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The Kings as Imperial Models in the Fourth-Century Epitomators

Jeremy Swist

University of Iowa

The historian Livy called his work a memorial of exemplary models ( exempla ) that
individuals and states should imitate or avoid ( praef. 10). He arguably desired Augustus’
readership, and that the allusive exempla of unconstrained monarchs such as Romulus and
Tarquin would exercise a check on his own power (Petersen 1961, Simmons 2008). Within the
period of Late Antiquity we likewise find historical prose aimed at guiding, and limiting, the
exercise of imperial power through the exempla of past monarchs (Bird 1993). During the later
fourth century CE the so-called Latin epitomators or breviarists produced condensed Roman
histories beginning from either Romulus’ founding of the city or that of the Augustan Principate.
Each author desired an imperial readership. Aurelius Victor arguably composed his Liber de
Caesaribus for Constantius II, but may have presented it to Julian in 361. Next, Eutropius
composed his Breviarium at the behest of Valens in 369. Finally, the Epitome de Caesaribus ,
written after the death of Theodosius I in 395, was arguably intended to be read by Honorius
(Gauville 2005). Among the most plausible authorial aims of all three, including the display of
educational refinement to advance careers in the imperial service, was the wish that their
imperial readers imitate the virtues of good emperors and avoid the vices of the bad. Desired
imperial activities include the military expansion of the Empire and respect for both the
relevance of the Senate and for traditional cultural institutions—in short, the qualities of a civilis
princeps most in the interest of non-Christian senators and bureaucrats (Wallace-Hadrill 1982,
Bird 1993).
The purpose of this paper is to examine one aspect of that didactic function, one that past
scholars have overlooked as a unifying theme within these works, namely the relation of past
emperors to the Seven Kings of Rome as exemplary rulers. While Eutropius begins his work
with biographies of the kings themselves as exemplary rulers (Eutr. 1.1-8), all three frequently
refer to these kings both directly and indirectly as exempla for comparison with both good and
bad emperors, e.g. conquerors like Romulus with Trajan (Eutr. 8.8), peaceful rulers like Numa
with Antoninus Pius ( Epit. 15.3), and tyrants like Tarquin with Caligula (Aur. Vict. 3.14). I treat
these three authors together not merely to unpack their various regal comparisons, but to show
how regal exemplarity evolves across the half-century separating Victor and the Epitome , with
Eutropius as midpoint. In Victor, the exempla of the kings outnumber those from all other
periods, and are the standards of qualities desired or rejected in an emperor: expansion and
unification of empire (Romulus), respect for traditional political, religious, and cultural
institutions (Numa), and avoiding the negative exempla of overt regal ostentation (Tarquin).
Next, Eutropius presents the kings similarly, but strips them of their “pagan” baggage, and
employs their exempla as ornaments to the primary exemplary figures of emperors such as
Trajan and the Antonines (Eutr. 8.8). The Epitome , finally, completes the process by explicitly
rejecting the kings as worthy comparanda, rendered obsolete by those of the emperors that
transcend them, e.g. Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius surpassing Numa and Romulus ( Epit.
15.3, 16.14). This evolution demonstrates how non-Christian writers adapted the presentation of
Roman history meant for the emperor to read across successive dynasties from the house of
Constantine to that of Theodosius. As the kings were becoming exclusively pagan symbols and
the bêtes noires of Christian polemicists , they became less persuasive as models of imperial
conduct. In response, these authors began approaching more and more the tropes of
contemporary panegyric in favoring imperial over early regal models to influence their audience
(cf. Pan. Lat. 2.20.2-6 , 10.13.1-2). By examining the refashioning of the exemplary monarchs of
the Roman past, we may appreciate how the writing of history in Late Antiquity may have
intended to influence, if not constrain, imperial behavior.

Session/Panel Title

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

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