Dazzling Dining : Banquets as an Expression of Imperial Legitimacy

University dissertation from Classical archaeology and ancient history

Abstract: This study examines how banquets hosted by the Roman emperor were vehicles of imperial propaganda and expressions of the ruler’s political legitimation. The focus will be on the banquets held in the palace of Domus Augustana in Rome and in the Great Palace in Constantinople during the period AD 330-580. Five aspects are used in the analysis of imperial banqueting: traditional values, religion, precedence, consensus and tradition. Through banquets, the emperor demonstrated that he had the appropriate qualities of a ruler, adhered to values shared by emperor and elite, and served their common good. In other words, the political power of the Roman emperor was legitimated by projecting the ideology of imperial rule through the medium of ritualized, communal feasting. The emperor had to gain consent from the commonly acknowledged sources of authority, in order to secure his position. These were God, society in the past (tradition) and society in the present (court and senate). This consent was expressed at banquets by a symbolic merging of emperor and Christ, the emphasis placed on traditional imperial virtues (such as generosity, frugality and affability), the acclamation of the emperor by the guests, and a conservative banquet ritual. The presence of the emperor at banquets validated the hierarchy of all other diners, reinforcing visually the ties of clientage, expressed through spatial and temporal distinctions. Rome was a unique centre of the process of imperial legitimation. For a ritual to maximize its effect, the ruler had to behave as if he were in Rome, an effect here called capital legitimacy. The palaces were employed as backdrops of imperial rituals, which demanded certain halls, dimensions and layout. This symbiosis between form and function had evolved in the Domus Augustana, which therefore was adopted as a model for the layout of the Great Palace, since both were capital residences. The comparison undertaken between the most important ceremonial halls of the palaces, termed the ceremonial core, shows that the core of the imperial palace in Constantinople in its essential layout and functions was a pastiche of the core of the Domus Augustana. It thereby took advantage of the capital legitimacy this resemblance provided – when the emperor dined in Constantinople it was almost as if he dined in Rome.

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