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Theoretical Models of Rulership in Roman and Early Byzantine Panegyrics

Sviatoslav Dmitriev

Ball State University

Roman and early Byzantine panegyrics are typically approached indiscriminately as reflecting the aspirations of Roman senatorial aristocracy (Straub 1964; Braund 1989). In political terms, they are believed to have followed Pliny’s Speech of Thanks to the emperor Trajan as a specimen of this genre par excellence, outlining the ideal images of “good” and “bad” rulers (Ronning 2007; Pilar García Ruiz 2013; Gibson and Rees 2013; Kelly 2013; Formisano 2015; Rees 2018). In literary terms, these panegyrics are also treated as having formed one “tradition of prosaic and poetic praise” (Connolly 2009).

Such attitudes seem to result from the relevant studies mostly examining Latin texts, focusing on the corpus of XII Panegyrici Latini with occasional exceptions (as Mazza 1986 on Merobaudes). Contemporary panegyrics in Greek, however, display significant differences when it comes to political expectations and a ruler’s desired qualities. Contrasting political and social perspectives from Greek and Latin panegyrics reveals that they actually espoused two distinct models of rulership.

Latin panegyrics—by Mamertinus to Maximian, Pacatus to Theodosius I, Priscian to Anastasius, and Corippus to Justin II, among others—reinforced senatorial views as projected by Pliny: the ideal ruler abided by laws like any other citizen, acted as a consul rather than a monarch, and governed in consultation with the senate (De Trizio 2009; Lippold 2012; Kelly 2015). The ruler who failed to meet such expectations was a tyrant. Typical features of such panegyrics included (favorably) comparing the addressee with his royal predecessors, and claiming that his rule was no different from the Roman republic.

Conversely, Greek panegyrics passed over the ruler’s legal status, focusing on his wisdom and moral qualities. Their ideal ruler need not be constrained by positive laws because— philosophically minded and virtuous—he was “animated law,” father, and teacher of goodness for his subjects. This image is projected in Dio’s four orations on kingship addressed to Trajan, an anonymous panegyric to the emperor Julian (Guida 1990), the panegyric to Anastasius by Procopius of Gaza, and to Justin II by Dioscorus of Aphrodito. This ruler’s supreme virtuousness made any comparisons of him with others incongruous. One who held power without such qualities was a tyrant.

The uniform system of education during the late Republican and imperial periods does not support interpreting this difference merely by a linguistic divide. We can trace the latter views from Plato and Xenophon to Hellenistic treatises on kingship (Bertelli 2002), to the ideas of Roman thinkers who were well versed in Greek philosophy, like Cicero (Atkins 2013; Powell 2013), Seneca, and Musonius Rufus (Dillon 2004), and, then, to Plutarch (Roskam 2002; Tirelli 2007), Aelius Aristides, Themistius, and other Greek intellectuals under the Roman empire (Gerhardt 2002; Ramelli 2006; Swain 2013). Specifically, the contrast between the images of the ideal ruler in the speeches to Trajan by Pliny and Dio, and—four hundred years later—to Anastasius by Priscian and Procopius reveals that this division reflected Greek and Roman models of rulership.

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The Discourse of Leadership in the Greco-Roman World

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