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Massimo Lolli: Turpitudinum notae. La caratterizzazione dell’usurpatore nei Panegyrici Latini tardoantichi (= Schweizerische Beiträge zur Altertumswissenschaft (SBA); Bd. 57), Basel: Schwabe 2023, 188 S., ISBN 978-3-7965-4695-2, EUR 48,00
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Rezension von:
Roger Rees
School of Classics, University of St Andrews
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Roger Rees: Rezension von: Massimo Lolli: Turpitudinum notae. La caratterizzazione dell’usurpatore nei Panegyrici Latini tardoantichi, Basel: Schwabe 2023, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 2 [15.02.2024], URL:

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Massimo Lolli: Turpitudinum notae

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Roman imperial legitimacy was always simmering away as an important political concern - without it, a claimant to the throne could be in hot water - but at times it boiled over, especially of course at the point of regime change and challenge. The sheer number of such changes and challenges was, as is well known, bewildering in the third century CE and through to the fourth, with so many different men claiming power. But legitimacy always resisted unambiguous and unanimously approved definition - never so much a statement of facts as an argument.

It is in this context that Massimo Lolli makes a useful contribution in this focussed and elegantly produced monograph. His material is the late antique Panegyrici Latini, eleven epideictic speeches addressed to various Roman emperors (or their representatives) from the years 289 to 389. All the speeches were delivered in Gaul and/or by a Gallic orator, and their addressees are Maximian, Constantius, Constantine, Julian and Theodosius.

In modern scholarship, these speeches have often been read as specific discourses on kingship, against texts such as Pliny's Panegyricus to Trajan (100 CE, also preserved in the Panegyrici Latini collection but not considered by Lolli) or the so-called Basilikos Logos by Menander Rhetor. Lolli's attention, rather, is to the representation of the political rivals of the addressee emperors - notably Carausius and Allectus to Maximian and Constantius, Maxentius to Constantine and Magnus Maximus to Theodosius. There is one conspicuous complication within this: the speech of 307 celebrates the political harmony between Maximian and Constantine, formalised by the marriage of the latter to Fausta, the daughter of the former, but by the time of the next speech to survive, in 310, that political alliance had broken down dramatically, and Maximian was dead, apparently by suicide enforced by Constantine. Accordingly, that speech of 310 presents Maximian in very different light to the speech of 307. The decision to organise the book in chronological order by imperial reign (unlike the manuscript sequence of the Panegyrici Latini themselves) allows Lolli to relate the speeches to the evolving historical contexts. The brief opening chapter introduces the corpus, the principal historical characters, and the range of ethical topics that will be the focus of the subsequent chapters. Representation in three speeches of Carausius, (who claimed imperial power in northern Gaul and Britain from c.286) and of his successor Allectus (whose reign lasted 3 further years) is the focus of Chapter Two. Chapter Three considers the changing fortunes of Maximian as represented in the two speeches mentioned above. The representation of Maxentius, who was recognised as Emperor in Rome, wider Italy and north Africa from 306 until his death in battle at the Milvian Bridge in 312 is addressed in Chapter Four. Chapter Five leaps to Magnus Maximus, who held power in Gaul for five years from 383, as characterised in a speech to Theodosius in 389. An overall conclusion precedes the Bibliography and Indices.

Throughout the main chapters, Lolli's methodology is primarily lexical - firmly in the tradition of L'Huillier. [1] This focus on vocabulary - for example, Carausius as 'pirate', Maxentius and Magnus Maximus as 'tyrants', each with associated negative qualities such as monstrousness, lust, physical debility, uncertain parentage, lack of respect, greed, cruelty, rage - serves too as a useful counterpoint to Seager [2] and Mause. [3] Where Seager plotted the virtues of the Emperor-addressees in the corpus, and Mause adopted a similar brief but across a wider range of Latin literature, Lolli plots the vices of their rivals. The book clearly demonstrates that the Panegyrici Latini, the largest collection of classical Latin oratory other than Cicero's, actually contains a very considerable amount of invective material - in the service of the immediate panegyrical agenda, of course. For example, Constantine and Theodosius do very well out of the binary ethical models that generate ferocious condemnation of Maxentius in the speech of 313, and of Magnus Maximus in the speech of 389, respectively. Lolli adds new depth to a short and important article by Lassandro [4], to show how demonisation of political rivals effects plenty of the heavy lifting needed in epideictic of the time; this rhetoric does not appear in the recommendations of Menander Rhetor's Basilikos Logos but, as Lolli demonstrates, was a regular and primary coloured feature of Latin panegyrics.

It is useful to have damning lexical-ethical material such as pirata, tyrannus, pestis, latrocinium, crudelitas, furor etc. identified, collected and discussed in one place, and Lolli is a snappy and reliable observer; I expect scholars and students of the Panegyrici Latini will read and cite the book as authoritative within its own limited ambitions. But big picture questions, such as the independence of orators, their literary daring or the reliability of their speeches, are not broached here. And even within the narrower scale of ambition in the book, there lurks sense of claustrophobia or myopia, as if it is in splendid isolation from a good deal of recent work by others. Ware's recent commentary on the speech of 310 perhaps appeared too late to be taken into account [5], but engagement with Maranesi on the rhetorical construction of power [6], several of the chapters in Burgersdijk and Ross [7], or in Omissi and Ross [8] and, most significantly, the 2018 monograph by Omissi [9] on precisely the intriguing culture of panegyrics as the earliest responses we have to imperial regime change would have helped to locate this book in contemporary revisions of oratory as a dynamic and flexible medium of political communication.


[1] M.-C. L'Huillier: L'Empire des mots. Orateurs gaulois et empereurs romains. 3e et 4e Siècles, Paris 1992.

[2] R. Seager: Some Imperial Virtues in the Latin Prose Panegyrics. The Demands of Propaganda and the Dynamics of Literary Composition, in: PLLS 4 (1984), 129-65.

[3] M. Mause: Die Darstellung des Kaisers in der Lateinischen Panegyrik, Stuttgart 1994.

[4] D. Lassandro: La demonizzazione del nemico politico nei Panegyrici Latini, in: CISA 7 (1981), 237-249.

[5] C. Ware: A Literary Commentary on Panegyrici Latini VI (7), Cambridge 2021.

[6] A. Maranesi: Vincere la Memoria, Costruire il Potere, Costantino, i retori, la lode dell' autorità e l'autorità della lode, Milan 2016.

[7] D. P. W. Burgersdijk / A. J. Ross (eds.): Imagining Emperors in the Later Roman Empire (= Cultural Interactions in the Mediterranean; 1), Leiden 2018.

[8] A. Omissi / A. J. Ross (eds.): Imperial Panegyric from Diocletian to Honorius, Liverpool 2020.

[9] A. Omissi: Emperors and Usurpers in the Later Roman Empire. Civil War, Panegyric and the Construction of Legitimacy, Oxford 2018.

Roger Rees