You are here

Ille suppositus: The Genealogical Plots of Panegyric 12(9)

W. Josiah Edwards Davis

Eusebian and Lactantian narratives of Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge have long provided historians and literary critics alike with a dominant script for this watershed event (Burkhardt 1853, Barnes 1981, Cameron 1983). Recent studies, however, have focused on neglected memories of Constantine’s victory in the Panegyrici Latini and other non-Christian texts (Humphries 2008, Van Dam 2012). I argue that Panegyric 12(9) deploys a range of genealogical fictions to legitimize and re-enact Constantine’s victory over Maxentius. Beginning with the construction of his illegitimacy (ille Maximiani suppositus), the text deracinates Maxentius from his paternal past and casts him in the role of barbarians defeated by Constantine’s ancestors. My analysis contributes to our understanding of the narratives that plot Constantine's memory and revise the past in the Panegyrici Latini.  

Recent studies have focused on the thorough damnatio memoriae of Maxentius at Rome after his defeat (Curran 2000, Humphries 2008, Marlowe 2010). His buildings were subsumed under Constantine’s name, and the sobriquet tyrannus erases his identity on Constantine’s arch. In Panegyric 12(9), however, genealogy endows Maxentius with a memory that ultimately underwrites his usurpation. For instance, Maxentius’ illegitimate birth (ille suppositus, 12(9).4.3) severs him from his paternal descent as narrated specifically in Panegyric 10(2).14.1-2. Without a past to re-enact, Maxentius inhabits a body whose deformity lacks imperial magnitudo and beauty (ille despectissimae parvitatis, detortis solutisque membris, 12(9).4.3). Next, I show that the reference to Constantine’s paternity (tu Constantii Pii filius, 12(9).4.3) affirms the representation of Constantine’s genealogy in Panegyric 7(6).3.3-4 where the text twice describes Constantine’s body as a facsimile of his father (in cuius ore caelestes illius vultus Natura signavit; te patris). The term vultus is particularly important because it gestures towards the role of portraits in communicating, and of their disfigurement in undermining, authority and legitimacy in the Tetrarchy (Lactant. De mort. pers. 25.1-3, 42.1-2; Paneg. Lat. 4(10).12.2). Moreover, deforming Maxentius’ body revises his public iconography, linked with a series of ancestral divi on his coins. For instance, the legend on one Aeternae Memoriae series reads ‘IMP MAXENTIUS DIVO MAXIMIANO PATRI’ (RIC 6.382 nos. 243-44). My analysis interprets the panegyric’s invective as a reading that corrects the authorizing representations of genealogy previously circulated in Maxentius’ propaganda.

The revision of Maxentius’ genealogy bears directly on the memory of his defeat at the Milvian Bridge. The panegyrist substitutes Maxentius’ imperial stemma with a lineage that traces his roots metaphorically back to enemies defeated by Constantine’s ancestors. Specifically, I show that Constantine’s victory re-enacts the battles of his ancestor Claudius II ‘Gothicus’ against barbarians on the Roman frontier. Although Warmington 1974 has analyzed the earliest articulation of this genealogical fiction in Panegyric 6(7), its reception within the collection has not been noted. The intertext between Panegyric 12(9).16.2 (torpore ac foedissimis latebris subito prorumperet) and Panegyric 6(7).2.2 (Gothorum copias Ponti faucibus et Histri ore proruptas) forms the basis for my analysis. The verb prorumpere characterizes both Maxentius in Panegyric 12(9) and barbarian incursions previously suppressed by Claudius II in Panegyric 6(7). Panegyric 12(9) also imitates the syntax of its model with two ablatives of separation. Elsewhere, rumpere and its cognates consistently represent barbarian incursions and insurrection (5(8).4.2; 12(9).22.3, 22.4). Appropriately, Maxentius’ expedition fails to re-enact his father’s defense of Trier (repentina tua in hostes eruptio, 10(2).6.4), the only positive occurrence of the term eruptio in the collection. Constantine, however, resurrects the memory of Claudius’ res gestae, and victory affirms his ancestry.

My paper demonstrates that genealogy is a significant locus for the revision of Maxentius’ past in Panegyric 12(9). Instead of consigning him to oblivion, the panegyrist actively engages with Maxentius’ memory both in the Panegyrici Latini and in his imperial iconography. In fact, Maxentius’ new memory underwrites Constantine’s political legitimacy. First articulated at Trier, the panegyrist’s genealogical fictions anticipate Constantine’s commemoration at Rome and provide the imperial center with a view of its past from the frontier. 

Session/Panel Title

Forms of Argument in Dicanic and Epideictic Speech

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy