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The Roman Emperor’s Divine Body

Panel Chairs: Dorothee Elm von der Osten, Darja Šterbenc Erker | Thursday, August 27, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

The transition from a sceptical attitude towards the deification of mortals in the late Republic to the cult of deified emperors and empresses represents a major religious change in ancient Rome. The panel wants to trace literary discourses surrounding and shaping the dynamics of this religious innovation, the invented or reinvented religious traditions involved, their subtle transformations. Recent scholarly debates exploring the corporeality of gods focused on the interdependency of divine images and human imagination (e.g. Borgeaud / Fabiano 2013). The relevant interdisciplinary studies, e.g. of epiphany, often do not, however, refer to the complex problem of how to present the emperor as god (Platt 2011). In the proposed panel we would therefore like to draw on these studies and shift the focus towards the corporeality of divine emperors (Meister 2012 does not focus on divinity). Each paper on the panel will treat different aspects of imagining an emperor’s or empresses divine body in texts. Literary representations aim at the visualisation of the divine body e.g. via the stylistic figure of ekphrasis and thus could create a textual epiphany. In emperor-panegyric this technique might invite readers to imagine a god-emperor with an ageless body, whereas texts on ‘bad’ emperors stress how their bodies were maculated for example by infamous sexual practices. Tracing the literary and religious discourses surrounding this religious innovation and its establishment is understood as a contribution to the study of the dynamics of religion and at the same time places a topic centre stage, which is in need of an approach, which takes into account both literary, visual and religious studies.

Darja Šterbenc Erker

Augustus’ Divine Body in Ovid’s Fasti

In Augustan Rome new patterns of perception and description of persons approaching the divine sphere emerged. This paper analyses the images of Augustus in Ovid’s Fasti. Ovid refers sometimes to images of the emperor (and empress) spread through Rome (e. g. on reliefs and coins). Sometimes his poetics of illusion create completely new images of the divine Augustus. The paper will focus on the question of how Ovid depicts divine bodies, especially Augustus’ body. On the one hand postures of Augustus’ body when performing rituals will be analysed and on the other his identification with divine mythological figures will be discussed.

Dorothee Elm von der Osten

Emperors’ Divine Bodies in Latin Panegyric

Descriptions in panegyric evoke images, visual experiences in the imagination, and mental pictures which can be matched to works of imperial art. This paper engages with the image of the emperor’s sacralized body that these descriptions evoke, its divine features, its human features, the way his gender and age are imagined. It draws on such descriptions in Statius’ and Martial’s verse panegyric, depicting an emperor enjoying an endless iuventus, but also takes Pliny’s Panegyricus and other orations in the corpus of Latin Panegyrics into consideration. It thus traces the dynamics of change in imagining bodies of gods for emperors, the subtle interplay of tradition and innovation involved.

Patrick Cook

Contesting Divinity through the Bodies of Roman Emperors

The bodies of deified Roman emperors proved fertile ground for contesting the boundaries of humanity and divinity. The body of Augustus was transformational, his ageless portraits defying previous conventions in displaying the human body at Rome. A closer reading of Suetonius, however, suggests that the body of Augustus points in a variety of directions, to humanity as well as divinity. The same tension between the divine and human found in the body of Augustus may be seen in descriptions of the bodies of 'bad' emperors, but it is here highlighted as critical writers pointed to discrepancies between the divine image of the emperor and what they alleged to be a more flawed physical reality. This paper will look at ancient explorations of the flawed body of 'bad' would-be divine emperors, focusing on Suetonius' description of the body of Caligula and on the Apocolocyntosis.

Meike Rühl

Divine and Not So Divine Bodies. Aspects and Strategies of Corporeality and Character Presentation in Tacitean Narratives

During the principate Roman literature showed an increasing interest in body descriptions. For genres like epic, satire and drama, much work has already been done to elucidate several aspects of corporeality: by illustrating the aesthetic values displayed within the text, for example, or by highlighting the pragmatic or cultural purpose of detailed descriptions of the ugly and grotesque body. Historians have furthermore examined changing corporeality from the Roman republic to the principate by comparing the embodiment of aristocratic performance and the habitus of the divine emperor. My paper therefore follows a twofold approach: Analysing Tacitean narratives, which present divine as well as human bodies, I would on the one hand like to show that the description of the body is an aspect of character presentation and could function as a pattern of dynamic development in the progress of narrative. On the other hand I hope to illuminate the deeper cultural perceptions of the emperor’s habitus.


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