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The Last Consul: Basilius and his Diptych

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2012

Alan Cameron
Columbia University
Diane Schauer
Pennsylvania State University


This article is concerned with a late antique consular diptych now divided between Florence and Milan. The front panel, in the Castello Sforzesco at Milan, displays a personification of Victory, seated frontally on the back of an eagle and holding an oval shield to her left (Pl. IV). In the centre of the shield is a bust of the consul and around the edge the inscription BONO REI PUBLIC(a)E ET ITERUM. A small portion of the top and the lower third of the panel are missing. The rear panel of the diptych, still intact, is in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence (Pl. V). The figure of the consul is standing, holding the mappa in front of his chest, and in his left hand a cross-surmounted sceptre. To the left of the consul stands the figure of Roma, who places her right hand on the consul's right shoulder and in her left holds the fasces. In the lower quarter of the panel is a scene of a chariot race and to the right are two small male figures. Across the top of both panels runs the inscription: ANIC(ius) FAUST(us) ALBIN(us) BASILIUS V(ir) C(larissimus) ET INL(ustris) EX COM(ite) DOM(esticorum) PAT(ricius) CONS(ul) ORD(inarius).

Research Article
Copyright © Alan Cameron and Diane Schauer 1982. Exclusive Licence to Publish: The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies

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1 Volbach, W. F., Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätantike und des frühen Mittelalters3 (1976), 31Google Scholar, Taf. 3, nr. 5. (Henceforth, all references to individual ivories in Volbach will be given as V plus the number of the ivory under discussion); Delbrueck, R., Die Consulardiptychen und verwandte Denkmäler (1929), 100Google Scholar, nr. 6, Taf. 6.

2 Osservazioni sopra alcuni frammenti di vast antichi di vetro (1716), 254–5.

3 Thesaurus veterum diptychorum 11 (1759), 127 f.

4 Entstellte Consulardiptychen’, Röm. Mitt. VII (1892), 210, 216–17Google Scholar.

5 e.g. most recently Anderson, J. C. in Weitzmann, K. (ed.), The Age of Spirituality (1979), nos. 46–7, pp. 47–8Google Scholar.

6 Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien LX (1968), 4592Google Scholar.

7 Not counting separately those of which we have multiple (not always identical) copies: e.g. those of Areobindus (506), Anastasius (517), Magnus (518), Justinian (521) and Philoxenus (525).

8 Indeed the suffect consulship had almost certainly disappeared by now, and the honorary consulship was apparently limited to the East: see Chastagnol, A., Le sénat romain sous le règne d'Odoacre (1966), 55Google Scholar.

9 The appearance of PLRE 11 (1980), edited by J. R. Martindale, has enabled us to dispense with much routine annotation; reference should also be made to the still invaluable Abhandlungen zur Geschichte des ausgehenden Römertums (1919) of J. Sundwall, to whom belongs the credit of sorting out the Decii (pp. 128–30) and whose stemma we have adapted.

10 CIL VI. 4. 32094 a, b, c; cf. A. Chastagnol, Sénat romain, 44.

11 Chastagnol (p. 83) and Sundwall (p. 98), while correctly referring CIL XV. 7420 to Basilius 480, nonetheless by oversight give Basilius 463 the name Maximus. The error is the more unfortunate in that it makes it seem almost perverse to attribute xv. 7420 to Basilius 480 rather than Basilius 463. In fact it would be without parallel at this period for an aristocrat to give his son exactly the same names as himself—for the obvious reason. It is true that most consular fasti and inscriptions call Basilius 480 ‘Basilius iunior’ (Mommsen, Chron. Min. III (1898), 537; De Rossi, ICUR I (1857–1861), 492), but this does not prove either that they were exact homonyms, or (as Chastagnol thought, p. 40) that Basilius senior was still alive when Basilius 480 entered on his consulship. It was done solely to distinguish homonyms on the consular fasti. Basilius 480 was sole consul in his year, and by coincidence Basilius 463 was the only consul recognized in the West in his year (De Rossi, ICUR 1, 356; Seeck, Regesten, 412). So without some distinguishing mark, documents and monuments of both years would have been dated indistinguishably ‘Basilio v.c. consule’. Thus it is an error to list Basilius 480's full names (as in both Sundwall and PLRE 11) ‘Caecina Decius Maximus Basilius iunior’. He is either Caecina Decius Maximus Basilius or (in consular dates) Basilius iunior.

12 PLRE 11, 52 oddly follows the old supplement [Aginatius] for the missing name in CIL VI. 32165, thus confusing him with the consul of 444, his greatgrandfather. Given the evidence for the name Faustus (PLRE II, 51), the full name is surely as given above (so already Sundwall, 87).

13 Chastagnol thought he had proved that Basilius 463 was still alive in 480, but with the lapse of that argument (n. 11), it becomes possible that he was dead and that the ex cons. ord. of vi. 32164 is Basilius 480—and that the Severinus ex cons. ord. of VI. 32206 is Severinus, cos. 482, rather than his father, cos. 461 (where Chastagnol, 81, relies on the same argument from the use of iunior).

14 Mommsen, Ges. Schriften VI, 403; Sundwall, 183, 191; Chastagnol, 49.

15 Anastasius (V 18, 20, 21); Philoxenus (V 28, 30); Apion (V 32); Justinus (V 33); Anon. (V 41. 49).

16 See the relevant entries in PLRE II for details, and Appendix, p. 144.

17 Cassiodorus' praise of Venantius, cos. 508, in 533, ‘fecunda prole gaudentem et tot consularibus patrem … tot protulit consulares … tot meretur in filiis consulatus’ (Var. IX. 23. 3–4) implies more than two.

18 PLRE II, Albinus 2, 7 and 9 are more cautious than necessary; the prefect of 414 is surely to be identified with the consul of 444.

19 PLRE 11. 192, 454–6, 760 for the details. On very young consuls see J. J. O'Donnell, Cassiodorus (1979), 21. though he does not observe that this was not common before the reign of Theoderic.

20 ed. Mommsen, , Gesta Pont. Rom. 1 (1896), p. 153Google Scholar.

21 PLRE II, 281–2.

22 Anecdoton Holderi: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte Roms in ostgotischer Zeit (1877), 8.

23 PLRE 11, 215–8.

24 Stein, E., Histoire du Bas-Empire II (1949), 564Google Scholar f.

25 The best account of this affair is now that of Henry Chadwick, Boethius: the Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology and Philosophy (1981), 48–56.

26 Chadwick, 60–62.

27 Cameron, Averil, JRS LXXI (1981), 185Google Scholar.

28 Delbrueck, 100.

29 V 15, 23, 24.

30 It is interesting to note that Justinian's funeral vestments displayed personifications of both Roma and Libya—but not Constantinopolis—for the express purpose of representing his military achievements (Corippus, , In Laudem Iustini minoris 1. 287 f.Google Scholar).

31 Delbrueck, 61–2; 102–3, unfortunately followed unquestioningly by Chrysos, E. K., Byzantion LI 1981), at 458–60Google Scholar.

32 Delbrueck, 105–6.

33 Delbrueck, 106–7.

34 Those of Lampadius (suff. 396), Felix (W 428), Constantius (W 417), Asturius (W 449), Areobindus (E 506), Clementinus (E 513), Anthemius (E 515), Anastasius (E 517), Orestes (W 530—but see further below), Apion (E 539), Justinus (E 540), anon. 36 and 42 Volbach.

35 Anon. 40, 41, 43 Volbach; see Delbrueck, 171 (no. 40, where the top of the sceptre is in fact broken off, but was most likely a cross); 173; 198–9.

36 ‘Ostgotische Studien’, Ges. Schriften VI (1910), 382.

37 Bas-Empire 11 (1949), 47,Google Scholar n. 1.

38 ‘The constitutional position of Odoacar and Theoderic’, JRS LII (1962), 126 = The Roman Economy (1974), 365.

39 Chastagnol, 55, n. 123.

40 Fasti consolari (1952), 94–5.

41 ICUR 1 (1857–61), 390.

42 Later Roman Empire 1 (1923), 410, n. 4.

43 Chron. Min. II, ed. Mommsen, 190 f.

44 Chron. Min. 11, 92 f.

45 Chron. Pasch., ed. L. Dindorf, 1. 602 f.

46 Chron. Min. III, 405–6.

47 For further details, see Alan Cameron, ‘Odoacar's Consuls’, to appear in ZPE.

48 See preceding note.

49 Cod. Just. VI. 23. 22 (1 May); 11. 21. 9; v. 12. 28; v. 75. 6.

50 BGU XII. 2155. 2, of 18 Oct. (p.c. of 481); P. Lond. III. 991, of 22 June (p.c. of 481), with R. S. Bagnall and K. A. Worp, BASP XVII (1980), 7–8.

51 Das Ende des Kaisertums im Westen des röm. Reichs (1967), 150–1.

52 Zeno 17, PW x A (1972), 177.

53 See Mommsen's index to his Chronica Minora, III, 537.

54 See above, n. 11.

55 Which is why there is nothing to be said for Delbrueck's solution (repeated by Chrysos, , Byzantion LI (1981), 459Google Scholar, n. 102) that Basilius' consulship was recognized in the course of but not at the beginning of 480. As Sundwall saw (Kap. IV, passim; see too ‘Odoacar's Consuls’), western consuls were only nominated when their acceptance was agreed; in periods of uncertainty there were no western nominations.

56 Indeed, now that the Orestes diptych has been shown not to be a genuine western diptych (below, P. 135). it can be said that no consul of Italy under barbarian rule was shown holding a sceptre surmounted by imperial busts. But the sample is very small.

57 Delbrueck, 16.

58 V 41.

59 V 43; compare this diptych with those of Clementinus (V 15), Anastasius (V 16–21) and Magnus (V 23 and 24 bis).

60 V 14.

61 V 15.

62 V 33. According to David Wright, ‘the medallions on the ivory diptych of Justin are not merely rubbed … most of them are partly recut, and any discussion of their iconography needs that warning’ (University Publishing (Spring 1981), 23). The cross behind the head of Christ on the front panel may be a later addition. It is incised rather than raised, and only appears on one of the two panels. Furthermore, the upper arm of the cross at the top of the head is extremely truncated and does not look like a deliberately planned detail. Even without this cross, the presence of Christ is significant enough for our purpose.

63 ICUR 1, 492; cf. A. Cutler, AJA LXXXV (1981), 240.

64 See H. Graeven, Röm. Mitt. VIII (1892), 216–7. E. Capps, interestingly enough, accepted the 480 date for Basilius yet considered it to have been of Alexandrian origin because of the great differences in workmanship between the diptychs of Basilius, and Boethius, (Art Bulletin x (1927), 92)Google Scholar.

65 For this motif, see too the five-part diptych in Milan, V 119, usually dated to the late fifth century: Volbach, Avori di scuola ravennate vel V e VI secolo (1977), 13–17.

66 Delbrueck, 154–6, nr. 35.

67 V 12.

68 V 28.

69 32, 33.

70 V 48 and 109, with bibliography.

71 Delbrueck, 16–8.

72 Burlington Magazine 1982 (forthcoming).

73 That is to say, the unretouched original Clementinus diptych V 15.

74 See the diptychs of Felix (V 2), Asturius (V 3), Boethius (V 6), Sividius (V 7), and Orestes (V 31).

75 e.g. Asterius, cos. 494, in subscriptions to Vergil and Sedulius MSS (quoted PLRE 11. 173); Boethius, cos. 510, referring to both himself and his father-in-law Symmachus, cos. 485 (quoted PLRE 11. 233–4); Mavortius, cos. 527, in his Horace MS (ib. 736–7).

76 Chastagnol, Le sénat romain, 74–6; 20 inscriptions are well enough preserved to give the necessary information: 15 give v.c. et inl. (or v.c. et […); 2 give v.c. alone (of viri inlustres); only 3 give v.i. alone.

77 Almost all high officials addressed in the Variae are styled either v.i. or the intermediate rank of v(ir) sp(ectabilis); v.c. occurs perhaps only four times in the entire corpus, three times applied to lowly officials who had risen no higher than the clarissimate, and the fourth, significantly enough, to a consul of the house of the Decii (‘Paulino v.c. consuli’, Var. IX. 22). It is worth remarking that, on the evidence of inscriptions and subscriptions, men of the rank spectabilis affected the style v.c. et sp., but on promotion to illustris changed to either v.i. or v.c. et inl., but never to v.sp. et. inl.

78 Compare too the extant portion of a (probable) five-part diptych now in Milan (V 49). Delbrueck had already argued (198–9) on stylistic grounds, but also because the consul's offices are inscribed on the rear panel, that the consul was eastern. The argument is clinched by the fact that he is styled VIR ILLUSTR(is).

79 Alan Cameron, AJA LXXXVI (1982), 128–9.

80 It might be added that the consul is obviously portrayed as a very young man.

81 V 12, 13, 28, 32, 33.

82 Delbrueck, 172.

83 For detailed discussion of the recarving see Netzer's article in Burlington Magazine 1982 (n. 72). In the light of this one indisputable example of a reused consular diptych, the possibility must at least be entertained that the Basilius diptych was also recarved. But we have attempted to show that if it has no clear congeners in the mid sixth century, its similarity to late-fifth-century ivories is much less close than hitherto assumed. So that even if it should ever turn out to have been reused, there would be no reason to date the original carving as early as 480 (the representation of the fasces points much later). Secondly, the closest parallel for its low quality of workmanship is precisely the recarved elements of the Orestes diptych, datable to 530. Thirdly, there is no trace of recarving on either the tabulae ansatae or the shield on the front leaf (as Anthony Cutler, Roger Bagnall and Kathleen Shelton have confirmed for us); the lettering on the shield and tabulae matches; and it does not seem likely that any other inscription ever stood on the shield. Fourthly, Netzer shows that Clementinus' beard was shaved off and his face made narrower, evidently to suit the different physiognomy of Orestes (it seems clear that some attempt was made to achieve a likeness of each consul on his diptych). But the gaunt, stern faces of Basilius, Roma and (to a lesser extent) the Victory are strikingly similar. No one could doubt that the same hand carved all four faces at the same time. It follows that no attempt has been made to alter the rather individual features of the original honorand.

84 For example, numerous passages in Procopius imply that the senate as a body was resident in Rome during the successive sieges of the 530s and 540s; after capturing Rome in 546 Totila immediately ‘called together the members of the Roman senate’ (BG III. 21. 12–17; cf. III. 36. 29; IV. 34. 2–6).

85 Procopius happens to mention that during the siege Belisarius drafted unoccupied craftsmen to guard the walls for a small wage (BG I. 25. 11).

86 Bagnall and Worp, BASP XVII (1980), 27–36.

87 Bagnall and Worp, art. cit., 7–8.

88 On the competing chronological systems in use in early Byzantine Egypt see Bagnall and Worp, GRBS xx (1979), 279–95. Bagnall, Worp and Cameron are preparing a comprehensive study of the consulship between 284 and 642.

89 e.g. Bury, J. B., Later Roman Empire II 2 (1923), 346–8Google Scholar.

90 It must be borne in mind that the lack of western consuls in 491–2 and 496–7 may have been due to the failure of Theoderic and Anastasius to come to terms (see ‘Odoacar's Consuls’); there is no reason to believe that there were no candidates in these years, as the withdrawn consulship of Speciosus in 496 indicates (see PLRE 11. 1024–5). There may also have been political reasons for the lack of western consuls in the 530s: see below, p. 140, and Sundwall, 274.

91 Cassiodorus, Variae IX. 23.

92 See ‘Odoacar's Consuls’. Procopius claimed (BG 1. 1. 8; cf. Jones, , Later Roman Empire 1, 250–1)Google Scholar that Odoacar took a third of the land of Italy for his followers; whether or not this is true, one is struck by the continuing prosperity of the great landowners; see Goffart, W., Barbarians and Romans (1980), 70102Google Scholar; Thompson, E. A., Romans and Barbarians (1982), 64–5Google Scholar.

93 The fullest collection of evidence is in McGeachy, J. A., Q. Aurelius Symmachus and the Senatorial Aristocracy of the West (1942), 103 f.Google Scholar See too Chastagnol, A., La préfecture urbaine à Rome sous le Bas-Empire (1960), 458 f.Google Scholar; Matthews, John, Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court (1975), 20 f.Google Scholar

94 Chastagnol, Le sénat romain, 44.

95 Var. VI. 1, in the paraphrase of Hodgkin, T., The Letters of Cassiodorus (1886), 295Google Scholar.

96 III. 2, p. 172 Hodgkin; Var. III. 39 actually reproaches Felix for being remiss in his consular largess. Asterius, cos. 494, reflected ruefully on the cost of his consular games and their compensating immortality in a poem he wrote in his MS of Vergil (the Medicean) on the very day of the games: Anth. Lat. 1. I2, ed. A. Riese (1894), pp. 18–9, with Zetzel, J. E. G., Latin Textual Criticism in Antiquity (1981), 217–8Google Scholar.

97 Jones, , Later Roman Empire 11 (1964), 554–7, 706, 782–4Google Scholar.

98 Olympiodorus, frag. 44 (FHG IV. 67–8).

99 Later Roman Empire II, 538–9.

100 Alan Cameron, AJA LXXXVI (1982), 126.

101 Later Roman Empire II, 533.

102 Courtois, C., ‘Ex-consul: observation sur l'histoire du consulat à l'époque byzantine’, Byzantion XIX (1949), 37 f.Google Scholar; cf. R. Guilland, ib. XXIX (1954), 545 f., and Alan Cameron, GRBS XVII (1976), 183.

103 Chron. Min. II, 101. It is interesting that Marcellinus should specify that Justinian was the most extravagant of all eastern consuls (Orientalium consulum), as though aware that his display might not have been thought exceptional at Rome. He goes on to say that Justinian spent 4,000 pounds of gold (288,000 solidi)—the same figure spent on praetorian games by Maximus a century before at Rome.

104 Bury, , Later Roman Empire II 2 (1923), 347Google Scholar.

105 As rightly pointed out by Cameron, Averil, Fl. Cresconius Corippus: In laudem Iustini Augusti Minoris libri IV (1976), 175,Google Scholar cf. 196.

106 BZ xxx (1929/30), 379–81; Bas-Empire II (1949), 461–2Google Scholar.

107 Procopius, BG 11. I.

108 John the Lydian, De Magg. III. 62 f., with Stein, Bas-Empire II, 480–3, and Cameron, Alan, Circus Factions (1976), 96, 102–3Google Scholar.

109 See Averil Cameron's commentary here and elsewhere on Corippus' treatment of Justin's consulship.

110 E. Stein, Mélanges J. Bidez (1933/4), 894–6 = Op. Min. Sel. (1968), 342–4.

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