As he recalls, most of these cases took place in the Roman East and concerned popular emperors or members of the imperial house who had died prematurely. The impersonators usually gained public support in turbulent times; they often came from the lower social classes and aimed to rise socially by usurping the imperial identity. Although extreme, these cases illustrate the appeal of the imperial figure to certain individuals.

In the final chapter, the author attempts to assess the deeper meaning of ‘imitatio imperatoris’. Although there was never any kind of imperial imposition, most emperors recognised the importance of imitation and publicly promoted their model. However, this imitation was not a unilateral process but a dialectical exchange between the imperial centre and the provincial subjects. According to Mitropoulos, for the lower classes, imitation of the emperor was usually a matter of ‘fashion’. The client kings and prominent citizens, on the other hand, used imperial imitation as a means of reinforcing their prestige. By making this conscious choice, they associated themselves with the emperor, thereby legitimising their political superiority in a deeply hierarchical society. In the end, ‘imitatio imperatoris’ led to the spread of the imperial model. This contributed to the stability of the imperial hierarchy and the formation of the idea of a unified empire.

Overall, this is a well-structured book with a clear and accessible presentation. The comprehensive summary in English, located at the end of the book, is of great value for readers who do not read modern Greek. The bibliography is extensive and up-to-date, and the four indexes facilitate navigation within the book. The illustrations, however, are few in number and of variable quality. Although the broad definition of the notion of imitatio imperatoris sometimes blurs its message, this is nevertheless a highly stimulating book, which raises many original insights on the interactions between the emperor and the provincials.



[1] G. Mitropoulos, “The Imperial Qualities in Roman Greece (31 BC – AD 235): The Evidence and a First Assessment”, SCO, 66, 2020, 173‑201; idem, “Between Tradition and Change. The Imitatio Principis in the Imperial East”, in S. Betjes, O. Hekster, et E. Manders (ed.), Tradition and power in the Roman Empire, Leiden, 2024, 186‑210.

[2] P. Zanker, Augustus und die Macht der Bilder, Munich, 1987.

[3] A. Gangloff, Pouvoir impérial et vertus philosophiques: L’évolution de la figure du bon prince sous le Haut-Empire, Leiden, 2018.

[4] C. Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire, Berkeley, 2000; A. J. Spawforth, Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution, Cambridge, 2011.

[5] P. Green, “Caesar and Alexander. Aemulatio, imitatio, comparatio”, AJAH, 1, 1978, 1‑26.