Senatorial Monuments: a new approach to the social dynamics of ideology formation in the Roman empire

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Classics and Ancient History


The Roman empire produced a vibrant and enduring set of images linked to ideological claims about imperial power, from the portraits of emperors on coins which reached every corner of the known world to the towering temples of Rome itself. They proclaimed the glory of the emperor: his personal virtues, the size and wealth of his realm, and the fearsome might of his armies. Yet the imagery and ideology of Roman imperial power was not imposed by the emperor by diktat from above, but evolved in a collaborative, multi-level process which left room for various individuals and groups within Roman society to assert their agency and even resistance. By gathering experts from around the world who work in all areas of Classics to debate how imperial ideology developed and functioned, the project will develop new methods and approaches which do not assume that all imperial ideology is top-down propaganda. The result will be a model of ideology formation which takes into account how different social groups portrayed the emperor and imperial power, created and propagated their own identities and conceptions of their place in the imperial system, and reacted to ideas and images disseminated by others both above and below them in the social scale.

The project will produce two main results: a volume with contributions by the invited experts which will outline the new model, and an extended case study which will put it to the test by examining one particular group's contribution.

Some of the most iconic monuments which still stand in the city of Rome, from the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) to Trajan's Column to the Arch of Constantine, are indelibly linked with the names of individual emperors. But these three monuments and many others like them were not built by the emperors whom their names memorialize, but by the Roman Senate in the emperors' honour - a fact often noted in passing by scholars but usually then dismissed as insignificant. My project, which covers a period of some 300 years from Augustus to Constantine, proposes to offer a complete re-evaluation of these well-known monuments. It will be the first to take seriously the fact that they were commissioned and funded by the Senate, and acted as messages from the Senate to both the emperor and the wider population. The monuments are important evidence for how imperial power was understood and each makes its own contribution to imperial imagery and ideology. The imagery of peaceful abundance on the Ara Pacis was a cornerstone of Augustus' Golden Age ideology and was widely imitated in private monuments; the inscription giving credit to an unspecified deity on the Arch of Constantine may document the moment when the Christian god was first integrated into the official language of imperial power. The Senate, not the emperor, controlled these pivotal moments of image-making and ideology formation. A reevaluation of Rome's surviving senatorial monuments will enhance our understanding of the monuments themselves, the imperial Senate and its relationship with the emperor, and the processes involved in image-making and ideology formation under the Roman empire.

Planned Impact

The project's main immediate impact beyond academia will be to the nation's cultural life. The monuments which form the subject of the monograph are large, surviving buildings in Rome which are of interest to the general public: they are often featured in the media in discussions of history and art history, and are frequent tourist destinations. The project will enhance the public's understanding of these monuments, and will be of particular interest to those who have travelled to Rome or plan to in the near future. Dissemination of the results to a broad public audience will be through newspapers, television, and radio, facilitated by Durham's Media Relations unit; they have provided me with media training and are able to help me connect with interested journalists and producers.

Another key group of beneficiaries will be school teachers and pupils who study Latin, Ancient History, and Classical Civilization. An article has already appeared in the magazine Omnibus, targeted at pupils studying the ancient world, in which I outline my new approach to the monuments of the Augustan Senate, and I also gave a talk to a summer school for teachers of Classics which was then made available as a podcast on the ARLT (a national association of Classics teachers) website aimed at helping teachers use the article in lessons. The model has proved successful at giving students and teachers access to my research, and I am now working on a second pair (article/podcast) with Iris, an online open-access magazine, for students for a different research project. I will aim to reproduce this model for other monuments covered by the project. In the long term, my conclusions have the potential not just to enrich but to challenge the format of current A-level units on Roman imperial history, which currently assume that the emperor was uniquely responsible for self-representation through architecture. I will work with teachers and the exam boards to propose new approaches to the units which take into account multiple patrons.

Although it is difficult to make firm predictions, the new models developed for understanding ideology formation may assist other researchers in work which will have eventual impact on policy-makers and communication professionals today.

Involvement in planning the workshops and co-editing the volume will enhance the organizational, research, and communications skills of my postgraduate students and postdoctoral mentees. These skills will be of use to them whatever career path they eventually follow.


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Description 1. The Roman Imperial Senate was a major patron of art and architecture between Augustus and Constantine. They paid for their commissions themselves, including such well-known surviving monuments as the Ara Pacis, the Arch of Titus, Trajan's Column, the Arch of Septimius Severus, and the Arch of Constantine. As a result, they had significant say in the monuments' imagery, and all of these monuments include depictions of senators. We see two main strategies: they sometimes depict the emperor as 'one of us', while at other times they depict him as 'not like us', separate from their own internal competition. Both forced the senators to consider their own identity, and devise new representational strategies for it, from the Ara Pacis' indistinguishable mass of togate figures to the Genius Senatus present on the Arch of Trajan at Benevento. 2. An approach built on social dynamics offers an important new way of understanding the development and reception of imperial imagery and ideology. Patrons at different social levels used imperial imagery in ways which were conditioned less by their relationship with the emperor (either top-down or bottom-up) and more by horizontal and near-horizontal relationships with other social groups near them in social hierarchies. The Senate was an important part of this system, involved in the production of motifs which sprung from their interactions with each other and those just below them as much as from their interactions with the emperor.
Exploitation Route My model of image-making and ideology formation could inspire historians of all periods, and also contemporary media studies: it fits into notions of distributed content creation online, for example. My work on the imperial senate will be of interest to political and cultural historians of the imperial period, and to art historians working on these particular monuments. My re-evaluation of the senate's role in producing imagery has the potential to affect the way the Roman empire is taught at GCSE and A-Level, where syllabuses include these monuments but usually emphasise the emperor's agency alone. My analyses of these specific monuments, which are popular tourist destinations, could be taken up by content creators aiming at tourists.
Sectors Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Christopherson-Knott fellowship
Amount £7,500 (GBP)
Organisation Durham University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 12/2018
Description IAS Major Project
Amount £7,500 (GBP)
Organisation Durham University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 04/2019
Description Sydney Rule of Law 
Organisation University of Sydney
Department School of Information Technologies
Country Australia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Participated in a conference; agreed to be a collaborator on a grant application to Australian governmental funding.
Collaborator Contribution Organised a conference; paid for flights and accommodation in Sydney.
Impact Multidisciplinary: Classics and Law
Start Year 2017
Description podcast (Rome) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact My public lecture 'The imperial senate and the city of Rome', given in Rome on 9/11/16, was uploaded as a podcast to Youtube. In the month since it was posted it has 144 views.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017