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The ‘Roman Revolution of Constantine’ and the Resilience of Roman Senators

Michele Salzman

University of California, Riverside

This paper examines the senatorial elite of Rome in light of the so-called Roman Revolution of Constantine (Van Dam 2007).   After Constantine’s victory in the civil war of 312, the senatorial elites of Rome faced significant challenges to their prestige and status.  Constantine had redefined the ways in which senatorial status was established, making it hereditary but also expanding the number of men with clarissimate (i.e. senatorial status; (Weisweiler forthcoming; Garbarino 1988; 65-66; Heather 1998); he supported Christianity, and founded a new capital city in the east, Constantinople.   Nonetheless, as I argue, the resilience of western Roman elites in the face of changes wrought by Constantine enabled them to not just retain, but to expand their power and prestige in Rome.  They did so not, as was once argued (e.g. Alföldy 1948), through open conflict over religious differences, nor, as has been recently proposed (Weisweiler 2015B), through their subservience to the emperor, but rather, through their maintenance of independent patronage and social networks.  Thus, the creative resilience of senators in the age of Constantine made them key, political players who should be credited for “shaping the distribution of resources and life chances on the ground.” 

To demonstrate the resilience and influence of the Roman senators and for comparative purposes, I adapt the three categories used by Weisweiler (2015A) to assess senatorial prestige in the early empire.   Senators were central to Constantine in three traditional respects: 1) as high office holders; 2) as wealth landowners; and 3) as performers of public ceremonial. 

The willingness of Constantine to appoint Roman nobles to high office has been argued (Salzman 2015), but more recent work on office holders by Moser (2018) has emphasized the appointment of western senators to eastern positions.  Such appointments enabled the expansion of senatorial influence and patronage networks into new regions of the empire. So, for example, in epigrams that laud the urban prefects under Constantine preserved in the late fourth century letters of Symmachus (Letters 1.1-1.2),  the career of the Italian urban prefect of Rome, Locrius Verinus, who served in the military in the east and was governor of Syria, is exemplary of the expanded opportunities for western senatorial elites (see too Salzman 2000).

Contrary to the position of Weisweiler (2015B), I argue that Roman senators, although more efficiently taxed under Constantine, nonetheless retained their economic dominance and control of resources.  Rather than suffering financially, as landowners under a restored Constantinian peace, they enjoyed expanded economic opportunities to supply the state.  Signs of senatorial wealth emerge in Rome in the domestic sphere, as expanded elite housing attests (Machado forthcoming).  

An increasingly independent elite manifested their wealth and status in the ceremonial life of the city.  Thus, senatorial elites take a more visible role in the public life of the city, represented on imperial monuments, as on the Arch of Constantine, as patrons as well as supporters.  The habit of dedicating statues in areas once preserved only for emperors (Chenault 2012), as well as the pronounced assertion of traditional religion in public spaces (as at the public games) gave Roman senators new prominence in the civic life of the city.  In sharp contrast, the bishops of Rome were weak civic presences.

Creative resilience, covert resistance, and adherence to senatorial traditions allowed the Roman senatorial elites to retain prestige and power in the face of the Roman Revolution of Constantine.  Increased taxation did not undermine their hegemony or their autonomy.  Nor did Christianity challenge pagan senatorial status.  The absence of a resident emperor only reduced competition for influence.  Even if, as Hillner (2017) has argued, imperial women represented the imperial dynasty in Rome, their presence did not challenge the status of male, mostly pagan senatorial elites under Constantine.  It would take a new generation of rulers and senators to respond openly to the changes wrought by Constantine (Watts 2015). 

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