Presentation Review: Gemma Newlands “Sibling Rivalry: Roma and Constantinopolis in the 4th Century AD”

In Sibling Rivalry: Roma and Constantinopolis in the 4th Century AD, delivered on 16 January as part of the Oxford-Princeton seminar series, Gemma Newlands investigated in detail the way Rome’s relationship with the new city of Constantinople was represented in literature and art through the two cities’ respective personifications: Roma and Constantinopolis. The range of sources pulled together, from orations to epics and coins to caskets, is impressive.

solidus Roma (left) with Constantinopolis (right) looking appropriately deferential on a coin of Constantius II (AD 337-361). Image courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica

In line with previous studies, Newlands finds that Constantinopolis, initially subordinate and deferent to Roma, gradually assumes a position of equality and even elements of superiority; a change which reflects the growing importance of the new foundation. However, Newlands qualifies this straightforward progression. She shows that the rise of Constantinopolis was far more marked in works by and for inhabitants of the new city. By contrast western works and works addressed to the west stressed Roma’s continuing primacy more. These two models can be seen even among the works of individual authors, as Newlands strikingly demonstrates with two speeches by the Constantinopolitan Themistius, the first for a western audience, the second for an eastern one:

Nor is [Constantinopolis] ashamed, aggrieved or distressed for the future to stand in the second rather than the front rank. (Or. 3.42)

Constantinopolis comes forward not only to seek what she desires, but as the first to ratify this Imperial decree… of the two mother cities of the world, that of Romulus and that of Constantine, it is ours, I say, that is in greater harmony with you (14.182).

A key point arising from Newlands’ presentation is how colourless and boring Constantinopolis was. In art she was simply a tyche like any other. In literature she usually appears in the company of Roma, often with only the barest hints of personification. Roma, on the other hand, was and remained a dynamic figure who attracted deeply developed depictions: Roma the born-again Christian of Prudentius, freed from the dark shadows and black idols that had previously held her; Roma the armoured warrior of art, enthroned in as much glory as ever before; even Roma the frail old matron of Claudian who struggles to hold up her own shield are more interesting constructions than anything done with Constantinopolis. Newlands stresses that the five hundred year old Roma had a richer heritage to draw on, that she had always been so much more than just a civic personification: a symbol of empire, a goddess of power itself.

casketConstantinopolis, indistinguishable from the Tychai of Carthage, Nicomedia, and Siscia doing homage to Roma, on panels from a casket found in Croatia.

After any twenty minute presentation worth listening to, gaps remain. Two occur to me. Firstly, the generic nature of Constantinopolis could be more strongly established by comparison with other Tyche which literature and art dwell on. Newlands offered some examples, like the fourth century cedar wood casket (above) showing several civic Tychai deferentially approaching Roma, but one wonders especially about how these Tychai’s relationship with Roma was depicted locally – did they, like Constantinopolis, become less meek on their ‘home turf’? Paucity of evidence is the challenge here; only for Antioch might this be even potentially possible.

Secondly, and more importantly, while Newlands placed the sibling rivalry very firmly in the context of Roma’s previous history (the main focus of her research), limiting the study to the fourth century leaves us with a story which is clearly unfinished: How did the rivalry develop in the next century as Constantinople became the clearly superior partner? At what point did the different western and eastern tendencies completely diverge? Did Constantinopolis take on more attributes of Roma,* or at least some more colour, as the idea of New Rome became more established? Why do both figures seem largely forgotten by the sixth century? For Newlands’ take on this final stage in the history of Roma, we will have to wait for her monograph.


* Numismatists assume she did, identifying the Roma-like figure who appears on solidi from the reign of Theodosius II (AD 408-450) as Constantinopolis.


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