Dedication to the usurper Magnentius (CIL XI, 6640)

Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
Forum of Livius, Forlì.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Forlì (Emilia-Romagna, Italy); parish church of S. Maria in Acquedotto, outside the churchyard.
350 CE to 352 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Cippus or milestone.
Height: 189cm
Depth: 43cm 
Letter height: 5-5.5cm
CIL XI, 6640
This inscription was added to a cippus (small, low pillar) or milestone that was placed in the Forum Livius in the town of Forlì in northern Italy (Emilia-Romagna); it is dedicated to the “usurper” emperor Magnentius, who was proclaimed emperor in January 350 CE at Augustodunum (Autun, France), and celebrates him with epithets that demonstrate a vision of the global nature of imperial rule that found particular prominence in the fourth century CE.
Magnentius was a military commander of the Herculiani and Ioviani imperial guard units, based in Gaul; the son of British father and Frankish mother, it has been suggested that their family nomen of Flavius – the same as that of the Constantinian dynasty – was an indication that they owed their citizenship to a member of the imperial house, making his acclamation as emperor all the more unusual (Crawford, Constantius II, p. 71-72). Magnentius’s “usurpation” of power in Gaul was partly a response to the unpopularity of Constans, who was recorded by the literary sources as greedy and corrupt (for Constans’ reign, see Aurelian Victor, On the Caesars 41; Eutropius, Brief History of Rome 10.9; Zosimus, New History, 2.42.1; Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 16.7.5). Unlike previous usurpations of power, which saw entire legions of the army declare support for a particular individual, Magnentius was proclaimed Augustus by a small group led by Marcellinus, Constans’ finance officer in the West, who had apparently grown frustrated and disillusioned by the financial difficulties that the emperor’s reign had brought. Although soldiers were stationed at Augustodunum, it was not a full military centre and so the coup cannot be characterised as a full revolt supported by a dissatisfied military, but rather a covert plot (Harries, Imperial Rome, p. 194-195). The choice of Magnentius was unusual; although skilled in military matters and with enough support amongst the soldiers and civilians to succeed in claiming power, the uncertainty over his origins led to propaganda from Constantius II that highlighted his “barbarian” origins, playing up to his pagan heritage and portraying him not simply as an illegitimate usurper, but as a barbarian invader against whom the west must be protected (Crawford, Constantius II, p. 72). In spite of its small-scale origins, the plot gained quick momentum, and Constans was captured from a hunting trip near Helena (modern Elne, near Perpignon, France) and killed, along with a number of his generals (Harries, Imperial Rome, p. 196; Julian, Orations I.34ab). By mid 350 CE he had advanced through northern Italy to reach Rome, where he had seen off an attempted usurpation of his own power, from Constantius II’s half-cousin Virius Nepotianus (see Aurelius Victor, On the Caesars, 11.2.6-9; Eutropius, Brief History of Rome 10.2); although earlier in the year he had appeared to promote himself as a potential partner for Constantius, including the emperor on his coinage as the senior Augustus, by the summer this proposal had been thoroughly rejected by the imperial court, so that Magnentius “no longer aspired to join the Constantinian dynasty but to supplant it” (Barnes, Athanasius and Constantius, p. 102).
Magnentius ceased to portray Constantius on his coinage, and instead issued those with legends that also appear in this inscription from Forlì; “liberator of the Roman world” (liberator orbis Romani) and “restorer of freedom and of the state” (restitutor libertatis et rei publicae) became regular statements in inscriptions, both in promotion of the claim that he had replaced a corrupt regime, and also in the honorific language of imperial power that had overtaken the traditional Republican titulature since the Severan period. Liberator, and particularly liberator orbis Romani had first appeared under Constantine, on whose coinage it was issued along with images of the emperor on horseback, right arm raised, with a lion crouched under the horse’s feet, in a portrayal that has been interpreted as Constantine’s success over the barbarians (Stevenson, Dictionary of Roman coins, p. 517). The epithet was employed by Magnentius here in the same guise, promoting the message of “liberation” that his defeat of Constans represented, and countering the propaganda that cast him in the role of barbarian usurper. Restitutor was a more familiar honorific title, which had appeared on imperial coinage from the Flavian period. It had enjoyed a particular prominence under the Antonine emperors, with Hadrian in particular heralded as the “restorer” of several provinces (see Hadrian, Roman soldiers and Asia). It had several associations: emperors might be acclaimed restitutor on account of the peace and prosperity that they had brought to a particular province, or it could refer more specifically to the capital itself, where it symbolised the restitution of order after civic strife (see e.g. RIC IV/1, Septimius Severus, no. 140 and 140a, p. 108; the same message is included in the dedicatory inscription of the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome). Restitutor could also refer to the restoration of particular virtues, such as pietas (“piety”), libertas (“liberty”) – as it does in this inscription – or securitas publica (“public safety”), whereby the emperor’s own personal connection with these qualities extended them beyond his person and into the populace of the empire as a whole. In this inscription, Magnentius had restored this general freedom, but he had also restored the “State” (res publica), in further emphasis of the corruption that the successors of Constantine had brought to it. The penultimate epithet, “conserver of the soldiers and of the provincials” (conservatori militum / et provincialium) responded to this idea too, but also acknowledged the importance of provincial communities and the military that safeguarded them. The final honorific, “our master” (dominus nostro) had been introduced as an imperial epithet during the reign of the Severan emperors, under whom rose the absolutist concept of imperial authority. Military dedications to Septimius Severus and Caracalla in particular introduced dominus, which was much more infrequent in a civilian context, in recognition of military expertise (Noreña, Imperial Ideals, p. 227). These epithets appeared in numerous inscriptions that were set up rapidly throughout Italy and the western provinces as Magnentius’s power advanced; although his name was later erased from them according to the damnatio memoriae ordered by Constantius II, following his defeat of the usurper at the Battle of Mursa in 351 CE, and Magnentius’s subsequent suicide in 353, the surviving texts of the inscriptions demonstrate the continuing importance of restoration and liberation in imperial ideology in the mid 4th century. These traditions of order and freedom were now, however, combined with the discipline of and respect for the emperor’s military abilities, and the absolutist nature of imperial power.
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