Hendrik Wagner's book explores how Rome's senatorial aristocrats continually wielded a great deal of power from the death of Theodosius I in 395 until the death of Valentinian III in 455, shifting attention to the early fifth century while other studies of the western capital's late antique senate primarily focus on the fourth century. Q. Aurelius Symmachus characterized Rome's senators as "the better half of humanity," exposing this aristocrat's own brazen elitism along with his assumption that the city's senate was a global institution. Wagner draws upon both textual sources and archeological evidence to claim that Rome's senate during the Theodosian dynasty, spanning the first half of the fifth century, was no mere municipal council and indeed possessed empire-wide influence.
Wagner suggests that the year 394 represents a turning point when Theodosius I recognized that the imperial court in Constantinople could only operate effectively by building coalitions with Rome's senate. Wagner explores whether or not Theodosius I staged an official visit to Rome in 394 about which the historical documentation is unclear at best. The evidence implies that, even if the emperor did not arrive in Rome in person in 394, Theodosius I was then in the process of encouraging close bonds linking his son Honorius to the city's powerful senatorial aristocrats. The chapters in the first half of the book focus upon how Rome's senators responded to political developments in the empire. Wagner uncovers many details about Rome's influential senators who formed close alliances with fifth-century usurpers, specifically Priscus Attalus, John (Johannes), and Petronius Maximus. In addition, Wagner examines the military leaders who participated in political negotiations between Rome's aristocrats and the legitimate emperors during the reigns of Honorius (r. 393–423) and Valentinian III (r. 425–455). The tumultuous episodes in which the alliances among emperors, generals, and senators became frayed due to bitter rivalries receive full coverage in Wagner's book. Wagner further proposes that the military generals Stilicho, Flavius Constantius, and Aëtius played hybrid roles by merging their civilian and military identities. After conducting careful research on artworks and carvings, Wagner achieves remarkable insights by describing the attributes and clothing in portraits and thereby he sheds light on the individual identities of those who commissioned such objects as the ivory diptychs. In addition, Wagner's careful analysis of imagery on the consular diptychs, clearly targeting elite audiences, is paired with an account of similar depictions appearing on the more widely distributed terra sigillata trays so as to establish the wide dissemination of senatorial portraits.
Wagner's stated goal is to substantiate how Rome's senators operated as a "global" elite. The author recounts details about senators serving in positions with empire-wide influence such as consul, general ("magister militum"), and "patricius" during the Theodosian dynasty, since the author argues that those holding these offices possessed authority extending beyond the Italian peninsula. Archeological evidence about Rome's late antique senatorial houses substantiates Wagner's claims that domestic spaces showcased the clout of these aristocrats. Wagner interprets the senatorial sponsorship of staged animal hunts in the arena using imported species as signaling that local aristocrats pretended to have a worldwide sphere of influence. The global ambitions of Rome's senatorial elite are clearly documented by Wagner even as the western half of the empire faced military and political challenges during the reign of Valentinian III. Roman senators maintained their global ambitions throughout the Theodosian dynasty and this is supported by the wide range of evidence Wagner presents.
Wagner argues that Rome's senators sparked a physical revival of the city, particularly after the sack of 410, by tracing the senatorial repairs of specific monuments including those in the Roman Forum. Wagner uses archeological evidence admirably to amplify the claims he advances using literary and political sources. Some epigraphic material could have been added to his discussion. For example, Wagner could have introduced the full range of fifth-century honorific portrait statues on display in the Forum of Caesar (one could call attention to the following inscriptions: CIL 6.40798; 41384; and 41385). Additional epigraphic evidence, such as the inscriptions from the Forum of Trajan acclaiming the authors Claudian and Merobaudes for having championed the generals Stilicho and Aëtius in their poetry (attested in CIL 6.1710 and CIL 6.1724), could have been added to bolster Wagner's arguments that literary rhetoric celebrated ties among the senators, the generals, and the emperors even as their relations were fraught with tensions. Assuming the political benefits of restoring public buildings, Wagner proposes that the Temple of Saturn was repaired by senators after 410 when previous scholars had dated its rebuilding prior to the restrictions limiting the use of temples (Theodosius I prohibited sacrifice in 391). Also, Wagner connects this temple's restoration to an initiative to build San Paolo fuori le mura. The hypothesized link between those who built a Christian basilica and those who repaired a pagan temple belongs to a wider trend in which Wagner minimizes the tensions between traditionalists and Christians in late antique Rome.
Wagner explores the cultural interests and religious commitments of Rome's aristocrats in the second half of the book. He surveys the self-presentation of Rome's senators by analyzing the funding they provided for buildings, churches, diptychs, fora, monuments, and their own houses. The author views the traditional erudition of senators as connected to their patronage of art and architecture including their sponsorship of churches. Drawing upon the long-standing cultural values of Rome's senators, Wagner provides the background to what he identifies as an aristocratic form of Christianity. It is noteworthy that Wagner takes a balanced view by calling attention to Rome's Christian aristocrats who maintained their elite identities despite the new rhetoric of Late Antiquity in which wealthy individuals proclaimed their compassion for the poor. In other words, Wagner charts the instances in which senators rejected the trappings of material wealth and he also balances their claims to have embraced asceticism with their ongoing search for worldly influence.
There are clear benefits to Wagner's approach, since his extensive research sheds light on the intersections between art, culture, politics, and military affairs so as to strengthen our knowledge of Rome's aristocratic culture in the first half of the fifth century. It should be mentioned that Wagner's book is available from the publisher as a free download in a laudable project to provide open access. The easy availability of this text is a wonderful development in scholarly publishing.