Altar vowed for the safety of the empire (CIL XIII, 7844)

Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
Gressenich, Germania Superior.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
House on the Klausenstraße (which leads from the Abbey in Kornelimünster to Klause), Gressenich, Germany.
238 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Stone (limestone?) altar with inscribed front.
Limestone (?)

Width: 50 cm
Height: 60 cm

CIL XIII, 7844

This inscription was part of an altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus at modern Gressenich, near Aachan in Germany, on the periphery of the Roman empire. It is an important source for interpreting the so-called ‘Third century crisis’, by which scholars have traditionally referred to the period of instability between the fall of the Severan dynasty in 235 CE, and the advent of the Tetrarchy under Diocletian in 281 CE; this inscription is particularly significant because it demonstrates how individuals from communities far from the centre of the empire understood the events taking place around them, and for the sense of common Roman identity that it reveals.
The inscription is dedicated to the most important god of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and the ‘genius’ of the place – the inherent and divine nature of the place they lived in – by two individuals, Masius Ianuarius and Titianus Ianuarius, who make the offering “for the safety of the empire” (pro salute imperii). Although offerings in the form of altars which ask for the safety of the emperor, and occasionally the imperial household too, are relatively common across the empire, this inscription is unusual in its request application to the gods for the empire as a whole (see e.g. Religious acts for the safety of Nero in Etruria and Dedication to Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Croatia). The consuls named in the inscription, Pius and Proculus, confirm its date as 238 CE, which is significant given the turbulence that that year involved; following the assassination of Alexander Severus and his mother Julia Mammaea in 235 CE, the usurper Caius Iulius Verus Maximinus had assumed power with the support of the Roman military, and continued the German campaigns begun by his predecessor. Disorder in Africa Proconsularis led to the proclamation of its governor, the elderly M. Antonius Gordianus Sempronius Romanus, as emperor at the end of March 238 CE, with his son Gordian II named as co-ruler; they were defeated a short time afterwards, with Maximinus assassinated by his own troops at the end of June of the same year. Two leading senators, Pupienus and Balbinus had been elected emperors in Rome in late April or May, with the grandson of Gordian I, the thirteen-year-old Gordian III, forced upon them as Caesar, but they too were assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard only two months after their accession. Gordian III was left as the sole ruler until 244 CE, when he fell in battle against the Persian leader Shapur, whose advances on Roman territory had seen the fall of Dura Europos in 239 CE, and the capture of the client city of Hatra in 241 CE (for detailed discussion of these events and their sources, see Drinkwater, “Maximian to Diocletian and the ‘Crisis’,” p. 28-36; 58-66).
The dedication of this altar appears, then, to correspond with Geza Alföldy’s argument that those who lived through the disturbances of these years were aware of the disorder and felt that they were living in a time of ‘crisis’ (Alföldy, “The Crisis of the Third Century as Seen by Contemporaries,” p. 89-111). His claim was based upon the literary records of Christian authors such as Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen, and on some negative descriptions of third-century Rome in the contemporary authors Cassius Dio and Herodian, and as such drew criticism from scholars such as Karl Strobel who refuted his argument, stating that the ‘crisis’ that Alföldy’s sources believed themselves to be living through were instinctive reactions to particular situations, such as the persecution of the Christians by Decius (see Strobel, Das Imperium Romanum, p. 299-348). Although the danger and upheaval of these situations were clearly tangible, Strobel did not perceive them as evidence for a more general anxiety as to the state of the empire as a whole, nor a fear for its survival (see Strobel, Das Imperium Romanum, p. 340-344. See Liebeschuetz, “Was there a crisis of the third century,” p. 11-14 for a good discussion of these conflicting arguments). However, Werner Eck, in consideration of the evidence for the threat faced by the communities of the Germanic border in the third century CE, and the extent to which their security was threatened by the invasions of non-Romans, noted that the inscription is, if not direct proof of military engagement, at least evidence of the strong sense of insecurity felt by the people of this particular region (Eck, “Krise oder nichtkrise,” p. 33). Whether or not they were aware of all of the different pressures and interactions faced by the different communities, both military and civilian, across the empire, it is clear from the dedication of this altar that a tangible threat was felt at a local enough level that two ordinary citizens felt compelled to invoke the support of the gods.
Most interesting in this dedication is what it reveals about the increasing awareness, far from Rome and the central administration, of the Roman empire as a whole; Masius Ianuarius and Terentius Ianuarius do not implore Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the genius of their hometown for the safety of the emperor, nor for protection of the region in which they live, but rather for the welfare of the entire area governed by Roman imperium – pro salute imperii – or the empire. Even at the very edges of Roman control in the relatively early third century CE, it was possible to discern a sense of political unity and communal identity, “which had to be safeguarded by centre and periphery alike” (Hekster and Manders, “Identities of Emperor and Empire,” p. 154). Although the full extent to which the award of universal citizenship given by the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212 CE was felt has been much debated, it is clear that by 238 CE at least, the empire was perceived and understood by many as a clear entity and one in which all its inhabitants were engaged and taking part.

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

Maximinus to Diocletian and the crisis

Drinkwater, Johnarticle-in-a-bookThe Cambridge ancient history: The crisis of empire, A.D. 193-337A.K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, A. Cameron28-66Maximinus to Diocletian and the crisisCambridgeCambridge University Press2005

Identities of emperor and empire in the third century AD

Hekster, Olivier, Manders, Erikaarticle-in-a-bookFigures d'empire, fragments de mémoire. Pouvoirs (pratiques et discours, images et représentations) et identités (sociales et religieuses) dans le monde romain impérial (Ier s. av. J.-C.-Ve s. ap. J.-C.)S. Benoist, A. Daguet-Gagey, C. Hoët-van Cauwenberghe153-162Identities of emperor and empire in the third century ADVilleneuve-d'AscqPresses universitaires du Septentrion2008

Was there a crisis of the third century?

Liebeschuetz, Wolfarticle-in-a-bookCrises and the Roman Empire : proceedings of the Seventh Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Nijmegen, June 20-24, 2006)O. Hekster, G. de Kleijn, D. Slootjes11-20Was there a crisis of the third century?Leiden; BostonBrill2007
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