Military diploma issued by Elagabalus in Thrace (AE 1964, 269)

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Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Military diploma
Original Location/Place: 
Unknown location, Thrace, Moesia
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Niš (Serbia), National Museum, inventory number unknown
222 CE Jan 7th
Physical Characteristics: 
Military diploma composed of two tablets, originally tied together; the text of the diploma is engraved on the exterior of tablets I and II, and the interior of tablet II.
Height: 14.7 cm
Width: 11.2 cm
Depth: 0.2 cm
Letter Heights: 0.3-0.6 cm

AE 1964, 269 + AE 1966, 339

This military diploma offered honourable discharge from the Roman army to one Marcus Aurelius Valens, a praetorian soldier from the seventh cohort who came from Serdica in Thrace; it was issued by the emperor Elagabalus in 222 CE. It is an important source for the light that it sheds on the imperial ideology of Elagabalus and his association with the sun-god Sol Elagabal, as well as highlighting some new issues faced by the Roman military following the Constitutio Antoniniana a decade earlier. Where military diplomata of this kind once served a crucial purpose by legitimising the award of Roman citizenship to auxiliary soldiers who had fulfilled their 25-year service to the empire, the universal grant issued by Caracalla had largely rendered their requirement obsolete. However, as this diploma demonstrates, there were still avenues by which those ‘outside’ of Rome could obtain citizenship.
The text of the inscription begins with the official titulature of Elagabalus; although this is the name by which he was – and continues to be – known, it was a nickname based upon his devotion to the cult of the god Elagabal in Emesa. His official nomenclature situated him firmly in the Severan dynasty, with his full name given as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix Augustus. There was some truth to this claim; Elagabalus was the grandson of Julia Maesa, the sister of Julia Domna, and was therefore connected to the ruling dynasty through a maternal bloodline, which was emphasised through the additional statements that he was “son of the divine Antoninus Magnus Pius, grandson of the divine Severus Pius” (divi Antonini Magni Pii filius / divi Severi Pii nepos). “Antoninus Magnus” was, of course, Caracalla, but the claim that Elagabalus was his son was not true, with Clare Rowan suggesting that “the effort put into publicising the claim no doubt reflects the fact that the genealogy was false” (Under divine auspices, p. 165). It is clear that just as Septimius Severus’s claim to Antonine heritage was a decisive legitimising factor in his accession to the principate, dynastic succession still wielded an enormous amount of power in the image-making of a new emperor.
Following the description of Elagabalus’s lineage comes the unusual, and much commented upon, attestation of his priesthoods. As well as fulfilling the traditional role of the emperor as pontifex maximus, he is also described as “high priest of the Unconquered Sun god Elagabal” (sacerdos / amplissimus dei Invicti Solis Elagabali). These titles attest to the new emperor’s devotion to the cult of Elagabal, an Emesene god whose cultic object, the sacred stone statue of Elagabal, was brought to Rome as part of Elagabalus’s imperial retinue when he travelled from Syria to the capital in 219 CE, after the death of Caracalla and the defeat of the usurper Macrinus (for these events, see Herodian, History of the Empire, V.3.2-4; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 79.31.3; 79.72.2-3. For Elagabalus’s religious practices, see Pietrzykowsky, “Die Religionspolitik des Kaisers Elagabal,” p. 806–1825; see also Aureus depicting the head of Elagabalus and a quadriga, bearing the Stone of Emesa (218-219 CE)). The official titles by which Elagabalus was known in Rome included his position as high priest, but only in the Latin inscriptions across the empire; the titles are not included in Greek epigraphy, and there was no attempt to translate their formulae not to incorporate them into the Greek imperial titulature. However, as Clare Rowan has rightly noted, pontifex maximus was not translated into Greek either, which was likely due to the “divergence of epigraphic habit between the two languages”; the religious position of the emperor was, to the Greek-speaking world, a factor of less significance than in its Latin counterpart (Rowan, Under divine auspices, p. 187). The seeming syncretism between the Roman god Sol and the Syrian Elagabal was not a simple equation either; it would appear that the Roman audience recognised the ‘sun connection’ that was inherent in the cult of Elagabal, and interpreted the god in keeping with what made sense in the Roman pantheon. The modern suggestions that the emperor was supposed to be regarded as the incarnation of the god on earth should also be dealt with cautiously; no contemporary sources awarded him the name “Elagabalus”, nor does he appear in statues or coinage in the guise of the god. The strong connection between the two – as indicated by his role as the highest priest of the cult – cannot however be ignored, and may have been indicative of a close personal bond that “suggested a superhuman status” (Icks, The Crimes of Elagabalus, p. 77). Archaeological evidence demonstrates that the cult of Elagabal did indeed spread across the empire between 218-222 CE, with a temple built to the god in Altaua in Mauretania, a festival called the Elagabalia celebrated in Sardis, and the suggestion that two shrines or temples were built for the god in the city of Rome (see Rowan, Under divine auspices, p. 178-187; 190-210 for detailed description). However, irrespective of the damning accounts of Elagabalus’s desire to “overthrow” traditional Roman religion with the introduction of the cult, the evidence for its empire-wide implementation is lacking, and it appears more probable that the cult was adopted in a more localised fashion by communities that sought to emphasise a connection with the imperial household, and “within a dialogue of imperial favour” (Rowan, Under divine auspices, p. 186).
The claim to Antonine heritage was considerably more significant a factor in Elagabalus’s claim to imperial power. As demonstrated by the military diploma under discussion here, the
claim was extended in the official titulature to Severus Alexander, the cousin of Elagabalus adopted as his “son” in 221 CE, and who is also described as the “son of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix Augustus, grandson of the divine Antoninus Magnus Pius, great-grandson of the divine Severus Pius” (Marci Aureli Antonini Pii Felicis Augusti filius / divi Antonini Magni Pii nepos divi Severi Pii pronepos). Severus Alexander is also given the names Marcus Aurelius, in a further false acknowledgement of Caracalla as his father (Hekster, Emperors and Ancestors, p. 219). He is also presented as the co-ruling Caesar to the emperor, with much discussion focusing on his denomination as “most noble Caesar of the empire and of the priest” (nobilissimus Caesar / imperi et sacerdotis), which has led to questions as to the extent of his individual power (see Dušanić, “Severus Alexander,” p. 487-498 for a synthesis of the argument). As the administrative details of how the power structure functioned are of secondary importance to our interests here, it will suffice to follow Slobodan Dušanić suggestion that Severus’s role as Caesar, with its “confronted genitives imperii and sacerdotis can mean only ‘the Caesar of the State and of Elagabalus’,” in a “definition of the new status of Alexander as Elagabalus’s associate”, without proper imperium (“Severus Alexander” p. 495-496). Although a clearly irregular title, the characterisation of Severus in this way both highlighted the dynastic succession that had been secured by his adoption, as well as dutiful subordination to the emperor that indicated his own personal dependence upon his for his position (Dušanić, “Severus Alexander,” p. 497).
As well as contributing to our understanding of the continued importance of lineage and succession in the image-making of the emperor, this diploma also illuminates a new issue concerned with Roman citizenship that was the result of the universal grant issued through the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212 CE. The grant of empire-wide citizenship had largely rendered the purpose of military diplomata obsolete, as the auxiliary soldiers whose new citizenship they attested to were, from 212 CE, now citizens of Rome who no longer needed the legal proof of their status. Along with citizenship, military diplomata had also granted the right to conubium, or “legal marriage”, which continued to be denied to them during their period of service. However, in practice many soldiers did form unions with non-citizen woman from the communities close to where they were stationed; although legally Roman citizens could not marry non-Roman citizens, the military diploma granted the right to conubium with one – and only one! – non-citizen woman, legalising their union but without extending the benefit of citizenship to the wife. Children born during the course of this ‘illegal’ relationship were not considered legitimate and therefore not Roman citizens, but any born after the soldier had been honourably discharged were recognised and awarded citizenship (see Phang, The Marriage of Roman Soldiers, p. 53-85 for an introduction to these issues; p. 197-228 for the legality of these unions and p. 296-343 for the issue of children and citizenship). In the case of this diploma, Rome awarded the right to marry, but also noted that should that woman be of “foreign status” (peregrini iuris), they “may raise their children as if born from two Roman citizens” (liberos tollant ac si / ex duobus civibus Romanis natos). This has been interpreted in a number of ways, with some earlier scholarship suggesting that this statement indicated that any children born from these marriages were not only legitimate, but also Roman citizens (see Volterra, “L’acquisto della cittadinanza,” p. 398). However, as ably demonstrated by Sara Phang, a closer reading of the evidence, and a comparison with the legal Institutes of Gaius (1.57), makes clear that the only children with full legitimacy were those born to the marriage after the right of conubium had been granted following discharge from the military, and seemingly in order to promote the proper “formation” of veteran families (Phang, The marriage of Roman soldiers, p. 315-316). Marcus Aurelius Valens is also listed in the diploma as having served in both the cohortes urbanae and the cohortes praetoriae, the first of which Margaret Roxan believes to be an error on the part of the copyist (Roman Military Diplomas 1954-1977, p. 97, n. 4), but his participation in either of these factions is another factor in the issuing of the diploma; those who served in the imperial fleet, the Praetorian Guard and the Urban Cohorts continued to be issued with diplomata once discharged, largely because foreigners from outside the empire – barbari – were still recruited for those units. If they had established marriages with women who were not citizens and from communities outside of the empire, then the legitimacy of their offspring would have continued to have been of concern even after the Constitutio Antoniana was granted.
This diploma is therefore of interest for several reasons; not only does it bring to light the various legal issues still faced by ‘outsiders’ to Rome, and the way that their integration – both legally and ideologically – was managed by the imperial administration, but it also demonstrates the ideology of Elagabalus and the continued importance of “eminent ancestors for would-be emperors” (Hekster, Emperors and Ancestors, p. 218).
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Military diploma issued by Elagabalus in Thrace (AE 1964, 269)
Author(s) of this publication: Caroline Barron
Publishing date: Sun, 06/23/2019 - 18:49
Visited: Sun, 04/14/2024 - 03:05

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