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  • Enduring the Dust of Mars: The Expectation of Military Leadership in Panegyric to the Child-Emperor Gratian1

In the summer of 367, Valentinian I was struck by a serious illness. While the emperor lay on what looked like his deathbed, court factions began debating potential successors. But Valentinian recovered and, seemingly prompted by his near-death experience, promoted his eight-year-old son Gratian to the imperial purple (Amm. 27.6.1–64 and Zos. 4.12.2). According to Ammianus, when the emperor presented his son to the troops, he explained that while the boy was “not yet able to endure the dust of Mars” (“nec capacem adhuc Martii pulueris”), soon “he will rush forward to noble deeds and cling close to the military standards and eagles; he will endure sun and snow, frost and thirst, and wakeful hours; he will defend his camp, if necessity ever requires it; [and] he will risk his life for the companions of his dangers” (“in pulchra facinora procursabit, signis militaribus et aquilis adhaesurus: solem niuesque et pruinas et sitim perferet [End Page 253] et uigilias: castris, si necessitas adegerit aliquotiens, propugnabit: salutem pro periculorum sociis obiectabit,” 27.6.8–9).2

While there had been young emperors before, never in Roman history had a child so young been elevated to the rank of Augustus. More importantly, Gratian’s accession at the age of eight set the precedent for a series of child-emperors in the period between 367 and 455.3 Up until the accession of the boy-emperor Gratian, every emperor of the fourth century had been a strong military leader or could, at the very least, have claimed some military experience in the field.4 Of course, military threats to the empire did not suddenly vanish after 367, nor did the expectation that the emperor should fulfil a military role. And, as can be grasped from Ammianus’s account of Valentinian’s speech to his troops, this expectation that the emperor would be a military leader caused significant challenges when fitting a child-emperor into an acceptable ideological framework.5

Indeed, Meaghan McEvoy (2010 and 2013) convincingly argues that with the successive reigns of child-emperors from the late-fourth to the mid-fifth centuries, the imperial office became far more ceremonial than it had been earlier. The imperial image was adapted accordingly, with an increased focus on the youthful promise and religious virtues of the emperor, along with a gradual transfer of his military role to his most trusted general. Standing at the beginning of this change towards a more passive emperorship, Gratian’s reign represented “a learning-curve for political elites surrounding the throne, the first exploration of the possibilities that the long-term rule of a child-emperor might present” (McEvoy 2013.38).

This article looks further into this period of early experimentation with child rulers by investigating how the expectation that the emperor would be a military leader was dealt with in the surviving panegyrics addressed to Gratian by Symmachus, Themistius, and Ausonius. Preserved for their literary style rather than for their political content, [End Page 254] panegyrics provide invaluable snapshots of how contemporaries perceived and spoke about imperial leadership at a particular time and place before a particular audience (Omissi 2018.41–67). In addition to the speeches of Symmachus, Themistius, and Ausonius, the account of Ammianus, who lived through the reign of Gratian, also reveals contemporary attitudes to some extent.6

Of course, Symmachus, Themistius, and Ausonius were neither the first nor the last to praise imperial children. For instance, at the end of his encomium of Maximian delivered at Trier in 289, the anonymous orator turns to the emperor’s son Maxentius, pointing out that the young boy was “born with every endowment of talent for a study of the liberal arts” (“ad honestissimas artes omnibus ingenii bonis natum,” Pan. Lat. X[2].14.1).7 Similarly, in his panegyric of Constantine delivered at Rome in 321, Nazarius states that while Constantine’s son Crispus was “already impressive in crushing the enemy” (“iam obterendis hostibus grauis”), his four-year-old brother Constantine II “gives notice that he will soon be a conqueror” (“declarat mox uictorem futurum,” Pan. Lat. IV[10].3.5–6).8

But while there were precedents such as these for praising imperial children, never had an orator delivered a full panegyric to a child who had already become an emperor. Symmachus, Themistius, and Ausonius were the first panegyrists known to have been tasked with this challenge. What is more, their speeches were delivered shortly after sensitive moments at different stages of Gratian’s reign, when a positive public pronouncement was especially welcome. As such, these speeches provide unique insight into how orators from different backgrounds accommodated the military role of the emperor as he gradually came of age and eventually could boast of actual military success. Finally, while there have been excellent studies on each of these speeches (in particular that of Ausonius: Lolli 2006 and Gibson 2018), rarely have they been considered together. [End Page 255]

Speech 1 Speech 2 Speech 3
Orator Symmachus = Roman senator Themistius = Greek senator Ausonius = Gratian’s tutor
Date and location 369, Trier 376, Rome 379, Trier
Following Gratian’s elevation to the rank of Augustus by his father Valentinian I The death of Valentinian I and the accession of his half-brother Valentinian II The catastrophic defeat at Adrianople and the accession of Theodosius
Gratian’s age 9 years old 16 years old 19 years old
Edition used Callu 2009 Maisano 1995 Green 1991


The winter of 368/69 witnessed a senatorial delegation from Rome arrive at the imperial court in Trier. The ostensible reason for their visit was to celebrate Valentinian’s quinquennalia on 25 February 369, but considering that Valentinian had never visited Rome after his elevation in 364, the occasion also offered the Roman Senate a valuable political opportunity. Indeed, as Rome in the fourth century had essentially become a city without emperors (Chenault 2008), embassies provided one of the principle means through which senators could establish a working relationship with their distant emperors (Humphries 2003).

An important role in this delicate task was given to Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a young senator who stood at the beginning of his political career but was already renowned for his rhetorical talents (Macr. 5.1.7). The fact that his father was the influential senator Lucius Aurelius Avianius Symmachus may have contributed to the Senate’s decision to select him as their representative. Avianius had led numerous senatorial embassies to the courts of distant emperors, as is attested on a pedestal which once carried his gilded statue (CIL 6.1698 = ILS 1257), as well as by Ammianus, who, in passing, mentions a visit to the court of Constantius II at Antioch (21.12.24).

Avianius’s son Symmachus stayed at the court of Valentinian at Trier for about a year, during which period he accompanied the emperor [End Page 256] on one of his campaigns along the Rhine (Matthews 1975.32–33).9 From his time “in the military headquarters” (in praetoria), as he puts it in one of his letters (1.14.3–4), there survive three (fragmentary) panegyrics: two addressed to Valentinian (Or. 1 and 2), and one to his son Gratian (Or. 3).10

The image of Valentinian that emerges from Orations 1 and 2, delivered in 369 and 370 respectively (Saylor Rodgers 2015a and 2015b), is that of the stereotypical soldier-emperor, harnessing the essential military virtues of patientia, (“endurance”), industria (“diligence”), and providentia (“foresight”; Sogno 2006.15–16).11 Whereas Oration 1 deals primarily with Valentinian’s harsh upbringing and military training, highlighting how you “earned the reward of gold by the work of iron” (“auri praemium ferri labore meruisti,” 1.7), Oration 2 is much more concerned with showcasing Valentinian’s campaigns against the Alamanni and his efforts to construct a grand line of fortifications along the Rhine (Sogno 2006.9–15).12

Any praise of actual military experience was, of course, much more difficult when Symmachus turned to Valentinian’s son Gratian. As Oration 3 opens with a reference to “the small gifts of gold” (aurea munuscula, 3.1), it is usually dated 25 February 369, on the same day as Oration 1 to Valentinian.13 If this is correct, Symmachus addressed the young Gratian almost exactly one and a half years after his elevation to the rank of Augustus on 24 August 367. Given that Symmachus addresses the by now nine-year-old Gratian in the second person, it is likely that the young emperor was present during his delivery; the presence of his father Valentinian, who is addressed in the third person, also seems highly likely.

Symmachus begins his speech by greeting Gratian as the “longed-for hope of a new age” (“noui saeculi spes parta,” 3.2), a theme which also [End Page 257] features in the emperor’s early numismatic representations.14 Between 367 and 375, the mints of Arelate and Lugdunum issued gold and bronze coins with the reverse legend GLORIA NOVI SAECVLI (“Glory of the New Age”), accompanied by the image of Gratian with a shield and military standard (Fig. 1; RIC IX Arelate 10A–B; Lugdunum 15). Whether Symmachus picked up this theme from imperial coinage or, perhaps, even influenced Gratian’s numismatic representation remains impossible to determine.15 What matters here, however, is that, with this opening, Symmachus established his theme of “Great Expectations” (Sogno 2006.18).

Figs 1a & 1b. Bronze AE3, Arelate, 367–75. ANS 1944.100.25380. Courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.
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Figs 1a & 1b.

Bronze AE3, Arelate, 367–75. ANS 1944.100.25380. Courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

According to Symmachus, the signs of a great future can already be seen in two important events in the life of the young ruler. The first is Gratian’s consulship of 366, which the Roman senator explicitly presents as preparing the young boy for military leadership (“The embroidered toga has clothed you as a candidate for command,” “te imperii candidatum toga picta uestiuit,” 3.2). Emphasizing Gratian’s young age, Symmachus states that “as a boy you fight for old men, as a coeval you sweat for our children” (“pro senibus puer dimicas, pro liberis nostris aequaeuus insudas,” 3.3).16

The second event is Gratian’s elevation to Augustus in 367, which Symmachus describes in strongly visual terms. Picturing on one side his [End Page 258] father, on the other the army, and in the middle the young boy himself, Symmachus reverses the sequence of events as told by Ammianus (Sogno 2006.19). Rather than being the result of his father’s initiative, Gratian’s accession to the throne is presented by Symmachus as an election by the “uncorrupted votes of the soldiers” (militum sincera suffragia, 3.4). Valentinian is then credited with his son’s recusatio imperii: “While everyone cheers in eager favour, the father gives way at a late hour” (“cunctis alacri fauore plaudentibus patrem sero cedentem,” 3.5).17

Having attributed Gratian’s accession to Valentinian’s soldiers, Symmachus proceeds to historical comparisons. Along with Hercules, young rulers such as Antiochus III the Great, Alexander the Great, and Ptolemy V Epiphanes demonstrate that “valour abides longer when it commences early” (“uirtus cum cito inchoat diutius perseuerat,” 3.6). It is interesting to note that these are all eastern examples. As pointed out by W. Portmann (1988.50–51), the reason for this may be the fact that the Roman experience with young emperors had mostly been unhappy (e.g., Caligula, Nero, Elagabalus).

Symmachus also uses Gratian’s young age to his advantage by recommending the boy’s education. Recalling several famous generals and their teachers (such as Scipio Aemilianus and Panaetius), Symmachus claims that “books and weapons are handled in your same tent” (“in isdem tentoriis tuis uolumina et arma tractentur,” 3.7). While such statements present Gratian in a favourable light, they could also have been understood as indirect praise of the young emperor’s tutor Ausonius, with whom Symmachus had become particularly close during his stay at Trier (Sivan 1993.111–15 and Sogno 2006.6–8).

Before coming to a close, Symmachus returns to the theme he outlined when he addressed Gratian as the “longed-for hope of a new age.” The Roman senator explicitly evokes the fourth Eclogue of Vergil (3.9), in which the Augustan poet announced the birth of a boy destined to fulfil the Messianic prophecy of the Sibylline books and usher in a golden age. By the early fourth century, Vergil’s poem was being reinterpreted in a Christian context (MacCormack 1998.21–31), but while Symmachus seems to be aware of the controversies he might be stirring up when invoking Vergil (“If it were permitted me now to digress in lofty poetic eloquence,” “si mihi [End Page 259] nunc altius euagari poetico liceret eloquio”), he felt that direct references to the Vergilian text would reinforce his claim that Gratian’s reign is the golden age (Rees 2004.37–38). As tangible proof that this period of great prosperity had already begun, Symmachus draws attention to the extent of Valentinian’s empire, made secure by the bridges over, and fortifications along, the Rhine—a theme that also appears on the young emperor’s early coinage (RIC IX Treveri 29D).

This notion of a son sharing in his father’s successes is also the theme with which Symmachus ends his speech. Whereas Alexander the Great used to complain about his father’s glory because it left nothing for him to conquer, Symmachus hopes that, for Gratian, such complaints are lacking (3.10). The Roman senator states that “all praise belongs to you both; you show yourself a son in reverence, a colleague in valour” (“laus omnis amborum est; filium te exhibes reuerentia, uirtute collegam,” 3.10), emphasizing the fact that nothing is “more felicitous than a prince in command under his parents” (“felicius principe sub parentibus imperante,” 3.11).

With such description of a father and son ruling the empire together, Symmachus follows panegyrical precedent; most notably, in 307, on the occasion of Constantine’s wedding to Maximian’s daughter Fausta, Maximian and Constantine had been celebrated in a similar fashion: “How readily may the Roman state lay aside all its fears, when it is defended by the combined rule of men of two different ages, and makes equal use of the valour of the youth and the maturity of the elder” (“quam facile nunc omnis metus ponet Romana res publica, quae defenditur coniuncti imperii duabus aetatibus pariterque utitur uirtute iuuenis et maturitate senioris,” Pan. Lat. VII[6].13.5).18

Under the slogan “valour abides longer when it commences early,” Symmachus’s strategy to accommodate the expectation of Gratian’s future military leadership was one of hyperbole. Drawing upon Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, he imagined Gratian’s reign as a new golden age for which he found proof in the (father’s) fortifications along the Rhine. Everything the nine-year-old does, even his intellectual pursuits, is presented as working towards one goal: to lead his father’s armies in the future. Symmachus is able to praise Gratian in this way because, with his father still in control [End Page 260] of the troops, there was no need for the young emperor to demonstrate any actual military leadership. But the situation would soon change.


Gratian continued to rule with his father until 17 November 375, when Valentinian died as a result of a seizure he reportedly suffered after yelling angrily at a delegation from the Quadi (Amm. 30.6.3, Zos. 4.17.1–2, and Socr. 4.31). Even though Valentinian had securely established the succession by elevating his son Gratian to Augustus in 367, his death at the town of Brigetio nevertheless triggered a political crisis. Afraid that the young Gratian might be dominated by Maximinus, the praetorian prefect of Gaul, Valentinian’s courtiers in Illyricum staged a coup. Building on the precedent set with Gratian, they elevated Valentinian II, Valentinian’s four-year-old son by another mother, to the throne. Encouraged by their uncle Valens, a deal was eventually struck between the two western courts: Gratian would accept the legitimacy of Valentinian II on the condition that his half-brother would come under his control (Kelly 2013b.360–74).19

The months that followed Valentinian’s death also witnessed a rapprochement between Gratian at Trier and the Senate in Rome. In a letter to Ausonius (1.13), Symmachus recalls the session held by the Senate on 1 January 376, when an oration sent by Gratian was read out in the Curia. Claiming that the oration proclaimed “the destinies of a new age” (noui saeculi fata—thus echoing his earlier speech to Gratian), Symmachus asserts that the emperor’s words filled him with “great hope and cheer” (“bonae spei et hilaritatis”).20 Indeed, in the months that followed, Gratian not only passed a series of laws increasing the Senate’s rights, he also removed many of his father’s officials who had terrorized the Roman aristocracy during the so-called “magic-trials” of the early 370s in which Valentinian and Valens attempted to get rid of political opponents by accusing them of maleficium, “sorcery” (Lenski 2002.218–34).

Naturally, in the two short speeches Symmachus delivered before the Senate on behalf of his colleague Trygetius and his father Avianus, such imperial attitudes towards the Senate received positive comments (Sogno 2006.23–25). For instance, in Oration 5, delivered on 9 January 376 [End Page 261] (Saylor Rodgers 2015e), Gratian is said to prefer being primus inter pares rather than solus (5.3), and in Oration 4, in either May or the summer of the same year (Saylor Rodgers 2015d), Symmachus emphasizes that “our princes have the same wishes as our leading men” (“idem principes nostri quod proceres uolunt,” 4.6).

It is in this context of an improving relationship between the emperor and the senatorial elite that the Greek senator Themistius delivered his panegyric to Gratian: Oration 13, also known as the Erotikos.21 While a date in the spring of 376 seems certain, the immediate circumstances of the speech are debated, the main questions being whether it was delivered in Trier or in Rome, and whether or not the sixteen-year-old Gratian was present.22 In my view, the most plausible scenario, which also finds strong support in the speeches themselves, is that proposed by Gavin Kelly (2013b.383–85): Themistius was sent on a diplomatic mission to Gratian in Trier by Valens (13.165d, 168c, 171b), after which he travelled to Rome on Gratian’s orders (31.354d), where his speech before the Senate served as a trailblazer for a visit to Rome by Gratian himself (13.177d–80b).23

Speaking before the Roman Senate, Themistius begins his speech with a summary of Socrates’ views on Eros as recorded in the Symposium of Plato. This serves as a model for his own quest to find true beauty, a search which he admits to have been unsuccessful until he encountered the young Gratian on the other side of the world (13.161c–67b).24 Acclaiming the emperor’s beauty was not new. Especially under Constantine, the emperor’s handsome appearance had received lavish praise (Pan. Lat. VI.171–74, 21.6; XII.7.5). Nor was Themistius the only one to make a point of Gratian’s appearance (Fig. 2). In relation to the emperor’s accession in 367, Ammianus, too, draws attention to “the delightful charm of his face and his whole body” (“uultusque et reliqui corporis iucundissimus nitor,” 31.6.15). [End Page 262]

Fig. 2. Portrait of Gratian. Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier. Photo by author.
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Fig. 2.

Portrait of Gratian. Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier. Photo by author.

But Themistius turns the emperor’s beauty into an active expression of his power. Addressing the sixteen-year-old as “child-emperor, child-father, and child who exceeds the virtue of old age” (ὦ παῖ βασιλεῦ, ὦ παῖ πάτερ, ὦ παῖ νικῶν πολιὰν ἀρετῇ, 13.165d),25 the Greek senator claims that the emperor’s beauty was so great that it made “the barbarians honourable, the Goths civilized, the Persians reasonable, the Armenians Roman, the Iberians Greek, and the nomads sedentary” (βάρβαρον ποιεῖν καλόν καἱ τὸν Γέτην ἥμερον καἱ τὸν Πέρσην ἐπιεικῆ καἱ τὸν Ἀρμένιον ἤδη Ῥωμαῖον καὶ τὸν Ἴβηρα Ἕλληνα καὶ τὸν σκηνητὴν οἰκουρόν, 13.166c).

After a brief excursus on Gratian’s dynastic connection to Valens and Constantinople (13.167c–68c), Themistius continues praising Gratian [End Page 263] for his beauty, moving from the emperor’s body to his character (13.168b–77d). Like Alexander the Great and Hercules, both of whom were also mentioned as examples for Gratian in Symmachus’s speech (3.6), Them-istius claims that the emperor’s behaviour is evidence of divine descent (13.168d–69b). According to the Greek senator, Gratian does not abuse his power, but uses it to perform good deeds. Thus he differs from previous young rulers, rivalling instead the old age of Cyrus the Great and Marcus Aurelius (13.169c–71c).

The topic of imperial advisors also appears. Recalling famous emperors and their tutors (Augustus and Arius, Nero and Seneca, Titus and Musonius, Trajan and Dio, Marcus and Rusticus), Themistius claims that Gratian’s conduct as a ruler reveals the education given to him by “the two Nestors” (τὼ Νέστορε, 13.171d–74a). Like Symmachus, Themistius thus chooses to indirectly praise the emperor’s tutors: one of these Nestors is surely Ausonius, the other has been variously identified as Ambrosius (Maisano 1995.514), Symmachus (Leppin and Portmann 1998.230), or Antonius (Coşkun 2002.43 and Kelly 2013b.388).

All this praise of beauty of body and mind works towards the main point of Themistius’s speech, namely that “a good king does not seek Ares voluntarily” (Ἄρης γὰρ ἀγαθῷ βασιλεῖ θεὸς οὐχ αἱρετὸς, 13.176b). Rather than “making the barbarians submit by the sword” (τοὺς βαρβάρους σιδήρῳ εὐηνίους ποιεῖν, 13.176b), Themistius claims that, for Gratian, “Virtue is enough to conquer the fiercest of tribes and to make them surrender willingly, which is stronger than by force” (ἱκανὴ αὐτῷ ἡ ἀρετὴ καταμαχέσασθαι τὰ ἀγριώτατα φῦλα καὶ ὑπαγαγέσθαι κρείττω ὑπαγωγὴν τὴν ἑκούσιον τοῦ βιαίου, 13.176c).

This idea of an emperor who saves people rather than destroying them is continued in the last part of the speech, in which Themistius announces an impending visit to Rome by Gratian. Themistius begins this section by imagining Rome as the sea of beauty from Plato’s Symposium (210d–e) and presenting the Senate as guardians of Rome’s traditions (13.177c–78c). Gratian’s impending visit is then seen as a triumph, except that the young emperor will not lead prisoners of war into the city, but a crowd of people saved from destruction (13.178d–79d).

The speech ends by comparing Gratian and Valens to Rome’s founders Romulus and Camillus, explaining that the empire enjoyed universal peace because the emperors had “repulsed the Germans, frightened the Persians, and destroyed the Goths and Sarmatians” (ἀναστέλλοντε μὲν Γερμανούς, φοβεῖτον δὲ Ἀχαιμενίδας, Γέτας δὲ ἐξαιρεῖτον καὶ Σαυρομάτας, [End Page 264] 13.179c). With an invocation to Zeus, the Greek senator then closes with a wish for mutual love between the emperor and Rome (13.180a).

Whereas Symmachus primarily drew upon a Latin tradition, in 376, Themistius relies heavily on Greek models. Presenting Gratian as the incarnation of true beauty as defined in Plato’s Symposium, the Greek senator explains to the Roman Senate that there was no need for the sixteen-year-old emperor to fight. According to Themistius, since Gratian rivals the wisdom of philosopher-rulers such as Cyrus the Great and Marcus Aurelius, and because of his pre-occupation with doing good, barbarians surrendered to the emperor willingly. Pointing out that “a good king does not seek Ares voluntarily,” Themistius’s approach to the expectation of military leadership from Gratian can thus be characterised as a justification for his lack of activity in the field. Within a year, however, Ares was knocking at the door.


When, in 376, renewed Gothic immigration into Roman territory turned into armed revolts, Valens turned to his nephew Gratian for support.26 The young emperor responded in 377 by sending his general Frigeridus, and later also Richomeres, the captain of his guard, with reinforcements. Following several inconclusive battles, in 378, Gratian decided to join his uncle in person in order to deal a decisive blow to the Goths. But there was a distraction en route: attempting to take advantage of Gratian’s movements, the Lentienses, a German tribe, crossed the Rhine and started raiding Raetia. His generals Nannienus and Merobaudes having successfully repulsed the Lentienses, Gratian then decided to pursue them into the mountains. Leading his troops at the frontlines, so Ammianus informs us (31.10.18), the young emperor finally forced the Lentienses to surrender, thus providing him with his first significant military success.27

While this side campaign was perfectly understandable from the young emperor’s perspective, it caused a severe delay in his efforts to join his uncle against the Goths. On 9 August 378, allegedly having decided to claim the victory for himself, Valens engaged the Goths alone. As a result, the emperor suffered a catastrophic defeat: he died at Adrianople, together [End Page 265] with two-thirds of his army. When Gratian heard the news, he withdrew with his troops to Sirmium, where plans were made about how to proceed. One move was to place Theodosius, the son of a successful general who had served under Valentinian, at the head of the army in Illyricum. Following various military accomplishments, Theodosius was quickly promoted to be Gratian’s co-Augustus on 19 January 379 (Zos. 4.24.4).28

The same month witnessed the inauguration of Decimus Magnus Ausonius as a consul for the year 379.29 Having taught for more than thirty years at the prestigious school of rhetoric at Bordeaux, Ausonius was recruited in 367 as the private tutor of Gratian. His service as the young emperor’s teacher earned him an outstanding political career: he received the rank of quaestor, served as a praetorian prefect of Gaul, and now obtained the consulship.30 In order to personally thank his former student for this honourable position, Ausonius postponed his speech of thanksgiving for the consulship to the second half of 379, at which point Gratian had returned to Trier.31 Ausonius’s speech can be divided into two parts: the first dealing with his consulship and the debt he owed to the nineteen-year-old emperor, the second, a more elaborate encomium of his former student.

In the first part, Ausonius gives an assessment of the current state of the empire, drawing attention to the “pacification of the Danubian and Rhenish frontiers in a single year” (“uno pacatus in anno et Danuuii limes et Rheni,” 2.7).32 Recalling Adrianople as “the outrage suffered by his uncle in war” (contumelia belli patruus), the Gallic orator continues that he “could enumerate all those titles which your valour has won for you in the past” (“possum ire per omnes appellationes tuas quas olim uirtus dedit”), which he subsequently does: “I might call you Germanicus in virtue of the surrender of that race to you, Alamannicus because of the prisoners whom you transplanted, Sarmaticus because you conquered and forgave that people” (“uocarem Germanicum deditione gentilium, Alamannicum traductione captorum, uincendo et ignoscendo Sarmaticum,” 2.9). [End Page 266]

Fig. 3. Inscription on the Pons Cestius. CIL 6.1175 = ILS 771. Photo by author.
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Fig. 3.

Inscription on the Pons Cestius. CIL 6.1175 = ILS 771. Photo by author.

Ausonius mentions a number of titles with which Gratian is also credited in an inscription recording the rebuilding of the Pons Cestius in Rome in 369/70.

However, whereas at the time of the reconstruction of the bridge, Gratian had not yet fought any foreign tribes, with his victory over the Lentienses, the young emperor could now legitimately claim actual military experience. Although giving the impression that a detailed account of the emperor’s victories would then follow, Ausonius bluntly says: “But that is another theme, and one which will be treated in its own separate place” (“sed alia est ista materia et sua parata secreto,” 2.9). Instead, when he praises the young emperor more elaborately in the second section of his speech, Ausonius focusses on his private character: in particular, his sports- and horsemanship (14.64–65) and his eloquence (15.68). In doing so, Ausonius is able to highlight his own role as the emperor’s tutor and therefore to stress his own importance (Coşkun 2002.44–46, Lolli 2006, and Gibson 2018).33 More importantly, however, dealing with the typical [End Page 267] activities of a young man allowed Ausonius to deflect attention from the still rather limited military experience of his pupil and to move away from the recent death of his uncle at Adrianople and the accession of Theodosius as his co-ruler.

That being said, while the military dimension never becomes the focus of his speech, Ausonius still attributes some important soldierly qualities to the emperor. In addition to the victory titles mentioned earlier, the emperor is addressed as “most valiant” (fortissimo), his courage featuring at several points in the speech (2.7, 2.9, 7.35, and 8.40). Moreover, when Ausonius speaks of his own inauguration as consul on 1 January 379, he stresses that even though Gratian was “wearing his armour” (loricatus) and “preparing for battle” (procinctu) in Illyricum, he nevertheless took the trouble to prepare and send the consular robe to him in Gaul (11.52).

The most significant military excursus concerning the nineteen-year-old emperor comes near the end of the speech, when Ausonius deals with the emperor’s care for his soldiers. This is a theme that Ausonius takes directly from Pliny’s Panegyricus (13.3–4).34 However, where Trajan needs to ask his soldiers how they are doing, Gratian anticipates their every need (17.77). The military theme continues in the epilogue, where the emperor’s vigour and speed is emphasized. Drawing attention to Gratian’s visit to Gaul, Ausonius asks whether his audience knows of any “journey so swiftly accomplished” (transcursum tantae celeritates), highlighting that Gratian undertook this journey “without stopping for rest, without indulging fully in sleep or in food” (“nulla requie otii, ne somni quidem aut cibi munere liberali,” 18.82).35

In 379, Gratian’s teacher Ausonius employs yet another strategy to accommodate the military role of the emperor. Announcing that the military exploits of his former pupil would be a subject for another time, Ausonius proceeds to praise the private character of Gratian. Rather than hyperbole or a justification for a lack of military activity, Ausonius’s [End Page 268] speech is an attempt at deflection, directing the attention of his audience away from the recent military defeat at Adrianople and towards his own role as the emperor’s tutor. But the emperor’s military role did not disappear entirely. Not only was Gratian’s courage and speed mentioned, towards the end of the address, he is even said to have surpassed Trajan in his care for his soldiers.


In the summer of 383, Gratian’s authority was seriously undermined when Magnus Maximus, the military commander in Britain, invaded Gaul with a large army and established his power base near Paris. Gratian led his troops against Maximus, but after five days of skirmishing, he was deserted by his general Merobaudes. When a large number of Gratian’s soldiers followed the example of the general, the young emperor fled to Lyon, where he was eventually assassinated by Andragathius, one of Maximus’s generals, on 25 August 383.36

Considering the grand military role which Valentinian had imagined for his son upon his elevation in 367, Gratian’s death at the age of twenty-four, deserted by his army, is ironic. Throughout his reign, orators praising Gratian had struggled to deal with the expectation that he would provide military leadership. Each of the orators discussed in this article came to terms with the traditional military role of the emperor in his own way, drawing upon stock themes and historical personae: Symmachus presents the nine-year-old as already following in the footsteps of his father (hyperbole); Themistius emphasizes the teenager’s good deeds to explain that he did not need to go to war (justification); and by announcing that his military exploits would be a subject for another time, Ausonius can focus on the education of the young man instead (deflection).

While there are clear differences in how the orators dealt with the expectation of military leadership and which models they use in order to do so, one essential similarity stands out: none of them was able to ignore the military role of the emperor. While there is a greater emphasis on his liberal arts education and also on the idea of collegiate rule, a more ceremonial style of leadership (in which the emperor’s military role was transferred to his most trusted general) cannot yet be part of an encomium produced [End Page 269] in Gratian’s reign; in fact, his general Merobaudes, and even Theodosius, do not appear at all in these speeches.

Whether this emphasis changed significantly in encomia of later child-emperors is an interesting question, but it does seem as if orators delivering imperial panegyrics continued to be compelled to refer to the traditional military role of the emperor. Hence when Claudian praises the eleven-year-old Honorius in 396, he exclaims that “as a child you crawled over shields, the fresh-won spoils of kings were your toys” (“reptasti per scuta puer, regumque recentes, exuuiae tibi ludus erant,” III Cons. Hon. 22–23), and addressing his older brother Arcadius in 398/99, Synesius explains that “the emperor is a craftsman of wars, just as the cobbler is a craftsman of shoes” (τεχνίτης ἐστιν ὁ βασιλεὺς πολέμων, ὥσπερ ὁ σκυτοτόμος ὑποδημάτων, De Regn. 9.7). Unlike Gratian, these child-emperors never led their armies in the field, but they nevertheless needed to be presented as able to endure the dust of Mars.

Dennis Jussen
Radboud University


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1. This article originated as a paper delivered at a conference on child-emperorship held at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen in January 2019. It is a pleasure to thank both its organizers for inviting me and the audience for their insightful questions. I am also grateful to Martijn Icks and Erika Manders for the stimulating discussions we have had on child-emperors, from which a separate Dutch article on the military representation of Gratian and Honorius has sprung (Icks, Manders, and Jussen 2020). Last but not least, I would like to thank Arethusa’s anonymous referees for their extremely valuable comments and suggestions. This article forms part of the NWO-funded research project Constraints and Tradition: Roman Power in Changing Societies.

2. Translations of Ammianus Marcellinus are from Rolfe.

3. In the west: Gratian (r. 367–83) at the age of eight, Valentinian II (r. 375–92) at four, Honorius (r. 393–423) at ten, and Valentinian III (r. 419–455) at six. In the east: Arcadius (r. 383–408) at the age of six, and Theodosius II (r. 402–50) at nine months.

4. On military emperorship in the fourth century, see Wienand 2012 and Maier 2019.

5. On the process of imperial image-making in the fourth century and on the important role played by various groups within the empire in the negotiation and acceptance of the imperial image, see Wienand 2015, Burgersdijk and Ross 2018, Manders and Slootjes 2019.

6. Kelly 2008.109–10 and Ross 2016.5 hold that Ammianus wrote in Rome in the late 380s. For the relevant passages cited in this article, the recently finished philological and historical commentaries published by Brill have been consulted: den Boeft et al. 2009, 2015, and 2018.

7. Barnes 1982.34 suggests that Maxentius was born in 284, making him four or five years old at the time. Translations of the Pan. Lat. are from Nixon and Saylor Rodgers.

8. Cf. IV(10).17.2; 37.1–4. On the image of Crispus in panegyrics, see Burgersdijk 2018.

9. CIL 6.1699 = ILS 2946 attests to Symmachus as comes tertii ordinis, “Count of the Third Class,” an honorific title he may have been awarded at this stage in his career.

10. Salzman and Roberts 2011.43–47 argue that the letter was written after Symmachus had left the court in Trier, dating it to late 370 or early 371. Translations of Symmachus’s letters are from Salzman and Roberts.

11. A similar picture emerges from Ammianus; see Humphries 1999 and den Hengst 2018.

12. Translations of Symmachus’s speeches are from Saylor Rodgers.

13. The “small gifts of gold” refer to the aurum oblaticium, a voluntary tax raised by the Senate and presented to Valentinian on the occasion of his quinquennalia. For a date in 369, see Seeck 1883.ccx–ccxi, Wirth 1986.279, Bruggisser 1987.139, and Portmann 1988.50. Rees 2002.167 n. 84 suggests that Or. 1 and 3 might be part of the same whole. For 3 January 370 as an alternative date, see Del Chicca 1987, Shanzer 1998.287, and Sogno 2006.101 n. 107. Pabst 1989.158 and Mause 1994.10 n. 39 rule out any precise dating.

14. The MS has spesperata, which has led to the following conjectures: spes sperata (Cramer), spes parata (Heindorf), and spes parta (Callu).

15. Pearce 1951.36 believes the theme was a suggestion by Ausonius.

16. On the trope of military sweat, see Plin. Pan. 13.1 and 15.5, with Phang 2008.215–17.

17. On this traditional ritual of recusatio imperii, “refusing the imperial power,” see Huttner 2004.

18. See also the partnership between Maximian and Diocletian, expressed most famously at Pan. Lat. X(2).11.6. On the notion of collegiate unity in the panegyrics from the Tetrarchic period, see Rees 2002.

19. On Valentinian II’s elevation as an illegitimate usurpation, see Omissi 2018.251–53.

20. On Symmachus’s use of the phrase novum saeculum as a Plinian influence, see Kelly 2013a.274–86.

21. Gratian also appears in Themistius’s panegyrics to Theodosius, but only as the emperor responsible for Theodosius’s accession; see Vanderspoel 1995.196–98.

22. Vanderspoel 1995.179–85 argues that the speech was delivered in the Roman Senate before Gratian arrived; Leppin and Portmann 1998.214–16 propose that it was given before Gratian in Trier, and then again before Gratian when he was in Rome; Errington 2000.889–92 opts for an initial delivery in the Roman Senate, after which Themistius travelled to Trier with a group of Senators, where he gave the speech again.

23. Kelly’s scenario does not rule out the possibility offered by Leppin and Portmann 1998.214–16 that Themistius gave the speech twice, expanding it for its second delivery. Whether or not Gratian actually visited Rome remains unclear: see Barnes 1975.228–30, contra Kelly 2013b.393–97.

24. On the erotic connotation of the language used in the speech, see Konstan 2014.128–34.

25. Translations of Themistius are my own. “Child-father” might be a reference to Gratian’s fatherly role over Valentinian II, who is otherwise not mentioned in the speech.

26. On the immigration of 376 and its build-up towards Adrianople, see Lenski 2002.320–68.

27. On this campaign against the Lentienses, see Drijvers and Teitler 2019.

28. Based on the traditional narrative of the sources, the accession of Theodosius has long been interpreted as legitimate (see, e.g., Matthews 1975.88–100 and Errington 1996). Recently, however, it is increasingly seen as an usurpation (see, e.g., Sivan 1996, McLynn 2005.88–94, and Omissi 2018.255–63).

29. His colleague was Quintus Clodius Hermogenianus Olybrius.

30. On Ausonius’s career, see Matthews 1975.56–87, Sivan 1993.119–41, and Coşkun 2002.11–111.

31. Matthews 1975.98 n. 2, Green 1991.537, Sivan 1993.207 n. 1, and Gibson 2018.270.

32. Translations of Ausonius are from Evelyn-White.

33. Cf. Hutchinson 2013 on Ausonius’s self-praise in Ep. 18 to Paulinus of Nola.

34. See Gibson 2018.275. Cf. Schenkl 1883, who detected the following verbal parallels between Pliny’s and Ausonius’s speeches: Plin. Pan. 58.1 ~ Aus. Grat. act. 6.27, Plin. Pan. 88.6 ~ Aus. Grat. act. 7.38, and Plin. Pan. 94.2 ~ Aus. Grat. act. 1.3. Green 1991.544, 551–52 additionally notes Plin. Pan. 13.3 ~ Aus. Grat. act. 17.76, Plin. Pan. 37–40 ~ Aus. Grat. act. 16.73, and Plin. Pan. 79.1 ~ Aus. Grat. act. 6.25.

35. Cf. Amm. 31.10.18. Lenski 2002.365–66 reads Ammianus’s emphasis on Gratian’s speed as an ironic reference to him being too late to aid his uncle Valens at Adrianople. On celeritas as a military virtue in panegyric, see Lolli 1999.

36. Zos. 4.35.3–6. Cf. Socr. 5.11 and Jer. Ep. 60.15.

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