Book Review: ‘The Construction of Authority in Ancient Rome and Byzantium: The Rhetoric of Empire’

This is a difficult book to give a star rating to, simply because while so much of it is quite good, there are some serious problems that detract from the overall authority of the thesis. Lakacs argues that the purpose of her study is examine how traditional Roman virtues (mos maiorum) became embodied in the person of the emperor (p. xviii). This is spread over four chapters, the first dealing with the Roman Republic, the second with Augustus and the “high empire”, the third discusses the introduction of Christianity, and the last moves into the end of antiquity and the early middle ages. The bulk of the early material is quite good. The chapter on the Republic sets the groundwork on traditional Roman virtues and how they were stressed once the Republic began to disintegrate in the late second century B.C. The real meat of the book begins with Augustus, and Lakacs argues that he subsumed all the traditional virtue into his person and stressed his role of father in his political discourse. The next examples deal with what happens when that system that Augustus is challenged by having a ruler who does not possess the traditional virtue but rather flaunts their power openly and thus denies the pleasant fiction that the imperator was really primus inter pares. Curiously, she never mentions Gaius Caligula here. Much of what she discusses for Nero and Domitian are just as applicable to Caligula, but it is odd that she never mentions the first member of the pattern that would eventually destroy the Julio-Claudians and then the Flavians. Of course, this could also be the reason why she never mentions it. The second chapter ends with Trajan re-establishing the fiction of the emperor as primus inter pares.

Lakacs has some very interesting points on how Christianity interacted with the Roman political system of traditional authority, and I think that she is right. The idea of the power of the Christian martyr as leaving an impression on the Romans not merely by their strange actions but because self-sacrifice was a traditional part of “old” Roman virtue is a point well taken. She argues that under Constantine (and his propagandist, Eusebius) both of the fathers (God and the emperor) were aligned. She has a section here on Julian and the question he put to the Christians about how they could have both their scriptures and traditional learning. There are some ideas on this that I had not heard before, but her discussion of paideia is both badly defined and it is really strange that she never cites Peter Brown’s Power & Persuasion Late Antiquity: Towards A Christian Empire because it is the standard work on paideia and power relationships in the late Roman Empire. The chapter concludes with Claudian’s panegyric for Honorius and demonstrates that although Christianity was now dominant, traditional virtues were still being evoked.

The last chapter is where things begin to break down. She still makes some excellent points, but as whole this chapter attempts to discuss far too many subjects, has very few citations, and it appears that Lakacs has nothing more than a superficial (and skewed, I would argue) understanding of the matters discussed within. She starts off with discussing how the patriarch crowned the emperor Leo I, and states that now the church invested people with power, not the army, senate, or the people. It seems that she really wants to just call the Byzantine state a theocracy, but the evidence will not let her. This statement simply cannot stand, and she fails to put it into the context of the precise lack of institutional relationship between the church and the state in the east, which led to many of the conflicts between emperors and patriarchs. The role of the army is ignored (see Kaegi’s Byzantine Military Unrest, 471-843: An Interpretation for an appraisal of their role in the position of emperors) as well as how it voiced political anxiety, more than the church which she cites (for the army’s role as an indication of political concern, see Haldon’s Byzantium in the Seventh Century: The Transformation of a Culture.) The rest of her discussion on the Byzantium is similarly disjointed, excessively rapid, and demonstrates not even a superficial understanding of much of the scholarship in the field. She invokes John Skylitzes’ story of Basil II’s victory over the Bulgars as evidence of his autocratic power as the ultimate father with all power vested in him. This point is probably correct (she could have argued it from Psellos’ descriptions alone), but she undermines all of her work by not being aware that Skylitzes’ story is almost certain a fraud (see P. Stephenson, The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer.) She concludes with Alexios I Komnenos’ attempts to put education in the hands of the church and states the John Italos was the last independent thinker in Constantinople. Where Sakacs is getting these ideas is unknown, but a cursory survey of the literature of the Komnenian and Palaiologan period reveal their vibrancy and intellectual merits, not the “stifling of thought” that she seems to think the patriarchal school brought on Byzantium. Her concluding remarks on the patriarchal school of Alexios is just so bizarre that I’m not sure what to say.

There are a few other minor issues. The book could really have used some more citations of small things and some better proofreading. For example, she states that the Torah from the temple in Judaea was paraded through the streets of Rome. The Torah is the Jewish law; most likely this is supposed to be “Menorah,” which appears on the Arch of Titus. Another case where the dots should have been connected were her ideas of Pliny and his concept of Trajan as Jupiter’s representative. This has some interesting parallels to Diocletian’s reforms and the Christian empire, but she never stresses the connections sufficiently.

The first three chapters of this book are quite good. The rest quickly disintegrates into a convoluted and badly-supported mess when she tries to deal with far too much that seems to be outside of her main area of research. Lakacs’ bibliography is also lacking a shocking number of important works of recent and semi-recent scholarship. This book needs to be treated with caution.

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