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Persuasive Authority: Continuity and Precedent in the Rescripts of Severus Alexander

Zachary Herz

Columbia University

Severus Alexander, the final emperor of the Severan dynasty (and by many definitions the Principate), is largely unknown to us. The major historians of the Severan period ceased writing early in his reign, his architectural footprint is mostly lost, and the man himself—crowned as a child and killed before thirty—did not leave the grandiose pronouncements of Caracalla or the strange coinage of Elagabalus. This makes him hard to discuss. Recent scholarship on Severus Alexander has emphasized the political philosophy behind his portrayal in the Historia Augusta (Bertrand-Dagenbach 1990), the ideological underpinnings of his numismatic and architectural program (Rowan 2013), or those details of his administration available from the prosopographical evidence (de Blois 2006).  My paper adds to this literature by considering a vast trove of material that has to date been largely unconsidered for this sort of inquiry: the 530 rescripts (legal pronouncements, given as replies to written petitions) attributed to Severus Alexander that survive within the Codex Justinianus. Analyzing these documents not only as legal authorities, but also as sites of ideologically charged imperial communication, reveals a deliberate messaging program emphasizing Severus Alexander’s familial and intellectual links to prior rulers in order to buttress his claims to the Roman throne.

My paper presents a quantitative study of the rescripts contained in the Codex Justinianus, and explains how the results of that study enrich our understanding of Severus Alexander’s messaging program. For this study, I have isolated every instance within the Codex where an emperor justifies his statement of the law by claiming to follow the reasoning of a prior emperor, or by noting that his predecessors agreed with him; I refer to these instances as arguments from precedent. This style of argument is relatively rare in the Codex; given that the emperor’s interpretations of Roman law were self-validating (Dig. 1.4.1: quod principi placuit, legis habet vigorem), emperors were far less likely to seek precedential support than were jurists, or for that matter than are judges in modern common-law systems. Only 58 rescripts in the Codex Justinianus as a whole include arguments from precedent, less than one percent of the total corpus of rescripts contained therein.

That said, approximately one third of these rescripts (eighteen in total) are attributed to Severus Alexander. Given that Severus Alexander was responsible for only seven percent of the Codex as a whole, it is clear that he was far more likely than the average emperor to justify his legal pronouncements by citing the opinions of prior emperors, which sent a message of both intellectual and practical continuity with earlier rulers. Furthermore, Alexander exclusively cited emperors to whom he claimed a familial relationship (the Severans and late Antonines), often with language reaffirming that relationship (see, for example, CJ 6.50.5: secundum constitutionem Divi Severi, avi mei). This correlation is too strong to be a mere accident of preservation; instead, I argue that it reflects a conscious attempt to link himself with emperors who had possessed stronger claims to the throne. Clare Rowan has recently argued that Severus Alexander refashioned the Elagabalium into a temple to Jupiter Ultor in order to position himself as defending traditional Roman religious practices (Rowan 2013: 223-33), and the rescripts suggest that Alexander’s legal regime served a similar role. In addition to providing more evidence for the ideological program of an enigmatic ruler, these findings also serve as a proof of concept; by considering legal communications as part of the history of imperial messaging more broadly, we can better understand how emperors of the late Principate communicated with their subjects and attempted to maintain a political and ideological system that was, by the third century, rapidly falling apart.

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Legal Authority

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