Envisioning Emperors

Alan Ross is currently a visiting scholar in the Classics Department at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where he is working on Late Antique literary culture. He recently published a co-edited volume with Brill, entitled Imagining Emperors in the Later Roman Empire. Here, he tells us why we need another book about emperors.

Where do our sources for ancient history come from? Archaeological evidence, inscriptions, and scrappy papyrus can supply some equivalents of what modern historians call ‘documents’, but the overwhelming resource for the study of the ancient world, particularly its elite culture and politics, remains literary texts that have been copied and recopied, edited, translated and commented upon for two millennia.

This poses a particular problem for the study of politics and political culture in a period such as the Later Roman Empire in the fourth century — a crucial period for the transformation of the Classical world. This era saw a consolidation of Christianity, and the reshaping of the administrative organisation of what was to become medieval Europe. Extant late antique literary texts — letters, orations, polemics and histories both secular and from the church — were written by an elite for an elite. This elite consisted of professional orators, clerics, civic teachers, provincial elites, and with only one exception in the fourth century, we possess no texts written by the emperor himself. There is a silence at the centre. The study of imperial politics has often relied upon critiquing these peripheral literary texts in order to extract information to (re)construct political narratives.

Counter to traditional approaches, in Imagining Emperors in the Later Roman Empire, literary critics and ancient historians reassess late antique texts that discuss emperors as a source for late antique literary culture and elite responses to the imperial centre. Chapters discuss imperial figures from Decius and Valerian in the mid third century to Theodosius at the end of the fourth. Several chapters chart how long-standing literary genres are developed within a new political climate. One theme that emerges across several chapters is a challenge to traditional political histories of the period that have privileged the evidence of historians in the ancient world instead of those by orators who routinely delivered panegyric speeches to the emperor — speeches of praise that often recount recent political and military events with propagandistic spin.

George Woudhuysen’s chapter on Constans provides an excellent illustration of how to rethink the place of ancient historiography within late antique literary and political culture, and why this is important to do. Constans, who was the youngest son of Constantine the Great, was murdered by the usurper Magnentius in the year 350. Writing a decade later and in the moralising tone typical of ancient historiography, the historian Aurelius Victor counted his death as no great loss. He attacked Constans using the rhetoric of his day as drunk, gay, having slept with barbarian boys, and crippled with gout. All subsequent assessments of Constans have followed Victor’s lead. Woudhuysen, however, has uncovered a fierce competition over Constans’ depiction among contemporaries. In his account, he argues that there are some authors who were in greater proximity to Constans and his court than previously thought. Based on their writings, Constans is represented as sober, straight, and able-bodied, in other words a precise inverse of how Constans was depicted by the historian Aurelius Victor.

Why was Victor’s account so different? Woudhuysen points the finger at Magnentius, or at least his panegyrists, who in typical Roman fashion legitimised a new ruler (in this case a short-lived usurper) by blackening the reputation of his predecessor and overturning all his positive traits. Aurelius Victor merely repeated the imperial image-making of Magentius’ now-lost panegyrists. As such, panegyrics — with all their rhetorical hyperbole and literary allusiveness — must be respected as a major force in literary culture which have fundamentally effected the way ancient historians wrote about their past.

Alan Ross

Imagining Emperors in the Later Roman Empire was published by Brill on 10 July 2018 (ISBN 9789004370920, €113). There was a launch event at the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome in October 2018, and there will be another discussion event at the University of Amsterdam on 29th November 2018.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: