Ritual Experience

Monuments aligned with the Sacred Way in late antiquity, such as the equestrian statue of Constantine adjacent to the rostra, illustrated with solemnity the virtues exemplified by the emperors.  Accompanying Constantine’s representation on horseback an inscription celebrated him as an “ever-triumphant emperor.”[1]

The grandiose praise written on the statue base indicates that Constantine maintained an exalted position above all others; the emperor’s status was also on display during imperial ceremonies conducted in the Roman Forum and was upheld by means of protocol.

A pair of statues that faced the Sacred Way, illustrated here to the left of Constantine’s equestrian statue, portrayed Honorius together with Stilicho in a manner that mitigated imperial supremacy.[2] Under the sway of Stilicho, Honorius altered the protocol and allowed his former guardian to play a central role in the procession of 404.  Late imperial norms placed the emperor rather than the military general in the most honored spot, but Honorius ignored this tradition and welcomed Stilicho as his companion in the chariot so that the latter appeared as if a ruler.[3] Historical sources record a fiction that Theodosius I, prior to his death, privately appointed Stilicho as the sole guardian of the emperor’s two sons, Honorius and Arcadius; in fact, only Honorius required a regent at the time.[4] Stilicho’s close proximity to Honorius during the procession in Rome, documented by Claudian, is testimony to the military commander receiving unprecedented honors.[5]

Claudian’s panegyric deemed Stilicho’s elevated position during the Roman procession as adhering to tradition even though protocol had been violated.  According to Claudian, Stilicho was justified for participating in the ritual of 404 by the earlier event in 389 when Theodosius I shared the stage with his five-year-old son, Honorius.  Claudian’s verses address Honorius directly using terms in which the populace recalls the boyhood visit.  “Citizen as you are, deign to enter this company and let us see once more the face we saw so long ago, so that recalling in his mind that earlier triumph, Tiber, who had welcomed you as your father’s companion in the tender years of childhood, may now worship you as a young man under the guidance of your father-in-law.”[6] Stilicho’s perspective pervades the text of Claudian that at times characterized Honorius in somewhat ambivalent terms. Claudian’s poem, prepared in advance of the procession, justified Honorius’ failure to distribute gold coins to the people by claiming that the affections of the populace could not be bought.[7]  Honorius also did not display the skills of eloquence during a senatorial address, neglecting the tradition of imperial oratory so as to appear honest, according to Claudian.[8]

  1. [1] CIL.VI.1141:  “. . . TRIUMPHATORI SEMPER AUGUSTO . . . ”
  2. [2] CIL.VI.1730; 31987.  The statue representing Honorius (CIL.VI.31987) was set up during the urban prefecture of Flavius Pisidius Romulus and, thus, was not installed earlier than 403; see PLRE, I, 771-772 (Romulus 5).
  3. [3] Claudian, VI. Cons. 578-580.
  4. [4] Claudian, III Cons. 144-162; Zosimus 4.59.1-15; 5.4.3.  See also Alan Cameron, “Theodosius the Great and the Regency of Stilicho,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 73 (1969), 247-280.
  5. [5] Claudian composed poems that advanced Stilicho’s role as the most influential imperial advisor in the west.  For example, Claudian’s In Rufinam subtly negotiated Stilicho’s goal of gaining authority in the east as well; the poetic text advances Stilicho’s opposition to Rufinus, the praetorian prefect of the eastern empire who had conspired against the half-Vandal military commander.
  6. [6] Claudian, VI. Cons. 422-425: “hunc civis dignare chorum conspectaque dudum / ora refer, pompam recolens ut mente priorem, / quem tenero patris comitem susceperat aevo, / nunc duce cum socero iuvenem te Thybris adoret.”  Trans. M. Dewar (1996) 31.  For Stilicho as the hero of Claudian’s VI Cons., see Alan Cameron, Poetry and Propaganda, 46-48.
  7. [7] Claudian, VI Cons. 604-605.
  8. [8] Claudian, VI. Cons. 592-594.