The repute and reality of being a Roman emperor
The repute and reality of being a Roman emperor

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The repute and reality of being a Roman emperor

1 The emperor and his subjects

The image of Augustus as a good emperor persisted after his death. This was due at least in part to the success and thoroughness of his own image creation. But it also reflected the interests of his immediate successors. The Julio-Claudian emperors (so named because they were connected by blood with Julius Caesar or the Claudian family of Tiberius – see the family tree in Wells, pp. 64–5) claimed power by descent and thus it generally assisted and justified their own position to celebrate Augustus and his achievements. To a degree this was true not just of the Julio-Claudians but all subsequent emperors. This is not to say that Augustus was above criticism in the centuries that followed his life (for example, see Tacitus, Annals 1.1–1.4, and Essay Two in Huskinson, p. 44); but to condemn Augustus outright would be to condemn the political system he created and thus by association the living emperor.

In this course you will explore the public image of some of Augustus’ successors. Integral to this public image was the way in which the emperor treated and was seen to treat his subjects. Here you will focus on one key group – the provincials – but other key groups of subjects included the senatorial élite, the populace of Rome and the army. These groups sum up the major divisions of people with whom the emperor had to interact; in broad terms his popularity depended on winning their favour and support. These group labels are being employed for convenience and where appropriate other groups will also be considered. General labels, such as provincials, troops, people and senators, inevitably lead to a loss of individuality and you will need to remember that not all members of these groups thought the same or were the same.

Reconstructing what anyone actually thought of a given emperor is impossible, as is knowing what the emperor thought of them. The evidence often reflects idealisations or demonisations of relationships. The voices of the common people, troops or provincials are rarely found in the extant sources. This reflects, in part, both geographical and political distance from the centre of power. It is not to say that these people did not have opinions about the emperor, but these were rarely recorded or they were summarised in sources mediated through an élite perspective centred on Rome. Even when evidence such as statues, inscriptions and honorary dedications set up to the emperor by soldiers or civilians survives, it remains difficult to evaluate the rationale behind these gestures and the responses they evoked. As the geographical and political distance between people and the emperor decreases the evidence becomes less abstract. The bulk of the evidence is focused on Rome itself and the loudest voice belongs to the élite, and especially those of senatorial and equestrian status. These were men of money and education who served the emperor and some of whom wrote or commissioned diverse forms of literature, largely for the consumption of men of the same standing. Within this literature opinions were expressed and judgements passed on emperors, although when studying these it needs to be remembered that the authors often had their own political agendas or were influenced by those of others.

A particular emperor may have been, and may have remained, the hero of the common people or the troops but despised by the senatorial élite, or indeed vice versa. The possibility of a mixed response to the life and times of a given emperor is important to note since often the surviving literary accounts tend to polarise emperors as good or bad, as loved by all or hated by all. The evidence is often coloured by the objectives of the creators; we are left with a series of representations – not just of how the living emperor presented himself but how he was presented by others once he was dead. Evaluating the reign of an emperor involves not only assessing how the emperor treated others and was regarded by them, but how he manipulated the reputations of his predecessors and how his own reputation was subsequently manipulated by his successors.

Your work in this course will involve an assessment of the ways in which the emperor had contact with the provinces in particular and how and why this affected his reputation. The types of evidence available are diverse and the following sections by necessity focus only on selected aspects of this. In particular you will look at a range of literature – history, biography and panegyric. You will be introduced to the conventions of these genres and the importance of understanding the perspectives of the individual authors. In particular you will become familiar with the ancient approach to writing history, which was often very different from our own. Much, although not all, of what you consider will represent posthumous judgements on the emperors involved rather than full accounts of reigns. It will not be possible here to assess in detail the actions, policies, building schemes and so forth of all the emperors mentioned, but you should remember that literary judgements were only one aspect of the posthumous legacy left by an emperor.

The sources you will consider provide insights into the reigns of some of the emperors of the first two centuries AD. The intention is to identify general trends and thus you are not expected to learn all the dates and events associated with these emperors. You should, however, familiarise yourself with this information by looking at the list of key dates from Experiencing Rome, below. For further details on the reigns of the emperors mentioned you should refer, if you so wish, to Goodman (chapters 5, 6 and 7) or Wells (chapters 5, 7 and 9).

Please click to view key dates from Experiencing Rome [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   (pdf, 1 page)

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