Cultural Exchange with the Persian Court under the Roman Tetrarchs


A review of From the Seed of the Gods: Art, Ideology, and Cultural Exchange with the Persian Court under the Roman Tetrarchs, 284-324 CE, by Anne Hunnell Chen.

The monuments associated with the tetrarchic emperors of Rome are conventionally viewed as a coda to “ancient” art and an overture to the “Byzantine.” As Anne Hunnell Chen argues in her stimulating dissertation, this approach obscures the synchronic coherence and distinctiveness of the official art of the tetrarchs. Furthermore, certain tetrarchic innovations, such as the representation of intimate relationships between emperors and gods, are shared with the royal arts of Sasanian Iran. Competition between courts provoked substantial changes in the traditional etiquette of Roman imperial representation.

Chen’s arguments are based on a firm command of epigraphic and literary sources, mastery of an unwieldy and polyglot secondary, and above all on first-hand inspection of monuments from across the former Roman empire, including present-day Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. She makes original observations on canonical monuments (including the Arch of Galerius, the “Fünfsäulendenkmal” in the Roman Forum, and the Palace of Diocletian in Split), while successfully integrating more recent discoveries (especially those associated with the excavations at Gamzigrad and the conservation of the Temple of Amun-Re at Luxor). The arguments that she constructs from these materials form original contributions to the study of Roman art and Roman-Sasanian relationships. They will be of interest to scholars of ancient art, history and religion, indeed to all those engaged in the comparative study of ancient empires.

The dissertation’s introduction provides the methodological and historiographical framework for the study. Recent work by Matthew Canepa, Richard Fowler, Olivier Hekster, and Susanna McFadden (among others) provides important touchstones. In the first chapter, Chen analyzes traditional Roman representations of the relationship of emperors to the divine. Earlier emperors often claimed specific divinities as protectors or patrons, and some (most notably Augustus) toyed with claims to divine descent. The second chapter follows these strategies into the tetrarchic era. Diocletian and his colleagues continued to represent divinities as imperial patrons, while simultaneously introducing a new level of intimacy, marked by the selective deployment of divine signa (“Jovius” and “Herculius,” derived from Jupiter and Hercules) as part of their names.

Ancient historians have long debated the significance of the signa, but Chen introduces overlooked archaeological, architectural, and iconographic evidence to provide a fuller account of tetrarchic ideology. Chapter 3 focuses on the strategic placement of monuments. The imperial cult room at Luxor was on axis with the ancient sanctuary of Amun, an Egyptian deity associated with Jupiter, just as the mausoleum of Diocletian at Split was placed on axis with the temple of Jupiter. Similarly the two temples within the compound at Gamzigrad (Felix Romuliana) are oriented towards the mausoleum of Galerius on the facing hill. In Chapter 4, Chen highlights three iconographic innovations in representations of the tetrarchs: the disk nimbus, the high-backed throne, and a seated posture in the presence of divinities. Like the temple alignments, these images implied that the emperors “enjoyed an unprecedented intimacy with their tutelary deities” (p. 201).

Chapter 5 focuses on the absence of imperial women (be it mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters) from the first two decades of tetrarchic art, which marks a radical break from earlier eras. Building on the work of Natalie Kampen, to whose memory the dissertation is dedicated, Chen argues that the tetrarchs promoted an image of “a fictional, miraculously conceived all-male family” (p. 322) that served to emphasize “the rulers’ removal from the realm of the ordinary human” (p. 326).

In Chapter 6, Chen explores the similarity of tetrarchic representations of imperial-divine relationships to those found in contemporary Sasanian art. Beginning already with the dynasty’s founder, Ardashir I, the Sasanian emperors were described in official titulature as issuing from divine seed and represented on an equal footing with divinities (as in the rock relief at Naqsh-i Rustam). This “coordinated propagation of a mythologized claim to divine descent” (p. 354), disseminated both at home and abroad, provoked the Roman emperors “to match the extraordinary status claims of their rival monarchs to the east” (p. 355). Awareness of Sasanian imperial ideologies is directly attested by Roman panegyric, and gained a broad social basis through diplomacy, mass deportation of war prisoners, experiences of soldiers on campaign, and trade.

Intimacy between gods and emperors is not the only tetrarchic innovation that finds a Sasanian correlate. The fortification walls of the palaces at Split, Romuliana, and Šarkamen recall Sasanian parallels, as does the domed reception hall at Split. Notably, brick stamps from the Romuliana palace indicate that the fifth Macedonian legion, which had campaigned in Persia, was involved in its construction. The age of the tetrarchs also introduces the equestrian duel to Roman visual culture, another motif that finds ample Sasanian comparanda.

The dissertation’s conclusion traces the gradual collapse of the tetrarchic system, both in politics and in art. Constantine “reestablished more traditional patterns of imperial-divine affiliation” (p. 414), invoking Sol as protector, not family member. In the second decade of the fourth century, furthermore, representations of imperial women returned to official monuments. Chen highlights both internal causes for the abandonment of tetrarchic visual strategies, such as increased competition between nominal colleagues, and external causes, such as the new balance of power forged by Roman military successes against the Sasanians.

This précis necessarily flattens out the nuance and close attention to particulars that Chen brings to her topic, but it should indicate the scope and interest of her accomplishment. This is an important contribution to our understanding of late antique art, and one with consequences for the way that we look at Roman art more generally. For this reviewer, it will no longer be possible to tell the same old story (concordia, abstraction) about the tetrarchs in an undergraduate lecture – not because that story has been debunked, but because Chen provides more interesting narratives that breath life into a much broader set of materials.

Benjamin Anderson
Department of History of Art and Visual Studies
Cornell University

Primary Sources
Reliefs of the Arch of Galerius, Thessaloniki (and numerous other monuments)
Excavations of Gamzigrad (Felix Romuliana), Serbia
Latin epigraphy
Fibulae and medallions

Dissertation Information
Columbia University. 2014. 480pp. (plus illustrations). Primary Advisor: Francesco de Angelis.

Image: Head of a Sasanian King, silver, Metropolitan Museum of Art inv. 65.126, early 4th c. CE. Photograph courtesy of (OASC free use license).

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