Monday, August 14, 2017


Olivier Hekster, Emperors and Ancestors: Roman Rulers and the Constraints of Tradition. Oxford studies in ancient culture and representation. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxxii, 395. ISBN 9780198736820. $135.00.

Reviewed by John Weisweiler, University of Maryland, College Park (

Version at BMCR home site


Sometime around the year 64, in the main square of the city of Amisus (modern Samsun in northern Turkey) on the Black Sea coast, a group of workmen unveiled a new monument. It consisted of three statues representing select members of the imperial family: the emperor Nero, sporting his trademark neck beard; his beautiful second wife Poppaea, her hair bound up in elaborate coiffure; and Britannicus, Nero's stepbrother, his gaze boyishly innocent. Britannicus had died in February 55, almost a decade before the monument in Amisus had been set up; it was rumored that he had been poisoned. Henceforth, in Rome mention of Britannicus was carefully avoided. But the inhabitants of Amisus had no such hesitations. Living weeks' travel away from the imperial court, they were unaware of the gossip around Britannicus' death. As a result, they invested considerable funds into a monument for a man who might have been killed on the orders of the ruling emperor.

The three statues in Amisus have been lost; only an inscribed base survives that contains the names of the three honorands (SEG16 [1959] 748). The monument is one of tens of thousands of representations of the emperor that were set up in the Roman Empire in the first three centuries CE. In the last two decades, scholars have begun to investigate the significance of these representations. In Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley 2000), Clifford Ando explores the ways in which standardized texts and images produced by the imperial state and its local collaborators shaped the self-understandings of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. He shows that media such as statues, milestones, coins and contracts naturalized Roman domination by depicting imperial governance as a rational and predictable enterprise. Carlos Noreña's Imperial Ideals in the Roman West: Representation, Circulation, Power (Cambridge 2011) offers a quantitative analysis of the virtues ascribed to emperors in different media in the first two-and-a-half centuries of the Roman monarchy. Noreña demonstrates that provincial representations of the emperor closely mirror those produced in the imperial center. Noreña makes a strong case that this overlap between the ideologies pursued by the imperial court and by provincial élites was no coincidence; local magnates adopted the ideals of imperial propaganda in order to entrench their predominance.

In his excellent new book, Emperors and Ancestors: Roman Rulers and the Constraints of Tradition, Olivier Hekster inserts himself into this tradition of scholarship. He traces the changing role played by ancestors in the public image of emperors. Two questions guide Hekster's investigation. How did the public image of the emperor's relationship to his relatives change over time? How closely did monuments commissioned by provincial élites follow ideological models established by the imperial court in Rome? Hekster's work is deliberately synoptic in scope. He covers the entire period from the establishment of the Principate in 27 BCE until the early fourth century, and incorporates archaeological, epigraphic, numismatic and (to a lesser extent) literary evidence in his argument. The book is also splendidly illustrated. More than a hundred black-and-white photographs enable readers to examine with their own eyes many of the sources on which Hekster's argument is based.

The opening chapter establishes the methodological framework of the book and discusses the source materials on which Hekster draws (1-40). The remainder of the book is divided into two parts. Chapters 2 to 4 are thematic and explore the ways in which different relatives of the emperor were represented: chapter 2 looks at emperors' fathers (41-110); chapter 3 at their female relatives (111-160); and chapter 4 at more distant male ancestors of rulers (161-204). The second part of the book consists of a series of case studies on specific problems in Roman dynastic ideology: chapter 5 examines the construction of fake genealogies by various third- and fourth- century emperors (205-238); chapter 6 the role played by gods and heroes as ancestors of rulers (239-276); and chapter 7 the representation of family relations under the Tetrarchy, a college of four emperors who did not have any blood ties to each other (277- 314). A short conclusion summarizes the main lines of argument (315-324).

This is an extremely useful book. By surveying the development of imperial ideology over a long time-span, Hekster enables us to see what is unusual about modes of representation adopted by individual rulers. This approach works particularly well in his chapter on imperial fathers. In the first two-and-a-half centuries of the Roman monarchy, most rulers were (adoptive) sons of their predecessors. Augustus famously emphasized his identity as diui filius, son of the deified Iulius Caesar (45-46), and his successor Tiberius proudly proclaimed his own adoption by a divine predecessor (45-47). But Hekster shows that under subsequent emperors, such claims diminished in importance. Only under Titus, Commodus and Caracalla was descent from an imperial father a prominent theme in imperial coinage (55-56, 62-64). Significantly, all three of these emperors were biological sons of their predecessors. For these men, the fact that they had been born into the imperial family provided an additional layer of legitimacy. For other rulers, the fact that they were the legal sons of their predecessors was apparently not a crucial facet of their public image.

Also Hekster's analysis of representations of female relatives is filled with astute observations. Since the Republic, women were only rarely represented in official texts or public art (112-117). The fact that Augustus' daughter Iulia appears in Roman coinage beginning in 13 BCE was thus a significant innovation (118-119). Still, it was only under Caligula and Claudius that mothers and wives of emperors regularly were shown in official representations. The fact that Claudius' last wife Agrippina the Younger maintained her prominent role under her son Nero can be seen as a continuation of this pattern (127-131). Under the Flavians, imperial women largely disappeared from public view (135-137). Only under the Antonine (137-143) and Severan dynasties (143-157) were female relatives of emperors frequently honored in coins and public monuments. Hekster plausibly ascribes the new significance of the emperor's wives to the fact that they were often relatives of previous emperors – in a certain sense, dynastic succession now followed the female line (137-138, 154).

Hekster not only sharpens our understanding of what is distinctive about the public image constructed by successive imperial régimes. He also has exciting new things to say about differences in imperial representation between center and periphery. While in general public monuments and coinage produced in the provinces closely follow imperial models, there are revealing discrepancies. During the preparations for his war against Parthia, Trajan energetically promoted the image of his biological father (a highly successful general under the Flavian dynasty), both on coins struck by imperial mints and public monuments displayed in the imperial capital. However, provincial audiences showed little interest in the Elder Trajan. Since there was little precedent for honoring a male relative of an emperor who had been adopted into the imperial family, local élites generally did not include him amongst official representations (66-78).

Other forms of representation were more frequently employed in the provinces than in Rome. In chapter 6, Hekster shows that explicit assertions of familial relationships between emperors and gods and heroes are rare, both in media that emanated from the imperial court in Rome and in texts and monuments commissioned in provincial cities. However, there is an important exception to this rule. In Egypt, emperors follow pharaonic tradition and are regularly depicted as sons of traditional gods (268-274). It is also interesting that monuments for female relatives of emperors appear much more often in the eastern than in the western half of the Roman Empire. Hekster argues this is due to the precedent of Hellenistic monarchies, in which wives and daughters of kings had played a crucial role in dynastic self-presentation: 'Such explicit references to monarchic rule as "family business" fitted Hellenistic dynastic portrayals much better than Roman precedent.' (122-123) These regional differences highlight the constraints faced by emperors in developing new forms of self-presentation. More experimental forms of ideology were not accepted by his subjects: 'the emperor was, to a large extent, what people expected an emperor to be.' (373)

Do the materials presented in Emperors and Ancestors have wider implications for our understanding of the Roman monarchy as an institution? Hekster does not directly engage with this question, but I think the evidence laid out in Emperors and Ancestors is suggestive of an answer. When reading Hekster's book, it is striking how limited the evidence for dynastic self-presentation in the Roman Empire actually is. Emperors rarely invoked their fathers as justification for rulership (chapter 2), and more distant relatives even less often (chapter 4); women appear much more infrequently in texts and images produced at Roman courts than amongst Hellenistic kings (chapters 3 and 7); and of the dozens of emperors who ruled the Roman Empire in the first three centuries CE, only five tried to fake imperial ancestry to justify their claim to the throne (chapter 4). Not even in the sphere of religion did family relations play an important role; the preferred deities of the emperor were conceived of as his patrons, not as his relatives (chapter 6). These findings are remarkable. In almost all known monarchies, descent is the primary token of royal legitimacy. Why were emperors comparatively reluctant to invoke family relations as a justification for their power?

I think the relative lack of importance of dynastic ideology in the Roman Empire reveals something important about the nature of the Roman monarchy. Since Augustus, Roman rulers fashioned themselves not as monarchs, but as elected leaders of a restored Republic. In official texts, the names of emperors are accompanied by the magistracies, honorific titles, legal authorities and supreme priesthood conferred upon them by the senate and people of Rome. This is important. Roman emperors asserted that they had not inherited their position, but had been elected to it by the ancient institutions of the Roman city-state. As claimed leaders of a restored Republic, they were more reluctant to invoke descent as a justification for their rulership than other pre-modern monarchs.

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