Here in Durham Jeremy Paterson gave us a brilliant lecture before lunch today on Tacitus and History.
Annals Book 1 is an A level text, but JP wanted to change our way of thinking about what it was really like when Augustus died and Tiberius took over the reins of power. He is contributing to a book on ancient (royal, not legal) courts, to be published by Cambridge University Press next year. Apparently 'aulic studies' is a flourishing business on the continent.
On August 19th AD 14 Augustus, died, just a month from his 76th birthday. He had been in failing health, and spent the last few weeks in boating trips. Finally he moved to his family home near Nola, and died in the same room that his father had died in.
What will happen now?
A contemporary account tells of the fear and anxiety that everyone felt.
Of the misgivings of mankind at this time, the trepidation of the senate, the confusion of the people, the fears of the city, of the narrow margin between safety and ruin on which we then found ourselves, I have no time to tell as I hasten on my way, nor could he tell who had the time. Suffice it for me to voice the common utterance: “The world whose ruin we had feared we found p313not even disturbed, and such was the majesty of one man that there was no need of arms either to defend the good or to restrain the bad.” 2There was, however, in one respect what might be called a struggle in the state, as, namely, the senate and the Roman people wrestled with Caesar to induce him to succeed to the position of his father, while he on his side strove for permission to play the part of a citizen on a parity with the rest rather than that of an emperor over all. At last he was prevailed upon rather by reason than by the honour, since he saw that whatever he did not undertake to protect was likely to perish. He is the only man to whose lot it has fallen to refuse the principate for a longer time, almost, than others had fought to secure it.
This was written by Velleius Paterculus, who was closely interested in the events, and whose election to the consulship followed soon afterwards. Whiereas historians normally favour contemporary testimony, they throw Velleius aside, saying that he is 'rhetorical'. Yes, but all Roman historians are rhetorical.
Tacitus, whom modern historians prefer to follow, reads back into the events of AD 14 the settled process of imperial succession that had become established in his own days. Moreover, Tacitus' brain, as Tony Woodman writes, was wired up as a cynic. He had the Private Eye view of history, that there is always a deeper, disreputable truth beneath the surface of events.
On Augustus' death there was real fear, that the world might return to civil war. During Augustus' 40 year reign, the world had become used to a new way of regarding power. The nature of imperium, by the way, is not longer in question. It has been settled by an inscription relating to the trial of Piso.
The world did not, however, worry about legal nicities of exactly what kind of imperium was being exercised. They simply knew who was in control.
As an example, an inscription from Asia Minor records the change of the beginning of the new year to Augustus' birthday. This was at the suggestion of Paullus Fabius Maximus who had been 'sent by the right hand of Caesar'. Modern commentators point out that Asia was a senatorial province, that Paullus Fabius Maximus had been sent by the Senate. But the people of Asia Minor knew where the real power lay.
One can identify seven changes in the attitude to power during the reign of Augustus:
- Power rests with one man. Power, like the person born of the Spirit in St John's Gospel chapter 3, is like the wind. It is invisible, but you see the trees bend.
- The Emperor's family and close friends had power because of their access to the Emperor. People would even pay court to the Emperor's doorkeeper or masseur.
- Individuals outside the social hierarchy gained influence because they worked for the Emperor. Freedmen and eunuchs.
- Access to the Emperor was essential to success in public life. Augustus required all senators to greet him at his salutatio every morning. He would kiss them on the mouth. The kiss was omited by Tiberius because of an outbreak of herpes among senators. The early morning greeting put all senators on an equal footing.
- Being excluded from access to the Emperor threatened a person with ruin, even death. Vespasian was excluded once, and contemplated suicide. In treason trials the important contribution that the Emperor made was simply not to intervene.
- Norms of behaviour between Emperor and his court arose. A person who called Tiberius 'Domine' was rebuked. Tiberius said that his work must not be called 'sacred tasks' but simply 'laborious tasks.'
- Flattery is a key characteristic of relations with the Emperor. Emperors tried to limit the flattery, but it was the subjects who insisted on it, in order to gain influence. What is now called 'mutual signalling' became important. The Emperor needed to read the signals given by his subjects – were their protestations of loyalty geniune?, and subjects needed to read the signals given by the Emperor. Did he mean what he said?
- Neither side could be trusted to be true to their word. No one could take the Emperor to court for breaking a promise, and the Emperor could not be sure of his subjects, so used a mixture of terror and over-reward to keep them loyal. An Emperor finds that “All faces are smiling when they meet me.”
In Annals book 1 Tacitus presents, cynically, the debate in the senate as Tiberius asks the senators to take their share of responsibility in governing the empire.
This debate was not an 'impudent mime' (in Suetonius' words) but a real debate. It was not a question of Tiberius' imperium. He had wielded imperium equal to that of Augustus since AD 12. The question was how Tiberius could get the elite to help him in the mammoth task of ruling. He was not the great Augustus, but the job still had to be done.
There are indications that Augustus and Tiberius had planned this debate long before. Tiberius gave a survey of the vastness of the empire and its needs and resources. In chapters 11 and 12 Tacitus tells of the discussion. He gets a lot of the senatorial debates right, as can be shown by comparing the Piso inscription with Tacitus' account. In this debate Tiberius is saying to the senators: “Please take a more actove role. Don't send everything to me. I don't want all this bumf coming to me, when it's your job.” Asinius Gallus asks Tiberius what part of the respublica he wants. He is pointing out that ultimate power cannot be shared. But Tiberius feels frustrated. That is not the point, he feels. The point is sharing executive responsibility.
This, in a despotism, is a very difficult thing to manage, especially when Tiberius, as Cassius Dio tells us, always said the oppositve of what he meant. The career of Asinius Gallus illustrates this difficulty.
His father was the historian Asinius Pollio, whose grandfather had been a leader in the Social War. The family had a reputation for being republican. Asinius Pollio became consul in 8 B.C. and proconsul of Asia Minor.
When Tiberius was compelled to divorce Vipsania, Asinius Gallus married her. Did that lead Tiberius to treat him as an enemy? On the other hand, did that marriage bring Gallus to the fringes of the inner circle of imperial power?
Gallus spoke in the discussion about Augustus' funeral, proposing that his body be brought through the porta triumphalis. A senatorial colleague proposed that the senators take an annual oath of loyalty to Tiberius; Tiberius first established that the suggestion had not come from himself, and then let his opposition to the idea be known.
When a magistrate proposed a sumptuary law, regulating the expenditure of the very rich, Gallus opposed it, and Tiberius supported Gallus.
When a riot broke out (Annals 1.77) in connection with pantomime actors, Gallus voted that the dancers be flogged. Tiberius vetoed the proposal, citing a ruling of Augustus.
When Tiberius announced that he was leaving Rome for Capri (Annals 2.30) there was a famous debate, whether the senate should continue its meetings as if the Emperor were present. Piso said that the Emperor would want the meetings to continue. Gallus said they should be adjourned.
Gallus proposed that magistrates be elected not annually but for the next 5 years. Tiberius vetoed this. What were the motives of each side?
Gallus intervened in treason trials. Why?
He managed for many years to acts as a senior public figure, being supported by the Emperor on some issues, opposed on others. He starved to death in AD 33.
His career shows how difficult, but not impossible, it was to do one's duty while at the same time second-guessing the Emperor's will.