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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: June 2012



Within classical greek culture perhaps no poems were more venerated than the Iliad and the Odyssey. Because of their prestige, these Homeric epics soon became revered texts for religious mythologies and political ideologies. In the Roman empire the citation of a single verse from the Iliad still offered an opportunity both to comment on political affairs and to shape them. The Iliad had once described a challenge to king Agamemnon's leadership over the Greek coalition that was resolved with the assertion that he had received his scepter directly from Zeus. In the early first century the emperor Gaius alluded to this dispute when he announced that “there should be one ruler and one basileus.” In its immediate context, a quarrel among bickering client kings, this citation seemed quite relevant, since the emperor was clearly establishing his priority as the dominant basileus, “king.” Yet in a larger context Gaius' citation of this Homeric verse was also quite disconcerting, because the legitimating ideology of the newly established emperors had emphasized their restoration of the old Roman Republic, whose own political ideology had always opposed the revival of a kingship. Gaius' use of this quotation was hence openly supportive of his imperial authority and implicitly subversive to the prevailing Republican political ideology.

Eventually basileus became the standard Greek term for “emperor” in the eastern provinces, and people could cite this verse without concern for its overtones about kingship. Yet this Homeric verse retained its potentially challenging implications.

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