Ancient History & Civilisation


Another factor that influences the evidence as a whole is related to the autocratic and authoritarian nature of the late Roman state. We may reasonably suppose that major political and social issues were subject to debate and discussion, as they are in most societies, but open dissent was not encouraged, or even tolerated, by those in power. We thus find the extremes of praise and vituperation, but little between them by way of measured discussion. Among the most important sources for the history of the period are panegyric speeches or poems, which present the character and actions of emperors and high officials in the most flattering terms. It is tempting to dismiss them out of hand as unreliable, but when their context, rhetorical style, and habits of omission and exaggeration are taken into account they emerge as critical historical sources for many aspects of high politics. Key works in this genre are the twelve Latin panegyrics, which were probably compiled by the Gallic orator Pacatus, and were prefaced by the younger Pliny's lengthy panegyric for the emperor Trajan (I). Apart from Pacatus' own work of 389 in praise of Theodosius I (II), this includes speeches for Maximianus in 289 (X, by the elder Cl. Mamertinus) and 291 (XI), for Constantius the father of Constantine in 296 (VIII) and 298 (IX), for the marriage of Constantine and Fausta in 307 (VII), for Constantine in 310 (VI), 312 (V), 314 (XII), and 321 (IV, by Nazarius), and for Julian in 362 (III, by the younger Cl. Mamertinus on his own appointment to the consulship). The earlier works are indispensable for a historical reconstruction of the tetrarchy and the rise of Constantine.6 The other side of the coin during this period is found in the polemic satire of Lactantius' On the Deaths of the Persecutors, probably written around 314. This blatantly partisan and distorted account of the tetrarchic period nevertheless preserves in recognizable form a kernel of historical accuracy in relation to major policies and initiatives of the period.7

There is a substantial number of later panegyric works. The speeches of Themistius are critically important for our grasp of the political history of the Roman state in the fourth century. Themistius belonged to the first generation of public men who grew up at Constantinople. He played a key role in building up the status and authority of the Constantinopolitan senate in the late 350s, and rose to become prefect of the city under Theodosius I. Throughout this period he was a close advisor to the emperors from Constantius to Theodosius. Many of the speeches he delivered in their presence offer a subtle exposition of imperial policy on major matters, including pagan-Christian relations, foreign affairs, and taxation policy. It was clearly not the purpose of these speeches to offer the speaker's personal views on these high affairs of state, but to publicize and argue for policies that had essentially been formulated, after consultation, by the emperors themselves. Themistius was thus a spokesman for the regime. The general tone is not dissimilar to that of speeches delivered today at the US party conventions during a presidential campaign, or at party-political congresses. That is, they present a simplified and rhetorically powerful case for controversial policies within a wider framework which praised the emperor and argued or implied that he was the ideal ruler to carry them through. Although Themistius was not a Christian himself, this proved no obstacle to his dealings with Christian emperors, and his entire career suggests that the atmosphere of public life in the eastern capital was much less concerned with religious differences than we would suppose from Christian authors of the period.8

Themistius' counterpart and contemporary was the rhetorician and teacher Libanius, who spent most of his career in his native Antioch. His students were mainly from the city-based upper classes of the eastern provinces, and many of them aimed at careers in state service. Libanius' prolific correspondence (over 1,000 letters survive) documents the network of contacts that he maintained, and illuminates the role of this highly educated middle class and its impact on contemporary civic life. His pupils were as likely to be Christians as pagans, but the cultured education (paideia) which he offered was entirely rooted in the classical tradition.9 Libanius' speeches have a more parochial perspective than those of Themistius. They relate to society and politics at Antioch, drawing attention to local and regional issues, rather than high imperial policy. Some of these, including those written after the riot of the statues in 387, when the city faced potentially devastating punishment by Theodosius, were cast as direct appeals to the emperor, but it is not clear that they were actually delivered to him. The young Julian had been prevented from attending Libanius' lectures at Nicomedia in the late 340s, but the two came into close contact when Julian stayed at Antioch as emperor in 362–3, and five of Libanius' works are panegyrics in his honor. The longest and most important of these, a virtual biography from a passionate pagan admirer, is the funeral oration.10

It is appropriate at this point to mention the works of the emperor Julian himself, as these are a key to his motives and personality. Julian had acquired both a pagan and a Christian education, and stood squarely between the two traditions. More than any other works of the period, his private letters, longer tracts, such as the Letter to the Athenians, the Letter to Heraclius, a Cynic philosopher, and occasional pieces in many genres, illuminate the cultural and religious outlook of the eastern provinces in the middle of the fourth century. He alone offers a view of the Roman world, which takes in both the Christian and non-Christian perspectives.11

While he was Caesar Julian himself contributed to the panegyric genre, writing two speeches in praise of the emperor Constantius and one for his wife Eusebia, although it seems unlikely that any of these works, which are by no means straightforward encomia, were delivered in the presence of their subjects and it is unclear for what audiences they were originally intended. The Caesares, purportedly a humorous piece devised for recitation at the festival of the Saturnalia, was written in the tradition of the Greek satirist Lucian. It portrays a banquet on Mount Olympus at which the gods pass judgment on Rome's rulers, with Alexander the Great added for good measure. Marcus Aurelius, Julian's philosophical predecessor, is voted to be the best emperor, while Constantine is mocked and belittled in terms similar to those found in the pagan historian Zosimus: Constantine had turned to Christianity because Jesus offered forgiveness through baptism for the sins of pleasure-seeking and incontinence to which he had been addicted. Julian's most famous work, the Misopogon (“Beard-hater”), was another parodic and apparently self-mocking defense against the scurrilities and abuse which he had encountered during his stay in Antioch. A new study of the speech argues that it was delivered on his departure from the city, that the hostile relationship between Julian and the people of Antioch remained unresolved, and that several of Libanius' speeches relating to Julian should be read as retrospective attempts to assuage the differences between the city and the emperor.12

The most notable exponent of the panegyric tradition at the end of the fourth century was the Egyptian poet Claudian. Like the historian Ammianus he broke away from his Greek-speaking background to write Latin hexameter poems in praise of the emperor Honorius, the generalissimo Stilicho, and other leading political figures of the western empire; devastating attacks on Rufinus, the prae­torian prefect of the East, and his eunuch successor Eutropius; and verse accounts of the wars against the usurper Gildo in Africa and Alaric the Goth.13 Claudian's work was clearly an inspiration to the versatile and highly talented Sidonius Apollinaris, whose letters, collected and published in nine books, illuminate the preoccupations of the cultured landowning society of southern Gaul between c.460 and 480, poised in their allegiance between the Roman Empire and the barbarian kingdoms. Sidonius, who ended his career as bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, was the last Roman poet of the West who wrote with complete mastery of the high tradition of classical Latin poetry. He wrote substantial verse panegyrics for the emperors Avitus and Majorian, as well as occasional poetry, which shows virtuoso mastery of several metrical genres.14

Two panegyrics in praise of Anastasius are particularly important, as no substantial historical narrative survives for his reign. Priscian, from Caesarea in Mauretania, was an active teacher of grammar and rhetoric in Constantinople and wrote a Latin verse panegyric for the emperor in 503. This celebrated his victories in the Isaurian wars and his generosity in peacetime, notably the abolition of the tax known as the chrysargyron, when the records of debtors were burned in the hippodrome. Its prose counterpart is the classicizing work of Procopius of Gaza, written in Greek, which compared the emperor to great figures of the Greek past.15

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