The empress and her relationship to the Roman army

The empress and her relationship to the Roman army

By Kai M. Töpfer

Proceedings of the XXIst International Limes (Roman Frontiers) Congress 2009 at Newcastle upon Tyne (BAR International Series), ed. Paul Bidwell (Archaeopress, 2013)

Agrippina minor, once as the wife of  Claudius, united with him by clasped hands, and once as the mother of Nero

Abstract: In studies of the relationship between the Roman Emperor and his army in the Julio-Claudian period the roles of the female members of the imperial family have rarely been considered. However already in this period there are many depictions of female members of the imperial family in military imagery, such as on the dona militaria, weapons and standards. Therefore the question arises, what the role of these women as regards the army was or, in other words, which function soldiers might have attributed to the empresses. To answer this question a closer look on the further development of this phenomenon is necessary. Under the Flavians and the first Adoptive Emperors the women of the imperial family played hardly any role within the visual language addressed to the Roman army. This changes under the rule of Marcus Aurelius. He invested his wife Faustina the Younger as Mater castrorum, which brought the empress very close to the army. The purpose of this designation must be seen in the attempt to re-establish a biological succession after a long period. In this context, Faustina, as an emperor’s daughter, an emperor’s wife and, above all, as the mother of the future heir to the throne, played a crucial role. In fact, she represented the dynasty which held the imperium and which needed the loyalty of its army. Because of this, Aymard calls Faustina’s role a “régence morale”. It was for similar purposes that also Julia Domna and empresses of the 3rd century AD were honoured with this title. On the whole, it seems reasonable to understand the presentation of these women as a significant factor for ensuring the army’s loyalty to the empress and, in consequence to the whole dynasty.

Introduction: The empresses have hardly featured in studies on the relationship between the emperor and his army or on the system of patronage in military context. This seems astonishing considering the evident visual presence of the princesses and empresses in military settings since early imperial times. Against this background the following study investigates the role and the meaning of the Roman empresses in the world of the Roman army. Depictions of the Empresses in a military setting may serve as a starting point.

A very insightful example is the scabbard of a gladius in Bonn, which is decorated with a relief showing a female bust in frontal view flanked by two busts of boys. The female portrait has been identified either as Julia, the daughter of Augustus, with her sons C. and L. Caesar, or as Tiberius and Drusus the Elder with their mother Livia. Either way, for this study the precise identification is not crucial. Much more important is the composition of the portraits, which clearly visualises a primarily dynastic statement. This seems to be that the portrayed female is predominantly depicted in her role as mother of potential heirs to the throne.

Click here to read this article from Heidelberg University

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