Jussi Rantala – ”Maintaining Loyalty, Declaring Continuity, Legitimizing Power. Ludi Saeculares of Septimius Severus as a Manifestation of the Golden Age”. Lectio praecursoria 1.2.2013

FM Jussi Rantalan väitöskirja ”Maintaining Loyalty, Declaring Continuity, Legitimizing Power. Ludi Saeculares of Septimius Severus as a Manifestation of the Golden Age” tarkastettiin 1.2.2013 Tampereen yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä toimi professori Ray Laurence (University of Kent at Canterbury) ja kustoksena professori Christian Krötzl. Väitöskirja on luettavissa sähköisenä osoitteessa: http://tampub.uta.fi/handle/10024/67964.

Rituals create identities. A ritual is a process that builds collective values, and shapes the ideas we have about the communities we are living in. Ritual builds these ideas by means of representation. When we take part in a ritual – be it part of our religious, political, family, work or any other activity – there is always somebody, or something, that rises above the others and becomes a common symbol for all who take part in the actual ritual, something to which other participators of the ritual can identify themselves and to which they often feel loyalty, or even affection. In other words, something that represents the whole community taking part in the ritual. These almost mystical objects, which rise above the ordinary, are crucial factors for communal rituals and in creating identities. What this basically means is that identities are not stable. Especially during the periods of great changes or crisis identities are more likely evaluated and re-shaped. For communities, great changes thus often represent a “new beginning”, a “new age”, that also requires the re-establishment of the community’s identity. And it is the ritual that is used to carry out this process.

These theories of ritual, identity, and their close relationship to each other, were the basis of my work, when I started to study ludi saeculares, or Secular Games, organized by Roman emperor Septimius Severus in AD 204. This celebration was perhaps the most important single event of the reign of Septimius Severus, at least regarding to the religious life of the period. The Severan period and the celebration were interesting cases from the viewpoint of the creation of, or at least modification of the identities especially for two reasons. Septimius Severus, born in North Africa, was an outsider for the old Roman elite when he became emperor in AD 193. His rise to power meant the final death of the previous dynasty of the Antonines and the birth of a new one, carrying the name of his own family. Even while ruling as an emperor, Severus remained a distant figure for the elite of Rome for many years, as he spent very little time in the capital. However, the most crucial detail was that he became emperor by means of civil war. For contemporary Romans the civil war was probably a shock, or at least a clear sign of a great change of times: after all, the Roman Empire had not witnessed a civil war for over a hundred years before Severus and his wars from AD 194 to 197. In other words, the rise to power of Septimius Severus was in many ways a period of great change for the contemporaries – a period in which identities are, as mentioned, shaped.

Keeping in mind the aforementioned theories about rituals and identity, as well as the original background of Severus as a usurper and an outsider, my aim was to find out how Septimius Severus used the ludi to legitimize his power in the new situation; that is, his rise to power by means of a civil war and as his establishment of a new dynasty. To be more specific, my aim is to examine which messages he conveyed through the means of these celebrations and how he consequently justified his power following the civil wars.

When Septimius Severus became the emperor, he tried to secure his power by various means. Not did he only crush his opponents by military force, but he also wanted to create a public image of himself as a man who had brought peace, and restored and renewed the empire after the hard times of civil war. One of the most noteworthy expressions of his propaganda was his grand building project of the capital, the most remarkable one conducted since the days of Augustus over two hundred years earlier. The repaired old buildings, as well as the completely new ones, were a tangible message for the subjects that the new emperor had brought peace and prosperity to Rome. Another remarkable event for the new emperor occurred in AD 204, when Severus celebrated the religious festival ludi saeculares, the main subject of my study.

Celebration of ludi saeculares was an extremely rare occasion; the games were supposed to be celebrated only once in a hundred years, although in practice they eventually were held once in every fifty years. By the Severan period, they already were a very old institution, as the games had been held at least from the year 249 BCE on, that is, about four and a half centuries before Severus, possibly even earlier. We know very little of the most ancient celebrations; however, imperial games are a different story. We do know that these games were held by Augustus in seventeen BCE, and the details of the Augustan program are also well known. After Augustus the games were held by Claudius in AD 47, followed by Domitian in AD 88, Antoninius Pius in 148 and, finally, Septimius Severus in 204. In fact, when I started to work on my doctoral thesis, I was interested in Augustan ludi. Eventually, however, I switched my scope towards Severan period. The age of Severans started to interest me especially because of its certain uniqueness: it was not the period of the most famous early emperors, such as Augustus, Nero, Vespasianus, or the “good” Antonine rulers; on the other hand, it did not belong to the age of the late Antiquity (much influenced by Christianity) either. Instead, I saw the third century AD as a certain “inter-state” period between early and late Roman Empire, and therefore I considered it to be an extremely interesting subject (although challenging as well).

The main source of my study was an inscription which contained the program of the games held by Septimius Severus. The inscription was erected in the field of Mars in Rome after the actual games. Apparently, this was the case after every imperial ludi saeculares, although only two inscriptions out of six imperial games have been preserved: those of Augustus and Septimius Severus. The inscriptions indicate that the rituals begun on the night of May the thirtyfirst and lasted for three nights and days. Goddesses Moirae (Fates), Eileithyia and Terra Mater, all of them regarded as Greek deities by the Romans, received a sacrifice in the nocturnal rites. Daytime rituals included offerings to more traditional Roman gods Juppiter Optimus Maximus, Juno Regina, Apollo and Diana, respectively. Festivals also included purification rites by 110 married women, and, as a closing act, a Carmen Saeculare, which was hymn that was sung by 27 boys and 27 girls.

During my work I analyzed the inscription describing the rituals of the Severan ludi; my aim was, as mentioned, to find out the different messages and ideas that Severus wanted to send through them. Even if the ritual itself was mostly following earlier examples, it also contained a number of details which were probably Severan novelties; it could be suggested that especially these novelties contained the values which Septimius Severus wanted to promote. On the other hand, I argued, that it is impossible to separate rituals from the political or social reality in which they are conducted. Following this claim, I reasoned that even if many rituals of the Severan games were quite similar compared to the earlier ludi saeculares, the audience in those games interpreted them always from the viewpoint of their own time: a similar ritual, held, for example, in archaic Rome among the peasants probably had a very different meaning centuries later, when celebrated in the urban capital of perhaps a million inhabitants. Accordingly, my aim was to find out which was the significance of these rituals for those who saw them precisely in the context of the early third century AD.

To find out the wider context, I was, of course, forced to expand my sources from the mere inscription recording the actual games to the evidence which could give information from the early third century Rome in general. The literature of the period, especially the writings of the contemporary historians, was naturally the most important source. The problems of power, identity, tradition et cetera were discussed in many texts of the period, and examining these helped me to understand the unique conditions in which the contemporaries lived and wrote. Numismatic evidence, on the other hand, was a valuable tool when trying to find out the values which imperial power wanted to bring forward on a more general level. Coinage was perhaps the most powerful means for rulers to spread imperial propaganda: they were easily spread through the empire, and even those who could not read – apparently a vast majority – could often understand the images of the emperor, empress and other members of the imperial family, gods, goddesses and other concepts depicted in the coins.

While analyzing my sources I had to tackle a number of problems. The fragmentary nature of the inscription was a challenge; the somewhat confusing information given by numismatic sources was another (it appears that coins celebrating Severan ludi pointed out to rituals which were not mentioned at all in the inscription). Moreover, the most important contemporary writer, Cassius Dio, did not mention the occasion at all (although another historian from the Severan period, Herodian, did give an account). On the other hand, the inscription, although fragmented, was still full of information – in fact, the inscription erected to commemorate the Severan ludi is the most complete document we have on any Roman religious ritual. As a result, the answers were possible to find out, but they had to be gathered from many small pieces of evidence and different sources.

While investigating the evidence I noticed a remarkable dialogue of power, tradition, and identity. Even if the written sources did not mention the festival of ludi saeculares directly that often, they still dealt with many similar themes, ideas and values that were present in the celebration. It seemed that questions, such as what was to be a “good Roman” were always present, and constantly evaluated. In addition, the discussion did not involve merely the sources of the early third century; the past, as the people living in the third century knew it, was present as well. Many ideas and values brought forward in the third-century sources were evaluated in the light of Roman history. Such was the power of tradition.

I have studied this discussion of power and identity in my doctoral thesis. Even if we are living in a completely different world compared to Septimius Severus and the Romans of his time, we can share many questions with them: who are we? Where do we belong? Which values and ideas do we share with the rest of the community? These questions are truly universal.

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