Raphael Hunsucker

Memoriae conditorum, conditores memoriae. Memory-making and the foundation of Rome in the Augustan age and Late Antiquity

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Memoriae conditorum, conditores memoriae. Memory-making and the foundation of Rome in the Augustan age and Late Antiquity

Antiquity has long functioned and continues to function as an important ‘anchor’ for innovations in the modern world, also in the cultural and political sphere. Many modern empires and nation-states (not to speak of modes of cultural production) trace their origins back to a primordial, ‘classical’ past. The importance of Antiquity as an anchoring device today makes it interesting and relevant to study similar processes in Antiquity itself: the ancients were indeed facing the same questions as we do, and were equally (or perhaps more) creative in finding and constructing distant ‘anchors’. This project studies how the primordial past of the most distant beginnings functioned as an anchoring device in Antiquity itself, just like the ‘classical’ past often functions for us today.

Memoriae conditorum, conditores memoriae

In the Roman world, the primordial founders of the Eternal City were among the most ancient anchors available. Hercules, Evander, Aeneas and Romulus & Remus are not only the earliest human agents imagined to have been the creators of the city, culture and customs of Rome. Arguably, they also had the longest tradition as anchors, the Romans taking recourse to their exempla again and again over time. Despite (if not because of) their continuous use, however, the way in and the ends to which they were used changed significantly through the ages. Contemporary concerns continuously modified and manipulated the memory of distant founders, adapting their role to fit the new circumstances. As paradoxical as it may sound, ‘new’ founders (such as the Christian apostles Peter & Paul) even entered the scene from time to time, frequently surpassing their predecessors in antiquity, nobility and the sphere of religious and political influence. As major innovations were often projected back onto the city’s most distant beginnings, founders acted as mirrors through which the Romans recognized the present in their primordial past. This also stimulated ideologies according to which contemporary actors could be seen as ‘second founders’ of the city, an epithet applied to (among others) the emperor Augustus and some of his successors.

The major innovations studied in this project are the change from Republic to Empire and the establishment of the Principate in the Early Augustan Age, on the one hand, and the transition from pagan religion to Christianity and the rise of the papacy in Late Antiquity, on the other. In both periods, the founders of Rome played a considerable role as anchoring devices to legitimate the new religious and political system. That role, however, seems to be recurrently overestimated by modern scholars, perhaps because of our own predilection towards Antiquity as an anchoring device in the modern world.

This project, to sum up, looks at the success of one ‘anchoring device’ in two periods of major political upheaval and subsequent innovation. By studying one anchoring device in two rather diverse contexts, set almost four centuries apart, the project endeavors to contribute to our general understanding of what makes an anchoring device successful over time. My hypothesis is that its previous use as an anchoring device, even if applied to totally different ends or in totally different contexts, makes that device a more suitable and powerful anchor when used once again. Obviously, such ‘double anchoring’ may call for innovation in the use of the anchor itself – and that is exactly what this project aims to study.