Commodus as exsuperantissimus (CIL XIV, 3449)

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Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
Unknown location in Treba Augusta (Trevi nel Lazio). Discovered reused near the churches of S. Lorenzo and S. Nicola (modern Frosinone, Italy).
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Now lost.
192 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Unknown; the inscription is known only from its manuscript record.
Marble (?)
CIL XIV, 3449
This inscription, which is now lost and known only from a manuscript copy, was set up in the small town of Treba Augusta (Trevi nel Lazio) in the province of modern Frosinone, some 75 km east of Rome. It was set up to honour the emperor Commodus in 192 CE, a date confirmed by the number of consulships held and instances of tribunician power given in his official titles. Most significantly, the inscription records the extraordinary honorific titles assumed by Commodus towards the end of his reign, and in particular the epithet exsuperantissmus, by which his status as a ‘God-Emperor’ is unequivocally stated.
As stated by Olivier Hekster, Commodus’s “emphasis on his superhuman status went hand in hand with a further change in imperial self-representation” (Hekster, Commodus, p. 87). Over the course of his reign, Commodus presented himself to his public firstly in connection with different gods, and particularly with Janus, Jupiter, Sol and Hercules, who appeared on his coinage, and in specially minted medallions with increasing frequency (Hekster, Commodus, p. 99; for discussion of the different types, see Szaivert, Münzprägung, p. 43-55). Between December 182 CE and January 183 CE he added the title Pius to his official nomenclature, in order to emphasise both his ancestral heritage as part of the Antonine dynasty and also his extreme religiosity and exceptional relationship with the gods. His imperial policy was presented “as pietas to the gods on the highest level, not just in the official sense,” with a coin minted in 187 CE going so far as to proclaim the legend AVCTOR PIETATIS alongside a sacrificing pietas (Oliver, “The piety of Commodus,” p. 379); Commodus himself was clearly supposed to be understood as the auctor pietatis, and was celebrated in the coin issue for bringing increased pietas to the Roman world (Hekster, Commodus, p. 93; for the coin, see Kaiser-Raiß, Die stadtrömische Münzprägung, p. 36). The title Felix had been added in 185 CE, implying a kind of divine protection of Commodus by the gods, as well as celebrating his general care of the empire, which was presented as having brought prosperity and abundance to the people of Rome (Beaujeu, La religion romaine, p. 381). The most striking phase of Commodus’s reinvention of his role as one imbued with divine properties emerged in 190 CE, when his association with the demi-god Hercules ceased to be one of mere affiliation and became rather an overt identification (see Dedication to Commodus as Hercules); no longer did Commodus use Hercules as a “paradigm’ by which he might assert his own attributes, but rather “declared himself the new incarnation” of the god (Hekster, Commodus, p. 104; see also Speidel, “Commodus the God-Emperor”, p. 109-114).
All of these qualities are asserted in the inscription from Treba Augusta, in which Commodus is acclaimed by his imperial titles, the victory epithets Sarmaticus, Germanicus maximus and Britannicus, and his own particular titles as ‘peacemaker of the world’ (pacator orbis), ‘unconquered Felix’ (Felix invictus) and Roman Hercules (Romanus Hercules). These titles were to become official imperial nomenclature from the emperor Caracalla onwards, but in 192 CE, when the inscription was set up, they still represented a new – if gradually introduced – facet of the emperor’s image. However, it is the description of Commodus as exsuperantissimus (“most excellent”) in line 6 that requires the most attention. From the verb exsupero, “to surpass” or “to exceed,” this superlative was traditionally associated with the highest Roman god, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, in recognition of his role as the supreme, principal deity of the Roman pantheon. An association between this embodiment of the god and Commodus had been alluded to in coins of the emperor – aureii, denarii, and asses - minted in 186/187 CE, which bore the legend IOVI EXSVPER and which depicted Jupiter seated holding a branch in his left hand and an eagle-tipped sceptre in his right (Szaivert, Münzprägung, p. 69, nos. 712, 713, 730, 731; Méthy, “Deus Exsuperantissimus,” p. 109-110). It can have been no coincidence that denarii of the same year were issued with a portrait of Commodus holding the very same attributes and in the same hands, in a direct association of the emperor with the god (Hekster, Commodus, p. 101; for the coins, see Coins of the Roman Empire, IV, nos. 222-225). The coins drew a parallel between the ruler of the gods and the emperor on earth, but went further than the partnership suggested by earlier emperors, who were represented as both the protégé and delegate of Jupiter; Commodus was presented as sharing in the same divine authority as the most powerful Roman god, but using language that was familiar and which did not hint at irreverence or superiority.
It is not clear when exactly the superlative entered the official titulature of Commodus; the inscription from Treba Augusta appears to have been set up in a municipal context, with Caius Papius Capito and Lucius Volceius Maximus likely to have been the duumviri at the head of the town council. By 192 CE exsuperantissimus appears to have entered the imperial vocabulary in such a way that this small, local community was confident in their use of it when describing their emperor. It may be that Commodus’s renaming of the months of the calendar year, which also occurred in 192 CE, was responsible; the twelve months were renamed according to his names and titles, Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Hercules, Romanus, Exsuperatorius – also derived from exsupero , Amazonius, Invictus, Felix and Pius, which, following on from the association already established in the coinage, may have gone some way to ‘normalising’ the epithet usually attributed to Rome’s most powerful god. Commodus clearly went further in his association with the gods than any other emperor before or after him; his claims to divinity were extravagant and bold, and insisted upon a status that was both unprecedented and absolute. Whether or not the message begun by his coinage and reiterated in inscriptions, statues and his own self-presentation was truly endorsed by the provincial communities across the empire is impossible to note for certain; in Treba Augusta, however, the ordo decurionum followed such imperial propaganda directly, erecting an inscription in honour of the emperor using the terminology appropriated by him, which equated his power to a superior strength (Méthy, “Deus Exsuperantissimus,” p. 103).
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Commodus as exsuperantissimus (CIL XIV, 3449)
Author(s) of this publication: Caroline Barron
Publishing date: Mon, 11/12/2018 - 18:40
Visited: Thu, 02/29/2024 - 09:05

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