The above inscription records a dedication to the emperor Valentinian I in the Tripolitanian town of Sabratha; it is a good example of the evolution of imperial epithets, from qualities and virtues that spoke to Rome’s Republican history to a more ecumenical language that acknowledged the global nature of Roman power, and particularly that of the emperor.
The inscription was set up in the Forum area of Sabratha, and was dedicated by the deputy for the praetorian prefects (vicem praefectorum prae/torio), Antonius Dracontius, whose presence dates the dedication to the years of his office, between 364-367 CE. It appears to have been one of a pair, owing to the discovery of a similarly sized base also in the Curia, which contains an identical dedication to Valentinian’s brother and co-emperor, Valens (IRT 58). The desire to honour the emperors in these years may have been in response to their positive support of Sabratha after a number of catastrophes; at some point between the reigns of Constantine and Valentinian I, Sabratha had been ransacked and burned in a series of devastating raids that were carried out by the Austuriani tribe, in the hinterland of Lepcis Magna beginning in 363 CE (Mattingly, Tripolitania, p. 294). According to Ammianus Marcellinus, the whole of Tripolitania was subjected to cruel suffering in these raids, but he does not mention Sabratha specifically (Res Gestae, XXVIII.6.15). However, the archaeological evidence for the city does reveal the damage suffered by the Sabrathans; a large number of fragments of earlier inscriptions, dating from the end of the reign of Trajan to Constantine, have been excavated from the vaults of the ruined Capitolium, where they were evidently deposited en masse. Further inscription fragments were used for the repaving of the Forum and the Curia (Lepelley, Les cités de l’Afrique romaine, p. 373; Lepelley, Aspects de l’Afrique Romaine, p. 189; Bartoccini, “La Curia di Sabratha,” p. 33-35 for detailed description). The present inscription is one of a series that appeared in the aftermath of the disaster, and which demonstrate the civic vitality of the city, in its desire and ability to restore the ruined centre (see also IRT 58, 103 and 111).
The inscription is also noteworthy for the language with which it describes the emperor Valentinian. The emperor is honoured with the traditional title “our Lord” (dominus noster), which had become common in the epigraphy of the Severan emperors in the late second century CE, and is described as “Augustus of the whole world” (Augustus totius orbis), using a vocabulary and concept that had been present in imperial ideology since the reign of Augustus. The notion of a Roman world as a whole world, a totius orbis, equated the human population of the world with Roman citizens, on the basis that the world, the orbis terrarum, was the same as the Roman world, the orbis Romanum, or the Roman empire. The Roman emperor acted as a mediator between heaven and earth, extending his care both to the Senate and people of Rome, but also to all those who made up the orbis Romanus, in a form of universal monarchy. The epigraphic texts that make such references – John Weisweiler has noted 173 inscriptions that do so – become more prevalent after the reigns of Commodus and the Severans, with the incidences of such ecumenical language increasing steadily through the third and fourth centuries CE (Weisweiler, “From Empire to World-State,” p. 197). By the fourth century CE, it was clear that the emperor was no longer the leading representative of an empire built on Republican principles, in which an imperial people governed a “mosaic of conquered populations,” but a “world-state, in which one divine emperor governed one unified community of monarchical subjects,” the orbis Romanus (Weisweiler, “From Empire to World-State,” p. 199). In the case of Antonius Dracontius,
Valentinian is also praised in the inscription for his “justice and sense of duty” and as the “perpetual founder of Roman good fortune”. The celebration of justice and pietas was well attested for the reigns of Valentinian and his co-emperor Valens; they were regarded as careful administrators, who were committed to improving various areas of legislative concern, including imperial corruption, civic administration, agriculture and the welfare of the people. Both were renowned as harsh critics of improper practices and as enforcers of discipline, who were ruthless in their seeking out official corruption, with a number of laws instituted by both to this effect still extant in the later judicial corpus (see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXXI.14.2; Symmachus, Oration, I.123; Themistius, Orations VIII.114a-117b; Lenski, Failure of Empire, p. 272-281 for discussion of specific examples). Both were also praised by their panegyrists for their interest in legal equity, in a further display of the iustitia that the inscription celebrated; they enacted laws that expedited appeal cases from the courts of the iudices ordinarii, where the governors had acted in the role of judge, as well as legislation that insisted that cases should be heard in the province in which the defendant resided (Lenski, Failure of Empire, p. 283). That the inscription should recognise Valentinian’s “justice” fits with his general image of parity and principled government; the fact that this iustitia was described as “heavenly” in the inscription was further indication of how these imperial virtues were considered in the late empire; no longer were the personal qualities of the emperor unique character traits, but rather evidence for his universal presence, which was situated somewhere between the worlds of men and gods, and between which he acted as mediator.
Both Valentinian and Valens also paid particular attention to civic administration, in a further demonstration of their “just” and dutiful approach to government, attempting to maintain the curial orders, encouraging the repair and building of civic infrastructure, whilst also trying to ensure that the main urban centres were properly supplied – for which latter pursuit they were honoured for ensuring the perpetual “good fortune” of Rome’s people (Lenski, Failure of Empire, p. 273-280). They organised grand building schemes, which focused on structures of practical value, such as bathhouses, roads, bridges and aqueducts, as well as grain storage facilities, rather than palaces, temples or churches and honorific arches (Lenski, Failure of Empire, p. 277-278). In the case of this inscription for Sabratha, it must be that the emperors were honoured for their contribution to the restoration of the city following the sackings and raids by the Austuriani; the civic centre of the city was restored as symbol of the civic order that was to continue, with both Valentinian and Valens honoured for the care and dutiful aid that they had provided.