Ideal Rulers and Persian Despots: Alexander Severus’ Admission Ritual in the Historia Augusta

Data evento
17 February 2022

The admission, often called the salutatio when occurring in the Principate and the adoratio when occurring in Late Antiquity, was a regular, often daily, greeting ritual during which the emperor received and greeted the elite. It has received increased scholarly attention in recent decades but the literary use of this ritual by ancient authors, to challenge or support imperial self-presentation and to further authorial agendas more broadly, has received virtually no attention. I propose to use two unusually long and elaborate descriptions of the admission of the third-century emperor Alexander Severus in the Late Antique collection of biographies called the Historia Augusta as a case study. Most of the ritual elements mentioned in the descriptions of Alexander’s admission, such as the adoratio or bejewelled attire, have no place in the early third century but are instead elements from Late Antiquity, and the idealised Alexander consistently rejects these. These rejections, in turn, would have been perceived as a critique of the Late Antique admission. Furthermore, these rejections present Alexander as a civilis princeps, which is central to a broader, and highly distinctive, presentation of civilitas as key to good government. Lastly, I will suggest that the Historia Augusta in fact engages in a highly sophisticated and innovative reconceptualization of the Late Antique admission as a Persian ritual. This illuminates the broader character of the Historia Augusta and the conception of ideal government in Late Antiquity. Lastly, the Historia Augusta’s sophisticated reconceptualization of the admission as a Persian ritual also underlines the power of literary representations of ritual and that such representations played a role in the construction of meaning.