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  • Emperors and Ancestors: Roman Rulers and the Constraints of Traditionby Olivier Hekster
  • Raymond Van Dam
Olivier Hekster. Emperors and Ancestors: Roman Rulers and the Constraints of Tradition. Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxv, 395, 109 figures, 5 tables. $135.00. ISBN 978–0-19–873682–0.

Augustus insisted that he had restored the Roman Republic. This claim created a difficult balancing act, because in the Republic dynastic inheritance of political offices had been restricted. Even though the sons of great families had advantages of wealth, reputation, and connections, they still had to earn offices as candidates in annual elections. In contrast, Augustus and subsequent emperors repeatedly emphasized both their dynastic legitimacy and the entitlement of their sons. Hereditary succession marked an important distinction between the elections of the Republic and the monarchy of emperorship.

Olivier Hekster’s book is a wide-ranging overview of the use of lineage in order to justify dynastic succession during the three centuries from Augustus to Constantine. His survey emphasizes representations of emperors, both their own attempts to publicize their qualifications for rule on coins and in official pronouncements, and the responses of their subjects in panegyrics and honorific monuments. In his formulation, “The emperor was … what people expected their emperor to be” (323). After the reign of Augustus, people apparently preferred their emperors to be, or to appear to be, dynastic heirs.

Augustus struggled with the dilemma. Because there was not yet a defined “office” of emperor, he tried to establish succession through marriages to his [End Page 562]daughter Julia: “It was not so much emperorship as leadership over the domus augustathat was transferred” (9). Even though the initial succession to Tiberius looked to be straightforwardly dynastic, it in fact added obstacles. The absence of a natural son established the precedent for challenges from stepsons, sons-in-law, and sons by adoption. The activities of imperial women created more complications, as mothers schemed to ensure the succession of their sons or grandsons, or as the marriages of sisters and ex-wives created more collateral lines. Imperial dynasty could readily become imperial soap opera.

Hence successions were moments of intrigue and danger, and Hekster stresses the complications inherent in family connections. The memory of fathers could be difficult to manage, for both natural sons and sons by adoption such as the Julio-Claudian emperors. Trajan came up with an intriguing solution. By emphasizing both his own father and Nerva, his father by adoption, he became “the son of two fathers” (66). Despite the importance of paternal ancestry, the Flavian emperors and their successors increasingly put more focus on the imperial family as a whole, in particular on children as guarantees of the future of a dynasty. This emphasis on offspring in turn created an intriguing tension between mothers and wives: “At least on coinage the massively increased emphasis on wives came at the cost of numismatic references to mothers” (139). References to mothers looked backward, as legitimation for current emperors, but references to wives looked forward to the prospect of heirs.

Hekster’s next chapter raises the question of the depth of the lineages publicized by emperors. Which predecessors did emperors promote as ancestors? Among the Julio-Claudian emperors, the divine Augustus replaced the divine Julius Caesar as the more important point of reference. Some subsequent emperors, such as Vespasian and Septimius Severus, still tried to emulate Augustus. But the most surprising emperor to become a prominent antecedent was Nerva, “the explicit apical ancestor of a reigning lineage” (178). Even though he was not often depicted on his successors’ coinage, some sort of descent from Nerva was “systematically included in imperial names for generations to come” (201).

Hekster then transitions to analysis of fictive kinship and constructed lineages. “Invented claims of imperial descent became more common in the later Empire” (206). In a period of rapid turnover, nouveau emperors wanted to extend the respectability of their ancestry. One example of “self-adoption” was Septimius Severus’ claim to be the son of Marcus Aurelius and the brother of Commodus; a more consequential example was Constantine’s elongation of his ancestry to include Claudius...


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pp. 562-564
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