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Imperial Authority and Saeculum Rhetoric from Augustus to Constantine

Susan Dunning

The Augustan Ludi Saeculares of 17 BCE were the first occasion on which Republican sacrifices at Tarentum in the Campus Martius were connected with Rome’s entrance into a new age, or saeculum. From this new association Augustus, with the help of Ateius Capito, renamed the old Tarentum sacrifices (formerly known as Ludi Tarentini) the Ludi Saeculares, the name they would bear in all future celebrations. I show that the altered name of the Games in turn influenced the very use of the term saeculum throughout the imperial period, imbuing it with a new significance that was developed gradually across a variety of media. In order to investigate the relationship between the saeculum and the Ludi Saeculares, I have compared literary, numismatic, and epigraphic references to the Games with references to the concept of saeculum, limited in sense to a “new age”, from the Republic to Imperial period.

The use of saeculum in documents and monuments of the imperial period was at first associated strongly with celebrations of the Ludi Saeculares, but diverged from the games in the second and third centuries CE to form a kind of rhetoric that emphasized an individual emperor’s authority, establishment of a new dynasty, and power to secure prosperity for the Roman Empire. For example, CIL 3.75, a temple dedication from Philae, 206–211 CE, opens with a characteristic formula: felicissimo saeculo d(ominorum) / n(ostrorum), “in the most fortunate age of our lords”, referring to Septimius Severus and his sons. Scholarship on the relationship between the Ludi Saeculares and the rhetoric of the saeculum has concentrated only on literary allusions to Augustus’s new “golden age”, as found in such authors as Vergil or Ovid (Barker 1996, Williams 2003, Feeney 2007), but has not extended to its literary use in later centuries, or its use in imperial coinage and inscriptions of any period. This approach does not provide any interpretation of how members of Roman society after the Augustan period would have interpreted the term saeculum. Noreña’s (2011) diachronic investigation of symbols used to legitimize imperial authority does not include any discussion of the saeculum or the Secular Games.

I begin with an overview of my methodology and the late Republican context of the Augustan adoptation of saeculum for the Ludi Saeculares. I then summarize my analysis of 102 inscriptions, 334 coins, and 91 literary passages through a series of charts and graphs. This survey of the data demonstrates that evidence for saeculum rhetoric was initially confined to the reigns of emperors who celebrated the Ludi Saeculares, and even to the very years in which the Games were held: under Augustus in 17 BCE, Claudius in 47 CE, and Domitian in 88 CE. A close connection between the Games and the saeculum was maintained until the reign of Septimius Severus, who held the Games in 204 CE. After Severus, saeculum rhetoric was adopted into common imperial usage, even in years and reigns when no Ludi Saeculares were celebrated.

After discussing the summarized evidence, I examine briefly several key examples of saeculum rhetoric throughout the imperial period, from Augustus to Constantine. I show that the appearance of this rhetoric in inscriptions endured at least a century longer than in coinage, while saeculum references in literature after Constantine became closely entwined with Christian interpretations of the term. The use of saeculum rhetoric together with and, eventually, independently of the Ludi Saeculares allowed imperial control to be asserted over time, not merely space. When saeculum rhetoric was used in conjunction with celebrations of the Games, this authority was associated with the continuity of the imperial family, the centrality of the city of Rome, and the establishment and maintenance of good relations with the gods through religious performances.

Session/Panel Title:

Emperors, Aristocrats, and Bishops in Late Antiquity

Session/Paper Number

23.1

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