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

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...


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