A group of dignitaries facing the Roman emperor. Luxor Temple, Egypt.
A group of dignitaries facing the Roman emperor. Luxor Temple, Egypt.

Face to face with Roman emperors in late antiquity

In the 4th century, Roman emperors were regularly addressed with laudatory speeches written by talented orators. What do these laudatory speeches tell us about the expectations that the fourth-century Roman elite had of the emperor's leadership? Historian Dennis Jussen studied these speeches in the period 248 to 395 to find out. He will defend his thesis on 7 June.

In 1977, before being sworn in as president of America, Jimmy Carter decided to walk the mile and a half from the Capitol to the White House with his wife and daughter. By doing so, he wanted to show that, as president, he was not above ordinary people. Several subsequent presidents followed his example, including Bill Clinton in 1993, George Bush in 2001 and 2005, Barack Obama in 2017, Donald Trump in 2017 and Joe Biden last year.

This strategy is not new, as historian Dennis Jussen's research into panegyrics from the period between 284 and 395 shows. A panegyric is a speech of praise held for the emperor during festive occasions, in the presence of a high-ranking audience. Skilled orators created widely recognised images of the emperor in their panegyrics, but could also express certain expectations of his leadership.

Laudatory speeches as a historical source of research

‘We are lucky that some of these speeches have survived. After all, they were meant to be recited and not read back afterwards', Jussen explains. 'But some speakers chose to publish their speeches.' A famous panegyric is that of politician Pliny the Younger on the emperor Trajan. In the year 100, Trajan visited the city of Rome for the first time in his reign. ‘In his speech, Pliny emphasises Emperor Trajan's positive attitude towards the Senate', says Jussen. ‘Trajan had never abused his position as emperor, not even when he entered the city. On the contrary, Trajan never thought of riding in a chariot pulled by four white horses. He preferred to make his entry on foot, surrounded by his colleagues. An emperor who is loved by his people needs no bodyguards, this was his reasoning according to Pliny'.

For his research, Jussen compiled a digital dataset based on Greek and Latin laudatory speeches. With this dataset Jussen could – among other things - investigate how the emperor's appearance was used as a means of praise. 'Orators linked certain virtues to the emperor's facial features and thereby emphasised the role that the emperor should play', Jussen explains. The eyes, in particular, were given a prominent role: flashing eyes symbolised the emperor as a military leader, all-seeing eyes emphasised the emperor's almost divine status, and calm and moist eyes represented the emperor as a good administrator.

Changes in the 4th century

In the 4th century, there were some changes in the emperorship. The Empire could be ruled by several emperors, and the emperors stayed outside the city of Rome more often. ‘Because these were power structures unknown to the people, they had to be formulated in laudatory speeches in familiar terms', says Jussen. An orator who wrote a laudatory speech for one of the four rulers in 297, for instance, solved this by calling the four rulers the four lights of the world, in which the acclaimed emperor figured as the sun.

The Gallic orator Pacatus wrote a poem of praise for the arrival of the emperor Theodosius in the city of Rome. He found inspiration in Pliny the Younger's poem of praise for the emperor Trajan, who was popular in the 4thth century. Like Trajan in Pliny's speech, Pacatus presents Theodosius walking among the senatorial elite. Jussen: 'When Theodosius was presented as entering Rome, it was explicitly said that he did so on foot, moving in the manner of a senator. Pacatus' depiction of Theodosius walking in the footsteps of Trajan is an excellent example of how a late antique orator invoked a traditional model of emperorship from the past to normalise an exceptional political situation in the present. At a time when there was hardly an emperor left in Rome, Pacatus gave a clear signal: Rome was dealing with a new Trajan, an emperor with deep respect for the Senate.'

Directed photo

In order to successfully communicate their own agenda and that of the community they represented to the emperor and the present audience, 4th-century orators therefore had to explain their expectations of imperial leadership in familiar terms. This is why imperial eulogies were full of references to themes and figures from the mythological and historical past, and allusions to messages and images in imperial art. The elements chosen by the orator were determined by his cultural background and the material at his disposal, but even more so by the immediate context in which his speech took place. ‘You could say that the result was a directed photograph of a model (the emperor) from the perspective of the photographer (the orator), who in many ways tried to take into account various factors such as light (the events immediately preceding the eulogy) and composition (the place where the orator spoke and the audience present)', says Jussen.

Dennis Jussen will defend his thesis entitled Facing the Roman Emperor in Late Antiquity: Contemporary Expectations of Political Leadership in Imperial Panegyric on 7 June from 2.30 pm.

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