Constantinopolis enthroned

From the Tabula Peutingeriana, Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

More information

Themistius and the Imperial Court.
Oratory, Civic Duty, and Paideia from Constantius to Theodosius

Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 1995.
Pp. xiv, 280. ISBN 0-472-10485-3.

From the dustjacket

For about forty years, in the mid-fourth century C.E., Themistius was one of the most prominent figures of the Roman Empire in the East. This philosopher became the leading senator of Constantinople and interacted with emperors from Constantius to Theodosius and their courts. Like many contemporaries, Themistius delivered speeches before emperors and used this forum to express his response to their activities. Little more than flattery to the untrained observer, careful study of these panegyrics reveals a different intent entirely. Themistius frequently commented on imperial policy and was not always positive. Most often, fulfilling through his oratory a civic duty expected of him as a philosopher, he represented the senatorial class of Constantinople in an attempt to convince emperors to follow the approach to government demanded of paideia, a set of values with a long tradition.

In this first full-length treatment of Themistius, John Vanderspoel places the man in the context of the society and political life of the fourth century. The book first establishes the necessary background of rhetoric, philosophy, and society, while introducing some of Themistius' guiding principles. This is coupled with a treatment of his life before his prominence and a brief study of Constantinople, where Themistius spent most of his life. A number of chapters focus on his relations with emperors, while his speeches are the main material for discussion.

Themistius and the Imperial Court reveals that previous attitudes to Themistius require some correction. Themistius was not a self-serving flatterer, but an energetic spokesman for his city and a keen observer of emperors and their policies. He was capable of opposing imperial policy and suggesting new directions. Unlike other civic orators, however, his city was Constantinople, which was given a new status as the administrative center of an eastern empire with the establishment of a new Senate in 357. Themistius was heavily involved in the creation of this Senate and the enhancement of his city's importance. In consequence, his pronouncements on emperors had imperial as well as civic significance.

The nature of philosophy and oratory, the relations between cities and emperors, and the interactions of politicians and the military are only a few of the topics addressed in this study of Themistius.Themistius and the Imperial Court offers readers an opportunity to see the Roman East through the eyes not only of a contemporary, but also a participant in the governing elite and a commentator on events as they unfolded.

About Constantinopolis enthroned

This image of the city of Constantinople depicted as a female figure comes from the Tabula Peutingeriana, a late medieval manuscript copied from an original which ultimately, perhaps via a series of copies, goes back to the fourth century A.D. The following remarks about the image, reproduced on the dustjacket with the permission of the Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, are taken from pages 59-60, where further references are supplied.

An ancient map, the Tabula Peutingeriana, originating in the fourth century, reveals a change of status. It depicts three cities, Rome, Constantinople, and Antioch, all seated on thrones. Rome is clearly the most important imperial city; once again the helmeted figure holds a globe. A number of roads lead from her, and she holds a scepter instead of a spear. Antioch protects an individual who has sought protection, presumably from Persians. Constantinople wears military attire, with a helmet instead of a crown, and, more significantly, her right hand is stretching toward a column topped by a figure holding a spear and globe; this is Constantine's column in his city. Clearly, Constantinople is now a military or triumphal city, and the column of Constantine points to its dynastic connections. The original map is often dated to 365/366, on the grounds that the cities are meant to be imperial cities, Rome in the West, Antioch for Valens, and Constantinople for the usurper Procopius. This is hardly appropriate since Procopius was never regarded as legitimate. Caution may be in order here, but a conjecture is perhaps not entirely out of the question. In 357, Constantius visited Rome, Persian envoys for peace were at Antioch, and Themistius proclaimed the familial ties of Constantius and Julian with Constantinople. In other words, each city was prominent in that year in exactly the way depicted on the Tabula. More to the point for this discussion, the status of Constantinople has changed. Not simply a prominent city, in second place after Rome, it has become a sovereign city and a dynastic one, still second to Rome: Constantinopolis is not herself holding a globe, but the figure on the column does. The imagery reflects exactly Themistius' remarks on the city's status at Oration 3.41-42. Constantinople is a sovereign city like Rome, by the wish of the emperor, though it yields to Rome in some ways. Whether it has also become a capital is more difficult to judge; within a few years, however, both its Senate and its civic authority, a prefect rather than proconsul, matched that of Rome.

Reviews of this book have appeared in the following places (there may be others that I do not know):


Detail of a mosaic from Dar Zmela, Tunisia, showing head of Medusa (photograph courtesy R.J.A. Wilson)

The Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization
(with Graham Shipley, David Mattingly and Lin Foxhall)

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2006.
Pp. xliv, 966. ISBN 13 978-0-521-48313-1.
[slightly altered hardback reprint published January 2008; paperback scheduled for October 2008]


From the dustjacket

The Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization provides an authoritative survey of classical antiquity, combining the traditional strengths of classical subjects with new approaches examining the social and cultural features of the ancient Greek and Roman world. Ranging in time from post-Bronze Age Greece to the later Roman Empire, it not only looks at ancient Greece and Rome, but discusses those cultures with which Greeks and Romans exchanged information and culture (e.g. Phoenicians, Celts and Jews)L and those remote peoples with whom they were in contact (e.g. Persia, China and India). It paints a vivid new picture of ancient life, exploring material realities such as dress and technology. It emphasizes the transmission of classical learning and explores our debts to Greece and Rome. Extensively illustrated, with nearly two thousand entries by leading scholars, this Dictionary is a suberb reference work and definitive companion for anyone with an interest in the ancient world.


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Last modified on 26 March 2008