Ostia Antica (near Rome); new storerooms of the Soprintendenza, inventory no.: 12224.
262 CE to 263 CE
Marble plaque broken into several pieces. This inscription is found on the reverse of the stone, where the plaque has been reused. An earlier text (CIL XIV, 5330, dating to 203 CE) was inscribed on the front next to an incised border on the left hand side. The right side of the plaque has been damaged resulting in the loss of several words from each line.
This inscription was found on the back of a marble plaque in the Forum Baths at Ostia; its original surface had contained a dedication to the emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla (see CIL XIV, 5330) but it had been reused in dedication to the emperor Gallienus, in c. 262-263 CE. It describes the emperor with honorific terms that are perhaps at odds with the unstable nature of Roman power across the empire in these particular years, and as such represents the contrast between how events might have been portrayed by the Roman administration to its subjects, and the continued importance of certain imperial virtues during moments of instability.
The inscription is dedicated to Gallienus, who is described as “unconquered” (invictus) and exsuperantissimus (“most eminent”). From the verb exsupero, “to surpass” or “to exceed,” this latter 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. The inscription continues, awarded the emperor the titles “protector of the Roman empire” (protector imperii Romani) and “creator of the safety of all” (omniumque salutis auctor). These honorific epithets are perhaps surprising given the number of difficulties faced by Rome in the mid third century CE; by 262 CE, the emperor Valerian had been taken prisoner and eventually killed by the Persians, who had launched their own campaign against Rome and its allies a decade earlier; the Goths and barbarian tribes from the Danubian and Black Sea regions had initiated raiding missions into Roman territory on a number of occasions, seizing assets from Roman citizens and taking large numbers of them prisoner. Pannonia and Italy had been invaded, and Postumus, the former governor of Germania Inferior had revolted against Gallienus’ power and established his own “rebel state” in the western provinces of Germany, Gaul, Britain and Spain (for a more full discussion of these events, see de Blois, The Policy of the emperor Gallienus; p. 1-19; Drinkwater, “Maximinus to Diocletian”, p. 44-48; see also Augsburg Altar and dedicatory inscription). Slaves were revolting in Sicily precisely at the time that this inscription was set up, and piracy and banditry had increased across the Roman world, with additional problems caused by a series of plagues, natural disasters and the degradation of agriculture that was the result of barbarian invasion and the depopulation of the rural communities (de Blois, The Policy of the emperor Gallienus, p. 9). It was, in essence, a difficult time on all fronts, and Gallienus’s assertion that he was “most eminent,” “unconquered,” a “protector” and a “creator of safety” may not have carried much weight, nor appeared entirely truthful.
However, if we compare the tone of the inscription with other evidence from Gallienus’s reign, and in particular the coinage, it becomes clear that these were a precise and deliberate set of messages that were dispersed throughout the empire to increase the reputation of the emperor and to stabilise local communities through their loyalty to him and to Rome. Gallienus was regularly depicted as a hero and champion, with his military prowess celebrated as the key orientation of his regime. Many of these appear to have been aimed specifically at the soldiers, with the legends FIDES MILITVM (“the loyalty of the army”), VICTORIA AVG (“Augustan Victory”) and VIRTVS(“courage”, in a military context) appearing frequently on the coins minted during the years of Gallienus’s sole reign (de Blois, The Policy of the Emperor Gallienus, p. 101). Pax Augusta, and legends associated with Jupiter are also popular, with the images that accompany them typically representative of the emperor on horseback, the emperor armed or the emperor tramping his enemies; Mars and Hercules also make regular appearances (see de Blois, The Policy of the Emperor Gallienus, p. 102-104). Gallienus himself also often appears in the form of a heroic bust on the coin, usually armed and bearing a spear or other weapons, and which appeared most frequently following the year 259 CE (see Göbl, Antike Numismatik, II, p. 9-10).
When considered in light of such imperial messages, it is clear that the inscription from Ostia was aimed at communicating a similar theme; as protector of the Roman empire and auctor – ‘creator’ of its safety, Gallienus was characterised as the supreme military leader, the “most eminent” counterpart of Jupiter on earth. He appears in this context almost as a demi-god, “who led his troops in person in order to protect his world and the population entrusted to him” (de Blois, The Policy of the Emperor Gallienus, p. 114). As the struggles of the empire continued, and Gallienus was forced again and again to demonstrate his military leadership and prowess, it is perhaps no surprise that his ‘heroic persona’ was also militarised to such a degree, but such blatant assertions of ‘safety’ and ‘protection’ might seem a little far-fetched. Rome – and Ostia – were far removed from the action, however; even if Italy had been invaded, it was the northern cities that had suffered the greatest incursions and the capital itself continued its business largely untroubled by events; in the heart of the empire, where the nuances and symbolism of imperial virtues continued to carry ideological weight, such a blatant statements of Gallienus’s imperial attributes and abilities were a key aspect of his identity as emperor. Irrespective of the instability and threats faced by Rome along her frontiers, this continuity of imperial personality was a decisive factor in Gallienus’s hold on power.
Drinkwater, John, Maximinus to Diocletian and the crisis, in The Cambridge ancient history: The crisis of empire, A.D. 193-337 (ed. A.K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, A. Cameron; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 28-66