Sarah Bond: The Whole World in His Hands: Maxentius, Roman Scepters, and Power Symbols

Christ enthroned upon the world.  San Vitale, Ravenna.
One of the most popular songs for Christian kids to sing in Sunday school is 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands,' though it also became a favorite on the American folk music scene. I present to you here my favorite version, by Nina Simone. The purpose of the song is to provide comfort to believers that God holds the whole world, its people, and its animals firmly within his hands. As objects between his omnipotent hands, we should be consoled by the idea he has it all under control. Although songs can reinforce this idea, so can objects, and Roman emperors were no stranger to the use of iconography to advertise global subjugation--but also protection.

Roman scepter, likely of Maxentius.

One of the best examples of this is the use of an imperial scepter (Gr. σκῆπτρον "staff"; Lat. sceptrumwhich came to have a globe on top that represented the world. The only one that survives was found but a few years ago at the base of the Palatine Hill in Rome, wrapped in linen and silk. It perhaps dates (based off of stratigraphic levels) to the time of Maxentius--an imperial claimant ultimately defeated by Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. Long before Maxentius, the scepter symbolized power and the imperium to lead others. 

Agamemnon and his staff. 
You can trace the origins of the scepter back to the staffs or rods used by Egyptian pharaohs and Near Eastern kings. If we forget any possible phallic symbolism (Thanks, Freud), the staff visually advertises leadership to individuals, but is also a mediatory object that illustrates the potentate's connection between the divine and the mortal. This is perhaps best illustrated by the staff of Agamemnon, which was allegedly created by Hephaestus. Hephaestus made it for Zeus, Zeus gave it to Hermes, Hermes to Pelops, Pelops to Atreus, Atreus to Thyestes, and finally Thyestes to Agamemnon (Il. 2.100-109). Since time immemorial, kings have needed to establish legitimacy and continuity, and, well, Agamemnon's staff invested him with both. Even after Agamemnon was gone, Clytaemnestra had a dream wherein Agamemnon takes the staff back from Aegisthus and plants it in the hearth where it buds. Okay, so maybe some phallic symbolism here. In any case! Let us focus on the fact that the top of the scepter buds and flowers, representing life and heredity. 

Leaf of a Diptych for the
consul Valentinianus (6th c.),
who holds a scepter and mappa.
Onward to Rome. The fifth king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (616-578 CE), is said to have had a gold crown, an ivory throne, and a scepter with an eagle on top which he carried while adorned in a purple robe. Key thing is that Priscus did not use these ornaments immediately, but waited until the senate and the people agreed on his ability to adopt them. After 509 BCE, when Rome had become a Republic, this practice was in part upheld by the two yearly consuls. These consuls had two symbols of power: the scepter--called a scipio, with an eagle on top--and, after the time of Nero, a mappa. This tradition carried on into Late Antiquity, and though the consules ordinarii were normally the emperors themselves in the later empire, some nobiles achieved the office. The Roman emperor's scepter represented a larger amount of power, but it is perhaps important to remember that he was not the only one to hold a scepter--at least until 541 when Justinian abolished the consulship altogether.

Allegedly under Augustus and his establishment of the Principate, the scepter again had a revival--though largely (or perhaps covertly) still as a symbol of the consulship. Yet it is worth remembering that as Zeus had a scepter, so did the Roman analog, Jupiter, and Augustus was always mindful of the power of associative iconography.This is nowhere more evident than in the famous Grand Cameo of France, which dates to the reign of Tiberius. The scepter of Tiberius, who sits firmly in the center of the cameo, along with his mother and the wife of Augustus, Livia, connects visually with the scepter of the divine Augustus, who flies overhead. It is also worth noting that the scepter bears a strong resemblance with the spear that emperors are frequently depicted as carrying (e.g., the Augustus of Prima Porta).

Coinage was another medium where the scepter featured prominently, along with another object, a globe. On coinage, Roman emperors are often depicted as the rector orbis, the ruler of the world, which appears (if my numismatic research is accurate) to crop up around the time of Didius Julianus (r.193 CE) . This would be a familiar depiction on coinage from then on, and demonstrates not only that Greeks and Romans knew that the world was round (!), but that Roman emperors and usurpers often cast themselves as rulers of the world and not just the Roman empire. Didius Julianus' reign actually only lasted a few months, but his legacy persisted in terms of numismatic iconography. Only a few years later, Caracalla would be calling himself rector orbis on coins and carrying a scepter as well.

Ref Didius Julianus Aureus.  RIC 3, Cohen 14v, BMC 7

Detail of Roma holding a globe from the Peutinger Map (Tetrarchic date, and yes, I stand by this). 
It was only a matter of time before the two coalesced into one, as we see with the scepter of Maxentius. As the globe personifies, what is on top of the scepter is important to understanding the worldview of the emperor. The later Byzantine emperor Phocas, for instance, popularized the use of crosses on top of scepters--which served to advertise his Christian identity and legitimacy. 

Phocas, AV Solidus, 603-607 CE, Constantinople, Officina 7

I have surely left out many references and connections (e.g., the fetial priests!), but this overview was just meant to contextualize a great find. I know that from now on, I will look at regalia just a little bit differently, and always make sure to note what adorns the top of the scepter.
Scepter of Charles V (c.1379-1380).

1 comment:

  1. Suddenly I think that some ancient and medieval elites held conviction that the world had a shape of the globe, and not the flat disc or something.


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