CORDIS - EU research results

VEhicles as High-status Indicators in the CUlture of Late Antiquity

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - VEHICULA (VEhicles as High-status Indicators in the CUlture of Late Antiquity)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-08-31

The project has addressed the role of vehicles as means for elite self-representation and the visualisation of social hierarchies in the later Roman empire (4th-6th century), providing accessible knowledge of a characteristic phenomenon of late antique society and demonstrating its importance for identity construction in a key period of European history. As Roman society became increasingly hierarchical, a corresponding need was felt for its structure to be conveyed visually: every citizen was bound to exhibit the distinguishing features of his or her rank, in a way that could be immediately clear to every viewer. Among the signs of social and economic power, vehicles were certainly the most impressive. They were the principal means for elite self-representation and the display of private wealth in the public places of Roman cities.

Vehicles have been chosen as a specific focus to shed new light on several aspects of the social and cultural history of the period, examining various specific contexts in which they played a key role. These include: the evolution of pagan theology and rituals; the establishment of a bureaucratic structure for central and territorial administration; the construction of gender identity among the late Roman elites; the competing modes of elite self-representation (senatorial, military, ecclesiastical) in the public sphere; the establishment of the Christian Church as a new centre of power alongside and competing with the traditional ones; the survival of Roman institutions and the appropriation of the inheritance of Rome in the transition from antiquity to the middle ages.

The project results provide an important contribution towards a better understanding of a period of momentous changes in social, cultural, political and religious attitudes. The analysis has shown how late antique Romans were able to conceptualise and domesticate transformations (including political turmoil and religious changes) by always maintaining a powerful connection with the past. Public ceremonies functioned as identity markers, fostering the construction of collective identities and reinforcing the sense of community; but they were also a privileged field for staging the often problematic dialogue between competing political, economic, military and spiritual powers. From this point of view, the project has resulted in a comprehensive investigation on the social and cultural history of late antiquity, increasing our understanding of status and gender relationships, cultural and institutional values, and the mechanisms of social mobility and competition. While these social and cultural dynamics are an essential part of the functioning of human societies in general, their study is especially important for our contemporary European culture: our rules of societal life are still (more or less consciously) dependent on ethical, juridical, and cultural principles derived from the Roman period. Understanding past reactions to challenges similar to those which affect our modern societies (from increasing inequality to the integration of foreigners, from the fulfilment of spiritual aspirations to the place of religious affiliation in public life) can bring important contributions to contemporary citizens’ awareness and policy planning.
The project is divided in four parts, dealing with different aspects of late antique social history.

1) The gods. Carriages were used throughout Rome’s history in pagan ceremonies, especially those of the imperial cult. The project has collected textual and visual data on the use of carriages in Roman religious ceremonies over the whole period from the 2nd century BC to Late Antiquity, showing how ritual changes were closely related to the theological development of Roman religion.

2) The emperors. In late antique Rome, it was customary for the ruler to ride in a vehicle when showing himself in the public spaces of the cities. Thus, vehicles are often treated as a metaphor for civil and military power. The analysis has shown the importance of vehicles as cultural symbols embodying, in the eyes of their beholders and viewers, the very concept of ‘Romanness’, and has clarified how the use of vehicles was maintained in the post-Roman successor states as a mark of the continuity of power during the key transitional period from antiquity into the middle ages.

3) Public officials. The canonisation of vehicles as the principal insignia of magistrates matches the increasing hierarchisation and bureaucratisation of the late Roman empire. Juridical texts carefully establish hierarchic differences between various kinds of vehicles, regulating the circumstances of their use. The results of the project offer an exceptional insight into the balance of power of late Roman administration, in its legal and institutional aspects, as well as the modes of interaction between the state apparatus and other areas of Roman society.

4) Private citizens. The project has examined the self-representation of senators and other elite members, based on the exam of literary sources, sarcophagi, and the only surviving late antique carriage, the so-called ‘Tensa Capitolina’ in the Capitoline Museums, Rome. This analysis has shed new light on how the mechanisms of elite self-consciousness were performed in the social interactions between elite members and with citizens from other societal groups.
The project has filled an important gap in our appreciation of the social and cultural dynamics of late antique Rome. Among the signs of social and economic power displayed by the late Roman elites, vehicles were certainly the most impressive; but, before this project, they were also one of the most underestimated by modern scholars. The attention drawn exclusively to a few isolated contexts (such as circus races or the state-run courier service) had led scholars to largely overlook the systematic presence and importance of vehicles in late Roman society. Now this situation has changed: the dissemination of the project results through scientific publications, conferences and lectures has shown the paramount importance of public rituals for the construction of Roman identity, and the role of vehicles in the staging of those rituals. While the preliminary articles have clarified several aspects of senatorial and imperial self-representation, the final monograph will have an even greater impact, showing the importance of the ritual and performative dimension of public life in late Roman society. This will add to our understanding of late antiquity as a dynamic society, in which the ideological and communitarian aspects of public life were continuously renegotiated through the citizens’ participation in performative events. This will contribute towards a better understanding of how a community (particularly a global community, as the Roman Empire was) constructs and represents itself, and how collective public rituals helped fostering the citizens' active participation in building and perpetuating a coherent system of shared values.
The Gherardesca Diptych (London, British Museum) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)