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The Imperial Adventus: Evolving Dialogues between Emperor and City in the Third Century C.E.

Shawn Ragan

University of California at Riverside

Previous studies on what is often called ‘the third-century crisis’ (235-284 CE) have
primarily focused on the role of the military in legitimating imperial authority, which has led
many scholars, such as A.H.M. Jones, to identify the period as a “military anarchy” (Jones, 23).
Hence, emperors beginning with Maximinus Thrax, the first emperor after the end of the Severan
dynasty, are read through the lens of civil war and military upheaval. Cursory readings of the
literary evidence would seem to support this interpretation. This focus on the military has also
led scholars to claim that traditional religion was in a period of decline, reacting to the political
and military upheaval of the post-Severan decades. Scholars, such as Gradel and de Blois, for
instance, argue that the imperial cult received its death blow when Maximinus Thrax looted
temples to pay his soldiers (Herodian 7.3.5-6; Gradel, 363; de Blois). Based on a wide range of
textual, numismatic, and epigraphic evidence, I argue, on the contrary, that in this period of
upheaval, the imperial cult and the associated rituals not only continued but provided critical
tools for emperors and generals to reassert their authority. Not only did imperial cult provide
imperial contenders a new source of divine power, but it also allowed local elites and residents of
cities an increasingly important role in legitimating or rejecting individual claims to imperial
In this paper, I focus on the ritual of adventus. Through a close reading of the history of
Herodian, I show that from cheering crowds in the time of Commodus (Herodian 1.7.1-3, 6) to
the hurling of insults in 193 CE (2.6.13) and finally to the myriad ways claimants to the throne
were received, or not, in 238, the careful integration of adventus with accession and imperial
power functions as an effective and subtle trope that reveals contemporary perspectives on the
changes taking place in the third century and the ways in which local residents could respond to
the political turmoil of the time. So, for instance, the residents of the city of Aquileia used the
religious rituals connected with the accession and arrival of an emperor (i.e. adventus) in novel
ways to provide the ideological means to effectively challenge Maximinus as emperor and to
accept those announced by the Senate. Through these rituals, cities were able to accept, reject, or
sometimes limit imperial authority.
As the emperor’s relationship to the divine evolved over the course of the century, he
grew increasingly distant from the residents of the empire, a phenomenon that has been observed
but not thoroughly explored in previous scholarship. These changes function as part of the
transition that would emerge by the end of the century and would define the tetrarchy and
Constantinian imperial praxis and political philosophy. The shifting relationship between the
emperor and the cities can also be clearly seen in the early fourth century. Constantine, as Lenski
has noted, had to adopt different messages in his discourse with the cities, a necessity that
developed in the third century out of these changes to imperial cult and the dialog between cities
and emperor. The religious and political philosophies connected with emperor worship in the
third century thus provided the background for Christian notions of imperial authority and

Session/Panel Title

Where Does it End?: Limits on Imperial Authority in Late Antiquity

Session/Paper Number


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