|Wreathed Constantine/Jupiter holding globe and scepter, eagle at foot. Legend: Iovi Conservatori ("To Jupiter, my co-defender"). Issued at Alexadria in 314/15 CE.|
This article, developed in part from work done in Chenault's 2008 dissertation "Rome without Emperors: The Revival of a Senatorial City in the Fourth Century CE," is one of my favorites. I've now read it a few times, and each time I like it more: it puts forward a basic but important observation about the Forum of Trajan and the Roman Forum in the Fourth Century CE, based on inscription finds; and then offers an abundance of support for the observation. First the observation: in the 4th century CE, the Forum of Trajan became the site for honoring Roman senators with statues. Statues of emperors and, interesting, the powerful generals of the 5th century, were reserved for the Roman Forum. According to Chenault, this pattern suggest an effort by the 4th century senate "to promote an image of a coherent senatorial order." One of the great contributions of the article is its careful review of the extant epigraphical evidence.
Ammianus Marcellinus's Res Gestae preserves good evidence that the Forum of Trajan was still in good shape in the middle of the 4th century CE; later sources indicate that this continued to be true into the 5th century. Emperors who visited Rome were impressed by its magnificence. This accords with the high status that Trajan seemed to enjoy in the fourth century, particularly among the Roman senatorial aristocracy. Substantial energy seems to have been invested in investing Trajan with a range of characteristics, particularly with regard to his treatment of senators; and then attempting to persuade later Roman emperors to imitate this construction of "Trajan". In a world of increasingly scarce resources, it's no small matter that Rome's elite thought it important to maintain and add to the glory of Trajan's forum. Why not, say, the Forum of Augustus? Why not create an addition to the Roman Forum (admittedly a difficulty given the landscape and how much was already taken up by imperial fora).
It's also interesting to think about these efforts to maintain Trajan's forum--and to cultivate Trajan's image as an emperor who treated senators as his peers--with the senate's dedication of a victory arch to Constantine. The Arch of Constantine is a fascinating piece of architecture for all sorts of reasons, not least because of its use of spolia from the victory monuments of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius--the so-called "Good Emperors." As the dedicatory inscription indicates, it was awarded to Constantine by the Roman senate in 315, in recognition of his victory over Maxentius. Unlike other victory arches (or victory monuments), which were erected by the victorious commander, this one was dedicated by the senate (in part, at least, because it would have been bad form for Constantine himself to celebrate a victory over a fellow Roman citizen). The dedication reads: To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.
It's almost as if the senate is attempting to remind Constantine that there was once a time, back in the 2nd century, when (at least as they want to imagine it), the senate and the emperor worked in consort. The senate still mattered. In 315, it's still early enough in Constantine's reign to imagine that he might still decide to make Rome his base. Especially in the senate and people show him that they have renounced Maxentius, whom they formerly supported, as an unnamed tyrant and are ready to embrace Constantine as their legitimate ruler. Likewise, by incorporating the Trajanic reliefs and Dacians into the Arch's decoration (panels which likely came from the Forum of Trajan), a direct connection between the Forum of Trajan and the Arch of Constantine would have been established. As well, by recutting the decorations to include Constantine's head, there's a sense in which the senate is not so much praising Constantine as a good emperor as, possibly, encouraging him to act in the tradition of the Good Emperors (as that tradition had been constructed, regardless of reality; Ray Van Dam, Remembering Constantine at the Milvian Bridge, 126-132 helpful here).
It's interesting to see evidence of the 4th century Roman senate desperately asserting its relevance in a world where emperors are no longer based in Rome and, by the time they are filling Trajan's forum with statues of senators (the earliest date to between 334-337 AD), there's even a competing senate in Constantinople. It's not that Rome suddenly stopped mattering much in the 4th century--the displacement of Rome happened already in the early 2nd century CE. The Roman senate had ceased to matter for the purposes of governance long before the 4th century. Instead, it's almost as if the Roman senate has acknowledged this reality and is now attempting to reclaim Rome as a senatorial city, to put some meaning back into the notion of being a senator AT Rome during a time when the nature of the Roman senate was being revolutionized (not for the first time: such revolutions went back at least to Sulla, Caesar, and Augustus). Just as the senate as a body and claim to social status is once again being "watered down" by additions from the curial and provincial elites, Roman senators are ensuring that the most accomplished of their breed are recognized with monuments Trajan's forum.
It seems like part of what is happening in Trajan's forum in the 4th century is an effort by the senate itself to respond to imperial expansion of their order. As Chenault notes, "the inscriptions emphasize the holding of high office, distinguished achievement in letters, the display of traditional aristocratic virtues, and the approval and peers and emperor as the defining characteristics of senatorial excellence." Chenault also notes that, in the extant inscriptions, "although holders of senatorial rank were increasingly diverse in their social and geographic origins, career paths, and religious affiliation, these differences are rarely emphasized" (109). As well, "though the emperor could act alone, the inscriptions usually state that he acted in conjunction with other entities. Either his decision was approved by the senate, or it responded to a request initiated by others--the senate, the senate and people of Rome, or the people of a province. The inclusion of these details was part of a rhetorical strategy emphasizing that the honour was the product of consensus" (115). And, again, "the principal element of continuity between the Antonine and late antique inscriptions is the conspicuous advertisement of consensus between emperor and senate" (120).
Is part of the point here an effort by Rome's senators to return to what they perceive as a 2nd century CE ideal of the senatorial order under Trajan? Is this something like Sallust's wish for a return to the senate of the Punic Wars, before Rome and the senatorial aristocracy were corrupted by the wealth of the Punic Wars? Now the "Golden Age" is the reign of Trajan. The main point wasn't the closeness to the emperor that such a statue dedication might suggest, but rather, it was the consensus of emperor and people, preserved for all who lived in or visited Rome.
Finally, in light of all this, I'm thinking again about Alaric's sack of Rome in 410 and Honorius' basic lack of response to Alaric's lengthy siege of Rome. This is another bit of evidence of just how far apart the interests of the Roman senate were from the imperial court. Rome was left on its own to deal with an angry Alaric who needed concessions from Honorius.