The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Death and the Emperor

September 18th, 2008 · No Comments · history, media

Recently, I have enjoyed Death and the Emperor by Penelope J.E. Davies. Dr. Davies teaches Roman art and architecture at UT Austin, and is apparently working on a book focusing on the Republic[1]. This study of the purpose and meaning of a variety of the funerary remains of the great Roman emperors.

This work is full of quite fascinating observations[2], far more than I could go into here. One line of discussion was particularly constructive as regards my current research, in tracing the Emperor cult from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. I hadn’t realized, for example, that “Aurelius” was the Roman “Helios” — and thus that the Emperors in the first & second centuries were overtly styling themselves as Sun gods.

Not afraid to draw her own lines of speculation, Davies makes a number of deeply astute observations regarding the simultaneous purposes each monument would serve. Primarily, these monuments served to praise and elevate the deceased, but secondarily also served to highlight the illustrious predecessor, through which Imperial authority had passed.

After Augustus, the Roman Senate lost its power to absolutely determine the leadership of the Empire. As legislated, Imperium was simply the authority to lead the military forces as needed to protect the borders. In practice, the ones who led the armies tended to rule with absolute authority, and the Roman senate existed as a kind of governmental theater. In this context, the need to trumpet one’s claims to this Imperial authority was necessary. Such is why Diocletian constructed the Arch of Titus, both to celebrate his brother’s glories, but to also emphasize his own deific connections.

Suddenly, it’s obvious that the need to continuously rationalize one’s own claim on Imperium had been a component of sitting on that throne, pretty much from the beginning of Empire. It’s just that some Emperors understood this obligation and others were oblivious to it.

  1. D&tE is Imperially focused.
  2. and the author’s own detailed photography

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