The Face of the Emperor in Philo's Embassy to Gaius

Daniel W. Leon

            Philo’s Embassy to Gaius has often been regarded as an unhelpful source for the character and reign of Gaius (e.g. Colson ix) because Philo offers few historical details on those topics not found elsewhere, but the narrative priorities of the author himself have been left largely unexamined.  In this paper I will show that Philo shapes his narrative to highlight the role of the emperor in rupturing traditional forms of political representation, which anticipates Tacitus’ assessment of the principate (cf. Corbeill 144-167) but is surprising in an author usually thought to be favorable to monarchy (Barraclough 452).  Philo should therefore be considered an important witness to the evolving views of a pan-Mediterranean aristocracy on the changes wrought by the imposition of Roman imperial authority.  In constructing his narrative, Philo exploits long-standing norms of physical comportment associated with oratory (Petrone) and engages with the art of physiognomy, which was then approaching the peak of its popularity (Evans 11), by emphasizing the visual elements of the political situations he describes.  In particular, he uses facial expressions and bodily movements as markers of status and sites of agonistic social interaction to show that the unprecedented power of the imperial position combined with the malice of Gaius rendered personal political appeals, including his embassy, futile, thus furthering the exculpatory purpose of the treatise. 

            A brief review of several key passages will establish that Philo dramatizes the supreme political position of the emperor by endowing sitting emperors with an inherently superior ability to conceal their thoughts and to read the thoughts of other men from their faces.  Two episodes involving Gaius demonstrate the ideological significance of face-to-face interaction in imperial politics.  In both episodes, Philo pays attention to the movements of eyes, which were a central concern of physiognomic theorists (Swain 180-181; Gleason 57), and, in both, the face of Gaius dictates the ultimate outcome of a political gambit.  The first shows a young Gaius seeking advancement by interacting with the reigning emperor, Tiberius.  Although Gaius had practiced a deceitful countenance from an early age (Leg. 43-54) and is likened to an actor wearing different masks (Leg. 111), Tiberius sees the faults that others cannot because, Philo tells us, he is the most skilled of all men at discerning the secret counsels of others from their faces (Leg. 33); Gaius’ advancement is thus delayed.  A different situation is presented in an interview between Gaius, who had by this point become emperor, and Herod Agrippa, king of Judea (Leg. 261-267).  Agrippa attempts to intercede with Gaius on behalf of the Jews, and Philo presents their initial meeting as a contest of physiognomy.  Both men are able to some extent to read the thoughts of the other from outward signs, but only Gaius, whose ability to penetrate Agrippa’s thoughts Philo describes using the same phrase he had for Tiberius, has full control of the interaction. The interview ends when Agrippa suffers a violent seizure, an outcome unique to Philo, and most commentary on the incident attempts to explain the seizure in medical terms (e.g. Smallwood ad loc.) or passes over it quickly in favor of an extended analysis of the lengthy letter written by Agrippa after his recovery (e.g. Alexandre 158-175).  However, Philo clearly presents Agrippa’s malady as a direct result of looking into the face of an enraged Gaius, a presentation strengthened by the fact that Philo weaves references to the destructive power of Gaius’ face all through the treatise.  The gap in status between the two men is so great that Gaius is actually able to do physical harm to Agrippa with only a look.

            By highlighting the futility of appearing before an ill-disposed emperor, Philo prepares the ground for an apologetic account of his own embassy, while simultaneously critiquing the degradation of the face-to-face interactions that had structured Greek politics for centuries.

Session/Panel Title:

Writing Imperial Politics in Greek