Roman Emperors and the Dangers of Appearing Regal
Roman emperors embodied their world. They were the supreme commanders of the armies, the lynchpin between men and gods, and the ultimate authority of law and justice.Footnote 1 All of this is well testified, with anecdotes and images describing the emperor as a sought-out figure, the centre of a group, dominating his surroundings. Such a central figure in the state needed to be instantly recognisable as being superior to all others. This was made difficult by the fact that his position needed to be presented as emphatically different from Hellenistic kingship. For many inhabitants of the empire, and certainly for senators in Rome, kings were a problem. Romans compared the relation between the king and his subjects to that of a master and his slaves and prided themselves on not having a monarch.Footnote 2 Indeed, addressing an opponent as (would-be) king was a strong invective in the late Roman republic. The rulers of the so-called regal period of ancient Rome (c. 753–509 bc) had many problematic connotations, many of them to do with abuse of power. The last king, Tarquinius Superbus, had become the negative example par excellence.Footnote 3 These problems with kingly status were recognised by Julius Caesar when he became a dominant force in Roman politics. He publicly refused the crown that was famously offered to him by Mark Antony, and is said to have responded to be being hailed a king (rex) by stating, ‘I am not called Rex but Caesar’, a not particularly good pun on rex as it is both the Latin word for king and a Roman cognomen (surname).Footnote 4 His claims not to want kingship were not enough, as his obviously superior position in the Roman state was a major factor in his assassination in 44 bc. It is not a coincidence that Caesar’s assassins are said to have used ‘liberty’ as their slogan. They further emphasised this message by minting coins that showed the pileus, a cap indicating freedman status and through it liberty, between two daggers, and Eid(ibvs) Mar(tiis) (Ides of March) in the legend. It is ironical that the obverse of this coin shows the portrait of Brutus, identified by name, considering that depicting his portrait on coins had been an indication of Caesar’s superior position. Even more emphatically anti-monarchical were coins struck for Brutus with Victory standing on a broken sceptre and breaking a diadem (Figure 1.1).Footnote 5 Demonstrating superior power was a risk. At the same time, there was no denying the power held by Caesar or by the sole rulers who followed in his footsteps.
That was a clear warning for Caesar’s adoptive son. Octavian, who would later accept the name Augustus, gained supremacy in the Roman state after years of civil war.Footnote 6 At the battle of Actium (31 bc), his great opponents Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII were defeated. This did not mean that Octavian instantly made his new position clear. There was a decade of developments in which the new ruler’s position was formulated, reformulated and normalised. This may have been either a cunning strategy by Augustus, who hid his ‘autocratic aspirations’ behind a Republican façade, paying lip service to (invented) Roman traditions in the process, or a much more organic process in which subjects and ruler alike tried to adapt to a new political landscape.Footnote 7 Yet, whoever was behind the process, the slow adaptation of the new ruler’s position shows that it needed time before acceptable forms of addressing him were found. That need not mean that people were unaware of where real power lay. There was no doubt that Augustus was in control of the empire.Footnote 8 But he could not easily use the trappings of power associated to kingship. From the beginning of Roman emperorship, there was a potential tension between the recognisable supreme position of the ruler and the problematic connotations that came with the notion of kingship.
The choice to address the ruler as ‘princeps’ is a case in point. It is first attested by the poet Horace in 27 bc, possibly following an imperial hint.Footnote 9 It was a nice traditional title with connotations of power. Cicero had described the influential politicians Scipio and Cato as principes. By 27 bc, addressing someone as princeps was established usage for leading men of the state, but also for individuals recognised as pre-eminent in that state. Just before Horace’s address, in 29/8 bc, Octavian had been designated princeps senatus.Footnote 10 In time, this formulation shifted towards a more formal means of addressing the ruler. In 9 bc, the emperor’s confidant Paullus Fabius Maximus used the term in a letter to the assembly of Asia in which he suggested that Augustus’ birthday should become a feast day.Footnote 11 By 5/4 bc, at the latest, princeps was in formal use, as is clear from Augustus’ fifth Cyrene edict. In it, the emperor could cite a decree of the senate that mentioned ‘Imperator Caesar Augustus, our princeps’.Footnote 12
Clearly, by this stage, princeps had become a way to denote the superior power of the ruler. That it was necessary to develop such a new formulation shows both the need to have a way to address someone in a position of supreme power and the difficulties in finding a sufficiently non-monarchical term. Tellingly, the ultimate solution was one in which an existent term was reshaped. That placed the position of the ruler into a context that people already knew and so made it easier to understand and accept the emperor’s new position in the political landscape – for rulers and subjects alike. Similarly, the name Augustus, by which the ruler would be known from 28/7 bc onwards, was not a new invention but a term with precedent, even if it had not been used as a name before. There are stories in ancient literature that the name Romulus was also considered, but dismissed for its regal connotations. This once again shows the problems that the notion of kingship posed to the new ruler.Footnote 13
Indicators of Imperial Power and the Importance of Expectations
Certainly at the beginning of the principate, the emperor needed to be recognisably in supreme power, but not as a king. How could that problem be solved? An important avenue was the adaptation of existing (Republican) prototypes to shape the formulations and iconography through which absolute rule was portrayed.Footnote 14 Whether this adaptation was done by subjects who tried to formulate the position of the new ruler in terms that they understood, or by the Roman emperor (or those surrounding him) in order to avoid the semblance of monarchy, is often hard to say. It is likely that both played their part. Importantly, the original meaning of the prototypes did not entirely disappear in their ‘imperial’ adaptation. The senatorial background of the word princeps would continue to influence the way in which emperors were supposed to behave. Once chosen, the new emperor had to relate to the expectations that such a ‘traditional’ title brought with it – however much it had been adapted to the new situation. To an extent, this is how all communication works. Words do transmit not only messages but also normative values. In the act of communicating messages, shared meaning is produced and reproduced.Footnote 15 In this light, it seems unhelpful to dismiss a term like princeps as a Republican ‘façade’.Footnote 16 Rather, it was a way for Roman subjects to formulate and understand a changing political landscape.
Such adaptations of terms and images could take shape at a remarkable speed. A prime example is the way portraiture on coins developed. It is easy to forget how revolutionary it was for Caesar to have his face on Roman coins. He was the first living Roman to be so depicted (Figure 1.2). Even if iconographically the coins looked like earlier Roman coins, it was easy for opponents to suggest that Caesar aimed for kingship or divinity. After all, the faces on earlier coins in the east had been of Hellenistic kings, whereas portraits on Roman coins had been those of gods. Yet, in the civil war following Caesar’s assassination, the various Roman contestants were represented on coinage as a matter of course.Footnote 17 By the time Augustus gained sole supremacy, being portrayed on coinage had become a standard Roman practice and was apparently no longer strictly associated with Hellenistic kingship or divinity. After something has happened for the first time, it creates a precedent, which can but need not become common habit.
This rapid adaptation did not mean that the new emperor could be depicted on coins in whatever way suited him. There was still a need to be recognisable, but also to avoid looking like a king. After all, as stated above, one of the reasons for Caesar’s death had been that he appeared too monarchical. Shifts in what was deemed tolerable for a Roman ruler were certainly possible, sometimes even rapid, but going beyond the range of acceptable behaviour carried real risks with it. This meant that Roman traditions, and the expectations that these created, formed a framework in which rule had to take shape.
Within this framework, several indicators of imperial status appeared over time. First, a distinctive titulature took shape, both for Roman emperors and for people immediately surrounding them. There were forms of address that were specific to individual emperors, and titles that increasingly defined emperorship. None of this, however, appears to have happened very systematically. Second, there developed specific modes of depicting emperors on coinage, in relief sculpture and paintings and through statuary. For instance, size mattered. Only emperors and gods were to be represented larger-than-life size.Footnote 18 Increasingly, also, one could recognise emperors on imagery because they were the only ones depicted seated on a throne. Over time, the image of the enthroned emperor became a prominent way of showing the position and sovereignty of the ruler.Footnote 19 This would ultimately even lead to coinage under Justinian (527–65) showing an enthroned effigy of the emperor on the obverse (Figure 1.3).Footnote 20 Emperors were allowed to be seated, but everyone else had to stand. Third, certain symbolic trappings of power over time became linked to emperorship, such as the imperial cloak, crowns and sceptres. These ‘powerful props’ remained potentially controversial: a crown or ornate jewellery could easily call regal associations to mind. The fourth-century author Eutropius explicitly notes how Diocletian’s request to be adorated and his choice to wear precious stones were ‘suited rather to royal usages than to Roman liberty’. The increasingly common way of denoting rule by the use of Tyrian purple (in toga picta and tunica palmata) was one mode in which new symbolism could take shape.Footnote 21
Naming the Emperor: Titles and Forms of Address
If one traces imperial titulature over time, a number of points stand out. An obvious one which is not always taken sufficiently into account is how clearly dominant the names used by the emperors were from the very beginning of imperial rule. They may have tried to avoid regal connotations, but their dominance was there for all to see. The formal name of the first emperors, regularly inscribed on coins or on stone was Imperator Augustus Caesar, divi filius, which can be roughly translated as ‘Consecrated commander, Caesar, son of a god’ (Figure 1.4).Footnote 22 Going by princeps may have softened the blow, but there must have been little doubt as to who was in control. Caesar was, of course, a family name, which through its use by emperors who were unrelated to Rome’s first dynasty over time became an integral part of the imperial title, denoting an intended successor, at least up to the fourth century. Its inclusion emphasised how dynastic Roman emperorship was from the very beginning and throughout the ages.Footnote 23
Imperial nomenclature developed over time. Importantly, through a wide range of inscriptions, papyri and the legends on coinage, it is possible to trace this development in detail for the entire period that this book focuses on. This makes emperors’ names and titles a useful indicator of how the presentation of emperorship shifted from one dynasty to another, and under the influence of major societal shifts. Looking at the imperial nomenclature on central coinage up to the very end of the fifth century (Graph 1.1), there is some striking continuity, but also some noticeable change. Coin legends form an interesting starting point, since coinage was the most flexible medium at imperial disposal – messages on coins could be fairly easily adjusted to central demands and shifts in representational emphasis.Footnote 24 So what happens over time with the most frequently recurrent elements of the emperors’ name on coins?
Clearly, at least in coin legends, Augustus was the defining element in the imperial name, with almost all central coins that were struck for the emperor (about 75 per cent of all coins, with the remainder almost exclusively struck for other members of the imperial family) including that title. When there were more claimants to the position of Augustus in the empire, the abbreviation AUGG (or even AUGGG or AUGGGG) could indicate as much, which was a useful way to indicate the position of one claimant without denying the status of another, as happened, for instance, in the third-century Gallic and Britannic empires.Footnote 25
Imperator was an important element from the beginning up to the reign of Constantine, as was Caesar, though not quite so systematically included. Other parts of the imperial name were more open to change. Pontifex Maximus (Greatest Pontiff) and Tribunicia Potestas (Power of the Tribune) are noticeably present on coins up to the mid-third century and consul is one of the dominant elements of the imperial name from the middle of the first to the end of the second century. They are replaced over time, however, with Dominus Noster (our lord) becoming, with Augustus, the dominant form of address throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. The epithet Pius Felix (Pious and Fortunate) appears on coinage in the later second century, and becomes standard on coinage from the late-third to early-fourth century onwards.
It is tempting to link shifts in these recurrent elements of the emperor’s name to political and cultural shifts in the Roman empire. Society changed, and these changes had an impact on how Roman subjects recognised and addressed their emperors. For instance, consul, the supreme political office of the Roman republic, became systematically incorporated as part of the imperial address in the reign of Vespasian (69–79). This was the start of a new dynasty that could not easily legitimise itself through reference to the first emperor.Footnote 26 The fact that at the beginning of the reign the so-called Lex de Imperio Vespasiani was issued, transmitted through a surviving bronze inscription listing the legal formulations of imperial powers, suggests discussion about the basis of emperorship at the time, which might be one reason to stress his role as consul more systematically.Footnote 27 When, during the course of the third century ad, outside assailants started to threaten the empire, the emperor’s military capacity became the essential qualification for holding power, and the legal basis became much less important.Footnote 28 Consequently, consul disappeared as a core element of the emperor’s titulature. Roughly the same trajectory can be seen for Tribunicia Potestas, which indicated that the emperors held the power of the people’s tribune – which had been an important element of imperial powers from Augustus onwards. Instead of these references to Republican precedent that had been so important in establishing emperorship, it became important to stress the emperor’s military prowess. His support by the gods also became more prominent, for instance through naming the emperor’s divine luck.
The shift in the way in which the emperor was named from the fourth century onwards may likewise be linked to major changes in state and society. Rather than continuing with the standard elements Imperator Caesar Augustus, which had been the official names (praenomen, nomen and cognomen) of the first emperor and were taken up as defining aspects of the imperial name, the emperor became Dominus Noster, and was more than ever before described as Pius Felix. This period also saw major changes in the empire, as its territory was effectively divided into an eastern and western half after the death of Theodosius in 395. Especially in the west, the position of the emperor weakened due to barbarian conquests of parts of his territory and the increasing influence of a few extremely wealthy senatorial families.Footnote 29 Moreover, in the course of the fourth century, the empire moved decisively towards Christianity as the dominant religion.Footnote 30 It is likely that the changing ways of defining the emperor reflect the new political situation and societal norms. At the same time, it is worth stressing the relative continuity, not only through the continuation of the title Augustus, but also because there was ample precedent in Roman history for addressing leading men as Pius, Felix or Dominus. In fact, inscriptions show that emperors were already (generally) described as dominus (lord) rather than optimus (best) from the late-second century onwards, anticipating the standardisation of Dominus Noster on coins.Footnote 31
The importance of continuity is also reflected in the coinage of the so-called western kingdoms, such as that of the Vandals and the Visigoths. They modelled their coins, including the legends, so closely on Roman imperial coins that they are often referred to as ‘pseudo-imperial’ or ‘imitation’ coins.Footnote 32 Even after Romulus Augustulus was deposed as the last western emperor in 476, the Visigoth king Euric continued to copy Roman issues. Only in 573 would Visigoth kings place their own names on coins, with Rex or Rex Inclitus as the legend.Footnote 33
In the eastern empire, too, there was a substantial stability in the imperial form of address, up to an important innovation by Justinian II in 690. From then on, Christ rather than the emperor appeared on the obverse of coins, and the imperial image on the reverse was accompanied by Servus Christi (Servant of Christ).Footnote 34 This was a major innovation which made visible a changed relationship between emperor and church. That it took so long for imperial coins to recognise this shift – bringing it beyond the period that this book deals with – once more emphasises the relative continuity of imperial address on coinage up to that moment.
Growing Christianity may have been a factor in a less noticeable but much earlier shift in the imperial name. The combination of epithets Pius Felix was systematically abbreviated on coins as PF, and it appears that after the conversion of the empire, the preferred Christian reading of that abbreviation became Perpetua Felicitas, losing the pagan connotations while retaining the traditional abbreviation.Footnote 35 This may not have been enough in the east, where PF disappears from coin legends under the Leonid dynasty (457–518) although it remained part of the western Roman emperors’ titulature up to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus. It is tempting to suggest a linguistic reason, with the Latin reading as an insufficient alternative for the Greek-speaking eastern empire.Footnote 36 The disappearance of Pontifex Maximus from coin legends cannot easily be linked to upcoming Christianity, as it anticipates Constantine’s conversion by about a century. In inscriptions, however, the title continued much longer as part of the imperial name, before being changed into Pontifex Inclitus (Honourable Pontiff), a title that was still used for the emperors Valentinian III (425–55) and Marcian (450–7).Footnote 37 This, like the new meaning of the abbreviation PF, shows how something that closely resembled the old could shed associations that no longer fitted the times.
That Pontifex Maximus remained part of imperial titulature in inscriptions much longer than on coins shows the first of two ways in which it is too limiting to look only at recurring elements in imperial coin legends when trying to understand how individual emperors were addressed. There were, after all, many other types of documents in which names and forms of address for emperors recur. The second is that focusing on recurring elements obscures that names and portraits also identified individually. They were, in other words, not solely defined as emperor, but also as a specific individual who was emperor.
As to the first point; our surviving evidence for imperial names includes provincial coins, papyri, and all sorts of inscriptions.Footnote 38 The emperor was addressed by a variety of subjects in legal text, letters, historiographical treatises and speeches. When looking at these, the image is less clear-cut than the overview above suggests. Augustus is the defining title in inscriptions too, mostly translated as σεβαστός (sebastos) in Greek. Regularly, however, the title was transliterated as Αὔγουστος, and increasingly also as βασιλεύς (basileus), which meant ‘king’ and was a translation of the Latin rex.Footnote 39 Taking a wider view and including so-called unofficial titulature shows even more diversity, if not almost total chaos, in the way emperors are addressed. Numerous names, titles, honorifics and epithets that are not found on the coins struck by imperial mints are linked to emperors as a matter of course in inscriptions, papyri, and in historiographical and panegyrical texts.
A recent analysis of so-called unofficial titles from Augustus to Severus Alexander (31 bc–ad 235) shows how titles like Optimus (Princeps), αὐτοκράτωρ μέγιστος, θεός, Ὀλύμπιος (autokrator megistos, theos, Olympios) and a variety of superlatives occur as a matter of course.Footnote 40 The range of titles and honorifics in these inscriptions can differ enormously, showing more leeway in addressing the emperor than modern scholars often assume. The exception to this flexibility are the so-called military diplomata, which are highly systematic in their inclusion of specific imperial titles, and are therefore often used to trace the ‘official’ name of an emperor – the ancient equivalent of having a modern document notarised properly.Footnote 41 Yet, for much of our epigraphic evidence, local differentiation and wide variations from reign to reign are most noticeable. Still, there may have been some increase in military and divine epithets over time.Footnote 42 That local appellations occasionally went too far is clear from a fascinating inscription from Hierapolis, in which the emperor Antoninus Pius was described as γῆς καί θαλάσσης δεσπότην (‘lord over land and sea’) only for the last word to be exchanged for the less dominant κύριον, still expressing dominance, but less forcefully. After Hierapolis had started, others followed suit, and addressing the emperor as δεσπότης became more common in inscriptions.Footnote 43 There was no total flexibility, but the range of how to address the emperor was substantial, and could widen over time.
So-called provincial coins, struck under the auspices of members of local elites, show some of the same flexibility in imperial nomenclature as the inscriptions do. Obverse legends became increasingly diverse in the first two centuries ad, and could be different from one region to the next. Still Augustus/ σεβαστός and Caesar/ Καῖσᾰρ were fairly fixed elements, and from the reign of Vespasian onwards Imperator/ αὐτοκράτωρ came into regular use.Footnote 44 Though there was a wide variety in honorifics that were added to the imperial names, at least parts of the general pattern that could be seen in central coin legends can be traced in provincial coinage too, with shifts when the new Flavian dynasty was established under Vespasian, and more military and religious honorifics in the course of the third century.Footnote 45
Papyri addressing emperors, of which vast quantities have survived, can usefully be linked to titles on coins and in inscriptions.Footnote 46 Noticeably, the core elements of the imperial name remained the same, at least for the period up to the death of Constantine in 337.Footnote 47 There seems, however, to have been a trend towards addressing emperors with increasingly elaborate epithets, perhaps comparable to the superlatives in the epigraphic evidence.Footnote 48 There is also a rough trend towards fewer inclusions of ‘Republican’ titles. In the third century, new military and religious epithets appeared at the same time as these aspects of imperial power were emphasised on coins.Footnote 49 Under Constantine and his successors yet another epithet, perpetuus (αἰώνῐος; aionios) was introduced. Finally, there is a noticeable change in how dominus is increasingly translated into Greek as δεσπότης (despotes), which as we saw above includes strong notions of supremacy and ownership, rather than the earlier (less dominant) κύριος.Footnote 50 As in the epigraphic and Roman provincial evidence, the imperial name is more fluid in papyri than on central coinage, but the general development of imperial address seems similar. This greater fluidity may be (partly) explained by the greater space on papyri and inscriptions than was the case for the spatially delineated legend on coins, and by greater access to papyri and inscriptions. Many scribes could produce a text but only a very few people decided what was on coins.Footnote 51 That makes the similarities of the developments in the different sources even more noticeable.
A second reason why looking only at recurring elements of imperial names and titles is insufficient to analyse how emperors could be addressed and recognised is that it ignores those elements that were specific to individual emperors. Perhaps most importantly, all emperors following Augustus held their own praenomen, such as Tiberius (14–37), Claudius (41–54) or Constantine (311–37). These names were important markers on coins, papyri and inscriptions. They were so well known that they could often be abbreviated. Such names were regularly not the names with which emperors were born. Names could be changed upon accession, such as Diocles, who latinised his name to Diocletian when he became emperor (284–305).Footnote 52 These names are how individual emperors were mostly identified in ancient historiography, by authors such as (amongst very many others) Tacitus, Plutarch, Dio Cassius, Ammianus Marcellinus or Procopius.
Alongside their proper names, ancient authors also identified emperors through specific nicknames, often in derogatory ways. A good example is the way in which Cassius Dio uses the negative names ‘Sardanapalus’, ‘Pseudo-Antoninus’ or ‘the Assyrian’ when describing the reign of the emperor commonly known as Elagabalus (218–222), whose ‘real’ imperial name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Nor was Dio the only one to use such nicknames for the emperor, who is named as ‘the unholy little Antoninus’ in a contemporary papyrus.Footnote 53 Indeed, in the ancient world, the Romans seem to have been noticeable for the frequency with which they gave nicknames to their rulers, often referring to effeminacy and apparently extreme (sexual) preferences.Footnote 54 But not all nicknames were negative, and it appears that several emperors wanted to be called by particular nicknames and that soldiers in particular often used monikers, perhaps to stress an informal relation between the emperor and his troops.Footnote 55 This illustrates the complexities of understanding how emperors were addressed. Nicknames can define a ruler as much as ‘official’ names.
Emperors also had a ‘dynastic’ name, such as Flavius or Severus. Like a praenomen, this name could be changed, most obviously through adoption. This was often more a political statement than a legal process. Septimius Severus (193–211), effectively founder of a new dynasty, adopted himself as Marcus Aurelius’ (161–80) son fifteen years after that emperor had died. Severus changed his elder son’s name into Marcus Aurelius Antoninus in the process, although the latter is better known through his military nickname Caracalla (211–17).Footnote 56 These fictitious adoptions to strengthen imperial claims occurred regularly in the fourth century, with several emperors assuming the name Valerius or Flavius as a matter of course.Footnote 57 This increased adoption of existing imperial names shows the importance of dynastic considerations in Rome. At the same time, there was often no male heir to succeed, with a noticeable dearth for over 150 years after the death of Theodosius II (402–50), whose elevation to co-Augustus at the age of one highlights the importance of dynastic legitimacy.Footnote 58 Usurpers therefore boosted their status by appropriating famous dynastic names or by marrying into the dynasty they had just replaced, or into the one before.Footnote 59
However important specific names, titles and honorifics were to emphasise imperial status and to differentiate the emperor from anyone else in the realm, there were also regular occasions in which an individual emperor was named differently. Contemporary authors who were writing about a reigning emperor could simply speak of ‘Caesar’. This type of address may have become more elaborate over time. In a famous panegyric to Trajan (98–117), Pliny the Younger addressed the emperor as ‘Caesar’. In the later so-called Panegyrici Latini (289–389) there seems to have been some inflation in how to address the emperor. The emperor could be addressed as ‘sacritissimus imperator’ (most sacred imperator), but ‘imperator Augusti’, ‘Caesar invictus’ (unconquered Caesar), and ‘Augustus venerabilis’ (reverent Augustus) also featured with some frequency.Footnote 60
The associations that addressing the emperor as Caesar brought with it could vary substantially. Context played an important role. The most splendid ambiguities can be found in the work of Optatian (died sometime between 333–5). In one poem, he addresses Constantine with the line ‘holy Caesar (sancte Caesar), in your serenity take pity on your poet’. At first sight, this looks like a fairly old-fashioned appeal to the emperor, reminiscent of Horace’s Odes. Yet Optatian’s poems need to be seen to be understood, as they are spectacular when visually laid out on the page. When the poem is written out in grid form, the word ‘Caesar’ forms the centre of a cross. In another poem, the title Constantinus Pius et Aeternus imperator forms the vertical axis of a Chi-Rho sign, which had great symbolic importance to Constantine. Even apparently traditional formulations could gain new meaning.Footnote 61 At other times, orators seem to use traditional names and titles to emphasise how traditionally Roman the emperor was, ignoring the apparent inflation of titles. The fourth-century rhetorician Libanius addresses the emperors Julian (360–3) and Theodosius (379–95) with ὦ βασιλεῦ, without superlatives. A panegyric from 397 by the poet Claudian for the western emperor Honorius (393–423) described how the latter had changed from ‘Caesar’ into ‘princeps’ (without any adjectives) and had become the equal of his brother Arcadius (383–408), the eastern emperor.Footnote 62 Much later still, a letter from the eastern emperor Anastasius (491–518) to the Roman Senate includes all the ‘republican’ titles of consul, proconsul, tribunicia potestas, and pater patriae.Footnote 63
At the same time, the statesman and scholar Cassiodorus (c. 485–c. 585) could write a letter to that very emperor, addressing him as ‘most clement emperor’ (clementissime imperator) and ‘most dutiful of princes’ (piissime principum).Footnote 64 The letter was written in the name of King Theodoric, who as king of the Ostrogothic Kingdom (493–526) and regent of the Visigoths (511–26) ruled much of the western empire. Theodoric seems to have been extremely careful in the use of his own titles, and Cassiodorus assiduously avoided calling the western king Augustus. Yet, a public inscription from the Via Appia, near Terracina, could still address him as ‘Our lord (dominus noster) the glorious and famous king (rex) Theodoric, perpetual emperor (semper Augustus) … propagator of the Roman name’.Footnote 65 For the people who set up the inscription, almost certainly members of the local elite, Theodoric, like his predecessor Odovacer (476–93) who had deposed the ‘last’ western emperor Romulus Augustulus (475–6), was rightful ruler, and hence Augustus.Footnote 66
Clearly, the original Augustan ways of denoting emperorship as Imperator Caesar Augustus or as princeps retained their importance for over 500 years, at all levels of society. Moreover, the addition of superlatives to the imperial titles can be placed in a wider pattern; it runs parallel to the creation of elaborate titles for a range of (political and religious) positions during the late-fourth and fifth centuries. If non-imperial officeholders could be gloriosissimus, magnificentissimus, eloquentissimus, eminentissimus or excellentissimus, it need hardly surprise that the emperor, too, became piissimus.Footnote 67
Tracing forms of imperial address over time, if only cursorily, in various types of sources allows for two main observations, the first about continuity and change. There was substantial stability in the use of central elements, certainly in the Latin appellations. When, during the so-called Tetrarchy (293–306), the empire was ruled by four men who in a form of collegiate emperorship held different parts of the realm, the two senior emperors were named Augustus and the two junior ones Caesar, embedding the new system through traditional titulature.Footnote 68
The translation of the different terms into Greek showed some flexibility throughout Roman history, and one can trace some shifts in emphasis of the various titles in different media, but at the core there was pronounced continuity over centuries. More variance, however, existed in the use of additional elements to the imperial name, both titles and honorifics. For some of these extra elements, there seem to have been chronological developments that can be linked to political and societal changes in the empire. Noticeable shifts can be traced during the period of the Flavian dynasty, an increased emphasis on military and religious epithets when the empire faced difficulties in the third century, and a transition of the ‘pagan’ elements in imperial nomenclature in the fourth and fifth century. Yet, not all media and all regions followed the same pattern, and not all patterns were linear. The disappearance of ‘Republican’ elements from central coinage, for instance, seems to have had little impact on how emperors were addressed in panegyric speeches. It seems likely that the core elements of how emperors were addressed became synonymous with emperorship as such, and became defining features.
Additional titles and honorifics could be more easily adapted to time and place, linked to changing societal norms, and adhering to what people expected of their emperor in very different contexts. Not everything was possible, however, when adapting these titles and epithets. It seems that there were certain conventions and expectations that were kept in mind, as the shift of Pontifex Maximus to Pontifex Inclitus, the new meaning of the abbreviation PF, or the development of Dominus Noster on both inscriptions and coins showed. The dominance of specific epithets for different emperors in one region suggests that local traditions played an important role, too, when naming the emperor.Footnote 69 People, it seems, could choose from an array of names, titles and honorifics when addressing the emperor, with regional variations, and an extension of the range over time.
This leads to the second main observation.Footnote 70 It is extremely difficult to establish an ‘official’ imperial name at any given moment. The legend on central coinage differed from the titulature on military diplomata, which was in turn different from what was written on (legal) papyrus texts or from how emperors were directly addressed in speeches or letters. Certain emperors preferred to be called by nicknames. What, then, set an ‘official’ title apart from an ‘unofficial’ one? There seems not to be a single ancient source which says some such distinction existed. So why is this an important differentiation in modern research?Footnote 71 If there is no real system as to which titles were included in ‘official’ documents (mostly defined as either centrally issued documents, and/or documents with a legal status), and if ‘non-official’ documents (which include letters to the emperor) could apparently even make up titles for the emperor, what then defined how emperors could be addressed? Rather than looking for formal structures, it might be more useful to think of the imperial name as established, or even better, permanently negotiated, in some sort of dialogue between ruler and different groups of subjects, with a range of possibilities.Footnote 72
Many titles and epithets seem to describe what people expected or wanted the emperor to be. This becomes explicit when the statesman and orator Symmachus addressed the then ten-year old emperor Gratian (367–83) as Novi saeculi spes parta (longed-for hope of a new age).Footnote 73 But epigraphic appellations to Septimius Severus as indulgentissimus et clementissimus princeps dominus noster (kindest and mildest prince, our lord) function in a very similar way, expressing expectations of what the emperor should be.Footnote 74 Other parts of the nomenclature – like the inclusion of Republican titles under Vespasian, or fictitious cognomina in the late empire – indicated how emperors tried to boost their legitimacy or popularity.
Naming the emperor meant defining him. Considering the size of the empire and the diversity of its population, it may not be surprising that people’s expectations of the emperor’s role and character varied substantially. Whether someone named the emperor as ‘most pious princeps’ or as ‘unconquered saviour’ may tell us much about the person addressing the ruler. That both forms of address were possible, sometimes even for the same emperor, may be more indicative of how multifaceted and ill-defined Roman emperorship was.Footnote 75 Yet, in all its flexibility and experimentation, only the emperor was Augustus. The name of Rome’s first emperor continued to define the institution. This was the name that was unique to the emperor and used by all of them for over 500 years.
Depicting the Emperor: Portrait, Reliefs and Statuary
Names and titles were essential to address emperors and were visible throughout the empire. They did not show what an emperor looked like. To distribute the physical image of individual emperors, there were imperial portraits in sculptural or painted displays, and on coinage. These portraits, often carved from marble or cast in bronze, were nearly omnipresent in Roman society: in public squares, temples, theatres, villas, and many other places. The number of statues must have been staggering.Footnote 76 Portraits played a crucial role in visualising the emperor, often placing him in a specific context in historical reliefs or paintings. The imperial titulature on coin legends, at least for the first three centuries of imperial rule, usually surrounded a recognisable imperial face (Figure 1.4, above). Statues and busts were almost invariably placed on bases which provided their audiences with additional information, such as the emperor’s names.Footnote 77 In this way the emperor was known to the many inhabitants of the Roman empire who would never be able to see him in person.
The specific physical features and depicted hairstyle of the portraits of individual emperors were surprisingly consistent throughout the empire. That made an emperor recognisable to the many people in the empire, wherever they would encounter such a portrait. The reason for this was that the vast majority of portraits were replicas or adaptations of a common prototype developed at the imperial centre. Who designed the prototype remains unclear, but it seems probable that sudden innovations in portraiture will have needed to be approved by the ruler, or someone close to him.Footnote 78 Of course not all portraits were equally similar to that prototype. Portraits on cameos that circulated at the imperial court and those on coins that were commissioned by central mints were probably closest to imperial wishes.Footnote 79 Likewise, portraits in and around imperial residences and in military contexts will have cohered closely to a central ‘portrait type’.Footnote 80 In all likelihood, a plaster or clay copy of the prototype of the emperor’s portrait was distributed throughout the Roman empire to form the point of reference for locally constructed portraits.Footnote 81
There is some evidence that portraits were sent out to the provinces at the beginning of a reign, or on specific occasions, though most references for this come from the fourth century and later.Footnote 82 Most Roman emperors, like many monarchs before and after them, had different portraits designed for them during the course of their reign. From the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, these so-called portrait types have been systematically catalogued, allowing us an overview of the vast majority – if not perhaps all – of Roman imperial portrait types. Sometimes it is possible to date these new types, either because they can be traced through changes on the portraits on coins, or because names or titles on statue bases allow for a precise historical context.Footnote 83
Not all portraits in parts of the empire that were more remote will have been equally close to what was intended. In a very well-known aside in a letter to the emperor Hadrian, Arrian of Nicomedia describes seeing a statue of the emperor on the shore of the Black Sea, at Trapezus (in Cappadocia) which was ‘rather fitting in its posture’, but ‘neither did it resemble you, nor was it very beautiful’.Footnote 84 Likewise, when Marcus Cornelius Fronto writes to Marcus Aurelius (161–80) on how his portraits can be found everywhere, he also notes that these images were often badly carved and very dissimilar.Footnote 85 A survey of probable representations of Hadrian and Trajan in Greece and Asia Minor suggests that there were many portraits that differed more or less radically from the centrally issued images. Local considerations often influenced how an emperor was depicted, much as was the case for how he was named.Footnote 86 There is, then, a risk that the portraits that are so assiduously catalogued form only a part of the surviving corpus, since they exclude those images that do not cohere to the standardised image of an emperor, leading us to overestimate how systematic images were dispersed.Footnote 87
It does seem clear, however, that there was at least an attempt to disseminate such a systematic image of the emperor. Noticeably, the patterns of new types are very different for one emperor or the other – both in how often new types were designed and in how substantial the shifts of the imperial portrait within one reign could be. Still, it is possible to trace some sort of pattern when looking at the development of imperial portraiture from the early empire to Justinian.
Like imperial names and titles, portraits and statues changed over time. Also, like names and titles, different portraits made use of different ways in which individuals had been presented in earlier Roman history – or even of ways in which people outside of the Roman empire, like Hellenistic kings, had been presented – and in doing so may have triggered associations with these historical figures, and with the context in which they had lived. Of course, portraying Roman leaders pre-empted Roman emperorship, but not by much. Depicting living men in monumental art on a large scale only took off in Rome during the late republic. Before that time, depicting someone too prominently was seen as too regal and therefore problematic, as criticism of Marius and Sulla’s imagery makes clear.Footnote 88 In the late-Republican struggles for power, the likes of Pompey the Great (106–48 bc) and Julius Caesar started to project their image more systematically, in order to show their status and prestige to a wide audience.Footnote 89 In doing so, they mixed traditional Roman ways of depicting people with elements of Hellenistic regal portraits. Pompey’s image, for instance, copied the hairstyle of Alexander the Great, but combined it with recognisable features, making it less idealised than any surviving Alexander portrait (Figure 1.5).Footnote 90 Alexander was a potent symbol of heroic leadership, making it fashionable to incorporate elements of Alexander’s noticeable portraiture into the imagery of powerful leaders. Throughout Roman imperial history, Alexander remained an important paradigm for rule, not only in the Greek east but in the whole Mediterranean world. Caesar’s portraits, like those of Pompey, combined different styles, mixing idealised and recognisably individual features. There was, however, great variation between the various surviving portraits, with some emphasising the more realistic ‘veristic’ style much more than others.Footnote 91
The scale at which portraits of Caesar began to circulate in the empire was already unheard of, certainly after they appeared on coinage, the first time that a living individual was depicted on the obverse of Roman coins.Footnote 92 Yet, a true systemisation of portraiture in much larger numbers only started under Augustus. The speed with which a specific portrait of the new ruler became known throughout the empire was remarkable, and was helped by circulating it on coins.Footnote 93 This was a new type of imagery, inspired at least as much by classical Greece as by Roman and Hellenistic precedents (Figure 1.6).Footnote 94 Remarkably, the portrait would not change substantially for the rest of Augustus’ life, presenting him as an idealised youth even when he was into his seventies. That sort of continuity will have made it very easy for people to recognise the image of the emperor, but much less helpful to recognise the emperor in person from his portraits.
Augustus’ smooth and ageless imperial image would set the standard for a substantial period of time. Even posthumous portraits of Caesar came to resemble Augustus’ classicising portrait, as did the portraits of Augustus’ grandsons Gaius and Lucius, both of whom had been considered as heirs before they died in youth.Footnote 95 The images of Augustus’ ultimate successor Tiberius, and those of his successors Caligula (37–41) and Claudius were likewise beardless and with a hairstyle that was very similar to the other members of the so-called Julio-Claudian dynasty. The portraits of Caligula, Claudius and Nero did, however, show age much more than Augustus’ portraits had, making them more realistic, although it remains unclear why.
All Julio-Claudian portraits were clearly images of individual rulers, but they also expressed continuity of emperorship through their reproduction of highly recognisable physiognomic details of their predecessors’ portraits. Looking at these portraits, people would be able to know who their emperor was, and instantly know that he was a member of the ruling Augustan household.Footnote 96 This ‘visual alignment’ of images was an important element in formulating early emperorship. The emperor Nero (54–68) tried to present himself in a more monarchical way, with less emphasis on his Augustan lineage. But his portraiture initially still followed Julio-Claudian precedent, and even when he changed that, it was less a completely new style than a moving away from what had become the norm. It seems that the well-known smooth and youthful Julio-Claudian portraiture still underlay the new imagery, although the thick neck, much broader face and near-radiate hairstyle was very different from that of Augustan portraiture.Footnote 97
A more substantial change, however, took place during the civil wars that marked the end of the Augustan dynasty (68–9) and at the beginning of the Flavian dynasty. Much like we noted in the development of imperial titulature, references to the first emperor became less important and were replaced by notions that held Republican connotations.Footnote 98 A form of realism that had been important in Republican imagery was reintroduced into Flavian portraiture. It suggested the experience and (military) qualities that came with age (Figure 1.7).Footnote 99 The change in imagery was not, however, absolute. Recently, Heijnen has argued convincingly that the most dramatic aspects of the Flavian shift in portraiture were short-lived. When Vespasian had secured his position, his portraiture began to again look more like Julio-Claudian imagery. New portraits appeared in which the emperor looked younger, his face was smoother and receding hairline much less pronounced.Footnote 100 There were still marked Flavian elements in the portrait (such as a pronounced jaw and bulking forehead) which allowed the portraits of Vespasian’s sons Titus and (79–81) Domitian (81–96) to resemble those of their father. But the portraits of the Flavians were not a world away from Julio-Claudian imagery.
This mix between continuing recognised practice while incorporating different elements in designing imperial portraits continues throughout Roman history up to the mid-fourth century. Imperial portraiture reflects political shifts and attempts by emperors to present themselves differently from their predecessors. In doing so, various established modes of representation are used, with new elements occasionally added into the mix. Famously, Hadrian (117–38) was the first emperor to be portrayed with a beard (Figure 2.4, below). Frequently, this is attributed to that emperor’s interest in Greece but it may equally be linked to Hadrian’s attention to the provinces in a more general sense, or even have been an attempt to look more military.Footnote 101 Noticeably, the beard figures on portraits that do not age during a twenty-year reign, recalling Augustus’ portraiture. That does not negate the newness of depicting an emperor with a beard, but it shows how such new elements were formulated within a developing range of possibilities. These new elements were often picked up by successors and incorporated into an emerging repertoire. For almost a century after Hadrian, emperors of the Antonine and Severan dynasty were shown with a full beard. By that stage, it is unlikely that the beard referred to something so specific as ‘Greekness’, if it ever did. Rather, it will have indicated continuity of a certain mode of emperorship. In this representational repertoire, Augustus’ portrait remained a clear point of reference. Much like Vespasian could use the Republican exaggerated realism to show how he was a different kind of ruler than his predecessor Nero, so later emperors could return to a more or less ‘pure’ Augustan style to refer to a preferred mode of emperorship. The portraits of emperors such as Trajan (98–117) and Constantine are perhaps the most explicit examples of this pattern.
Portraits of emperors were not just there to allow people to recognise an individual ruler, they also formed a visual vocabulary that expressed the kind of emperor that was depicted. In the third century, military elements like stubble or a short beard and very short cropped hair often featured on emperors’ portraits.Footnote 102 But short hair could also be combined with the full beard of the Antonines and Severans, which made reference to a more ‘senatorial’ status, as happened on portraits of Macrinus (217–18) and Pupienus (238).Footnote 103 An extreme case of mixing messages can be seen during the reign of Gallienus (253–68), in whose reign the Roman empire faced dire difficulties, including the capture of his father Valerian (253–60) by the new-Persians, the proclamation of a Gallic counter-empire (260–74) and a similar claim from Palmyra, led by Queen Zenobia (270–2).Footnote 104 In one surviving colossal portrait from Rome, Gallienus closely resembles Hadrian, but in a different portrait, also from Rome, the emperor is portrayed very differently, as a charismatic youth, incorporating elements of the portraiture of Alexander the Great and Augustus (Figures 1.8–9). These portraits transmitted different messages, probably to different groups of people.Footnote 105 More than with the imperial name, there seems to have been one clearly defined imperial portrait, but some variation was possible.
Over time, it seems that the importance of expressing forms of emperorship through portraiture became more important than depicting individual emperors. An important step in this trajectory was during the Tetrarchy, the new ‘rule of four’ which made it necessary to publicise the fact that different rulers were in charge simultaneously. Naming two emperors as Augusti and two as Caesares was one way of embedding this new system of government in traditional terminology.Footnote 106 Visual alignment of the portraits of the rulers was another way of making people understand the new political structure. Such assimilation of portraiture was not new in itself – it was the standard way to express continuity of a ruler with his predecessors – but under the Tetrarchy the four rulers so closely resembled one another that it was difficult to tell one from the other. With their square heads, stubble and short hair, they were instantly recognisable as ‘soldier emperors’.Footnote 107 But who was who was much more difficult to determine. Context still often made it possible to understand which of the four rulers was intended, and there were differences between the image of the Caesares and of the Augusti, creating a sort of ‘double duality’ which fitted precedent much better than a rule of four.Footnote 108 The Tetrarchic experiment was not successful, and led first to civil war and then the sole reign of Constantine. Constantine’s portrait mixed elements of earlier imperial styles (especially those of Augustus and Trajan) with the Tetrachs’ large eyes. So did the portraits of his sons, up to the point that it is difficult to distinguish one son from the other – or from their father.Footnote 109 Constantine’s image became so dominant under his successors that, apart from the brief reign of Julian the Apostate (361–3) who sported a beard, it became increasingly difficult to tell different emperors apart.Footnote 110
After Constantine’s death, then, there increasingly was one rather homogenous imperial image, strongly linked to a Constantinian prototype, rather than a range of possibilities from which to design individualised portraits. The emperors of the Valentinian and Theodosian dynasty (364–457) all had similar features with perhaps slightly different hair. Individualised elements were still regularly added, but some of the fifth- and sixth-century emperors are difficult to identify from their portrait if no name is added.Footnote 111 There is never any doubt that these are images of emperors. From Constantine onwards, diadems were regularly added to emperors’ images and only emperors could wear these, although not all images of emperors showed diadems.Footnote 112 This was only one of the explicit references to kingship which were added to representations of Roman emperors in the Constantinian period and beyond. Explicit monarchical references had apparently become much less problematic in depicting Roman rule, partly through increased interactions with the Sasanian empire and exposure to eastern tradition. Romans had always been aware that there were alternative paradigms of rulership, as the continuous popularity of images of Alexander makes clear. Closer relations with the Sasanian court brought these alternative models closer to home.Footnote 113 But in these very late-antique images, the echoes of Augustan portraiture were still visible. Even in a wholly changed society, some continuity in visual language remained.
Some of this continuity can also be traced in the way people discussed what seeing the emperor in person entailed. What should an emperor look like, in the eyes of his subject? For this, we can look for references in ancient biography, historiography and panegyric. Importantly, all of these genres assumed a link between physical appearance and character, often described as ‘physiognomic consciousness’.Footnote 114 This is, in many ways, similar to Hellenistic theories of appropriate royal appearance, which can be roughly summarised as claiming that what makes a king is simply looking like one.Footnote 115 There was, then, much cultural continuity beyond what is commonly defined as Roman. In any case, describing or portraying an emperor was not value neutral. Rhetorical references to physical appearance could be used for positive or negative effect.Footnote 116 In such descriptions, the facial features played a prominent role. This is already a relevant theme in speeches from the Roman republic, with Cicero emphasising the importance of describing someone’s face, and especially their eyes.Footnote 117 Eyes were especially said to show character, as handbooks on rhetoric and on physiognomy make clear.Footnote 118 This attention to eyes can be traced in various descriptions of emperors throughout Roman history, from Suetonius to Ammianus and beyond: Augustus is said to have had ‘clear, bright eyes’, whereas Julian’s eyes were ‘fine and full of fire, a sign of his sharp mind’.Footnote 119 The eyes of Theodosius II (408–50) were ‘black and sharp-sighted’ and Leo I (457–74) ‘had vigorous eyes’.Footnote 120 It is tempting to link this emphasis on eyes in literary discussions of the emperor’s character to an increased focus on the eyes in Roman imperial portraiture. From around the period of the Tetrarchy onwards, emperors were depicted with very large eyes, although technical considerations of marble cutting may also have played their role.Footnote 121
It was not only eyes. Other facial features, like mouth, cheeks, necks, noses and hair, also received attention, although more rarely.Footnote 122 Referring to emperors’ expressions (frowning, blushing, crying, but also ‘calmness of eye’) was yet a different way in which orators could bring the emperors’ face and character together.Footnote 123 It is difficult to see real developments over time here, and even more difficult to link those to changes in imperial portraiture. What we can see instead is continuation of the underlying idea that physical features and character were linked, and a fairly stable set of positive and negative aspects of appearance. Stature was of importance, too, and is often named in physical descriptions of Roman rulers. Emperors could be tall, well-proportioned, stooped, thin or sluggish.Footnote 124 Again, we see a continuation in time as to which build had positive or negative connotations. This continuation made it possible to link an emperor to an eminent predecessor by comparing features or figure. Theodosius, for instance, was said to have resembled Trajan in ‘manners and physique’, as was clear from ‘many writings and pictures’.Footnote 125 Portraits may have changed over time, but the key characteristics that they meant to communicate seem to have been surprisingly stable.
The image that imperial portraits disseminated was not limited to that of character. They also radiated power through sheer numbers, by the choice of certain materials and the size of portraits. As to material, it is important to remember that though the vast majority of surviving imperial portraits are marble ones, there must have been substantial numbers of portraits in gold, silver, ivory, glass and porphyry.Footnote 126 Those materials held divine associations from at least the Hellenistic era onwards.Footnote 127 The choice to portray emperors in these materials would therefore have made their elevated position instantly obvious. Ancient authors often claim that particular emperors who wanted to emphasise their supremacy used ‘divine’ materials, but it is much more likely that this was common imperial practice.Footnote 128 There are surviving ivory portraits of Augustus, Septimius Severus and Julian, and surviving gold statues of Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Licinius I and II and Valentinian (Figure 1.10).Footnote 129 This is certainly not a list of emperors known for exaggerated claims of superiority. Imperial portraits could stress superior status from the beginning of the principate onwards.
Of the more valuable portrait materials, porphyry had a special position. It became known to the Romans in ad 18, and a porphyry statue was brought to Rome for the first time during the reign of Claudius, who seems not to have approved.Footnote 130 Under Trajan and Hadrian, however, and again from the reign of Diocletian onwards, porphyry statues became popular at the Roman court. In fact, imperial porphyry was the exclusive prerogative of the court, probably because of its purple colour which had strong regal connotations.Footnote 131 All preserved Roman porphyry statues, even the ones without heads or inscriptions, can safely be attributed to the imperial house.Footnote 132 Its prominence in the very late third and early fourth century once again confirms the shift in imperial portraiture taking place in those decades.
Apart from costly material, the size of a portrait could indicate power. From the very early empire onwards, larger-than-life-size portraits of rulers are preserved. This mattered. In earlier times, only gods could be depicted as larger than life.Footnote 133 That Roman rulers could be shown in this way indicated their superhuman status. There are surviving portraits of Caesar that are a little over life size, but in all likelihood these are posthumous, when Caesar had officially become a god.Footnote 134 A truly colossal portrait of Augustus (the height of the head is approximately 250 cm) possibly formed part of a statue that stood on top of the Mausoleum at Rome. A smaller one, but still colossal (the height of the head is more than 90 cm) was erected at Lepcis Magna in the reign of Tiberius. By this stage the first emperor had been deified and become Divus Augustus, like Caesar had become Divus Julius and many succeeding emperors would become divi.Footnote 135 But at roughly the same time, when Tiberius was still very much alive, only a somewhat smaller portrait of the ruling emperor (with a height of almost 75 cm) was also erected in Lepcis Magna.Footnote 136 The number of surviving colossal portraits is relatively small, so it is difficult to trace a development over time and see if these colossal statues increased in frequency or size.Footnote 137 Yet it is clear that from the very beginning of the principate, the superior status of the emperor could be emphasised through the size of his portraits.
Size was not the only similarity between imperial portraits and images of the gods. Postures and features of imperial statues often mirrored statues of the gods, and imperial statues could include divine attributes.Footnote 138 Much like divine statues, also, people thought that imperial statues held the presence of the figure that they represented, as indicated by stories about moving or listening statues.Footnote 139 Moreover, as Simon Price already noted decades ago, there was substantial overlap between the terminology of imperial and divine statues.Footnote 140 It was also possible to claim asylum at statues of the emperor, like at those of gods. That right was confirmed in the various codifications of Roman law, up to and including those of Theodosius and Justinian.Footnote 141 This continuation well into the Christian empire shows how what had started as divine connotations of imperial statues had become an act onto its own. The advent of Christianity clearly had an effect on imperial imagery, but established practice remained important, especially if it was possible to remove the more prominent pagan associations.
Those associations were, however, a cause of Christian concern. A law of 425 explicitly states that ‘if Our images are shown at plays or games, they shall demonstrate that Our divinity and glory live only in the hearts and the secret places of the minds of those who attend. A worship in excess of human dignity shall be reserved for the Supreme Divinity’.Footnote 142 Apparently there was a need to prevent such excessive worship. Attention bestowed upon the images of the emperors was too close to idolatry for comfort.Footnote 143 Yet even in the Christian empire, the link between emperor and portrait retained its importance. Recognising someone’s portrait was a way of recognising their right of rule. Theodosius I is said to have publicly exhibited the portrait of his erstwhile opponent Magnus Maximus (383–8) in Alexandria to show that he accepted the latter’s claim to rule the western empire. Coins celebrating the Concordia Avggg depicted both Theodosius’ and Maximus’ portraits.Footnote 144 Recognising co-emperors by accepting their portrait became especially important when the empire was formally divided into an eastern and western half. The ceremonial reception and distribution of laureate portraits became a way to denote joint rule, as illustrated when Leo I accepted the claim of Anthemius (467–72) as the new emperor in Rome by commanding that their laureate portraits should be exhibited together, and that Anthemius’ portrait should be sent to all cities of the empire.Footnote 145
Again, we see in late antiquity a formalisation of dealing with the imperial image that takes its cue from earlier practice. Placing a portrait on coins had been an indication of imperial claims, or the recognition of such claims, throughout the history of imperial Rome.Footnote 146 Imperial portraits were not just objects but were believed to have a direct bond with the emperors whom they depicted.Footnote 147 In this way, sculptural and painted portraits had already functioned as substitutes for the real rulers for a long time. This is one reason why the face of the emperor was present in almost all judicial contexts, through the imperial standards that flanked the magistrate who spoke law. The presence of the imperial portrait bestowed legitimacy on the proceedings.Footnote 148 There is also substantial evidence for laudatory speeches held before of an imperial portrait that address the ruler as if he were present.Footnote 149 This incorporated presence was uncomfortable for Christianity, but could also be used to explain dogmatic difficulties. St Basil (c. 330–79) directly relates it to contemporary discussions about the nature of the Trinity: ‘The imperial image, too, is called the emperor; and yet there are not two emperors: neither is the power cut asunder nor the glory divided. And as the authority which holds sway over us is one, so the glorification we address to it is one and not many, since the honour shown to the image is transmitted to its model’.Footnote 150
The assimilation of the notion of an imperial ‘presence’ into discussions of matters of faith shows how traditional ideas could be employed to make new religious structures understandable to the population of the Roman empire. The formalisation of a ceremonial acceptance of laureate portraits likewise used existing practices surrounding imperial statues to ease political change. It is often emphasised how much emperorship changed in late antiquity. Yet, these changes incorporated and continued many earlier practices and beliefs. There were substantial shifts in shape and ceremony, but there were also many essential earlier elements that were included into the new shape that emperorship took. There was continuous tension in Roman imperial history between the need to adapt the emperor’s image to societal changes and the risk of alienating a population that had grown used to certain standards and practices. At the same time, these expectations and conventions could also be used to adapt to change. Vespasian’s use of Republican imagery, like Constantine’s incorporation of the portrait style of Trajan and Augustus, helped to embed a new situation in traditional notions. Similarly, the increased emphasis on the eyes in imperial portraiture adhered to long-existing physiognomic conventions. There was a range of expectations as to what an emperor could look like, how his portrait was linked to the person of the ruler and his character, and about what role imperial portraits played in society. Like we saw in the development of the emperor’s name, the range of options widened over time, but there was very little innovation that appeared out of the blue. If change was pushed too far, the emperor would no longer be recognisable.
Portraits of the emperor were always seen in their spatial setting, often with a name on the object or nearby. This helped people recognise the emperor and place him in context. Above all, imperial portraits were visible on coins, with a legend surrounding the emperor’s head. Placing multiple heads alongside each other on a single coin, or placing the head of one ruler on a coin that was minted in an area where another ruler was in control, became an easy way of indicating joint rule.Footnote 151 Importantly, also, images of the emperor on monumental reliefs indicated the emperor’s status and role through different architectural settings. Augustus’ image on the Ara Pacis, surrounded by magistrates, senators and members of the imperial family (Figure 1.11), suggested a much more ‘senatorial’ emperor than the image of Septimius Severus (193–211) on the superb quadrifons arch in Lepcis Magna, which shows the emperor shaking hands with his sons Caracalla and Geta, observed by the empress Julia Domna and surrounded by divinities and personifications.Footnote 152 A famous funerary relief, possibly the base of a monumental column, showing Hadrian sitting opposite a personification of the Campus Martius while watching his deceased wife Sabina being carried to the heavens by a personification of Aeternitas gives yet another image of imperial roles.Footnote 153
Perhaps the best-known examples of monumental reliefs are the narrative images on the columns in Rome of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, and the friezes on victory arches such as those of Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine. These showed the emperor too, of course, but they also formed hyper-elaborate bases for the imperial statuary that was placed on top of them: colossal statues of the emperor on the columns, and the emperor in a chariot on the arches. Archaeologists and art historians have fiercely discussed whether these narrative reliefs provided a historical report or a more generalised image showing exemplary values and behaviour. They probably did both.Footnote 154 The 184 scenes in the spiralling sculpted frieze on Trajan’s column (Figure 0.1, above), for instance, show over 1,000 figures and many moments from Trajan’s conquest of Dacia. Many of these have been retraced to specific moments in the campaign. But the overarching image is one of conquest, led by the emperor. The emperor had embodied the ideal virtues during his campaigns, and these were monumentalised in stone, as an example to his subjects and successors. In that sense, it did not matter that it would have been extremely hard (if at all possible) to ‘read’ the spiralling story in detail. It showed the victorious and dominant emperor in action, articulating the deeds of the figure who was represented on top of the column with a colossal statue.Footnote 155 The extended narrative friezes placed the emperor’s image in specific contexts, and so helped to construct, reconstruct and redefine emperorship.Footnote 156
Sculptural portraits were also regularly placed into context by incorporating them into a complete statue, often with a statue base that named the emperor. Statues could be placed together as a group, with other statues added later, creating a dynamic interplay between various emperors, members of the imperial households, and even dynasties that had no direct links.Footnote 157 These Roman imperial statue groups originated as dynastic monuments from the Hellenistic age, and became a standard way to celebrate some sort of extended imperial household.Footnote 158 Individual statues also transmitted messages. Whether a portrait was placed on a statue dressed in a toga, in a toga with the head covered, wearing a cuirass or depicted in the heroic nude made a massive difference as to how people would perceive their ruler – and that choice was inevitably a local one, even if the emperor or those directly surrounding him distributed prototypes of the imperial facial features.
Placing an emperor on horseback instantly emphasised his military qualities. The most famous of these equestrian statues in Roman times was probably the colossal sculpture of Trajan (Equus Traiani) that held a central place in Trajan’s Forum. When Constantius II (337–61) visited Rome, Ammianus Marcellinus recounts how the emperor noted that he could never construct something as splendid as that forum, and would be happy to ‘copy Trajan’s steed alone’, only to receive the reply that one needed better stables for a horse like that than the emperor possessed.Footnote 159 There are many more examples of splendid imperial equestrian statues, with the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius surviving through the ages, becoming the centrepiece of Michelangelo’s Capitoline Square.Footnote 160 Yet this type of sculpture was not unique to emperors, and did not by definition identify someone as such. The two famous equestrian statues of Nonnius Balbus maior and minor in Herculaneum are illustrative. Nor did equestrian statues ever become an imperial prerogative. Of the known examples set up after 284, the most of them were for emperors or members of the imperial household, but a substantial subset was for military commanders or high-ranking (local) magistrates.Footnote 161 Such non-imperial statues could even be constructed in central locations, like the fifth-century equestrian statue of the military commander Flavius Ardabur Aspar, who was commemorated in the Forum of Theodosius at Constantinople.Footnote 162
Still, there could be marked differences between statues of private honorands and those of emperors – differences that seem to have become more demarcated over time. Statuary at Aphrodisias from the later fourth to early sixth century indicates that in terms of dress and hairstyle there was an increased gulf between depictions of private individuals and imperial statues.Footnote 163 Perhaps the most indicative way of showing the power of an emperor was to show him enthroned.Footnote 164 Again there is substantial cultural continuity. Julius Caesar already displayed his superiority by not standing up when members of the senate came to bring him honours, something for which he was reproached.Footnote 165 Showing such superiority was apparently no longer a problem for Augustus, who at least in a private context could be displayed as the only seated figure before barbarians and even gods (Figure 1.12, also Figure 1.21). Having a man sit while gods were standing was all the more striking since images of seated figures were associated with gods. The link between superiority and being seated was so strong that under the Julio-Claudians, only emperors could be depicted in Rome as seated togate statues.Footnote 166 But even seated representations were not unique to emperors. There is a range of depictions of seated magistrates, often but not exclusively in funerary art, where they were no longer in competition with the ruler.Footnote 167 Living magistrates were represented seated as well. Far into the fifth century, an ivory diptych for the non-imperial Manlius Boethius shows him seated and holding an eagle-tipped sceptre; a private memento of his role as consul, with a splendid inscription identifying the man and his office.Footnote 168
It was important that an imperial portrait was recognisable, because of its perceived bond with the person of the emperor. Not only did the presence of imperial standards legitimise legal proceedings, but portraits could also function as a stand-in for the actual emperor to sanctify diplomatic agreements or receive cult acts. In the Christian empire, the border between such ‘normal’ veneration of the imperial portrait and idolatry was not easily defined.Footnote 169 Although context will often have made clear when the emperor was portrayed, for a long time there was no visual vocabulary that unequivocally defined the emperor, apart perhaps from the size of statuary. Unlike the name Augustus, which was unique to rulers, private portraits could resemble imperial imagery closely. Indeed, sometimes the hairstyle and physiognomy of private portraiture were made so similar to portraits of particular emperors that there is continuing discussion about whether these are private or imperial portraits.Footnote 170 Adding the emperor’s name to a portrait was an often-used way of removing any doubt as to who was represented.Footnote 171 Alternatively, including attributes that were specific to emperors made clear whose portrait was on show. From Constantine onwards, emperors were depicted wearing a diadem, which was a much clearer indication of supreme power than the laurel wreath which adorned many earlier imperial images. Diadems were not the only powerful props that could unambiguously define an emperor. When Gregory of Nazianzus blames the emperor Julian for demanding idolatry of his portraits, he lists the other ways in which emperors could be honoured. According to Gregory ‘neither the crowns, nor the diadems, neither the brilliance of their purple robes, nor the numbered bodyguard’ sufficed for Julian.Footnote 172 These, apparently, were the attributes that according to Gregory most clearly set a Roman emperor apart. Like the emperor’s name and his portrait, the use and acceptance of such attributes shifted over time, once more showing how the image of Roman emperors developed through the centuries.
Denoting The Emperor (1): The Power of Dress
In 44 bc, just before he was assassinated, Caesar attended the Lupercalia festival wearing the toga purpurea, a purple-dyed toga that was associated with the Roman kings of old and the luxury of eastern courts. He also wore the red shoes of the ancient kings of Alba and a laurel crown. The senate had given him permission to wear these trappings of power, but the message of supremacy will have been clear. In this context, Antony thrice offered Caesar the diadem, only to be refused.Footnote 173 Still, the claim of kingship was too close for comfort and Caesar was killed. Rome clearly knew the marks that denoted supreme power, but openly wearing them carried great risks. Senatorial dress included purple stripes on the toga, so a balance between senatorial and regal dress was possible. Augustus’ later biographer explicitly mentions how the purple stripe on his togas was ‘neither too narrow nor too broad’.Footnote 174 Over time, certain symbols became normalised and allowed emperors to be instantly recognised. The highly ornamental representations of late antique emperors, diademed and dressed in purple, surrounded by guards and courtiers, is far removed from Augustus’ alleged simplicity. The development of these trappings of power as acceptable symbols of the imperial role shows the same tensions between innovation and tradition as we have seen for the imperial name and portrait. New realities were anchored by using known symbols, reconciling the new with the old. In doing so these known symbols could change meaning and gain new associations.
How such a process of shifting meanings could work becomes clear when looking at the toga. Augustus and his direct successors are mostly shown in a ‘magisterial’ role, often wearing togas, avoiding too monarchical an image. But these were restyled togas, given shape under Augustan rule, double-layered like priestly garments. It was a new style of dress that was strongly embedded in traditional clothing. On the Ara Pacis relief (Figure 1.11, above) Augustus and his family are dressed in the new toga with rich drapery, whereas non-imperial figures wear the simpler old toga.Footnote 175 So though the imperial family is presented as traditionally Roman, it is a new kind of traditionally Roman. Moreover, the very fact that the Julio-Claudian emperors were so often depicted togate created associations between this new toga and emperorship – ultimately making it a symbol of monarchy.Footnote 176
Whether, where, and accompanied by whom an emperor wore the toga became an indication of his style of rule, hence the comments in our ancient authors that Nero received senators in a ‘short, flowered tunic’, ‘transgressing custom’ in the process. Domitian was overly fond of showing his status and not only gained the right of wearing ‘triumphal garb whenever he entered the senate house’ but did so accompanied by twenty-four lictors.Footnote 177 During the civil war that followed Nero’s reign, the emperor Vitellius (69) apparently had to be dissuaded from ‘entering Rome as if it were a captured city’ and changed from his general’s cloak and arms into ‘a senator’s toga’.Footnote 178 The toga clearly indicated the magisterial role of the emperor. It would continue to do so for centuries to come. The emperor Julian is still praised for walking to the senate house ‘clad in the toga praetexta, in the kind and colour of his own dress not much different from his magistrates’.Footnote 179 Yet, that very praetexta was purple-bordered, incorporating a colour that was increasingly linked to imperial power. There was, of course, a difference with the toga purpurea that Caesar had worn, which was wholly dyed, or with the toga picta, which was purple with decorative embroidery.
Depicting a togate emperor could indicate his regal status alongside his magisterial role. On an over life-size statue of Caligula, now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, traces of purple are found in the fragments of ancient colouration that can be seen through microscopic examination (Figure 1.13).Footnote 180 Caligula showed his colours on permanent display. This fits well with a story that the emperor had king Ptolemy of Mauretania (20–40), who was the grandson of Mark Antony and thus Caligula’s second cousin, killed because people at Rome paid too much attention to his ‘purple cloak’. Local princes could wear the toga, but no longer apparently wear regal colours in Rome, for this suggested competition.Footnote 181
Such shifts were neither instantaneous nor absolute. Microscopy of a life-size marble statue of a certain Gaius Fundilius from the first half of the first century shows that he was portrayed in the toga praetexta at the sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis; a public location about 20 km northeast of Rome.Footnote 182 Wearing the toga never became a unique imperial prerogative – it was rather a symbol of Roman citizenship. But certainly in the Greek east, it also became linked to emperorship. The first portraits of togate individuals in the east, especially with the toga covering the head (capite velato) in a sign of piety, were erected during the time of Augustus. These were portraits of the emperor and was a new kind of imagery in the Greek east, coinciding with the introduction of sole rule.Footnote 183 Inevitably, this linked the symbolic meaning of the toga to the new political situation.
Around the beginning of the third century, a new toga was introduced (the so-called stacked toga) probably to distinguish between high-ranking magistrates and the increasing number of Roman citizens who could wear the toga. In the very late fourth century, yet a new shape of toga was developed to set apart members of a re-defined elite from other toga-wearers.Footnote 184 High-ranking magistrates, priests or those singled out for special honours would also continue to be shown in purple-bordered togas throughout Roman history.Footnote 185 This shows that although the use of the colour purple was of great importance for recognition of the emperor, this did not rapidly lead to an imperial monopoly of the colour. Private individuals, too, continued to wear purple, if they could afford it and did not mind the smell because Tyrian-dyed purple was made from shellfish. The poet Martial (38/41–101/104) could joke that a certain Philaenis stank so much that she wore ‘garments dipped in every kind of purple’ to drown out her own smell.Footnote 186 Yet even if private individuals could wear purple, only few if any Romans are likely to have had a slave for purple garments like the empress Livia.Footnote 187 Later, in the second century, Suetonius writes how Nero forbade the use of Tyrian-purple dye, and stripped a matron in the audience who wore purple all the same at one of his recitals ‘not only of her garments, but also of her property’.Footnote 188 The story may well be apocryphal, but it shows a strong perceived link between purple and imperial power.
Increasingly, there seems to have been the expectation that the emperor dressed in purple, according to his rank, to set him apart from the rest of society. Marcus Aurelius may have privately remarked that his ‘father’, Antoninus Pius did not care about the ‘colour of his clothes’, but his tutor and friend Fronto still wrote that Marcus and his father were ‘bound to wear purple and crimson’.Footnote 189 In the sculptural reliefs on Trajan’s Column in Rome, the emperor was highlighted for the viewers, who had to recognise him from a distance, by using purple paint.Footnote 190 When, almost a century later, a more ornamental imperial dress code was formalised under Diocletian, the new praxis of placing precious stones on dress and shoes and wearing a gold-brocaded robe was contrasted to an earlier time in which ‘the emperor’s insignia comprised only the purple robe’ (in chlamyde purpurea).Footnote 191
The complaint shows how strongly purple had become associated with imperial power – as we already saw in the use of porphyry for imperial statues and monuments.Footnote 192 It also shows how the notion of a modest emperor retained its attraction. The new situation under Diocletian was contrasted with an idealised past. This went against historical reality. Emperors had worn and been depicted in sumptuous clothing long before Diocletian. Caligula is said to have worn ‘embroidered cloaks covered with precious stones’, Nero wore ‘white clothes woven with gold’ (and was buried in them), Commodus ‘silk woven with gold thread’ and ‘the toga and arms of a gladiator finished in gold and jewels’, and Elagabalus is said to have alternatively worn ‘a tunic made wholly of cloth of gold, one made of purple, and a Persian one studded with jewels’. Gallienus allegedly appeared in ‘a purple cloak with jewelled and golden clasps’ and ‘wore a man’s tunic of purple and gold’.Footnote 193 These are moralising stories by later authors about emperors who transgressed senatorial norms.Footnote 194 But they indicate how extravagant dressing had been a way to show superiority well before Diocletian, even if it was negatively commented upon at the time.
The above-mentioned emperors chose to show themselves in a way that differed from the established (senatorial) norm. That was commented upon and their individual reputation suffered. But in doing so, these emperors influenced popular perceptions of possible imperial dress. After Caligula’s heavily embroidered cloaks with gems, clothing that was ‘merely’ embroidered would have appeared much less extravagant than before Caligula. In this way, imperial dress that contravened conventions changed the possibilities that later emperors had. Luxurious clothing became more normalised every time an emperor chose to show himself dressed in silk, gems or purple and gold embroidery.Footnote 195 Moreover, Roman private dress grew increasingly elaborate and it is no surprise that imperial dress changed with it.Footnote 196 It was apparently unproblematic for Marcus Aurelius’ wife Faustina to own ‘silken gold-embroidered robes’.Footnote 197 On the so-called Severan Tondo, a small wooden panel painting now in Berlin, Septimius Severus and his family are shown in luxurious garments of gold and precious stones (Figure 1.14).Footnote 198 Over time, depicting the emperor in sumptuous clothing shifted from a challenge to convention to an acceptable choice of representation. This shows how the range of imperial representation changed over time, even if emperors could still be attacked on an alleged fondness for luxury.
Diocletian’s reforms, it seems, validated a practice that had been long foreshadowed. That did not make it meaningless. From the fourth century onwards, specific attire was increasingly used to differentiate between on the one hand emperor and dignitaries, and on the other the rest of the population. Certain items of dress were even used in legal text as synonyms for the rank they indicated, such as the laticlavum as shorthand for senators.Footnote 199 Such formalisation also applied to imperial dress. Imperial robes were more closely defined and could only be worn by the emperor. Purple became an imperial prerogative, possibly linked with the boom of porphyry for imperial portraits, sarcophagi and palace architecture.Footnote 200 The right purple attire defined the emperor, as an anecdote from Ammianus Marcellinus about the fourth-century usurper Procopius (365–6) shows: ‘because a purple robe could nowhere be found, he was dressed in a gold-embroidered tunic, like an attendant at court, but from foot to waist he looked like a page in the service of the palace; he wore purple shoes on his feet, and bore a lance, and a small piece of purple cloth in his left hand’.Footnote 201 Procopius did not recover from such an inauspicious start. The passage shows both how important specific imperial dress had become, and the intrinsic link between emperorship and purple. This becomes clear, once more, in a decree of Theodosius from January 424, included in the Justinian Code, which explicitly states that all people ‘shall abstain from the possession of that kind of material which is dedicated only to the Emperor and his household’.Footnote 202
Apparently, the imperial household included officials whose type of dress often included purple elements. They, like the late antique emperor, are often portrayed in a chlamys, an ankle-length cloak fastened with a brooch. The imperial chlamys was purple and gold, with a bejewelled brooch; officials had a white chlamys with purple panels and a so-called crossbow brooch. The similarity of dress denotes the dignitaries as dependent on the emperor for their office.Footnote 203 On the so-called missorium of Theodosius, a massive commemorative silver plate from 388, this is illustrated by showing the emperor giving documents to a kneeling official, both in similar clothing (Figure 1.15). There is no mistaking who was emperor. Theodosius is enthroned, flanked by his co-rulers Valentinian II (375–92) and Arcadius (395–408), and wears a diadem of pearls. He is substantially larger than anyone else, and an inscription on the plate reads ‘Our Lord (Dominus Noster) Theodosius, emperor forever (Perpetuus Augustus)’.Footnote 204
Likewise, the officials standing next to the emperor Justinian on a famous mosaic in the San Vitale at Ravenna (ca. 544–8) (Figure 5.1) are dressed like the emperor, though in a white and purple chlamys whereas the emperor wears purple and gold. Justinian is instantly recognisable through his clothing, crown, centrality, and the halo surrounding his head. The official nearest the emperor is probably his great general Belisarius – the commander responsible for the reconquest of Italy in Justinian’s campaign to reunite the Roman east and west (535–54) (Map 2.1). On the other side stands Bishop Maximian of Ravenna (499–556), richly dressed but not competing with the emperor in attire.Footnote 205 Christian imagery, however, had no difficulty with appropriating imperial dress: a fifth-century mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome shows king David depicted diademed and dressed in a purple chlamys, just like he is illustrated in the sixth-century Sinope Gospels manuscript from Syria (Figure 1.16).Footnote 206 Christian martyrs, too, are often portrayed in a chlamys with a crossbow brooch, though this echoes the image of members of the earthly imperial court rather than that of the emperor, perhaps signposting the position they would hold in heaven.Footnote 207
Like we saw with the toga, the associations that the chlamys held changed over time, becoming intrinsically linked to imperial power. In doing so, the chlamys lost some of the military connotations that it had previously held. In 382, senators were still legally forbidden to wear ‘the awe-inspiring military cloak (chlamydis terrore)’, within the walls of Constantinople, and obliged to instead wear ‘sober robes’, or a toga at public occasions.Footnote 208 This recalls Tacitus’ above-cited anecdote about Vitellius changing from a general’s cloak (paludamentum) into toga before entering Rome.Footnote 209 In fact, in his mid-sixth-century On the Magistracies of the Roman Constitution, John the Lydian notes the similarities between the chlamys and the paludamentum, which was worn by senior officials and army generals. Many Greek-writing authors in antiquity simply used chlamys as the straight translation of paludamentum.Footnote 210 This is yet another example of how apparent changes, like the formalisation of the purple chlamys as imperial dress, were embedded in much earlier modes of representation. The paludamentum had been linked to imperial power for a long time and the purple (or white) general’s cloak, interwoven with gold, had become the exclusive indication of an emperor on military service already in the early empire.Footnote 211After all, if it was important to recognise the emperor in a civilian setting, it was all the more so in a military context. On the battlefield, one needed to know who the emperor was without any hesitation. There, emperors dressed to impress, as a contemporary account of a campaign by the emperor Aurelian (270–75) in the turbulent third century shows:
Aurelian … drew his army up in full battle order to intimidate the enemy. When he found the units arranged to his satisfaction, mounting a high speaker’s platform, and donning a purple robe he arranged the entire force around him in a crescent. He also placed beside himself any officers who had been placed in any command, all of them on horseback. Behind the emperor were the standards of the elite units – golden eagles, images of the emperor, and plaques showing the names of the units picked out in gold letters – all held aloft and displayed on poles sheathed in silver. With everything so arranged he ordered the Juthungi to enter. The ambassadors, when they beheld this spectacle, were struck dumb with astonishment.Footnote 212
But being so visible on the battlefield could be problematic, as an anecdote about Septimius Severus during the intermittent civil wars at the beginning of his reign (193–7) makes clear. In the fight against his ultimate rival Clodius Albinus, Severus is said to have ‘slipped from his horse and fled, managing to escape by throwing off the imperial cloak (χλαμύδα τὴν βασιλικὴν)’.Footnote 213 Occasionally, it was better for an emperor not to be recognised.
Denoting the Emperor (2): The Importance of the Crown
In 44 bc, Antony’s offer of a diadem to Caesar was highly problematic. By the time of Constantine, diadems were included on imperial portraits as a matter of course, with Gregory of Nazianzus mentioning ‘crown and diadems’ as obvious attributes of imperial power.Footnote 214 Of course, crowns had been indicative of power throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond well before Roman times. Depicting rulers with a crown or diadem was a traditional way of depicting monarchs that most Romans will have been aware of – even if monarchy had not been easily acceptable at the time of Caesar.Footnote 215 In that sense, the inclusion of a diadem to manifest Roman emperorship simply showed that emperorship itself had become unproblematic. Even so, Constantine’s continuous use of the diadem could still be criticised, although implicitly.Footnote 216 The shift towards this general acceptance once again illustrates the importance of recognisable symbols to express a new situation, the shift in the meanings of these symbols over time, and the importance of precedent in the way these meanings shifted.
The first major shift in the meaning of the crown in the Roman world preceded emperorship. Pliny the Elder (23/24–79) clearly states that ‘in ancient times crowns were presented to none but a divinity’. Later, those involved in sacrifice ‘began to wear them’, followed by those ‘employed in the sacred games’, ‘warriors when about to enjoy a triumph … after which it became the custom to present them at our games’.Footnote 217 The historical accuracy of the passage is not terribly important. What matters is that in the early principate there was still a strong perceived link between the crown and divinities, and the awareness that there was a range of occasions at which people could wear various crowns, if only temporarily. Consequently, there was a wide variety of crowns, which created sufficient ambiguity for early emperors to be depicted with a crown but still claim to stick to tradition.
This, in fact, seems to be what Caesar tried to do when he gained the right to wear at all times the laurel wreath for triumphal generals (corona triumphalis) (Figure 1.2, above).Footnote 218 Laurel wreaths had connotations beyond the military – they were linked to Apollo and the Pythian Games – and indicated gallantry as well as victory.Footnote 219 It may have seemed a safe symbol. Augustus also used headgear with traditional Roman connotations, and effectively appropriated the civic crown (corona civica). This was a wreath made of oak leaves that was reserved for a Roman citizen who had saved the life of a fellow citizen by killing an enemy who had captured that fellow citizen. After the civil wars in which Augustus came to power it was argued that the new ruler had saved all fellow-citizens, and was therefore allowed to hang a corona civica above the door of his house.Footnote 220 This made him clearly superior to anyone else in Rome, but through traditional, and therefore acceptable, symbolism. As with the toga, adoption of the oak-and-laurel wreath by the emperors influenced how these wreaths were perceived and linked them to imperial power. For the corona triumphalis this became somewhat formalised, since already in the early principate holding a triumph became a privilege of the imperial family. Yet there were other variants of the laurel wreath (especially the corona laurea) which continued to be worn by soldiers and magistrates during rituals, or were given to victors at games. They could even be included on the funerary images of private individuals, such as the Egyptian Fayum portraits of local members of the elite.Footnote 221
There is an apparent contradiction in arguing that specific symbolism became closely linked to the emperor, while noting that non-imperial individuals continued to be shown with the same symbols. What this suggests, however, are two linked trajectories. The first is that imperial associations functioned like fashion. Because the imperial family was depicted in a certain way, it became attractive to be similarly shown. This pattern has been firmly established for hairstyle, clothing and jewellery, with elite men and women following innovative imperial grooming.Footnote 222 Emperors, it seems, were looking for an acceptable visual vocabulary to distinguish them, but in doing so, they made it attractive for others to be similarly attired. This may lie behind the introduction of new styles of togas under Augustus and at the beginning of the third century: earlier variants were no longer sufficient to set the emperor apart.
The second trajectory is one in which emperor and empire became increasingly linked. The toga and laurel wreath gained imperial connotations but also retained a connection to being a Roman citizen. This was during a period in which the Roman empire kept expanding. New territory was added until well into the second century. More and more subjects gained citizenship, up to the universal grant of citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire in 212 (the so-called Constitutio Antoniniana).Footnote 223 Being a Roman citizen was increasingly near-synonymous with being a subject of the Roman emperor. Consequently, the lines between symbols for Rome and symbols for the emperor became blurred, certainly in the provinces or for those who had only recently gained citizenship.Footnote 224 And because the very symbols that were chosen to denote emperorship were embedded in Roman traditions, it was often difficult to separate the two.
An analysis of the headgear with which Roman emperors are represented on coins shows just how dominant the image of a wreathed ruler was on Roman central coinage (Graph 1.2). A couple of points stand out. First, on coins emperors were usually depicted with a laureate crown. Up to the reign of Septimius Severus, oak wreaths were occasionally included on the reverse of coins, with a legend in or surrounding the wreath, but only coins of Augustus and Galba show the emperor wearing an oak wreath.Footnote 225 Instead, the standard way of showing the emperor numismatically was laurel-wreathed. How rapidly the association was established even in the further reaches of the empire becomes clear from a change in the portraits of Nabatean kings. Already in the Augustan age, these started to be shown with laurel wreaths instead of the traditional diadem, as a sign of obedience or an attempt to link themselves to Augustan authority. In either case, it shows that the laurel wreath had become the established headgear of imperial power.Footnote 226 This is substantially different from what can be seen on statues. Out of the 277 surviving emperor portraits with some sort of headgear that have recently been assembled in the RIPD, 115 show the oak wreath (corona civica). These are portraits of almost all Roman emperors from Augustus to Severus Alexander, and also of Constantine, Theodosius, and some third- and fourth-century rulers who cannot be identified with certainty.Footnote 227 The emperor was depicted differently in the various types of sources available, as we already saw with the imperial name and portrait. Again, it is likely that local commissioners of statues were crucial in deciding how exactly the emperor was portrayed, rather than that one standardised image was simply reciprocated throughout the realm. Local interests and conventions played their roles. Possibly, the prominence of the corona civica in statuary can be also explained by its abundance. The oak-leaved wreath, especially with an incorporated medallion (corona etrusca: Figure 1.17) set the emperor apart from private laurel-wreathed individuals.Footnote 228 On central coins this was not necessary, as only members of the imperial family would have their heads on coins.
A second point that stands out when looking at imperial headgear on coins is the prominence, especially during the third century, of the so-called radiate crown: a spoked band, tied at the back. Such a crown, with its obvious solar imagery, carried divine connotations. The image of a monarch with rays extending from his head was used by Hellenistic kings to associate them with the sun god.Footnote 229 In coins from the Roman republic, only Sol wore a radiate crown. Yet, an alternative variant was introduced on imperial Roman coinage as a new attribute for the deified Augustus. That made it an accessory for a god (Divus Augustus) who had closely associated himself with the sun god Apollo when he had still been a living man. The radiate crown, in fact became a mark of deified emperors.Footnote 230
Because it was so clearly depicted tied at the back, the Roman radiate crown looked somewhat similar to the laurel and oak wreaths with which living emperors were portrayed on coins. This made the new radiate crown a sort of hybrid between a divine attribute and an honorific crown.Footnote 231 That, in turn, made it an interesting symbol for emperors who wanted to more openly show their superiority. The radiate crown oscillated between a divine and an honorific object, and had been worn by emperors – even if only deified ones. It was therefore an attractive attribute to depict Nero, especially since that emperor strongly associated himself with Apollo.Footnote 232 Possibly, the comparatively conventional numismatic image of an emperor with a radiate crown crossed over into more extravagant Neronian monuments showing the emperor with a solar crown.Footnote 233 Once it was worn by a living emperor, it became less problematic for later emperors to be shown with a radiate crown. Even changes in imperial imagery that may have drawn criticism at the time normalised that imagery – especially if later emperors refrained from the more excessive Neronian solar imagery. Vespasianic coinage displayed the radiate crown without apparent controversy.
Acceptance may have been boosted by linking the message to the medium. From Nero onwards, the image of an emperor wearing a radiate crown became the standard way to denote double value of coins. The dupondius (double the value of the as), the antoninianus (introduced at the value of two silver denarii under Caracalla), and the experimental double sestertius introduced by Trajan Decius (ad 249–51) all showed the radiated imperial portrait to indicate the double denomination (Figure 2.1, below).Footnote 234 With the radiate crown technically indicating the value of a coin, it became entirely straightforward for the ruler to be so depicted. The increase of radiated portraiture during the third century to a large extent follows the increased usage of the antoninianus. That did not wholly take the symbolism away. The larger number of images of emperors with radiate crowns coincides with greater prominence of the cult of the sun god Sol Invictus, and more inscriptions in which emperors are addressed as invictus.Footnote 235 People systematically saw their emperor shown similar to Sol and that had consequences.
The third noticeable point when looking at the development of headgear on coins is the sudden shift towards diadems under Constantine. He is still occasionally portrayed with a radiate crown on his coins and medallions until well into his reign (Figure 1.18). This may be unsurprising considering the close association between Constantine and Sol, which precedes the emperor’s emphasis on Christ as his preferred deity.Footnote 236 The emperor was probably also depicted with a radiate crown on a porphyry column in the centre of Constantinople. But the new numismatic image became that of the emperor wearing a diadem; an image that was not seen on coins before and would be wholly dominant in the later-fourth and fifth century. From Constantine onwards, the diadem became a clear addition to the imperial image – and one that was unique to emperors. The image was not instantly established. First depictions of Constantine’s diadem are much less ornamental than the final version, which was heavily decorated with jewels. Especially these first versions are often compared to diadems of Hellenistic kings.Footnote 237 It is, however, worth noting that the simple band also has clear similarities to the laurel wreath, and that depictions of the final version of the Constantinian diadem are not miles apart from sculptural depictions of elaborate oak wreaths (Figure 1.17, above). Moreover, there had been earlier Roman rulers who wore diadems (aside from Caesar, who had refused one) as surviving portraits of Nerva, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, Elagabalus and Valerian show without any doubt (Figure 1.14, above).Footnote 238 Titus, Elagabalus, Gallienus, Diocletian and Maximian are alleged to have worn diadems by ancient literary sources, all of which criticise them for doing so.Footnote 239
Empresses, too, had been presented wearing the diadem (or stephane) well before Constantine, even on coins and medallions from at least the second century onwards.Footnote 240 Images of the diadems on coins for the Augustae Helena (Constantine’s mother) and Fausta (Constantine’s second wife) are very similar to those of earlier empresses. Instead, the diadem of Aelia Flaccilla (379–386), the first wife of Theodosius, is a carbon copy of that of her husband. On these coins, Flaccilla is also depicted wearing the paludamentum (or chlamys). It seems that these attributes had by this time come to denote emperorship in such an abstract sense that empresses, too, could be associated with power in this fashion. Cloak and diadem became standard elements in the coinage of later Augustae, indicating the authority of the imperial household.Footnote 241
The shift from laurel wreath to diadem was a substantial innovation. It may well have been influenced by eastern images of rulership – especially those of the Sasanian court – with which inhabitants of the eastern part of the Roman empire were increasingly confronted, and may possible even have made people think of Alexander the Great.Footnote 242 It certainly created, for the first time, an unequivocal point of reference to distinguish the imperial family from everyone else. But it was still a symbol that developed from established practice – not just local eastern notions of rulership, but also the longstanding habit of depicting Roman emperors with some sort of ornamental band around their heads. The adoption of the diadem by Constantine and his successors shows that it had become unproblematic to depict absolute rule. Yet the meaning of the diadem had shifted substantially from the time when Caesar refused one. It is likely that for many fourth-century viewers, the diadem was now associated with Roman rule, more than with Hellenistic monarchy.
Denoting the Emperor (3): The Sceptre
Imperial names, portraiture, clothes and crown all developed over time as symbols of imperial power. They helped to set the emperor apart from others in his empire and to make him recognisably the emperor. An attribute not mentioned by Gregory of Nazianzus but also strongly linked to emperorship was the sceptre. Analysing the appearance of this attribute in both imperial and non-imperial imagery suggests again how Roman emperorship was given visual shape by the use of traditional objects and concepts and how this continued to blur the lines between imperial and non-imperial imagery throughout Roman history. It also shows how the connotations of traditional attributes changed through imperial use, and how emperorship changed by the use of accessories with strong historical and religious connotations.
For the Romans the sceptre was strongly linked to supreme power. It was a relic of the royal age, and primarily an attribute of the gods. Like many powerful props, it made people think of Hellenistic kingship. When Cicero, in the late republic, tried to sketch a stereotypically negative image of the Egyptian king Ptolemy XII Auletes, he described him as ‘sitting on his throne, with his purple and sceptre and all the other ensigns of royal authority’.Footnote 243 The dominant association, however, will have been with the gods. Only divinities, most dominantly Jupiter, are depicted with sceptres on Republican statuary and Roman coins up to 44 bc. When Caesar’s head appeared on Roman denarii, a sceptre was included, but on the reverse, held by Venus.Footnote 244 Perhaps unsurprisingly, in real life priests held sceptres, too, as did consuls (the ivory staff or scipio eburneus) and triumphing generals, indicating that their authority was divinely sanctioned.Footnote 245
This made the sceptre an obvious symbol of Roman power in more generic terms. Foreign kings whose position was sanctioned by Rome were often given a consular ivory sceptre, something which was a sufficient source of pride to depict it on local coinage. Under the emperors the praxis of giving staffs to foreign rulers continued well into the sixth century, with late antique authors describing both staffs of silver and the consular staff.Footnote 246 Through the Roman sceptre, local kings showed how the greater power of Rome endorsed their position. From Augustus onwards, the emperor embodied that greater power, something which was made visually clear by having an imperial portrait as sceptre-head, on the sceptres of friendly kings, but also on sceptres that were held by priests throughout the empire.Footnote 247
The sceptre as a symbol of (peaceful) transference of power was recognised throughout the wider ancient world. There is a range of classical texts that were also referred to by Roman authors describing how divine or regal succession was indicated by handing over the sceptre.Footnote 248 The precise connotations of the object may have been different for people from different parts of the empire, but the link to the transfer of power would have been obvious to all. This meant that sceptres also remained a powerful symbol for taking up major magistracies. Consuls continued to carry sceptres, mostly the traditional Republican eagle-tipped variant (with strong connotations to Jupiter) but also sceptres crowned by one or more imperial portraits – probably to render tribute to the emperor who had effectively appointed them.Footnote 249
Like other apparent imperial insignia – such as the wreath or purple robe – sceptres were not unique to the emperor, nor were emperors consistently depicted with a sceptre. But emperors were already portrayed holding a sceptre in the early empire. Between 19–4 bc Augustus is shown with a sceptre on central coinage, as is Tiberius on coins from 13–14 ad. Both images are in the clear context of a triumphal procession, an occasion at which sceptres were traditional. Yet, living triumphators had not before been placed on coins. Similarly, a coin from 22–3 ad of a togate Tiberius, seated on the magisterial curule chair and holding a sceptre depicts the emperor as a consul, who had the formal right to hold the sceptre. But it is clearly visually linked to a coin type minted in the same year that shows the deified Augustus seated in front of an altar, wearing a radiate crown and holding the sceptre (Figures 1.19–1.20). It also strongly recalls Republican coin types of Jupiter holding the sceptre.Footnote 250
Even if it is possible to argue that the living emperor was only holding the sceptre in a traditional context, the overbearing image is one of absolute authority, establishing a direct link between the ruler, his deified father, and the supreme god of Rome. This same message, even more direct, can be found on a number of imperial gems. The famous Gemma Augustea (Figure 1.21) and Grand Camée de France leave little doubt that the emperor is depicted in the guise of Jupiter. There is debate about the exact date of the two gems, and they were hardly as public as central coins. These massive gems were so expensive that they will only have been displayed in very elite settings, by people close to the imperial family – if not part of it.Footnote 251 Such limited accessibly means that these gems (like other high-value objects, such as the above-mentioned ivory diptychs) will have had little impact upon a wide audience. Still, they form (once again) evidence for the inclusion of monarchical or even divine notions in the repertoire of imperial imagery from the very beginning onwards.
Emperors would continue to be portrayed in their triumphal role throughout Roman history. Persisting to depict the emperor holding a sceptre in one role normalised the inclusion of the sceptre in other situations. Likewise, showing deified emperors with (or near) regal attributes or like Jupiter as a matter of course made it easier for living emperors to be similarly portrayed. This will have increased the associations between the emperor and the supreme god. Only statues of emperors closely resembled those of Jupiter, enthroned or as a standing nude figure with a hip-mantle and holding the sceptre.Footnote 252 This was one way in which emperors could be distinguished from anyone else. Only they were depicted on statues or coins holding a triumph or in the guise of Jupiter.
This link between ruler and god became yet another mode to express supremacy. Our ancient literary evidence suggests that it was used by rulers who ignored senatorial norms, especially Nero, Domitian and Commodus. All of them used Jovian imagery. There are statues of Nero that visually melded the emperor with the god, including a full-length statue of Nero as Jupiter. Domitian’s dining hall on the Palatine was known as the banqueting hall of Jupiter, and the court-flatterer Martial described a cult statue of Jupiter that took its likeness from the emperor. Martial may have been exaggerating, but under Commodus coins and medallions of Jupiter Iuvenis show a god whose eyes and beard closely resembled those of the emperor.Footnote 253
But these ‘bad’ emperors were not the only ones to be somehow linked to the supreme god. Ovid already equated the house of Augustus with that of Jupiter, and the loyalty of the emperor’s subject with human devotion to Jupiter.Footnote 254 This is poetic flattery, but a series of denarii that were struck just before the battle of Actium (31 bc) includes a pair which assimilates (the then still) Octavian with Jupiter. One obverse shows the head of the young ruler with the reverse a herm of Jupiter, with thunderbolt, and the legend Imp Caesar. The other obverse shows the head of that herm, again with thunderbolt, but clearly with Octavian’s features. The reverse shows Octavian on the sella curulis, holding a Victoriola.Footnote 255 Under the emperor Claudius, the recognisably older face of the emperor was placed on a semi-nude body holding a sceptre. In his other hand Claudius holds a libation dish rather than a thunderbolt, but the presence of an eagle, sacred to Jupiter, removes any doubt that this is the emperor in a Jovian form. A contemporary cameo shows a similar image, but now the emperor holds a thunderbolt (Figure 1.22).Footnote 256 Such an association between the most powerful man on earth and the supreme god was obvious throughout the empire, and several Greek inscriptions describe Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius and Domitian as Ζεύς. There is a boost in the number of inscriptions connecting emperor and god under Hadrian, who travelled extensively in the Greek world, and is frequently named Όλυμπίος in local inscriptions, occasionally even in Latin texts.Footnote 257
For Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan, the link was established in a different way in two much-discussed relief panels on the Arch at Benevento (about 50 km northeast of Naples). One shows Jupiter holding out a thunderbolt, the other Trajan accepting it.Footnote 258 This stops well short of equating emperor and god, but sends the message that Jupiter supports Trajan’s reign – a notion that Pliny also put forward in his Panegyric.Footnote 259 People in Rome and in the provinces increasingly referred to the emperor as supported or even elected by the gods, especially from the late-first century onwards, when there was a long period of so-called adoptive emperors, whose dynastic claims were more difficult to express.Footnote 260 The strongest expression of such divine support was formulated during the Tetrarchy, in which the rulers took on the signa Jovius and Herculius – a sort of nickname through which they claimed personal association with the god, or declared their loyalty to him.Footnote 261
The Jovian aspect of the emperor, then, seems to have somewhat increased over time, although it had been present from the very beginning. None of this made the sceptre into a very specific imperial attribute. Approximately 15 per cent of all coin types minted with the emperor on the obverse show a sceptre, but if one looks at who holds the sceptre, there is no real discernible pattern over time (Graph 1.3). Up to the Christianisation of the empire, there are personifications, deities, emperors, and members of the imperial family holding the sceptre; after Constantine the deities disappear.Footnote 262 The implication of many of the coins is that the divinities or personifications support the emperor (whose face is on the obverse of the coin) with their divine power, or even transfer it to him. Actual images of the sceptre being handed over to an emperor are rare. They only really developed in the third century, when imperial legitimation became a real issue because of the many military, economic and political difficulties. Divine support for the emperor became increasingly important, and the handover of the sceptre by a god a powerful way to visualise that message on coins.Footnote 263
Alternatively, the globe was used as a symbol to make the same point. There are also depictions of sceptres topped by orbs, which seem to be held only by gods and members of the imperial family.Footnote 264 Possibly, sceptres topped with busts (of emperors and gods) were reserved for consuls and praetors with responsibility for the games, but they were also held by personifications of the Genius Senatus. The eagle-tipped sceptre continued to be held by both emperors and consuls. Ultimately, attempts to classify sceptres into specific categories are complicated, especially on coins where it is occasionally even difficult to see if someone holds a long sceptre or a spear. In statuary, the hand-held objects are often lost.Footnote 265 Nor is there a very systematic differentiation of types of sceptres in Roman literature. Still, Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) specifically records the eagle-tipped sceptre when describing the Roman triumph in his late-antique encyclopaedic Origines.Footnote 266 There was, at least, some continuous awareness of the backgrounds of different sceptres, though it is unlikely to have been widespread, nor did it stop consuls from being depicted both with eagle-tipped and with bust-topped sceptres.
It seems that the primary meaning of a sceptre as a token of (divine) power remained unchanged throughout Roman history. More specific connotations with consulship, Hellenistic kingship, triumphs and processions did not disappear altogether, but seem to have become of lesser importance. This facilitated a major shift in the depiction of sceptres after Constantine, in the Christian empire. Effectively, the sceptre became a cross. Pope Leo the Great (440–61) makes the point explicitly in one of his surviving sermons: ‘the Lord carried the wood of the cross which should turn for Him into the sceptre of power’.Footnote 267 As the sceptre had always been about transference of power, the change was one of shape rather than of meaning. The construction of the so-called labarum will have helped the change. The labarum commemorated Constantine’s vision of the sign of the cross the night before he won his important battle at the Milvian Bridge against his opponent Maxentius (306–12). It showed how Constantine was protected by Christian support in his attempt to gain sole control of the empire after the Tetrarchic experiment had effectively failed. Constantine’s contemporary Eusebius described the labarum as ‘a long spear, overlaid with gold [which] formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it’.Footnote 268 The iconographic similarities between a standard topped with a cross, and the long sceptres topped with globes, portraits or an eagle are apparent. Fourth-century images on coins of emperors holding this cross-tipped standard often show them with Victory on a globe in the other hand, strengthening the association (Figure 1.23).Footnote 269
Over time, the imagery shifted to emperors holding a long cross or cruciform sceptre. Alternatively, the reverse of coins showed Victoria holding a long cross, or a cross on a globe.Footnote 270 A regularly issued reverse type of a cross in a wreath similarly suggested that Christian piety sanctioned imperial power. Crosses became extremely common on imperial coinage, as symbols on emperors’ helmets or clothing, hand-held objects, or simply added to the figure of an emperor or empress on obverses.Footnote 271 Like earlier images of sceptres, they were never uniquely tied to emperorship, but continued to express divine support. In an analogous way, the image of the triumphing emperor in a quadriga was Christianised by adding a ‘hand of god’ to the iconography, reaching down from heaven to show how the Christian god guaranteed imperial triumph. The same hand of god is seen on fifth-century coins crowning various empresses, with the cross within a wreath or Victoria holding a long cross on the reverse (Figure 1.24).Footnote 272 Existing imagery was adapted and appropriated to transmit a message that was in practice a conventional one of divine election, although the god who did the electing had changed.
The Creation of an Imperial Image?
At the end of the fifth century, the magister militum (the highest military commander) of the western Roman empire, the Germanic general Ricimer, effectively ruled the west (461–72). He did not claim imperial power, but controlled a series of puppet emperors.Footnote 273 One of these was Libius Severus, also known as Severus III (461–5), who was not recognised as emperor by the eastern emperor Leo I. Yet looking at coins struck for this ruler in the west, his relative impotence and contested status were invisible (Figure 1.25). On the obverse, we see the emperor with cloak and jewelled diadem. The accompanying legend names him D(ominus) N(oster) and Aug(ustus). On the reverse, he stands holding a long cross in one hand and a Victoriola on a globe in the other. Severus III may not have had much power, but he was portrayed as emperors had come to be, with the relevant name and trappings of power. At first sight, the contrast to the early image of the emperor Augustus is pronounced. That, after all, was a ruler who had full control of the empire, but was usually depicted bare-headed or wearing a simple oak- or laurel wreath. Statues and reliefs mainly show him in a magisterial toga, and he only holds a sceptre on coins depicting him in a specific triumphal setting. It seems, then, that a clear image of emperorship developed in late antiquity, which was far removed from the ‘Republican’ imagery of the early empire. Yet that is only part of the story.
For almost all elements that are included in the coinage of Severus III, or in very similar images of fifth- and sixth-century usurpers and established emperors, were already part of the (visual) vocabulary of the early empire. Clearly, use of these elements became less contested in the course of time, mainly through repeated exposure. Elite authors had criticised emperors like Caligula and Gallienus for their use of precious stones and purple and gold clothing but are silent about Justinian’s ornamental dress. The diadem which Cicero had associated with the Alban kings and eastern monarchs had become a sign of Roman rule. After all, when subjects had sufficiently often seen radiate crowns linked to deified rulers, it became easier to accept these for living emperors. And even if that drew criticism, as Nero experienced, it still linked ruler with attribute and in doing so normalised use. The individual ruler may have faced disapproval, but the image still circulated throughout Roman territory – and not all in the empire will have disliked what they saw, or have known that others (for instance the senatorial elite) disliked it. In that sense, there were only temporary failures in centuries of experimenting in how to make the Roman emperor instantly recognisable. These were often problematic for individual rulers, but allowed emperorship to develop further. Moreover, there were enormous variations in imperial imagery from the very beginning. Local traditions and medial conventions influenced how emperors were depicted. In various contexts even the Julio-Claudian emperors could be described or depicted in a much more monarchical way without difficulties, as large imperial gems or portraits from Roman Egypt abundantly show.Footnote 274 The enormous variation of imperial nomenclature in which names and titles were abandoned in one context but continued in another also shows the inherent risk in looking for an official imperial image, let alone a uniform one.
Some developments can still be traced. The increase of ‘Republican’ titles when Vespasian founded a new dynasty, the surge of military images and names in the so-called crisis of the third century, the sudden appearance of the diadem during Constantine’s reign, or the appearance of the cross and hand of god, alongside the title of Dominus Noster in the Christianised empire show how certain images and ideas were promulgated and adapted to make political and religious change comprehensible to Roman subjects. Similarly, the way in which certain symbols for Rome and its rulers became linked shows how images and concepts expressed an increased equation between emperor and empire. Neither promulgation nor equation were strictly top-down processes, nor linear ones. And these shifts in the imperial image inevitably made use of pre-existent notions and expectations, whether by adhering to ‘physiognomic consciousness’ (or even Hellenistic notions of royal appearance) or by adding symbols to well-known iconography. This did not ‘overwrite’ earlier meanings but added a layer. As Ovid aptly phrased it: ‘everything changes, nothing perishes’.Footnote 275 The monarchic or divine connotations that many attributes of power held in the Mediterranean world did not disappear by their incorporation in imperial imagery. Emperors could continuously be characterised positively or negatively by referring to these meanings of accessories. Thus, Constantine’s choice of ‘adorning his head with a diadem at all times’ was frowned upon, whereas Julian was praised for wearing an almost magistrate-like toga in contemporary panegyric.Footnote 276
In many ways, the development of the image of Roman emperors was a search for a way to make the supreme position of the emperor recognisable in an acceptable way, through tools that were already available in one form or another. It cannot be sufficiently emphasised that emperorship as such was never unambiguously defined, other than by the name Augustus. Over time, the range of options which emperors and the inhabitants of the empire had to portray the ruler extended as previously less acceptable modes of representation became normalised. At the same time, there was some sort of congruence in what were typical imperial attributes. The much-discussed ceremonial reforms of Diocletian were a confirmation of practice, rather than a watershed. They did not end the variety of imagery. Honorius could still be flattered by naming him princeps, when dominus noster had become the norm. The philosopher and bishop Synesius of Cyrene (c. 370–c. 413) still credited unceremonious emperorship instead of the contemporary practice of wearing sumptuous clothing and celebrating major ceremonial occasions.Footnote 277 Expectations of how emperors ought to be described and portrayed continued to differ regionally, medially and between social groups, even when typically imperial modes of representation, with diadem, purple cloak and standardised facial features solidified. Very few typically imperial features, the diadem excepted, were unique to the emperor. One reason why imperial images – such as the imagines clipeata (portraits on shield-like frames) or the ruler’s image on a toga or sceptre – may have been added to consular diptychs is to make sure that people did not mistake the highly decorated seated figure holding a sceptre for the emperor.Footnote 278 For many people, the Roman emperor would always remain a distant figure, far removed from their daily life. Synesius suggests that there were people in Ptolemais (a city in the northeast of modern Libya) ‘who suppose that Agamemnon, the son of Atreus, is still king, the great king who went against Troy’.Footnote 279 Even if this story is unlikely, it shows how widely different the perceptions of emperorship in the Roman empire could be. No image would encapsulate the many different views and expectations of rule. Trying to trace the development of this image over time shows how various views were continuously embedded in existing symbolism. It also shows a tension between attempts to formulate and visualise emperorship in one identifiable way, and the widely differing expectations of what an emperor should look like and be.