sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 2

Rebecca Usherwood: Political Memory and the Constantinian Dynasty

His nephew remembered the emperor Constantine as a serial killer. Even after Julian eventually became an emperor himself, his memories were always tainted by the execution of his father during the massacre of relatives and supporters that followed Constantine's death in 337. This was a murderous family. Constantine's sons initiated the massacre, while Constantine himself had been responsible for the deaths of several rival emperors, including his father-in-law Maximian, his brother-in-law Maxentius, his brother-in-law Licinius, his nephew Licinius II, and his son Crispus. He also killed his wife. From beginning to end, Constantine's reign was stained with blood.

Yet modern historians consistently present Constantine as a pious Christian emperor, a servant of God entrusted with the divine mission of converting the Roman empire to Christianity. This whitewashing of history started already during the emperor's lifetime. During his rise to power Constantine had certainly benefitted from the assistance of fellow emperors. Maximian had once promoted him as a senior emperor; Licinius had issued a joint declaration of religious toleration; Crispus had commanded his father's victorious fleet. But after Constantine turned against them, these former collaborators were turned into rogues and tyrants. While orators and poets praised Constantine's successes in civil wars, historians simply overlooked his terrible behavior toward former colleagues. In his biography of Constantine, Eusebius of Caesarea never mentioned Maximian and Crispus by name, and he blamed Licinius for having lost his way "in a moonless night." Even a Christian bishop was quick to malign and delete the reputations of these murdered emperors.

In her book about political disgrace, Rebecca Usherwood has highlighted another medium for rewriting the life of Constantine. In the Roman world, inscriptions engraved on stone tablets and statue bases were everywhere, in cities as commemorative dedications and along roads as milestones. The inscriptions in honor of emperors were ready targets for abuse, sometimes with a splatter of graffiti, more commonly by gouging out emperors' names and titles. These erasures were conspicuous signs of infamy and humiliation. Emperors who had once been publicly honored were now publicly dishonored.

In her chapters about epigraphical shaming, Usherwood highlights the outcomes for Maximian (chap. 2), Licinius and his son Licinius II (chap. 3), and Crispus (chap. 4). Several important themes recur. One is the haphazard, apparently arbitrary occurrence of erasures, more in some regions, few or none in others. "My central argument is that the penalties associated with political disgrace were neither immediate nor universal, neither centrally imposed nor regulated. [Instead, ...] they reveal a spectrum of local responses to political change" (4). Maximian's name was erased on all the milestones in southeastern Gaul but left untouched on dedications at Rome. Erasures of the names of Licinius and his son Licinius II were especially common in Pisidia and Caria in Asia Minor. Crispus's name was erased in inscriptions at Rome and in central Italy. Usherwood concludes that even when Constantine condemned his former rivals in edicts and letters, "local and individualised reactions" determined the frequency of erasures (270). There was no systematic implementation of disgrace.

Another important theme is the incompleteness of the erasures. Typically, enough of the erased letters remained as shadows for ancient onlookers to identify the dis-honorees (and, gratefully, for us modern scholars to decipher the original names and titles). The purpose of erasures was not to consign memories to total oblivion, but rather to shape memories of disgraced emperors in a particular, unflattering direction. Usherwood also discusses the fates of Constans, Constantine's youngest son, and Magnentius, a usurper in Gaul during the early 350s who eliminated Constans (chap. 5). Some of Constantine's old partisans quickly supported the usurper by erasing Constans's name from their earlier dedications and erecting new dedications to Magnentius; then they switched their allegiance again and modified their dedications when Constantius, another son, defeated Magnentius. Staying up-to-date in a medium as unforgiving as stone inscriptions was not easy: "these processes involved recalibrating the past, but were essentially forward thinking" (216-17).

Because the modern editions of ancient inscriptions are scattered among many books and databases, working with inscriptions requires meticulous accuracy. In appendices, Usherwood includes comprehensive catalogues of erased inscriptions involving Maximian, Licinius, and Crispus, conveniently organized by regions. In the chapters, however, there are numerous mistakes in the references to inscriptions, the Latin texts of inscriptions, and the translations; even the boxed recreations of the texts sometimes do not match the actual engraved texts. Vetting, editing, and proof-reading have been lax.

"Cancel culture" was as common in antiquity as in our modern times, and Usherwood's discussions are especially effective at opening avenues for linking erasures in inscriptions with other aspects of public communication. Another form of "erasure" was silence. During the early years of his reign, dedications to Constantine often omitted references to his imperial colleagues. Another form of disgrace was the beheading of statues, and sometimes of the defeated emperors themselves. Erasures, silence, and decapitations were all procedures for destroying names, identities, and legacies.

In the end, it is vital to acknowledge the inherent paradoxes in erasure: reinterpretation through removal, clarification through obliteration, highlighting through vanishing, high visibility through ostensible invisibility. Some of these erased emperors are better known after becoming phantoms of memory. Because erasing words from inscriptions required the same tools as engraving inscriptions, an iron chisel and a wooden mallet, erasure was a form of writing. Or rather, of rewriting in order to modify, record, and publicize a specific version of the past. Usherwood's book is an emphatic reminder that erasures in ancient inscriptions were a technique for remembering, not for forgetting.

Rezension über:

Rebecca Usherwood: Political Memory and the Constantinian Dynasty. Fashioning Disgrace, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2022, XVII + 350 S., ISBN 978-3-0308-7929-7, USD 89,00

Rezension von:
Raymond Van Dam
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Raymond Van Dam: Rezension von: Rebecca Usherwood: Political Memory and the Constantinian Dynasty. Fashioning Disgrace, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 2 [15.02.2023], URL:

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