0223 The Emperor as Living Image in Late Antique Authors

  • Valerio Neri (Author)

    Valerio Neri graduated from the University of Bologna in 1971. At first assistant professor of Greek and Roman Antiquities, and from 1983 on associate professor of History of Ancient Economics, he became full professor of Roman History at the University of Bologna in 2000. Eventually, he taught Roman History at the University’s School of Letters and Cultural Heritage from 2014 to 2017. In the biennium 2017–2019, he hold the honorific title of professore Alma Mater. Among his main fields of interest are: the pagan and Christian historiography of Late Antiquity; Roman laws and late ancient society; Cassiodorus and the ostrogothic kingdom. He has also conducted research on the body and its social and cultural values as well as on the lower classes in late ancient society.

Identifiers (Article)


Between the early imperial and early Byzantine periods, in descriptions of the ruler’s body we can identify, grosso modo, two main tendencies: A realistic strain (as exemplified by the imperial portraits in Svetonius) that is anti-iconic in that it prevented the idealisation of the ruler often found in his sculpted portraits; and another, present in particular in encomiastic literature, that followed these idealised artistic presentations. The encomiastic literature from Constantine’s I (r. 306–337) to Theodosius’ I (r. 379–395) time still places the accent on the ruler’s physical beauty as an expression of the particular relationship he had with the divine sphere. The first impression that Constantine’s appearance leaves in the bishops gathered at Nicaea in the description of Eusebius of Caesarea is that of an angelic apparition. In Late Antiquity both in Christian and pagan authors, the main characteristic of the new canon of imperial beauty was light. This light prevents the perception of the sovereign’s body and is considered in texts of the time as either an expression of the absolute distance between the emperor and common human nature, or a vain spectacle. The key text for imperial self-display in Late Antiquity is the famous description of Constantius’ II (r. 337–361) adventus to Rome. In Christian authors writing about angels, the model of beauty that the emperor referenced was the glorious Christ reigning in heaven.


Imperial icons, literary description of the emperor’s body, description of christian emperors