Sacred Founders: Women, Men, and Gods in the Discourse of Imperial Founding, Rome through Early Byzantium

Sacred Founders: Women, Men, and Gods in the Discourse of Imperial Founding, Rome through Early Byzantium

by Diliana N. Angelova


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284012
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/02/2015
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Diliana N. Angelova is Assistant Professor of the History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Sacred Founders

Women, Men, and Gods in the Discourse of Imperial Founding, Rome through Early Byzantium

By Diliana N. Angelova


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95968-2



Mediterranean History and Augustan Innovations

It was February 395 when Ambrose (ca. 339–97) delivered his speech to commemorate the recent death of the Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379–95). Ambrose evoked Christian eternity, describing a paradise where Constantine, the first Christian emperor, welcomed the newly deceased Theodosius with an embrace. But the imaginative heart of the oration is a story about the origins of the Christian monarchy; and in Ambrose's telling, that story has less to do with Constantine than with his mother, Helena. The bishop explains that Helena received inspiration from the Holy Spirit to look for the cross on which Christ had been crucified. Reflecting on the motivation for her quest, Ambrose says that Helena contrasted her own privilege with the dilapidated artifacts of Jesus's lifetime: "Shall I be covered with golden ornaments, and the triumph of Christ by ruins?" He then recounts how Helena traveled to the Holy Land, unearthed the True Cross, and ordered that a diadem and a bridle be made from the nails with which Christ had been crucified. These she sent to her son, who "used both, and transmitted his faith to later kings." Ambrose concludes that "the beginning of the faith of emperors is the holy relic which is upon the bridle. ... Thereafter, the succeeding emperors were Christians, except Julian alone." Thus had Helena fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 14:20 about the coming of the Christian kingdom. In Ambrose's telling, the story of Helena's finding of the cross, woven out of both legendary and historical threads, became the foundation myth of the Christian Roman Empire. Helena's pious resolution and inspired sense of mission made the monarchy Christian.

This remarkable story about Helena's founding can only be understood by looking into gendered ideas about imperial founders, ideas that predate Ambrose's oration by centuries. The bishop's aition (story of origins) of the Christian Roman Empire, an account centered on a female and a male ruler, was a Christian restatement of the central myth in a discourse of imperial founding that went back to Augustus. Augustus did not invent this discourse. He elaborated and put his unique stamp on an existing Mediterranean (Roman and Hellenistic) discourse of founding. The first emperor wove into this discourse an image of himself as Rome's new founder and of Livia, his wife, as his female counterpart. All emperors who came after would seek to be founders in the Augustan mold.


Ambrose's aition of the Christian Roman Empire offers an alternative to the traditional pre- Christian way to measure time and conceive of the empire's beginnings. Three years after Ambrose's funerary oration, Claudian, a pagan poet, traced a course of imperial history quite different from that of Ambrose. Dedicating a hymn to the marriage of the emperor Honorius, Theodosius's younger son, and Maria, the daughter of Serena and Stilicho (all of them Christians whom Ambrose knew personally), the poet traces the imperial lineage back to Livia. The relics that connect the present to the past in Claudian's hymn are different from those in Ambrose's oration. Claudian wrote that the groom's gifts for the bride were "jewels once worn by noble Livia of old and all the proud women of the imperial house." Clearly the two men offered divergent accounts for the origins of the empire and for interpretations of the past that influenced the present. For Ambrose, the history of the Christian empire began with a relic and a pair of pious rulers, Helena and Constantine. A Crucifixion relic — not Livia's jewels — signified the continuity of the Christian empire. By contrast, for the pagan poet, imperial history commenced with Livia and, implicitly, Augustus. The proof was the transmission of family heirlooms from one empress to the next.

The alternative myths, Christian and pagan, with their implied connection of origins, lineage, and the measurement of time, have much to tell about the role of founding and gender in the presentation of imperial authority. Similarities between the first Augustus and Rome's founders, Romulus (Rome's founder) and Aeneas (the father of the Latin people), have been amply documented by ancient and modern authors. Livia was considered similarly as a founder of a new generation and as mother of the Roman people, though these characterizations have been little noted.

Although Livia had no Virgil, the honors she received are suggestive. An inscription from Tlos (Lycia, Asia Minor), dated traditionally to the reign of Claudius (41–54 C.E.), announced the establishment of a cult to Livia at Tlos. This cult included processions (pompas), sacrifices (thusias), and athletic competitions (agonas), divine honors that recognized Livia's founding act and rewarded it accordingly. The inscription states: "She [Livia] created [sunestamene] the race of the Sebastoi [Augusti] [sebaston genos] in accordance with the most sacred succession of the manifested gods, a house incorruptible and immortal for all time." Although the first few lines of the inscription and some portions of the text are missing, enough survives to deduce that the city of Tlos, very much like Ambrose three centuries later, exalted a female founder, Livia, the first Augusta (14 C.E.), rather than her husband, the first Augustus (27 B.C.E.). The text states that Livia was given divine honors for binding together (sunestamene) a new genos, a Greek noun meaning both "ethnos" and "generation." Thus she was honored for establishing the "ethnos/generation of the Augusti." This formulation transcends the personal, because for the Roman Senate, according to official documents, the state was in the care of the Augustan family. A senatorial decree from the year 20 C.E. specifies: "the welfare of the empire has been placed in the guardianship [custodia] of the [Augustan] domus." Livia's actions affected not just the imperial family but the entire state. More than Augustus's wife and Tiberius's mother, Livia was a founder of a new generation. As Helena, by her inspired quest for the cross, founded the line of the Christian emperors, Livia, according to the Tlos inscription, was the originator of all Augusti, and with them, the age of the Augusti, the imperial age.

The significance of these ideas is evident when the Tlos inscription is read in relation to two famous passages from Virgil's poetry. The comparison suggests that the conceptual link between parenting of times and generations was relevant in the Latin West as well as in the Greek-speaking East. The Tlos inscription echoes two Virgilian predictions that similarly connect people/ethnos with time. In his Fourth Eclogue (39–38 B.C.E.), Virgil prophesies a new age (dating it to 40 B.C.E.), and connects it to the birth of a child (4.10). He refers to this period as a saeculum, a Latin noun that, like the Greek genos, relates to both people and time: "the body of individuals born at a particular time, a generation." Saeculum can thus be translated as "generation," or as "ethnos/race/family." Virgil sees this "new race/ethnos/progeny" (nova progenies), descended from gods, as a "golden people" (gens aurea) living in the age of Apollo (Ec. 4.7–10). Virgil writes:

Now is come the last age of Cumaean song; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do you, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Your own Apollo now reigns!

The poem makes no direct reference to Augustus, though some scholars have suggested that the phrase "tuus iam regnat Apollo" (now your Apollo reigns) can be understood as Augustus assimilated to Apollo. Servius, Virgil's fourth-century commentator, equated the Apollo of this passage with Sol, so that the age the Sibyl foretold was the age of Apollo Sol. The man hailed in the Fourth Eclogue as the progenitor of the new generation/era is named by Virgil in his Aeneid (19 B.C.E.). There the poet identifies Augustus, scion of a divine people, as the founder of a "golden race [ethnos]/age." These are the terms and the message of the Tlos inscription, which therefore describes Livia similarly to Virgil's presentation of Augustus.

Styling Livia and Augustus as progenitors of new generations/ages resonates with the honorary titles proposed by the Roman Senate for the imperial pair. After the death of Augustus (in 14 C.E.), the senators discussed giving Livia the unprecedented title "mother of the fatherland" (mater patriae). Twelve years earlier, they had recognized Augustus as father of the fatherland (pater patriae). At the assumed time of the Tlos inscription, Augustus was already worshiped in Rome as the divinity Divus Augustus. Livia became the Roman goddess Diva Augusta in 42 C.E., during the reign of her grandson Claudius, but she was probably accorded religious honors unusual for mortals as early as 29 B.C.E.

Other indications of the exalted place accorded Livia include a cameo presenting her as a New Venus, dating to a time before the Tlos inscription and perhaps before even the senatorial proposal of 14 C.E. It was likely produced in Rome, and intended for elite consumers, the kind of people Livia and Augustus associated with. In this carved turquoise gem from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Livia holds a bust of Augustus or Tiberius (her son) (fig. 3). Her distinct physiognomy — a slightly aquiline nose, high cheekbones, and a pointed chin — are all easily discerned. But the artist aimed at something more than a recognizable portrait, presenting Augustus's wife as a double of the goddess Venus Genetrix, the progenitor of the Roman people. The garment slipping seductively off Livia's left shoulder recalls a familiar detail of the goddess's iconography, going back to the fifth century B.C.E. (fig. 4). In the cameo, however, the Livia Venus is a figure of authority in relation to the male figure. The habitual mother-child posture alluded to in the composition takes on a new meaning, forged through the incongruous age of the "child" and the relative sizes of the figures. The image projects Livia's authority and/or seniority over the male "child."

These examples suggest broadly that Livia and Augustus were honored, both in Rome and in the provinces, as the female and male progenitors of new generation/age, and of the commonwealth. Moreover, Livia's and Augustus's imagined roles invite consideration of those attributed to Helena and Constantine in Ambrose's oration. Helena and Constantine emerge as correlates to Livia and Augustus, like them partners in forging for the state a new generation/age. Ambrose offered a Christian reading of two old notions. He signaled an alternative pair of founders and the arrival of a Christian-appropriate new generation/age. At the same time, he conjured an alternative yet familiar vision of heaven, as a place still populated with emperors and empresses but empty of imperial gods.


In the ancient world one of the most prestigious feats for a mortal was to generate a new people. Birthing a race/ethnos was bound conceptually to founding a city, which involved creating a new people and the coming of a new era. City founders commanded honors rivaled only by those bestowed on gods and heroes. Deities such as Apollo, Dionysus, Artemis, Athena, Hera, Zeus, and a hero such as Heracles (Hercules) were reputed founders of a number of cities. Pre-Hellenistic Greek cities celebrated their "parents" or founding gods by worshiping them and minting coins with their image. The city of Athens, to give one example among many, showed on its coinage the head of its founding deity, the goddess Athena. Neither Athens, the eponymous city, nor its eponymous people existed until she gave them her name. Like their divine counterparts, the human founders of cities (some of whom had divine parents) were thought of as parents to those cities and authors of an eponymous age or generations; they were deified for their accomplishments. Some of these human founders received the exceptional privilege of an ample burial ground in the agora, cultic honors at their graves, and games.

Rome was no different from the Greek world in conceptualizing and honoring founders. It too was once a city-state. In late republican Rome, elite families competed to associate themselves with illustrious genealogies, linking themselves to the founders. Before Augustus, the landscape of founding myths, variants of those myths, and genealogies was vastly more diverse. Augustus, with his own actions, such as the design of his forum, and, with the help of such authors as Virgil and, to a lesser extent, Livy, pruned these various myths to one coherent narrative about Aeneas and Romulus, as related to Augustus, a narrative that became the imperial story of Rome's foundation. Still, Rome's founders were no different than their Greek counterparts, as presented in the textual and other sources. Virgil casts Aeneas in the mold of a Greek oikist from the age of colonization. Venus-born Aeneas undertook a twofold task, to found a new city and to father a new ethnos, the genus Latinum (Verg. Aen. 1.5–6). Aeneas's "progeny," accordingly, were called "sons of Aeneas" and "Aeneades." Before he founded cities in Latium, there were no "Aeneades." Aeneas's reward for courageous deeds was deification. Material and literary evidence suggests that Aeneas was worshiped as Lar Aeneas, and Jupiter Indiges, an honor echoing the deification of Greek founders. Romulus was a less positive figure than Aeneas. He had caused the death of his brother, Remus, who had challenged him over the founding of Rome (Livy, 1.1.7), and had also orchestrated the abduction of the Sabine women. But Romulus founded the eponymous city of Rome, and he was called "father of the Roman people" (Livy, 1, praef.). The Romans were named after their "father." Because there were no Romans before Romulus, he ushered in the age of the Roman people/race. Romulus too became god after his death. At some point before the Augustan age, the deified Romulus fused with the god Quirinus. There were no corresponding stories for Rome's female ancestors. Unlike Augustus, who could be styled a new Aeneas or a latter-day Romulus, Livia could look to no Roman foremother provide a legitimating precedent for honoring her as divine. The Romans did not celebrate their mortal founding mothers other than in a most general way, such as the festival of the Consualia, which ancient authors linked to Romulus's abduction of the Sabine women. But among Rome's divine ancestors was Venus. She was hailed as princeps generis, the first in the family of the Romans (Ovid, Fasti 1.40) to Mars, the "father of the father of the Roman people" (Livy, 1, praef. and 1.1.7) though the pair had no child in common. It was Romulus who bound the two divine lineages, his Trojan ancestry having been established in the Roman imagination as early as the 340s B.C.E.

It was therefore no mortal woman but Venus who helped conceptualize Livia's unprecedented honors. The mechanism of the connection calls for situating Livia's honors in relation to a preexisting Mediterranean discourse of city founding that rationalized deification and divine characteristics for nonfounders and for women. That wider context helps explain how and why Livia came to be identified as a progenitor of the Augustan Roman race. Livia's divine honors, though relevant to the Roman context, followed a logic that went back to the Hellenistic kings and queens. By careful manipulation, patience, sheer longevity, and reference to precedents, Augustus succeeded in applying this logic first to himself, and then to Livia.


Excerpted from Sacred Founders by Diliana N. Angelova. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Founding, Power, and Authority: Mediterranean History and Augustan Innovations,
2. The Founder's Tomb and Posthumous Honors,
3. Women and Founding from Livia to Helena,
4. The Christian Founders Constantine and Helena,
5. Constantine's and Helena's Legacy in the Organization of Public Space,
6. Imperial Women and Civic Founding,
7. Koinonia: The Christian Founders' Legacy in the Symbolism of Authority,
8. Christian Piety and the Making of a Christian Discourse of Imperial Founding,
9. Church Building and Founding,
10. The Virgin Mary, Christ, and the Discourse of Imperial Founding,
Conclusion: Sacredness, Partnership, and Founding in the San Vitale Mosaics,

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