Consensus in Theory and Practice
Authenticated texts defined relations between peripheral entities and the central power on a continuum that included a vast but definable set of fellow participants in the community of the empire; they did so by concretizing discrete moments in a historical narrative in which local collectivities of every sort were slowly subsumed within a greater whole. Indeed, the very existence of those texts constituted a peculiar and uniquely powerful form of propaganda.1 We need not assume, however, that the emperors of Rome dispatched them with an eye on their cumulative effect. On the contrary: their authors focused their attention firmly on the issue of the moment, whether it was a recent imperial victory or an act of the emperor's benevolent foresight. As we shall see, the arrival of such texts demanded a response, an expression of the community's consensual and unanimous commitment to the order established, embodied, and maintained by these texts and their authors. Romans called this consensual commitment consensus.2 The reality of its unanimity need not concern us here; in so large an empire, in which communication was so difficult, our interest must be in people's belief in that unanimity.
Emperors possessed various means to achieve and give formal expression to consensus, each suited to carry a distinct message to a different audience. An autobiography, for example, achieved its ideological work at a different speed, before a different audience, than did the announcement that a____________________