Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Sarolta A. Takács, The Construction of Authority in Ancient Rome and Byzantium: The Rhetoric of Empire. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xxiii, 167. ISBN 9780521878654. $80.00.
Reviewed by Steven D. Smith, Hofstra University

Table of Contents

This is an ambitious book. In The Construction of Authority in Ancient Rome and Byzantium: The Rhetoric of Empire, Sarolta Takács defines the transformations and continuity of imperial rhetoric from the early Republican period until the reign of the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus (r. 1081-1118), thereby defining as the scope of her study more than 1300 years of Roman history. Just as ambitious as the book's chronological scope is Takács's decision to write this history of imperial rhetoric within the space of 154 pages. One is reminded of Cornelius Nepos, who according to Catullus dared omne aevum tribus explicare cartis | doctis (1.6-7). Takács's account of Roman imperial rhetoric over such a vast period is a qualified success. Although Takács clearly defines her limited audience at the outset ("The reader I have in mind is not the specialist but the person curious about the formative power of political rhetoric" [xviii]) and although Takács manages to condense her subject within a readable narrative, there are also some notable omissions, both of primary sources and of the scholarly bibliography. Moreover her account of the Byzantine period is less than satisfying.

Takács's argument is clear: in its earliest manifestation, Roman political authority was constructed according to a constellation of traditional military and ethical values: virtus, disciplina, fides, pietas, and self-sacrifice for the good of the state. With the emergence of the imperial period, this constellation of traditional virtues became focused around the figure of the pater patriae, and Takács traces the various continuities and ruptures in the rhetoric of paternity from the reign of Augustus onward. When the rhetorical fiction broke down during the reigns of emperors such as Nero, Domitian, or Elagabalus, the expanse of the empire facilitated a transference to the center of peripheral figures who were more adept at employing Rome's traditional rhetoric of paternity to balance and keep in check the interests of the military and the elite. Beginning with the reign of Constantine I, Christian religious ideology is grafted onto the imperial framework: the Father of the empire thus becomes identified with the heavenly Father, and the role of the Emperor is to enact and ensure the will of the Christian god on earth. Finally, with the rise of the emperor Heraclius, the Roman Byzantine period saw the church defining politics and eventually education to such an extent that by the early Comnenian period the Eastern Roman Empire may be identified as a fundamentalist theocracy.

Takács's first chapter, "Republican Rome's Rhetorical Pattern of Political Authority," surveys writers from Ennius to Cicero who contributed to and refined the rhetoric that defined the virtuous Roman man. Particularly helpful in establishing the argument is a consideration of Polybius' remarks about the intersection of past, present, and future in the ritual of elite Roman funerals (6.54.2-3) as well as his theorization about the conditions which would cause a shift in Rome's political system (6.57.8). This leads to a discussion of the negative example illustrated in Cicero's prosecution of Verres, in contrast to Cicero's own nomination as pater patriae by Quintus Lutatius Catulus in 63 BCE for his service to the state as consul during the conspiracy of Catiline. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of Cicero's representation of Julius Caesar as simillimus deo after the latter's political restoration of Marcus Claudius Marcellus. That Cicero could speak of Caesar as having achieved a near-divine status for this act of clemency signals the rhetorical "transformation from an ordinary to an extraordinary being," but a being who was still to be seen as delimited by Rome's traditional values: "a virtuous man sacrificed his own interests to those of the state. This sacrifice, the self for the community, was the crucial, initial exchange" (39).

Chapter 2 covers the imperial period from Augustus to Commodus. In the first section, Takács focuses especially on the Res Gestae, but regarding the appropriation of the rhetoric of paternity and the overlapping of public and private discourses during the reign of Augustus (48-50), it is surprising not to see any references to the work of Kristina Milnor, whose Gender and Domesticity and the Age of Augustus would certainly have enriched Takács's discussion.1 The second section treats Horace's second Roman ode, with particular emphasis on the famous line dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (3.2.13). Takács's reading is sensitive to the poem's political ambiguities. As it evokes Rome's military past and alludes even to Aeneas' murder of Turnus on the battlefield, the ode ultimately "is a multivalent literary modulation on this theme of cultural heritage and a reminder that conquest is brutally bloody" (53).

Examining the import of the "extraordinary thought" that "patriotic self-sacrifice gives pleasure to the sacrificing individual" (54), Takács introduces a novelistic parallel: Achilles Tatius 3.22.1. Takács here bases her argument on a 1993 note by Stephen Harrison,2 but unfortunately the text of this passage from Achilles Tatius is corrupt. Takács does not provide the original Greek, but her questionable translation ("This is a necessity, a considerable deed, but for friendship, if we must die, then the risk is good, death sweet") seems to reflect the text of Vilborg or Gaselee's Loeb edition, though this is nowhere made explicit, even in the bibliography.3 Garnaud's Budé edition, however, removes the phrase γλυκὺς ὁ θάνατος, since it belongs to a family of manuscripts that is in this instance less reliable.4 Takács's point here is simply that "In Roman moral terms, the country took the place of the beloved" (54), a claim that could well have been established without bringing in a corrupt passage from a second-century Greek novel. Takács's final remarks on the challenging political rhetoric of Horace's poem nevertheless remain valid: "war is the last resort of a broken-down dialogue and aggression sets in when words have no longer any effect and diplomatic means fail" (55).

From Augustus, Takács moves directly to the fall of Nero, who unlike Augustus was unable or unwilling to represent himself successfully as the state's "symbolic father figure" (62). This failure at the center of Roman imperial power allowed for the rise of a peripheral figure like Vespasian, whom Takács likens to a hero from a Horatio Alger novel: "If the American myth is one where the economically downtrodden individual makes it to the top, the Roman one was of an elite citizen receiving rewards for his moral uprightness" (65). After summarizing the Flavian dynasty and the reign of Trajan, Takács concludes the second chapter with a brief comparison of Marcus Aurelius and his "psychotic son" Commodus (77-80). Takács directly appeals to her non-specialist audience here by framing her analysis of Commodus' perversion of the symbolic order within a discussion of Ridley Scott's film Gladiator.

Chapter 3 covers the Severan period and moves into late antiquity up to the reign of Honorius. In her narrative of the rise of Elagabalus Takács refines her description of Rome's patrocentric imperial rhetoric. Harkening back to Livia's powerful role in shaping the Augustan principate and to the influence of Julia Domna during the reigns of Septimius Severus and Caracalla, Takács accounts for the successful machinations of Julia Maesa and Julia Soaemia in installing Elagabalus as emperor by theorizing that in times of crisis when a suitable father figure was absent, a mother figure could temporarily provide the authority necessary for transmitting symbolic power from one generation to the next (85-86). The following section, "A New World Order," introduces the theme of Christian appropriation of Rome's imperial rhetoric, with a focus on the The Passion of Vibia Perpetua (89-94), and this is followed by an account of the transformational reign of Constantine I, whose embrace of Christianity and a new heavenly Father necessitated a shift in the rhetoric of authority: "Under this construct, Christian emperors became subordinate executors of an entity that existed outside of, but also encompassed, the world it had created" (99).

The emperor Julian's opposition to Christianity, in particular Christians' use of pagan paideia, posed, according to Takács, an important challenge to which Christian thinkers such as Basil successfully responded, blending Christian ideology with pagan learning as they saw fit (106). Apart from a brief mention of Tertullian, Takács's sources for this section are exclusively Greek (Eusebius, Julian, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil), and it is surprising not to read here any discussion of Ammianus Marcellinus, for whom Julian represented an ideal ruler. Does the premier Latin historian of late antiquity offer nothing to the subject of imperial rhetoric during the reign of Julian?

The chapter concludes with a discussion of Claudian's Panegyricus de quarto consulatu Honorii Augusti (112-118). Takács's reading of the poem, in which the dead emperor Theodosius appears to counsel his young son Honorius, is compelling, but Takács offers no explanation of the formative role of the half-Vandal general Stilicho in defining Honorius' reign, nor does she bring to her interpretation any of the crucial background provided by Alan Cameron in his seminal 1970 book on Claudian.5 The limited scope of Takács's discussion here prevents a more nuanced interpretation of the rhetoric of paternity during this fascinating period. Consideration of, for example, Claudian's Epithalamium honoring the wedding of Honorius and Stilicho's daughter Maria would have revealed how Stilicho's powerful position at court was maintained in part by the proper articulation of his own filial relationship with Theodosius.

Takács begins the fourth and final chapter with the reign of Justinian, though this section would have benefited from consideration of the important works on Procopius by Averil Cameron and, more recently, by Anthony Kaldellis.6 Takács nevertheless offers an intriguing reading of the foreword to Justinian's Institutes, identifying a Vergilian allusion to Anchises's moral imperative that Aeneas should parcere subiectis et debellare superbos (Aeneid 6.851-853). Whatever the reality behind the rhetoric, "Valor remained a core virtue in Christian Rome's discourse" (126). Takács's narrative then moves into the Byzantine period, beginning, as she sees it, with the reign of Heraclius, when Greek became the official administrative language and when the empire identified Mary, the Mother of God or theotokos, as its divine patron. Takács's main interest in this section is the panegyric poetry of George of Pisidia, though more could have been made of the later Short History by Nikephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople. Takács duly recounts the story of the exchange between Heraclius and the shamed overthrown emperor Phocas, but in an odd bibliographic choice she cites not Cyril Mango's now standard text, translation and commentary, but a 1975 reprint of de Boor's 1880 Teubner edition.7

In an attempt to demonstrate the negative degree to which the Eastern Roman empire had subordinated the concerns of the state to the church, Takács shifts focus to the West and considers the reign of Charlemagne, which liberated Europe from an overwhelming control of the papacy (134-139). The East, where the separation between church and state was not so clearly defined, was a failure by comparison. This leads to Takács's frankly troubling claim that, "The result was an intellectual stagnation that would continue to characterize the Christian Roman Empire of the East until its eventual demise in 1453" (139). After such a statement, Takács's discussion of the years leading up to and including the reign of Alexius I Comnenus is all too brief: Michael Psellos, Byzantium's greatest intellectual, receives but one quotation, and there is no mention whatsoever of Anna Comnena or the literary golden age of the Comnenian period. This uncharitable account of Byzantine intellectual life is by far the book's greatest shortcoming, and even non-specialist readers interested in this subject would be well advised to consider as an alternative the recent study by Anthony Kaldellis.8

In the end, this book offers non-specialist readers a brisk (sometimes too brisk) narrative of the history of Rome's rhetoric of authority and how the ideology of the Father changed and was adapted over a very long period of time. To such readers I would recommend the book, with the important reservation that Takács's study serve merely as an introduction to a rich field.


1.   Milnor, Kristina. Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
2.   Harrison, Stephen J. "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: Horace Odes 3.2.13." RhM 136.1 (1993): 91-93.
3.   Vilborg, Ebbe, ed. Achilles Tatius: Leucippe and Clitophon. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1955. Gaselee, S., ed. Achilles Tatius. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1969. First edition 1917.
4.   Garnaud, Jean-Philippe, ed. Achille Tatius: Le Roman de Leucippé et Clitophon. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2002. First edition 1991.
5.   Cameron, Alan. Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.
6.   Cameron, Averil. Procopius and the Sixth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Kaldellis, Anthony. Procopius of Caesarea: tyranny, history, and philosophy at the end of antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
7.   Mango, Cyril, ed. Nikephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople: Short History. Dumbarton Oaks Texts 10. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990.
8.   Kaldellis, Anthony. Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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