Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.):
Unknown. Found near the Theatre of Hispellum, Umbria, Italy.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum):
Sala del Rescritto, Palazzo Comunale, Spello (Perugia), Italy.
333 CE to 337 CE
Inscribed stele, broken into three pieces.
Width: 56 cm
Height: 160 cm
Depth: 5.4 cm
CIL XI, 5265
This inscription records an imperial response, a rescriptio, to the town of Hispellum in Umbria, central Italy, from the emperor Constantine; it is an important, and much debated source for what it reveals about Constantine’s conservative attitude towards pagan cults and cult practices even at the end of his life. The inscription is also evidence for how the provincial towns of Italy responded to their lessening status and importance in the empire, as focus shifted away from Rome towards the residences of the tetrarchs, and under Constantine towards his new imperial city in the east. As imperial favour for Rome and the Italian cities was gradually withdrawn at the end of the 3rd and early 4th centuries, the inscription demonstrates how towns like Hispellum had to look for other ways to maintain their relationship with an increasingly distant emperor.
The inscription records Constantine’s response to a petition sent by the inhabitants of Hispellum. The inscription is 55 lines long, but there are reasons to believe that it was a slightly shortened, or edited version of the original response; the date of the rescript – a factor insisted upon by Constantine in order to confirm the validity of edicts and constitutions (see Codex Theodosianus I.I.I, issued in 322 CE) – is omitted, as are the titles of Constantine’s sons, Consantine, Constantius and Constans. As a result, there has been much debate as to when the rescript was issued and the inscription actually set up. Jacques Gascou’s pioneering article on the subject was troubled by the lack of imperial titles awarded to the Caesars, and therefore proposed that the rescript was issued in the very last days of Constantine’s reign, or in the interregnal period following his death, but that the inscription itself was set up after 337 CE, when all three of his sons were declared Augusti. The inhabitants of Hispellum did not know how to treat the titles of the sons, and so omitted them entirely (Gascou, “Le rescrit d’Hispellum,” p. 617-623). Kayoko Tabata, however, suggests that the text was inscribed at the earlier date of late 333 CE, before Constans was made a Caesar; he interprets the blank space on the stone at the end of line 6 as a deliberate gap left by the stone cutter, in which the identical titles of all three sons were intended to be inserted once Constans was officially elevated to the same position as his brothers. He also proposed that the original petition had been made in 326 CE, to be timed with Constantine’s celebratory visit to Rome on the twentieth anniversary of his reign (Tabata, “The Date and Setting of the Constantinian Inscription of Hispellum,” p. 371-386). This latter rationale seems most sensible, but whatever the actual date of the petition and the inscription of the response, it is clear that at Hispellum it was decided to record only the parts of the response that were most relevant to the city, and appears to have omitted the more “official” details like the date.
The text can be divided into five sections: lines 1-6 name the authors of the rescript, namely Constantine and his sons; lines 7-15 are a kind of introduction, in which the emperors state the importance of the cities of the empire, and the care with which they approach their requests and behaviours, “but of all our attentions the most important is that all the cities, whose form and shape embellish them in the radiance of the provinces and of the regions” (sed pro/visionum nostrarum opus maximus / est ut universae urbes, quas in luminibus provin/ciarum hac regionum omnium species et forma dis/tinguitur), in order to ensure their continued prosperity: “but also shall be promoted to a better state by the working of our beneficence” (sed etiam ad meliorem statum beneficentiae nos/trae munere probeantur). Lines 15-37 discuss the petition, and reiterate the different demands that the inhabitants of Hispellum had made. The main issue was that the city of Hispellum requested that they might celebrate an annual festival independently of the town of Volsinii in Tuscia (modern Bolsena), with whom they had traditionally shared it: “as you affirm that you are connected with Tuscia in a manner that, by the institution of an ancient custom, every year a sacerdos should be elected from you and the people above mentioned and they, at Volsinii, a town of Tuscia, is to present the theatrical entertainments and gladiatorial shows” (Cum igitur ita vos Tusci/ae adsereretis esse coniunctos, ut inistituto / consuetudinis priscae per singulas annorum vi/ces a vobis adque praedictis sacerdotes creentur, / qui aput Vulsinios Tusciae civitate(m) ludos / schenicos et gladiatorum munus exhibeant). It seemed that a priest from Hispellum was forced to make the difficult journey over the mountain pass between the towns in order to participate in the festival, which Hispellum felt was unreasonable (sed, propter ardua montium et difficultates iti/nerum saltuosas). In return for being allowed to celebrate the festival and games independently of Volsinii, Hispellum proposed changing the name of the town to that of the cognomen of the emperor, as well as the setting up of a new shrine to Constantine and his sons (de nostro cognomine / nomen daremus, in qua templum Flaviae gentis…exsurgeret), which would be “magnificently appropriate for the dignity of its name” (opere magnifico nimirum pro amplitudinem / nuncupationis). Hispellum asks that they might elect their own priest to perform the rituals for the theatre entertainments and gladiator games that form part of the festival (ibidemque his / sacerdos, quem anniversaria vice Umbria de/disset, spectaculum tam scenicorum ludorum / quam gladiatorii muneris exhiberet), but that Tuscia reserved the right to continue their ancient custom by electing their own priest at Volsinii, as had always been the case, to perform the festival rites in their part of Tuscia (manente / per Tuscia(m) ea consuetudine ut indidem cre/atus sacerdos aput Vulsinios ut solebat / editionum antedictarum spectacula fre/quentaret).
In the fourth part of the text, lines 37-54, the emperors agree to this request (precationi hac desiderio vestro / facilis accessit noster adsensus), but they also add their own conditions to it. Firstly, Constantine awarded the name of Flavia Constans to Hispellum, naming it after the imperial house in a demonstration of his positive approbation of their petition (Tabata, “The Date and Setting of the Constantinian Inscription of Hispellum,” p. 370). Constantine’s father – known most frequently as Constantius Chlorus – bore the full name “Marcus Flavius Valerius Constantius,” after whom nearly successive emperors of the late empire were similarly named. The emperors also agreed to the construction of the shrine to the gens Flavia, but “on the condition that a temple dedicated to our name shall not be polluted with the frauds of contagious superstition” (ea observatione perscripta, ne ae/dis nostro nomine dedicata cuiusquam con/tagiose superstitionis fraudibus polluatur). This condition is the best known and most discussed feature of the Hispellum inscription, and has often been interpreted as a ban on blood sacrifice, which Constantine is known to have personally avoided, but the meaning and implications of this condition are not immediately obvious. As Raymond Van Dam has rightly noted, Constantine and sons do not respond here using overtly Christian terminology – the shrine is described very traditionally as an aedis – nor is a specific ban of sacrifice actually stated (Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine, p. 30). Although these lines have often been given as evidence for Constantine’s imperial and religious policy towards pagan cult, there is no outright ban on blood sacrifice stated here. Had Constantine truly wished to ban blood sacrifice, it is likely that he would have said so explicitly; in 325 CE he had passed a law that banned gladiators and “their bloody spectacles” (Codex Theodosianus 15.12.1) and at Mamre in Palestine he had cleansed the shrine of pagan images and “impure sacrifices,” linking the restrictions with the construction of a new Christian church (Aurelius Victor, On the Caesars, 40.28; Optatus, Appendix, 10.36b). Had his primary concern been to limit pagan cult, Constantine could easily have refused the petition from Hispellum and suggested that in the place of a temple to the imperial family, the town build a Christian church instead (Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine, p. 33).
Indeed, Constantine’s primary concern appears to have been the welfare of the cities of Hispellum and Volsinii, as he had declared was the primary objective of the imperial house in the introductory passage of the text (lines 10-13). By allowing Hispellum the right to celebrate their own festival and games and the construction of a new temple, as well as naming the city after his own gens, Constantine ensured that the status of Hispellum would “be promoted to a better state by the working of our beneficence” (ad meliorem statum beneficentiae nos/trae munere probeantur). The prestige of Volsinii would likewise remain intact by continuing to allow the citizens there to celebrate according to tradition (Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine, p. 34). The inscription concludes with Constantine’s hope for the preservation of old institutions: “in fact the old institution will not seem to have been excessively modified” (ita quippe nec / veteribus institutis plurimum videbitur / derogatum). The point of the rescript to Hispellum was not, therefore, concerned with the right to blood sacrifice, but rather about the civic life of the cities of the empire and the maintenance of ancestral traditions. Just as many of the emperors who had preceded him, Constantine aimed at presenting his reign as one that upheld the longstanding traditions of the Roman imperial house, including the establishment of a dynasty. Rather than imposing a “new Christian future” on the towns of Italy, Constantine’s primary concern was to advertise the hereditary succession that would follow his death, in the form of his sons, and to reiterate his support of the traditional importance of the Italian cities; given the foundation of his new capital in Constantinople, and the support that Maxentius had shown to Rome and her surroundings, it was perhaps more important than ever to appeal to old customs and visions of empire, and to “cloak his policies and innovations in the shroud of tradition and antiquarianism” (Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine, p. 34).
The historic importance of the imperial cult in provincial societies was also likely behind Constantine’s conservative attitude towards its preservation. Although often considered the mechanism through which provincial communities expressed their loyalty to the empire, the imperial cult served, more importantly, a key administrative function in civic life; whether the religion of the emperor was pagan or Christian, it was almost impossible to de-tangle it from the culture, politics and day-to-day life of the Roman empire, into which it was interwoven (Tabata, “The Date and Setting of the Constantinian Inscription of Hispellum”). In such a context, the imperial cult existed as series of acts and rituals which were aimed at the emperor in a “moving dialectic of power,” and which “founded the institutional architecture of the principate” (Van Andringa, “Rhetoric and Divine Honours,” p. 10). It did not take long after its inauguration at Actium for the imperial cult to place the figure of the emperor at the centre of public religion, with his political expression necessarily underwritten and understood as an expression of the will of the gods. Whether or not Constantine intended his vague prohibition of rituals that might “pollute” the new shrine to the gens Flavia there to mean blood sacrifice, or indeed any offering or behaviour of any kind that might celebrate pagan gods, it is clear that celebration of the imperial family itself was impossible to prevent. In spite of Constantine’s own preference for Christianity, and his refusal to participate in cult sacrifices to the pagan gods, he could not deny that worship of the imperial household and the emperor was a means by which the cities of the Roman provinces might conceptualise and negotiate with imperial power; even in a Christian empire, the political prowess exerted by Rome could still be understood as the working of divine power through the figure of the emperor. Honouring the emperor and his household in the form of cult activity was, then, a crucial way for provincial communities to express their own status, as well as that of their relationship with the ruling power; to forbid such communities from doing so would be to deny the connection between emperor and subject.
In the case of the Hispellum inscription, the main aim of this Umbrian city was to ensure their civic right to celebrate a festival in the way that best suited them, but it was also a way for them to affirm their new association with Constantine and his emerging dynasty, by renaming the city after his family. Where previously the imperial cult had made Roman rule both accessible and acceptable to provincial cities, who faced an “otherwise unparalleled intrusion of authority into their world,” Hispellum and the other Italian cities that surrounded Rome faced the opposite problem; imperial power was now being withdrawn from Italy, and with it also the favour that these cities had historically enjoyed (quote from Price, Rituals and Power, p. 247; Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine, p. 57). A shrine dedicated to the imperial house, along with the guarantee of a festival and its associated priesthoods, as well as a new name for the city that was directly drawn from the emperor himself would serve as evidence for Hispellum’s close and significant relationship with Constantine and his sons, as well as ensuring the positive reception of the new dynasty in a region that had begun to feel the burden of being treated like any other of the empire. It was a request for imperial patronage, but also an acknowledgment of the shifting balance of power away from Italy in the early 4th century CE (Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine, p. 57).
Keywords in the original language: