Sie sind auf Seite 1von 20

Diogenes

http://dio.sagepub.com/

What was a Roman Emperor? Emperor, Therefore a God


Paul Veyne
Diogenes 2003 50: 3
DOI: 10.1177/03921921030503001
The online version of this article can be found at:
http://dio.sagepub.com/content/50/3/3

Published by:
http://www.sagepublications.com

On behalf of:
International Council for Philosophy and Human Studiess

Additional services and information for Diogenes can be found at:


Email Alerts: http://dio.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts
Subscriptions: http://dio.sagepub.com/subscriptions
Reprints: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav
Permissions: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav

>> Version of Record - Aug 1, 2003


What is This?

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 3

DIOGENES
Diogenes 50(3): 321

What Was a Roman Emperor?


Emperor, Therefore a God
Paul Veyne

The rule of the Caesars, which for 500 years held sway over an empire of 5 million
square kilometres of land, today distributed among 30 states, was very different
from the monarchies, such as the medieval and modern ones that are more familiar
to us. Before the Revolution French kings inherited a kingdom that was their familys
property; this fiction concerning family and inheritance was calmly accepted and
perpetuated with astonishing ease. Roman emperors, on the other hand, had a highrisk job; they did not occupy the throne as its owner but merely as the appointee of
the community, which tasked them with governing the Republic, in the same way, I
am informed,1 as the caliphs were appointees of the community of the devout and
with the same bloody conflicts each time the ruler changed.
Imperial power was delegated power, a mission entrusted to an individual theoretically chosen or accepted by the Roman people. Thus the succession of Caesars
seems to be a continuous chain of delegates.2 For this reason there was discontinuity between emperors, as there was between magistrates who succeeded one another
in the same post. In theory at least, the measures adopted by one leader remained
valid after his death only if his successor ratified them; Mommsen concludes that in
this respect emperors were not kings. And despite the fact that dynastic succession
was common practice, an emperor did not automatically succeed his father by inherited right: he succeeded him in his post,3 provided he was expressly invested.
In a significant passage4 J. Branger writes that the Empire may be compared to
a succession of great patriots who take on responsibility for public affairs, pass it on
quite naturally to their heir presumptive, or else win in a hard-fought battle the right
to protect their fellow citizens and the Roman Empire. This was truer than ever in
the third century, the period of the soldier emperors, but we only have to think of the
first sentence of Augustuss political testament: when I was 19, on my own initiative
and with my own resources I raised an army and liberated the Republic. If he had
the means to rise to the top, any committed citizen could aspire to become emperor
Copyright ICPHS 2003
SAGE: London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi, www.sagepublications.com
0392-1921 [200308]50:3;321;038506

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 4

Diogenes 199

in order to ensure the security of the community, provided he belonged to the senatorial nobility, the clarissimi, and was not of Greek or later German5 origin.
This doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, which remained current until the
end of the Byzantine empire, meant that the throne belonged to no one, neither an
individual nor a dynasty. The Romans notorious hatred for the word king is there
to prove it; Romans were not slaves to a master like the Greek and oriental peoples
they had conquered. The consequence of this system was that, at each change of
ruler, there was a risk of civil war; peaceful times, such as the golden age of the
century of the Antonines, were the exception rather than the rule. When there was a
major crisis and the Empire needed candidates for the saviour role, as was the case
in the middle of the third century, 17 emperors followed one another, 14 of them
were assassinated and there were around 40 usurpers, that is, unlucky candidates
who were therefore executed. Two of the Empires wealthiest trading settlements,
Lyon and Palmyra, owed their downfall to battles for the throne.
Why all this blood? Because an emperor was seen as the peoples delegate. This
was merely ideology, a fiction, since in fact this appointee had succeeded his father
or had seized the throne and the people were as we shall see later; but what was not
ideology was that an automatic rule of accession to the throne that made the choice
of successor compulsory never became established; a rule of this kind would have
offended against the all-powerful idea of the sovereignty of the people and made
Rome a kingdom. Thus all the people and the Senate could do was to legitimate
successful coups.
However, a second subconscious idea was the fear of civil war at each succession;
so it was enthusiastically accepted that the least costly solution, which was also
the most natural, should be adopted: a descendant of the reigning emperor should
follow his father or relative in his position. For the notion of family remained clear;
as a panegyrist wrote, a useless son is more willingly tolerated as a successor than
an ill-chosen stranger [non-family member]. There is no case of an emperor ruling
out his son as successor to the throne. One of the duties of every emperor was to
prepare for the peaceful handover of his throne; and the least controversial choice he
could make, a choice that few rivals would dare oppose, was to name his son (which
was how a mad Caesar Commodus succeeded Marcus Aurelius) or to adopt one,
since adoption was as obvious a bond as blood ties. During one of the worst years in
imperial history Galba hurriedly adopted Piso, Otho prepared to adopt his nephew
and Vitellius presented his son to his soldiers. If, to everyones relief, the incumbent
emperor managed to hand over power to his offspring without a hitch, this was considered the completion of a successful reign.6
So, though the emperor was chosen by the people and the Senate, he nevertheless
handed power down to his son, and people and Senate fully accepted it. And this is
understandable. Rome was a thoroughly aristocratic society and the imperial institution was in part shaped by that aristocracy and its sense of family succession.
Under the Republic the son already inherited the political clients of his father, or
rather his family, his gens; this was how a young unknown, Octavius Augustus,
inherited supporters and veterans from his adoptive father Julius Caesar and became
the first emperor. Lucan wrote: As one generation followed another the family of the
Caesars put a sword to our throat. It was impossible to imagine an emperor without
4

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 5

Veyne: What Was a Roman Emperor?

his family, his house, the domus divina. Popular opinion understood this quite well
since it attached importance to the emperors origins; the Julio-Claudian family had
held the affection of the Romans in Rome and the imperial guard, while the fourthcentury Christian dynasty held the loyalty of its army.
On three occasions, with the Julio-Claudians, the Severi and the Constantinian
dynasty, political history became confused with a familys history, its internal rivalries and its quarrels over the succession. Of 12 Julio-Claudian empresses whose fate
is known, only one escaped death or exile. It was accepted (just as the postulates of
geometry are accepted, wrote Plutarch) that in the reigning family the murder of
close relatives was legitimate in order to ensure the safety of the throne; a notion
whose application stretches from Britannicuss murder to the slaughter of relatives
that followed Constantines death, the promiscuous massacre among Christians
which Gibbon refers to.
Indeed succession to the throne was not a principle of public law but an aristocratic practice accepted by public opinion. Unlike the situation in the Middle Ages or
pre-revolutionary France, there was no dynastic institution that made the throne the
property of a particular family, which remained the same and was the object of
everyones loyalty. It was not as emperor that a leader handed the purple down to
his son but as a member of a house, a gens; so that each time an emperor was overthrown a new gens emerged from the wings with a new leader who attempted to
hand down his power to his own descendants.
And so the succession from father to son was agreed upon but still had to be
ratified by the Roman people in the same way as the takeover of power over his
legions by a general. How did this principle of the sovereignty of the people work
out in practice? How did a man become emperor? In order to understand this we
have to give up looking for public law, rules or a legal basis; there were only power
relations and success, with shifts of support and submission covered over, in the
wake of victory, by the fiction of consensus among all the citizens. Mommsen himself writes that the Caesar system was permanent revolution.7 Indeed the words
legitimate ruler were not used in Rome and would have sounded strange.
Here I shall follow Egon Flaigs theory.8 This is how it all begins: the ruling
emperor designates his son, a palace plot puts forward the son of a prefect of the
praetorian guard, a meeting of army chiefs hastily chooses a successor to an emperor
who has just died in battle or, more often, an army designates its leader by hailing
him with the title imperator. Thus the soldiers have played their part in the consensus
to come, and the other two constituent groups, the Senate and the Roman people, are
invited to back them. The Senate has no legal power to approve this choice; it can
only in its turn support the future consensus by acclaiming the candidate as imperator and august, and recommending that the consuls have him granted full powers by
the rump assembly of the people of the city of Rome; it can also refuse to go along
with the army. If the Senate chooses to support the army, the Roman people are
theoretically not obliged to follow; in fact a show of a popular election is part of the
consensus and gives the new master detailed powers; the people of Rome unanimously vote to grant the proconsular imperium, tribunician power, the office of
pontifex maximus, etc.
Thus in practice the agreement of the Senate and the army created an emperor.
5

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 6

Diogenes 199

However, none of these events, the armys then the Senates acclaim, the peoples
vote, had any genuinely legal standing; they were steps in a sham general consensus,
that mystical consensus universorum that alone represented true legitimacy. After a
bad emperors fall no one would say that he had seized power illegally or without
the Senates approval, but that he had not been acclaimed and recognized by general
consensus. The Senate was not the judge of legitimacy; it could have an emperor
appointed only when a candidate was already in the ring and this is a decisive fact
that has not been noted.9 Furthermore, unlike the armies the Senate never took the
initiative by putting forward its own candidate; it was probably afraid that it would
not find support, which would damage its prestige.
It is clear that this consensus was merely the silent or impotent acceptance of a
coup de force; thus in Rome itself ceremonies in the emperors honour, a solemn
entrance, unanimous votes, pre-arranged popular acclamations in the Circus
attempted to bridge the gulf between the ideology of consensus and the silent or
protesting majority. From the reign of Augustus to the end of the western and
Byzantine Empires, there were ceremonies during which the emperor would kneel
before the Roman people gathered in the Circus in Rome and blow them kisses.
Despite Juvenals panem et circenses the Roman populace had held on to the memory
of their official role and their claim to legitimacy; they frequently intervened in the
choice or defence of a candidate, sometimes with weapons at the ready.
The armies importance was to grow still greater in the fourth century when
emperors were created by a new group of leaders, the army commanders. They
elected the new emperor, this election by a specialist committee was ratified by the
Senate and the chorus of inhabitants of the Empire naturally agreed. St Jerome compares this to the election of bishops by the priests and deacons. Angela Pabst writes
that at that period the presumed consensus of all the citizens turned into the presumed consensus of all the soldiers, although imperial rank was seen as the highest
rank in the officer hierarchy.
And so we can agree with Tacitus in concluding that the institution of emperor
was based on the lie that emperors were freely chosen and legally confirmed. In fact,
starting from the creation of the system on the death of Augustus, his designated
successor Tiberius already had the Empire under his control; the four weeks during
which he pretended to hesitate and consult the Senate were never anything other
than the familiar charade of refusing power, designed to demonstrate that the
emperor was merely an appointee. But on the other hand this ideology was so far
from being a fiction that in four centuries two-thirds of the emperors died a violent
death, whereas regicide was extremely rare throughout the Christian Middle Ages.
The emperor had been mandated to ensure the security of the Republic, so malcontents could always claim he had not fulfilled his mission. On pain of death every
emperor had to continue to earn the consensus that got him appointed. Unlike the
kings he was never the unconcerned possessor of his power, guaranteed to remain
alive and on his throne. A pre-revolutionary king could have his misfortunes, just
like a landowner whose estate is ravaged by hail, and his subjects would be sympathetic; however, an emperor conquered by barbarians was not an unfortunate ruler
but an incompetent who had to be replaced.
Under the Empire the word Republic10 was constantly used and this was not a
6

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 7

Veyne: What Was a Roman Emperor?

hypocritical fiction. In pre-revolutionary France everyone served the king; an emperor, on the other hand, served the Republic. He did not rule for his own glory; he
ruled like a king but for the Romans glory; his conquests and victories, celebrated
by the coins minted, redounded solely to the glory of the Romans or the state, gloria
Romanorum or gloria rei publicae. In the wording on coins and in panegyrists writings,
an emperors virtue does not lie in being great or good but in saving or restoring
the Republic.
The principle of the sovereignty of the people remained in force until the end of
the Byzantine Empire. According to the panegyrists, the emperor was the Republics
champion, it was in his care and safekeeping, he was born for the good of the
Republic, in the wording of his title right up to the fourth century. The emperor was
on guard, on sentry duty, in statio; he was looking out for everyones security, looking warily around, as in the famous portrait of Caracalla.
The imperial system did not maintain its republican front through a fiction but
with the help of a compromise; the emperor could not abolish the Republic, nor did
he want to, because he needed it: without the senatorial order, the consuls, all the
magistrates who provided its spine, the Empire would have collapsed. Furthermore,
the imperial system was preferred by the majority of the nobles: it set the rules of the
game for the competition involving their career ambitions, whereas the Republic
had ended in an anarchic struggle for tyranny between a few leaders. In short the
imperial system (with one exception, to be dealt with later) depended on the senatorial nobility, at least till the third century. In addition, the senatorial families were a
power to be reckoned with; they had retained their wealth and influence on their
clientele of notables and peasants.11 The nobilitys real importance should not be
judged by the fairly weak political role played by the Senate. In Marxist parlance it
could be said that the imperial system was simply the instrument by which one class
dominated the senatorial oligarchy. This oligarchy was to remain the ruling class
for a long time since it was they who governed through the emperors, who were
forced to pay the closest attention to their presence. Indeed a compromise had
initially been signed between the nobility and the systems founder, which was
tailored for the political situation of the time and the stature of the new ruler,
Augustus, and this was continued by his successors. Unfortunately it was a botched
compromise that was to result in continuous conflict, since it was a contradiction for
the emperor to be both all-powerful and a mere representative.
Indeed the emperor was all-powerful. His power was the most absolute, complete
and unrestricted possible, undivided and unaccountable. Only self-restraint limited
this absolute power. This is explained by the Roman concept of power, imperium, the
complete and absolute power of an officer on the battlefield, who had the power of
life and death over his men and who did not distinguish between insubordination
and crime. With the imperial system this power was given to one man instead of
being shared between several magistrates. The emperor decided whether to make
peace or war, imposed taxes and undertook expenditure as he wished. Nothing was
outside his domain (he was master of public ceremonies and religious observance)
and no other power restricted his. The emperor could legislate by going through the
Senate, but he could also issue an edict or a simple decree that had the same force
as a law and was included in the body of Roman law, since every decision the
7

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 8

Diogenes 199

emperor made was legal. He consulted the Senate only at his convenience and got
from it what he wanted; and so in the end the emperors opinion seemed to be the
source of law rather than the senatus consultum that gave it legal force. It was very
quickly understood that he decided or could decide everything so every time a problem arose he was asked to get involved; for instance, when there was a gap in legal
provision (the legal protection of legacies was not guaranteed), appeal was made to
the paternal, beneficent power of Augustus to close the loophole. The emperor had
the right of life and death over all his subjects; he could have a senator condemned
to death by getting the Senate to convict him, but he could also have him executed
without this judgment, since any mans life, even an eques or a senator, was within
his discretion; when an emperor such as Caligula, Nero or Hadrian had senators
exiled or executed, these tyrannical acts were perfectly legal decisions. At the beginning of his reign each new emperor made a speech before the senators promising not
to have them put to death tyrannically and not to believe informers (in 458 a puppet
emperor, Majorian, was still saying the same thing to the Senate).
Thus the imperial system was absolutist, but based on delegation of authority; it
had a contradiction at its heart and would always give rise to problems. Professor
Wallace-Hadrill writes that the emperor was both citizen and king: he alone held real
power while pretending to be a responsible servant of the state, and this ambivalence
was the very essence of the system.12 A quotation from Tocqueville will suffice:13 To
want the states representative both to remain armed with wide powers and also to
be elected is in my view to wish two contradictory things. It is no less contradictory
to want one man to be both all-powerful and the equal of his peers: a natural inclination of the mind caused people to exalt him; the ceremonial, imperial cult and sacred
character of images of the emperor quickly set the emperors apart from the rest.
The official form of address when writing to the emperor was as follows: Signed
So-and-so, who is devoted to His Divinity and Majesty, devotus numini majestatique
ejus.
The emperors were no less conscious than their subjects of this ambivalence.
Between citizen and ruler, good and bad emperor, the gap was narrow and could be
rapidly crossed. A prisoner of his contradictory position, Tiberius could tolerate
neither adulation nor freedom of speech; he loyally tried to apply the Augustan compromise but never managed to get the wary Senate to participate actively; he ended
his reign in solitude and deadly suspicionitis. Throughout the disturbing Hadrians
reign the Senate trembled. Joseph Schumpeter wrote that the last two centuries
emperors were odd figures, on one hand lost in a role that was too complex and
on the other tipping over into neurosis, hesitating between simple humanity and
tyranny or eccentricity. This is why the imperial system never managed to become
simply self-evident to all; five centuries after Augustus there were intellectuals
chafing against the imperial system just as Tacitus, Epictetus and Juvenal had done
and earlier still the writer of fables Phaedrus.14
The contradiction we have been discussing explains the Senates paralysis under
the Empire. The conflict between emperor and Senate was not a conflict between two
powers. The reason is that, with an all-powerful emperor, the Senate could not have
a significant political role and that, even more, it did not wish to:15 this role would
have been dangerous and incompatible with its dignity. It did not wish to be what it
8

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 9

Veyne: What Was a Roman Emperor?

theoretically was, advisor to the emperor, who in any case had his own advisors.
Indeed, unlike the Kings Council at Versailles, the Senate did not consist of people
whose function was limited to their role as advisors to the monarch; they formed a
privileged caste which had its own character, ideology and class interests. Unlike the
senior imperial administrators, or procurators, who provided a personal service to
the emperor who had appointed them, a senatorial magistrate did not serve the
reigning leader or the crown, but the state and the great name of his family; a mad
Caesar who insulted a senator insulted the Republic.16 These aristocrats could not
freely advise a bad emperor, who could make them pay with their heads for their
unbiased advice, nor could they be dignified advisors to a good emperor who could,
if he wished, ignore their advice.
The solution to these contradictions was that the Senate made no decisions itself
and yet imperial policy was compatible with its views. A good emperor was not one
who would consult the Senate on macro policy, on whether it would be politic to
conquer Dacia or retreat from Mesopotamia, but an emperor who spontaneously
pursued the Senates policies without asking for the Senates opinion. Pliny put it
accurately: a good leader approves and condemns the same things as the Senate. To
pick up on a distinction that Raymond Aron liked, the senatorial nobility was a ruling class, an elite whose wishes the leader had to follow (and if he did not he risked
being overthrown), but not a governing class that itself took part in government.
And we can glimpse in the Senate a wary, suspicious attitude, complex political
manoeuvring, that may be behind many attempts to usurp the emperor.
These were the terms of the compromise: the nobility let the emperor govern and
in exchange the emperor treated the nobles as his peers without putting on the
airs of a king, while for their part the nobles treated him like a king. In fact bad
emperors like Domitian showed as much respect for the Senate as the good ones and
in exchange the senators adulation was as effusive for the good emperors as for the
bad; a senator who gave Trajans panegyric addressed the best of leaders as if he
were a superior, praising him for addressing the senators as equals. As he said with
unintended irony, Trajan is a good emperor who ordered us to be free and, since he
ordered it, so we shall.17
This possible conflict between emperor and Senate was no more about precedence, vanity, mere symbols, than about power-sharing; under good leaders the
noble chamber was scarcely more important than under bad ones.18 It was the interest of the ruling class that was at stake, a political not an economic interest, which
sensed a threat if the leader assumed the ways of a king or a living god. Of course
every senator respected monarchical ceremonial and each noble house took care to
maintain a committee within the household that was responsible for the worship of
the emperors;19 but the difference was that a good leader allowed himself to be
adored20 by his grateful subjects (the cult of living emperors arose spontaneously),
whereas a tyrant like Caligula forced them to adore him. So if the emperor began to
act like a king or a god, destroying the compromise, the nobility saw a threat to
its interest, which was to remain the ruling class. For in fact this imperial presumptuousness, if not a direct threat, was at the very least what our strategists call a
message of a threat, implying that no one would with impunity attempt to rule a
demigod. It was like when Stalin was hailed as a genius. So if the leader placed him9

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 10

Diogenes 199

self above the silent authority of the Senate, the nobility would no longer implicitly
control the situation. This was the nub of the conflict.
So let us imagine that an emperor should call himself, or let himself be called,
master and god in order to feel he was the sole master and evade senatorial control.
Or else that he should be so jumpy that his false position vis-a-vis the Senate made
him uncomfortable. Or more simply that he should mistrust the ruling class and
justifiably fear that he might be overthrown at any moment by another usurper: in
that case he would fall victim to raging suspicionitis, which Seneca calls public
madness. The round of Senate purges, judicial murders and forced suicides would
begin; under Tiberius, Claudius and Domitian there was a Terror and then again
three centuries on; false suspicions of lse-majest have always been a common
scourge, said the intelligent and truthful writer Ammianus Marcellinus.
There were three reasons for this. The idea of an opposition to the ruler, His
Majestys loyal opposition, was unthinkable. According to the Roman conception of
power, or imperium, the people chose a leader, but once the leader was appointed
they held their tongue and obeyed: any opposition was seen as high treason and it
was possible to commit treason not only by ones acts but simply by ones thoughts,
words, conversations, or just gestures21 and even dreams.22 And for any case of treason the only punishment was the death penalty; the physical elimination of political
opponents was the rule.
The second reason was that there was something corrupt in the senatorial
environment that was a law unto itself; rivalries, jealousies, everyone watching
everyone else, peers informing on one another and the most blatant23 domestic
spying were commonplace; danger was all around, a contemporary wrote. In addition the Empire, with its political police and its grasses, was what we call a police
state24 where, under the best leaders, people avoided talking politics at the table.25
But as soon as the emperor stopped governing according to the Senates wishes, a
few senators or army chiefs started to stir things up. Then informing on peers would
become the way to advancement for the informers, since emperors naturally
reserved posts as magistrates or priests for those who proved their loyalty to him in
that way. To quote Sir Ronald Symes,26 if we knew that period better, private ambitions and hatreds would probably be uncovered behind many of these betrayals,
which carried on the republican tradition of political vendettas. Tacitus and
Ammianus Marcellinus are full of those rivalries between senior dignitaries whose
consequence was to strengthen the power of the supreme ruler, as was also the case
with Nazism, since the final decision came down solely to the emperors will. Thus
jungle law among senators, the emperors suspicionitis and the consolidation of the
regime reinforced one another.
The third reason for the purges of senators was the political psychology of the
Roman ruling class; beneath their serious demeanour and their starched togas these
nobles had adventurous unstable spirits, contrary to legend. All emperors needed to
be wary of everyone and especially of their confidant, their grand vizir, Sejanus or
Plautian. There were non-stop attempts to usurp them, two during the mandate of
Antoninus Pius even. All that had to happen was that a local uprising proclaimed
some poor devil emperor willy-nilly and he, finding himself committed, realized he
had no other option but to plunge in. We can understand the frequency of these
10

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 11

Veyne: What Was a Roman Emperor?

attempts in which adventurers risked their lives, as well as those of their wives and
children, who were executed with them: in pre-revolutionary France, kings and their
subjects belonged to two different species, men were born kings and could not
become king just because they wanted to. But the emperor was a mere appointee,
anyone could aspire to the throne. This restless atmosphere and the reigning
sovereigns lack of legitimacy, combined with the absence of rules for the succession,
made political instability the dominant characteristic of Roman imperial history as it
galloped along.
In the third and fourth centuries the emperors no longer needed to puff themselves up as a form of threat (they were accompanied by their fearsome belt-bearers,
soldiers and administrators), but there was still instability and suspicionitis as well.
In the early third century, with Septimius Severus, who relied on the strength of his
soldiers more than the approval of the nobles, his natural allies, a decisive page was
turned in peoples minds and the Senate gradually slid down to the position of a sort
of Academy which the emperors, out of respect for the national tradition, continued
to treat with deference. In the portrait mentioned earlier of Caracalla as a sentry, the
emperor no longer has the serene, calm, imperturbable expression of a member of
the best society: he has a mission, that of a guard on the alert, watching over the
Empire. Henceforth the Empire would consist of the emperor, like a shepherd, the
soldiers, like guard-dogs, and the flock, which the other two are responsible for
guarding, as the emperor Julian lucidly expressed it; as for the Senate, it was ignored.
Make the soldiers rich and to hell with the rest, was the advice Caracalla had
received from his dying father; the patriotic emperors, who rose from the ranks
having been born at the bottom of the social ladder, and who saved the Empire
during the crisis of the third century, were as spectacularly and deservedly promoted as Napoleons marshals, according to Peter Brown. A mere squaddie of
humble origins who reached the summit of the military hierarchy, said Ammianus
Marcellinus of one of the two chiefs-of-staff and an advisor to Constantius II.
Since he was no longer the nobilitys leader, the emperor became master of all his
subjects, hence the famous act of 212 that by a stroke of the pen raised all the
Empires inhabitants (except slaves) to the rank of Roman citizens. Historical basreliefs and imperial portraits illustrate this politico-social change with a revealing
change of style.27 Finally around 263 a celebrated decree from Gallian prohibited the
senatorial order from taking up high command in the military and restricted this
to equestrian order alone often commoners promoted to the order consequently
barring senators from the throne itself: after him the only emperor from a senatorial
background was one Tacitus. However, civil positions remained open to the
old nobility. So eventually a kind of Napoleonic nobility of senior administrators,
both civilian and military, was formed, all of them promoted to senatorial rank
(clarissimi), although three-quarters of them did not have a seat in the Senate.
Now we come to a crucial fact that is not connected to institutions or society or
power relations, but what we must call subconscious rules that unwittingly guide
and restrain our behaviour. That is the fact that the role of emperor did not have
any rules and so remained undefined. Before the third century, when the soldieremperors personally led the armies, there was in Rome no traditional imperial role
that leaders could unconsciously follow and that restricted their bad behaviour. The
11

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 12

Diogenes 199

kings of the Ancien Rgime learnt this kind of role from the cradle and were guided
by an unspoken tradition that limited the arbitrary nature of absolute monarchies;
there were certain things that were unthinkable for a king and that was that. In Rome
on the other hand each new ruler took on a role that was as vague as it was vast. To
quote Jochen Bleicken, the leadership did not have the equivalent of the Ancien
Rgimes unwritten fundamental laws. It was probably the notion of power as
imperium that created this kind of vacuum around itself; this explains Nero, Caligula
and other capricious sultan figures, whereas the Ancien Rgime did not have any
mad Caesars; in a similar way the notion excluded the Senate from participating in
government.
A king would not need to try as hard as Marcus Aurelius did (according to his
personal diary) not to turn into a Caesar. But when you have an imperium, an unconstrained omnipotence, it is tempting to give in to all your whims. The emperors
were continually at risk of moving from affability towards the senators to the
haughtiness of oriental potentates; it was frequently said that once upon the throne
the most peaceable of men was often transformed into a despot. We can easily imagine where that temptation came from: for the mass of the population the emperor
was not a representative but a master, a being who was by his very nature superior
to his subjects; and the emperor was always likely to share that flattering view of his
person.
The emperors did not live in a restrictive environment that removed the temptation from them, quite the reverse: the imperial court only encouraged their megalomania, their superbia. Indeed the court around them had nothing but the name in
common with the royal courts of the Ancien Rgime,28 in fact it was the opposite of
them. A king surrounded by his courtiers, his nobles, lived among his peers, members of the ruling class with whom he had to make peace and before whom he had
continually to keep up appearances. The emperors, on the other hand, were not
surrounded by senators; all they did was invite some to dine. They lived among their
inferiors: their servants, chamberlains, eunuchs, friends and also freedmen and
secretaries in short, their ministry, which was probably housed in the House of
Tiberius under the present-day Farnese Gardens all of them people who were their
dependants and encouraged their excesses or eccentricities, which meant they made
themselves indispensable to their master. So at certain periods the political scene was
reduced to the dimensions of an arena for a psychodrama.
No restrictive entourage and no traditional role: there was nothing to hold back
some emperors on the slippery slope to tyranny, megalomania or at the very least
royal whims, nor to stop them interpreting the imperial role somewhat oddly; the
principle of separation that we hold dear a public figure must not mix his personal
life and his position was not prominent. Nero was an artist on the throne; with all
their sincerity Constantine, in his law-making and his speeches, and Julian, in the
works he published, speak like men with an interior life who are on the throne.
In every monarchy the rulers health and family events such as births, marriages
and mourning, are also public events; sacrifices were offered throughout the Empire
whenever the emperor fell ill. But, more than that, many of the rulers subjects felt
a genuine affection for him as a person; they were affected by everything that happened to him as they would have been with a family member. The Roman people
12

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 13

Veyne: What Was a Roman Emperor?

came to beg Tiberius not to give in to slanders circulating about Agrippina the Elder
or intervened violently on behalf of Octavia when she was rejected by Nero; after
discovering Messalinas adultery Claudius himself came to promise his men, the
imperial guard, that he would not remarry, since marriage did not agree with him.
Thus an emperor could be tempted to abuse the public position he enjoyed to extend
its privileges to his other characteristics, provided they were respectable: his artistic
talents or his personal convictions, whether they were philosophical as with Marcus
Aurelius (Christian apologists appealed publicly to this ruler as a philosopher) or
Julian, or whether they were religious.
Using this pious excuse or on an aristocratic whim, Hadrian initiated the divine
or funerary cult of the slave Antinos throughout the east. Nor did Heliogabalus
hide his piety away in the private sphere; he made his cult of the Sun the most
important of the public cults. Constantine was the most reserved. Far from taking on
the conversion of the Empire to Christianity,29 he did only two things: publicly he
chose tolerance; privately he chose Christianity as the emperors personal religion
and therefore one deserving of considerable respect, no more and no less. And this
falls outside our distinction between public and private. He made his personal convictions clear in international relations; writing to the shah of Persia as from one conscience to another, he expressed his horror of animal sacrifices. This may explain
Constantines pragmatism in the area of religion: he was conscious of having introduced as if by royal whim what was to become a state religion after his death. And
it was a religion on which this outsider bishop, as he called himself, stamped his
seal of authority: it was his.
By contrast Domitians tyranny was not a matter of the emperors subjective
beliefs but rather a certain conception of the imperial tasks, which he saw as duties.
Three things about him are well known: he allowed himself to be called master and
god, he defined himself as a perpetual censor, a position that he had invented for
himself and that he made into a kind of coat of arms on the reverse of his coins, and
finally he had made it his speciality to impose sexual morality, as Miriam Griffin30
writes; a vestal virgin was put to death for that. In my view these three things boil
down to just one; they constitute a type of power that is novel, in the West at least:
like the Chinese and Japanese empires, which were similarly moralistic, Domitian
measured the extent of his power over his subjects by their private morals. Respect
for morality, both private and civic, was often considered to be the foundation-stone
of society. But in practice private morality was confused with sexual morality: killing
or stealing were public offences. So if the emperors power went as far as his subjects
beds, Domitian was a better emperor than all his predecessors: he was the only one
who ruled over everything, for the public good.
Finally we come to the genuine mad Caesars. With them we are dealing, not
with those ham actors people see them as, but with a sublime interpretation of the
emperors role. According to them the master of the world is by his very nature a
superior being to humanity. Not only does he have a brilliant foreign policy
(Caligula, Nero and Commodus all claimed this), he has an abundance of talents. So
if he takes up singing, poetry, the circus or the arena (prestigious activities at that
time) and decides to appear in public, he will be revealed as the best performer, the
best charioteer, the best gladiator in his empire; and indeed this is what two
13

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 14

Diogenes 199

emperors, Nero and Commodus, did when they were under 20 years of age. In our
time the prince of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, who was not exactly nave, also
had an abundance of talents; he was the best writer, the best journalist and the best
film-director in his kingdom. He founded a film festival in Phnom Penh at which he
received the top prize every year. Since he was of a superior nature, the emperor was
like a god compared to his subjects, just as a shepherd is of a higher nature on the
scale of being than the animals in his flock. And so Caligula demanded to be treated
as a being endowed with a divine nature. Commodus, a truly great man possessed
of every virtue, transformed himself into a living image of Hercules with the
demigods club and lionskin. This was the politics of greatness. At that period it was
not the nation that was great but the ruler: knowing that their ruler was magnificent
had to be enough to make his subjects happy. And this led to the great utopia of the
time, which aroused many peoples enthusiasm (among them the young poet Lucan,
whom we can probably consider sincere): this unprecedented magnificence made
the current reign a golden age. In ancient times it was princes, pharaohs or caliphs,
more often than students, who put imagination on the throne.
Such a utopia was not entirely inappropriate, it merely carried to extremes the
idea of the emperor common among the mass of the population, the citizens and
provincials to whom we are about to turn. In their eyes the emperor did not resemble a representative: he was the richest, most powerful man in the world. An astonishing passage from Philo31 describes what the popular feeling was on Caligulas
accession: everyone was full of admiration for the heir to so much gold in ingots and
coins, so many soldiers, horsemen and sailors. People greeted him wildly when he
entered a town, women bystanders fell into a trance.
This feeling for the ruler does not make a distinction between omnipotence and
the man who wields it: the man is as great as his position, which is integral with his
nature. So people bowed to the individual, his family, his whims. But conversely this
veneration for the individual was automatically felt for all those who succeeded him
in the position, whoever they were. And so the emperors who were venerated in this
way were not charismatic leaders in the precise sense of the word, that is exceptional
figures, in fact they were the opposite; they were respected and loved for their power
and not for the fascination that a few of them may have held for their subjects. To
quote Fustel de Coulanges, it was not that unthinking enthusiasm that certain
generations harbour for their great men; the ruler might be an extremely average
man who did not inspire anyone and still be loved, even honoured as a divine being.
He was not a god by virtue of his personal merit, he was a god because he was the
emperor.32
That was not all: as well as their feelings the people also had their reasons. A key
passage from Josephus33 shows us that opinion had shifted and the regime fitted in
with the popular will: in the average Romans eyes, unlike a crowd of senators, a
ruler did not reduce politics to personal ambitions. The Senate had been responsible
for the terrible civil wars at the end of the Republic. The peoples spontaneous support for monarchy made the revival of the Republic impossible at the death of
Augustus and then Caligula: without popular approval the transition was too risky
and opened the door to opportunists. The population of the Empire was monarchist
through a kind of antiparliamentarianism; the power of the many was always torn
14

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 15

Veyne: What Was a Roman Emperor?

between self-interested rivalries, whereas a monarch was disinterested, a father, his


power was patriarchal. Thus, in the monarchical way, everything an emperor did
was seen as a blessing, including the most banal administrative formality, liking
granting a veteran his right to retire. The many requests addressed to the emperor,
who was the supreme judge and law-giver, often concern unimportant matters;
Fergus Millar writes that this shows the idea the people had of him: the emperor was
the father of his subjects and the fathers word was the last word in law and justice.
For these monarchist masses and the Greeks, the emperor was a monarch, a
basileus. The bond between this monarch and his subjects was expressed in the oath
of allegiance to the rulers person (and not to the Republic and its laws). Indeed
every year all the inhabitants of the Empire, Romans and provincials, swore an oath
to the emperor; each person swore that in all things he would embrace the emperors
and his familys cause, defend them with his life and his childrens lives, oppose
those they considered their enemies and denounce any act, wish or word that might
be inimical to them. I do not claim that this oath was enough to sway the attitude
of the masses, but it could only have been imposed on a population that was welldisposed towards monarchy. It had nothing in common with Roman clientelism: this
was a political pact that committed loyal subjects unconditionally to a ruling family
which they were duty bound to die for.
It is the same monarchical feeling that the cult of the emperor expresses in its own
way. This cult was nothing more than hyperbolic language and the hyperbole
chimed with contemporary discourse concerning the gods, but it nevertheless
sprang from a living source, love for the ruler and admiration for his stature. No one
took the hyperbole literally since it was impossible, then as now, genuinely to consider a man to be a god, a being who will never die. Educated men shrugged their
shoulders and the people were not fooled either: as St Augustine said, it was adulation and not belief. A decisive argument for this is that there is not a single ex-voto
to the divinity of the emperors: when people really needed supernatural aid, for a
birth, a hazardous journey or a sickness, they called on a genuine god. In private
letters the heading is usually placed under the invocation to some divinity who is
never the emperor. The objection has been raised that in the past people did not
think as we do, but what is claimed can easily be stood on its head: if they really had
been thought of as gods, the deified emperors would not have been referred to as
the god Augustus or the god Hadrian when people simply said Apollo and not
the god Apollo; granting an emperor isotheoi timai, honours equal to those of the
gods, was definitely not the same as granting him the honours of the gods.34 It is
even less true that people saw the emperors as divine men, exceptional beings like
Apollonius of Tyana or Jesus of Nazareth. The thinking of the past should be sought
elsewhere: the word god did not have the same meaning in pagan antiquity as for
Christians; to pagans it meant a being on a higher plane than mortals, but not transcendent like the giant Being of the monotheisms (one detail will suffice: every
ancient god was either male or female). Therefore calling a man a god was hyperbole
but not nonsense. Furthermore this hyperbole was so conscious of being hyperbole
that it was kept within reasonable limits; the emperor was indeed called god but
only at a distance, when he was not present, never to his face. His cults sacrifices
were not offered to the ruler in person not even when that ruler was Caligula but
15

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 16

Diogenes 199

to a god for the rulers safety. In his palace the emperor was not a living god, not at
all; we are not in China: the imperial palace was almost the only place in the world
where the cult of the emperor did not exist.
The two keys to the cult of the emperor were popular feeling that the master of
the world was of greater stature than other men and also love of the ruler; the deification of the emperors is the hyperbole of the language of love. This love was a psychological reaction that is predictable in any accepted relationship of dependence on
one individual; it was not a spontaneous affect of choice but a feeling induced by the
subjects condition.35 Thus we can state, with as much certainty as we can claim that
the sky was blue, that such a love existed in the Roman Empire.
We know the extent of love of the king under the French Ancien Rgime.36 When
Louis XV was ill, a contemporary wrote, you could truly have found around a thousand people in the capital mad enough to sacrifice their lives to save the kings.37
When Caligula was ill, there were Romans who staked their lives on a cure; a tribune of the people had promised his in exchange for that of the ailing Augustus.
Objects in use in daily life, from silver tableware to cake moulds, were often decorated with images exalting the emperor and his family. It is impossible to cast doubt
on the element of sincerity in the many epigraphic texts in which attachment to the
emperor is expressed, any more than we can doubt, for example, that other collective emotion, European patriotism a century ago.
Though all that is understood, thought is not a stone: love for the emperor was not
monolithic like a dogs attachment to its master; a thread of scepticism and a drop of
suspicion of bad faith ran beneath it. Under the Ancien Rgime the royal image was
preserved because people convinced themselves that his ministers, not the king,
were responsible. The dual image of the emperor can be found everywhere. He was
a divine being for pagans, a sacred one for Christians, to be approached only on
ones knees, and he was a ruler who should display affability and simplicity; even
the stiff-necked Constantius II prided himself on his civility. It was difficult to align
both these roles; Julian, who was too much of a philosopher, went too far; his books
responded to his subjects mocking wisecracks as if he was addressing equals, the
simplicity of his conduct was praised by some and criticized by others.
In short the idea people had of the emperor was contradictory: on the one hand
the fabulously wealthy and omnipotent master of their dreams and on the other a
man just like any other. On one hand the emperor was a giant who was loved, like
the king of French folksong; on the other he was the government, and our bar-room
chat does not have a good word to say for that, if only because we have to render
unto Caesar the tax due. There was the same dual image in Egypt, where the
pharaoh was both a living god and a potentate to whom popular tales gave a disrespectful or even ridiculous role.38 I shall draw this point to a close with a demystifying quotation from Epictetus:39 farmers and sailors curse Zeus when the weather is
bad and we too continually criticize the emperor; the emperor knows this, but he
also knows that if he punished all those who curse him, he would empty his empire
of people.
We have seen that a natural mental inclination40 meant that the ruler was seen as
a being of a superior species and unique of his kind (this psychological reaction is the
ultimate explanation for the move from the Republic to the Empire). The omnipotent
16

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 17

Veyne: What Was a Roman Emperor?

delegated magistrate, that champion of the community, also became a leader by


nature who reigned because he was called a lion, was surrounded by great luxury
just as a lion is by his mane, and aroused respect, admiration, love and devotion. It
is no good repeating that this traditional reactionary image, which applies to all the
rulers who followed one another, is different from the personal charisma of an
exceptional man, different as well from the supreme decision-making power that is
granted to some presidents of republics in constitutional law.41 So we find here Max
Webers famous tripartite division: traditional power (the kind we are discussing,
which we are going to assume is ethological), modern institutional power, charismatic power.
Seen through his subjects eyes, the emperor thus conformed to the idea that a
potentates subjects had had of their ruler across millennia and societies. It is this
monarchist sentiment through the ages that we must attempt to analyse since it was
the inspiration for the regime of the Caesars, which was established and maintained
because of it.
The long-standing and widespread idea people have had of a monarch is a series
of paradoxes:
1. There is a man, the king, who is unique by his very nature; there can be only
one leader, who is a person made of flesh and blood (the idea of power shared
among several individuals is an abstraction from a higher culture).
2. That individual is the master because of the superiority of his nature, he is
superior to his subjects. Superior in what and because of what? The question cannot
be put: he is superior and that is that, he has a higher rank, a greater stature than
them, and it is not necessary to detail by what quality and in what domain that
superiority is seen; in particular it is not a question of a political talent in the area of
government. That is the raw pre-rational fact that monarchy theorists have vainly
attempted to justify and that also explains why a king whose mediocrity everyone
recognizes still remains king.
3. He is leader absolutely; though it is true that he in fact occupies the top of a
hierarchical ladder of which he is the highest rung, that rung is different in character from the lower rungs.
4. He is master without a shadow of a doubt, since he bears that title. The sense
of reality does not operate here, the reality of his power is not questioned, no one
asks whether it is not more apparent than real, whether the grand vizir is not more
powerful than him, etc.
5. The king and his subjects do not live alongside one another, but their relationship is a face-to-face one: they all know he exists and what happens to him concerns
them. They feel a disinterested emotion for him; if he is victorious, his glory gives
them personal pleasure. Not to respect that superior being would be a blasphemy
worthy of punishment. He is in the spotlight in front of this audience, the actions and
thoughts of such a great being are naturally on show for all to see and they interest
everyone.
6. He is master because of his position not his actions. The king is recognized as
such by his subjects, who venerate him, but his power is not measured by the influence his has on their lives, since these lives are ruled more by civil society, family,
17

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 18

Diogenes 199

patron, closer authorities. The king is a resplendent image to be feared, suspended


above his people, rather than a reality experienced by everyone in their day-to-day
lives.
That image does not proceed from reality (which is very different), but automatically imposes itself, arises fully armed in peoples minds, where it appears from who
knows where. Thus it can exist alongside, in conflict or in compromise with another
vision of the leader that is more realistic and ready to recognize that the current king
is just a humble man or that his ministers are tricking him. For, as we have seen, the
image of the sovereign is twofold, and probably was at every period: a lion, a mere
man. And in the end, of the two images, the one that is archaic, the lion, is psychically opaque and does not have the rational character of a regulated relationship; so
it can be linked with an equally opaque fact, a natural one, the family, the gens:
everywhere the hereditary principle emerges in the image of the king, even in Rome,
even in socialist North Korea.
The monarchist sentiment has disappeared almost everywhere in the present-day
world, but it played a prominent role for a long time; nowadays, in the West and
elsewhere, there are just a few relics left. What is surprising is the cohesion of the
image, complex though it is, its frequent occurrence and the fact that it was long
taken for granted: it lasted for thousands of years by being the only one. It does not
owe its appearance to the unlikely coming together of the same factors in each of the
innumerable societies where we find it. Indeed it cannot be explained by social interests (such as the interest of the ruling senatorial class) or by the past of the society
under consideration (in the way that imperial absolutism owes much to the old idea
of imperium) or by some banal emotional reaction (love induced by dependence, for
instance). It seems to belong less to a given society than a basic archaic impulse that
is or was common to the human race, to its ethology. Just as inequality between the
sexes is found in the most diverse societies. Thus it appears that the imagination may
have certain preferred tendencies.
The different living species each have their particular hierarchical organization;
they also have various ways of organizing the relationship between the sexes; they
live in groups or not. The evolution of human ethology has its own timescale which
is very slow,42 slower still than Fernand Braudels longue dure (long term). Recent
events, such as the gradual disappearance of the royal image, the American and
French Revolutions, or the feminist movement, may be isolated phenomena symptomatic of certain changes that are taking place in the ethology of the human race.
Paul Veyne
Collge de France
Translated from the French by Jean Burrell

18

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 19

Veyne: What Was a Roman Emperor?

Notes
1. The analogy between the system of emperors and that of caliphs is a close one: see G. Dagron,
Empereur et prtre, tude sur le csaropapisme byzantin, Paris, Gallimard 1996, pp. 703.
2. Dagron, op. cit., p. 72.
3. Ibid., p. 70, cf. 72.
4. J. Branger, Recherches sur laspect idologique du principat, Basel, Schweizerische Beitrge zur
Altertumswissenschaft, 1953, p. 72.
5. An unwritten law excluded from the throne any man from the Greek civilization: out of 100
emperors or usurpers whose origins are known or suspected, not one is from a Greek background.
In the fourth and fifth centuries when the western part of the Empire was in fact a German protectorate, another unwritten law prevented the all-powerful generals of German origin from ascending to the throne, so they created puppet emperors to rule in their shadow.
6. Dagron, op. cit., pp. 423.
7. Staatsrecht, II (2: 1133).
8. Egon Flaig, Den Kaiser herausfordern, Frankfurt and New York, Campus Verlag, 1992, p. 559.
9. Flaig, op. cit., p. 126.
10. The word had two meanings: the public interest (preventing a barbarian invasion was serving the
Republic) and the traditional institutions, Senate, consulate, etc., which were like the spelling of the
name Roman, the face of Rome.
11. Tacitus, Histories, II, 72: in Istria there were still inherited clients of the old Crassus family, their
country estates and the influence that went with their name. In 69 an ex-officer of the imperial guard
brought with him into Vespasians party his native town of Frjus, which was completely devoted to
him because he was the towns champion and it hoped he would gain power in the future (Histories,
III, 43).
12. A. Wallace-Hadrill, Civilis princes: between citizen and king, in Journal of Roman Studies 72 (1982:
3248). P. Veyne, Le Pain et le cirque, Paris, Editions du Seuil 1976, p. 718: the imperial system was
based on an absurdity: although he was sovereign by subjective right, the emperor was created by
his subjects; could they respect their creature unconditionally?
13. Tocqueville, De la dmocratie en Amrique, I, 130.
14. Fables, I, 2 (3), 30 (the frogs complain to Jupiter about their wicked leader): citizens, bear your present misfortune, the god told them, for fear a worse one should befall you. II, 16, 1: by changing their
leader the middling citizens (cives pauperes) only change masters.
15. Veyne, Le Pain et le cirque, p. 635, quoted by Flaig, op. cit., p. 122, n. 94: zur Entscheidung nicht nur
unfhig, sondern auch unwillig.
16. Seneca, De beneficiis, II, 12: Caligula held out his foot to a senator to be kissed; is that not trampling
the Republic underfoot?
17. Pliny the Younger, Trajans Panegyricus, LIV, 5; and LXVI, 4.
18. Pliny mentions the Senates idleness under the tyrant Domitian (letter VIII, 14, 89); but under the
best of leaders, Trajan, he also writes (III, 20, 12) that everything depends on the whim of one man
who, in the general interest, has assumed all positions, all tasks; however, by a beneficial mitigation,
a few rivulets flowing from that generous source run down to us. This is very different from the
Panegyricus.
19. Tacitus, Annals, I, 73.
20. But, in order to mark himself off from the tyrants, it was also appropriate that he should refuse some
of the divine honours his subjects granted him. This was another aspect of the farce of refusing
power. Nero, who was an atypical tyrant (he did not have himself made a god), would occasionally
refuse divine honours.
21. There is an astounding anecdote in Seneca, De beneficiis, III, 26, or a terribly vulgar one in the first of
The Lives of Lucan, 4.
22. Tacitus, Annals, XI, 4; Ammianus Marcellinus, XV, 3, 5 (the senior police officer Mercurius, count of
dreams) and XIX, 12.

19

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 20

Diogenes 199
23. There is a true-life spy story anecdote in Tacitus, Annals, IV, 69.
24. L. Friedlnder, Sittengeschichte Roms, I, pp. 2568. Use by the police of soldiers in plain clothes who
would provoke people into speaking ill of the emperor (Epictetus, IV, 13, 5) and of courtesans (Pliny,
Natural History, XXX, 15); some of Vitelliuss soldiers crept into Rome to spy on public opinion;
everyone kept quiet, everyone was afraid (Tacitus, Histories, I, 85).
25. Martial, X, 48, 21, under Trajan.
26. R. Syme, Tacitus, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1963, p. 422, n. 6.
27. In 202 the reliefs on the arch of the Severi in the Forum represented the biggest stylistic break in the
whole of Roman art; as Rodenwaldt has demonstrated, these reliefs reproduced or rather were a
skilful pastiche of the paintings in popular style that were exhibited in triumphs to show the
people how the war had proceeded. We might imagine that, in order to glorify Napoleon as an
emperor close to the people, the reliefs that decorate the Arc de Triomphe at the Etoile in Paris were
reproductions or condescending pastiches of images dEpinal (simple country genre prints); see Ernst
Kissinger, Byzantine Art in the Making, Harvard, 1977 (1995), pp. 1013. In official reliefs the academic
style of the century of the Antonines was followed by what Eugenia Strong called a Flemish tapestry style. In my view this stylistic break has not been sufficiently taken account of and its political
significance has been misunderstood. The change was probably an initiative of the artist himself
rather than an order from the emperor. Henceforth official bas-reliefs followed a separate path (for
instance, on the arch of Constantine in the Roman Forum): they remained faithful to this style, which
was designed to be, and considered itself to be, popular, not without a slightly haughty condescension, in contrast to the classical , academic Hellenizing style of the first two centuries that continued
to be the style the aristocracy used for the bas-reliefs on sarcophagi.
28. There was no court life or court festivals at the palace. The emperor in his palace was not surrounded
by the senators as a king was by his nobles. Far from having a royal style of life, he lived like any
other aristocrat: each morning he was greeted by his crowd of clients and he invited senators and
equestrians to dine. He had friends, companions or counts, comites, but did they live at the
palace? It is very doubtful; he had his freedmen, but the most important of them lived elsewhere in
their splendid mansions (domus).
29. A conversion he admitted he wished for but did not feel he had the right to impose (Eusebius, Life of
Constantine, II, 56 and 60).
30. In the new Cambridge Ancient History, XI, The High Empire, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,
2000, p. 79.
31. Philo of Alexandria, Legatio ad Gaium, 911.
32. Fustel de Coulanges, Histoire des institutions politiques de lancienne France, I, La Gaule romaine, Paris,
Hachette 1900, p. 191.
33. Antiquitates Iudaicae, XIX, 3, 228.
34. Similarly the Byzantine emperors were only isapostoloi, equal to the apostles. So they were not true
apostles.
35. So this love is one of the affects intended to help individuals fit in with their world, allowing them
to conquer themselves rather than Fortune (as Descartes said) and to judge the grapes too green.
Ideologies that are designed to deceive others are unimportant compared to those that are designed
to let people make a virtue of necessity. On this fit between reality and what we think of it, see Jon
Elster, Le Laboureur et ses enfants: deux essais sur les limites de la rationalit, French translation, Paris,
Editions de Minuit 1987; Psychologie politique: Veyne, Zinovie, Tocqueville, Paris, Editions de Minuit
1990; L. Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford CA, Stanford University Press, 1987,
and, for the limits to this theory, J.-P. Poitou, La Dissonance cognitive, Paris, Armand Colin 1974; D.
Kahnemann, P. Slovic and A. Tversky, Judgement under Uncertainty, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
36. Jacques Krynen, LEmpire du roi: ides et croyances politiques en France, XIIIeXVe sicles, Paris,
Gallimard 1994, p. 458: The study of love as a political virtue has not yet been carried out; The feeling of love for our kings seemed natural, writes Maine de Biran in 1814; this love was a religious
feeling like divine love; it was a sort of worship that elevated the soul and, like honour, could com-

20

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012

Diogenes 50/3

18/7/03

9:22 am

Page 21

Veyne: What Was a Roman Emperor?

37.
38.
39.
40.

41.

42.

mand every sort of sacrifice of personal interest, even life; and he deplores the fact that young men
born after 1789 have never experienced this feeling and cannot understand it: they equate it, he
writes, with self-interested calculating, part of the career plan (Journal intime, Valette and Monbrun
(eds), Paris, Plon 1927, I, p. 78).
Quoted by Sainte-Beuve, Relation indite de la dernire maladie de Louis XV, in his Portraits
littraires, III.
G. Posener, De la divinit du pharaon, Cahiers de la Socit Asiatique, XV, 1960.
Diatribai, III, 4, 8.
This ethological inclination is recognized by the most classical of thinkers, but rationalized as functional because of its natural purpose: discussing the English constitution, Bagehot wrote that the
monarch existed in order to make the community comprehensible to the people.
In the organization of modern societies there may be an individual, a president or a dictator, at the
apex of the hierarchy who is the only one with the power to make the major decisions, such as pressing the button to unleash nuclear weapons (Raymond Aron, Etudes politiques, Paris, Gallimard 1972,
p. 191). But it would be another rationalization to explain the mythical image of the monarch on the
basis of this fact.
J.-M. Schaeffer in the journal Communications, no. 72 (2002: 110, n. 6): The human race has a
bicephalous evolutionary destiny governed by both the slow pace of genetic evolution (or deviation)
and the rapid pace of cultural evolution.

21

Downloaded from dio.sagepub.com at Universitaetsbibliothek on December 6, 2012