Sanna Joska: “Augusti filii et filiae: The Role of Antonine Offspring in Negotiations of Roman Imperial and Local Power.” LECTIO PRAECURSORIA 13.1.2018.

FM Sanna Joskan historian alan väitöskirjaAugusti filii et filiae: The Role of Antonine Offspring in Negotiations of Roman Imperial and Local Power.” tarkastettiin Tampereen yliopistossa 13.1.2018. Vastaväittäjänä toimi Tim Parkin (Melbournen yliopisto) ja kustoksena Katariina Mustakallio (Tampereen yliopisto).

When we think of power and its representation we tend to think of political, military, economical and religious leaders, don’t we? And who are these leaders? There is no denying that throughout the history the majority of powerholders have been men who have risen to their status thanks to their high social standing. But power is far from being this simple. When we look past this powerful male figure and into the margins of power we see that it is used and it is represented by a wide range of figures, the minorities of power. Women use and represent power on its all fields. People of lower social classes or people who are subjected to power use power in their own sphere although the leaders may see them as powerless. And finally, children. They may not, usually, hold power themselves, but they certainly are used as images of power.

In my doctoral dissertation I have studied precisely this question of power and its representation through children in the context of Roman imperial society. I have analysed the use of the children of one Roman imperial family, the Antonine dynasty, in the power discourses of the Roman Empire. The Antonine family ruled the empire from the year 138 until 192, from Antoninus Pius to Commodus. The question that I set to answer is how social power and status were redefined and negotiated in acts of public representation. These public representations that have been my sources have been above all coins and medallions as well as public monuments, and I have also relied on later written accounts. What I have aimed at is to look past the self-evident images of power and to see the margins, to see diversity that there is in representations of power, because seeing it not only gives voice to social minorities, but also reveals that power is also used by those we do not view as powerholders. I have focused my study on children in the sense that the term covers both the age, childhood, and the biological or adoptive relationship, of being someone’s child. Thus, my study discusses the role and importance that children, minors, had in society, but also acknowledges the importance of family relationships and the role of adult children.

I base my study on the examination of power on two levels: imperial and local. The first is represented by the emperor, the leader of the Roman world and the second are the subjects of this Empire. These two levels are not balanced, not in Roman society and not in the study I now present you. One is authoritative, subordinating and grounds its position partly to the divine sphere. The other is always depending on the first, but does not aim all its actions towards it. The Roman empire was orbiting around the figure of the emperor, but not all actions of power were directed towards him. In the local sphere, power is mainly represented from one subject to another. Imperial power can be used in this scheme for the benefit of the actor him or herself. This is in the heart of my study: the reuse, redefinition and negotiation of power in society.

To reach this negotiation from the historical sources, I first had to examine how the Antonine emperors themselves represent and legitimate their power through their offspring. I studied, based on imperial coinage and medallions, as well as later writings such as the Historia Augusta and Cassius Dio, how emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius used images of their children and grandchildren. This use of the images of children by the Antonine emperors is an acknowledged fact among research. One of leading historians of the Roman family, Beryl Rawson, highlighted it in many of her studies. However, it turned out that until my study, there has been no comprehensive reading of the subject. My study is the first to take into account the whole of the Antonine era and to examine the use of minors and adult children throughout the second century and also after the Antonine reign, and to include all the aspects of the use.

Coinage was the main media of representation for the emperors. Coins would travel in the hands of people to every corner of the empire, carrying images of small children, official heirs and young empresses. So did gift medallions that were specifically aimed to communicate power to other powerholders, such as Roman senators. The images on coins and medallions emphasized family relationships. They visually created the links between parents and children as well as siblings, and likewise the links that were formed between husband and wife in the cases when marriages were formed to strengthen the dynasty. Marriage and fertility became highly important aspects of iconography for the emperors and this in turn gave prestige to the women and children of the family. One specific act of Emperor Antoninus Pius, the first Antonine emperor, was to build his dynasty “backwards” by officially commemorating his dead children and grandchildren. By these acts the Emperor made visible the fact that he had had several children and grandchildren, who had now only become part of the divine ancestors.

A gold coin of Empress Faustina the Younger,
AD 161-176. ©Wikimedia Commons.

One of the biggest issues with the policy of the emperors concerning their children must have been uncertainty. Uncertainty concerning who lived and who died and who could be the next emperor or empress. When I have studied the imperial iconography as a continuum, it certainly seems like systematic image building at all times, but the reality is that much of it must have been reactions to the ever-changing situations. The family lost several children and adults. But the reactions by the emperors were quite clever, I must say. They really could, in a way, turn a loss into an asset.

As I mentioned concerning the imbalance of the imperial and local levels, I admit that in my study the imperial level gets somewhat more attention than the local one. This may be described as a cardinal problem in the study of ancient societies: we aim at studying the whole of society but end up studying the privileged minority, the power holders. This is, however, often dictated by the nature of the evidence.

Even though the evidence of imperial use of children’s images is richer in number, there is evidence of the use by subjects, and I have attempted to collect each and every one. Think of the hundreds of public monuments that were set up to honour the emperor, and the thousands of coins that carry his image, and you understand the joy of finding one that bears the image of his child. I have studied a rare phenomenon, a fracture of the representation of social power in the Roman Empire, but a phenomenon that still existed and this alone would make it worth of studying. It is important that we study even these small phenomena to make visible the fact that they were a part of the discourses of power in the Roman Empire, and that they were, like in my case, a part of the imperialist processes of the second century. Roman imperialism is, specifically, one of those areas of study that have benefited greatly from the inclusion of the perspective of social minorities, and I hope myself to, perhaps, develop the theme in future studies.

What I constantly ponder, and what I have examined, is how these certain people came to the decision to use an image of an imperial child. Members of city councils in the Greek East chose to mint their city coinage with images of the emperor’s son and heir, or they chose to set up a statue in honour of the emperors two young granddaughters, or a statue to his three-year-old son. I truly wish we had more knowledge on how information of the children born to the imperial family travelled the empire. How were people in the provinces informed of the births and deaths in the imperial family? Or, did all children who survived have their own official portrait types? How were they included in the rituals of the imperial cult in Italy and the provinces? There are numerous questions that would require further study.

The great majority of those who used the images of imperial children on the local level were the members of city councils, the decision-making elites, who used public power. They would set up public monuments and issue city coinage in the name of their community. Communal dedications were a way of representing the city, its identity and prestige and a tool in rivalry between cities and towns.

There are private individuals too, among the evidence, and we get a small glimpse of their actions and representations of their personal power. This, to me, represents the true charm of history. To be able to reach the lived reality of a person through two thousand years of history. We have wealthy senators who originated from the eastern part of the Empire, but we also have people who did not represent the highest elite. What motivated an Ostian freedman to set up a statue to the emperor’s heir, or a scribe of the cult of the goddess Bellona to do this? To find answers, I have connected these single cases of action to wider social structures of Roman imperial society.

What I have discovered is that for the private individuals and communities in the provinces, images of imperial children were an effective way of standing out in a crowd. As I have mentioned, using images of children was a choice made by only a fraction of the emperor’s subjects. Imagine, now, seeing a statue depicting a child, a youth, or an adult child belonging to the imperial house in a public space crowded with the images of emperors and local powerful men and women. This would surely catch your eye as something unusual. Besides a way of making an impact, the public monuments served also another purpose: they implied the close relationship of the dedicator to the imperial house. This relationship might be tangible or imagined, but nevertheless using the images of imperial children showed that the dedicator payed close attention to the iconography and style of the Antonine emperors and that they were informed of the amount and ages of children in the imperial family. They took an element of the imperial iconography of the emperors and used it to promote their own status in their local community.

As I reach the final part of this lecture, there is one further important question to ask:  why children? Why was the imagery of offspring chosen by both the Antonine emperors and their subjects to be a part of their representation of power? I have come to the conclusion that it was because of the familiarity the imagery evoked in the viewer. The Antonine emperors built their child related propaganda around the concepts of family relationships, childhood, youth, marriage and birth, and even the death of a child. These were all concepts and experiences shared by all those who lived in the Roman empire. These concepts would immediately evoke the feeling of familiarity in the viewer, which makes them effective tools of imperial iconography and its reuse by the subjects.


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