Ritual Experience

Crowds shouted highly orchestrated acclamations to address all of the co-reigning emperors during late antique imperial rituals.  The acclamations were repeated dozens of times.  “As Roman Emperors, pious and felicitous, may you rule for many years . . . . . . .Through you, our honors; through you, our patrimonies; through you, our all;” crowds in Rome shouted these phrases in 438.[1] The stock phrases called out by the crowds resounded off the walls of Rome’s buildings. Claudian attests to similar acclamations shouted at Honorius in 404.  “In unison from the hollow of the valley, the roars of the populace so honored are carried high into the heavens and there they sound and sound again, as all at once the echo thunders out the name of the Augustus from all the seven hills.”[2] Stilicho also benefitted from public acclamations as he accompanied the emperor through the city.  Receiving acclamations in 404 indicated that the public granted Stilicho at least provisional honors, since he instigated the demise of Gildo and forced Alaric with his Visigothic troops to retreat from Italy.  Implicitly, the praises for Honorius countered the criticism of Stilicho as a public enemy that had been issued by the Constantinopolitan senate, but which was clearly not enforced in the west.  Nonetheless, the Roman crowds must have been aware that their shouts of praise bolstered the power of an enemy of the eastern state, since the accusations of treachery against Stilicho resulted from his conniving to become the regent over Arcadius and after having meddled so intrusively into the workings of the Constantinopolitan court.  In 404, the crowds shouting praise both welcomed Honorius and Stilicho to Rome, since the acclamations demonstrated public agreement with imperial policies.

Vociferous celebrations that honored the elite in public often did turn ugly.  Angry crowds dragged the statues of Theodosius through the streets of Antioch during what has become known as the Riot of the Statues in 387.[3] The outbreaks were not spontaneous, but had been sanctioned by local authorities.  Constantine had issued a law in 331 dictating how the crowds should call out accusations against criminals in court:  “the unjust and the evildoers must be accused by cries of complaints, in order that the force of our censure may destroy them.”[4] With shouts of condemnation, crowds in Rome attacked the statues of Stilicho in 408 after Honorius identified him as a traitor and ordered his assassination.  These accusations shifted the public’s memory of Stilicho first to bitter contempt and ultimately to that of erasure, graphically recorded in the words excised from the inscribed and upturned equestrian statue base facing the Sacred Way that had once honored him by name.[5]

  1. [1] Gesta Senatum Urbis Romae a. 438; preface to Cod. Theod. “Romani imperatores et pii felices, multis annis imperetis. . . . .  Per vos honores, per vos patrimonia, per vos omnia.” Trans. Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitution, ed. and trans. C. Pharr (Union, NJ:  Lawbook Exchange, 2001), 5.
  2. [2] Claudian, VI. Cons. 615-617: “adsenusuque cavae sublatus in aethera vallis /  plebis adoratae reboat frago unaque totis / intonat Augustum septenis arcibus echo.” Trans. M. Dewar (1996) 43.
  3. [3] See Libanius, Orations 19-23; John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Statues:  An Introduction, ed. Franz van de Pavel (Rome:  Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1991).
  4. [4] Cod. Theod. 1.16.6=Cod. Iust. 1.40.3: “iniustis et maleficis querellarum vocibus accusandis, ut censurae nostrae vigor eos absumat” Trans. Theodosian Code, C. Pharr ed. and trans., 28.
  5. [5] CIL.VI.31987.