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Liberator or Tyrannus? The Ideology of Libertas in Usurpation and Civil War

Tristan Taylor

Ideas of libertas were powerfully resonant in Roman political ideology (eg, Stylow 1972, Wirszubski 1960), particularly in moments of transitions of power. Thus, L. Brutus was celebrated by Tacitus as founding the consulship and libertas (Ann. 1.1) and Augustus in his Res Gestae claims as his first achievement the liberation of the state from an oppressive faction (Res Ges. 1.1). The theme of libertas thus seems ideal for exploitation in justifying the deposition of a reigning emperor or usurper. This paper will explore the extent to which this possibility was exploited by usurpers from Galba through to Magnentius, with a focus on imperial coinage, which is often the only way that we have access to the ideology of failed imperial claimants. It will be argued that the first successful usurper, Galba, made extensive use of the theme of libertas. He made his proclamation of rebellion at a ceremony of manumission (Suet. Galba 10.1) and coins were also struck in Spain during his usurpation echoing those celebrating libertas that had been struck in Brutus’ name after his assassination of Caesar, featuring two daggers and a pilleus (RIC I p. 205 no. 24; Crawford 1974, no. 508/3). Following the civil conflict of 69, identifying the political significance of expressions of libertas, particularly on coinage, becomes problematic as libertas became a regular, if not necessarily prominent, type from Nerva onwards (Wallace-Hadrill 1981, Noreña 2011). Bearing this caution in mind, it appears that libertas received little emphasis through to the tetrarchy as a theme in the ideology of those who deposed or rebelled against emperors portrayed as ‘tyrants’ in the sources. Libertas received little emphasis in the coinage of Commodus’ successors in the civil wars of 193-7 and it was a more prominent theme in the coinage of the ‘tyrannical’ Caracalla than his successor Macrinus (Noreña 2011). Similarly, throughout the third century, although a number of emperors possess poor reputations, such as Maximinus Thrax, Gallienus and Carinus, their successors did not generally emphasize libertas on their coinage, nor portray themselves as a liberator. This relative marginalization of libertas changes in the early fourth century in the civil war between the usurpers Constantine and Maxentius, and the usurpation of Magnentius. The theme of liberation from tyranny dominated the representation of Constantine’s victory over Maxentius and was monumentalized on the Arch of Constantine (ILS 694, echoing Aug. Res Ges. 1.1), celebrated in panegyrics (eg, Pan Lat 4(10).19.3) and hailed on coins (eg, RIC VI p. 387 nos. 303-4). Similarly, Magnentius, who overthrew Constans – portrayed in literary sources as a tyrant (eg, Zos 2.42.1; Aur. Vict 41.23) –was celebrated on milestones as the restitutor libertatis (eg, CIL 5.9066, CIL 11.6640a, CIL 9.5397) and emphasized libertas in his coinage (eg, RIC VIII, pp 260-4, Kellner 1968), perhaps following Constantine. While caution must be exercised as we possess more evidence for these two incidents than for those of the third century, two tentative conclusions may be drawn from this revived emphasis. Firstly, that it was perceived that the theme of libertas would have a particular resonance in the traditional heartland of the Roman world – the Italian peninsula – central both to the conflict between Constantine and Maxentius and to Magnentius’ usurpation. Secondly, it may represent an increased ability and willingness by the relevant imperial court to control its self-representation, hence the consistency in representation across a variety of media. These contentions gain support from the evidence of Magnentius’ use of libertas in particular. In his case, despite his dominions including much of the western part of the empire, the inscriptional evidence for libertas is concentrated in northern Italy, near the then base of his court in Aquileia, which suggests both the ability of the court to control the message due to geographical proximity, and a desire to concentrate that particular message in Italy.

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The Figure of the Tyrant

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