Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

By Guy Halsall | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
The lexicon of abuse:
drunkenness and political illegitimacy
in the late Roman world
Mark Humphries

INTRODUCTION

In the anonymous, mid-fourth-century narrative known as the Origo Constantini imperatoris (The origin of the emperor Constantine), several apparently remarkable statements are made about the moral fibre–or, moreprecisely, the lack of it–of the enemies of the emperor Constantine.1 Prominent among these villains are Galerius, Augustus of the eastern empire (305–11), and his short-lived associate as western emperor, Severus (Caesar, 305–6; Augustus, 306–7). The relationship between the two men, so ouranonymous authorhas it, was based on theirshared propensity to heavy drinking: 'Severus Caesar was ignoble both by character and by birth; he was a heavy drinker [ebriosus] and forthis reason he was a friend of Galerius. '2 Galerius' own fondness for drink and its deleterious effects are soon described: 'Galerius was such a heavy drinker [ebriosus] that, when he was intoxicated, he gave orders such as should not be implemented. '3

This chapterwill explain why it is significant that an emperorshould be characterised as an ebriosus.4 It will show that emperors described in this fashion were not 'mere' heavy drinkers, but that allegations of drunkenness were employed to undermine the very legitimacy of their rule.

____________________
1
Text in Origo Constantini: Anonymus Valesianus, vol. I, Text und Kommentar (Trierer Historische Forschungen 11), ed. I. K¨onig (Trier, 1987). Fora recent discussion, see From Constantine to Julian: Pagan and Byzantine Views, ed. S. N. C. Lieu and D. Montserrat (London, 1996), pp. 39–42.
2
Origo 4.9.
3
Origo 4.11.
4
Throughout I will either translate ebriosus as 'heavy drinker' or leave it untranslated. It is inappropriate to translate it as 'alcoholic' (as, for example, J. Stevenson in her translation of Origo 4.9 and 11, in From Constantine to Julian, ed. Lieu and Montserrat, p. 44), since modern views of alcoholism characterise it as a disease: P. Antze, 'Symbolic action in Alcoholics Anonymous', in Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology, ed. M. Douglas (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 149–81, esp. pp. 154–8. In antiquity, by contrast, heavy drinking was seen primarily as a moral failing: J. H. d'arms, 'Heavy drinking and drunkenness in the Roman world: four questions forhistorians', in In Vino Veritas, ed. O. Murray and M. Tecusan (London, 1995), pp. 304–17 at pp. 315–17.

-75-

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