Skip to main content

This paper explores how provincial elites were invited to conceptualize their place within the Roman world order by pronouncements of the Roman state. It argues that, from the very beginning of the Principate, Roman emperors and provincial governors endorsed and reproduced a Greek discourse which represented the emperor as the benefactor of ‘all men’ or ‘the whole human race’. By eliding potential distinctions between citizens and non-citizens and Italians and provincials, this ecumenical rhetoric invited provincials to see themselves as a unified community of subjects.

Augustus is normally credited with insisting on the significance of the division between citizens and non-citizens within the population of the empire (Ando 2000, esp 296-300). Dio writes that one of the documents which he left to be read together with his will advised Tiberius and the public ‘that they should not enrol large numbers as citizens, in order that there should be a marked difference between themselves and the subjects’ (Dio 56.33.3). According to Clifford Ando, not until Hadrian did pronouncements of the Roman state begin to address the inhabitants of the empire as a community equal in their subjection to the emperor (Ando 2000, esp. 330).

This paper aims to complicate this narrative through a systematic study of the corpus of letters and edicts issued by emperors and governors to provincial communities. We have the text of some 300 imperial letters, 30 imperial edicts, 90 praesidial edicts and dozens of praesidial letters. Although these texts have been studied extensively for their insights into Roman law, administrative structures and the social and economic history of the empire, they have not received sufficient attention as a discourse which structured the provincial experience of Roman power. There is far more at stake in them than the simple mechanics of petition and response. Their production, their dispatch over vast distances, their reception, display and sometimes monumentalization in provincial cities, the multiplication of this process across all the cities of the empire and over time – all this represents a massive investment in symbolic production on the part of both emperors and cities. Yet nobody has yet done for the rhetoric of Roman emperors and governors what Jean-Marie Bertrand and John Ma have done for the rhetoric of the Hellenistic kings in their brilliant analyses of the language of royal letters and city decrees in the Hellenistic period (Bertrand 1990, Ma 2002; Kokkinia 2004 is a promising start) or what Carlos Noreña has recently done for Roman imperial coinage and honorific inscriptions (Noreña 2011). Instead, work has focused on formal and stylistic aspects (Oliver 1989, Benner 1975) and the idiosyncrasies of particular emperors (Williams 1976 and 1979, Alexander 1938).

This paper will show that these texts employ an ecumenical rhetoric from the very beginning of the Principate. For example, Augustus professes his reverence ‘for all men’ (Jos. AJ. 16.165) and Tiberius tells the citizens of Gythium that it is proper for ‘all men’ to give divine honours to the late Augustus on account of his benefactions ‘to the whole world’ (Oliver 1989 no. 15, ii, 17-19). Similar language is employed by provincial governors. As early as 10 BCE, Paullus Fabius Maximus, governor of Asia, styles Augustus ‘the common good fortune of all men’ (Sherk 1969 no. 65, 8-9). His son Paullus Fabius Persicus, himself governor of Asia under Claudius, writes that the emperor ‘has taken the whole human race under his particular care’ (Smallwood 1967 no. 380, 13-14).
The paper will argue that this ecumenical rhetoric originates in the civic decrees of the cities of the East and is first endorsed and then reproduced in Roman pronouncements. It has its antecedents in the ‘generalizing idiom’ of Hellenistic kingship (Ma 2002) and particularly in the cosmocratic language of the Ptolemies. Whatever its origins, the ecumenical tropes of these imperial and praesidial pronouncements encouraged provincial audiences to see themselves as part of a community of subjects.