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

2.4 Image

In the city of Rome the emperor glorified his relationship with the provinces. Here you will consider how the emperor was exalted in the provinces. It was impossible for the emperor to be seen personally by all his subjects and so methods were employed to publicise his face and name – to overcome geographic distance by making the emperor familiar to his people. Standardised images of the emperor – on statues, busts and coins – were widely copied and placed in prominent public locations.

Exercise 3

To explore these and some additional methods you should now watch ‘The emperor in the provinces’, below. This video sequence examines how the face and name of the emperor were promoted in the provinces.

You may find it useful to refer to the map showing the provinces of the empire (Map 1 from Experiencing Rome, below) and the statue of Augustus (Plates 1 and 2).

Please click to view the map [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . (PDF, 1 page, 0.4 MB)

Please click to view Plate 1 Marble statue of Augustus, found in the Via Labicana, Rome. The head is covered, suggesting Augustus' role as pontifex maximus. After 12 BC, height 207 cm. Museo Nazionale, Rome. (Photo: Alinari). (PDF, 1 page, 1.7 MB)

Please click to view Plate 2 Detail of Plate 1. (Photo: Alinari). (PDF, 1 page, 2.3 MB)

As you watch note the major ways in which the image of the emperor was presented in the provinces.

Emperor and empire (part 1; 9 minutes)

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Transcript: Emperor and empire - part 1

The extent of the Roman empire - its sheer scale and diversity made communications difficult.
It could take months to travel from place to place and letters or messages could equally take weeks to reach their destination. Cicero who corresponded from Rome with his son in Athens noted that letters took 3 to 7 weeks to arrive.
How was this distance between Rome and the provinces bridged? Focusing on the symbolic rather than the physical aspects of communication, we’re going to explore the role of the emperor as a unifying force.
Ancient Rome, like its modern successor, was cosmopolitan, the hub of the empire. Despite the difficulties of getting there, people from all over the known world travelled to the city and in return the city provided them with experiences drawn from all its empire.
For the inhabitants of Rome, the empire was a spectacle displayed to them by their emperor. And it was in the emperor’s interests to remind the inhabitants of the glories of empire and present himself as world ruler.
The empire was present in Rome through a variety of media - some subtle, some more blatant. In the arena were beasts and strange creatures transported to the city from around the empire, for display and slaughter; and also put to death were captives and prisoners of war.
Scenes like these, representing the latest conquests were also carved in stone and used to decorate the buildings and monuments of the city; providing a more lasting physical symbol of the glories of both emperor and empire.
These grandiose imperial structures also drew upon architectural designs and building materials from across the empire.
Quarries like Chemtou, in Tunisia supplied Rome with the building materials that lined the walls and floors of these new buildings. In the Pantheon, the luxurious Numidian yellow marble was set in the floor. It was surrounded by a whitish marble with purple veins from Turkey, and encircled roundels of red porphyry from Egypt.
The massive grey granite columns supporting the porch of the Pantheon are also from Egypt, with capitals and bases made of white Greek marble. Egypt provides a graphic illustration of how a particular province impacted upon the physical appearance of Rome.
During the early days of the empire the ancient culture had been a source of intrigue, so its defeat and annexation by Rome was a cause for celebration.
A few private citizens of Rome adopted Egyptian designs. This funerary monument, in the shape of a pyramid, was constructed during the reign of Augustus to commemorate the public official Gaius Cestius Epulo.
But original Egyptian artefacts were also imported to Rome and set up in prominent locations. This small obelisk now placed upon the back of an elephant carved by Bernini may have originally stood in the temple to the Egyptian goddess of Isis located in the Campus Martius.
Also found in the Campus Martius was the obelisk used by Augustus as the pointer for his huge sundial. It was accompanied by an inscription, commemorating the defeat of Egypt, in the reign of Augustus.
Since obelisks were already ancient monuments, hundreds of years old, their removal from Egypt and their incorporation into the cityscape of Rome physically symbolised the conquest of the province. The splendours of the ancient civilisation now belonged to the emperor and to Rome.
The emperor who appropriated these treasures ruled the world and the extent of his empire was displayed on huge maps.
We know from literary sources that Augustus commissioned a plan of the world to be set before the eyes of the city. Although the original does not survive, these 20th century versions, set up by the Fascist regime, suggest how maps writ large could themselves be monuments, reminding all who saw them of the size and extent of their empire.
The Augustan map may well have been the pictorial equivalent to the Res Gestae, the lengthy biographical epitaph of Augustus. This monumental inscription, also recreated by the Fascists, includes sequences describing Augustus’ expansion of the empire.
But the emperor’s role as a warrior and world conqueror was most powerfully expressed through trophy monuments.
The emperor celebrated military victories by “triumphs” or parades that followed a set route through the streets of Rome.
The triumphal arches or ceremonial gateways were set up along the triumphal route, recording the successful campaigns and promoting the image of the victorious emperor.
Although only a few survive today, one famous example is the arch of Titus, actually constructed after the death and deification of the emperor in AD 81. On the underside of the arch his figure is carried heavenward by an eagle.
The inscription records that the arch was set up by the Senate and people of Rome to divo Tito - the divine Titus, son of the divine Vespasian.
Beneath the inscription a frieze depicts the triumphal procession which Titus had celebrated with his father the emperor Vespasian in AD 71 following the defeat of the Jews.
The reliefs carved on the inner walls of the arch record the details of the triumph. On one side the plunder from the sacking of the Great Temple of Jerusalem is displayed - the silver trumpets and the seven branched candle-stick. The placards carried by the troops may have been painted with the names of the defeated cities and peoples.
On the other side, in a chariot drawn by four horses, rides Titus and on his right, a winged Victory holds a wreath over his head.
Crowning the archway are more winged Victories, this time with their feet resting on globes - symbolising the degree of the Emperor’s control over much of the known world.
End transcript: Emperor and empire - part 1
Emperor and empire - part 1
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Emperor and empire (part 2; 6.5 minutes)

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Winged Victories were a common motif on triumphal arches and are also found on the triple arch at the edge of the forum.
This honoured the emperor Septimius Severus and his sons. The arch was set up in AD 203 to celebrate victories in Parthia. Again, the sculpture depicts scenes from the campaign, showing Roman soldiers and Parthian prisoners.
Similar scenes of victory and conquest are found on the fourth century arch of Constantine.
Another form of commemoration was the monumental column. The most famous of these was set up to record Trajan's successes against the Dacians.
The base on which the column stands depicts heaps of Dacian arms and armour. An inscription records how the column was dedicated to Trajan and marks height of the hill that had to be removed to build Trajan’s forum.
The column, with its spiral reliefs, stands more than 38 metres high. A statue of Trajan would have originally stood on the top, where the figure of St Peter now stands.
On the spiral reliefs are images and scenes from the wars. The emperor addressing his troops; battle scenes; Dacian prisoners; and of course more winged victories.
This later column of Marcus Aurelius is similar in design. It celebrates his campaigns north of the Danube.
But whether on column or arch, the purpose of such displays was the same - to stress the might and power of the emperor, to present him as an all conquering ruler of the world.
The depictions of barbarians and other Roman enemies might have been formulaic but their similarity must have helped to define and unify those who saw the monuments as Romans.
And, whatever the origins, it was as Romans that those who lived in the city shared in the success and the fruits of empire.
Triumphal arches, columns, maps, objects or materials appropriated from the provinces all brought the empire to Rome, celebrating the extent and diversity of that empire.
And symbolising the power and control of the emperor who brought peace, stability and glory to Rome.
Expansion of the empire might bring glory to individual emperors but maintaining the existing territories and established provinces was just as important. The Emperor’s presence and influence had to be felt beyond Rome but clearly he couldn’t be everywhere at once.
Some emperors did visit parts of their kingdom but often in connection with military campaigns. The Emperor Hadrian travelled extensively across the empire, but more for diplomatic reasons and because of his own curiosity.
In Athens, he was impressed by the ancient city and became a major benefactor. In Britain, to mark the northern limit of the province, he decreed the building of the huge wall.
The coins minted in Rome and elsewhere celebrated his travels, recording where he’d been and what he’d done.
Personifications of the provinces, like Africa and Judaea, are shown greeting the emperor.
Coins could also celebrate military conquests. This one issued, under the emperor Vespasian, shows two Jews, in mourning beneath a palm tree. It celebrates the capture of Judaea.
This coin marks the Emperor Claudius' invasion of Britain. It shows the triumphal arch erected in Rome to celebrate this victory.
Coins could also be used to commemorate the completion and dedication of important buildings in Rome, like the Colosseum, which was built and dedicated under the Flavian emperors.
But above all coins carried personal likenesses of the emperor and members of his family, throughout the empire. Encircling each emperor were his titles and offices, legitimating his power.
The images and text on coins combined to represent virtues and powers which the emperor wished to stress:
and Victory.
Of course it’s quite reasonable to ask just how far people were aware of these images. Coins once in the pocket may be little studied and the miniature pictures little noted.
But even if it only operated on a subliminal level the image and texts on coins must have been a constant reminder of just who was in control.
End transcript: Emperor and empire - part 2
Emperor and empire - part 2
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Emperor and empire (part 3; 6 minutes)

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The emperor’s personal appearance was also promoted through statues which were set up throughout the empire.
This magnificent bronze statue of Augustus is from Athens.
We may question how closely this image resembled the true appearance of the emperor but such statues created a sense of dignity which could be admired and respected by onlookers.
Nor is it always possible to judge who funded such statues. Did the Athenians receive official encouragement to set up the statue, in order to place the image of the emperor in the public eye? Or was it a spontaneous gesture by Athenians who were eager to publicly express their loyalty?
Whether Rome and the emperor intervened directly in this case, standard statue types were widely available. This meant that even those who’d never seen the emperor could still reproduce his likeness. This statue of the Emperor Augustus, found in Rome, shows him with his head covered in the guise of a priest.
This second statue is from Corinth. There are differences - the angle of the face, the quality of execution and in the details of the drapery. The overall impression created is very similar. Two parts of the empire were thus united by a shared image of the emperor.
The emperor’s name was also promoted. The Imperial name was often connected with gifts of amenities - everything from theatres and aqueducts to defensive walls or it was inscribed on grand buildings, dedicated to the emperor as a sign of allegiance by local communities.
Here at Chemtou in Tunisia are the remains of a bridge, which was dedicated to the emperor Trajan. The accompanying inscription lists his titles, reminding the inhabitants of his power and authority. It also highlights the relationship between the emperor on the one hand and the province on the other. Trajan might be in Rome but his presence was felt in Tunisia
In Athens the emperor Hadrian funded several structures including the new library complex. At the same time, Athenians were honouring the emperor in dedications on buildings like this monumental gateway.
This recalls the triumphal arches found in Rome and the construction of gateways in provincial towns was often associated with members of the imperial family. These arches at the entrance to the forum in Pompeii may well have been dedicated to members of the ruling dynasty.
In Thugga this monumental gateway was dedicated to Severus Alexander. The evidence of such gateways, placed at the entrance to settlements or other key locations, is a powerful indication of how town's inhabitants aligned themselves with Rome and the emperor.
Many of the statues and buildings which recalled the emperor and stressed his relationship with the provincial towns were placed in a religious context. At Thugga the pediment of the temple to Jupiter is decorated with a relief that records the apotheosis of Antoninus Pius. The emperor is carried heavenwards to take his place among the gods The divine descent of the emperors past and present was celebrated in specially constructed cult centres throughout the empire. Many towns such as Ephesus, in Asia Minor, had temples which were dedicated to the emperor and Rome.
In Athens, during the reign of Augustus, a small round temple was built on the Acropolis.
And in Britain, following the invasion, a temple was erected in Colchester. Although a later fort now stands on the site, it helps to illustrate the size and scale of the original temple which acted as an equally imposing symbol of Roman domination. Here the worship of Claudius was encouraged to promote loyalty among the inhabitants.
Through buildings, statues, temples and coins, each succeeding emperor was represented to his subjects across the empire. The images helped to create an illusion of familiarity with and even accessibility to his person. So the emperor could be both physically distant yet ever present, remote but familiar, uniting the people of his provinces through the shared currency of the Imperial image.
End transcript: Emperor and empire - part 3
Emperor and empire - part 3
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The video sequence focuses on both the visual and verbal means that were used to promote the emperor in the provinces. Busts, statues and coin images recorded the likeness of the emperor and could associate him with certain attributes. So the emperor might be represented as a priest or a soldier, while on coins his image might be associated with military victories and conquests or idealised virtues. (For further discussion of this, see Experiencing Rome Essay Two, pp. 42–4.) The name of the emperor was recorded through inscriptions which could also list his official titles and authority. Inscriptions might accompany statues and portraits but were often associated with buildings and structures. These might be funded by the emperor, who was thus recorded as a benefactor providing a gift to the local community; or the buildings might be dedicated to the emperor by local communities. An important avenue for promoting the name and image of the emperor was the imperial cult. Through buildings and rituals the relationship between emperor and provincial was placed in a religious context.

The image of the emperor was promoted in the provinces through multiple methods. Additional areas not explored in the video include further elements of the emperor's role as a benefactor. For example the emperor might fund local shows or gladiatorial contests, or he could elevate the status of a community or reward elements of the population with Roman citizenship. Such actions might be commemorated by inscriptions and those who gained citizenship under a given emperor normally adopted elements of the imperial nomenclature as their own. But above all such actions indebted the populace to the emperor and promoted loyalty to his name and image.

Promoting the name of the emperor entailed benefits to both sides. It was to the emperor's advantage to gain popularity and support, but it could also benefit the local community to gain imperial favour. It is often difficult to reconstruct the specific circumstances behind certain actions such as the erection of statues. Did the emperor dictate that these should be set up? Or was it a spontaneous gesture from the provincial community? Often the reality probably lay somewhere between the polarity of an enforced action and a voluntary one. Both sides knew the benefits to be gained and the power that was associated with the face and name of the emperor.


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