Theses Doctoral

Playing the Judge: Law and Imperial Messaging in Severan Rome

Herz, Zach Robert

This dissertation analyzes the interplay between imperial messaging or self-representation and legal activity in the Roman Empire under the Severan dynasty. I discuss the unusual historical circumstances of Septimius Severus’ rise to power and the legitimacy crises faced by him and his successors, as well as those same emperors’ control of an increasingly complex legal bureaucracy and legislative apparatus. I describe how each of the four Severan rulers—Septimius Severus, Caracalla, Elagabalus, and Severus Alexander—employed different approaches to imperial legislation and adjudication in accordance with their idiosyncratic self-presentation and messaging styles, as well as how other actors within Roman legal culture responded to Severan political dynamics in their own work.
In particular, this dissertation is concerned with a particularly—and increasingly—urgent problem in Roman elite political culture; the tension between theories of imperial power that centered upon rulers’ charismatic gifts or personal fitness to rule, and a more institutional, bureaucratized vision that placed the emperor at the center of broader networks of administrative control. While these two ideas of the Principate had always coexisted, the Severan period posed new challenges as innovations in imperial succession (such as more open military selection of emperors) called earlier legitimation strategies into question. I posit that Roman law, with its stated tendency towards regularized, impersonal processes, was a language in which the Severan state could more easily portray itself as a bureaucratic institution that might merit deference without a given leader being personally fit to rule.
This dissertation begins by discussing the representational strategy of Septimius Severus, who deployed traditional imperial messaging tropes in strikingly legalistic forms. I then explore how this model of law as a venue for or language of state communication might explain otherwise idiosyncratic features of the constitutio Antoniniana, an edict promulgated by Septimius Severus’ son Caracalla that granted citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire. I next discuss two unusual features of the corpus of rescripts issued by Severus Alexander, the last Severan emperor: specifically, the relabeling of rescripts issued by Elagabalus, Alexander’s cousin and predecessor, as products of Alexander’s reign; and the idiosyncratic frequency with which rescripts issued under Alexander’s authority cite prior imperial (and particularly Severan) precedent. Finally, I discuss how jurists responded to Severan (and particularly late Severan) political and legal culture: late Severan jurists are particularly inclined to justify their legal decisionmaking in terms of the desirable consequences of a given decision’s universal promulgation, and similarly likely to justify their opinions by citing to an impersonal ‘imperial authority’ rather than to named figures. I argue that these changes reflect both state and scholarly attempts to wrestle with increasingly unstable imperial selection processes, and to articulate a vision of Roman governance that might function in the new world of the third century C.E.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Classical Studies
Thesis Advisors
De Angelis, Francesco
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 4, 2018