Rome Without Emperors: The Revival of a Senatorial City in the Fourth Century CE
By Robert R. Chenault
PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2008
Abstract: This dissertation is a study in the cultural history of Rome in the years 312-410. Scholarship on this period has tended to focus on Christianization—both of Rome’s population, especially its senators, and of its topography, as manifested in the building of churches. In contrast, I argue that most aristocrats were less concerned with their religious identity as pagans or Christians than with maintaining and displaying their elite status. Christianity was not the only novelty of the fourth century, for this period coincided with the emperors’ abandonment of Rome as a regular residence: in this span of nearly a century, there was an emperor present in Rome for only a handful of occasions totaling about two years. The absence of the emperors created both opportunities and challenges for Rome’s senators. On the one hand, it allowed them to emerge from the emperor’s shadow and recover a measure of their former visibility in the city; to this degree, Rome in some ways became more “senatorial” than it had been at any time since the late Republic. At the same time, however, the absence of the emperors called into question Rome’s identity as the capital of the empire. Senators could not avoid the awkward fact that real power was located far away, in the formerly inconsequential provincial cities which emperors now used as their regular residences. Thus the most difficult question confronting Rome’s senators was this new political geography of empire. Senators now had to compete for appointments and influence with new elites in the provinces and at court. They were forced to articulate why Rome was still a special place in an age when imperial patronage was making new cities into rivals and even potential replacements of Rome. From this perspective, the challenge facing senators at Rome was less their religious identity than adjusting to the marginality of Rome in the late Empire.
Excerpt: At the beginning of the fourth century, Rome was already more than a thousand years old. Over long centuries, historical traditions had gradually shaped the vast raw material of names and events into a usable past. Both the making and the remembering of history at Rome had always been closely associated with the city’s aristocracy. Senators believed that they were not just the custodians, but the living embodiment of the most ancient historical traditions and memories in the Roman state. In their hands, a millennium of historical examples and paradigms became a powerful symbolic idiom in which to frame their understanding of events in the present.
The relationship between emperors and history at Rome had always been complicated. According to Roman tradition, an emperor was impossible, since the Republic had been founded specifically to prevent monarchical power from returning to Rome. Yet Augustus and the senators had collaborated in reinterpreting the idea of the Republic, finding a way to make the first emperor’s rule compatible with Roman tradition. At Rome historical tradition was sufficiently powerful to create political legitimacy, yet it was also flexible enough to accommodate new emperors with unexpected qualities. In the early years of the fourth century, two such emperors came to power in Rome. One of them, Maxentius, made the most archaic traditions of the city into the cornerstone of his ideology. The other, Constantine, invoked Augustus while at the same time announcing his support for a religion that had been legalized only shortly before. The emperors were not the only ones thinking about their place in history. Senators, too, looked to history to place these emperors into a comprehensible context.