Emperors on Ice

Czar of Russia, Grand Duke of Finland, Alexander II. Helsinki, Finland (Author's photo).
Czar of Russia, Grand Duke of Finland, Alexander II. Helsinki, Finland (Author’s photo).

It sounds like one of those ice skating shows your parents used to take you to, but this one was actually quite fun.

I’ve just wrapped up a two-day conference at the Helsinki Collegium of Advanced Studies on the topic of Roman emperors and their relationship with the divine. It’s been cold, yes–the wind off the Gulf of Finland comes charging at you with the force of the Baltic Sea behind it–but my colleagues and hosts have made it all worth while. We’ve been having a great conversation.

Specialists back home will be waiting for the latest news, of course. Who was the last Roman to report having seen the emperor or one his family ascending to the gods (asked by Javier Arce)? Why did the later emperors structure part of their law code around the finer points of religion (the question raised by Caroline Humfress)? And what’s the deal with that old Roman title Pontifex Maximus? How did it ever wind up as the Twitter handle of the Pope, @Pontifex? (Alan Cameron was back for that one.)

I’m not going to try to answer all those questions here. There were many more excellent contributions, too. But I did want to offer a bit of a general reflection on them and a few others–before I head to the sauna. Obligatory in Finland, I’m told.

One of the things that struck me about my visit was the way that Czar Alexander II of Russia became one of our important conversation partners at dinner last night. His presence was due to more than the connection between “Caesar” and “Czar,” however. While ruler of Russia in the mid nineteenth century, he was also Grand Duke of Finland, and many Finns today consider his liberal rule here as seminal for the birth of the country. Even as relations between Russia and Finland would grow strained almost a half century later, during the period of the First World War, many Finns continued to hold him in high regard. His statue still stands in Senate Square.

Yet Alexander’s own legacy is far from simple. His rule elsewhere was much more brutal. As one of my colleagues explained it to me, you’d never find his statue in a public square in Poland, for example. There’s a complexity to his time on the throne that can’t be reduced to easy paradigms of “good ruler” or “bad ruler.”

That’s what I think is such a fascinating lesson for those of us who study the emperors in antiquity. Why should we assume every individual or every group in the Roman Empire always looked at their ruler through the same set of lenses?

That, at least, is the question I was here to ask (the focus of my talk was Rome’s Jewish and early Christian communities). There’s lots more work yet to be done to answer it, too. So I’ll be packing all those questions and bringing them home with me tomorrow.

If it only stops snowing!