Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1995 R. James Ferguson
From the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire:
Transition, Slogan and Memory
- Introduction: Irreversible Transitions
- The Accession of Tiberius
- The Death of Caligula
- Nero and the Erosion of Power
- The Year of the Four Emperors
- Conclusion: Republican Slogans as Memory
- Bibliography and Further Reading
1. Introduction: Irreversible Transitions
The Roman Republic was transformation into a new kind of order, the Principate, late referred to as the Roman Empire. The problems for Augustus and the Julio-Claudian Dynasty is establishing and maintaining this political order were numerous. One of these was how to retain effective control of the Roman Empire without appearing to be autocrats, i.e. like kings, who were hated in the Roman political tradition. Another was how to ensure the succession of political and military power from one leader to the next, i.e. how a dynasty could be established.
To understand these issues it is necessary to explore the transformation of the late Republic and into a new kind of order which formally had republican features, but in which power, prestige and decision-making were largely reserves to one man, i.e. the Principate. But the Republic itself had not been forgotten. Indeed, it has been suggested that opposition to the Julio-Claudian was sometimes motivated by Republican sentiments, while the collapse of Nero's reign once again opened up the issue of how the empire should be ruled. In the years from A.D. 14 (the death of Augustus) to A.D. 70 (the end of a new round of civil wars) was there any real possibility of re-establishing 'republican' government at Rome? Did contemporaries think this was possible, or were the two institutions of rule by one man and the expectation of succession too firmly established? Were the calls for libertas during this period merely a propaganda slogan, or did they have meaningful implications for the politics of the early Principate?
One four occasions during this period there was either a call for a return to 'Republican government', or in invocation of republican political terms as a regulator of public life. The most clearly defined example occurred immediately following the assassination of Caligula (A.D. 41), which can be contrasted with the decline in Nero's government after the Pisonian conspiracy. The issues involved in these events lead us to an analysis of issues discussed as early as the succession of Tiberius to power in 14 A.D., where the continuing nature of the principate is clearly demonstrated. Likewise, the events of 69 A.D., where military commanders vie for control of the empire in a new cycle of civil wars, illustrates the institutional forces in operation against any return to a republican form of government or mode of political thought. Instead, we have a shift of emphasis towards a specific meaning of libertas in relation to the Princeps during this period.
The definition of the term Republic remains problematic, as will its contrast to the term 'Empire'. This distinction can be made with the careful use of ancient resources such as Cicero's De Re Publica. Although this work does utilize the tradition of utopian political thought derived from Plato's Republic, the political theorizing of Aristotle's Politics and the work of Polybius, Cicero, through the dominant voice of Scipio, stresses that his view of an ideal constitution is based quite closely on the traditional Roman constitution (De Re Publica I. xlvi). This constitution is of the mixed form in which libertas does have a place: -
For you must keep in mind a fact which I mentioned in the beginning: unless there is in the State an even balance of rights, duties and functions, so that the magistrates have enough power, the counsels of the eminent citizens enough influence, and the people enough liberty, this kind of government cannot be safe from revolution. (Cicero De Re Publica, II. xxxiii)
However, another speaker in this dialogue does emphasise that in the hand of the people this liberty can become license (De Re Publica III. xiii), a phrase echoed in Tacitus' Agricola section 2. Indeed, in his De Legibus, which was the systems of laws Cicero frames for his Republic, it is the power of the magistrates which is seen as crucial: -
Accordingly we must have magistrates, for without their prudence and watchful care the State cannot exist. In fact the whole character of a republic is determined by its arrangements in regard to magistrates. Not only must we inform them of the limits of their administrative authority; we must also instruct the citizens as to the extent of their obligation to obey them. (Cicero De Legibus III.ii.5)
In the context of the evolution of the Roman Republic two observations are essential. First, the Republican 'constitution' had already been subject to a large number of irregularities even from the time of the Punic War, when Q. Fabius Maximus was appointed to the dictatorship by the people instead of by the Senate (217 B.C.) and when Q. Fabius (214-215 B.C.) was re-elected consul before the elapse of the ten-year period before it was legal to be re-elected (Loewenstein 1973, p203). Likewise, the private understanding called the first triumvirate was certainly not based on a legal investment of powers (Loewensetien 1973, p209), while the second triumvirate was a period of autocratic stability after a period of revolution (Syme 1974, pp243-7). These arrangements were exceptional, and interrupted the usual notions of equal access to competition for office, and normal elective procedures in the assemblies. Second, the contemporaries and immediate descendants of Augustus had lived through the dominion of Pompey and the 'perpetual dictatorship' of Julius Caesar, and the associated terrors of civil war.
It was precisely in this context that the effective rulers could not afford to be seen as kings. Julius Caesar, who totally dominated political life in Rome towards the end of his career, needed to avert such suspicions. Thus Julius Caesar, as reported in Suetonius, used his refusal of a king's crown in a display of civic propaganda: -.
As he <Julius Caesar> returned to Rome from the Alban Hill, where the Latin Festival had been celebrated, a member of the crowd set a laurel weath bound with a royal white fillet on the head of his statue. Two tribunes of the people, Epidius Marullus and Caesetius Flavus, ordered the filled to be removed at once and the offendor imprisoned. But Caesar reprimanded and summarily deposed both: either because the suggestion that he should be crowned King had been so rudely rejected, or else because - this was his own version - they had given him no chance to reject it himself and to earn deserved credit. From that day forward, however, he lay under the odious suspicion of having tried to revive the title of King; though, indeed, when the commons greeted him with 'Long live the King!' he now protested: 'No, I am Caesar, not King'; and though, again, when he was addressing the crowd from the Rostra at the Lupercalian Festival, and Mark Antony, the Consul, made several attempt to crown him, he refused the offer each time and at last sent the crown away for dedication to Capitoline Jupiter. (Suetonius Julius Caesar 79).
Likewise, it seems that Augustus refused to take up the name of Romulus (as a new founder of Rome) because of its association with kingship (Richardson 1991, p8). In large measure, the settlements of Julius Caesar and Augustus were accepted because they brought an end to the worst kinds of conflict: civil wars waged with the resources of an empire. The ferocity of these times can be seen in the opening lines of Lucan's poem: -
I tell how an imperial people turned their victorious right hands against their own vitals; how kindred fought against kindred; how, when the compact of tyranny was shattered, all the forces of the shaken world contended to make mankind guilty; how standards confronted hostile standards, eagles were marched against each other, and pilum <the Roman spear> threatened pilum. What madness was this, my countrymen, what fierce orgy of slaughter? (Lucan Civil War I.2-12)
Tacitus' brief justification of the acceptance of Augustus' leadership 'when the world was wearied by civil strife' (Annals I.1) is not to be discounted because of its brevity. Lucan's views of decline and madness also find echoes in Tacitus' latter account of the fighting within Rome in 69 A.D.: -
It was a terrible and hideous sight that presented itself throughout the city. Here raged battle and death; there the bath and the tavern crowded. In one spot were pools of blood and heaps of corpses, and close by prostitutes and men of character as infamous; there were all the debaucheries of luxurious peace, all the horrors of a city most cruelly sacked, till one was ready to believe the Country to be mad at once with rage and lust. (Histories III.83)
The fear of civil war was an underlying reality for the period, while the Augustan 'settlements' of 27 and 23 B.C. already followed on a period of constitutional and revolutionary change over a hundred years: precedents which not only modified but broke older procedures were now easily accommodated.
In the end any pragmatic definition of the traditional Republic focuses on the role of the Senate, its ability to direct and control the empire, its offices and military commands. In this Republic a range of individuals are actively involved in government and wield influence and formal power (imperium), in part counter-balanced by the popular assemblies and legal and or judicial processes. To this notion of imperium would be added the idea of an extended territorial domain that in modern terms is an empire: -
During the period of the growth and establishment of the Roman empire, from the third century B.C. to the early decades of the first century A.D., the meaning of the word [imperium] seems to have undergone a shift, or more precisely an extension of meaning. The earlier significance, the right of command within the Roman state, vested in the magistrates and pro-magistrates who were responsible for the official activity of the Roman people, was never lost, but in addition the meaning 'empire', in an increasingly concrete, territorial sense came to be a normal usage, so that, at least from the second half of the first century A.D., imperium Romanum is used as we would use 'Roman Empire' (Richardson 1991, p1)
In the principate power collects more in the hands of one man and those bound to him by patronage. This personal prestige extends beyond that normally held by any other individual, whether tribunes, consuls, or censors. Augustus' auctoritas seems to have been developed from a strong loyalty towards him by various elements in the state, especially the armies and the plebeians (Tacitus Annals I.2), and with a general loyalty to the Julian family, founded on the exploits of Julius Caesar but extending forward to promote successors within his family. While it is true that Tiberius did not remain popular with the plebs at Rome, rulers such as Caligula, Nero (Yavetz 1969, pp58, 103, 113-116, 120-6) and even Otho tried to retain plebeian support (Tacitus Histories I.78). In such a setting, the princeps limits access to office to a large degree, and moderates that initiative that could be used by consuls and pro-consuls even when they in theory held civic or military imperium (see Millar 1977; for the division of civil and legal power from that of military command, see Richardson 1991, p3)
This prestige is buffered by three central factors; the strong support of other high-status individuals, control of the military, and control of the finances of the state. The question of any return to the Republic, then, involves the question of whether the Senate would be able to take power back into its own hands, and whether it would be able to maintain a power-balance between various contenders for political dominance. The period from 14 A.D. to 70 A.D. shows that it was unable to do these two things in the face of the extra-ordinary status of the Julio-Claudian family, and against military forces willing to elect their own emperors. The question can equally be viewed as a new kind of insidious interdependence between the Princeps and the military acting as autonomous forces outside their normal subordination to the state and its magistrates.
This change of emphasis reflects the nature of political involvement during the period, and in particular the meaning of political views held by various critics of the Principate. Crucial to this discussion is the meaning of the word libertas. Generally translated as freedom or liberty, it can also signify independence, and is particularly viewed as a freedom from the domination of a tyrant or a faction (Syme 1974, pp155-7), which had been guarantied by various legal requirements in the Republic (limits on office-holding, dual offices, regulations on bribery, appeal courts, etc.). This meant that some basic rights of the individual (though not his equality) were determined by the continuing operation of the constitution which safeguarded them (Wirzubski 1969, p5). These freedoms had included the positive right to legitimate political involvement. Against this we must balance the 'great and unrestrained power' of the Princeps, as described in the life of Tiberius (Suetonius Tiberius 29). Wirzubski (1969, p171) suggests that by the end of the first century A.D. libertas under the principate represented less a constitutional 'right' than the voluntary determination by the Princeps of the persons under his power. This shift represents the true loss of that body of political and social practises that we can call the Roman Republic.
Several test cases will might be assessed to demonstrate that this was a real and fundamental change which could not be reversed by contingencies affecting an individual ruler. The accession of Tiberius, the events surround the death of Caligula, and Nero's loss of power will indicate that the nature of libertas had changed, and that the traditional division, rotation, and moderation of imperium among relatively independent magistrates and commanders, as found in the Republic, was no longer possible a plausible political system under the conditions of the early Roman Empire. In the late Republic libertas was not the kind of positive and negative political freedom argued for by J.S. Mill, but rather had particular links to the status and power (imperium) derived from public office: -
Here personal virtue (innocentia), once recognized (dignitas), leads, by way of the magistracy voted to an individual by the people (honor), to the acquisition of power in the state by the individual (imperium); and thus to the culmination of the list with the freedom which guarantees not only the position of the state with regard to others states, but also the position of the individual within it. The crucial link in the ascending sequence is that between the individual and the state, and that is represented by honor and imperium, magistracy and power. (Richardson 1991, p4, discussing a quotation from a speech attributed to Scipio Aemilianus).
Under the empire, the imperium of the princeps would eclipse the libertas of all other individuals. However, this would also mean that the use of power within the state had to be extended, and that the emperors, with few exceptions, would live by making themselves feared or themselves fear violent overthrow.
2. The Accession of Tiberius
An understanding of this problem rests on the settlement of affairs made by Augustus in 27 B.C. and 23 B.C., as noted in his Res Gestae (34). The main claim that Augustus derived his powers from ordinary offices and his well-earned prestige ignores the effect of the extra-ordinary combination of these factors under one hand. Augustus held the consulship more often than any other person (even more than Marius), held the tribunician power though a patrician (the tribune of the plebeians held particular powers of intervention and sacosantity), held exception proconsular commands, and probably had the effective ability to override officials even in Senatorial provinces (see Syme 1974, pp313-6). A valid view of the real situation is provided by Dio Cassius (though using contentious terms drawn from Greek political thought, see LIII. xvi, LIII.xvii.I - xviii.3, xxxi.3-7), while Tacitus states: -
Then, laying aside the title of triumvir and parading himself as a consul, and professing himself satisfied with the tribunician power for the protection of the plebs, Augustus enticed the soldiers with gifts, the people with grain, and all men with the allurement of peace, and gradually grew in power, concentrating in his own hands the functions of the Senate, the magistrates and the laws. (Annals I.2)
We can now compare this with the powers already held by Tiberius in A.D. 14, and the powers offered him by the Senate upon Augustus' death. Augustus while alive had strengthened Tiberius' power, conferring on him the consulship and tribunician power. Tiberius also held a superior imperium in the provinces and his powers also extended into the city of Rome (Levick 1976, p75). He had an extensive personal acquaintance with the legions, having had experience on the northern borders, and had celebrated two triumphs (Velleius Paterculus XCIX & CIV). In fact, Tiberius' powers were continuous throughout 14 A.D., and there is no mention of a lapse of any of these powers which technically should at the very least continue through to the start of the new year. This interpretation, as noted by F. Marsh (1931, p45) goes against constitutional interpretations of the principate as derived formally from the Senate and People of Rome. These interpretations, however, are only built up in the second century as later attempts to reconcile imperial rule with notions of justice, as developed by Pliny the Younger and Dio Chrysostom. In A.D. 14 the rather tame actions of the Senate were based on the assumption that Tiberius already held real power and that his attempts to distribute any of this authority were unrealistic. Marsh's second hypothesis, that Tiberius wished to retain power as the choice of the Senate rather than merely the nominee of Augustus, is more likely.
In such a situation, there was no 'interregnum' from August to the September debates of A.D. 14, and Wellesley's concern over the exact date of the 'Dies Imperii' is misdirected (Wellesley 1967, p23) since these powers did not need to be conferred (again) on Tiberius. The real question is how Tiberius would use them (Levick 1976, p76), and if there would be some loosening of centralised control. The crucial passage in Tacitus has Tiberius saying to the Senate: -
Only . . . the intellect of the Divine Augustus was equal to such a burden. Called as he had been by him to share his anxieties, he had learned by experience how exposed to fortune's caprices was the task of universal rule. Consequently, in a state which had the support of so many great men, they should not put everything on one man, as many, by uniting their efforts would more easily discharge public functions. (Annals I.11)
Tacitus seems to believe that this is hypocrisy and that Tiberius is testing his position with the Senate and wants them to offer him the state. Dio Cassius (LVII.3.1-3) and Suetonius (Tiberius 25) believe that Tiberius was afraid of potential revolts in the armies, particularly under the leadership of Germanicus, and of conspiracy at home. Such views gain a retrospective plausibility with the later acts of Tiberius; the treason trials and his relationship with Agrippina, the wife of Germanicus. There is also some support for at least an impulse towards some sort of 'collective' leadership in the supposed political testimony of Augustus: -
Four documents were then brought in, and Drusis read ou these. . . . The fourth contained instructions and commands for Tiberius and for the public at large. . . . He urged them to entrust the conduct of the affairs of state to all who possessed the capacity to grasp the issues at state and to act, and never to allow this executive power all to depend upon one person. If this principle were adopted, no one would aspire to set up a tyranny, nor on the other hand would the state founder if one man were removed. He gave it as his view that they should be satisfied with the possessions they now held, and should in no way seek to enlarge the empire beyond its present limits. (Cassus Dio 56.33)
However, neither hypothesis is necessary and neither really fits the facts of Tiberius' early period as Princeps. Tiberius' 'offer' to the Senate included a desire to have them involved more deeply in the administrative tasks of empire, and an offer to the other principes viri that there will be adequate scope for their talents and ambitions. The idea that these offers may have been genuine is supported by the efforts Tiberius made to implement such policies.
The dealings with the mutinous legions by Drusus and Germanicus does throw some light on this issue. Drusus offers some concessions immediately to the legions, while others can only be made by the Senate and the emperor (Annals I.25). Meanwhile, the arrival of Senatorial envoys to Germanicus caused rioting among the soldiers who feared that the offer of concessions might be reversed (Annals I.39). It is clear that the name of the Senate was used by Tiberius even on important issues like this, even with troops stationed in 'imperial' provinces. Unfortunately the authority of the Senate held no weight with the legions, some of whom offered to make Germanicus emperor (Annals I.35).
Tiberius also tried to engage the Senate in serious debates and to canvass their opinions (Marsh 1931, pp62-3). This is admitted even by Tacitus, speaking of the first phase of Tiberius' administration: -
In the first place, the most important private matters were managed by the Senate: the leading men were allowed freedom of discussion, and when they stooped to flattery, the emperor himself checked them. He bestowed honours with regard to noble ancestry, military renown, or the brilliant accomplishment of a civilian, letting it be clearly seen that there were no better men to choose. The consul and the praetor retained their prestige; inferior magistrates exercised their authority; the law too, with the single exception of the laws of treason, were properly enforced. (Annals IV.6)
This high praise may be slightly exaggerated by Tacitus' literary method, who wishes to show how Tiberius' early 'good' period soon declined. However, this view of Tiberius' early relations with the Senate is supported by Dio (LVII.7.1-4) and Suetonius (Tiberius 29). In Book IV Tacitus adds: -
Everything was as yet in the hands of the Senate, and consequently Lucilius Capito, procurator of the province of Asia, who was impeached by his province, was tried by them . . . (Annals IV.15)
In this context it is interesting to review Tacitus' account of Tiberius' duplicity after the death of Drusus, where after commending Germanicus' children to the Senate 'he now fell back on those idle and often ridiculed professions about restoring the republic, and the wish that the consuls or some one else might undertake government, and thus destroyed belief in what was genuine and noble.' (Annals IV.9). Even if Tiberius had genuinely entertained such sentiments, he would neither have been believed nor trusted by a suspicious Senate. In such a situation the extensive use of the maiestas law (treason trials), often initiated by senators rather than the emperor, was probably one of the most corrosive factors destroying the possibility of rebuilding an effective and independent Senate.
By the middle of his reign Tiberius seems to have viewed these delatores (prosecuting lawyers who bring charges under the treason laws) as the guardians of the constitution, and probably of his own safety. A motion to deprive these prosecutors of rewards when the accused committed suicide was supported by the Senate: -
The motion was on the point of being carried when the emperor, with a harshness contrary to his manner, spoke openly for the informers, complaining that the laws would be ineffective, and the state brought to the verge of ruin. 'Better,' he said, 'to subvert the constitution than to remove its guardians.' Thus the informers, a class invented to destroy the commonwealth, and never controlled even by legal penalties, were stimulated by rewards. (Annals IV.30)
By the end of Book IV of the Annals Tacitus describes the Senate as being full of fear and sycophantic towards Sejanus (a 'minister' of the Princeps), while Tiberius fails to communicate losses on the German frontier truthfully to that group. Such a breakdown of communication spells the failure of Tiberius' earlier policy of Senatorial involvement. One of the factors in the decay of this co-operation between the Princeps and Senate may have been the change in the make up of the imperial committee which Augustus had used to assess Senatorial feeling before bringing motions into the Senate itself (Crook 1955, pp8-15). Apparently the fifteen senators usually included by lot were no longer selected in this way from 13 A.D. Though this committee gained more executive powers, it no longer gave the Princeps such a clear view of senatorial feeling. In such an environment, the amici of the ruler would gain even more influence than before, and reduced the likelihood of Tiberius being able to communicate with independent senators or hear a wide range of alternative policies.
3. The Death of Caligula
While attending a performance in the theatre Caligula was assassinated. The conspirators directly involved in the death of this emperor included Cassius Chaerea, Papinus and Cornelius Sabinus, (all military tribunes), Clemens the praetorian prefect, the noble Vinicianus, the freedman Callistus and the senator Asprenas (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.26-109). Throughout the account in the Jewish Antiquities the idea of liberty is associated with these conspirators. Chaerea complains that under Gaius he has born military arms 'not to preserve the liberty and government of the Romans, but to save the life of one who makes them slaves in body and mind.' (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.42). Sabinus is described as being 'devoted to independence' (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.46), while a certain Bathybius describes their actions as 'the assassination of a tyrant' (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.91-2). The speech by Sentius Saturninus is virtually a Republican manifesto. This speech emphasises the idea that the 'seduction of peace' had led to their enslavement (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.181) and states that: -
Indeed, for those who appreciate virtue, it is sufficient to live but for a single hour with freedom to think as we please, in a country that is subject to its own sense of right, and that regulates itself by the constitution under which it once became a flourishing state. For myself, though I cannot recall the former age of liberty, I count those enviable who were born and brought up in it . . . (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.169-70).
Such a speech might be discounted as a rhetorical invention by Josephus, contrasting tyranny and freedom in a literary form now common to classical historiography and modern thought. However, the events surrounding the speech do suggest that there was an effort to secure an increased liberty for the senatorial order. The idea that the Senate wished to re-establish the Republic is stated by Suetonius (Caligula 60), and generally supported by the account of Dio (LX.1.4). Two other observations are relevant. First, the German bodyguard which went on a rampage after the death of their emperor, are said to have limited their revenge, in case they might 'attract attention from the Senate, supposing that it should succeed to power' (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.151). Second, the Senate was rapidly convened and the consuls proposed a decree bringing charges, not against the assassins, but against Caligula (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.60). Josephus suggests that there was support from some of the military and later on from the 'people': -
Chaerea, having received the watchword, passed it on to such of the soldiers as had joined their side; there were a total of four cohorts who regarded freedom from imperial rule as more honourable than tyranny. These cohorts now left with their tribunes. By this time the people were also withdrawing, overjoyed and full of hope and pride because they had acquired self-government and no longer were under a master. (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.188-190)
Josephus also suggests that the removal of Gaius had considerable support from members of the Senate, the equestrian order and some of the soldiers (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.63). Considering the nature of Caligula's reign, this is not improbable. On the other hand, Caligula had some support from the mob, i.e. the proletariat (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.116) and the 'mercenary' elements of the soldiers (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.129).
The assassination of Caligula was largely motivated by a personal hatred felt by several individuals, especially Chaerea, who resented Caligula's mocking behaviour towards him (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.29). Nonetheless, the conspirators probably had a very real view of libertas as freedom from something, as noted by Balsdon: -
. . . they were justified in thinking that the survival of what they were pleased to call 'Liberty' was at stake. The positive content of the abstraction was never very critically examined or defined, but on the negative side it meant the absence of that personal autocracy which Gaius was consolidating. (Balsdon 1964, p101)
The failure of this attempt to return to some kind of Republic derived from the rapid action of the Praetorian Guard in selecting Claudius as their emperor, and inability of the Senate to act decisively or with full accord. Josephus reports that one of the conspirators, the freedman Callistus, had already courted Claudius as the expected heir of empire even before Caligula had been killed. The prompt action of the praetorians may also have been based on their distrust of the Senate: -
They reflected on the rapacity of the powerful members of the Senate, and what errors the Senate had committed when it was in power before. Moreover they took into account the impracticability of having the Senate handle affairs, and also considered if the government again passed into the hands of a single ruler they would take a risk upon themselves since one individual would have gained the throne for himself, whereas it was possible for Claudius to receive it by their motion and support. (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.223-225)
The following meeting of the Senate at the Temple of Jupiter Victor was more than the staging of a theoretical debate; the consuls had already removed the public funds to the Capitol, while attempts had been made to secure the support of the urban and praetorian cohorts. However, the meeting was attended by only one hundred senators (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.249) and in the end the soldiers supporting them demanded an emperor and joined the forces supporting Claudius (Josephus The Jewish War XI.211-3). Josephus also believed that in the end the 'people' were unwilling to side with the senators and looked to the emperor to curb the power of the Senate (Jewish Antiquities XIX.227-9). By this stage, it seems that many Romans felt that decisive leadership could only be provided by one man wielding power, even though still attracted to the idea of a more traditional system of political life.
It was the 'gift' of the empire by the praetorians to Claudius, and his willingness to offer them a huge donative (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.247) that placed the senatorial opposition in difficult position. The Senate's lack of leverage was made manifest when they ordered Claudius to yield his authority to the Senate and he refused (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.229-235). At this stage they tried to retain some of their power by stating that they would now like to offer him the leadership of the state (on their own terms). It was no too late for such deals. Claudius, backed by the Praetorian Guard, did not even accept this. At the inauguration of the rule of Tiberius and even of Caligula, the Senate still held the nominal power to offer honours and extra powers to the incumbent - it was now clear to all that military power had made the new ruler. This is seen in later issues of coinage under Claudius bearing the legend 'PRAETOR.RECEPT', suggesting that his imperium had been received from the hands of the praetorian guard (see Sutherland 1941). Nor was the Senate in any position to gain the support of the 'People', who in any case were no longer constituted as either voting assemblies or able to organize well-trained military units.
4. Nero and the Erosion of Power
The Pisonian conspiracy, which was the 'beginning of the end' for Nero, forms an interesting comparison with the assassination of Caligula. Griffin suggests that this conspiracy, the murder of Julius Caesar, and the death of Caligula had strong similarities in that there was a mixture of motivations, personal ambitions, hatred, as well as patriotism (Griffin 1984, pp166-7). Tacitus states that the conspiracy by Piso against Nero had its origin not only in Piso's personal ambition and that 'as for Lateranus, a consul elect, it was no wrong, but the love of the State which linked him with the others." (Annals XV.49) However, there were two crucial differences. In the Pisonian conspiracy, the plan all along had been to replace Nero with Piso as Princeps, whereas the assassins of Caligula had not designated a leader to succeed them, even though certain prominent men in the Senate did try to present themselves, e.g. Marcus Vinicius (Josephus Jewish Antiquities XIX.251). In A.D. 65, however, Piso wished to stay in Rome because he feared that another might be made Princeps, perhaps Lucius Silanus (Tacitus Annals XV.52).
The motivation of the Pisonian conspiracy is given by Tacitus: -
. . . now a conspiracy was planned and at once became formidable, for which senators, knights, knights, soldiers, even women, had given their names with eager rivalry, out of hatred of Nero as well as a liking for Gaius Piso. A descendant of the Calpurnian house, and embracing in his connections through his father's noble rank many illustrious families, Piso had a splendid reputation with the people from his virtue or semblance of virtue. His eloquence he exercised in the defense of fellow citizens, his generosity towards friends, while even for strangers he had a courteous address and demeanour. He had too the fortuitous advantages of tall stature and a handsome face. . . . The origin of the conspiracy was not in Piso's personal ambition. But I could not easily narrate who first planned it, or whose prompting inspired a scheme into which so many entered. That the leading spirits were Subrius Flavus, tribune of a praetorian cohort, and Sulpicius Asper, a centurion, was proved by the fearlessness of their death. Annaeus Lucanus, too, and Plautius Lateranus, imported into it an intensely keen resentment. . . . As for Laternus, a consul-elect, it was no wrong, but love of the republic which linked him with the other. (Tacitus Annals XV.49, Church-Brodribb translation)
It is crucial to note that the conspirators of 65 A.D. were concerned with who shall rule, not a change in the mechanisms of government. Piso had also been afraid that the consul Vestinus might 'rise up in the name of freedom, or, by choosing another emperor, make the State his own gift.' (Tacitus Annals XV.52). Once again libertas is seen as opposed to principate. Although there was no comprehensive programme behind the cry of libertas, it was still a rallying point and a tool of criticism. However, the main moves were concerned now with the next likely emperor. The Senate does not make a real display of independence. Nor, of course, did the independent actions of Stoic adherents such as Thrasea (who was condemned under Nero) or Cremutius Cordus (who wrote 'republican' works and was condemned under Tiberius and committed suicide in A.D. 25) represent active revolutionary programmes (Tacitus Annals XIV.12 & XVI.22).
Furthermore, the Senate had been seen as a source of real power in 41 A.D., as indicated by the rapid convening of the house, the watchwords being given by the consuls, and the move to control public funds. In the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 A.D. the Senate is seen as being without power and instead efforts were almost entirely focused on securing military support, especially that of the Praetorian Guard through military tribunes such as Gavius Silvanus and Statius Proximus, and especially their commander, Faenius Rufus (Tacitus Annals XV.50). There was also an attempt to gain support from the fleet at Misenum. It must be remembered that the conspiracy of A.D. 41 had largely failed due to its inability to secure the support of most of the praetorians. The plot failed, but Nero soon lost control of his provincial armies, especially those under Vindex in Gaul and Galba in Spain. Suetonius shows Nero's inaction: -
But when news arrived of Galba's Spanish revolt he fainted dead away remained mute and insensible for along while. Coming to himself, he tore his clothes and beat his forehead, crying that all was now over. His old nurse tried to console him by pointing out that many princes in the past had experienced similar setbacks; but Nero insisted that to lose the supreme power while still alive was something that had never happened to anyone else before. Yet he made not the slightest attempt to alter his lazy and extravagant life. (Suetonius Nero 42)
The subsequent despair and suicide of Nero (A.D. 68) seems to have been tied in with the feeling that he had lost control of the provincial armies and the praetorians, perhaps based on his own indecisiveness and apparent willingness to flee to Alexandria. The action of Nymphidius Sabinus in suborning the guards with the offer of a large donative if they went over to Galba, even while Nero was still alive (Plutarch Galba 2) indicates just how powerful the opposition to Nero had become. Nowever, it was based neither on an independent Senate nor on a 'Republican' ideology.
In conclusion, by 65 A.D. there had been a shift in the type of opposition facing a princeps, now centring on the idea of a change of ruler, rather than a shift back to senatorial power. The notion of libertas had shifted from its original meaning of the power of tribunes in protecting the people of Rome against the arbitrary action of magistrates and factions. In the first century B.C. it had come to mean the right of the elite to complete for political power and maintain their dignitas (Adcock 1964, pp99-101). But by the later period of the Julio-Claudians, it had come to mean something else again, as noted by Adcock: -
Then, when the Republic with its free competition for power had made way for the Principate and the Imperial regime was too strong to be challenged, libertas declines to one of two meanings: the first is a nostalgic memory of the Republic, the second, which is most clearly discernible in the writings of Tacitus, is the absence from servility, the maintenance of a man's self-respect, even if this is attended by danger to himself. (Adcock 1964, p101).
Libertas and its meaning had both declined, with freedom reserved for a private and social sphere, rather than being based on the political rights of citizens and groupings within Roman society to participate independently in political life.
5. The Year of the Four Emperors
The year 69 A.D. saw the proclamation of four emperors, none by the senate, all backed by military force. Three were supported by provincial legions (Galba, Vitellus and Vespasian), one (Otho) by the Praetorian Guard. The powerlessness of the Senate as a corporate body to even select a princeps shows that any return to republican government was almost impossible by this time. In 68 A.D. Galba showed that it was possible to set up a power-base outside of Rome: -
. . . The gist of these prophecies was that the lord and master of the world would some day arise in Spain.
Accordingly, Galba took his place on the tribunal, as though going about the business of freeing slaves, but before him were ranged statues and pictures of Nero's prominent victims. A young nobleman, recalled from exile in the near-by Balearic Islands for this occasion, stood near while Galba deplored the present state of the times. Galba was at once hailed as Imperator, and accepted the honour; announcing that he was the representative of the Roman Senate and people. He closed the courts, and began raising legions and auxiliaries from the local population to increase his existing command of one legion, two squadrons of cavalry, and three infantry cohorts. Next, he chose the most intelligent and oldest nobleman available as member of a kind of senate, to which matters of State importance could be referred. He also picked certain young knights instead of ordinary troops, to guard his sleeping quarters, and although these ranked as volunteers they still wore the gold rings proper to their condition. Then he called by proclamation, upon the whole provincial population to join his movement both individually and corporately, and aid the common cause to the bet of their ability. (Suetonius Galba 9-10)
Nonetheless, we see an interesting evocation of republican political terms. Both Galba and Vitellus issued coins omitting reference to the emperor and bearing the word 'LIBERTAS', especially 'LIBERTAS RESTITVTA" (Sydenham 1968, pp62-70). Further, the fourth and eighth legions on the German frontier declared their independence under the authority of the Senate and the people of Rome (Tacitus Histories I.56). However, Galba soon accepts and adopts the imperial titles of Augustus and the tribunican power (Wellesley 1975, p14). Likewise, the German legions are quickly brought around to declare for Vitellius as emperor - their declaration may have been a delaying tactic. Moreover, the usage of Republican slogans continues on later coinage. For example, Nerva on a silver coin of 97 A.D. proclaims libertas. As noted by Lewis & Reinhold (1990, II, p633), the 'legend of the reverse makes the obvious contrast with the tyranny of Domitian's last years': -
OBV. Laureat head r. EMP(eror) NERVA CAES(ar) AUG(ustus) P(ontifex) M(aximus) THRICE CONS(ul) F(ather) OF HIS C(ountry)
REV. Liberty standing facing left, holding cap of freedom and scepter PUBLIC LIBERTY (trans. in Lewis & Reinhold 1990, II, p633)
Republican terms are now used to bolster a benign emperor. Trajan too was willing to commemorate Brutus, showing that the principate is using such values to bolster and legitimate their rule. The republic, in an ideological sense, was being hijacked.
We see the way these issues were reworked in a speech put into the mouth of Galba ( considering the adoption of L. Calpurnius Piso) by Tacitus: -
Could the vast frame of this empire have stood and preserved its balance without a directing spirit, I was not unworthy of inaugurating a republic. As it is, we have been long reduced to a position, in which my age confers no greater boon on the Roman people than a good successor, your youth no greater than a good emperor. Under Tiberius, Gaius and Claudius, we were, so to speak, the inheritance of a single family. The choice which beings with us will be a substitute for freedom. Now that the family of the Julii and the Claudii has come to an end, adoption will discover the worthiest successor. (Tacitus Histories I.16)
The best that can now be done is to choose a good ruler; the Republic, Galba suggests, cannot be restored. It is now a question of which leader of legionary forces will win control of the empire.
6. Conclusion: Republican Slogans as Memory
At this stage, we sum up the role of the Senate in the period 14 - 70 A.D. It can be viewed in two ways; firstly as a source of rivals for imperial power, and as a collective body that might have acted as a counterbalance to the principate and recovered some of its political independence. We must note, first, that during the Republic the Senate had never been a formal administrative body, though it took on something of a legislative role. It was a deliberative and advisory group whose opinions gradually gained the force of law because of the collective auctoritas of the senators became so great. Both initiative and authority are associated with the Senate, but in the end these rested on the abilities of its leaders and their acceptance by the Roman People (Adcock 1964, p47). In the 1st century A.D., of course, most of this initiative and auctoritas had been concentrated upon the Princeps. This can be seen by a growing tendency for all officials and promagistrates to write to the emperor and the palace administration, seeking advice in all areas of policy, e.g. see the numerous letters of Pliny to the emperor Trajan. It is now not the Roman People, but the Princeps who is in a position to judge the utility and fate of the Senate (Millar 1977, p293). This trend is almost complete by A.D. 70 when a senatus consultum gives Vespasian the right 'to transact and do whatever things divine, human, public and private he deems to serve the advantage and the overriding interest of the state.' (Lewis & Reinhold, Vol II, 1966, p89). This would make Vespasian some sort of constitutional monarch, but only if we accept that the Senate had the constitutional right to make such a decision. This is a debatable point since the earlier abolition of the voting assemblies had been done by an earlier unconstitutional ruler, Tiberius, acting in a de facto position virtually established by force. No mere consul or tribune, it must be noted, could abolish these assemblies without immediately destroying the constitution that had validated their election. If so, the republican apparatus no longer represents in any sense the people of Rome as a whole. The 'democratic 'level of the Roman Republic, weak as it had been, was now virtually abolished aside from some limited eruptions of the power of the mob on the streets of Rome, and thereafter in occasional 'demonstrations' in the arena and at the chariot races.
It is true that the Senate continued an active legislative function during the first century A.D., with many senatus consulta being passed (Talbert 1984, p459). However, many of these were on trivial issues (Balsdon 1964, p108), while in all cases these motions may have been introduced into the Senate via the imperial council, through the consuls, or other imperial clients in the senatorial body. Although the true independence of the Senate was in decline by the end of Tiberius' reign, the senators themselves were partly to blame. Their readiness to support the Princeps on the slightest hint of treason, and its unwillingness to engage in serious debate, both forced the emperor to take more and more responsibility for running the state and weakened any potentially independent voice for the Senate. It was the Senate that was used to destroy the independent voices of Thrasea and Seneca (Tacitus Agricola 45). The grip of the alternative imperial administration was strong: it seems that all instances brought to the Princeps or his ministers by the delatores (treason prospectors and informants) were carefully recorded, whether they were originally acted upon or not. Priscus, for example, who under the reign of Vespasian wanted to prosecute the prosecutors of Thrasea, asked that the imperial registers on the matter be opened (Annals Histories IV.40). It seems that many senators would have had much to fear from a malevolent or nervous emperor.
It must be noted that the entire trend of the maeistas laws shows that the position of the princeps now resides not only on his office-holding imperium, but in a new and personal dignitas and auctoritas which are guarantied through the treason laws. Prestige is established not so much through charisma and persuasion, but through fear. In this context the promises of Vespasian, Nerva and Trajan not to put Senators to death without trial are chilling reminders of how dangerous the role of senator could be (Talbert 1984, p466). Furthermore, the very group who could provide real opponents, the nobiles created by consular families under the Republic had been decimated by the civil wars (Gelzer 1969, pp155-6) and were still declining. The basis of Roman public life demanded that the senatorial class be involved in political matters, but office seeking, family interests and financial necessities intertwined with the patronage system (Saller 1982, p143), making the Senate an extremely bad tool for the administration of empire under an autocrat. This is reflected in the decline of the nobilitas of the consulship, and the increased reliance on imperial freedmen (Syme 1974, p354) and procurators in administration. The imperial council and palace administration began to take on more of the actual ruling of empire, heading towards a chancellery system. The Senate became at last little more than a legitimating stamp on the emperor's actions, at worst a hindrance whose ineffectualness was increased by the ambitions and abasement of its members.
In retrospect, it seems that Tiberius' apparent reticence to take over the imperial position of Augustus was based on a real fear that the Senate might (just) be able to re-establish its older powers. The assassination of Caligula can be viewed as a revolutionary act, but this turning back to some kind of Republic was undermined by the inability of the Senate to act in a collective fashion, and the distrust felt for it by the Praetorian Guard. By 65 A.D., the Pisonian conspiracy, though using some of the notions of libertas, has shifted towards the question of who shall be Princeps. An individual ruler such as Nero might be hated, but the institution of one-man rule was by then well established. By 69 A.D., genuine Republican sentiments have declined sharply; slogans such as libertas, formulas such as 'the People and Senate of Rome', and the remembrance of liberators such as Brutus are now deployed as part of an imperial rhetoric. The need for peace, the changed relation between military power and the state, the abolition of the public voting assemblies and the degeneration of Senate meant that the Republic, in practise, could not be revived.
The highly competitive nature of Roman public life in augmenting status and wealth through office-holding could only lead, in the context of an expanding empire with a strong role for military officers and proconsular generals, in the direction of the escalation of political competition towards civil war. It is therefore not surprising that the territorial scope of the area controlled by the Roman state would begin to stabilise (with a few later additions) during the period when government by one man came to be an accepted reality: -
The already existing senses of imperium meaning a 'power' as well as the power of the magistrate, combined with concentration of imperium in the hands of a single individual, will have made the use of imperium to describe the corporate power of the Roman state increasingly natural. It was, after all, in this period that those areas of the world which were defined as under the imperium of the emperor were seen to coincide in effect with the extent of the influence of Rome as a world 'power'. (Richardson 1991, p7).
The resolutions of this problem by Julius Caesar, Augustus and Vespasian were essentially the same. Win the war, crush opposition, control the military and its command structure, and ensure that the Senate was a kept in line, and control financial resources. An analysis of laws regulating Republican officials and the way these laws were eroded (Loewenstein 1973, pp202-226) suggests that careful checks and safeguards were needed to retain an effective republic. Once these safeguards had been broken, it was impossible to erase the cumulative knowledge of how the institutions of the state could be used for the dominion of a party, of a family, then of one man. The only mechanism then required was a smooth way of passing power on to an heir, something which remained problematic for the next century. Reasonable men, of course, adjusted to the realities of the imperial system (see Seneca's De Clementia; Pliny's Panegyric and Tacitus Agricola 3).
If the Roman Republic was dead, the idea of the Republic was not. Cicero's ideas would become an important basis for later thinking, such as Augustine's City of God, while his notions of public duty and service would remain a central ideology in the Middle Ages. More importantly, the notion of a balanced Republic, in which political life is viewed as civic participation, would provide one of the few alternate models to notions of Christian kingship. It was for this reason that the memory of the Roman Republic forms part of the world-view of poets such as Petrarch and Dante, and is re-iterated with force in Machiavelli's Discourses on Titus Livius. The Roman Republic in some measure is the archetype for the drive towards Republics and Democracies in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. If the Florentine, Venetian, French and American Republics structured their institutions in rather different ways than the Roman, this was because of the inheritance of both the greatness and the ultimate decline of the Roman Republic.
7. Bibliography and Further Reading
AUGUSTUS Res Gestae Divi Augusti, ed. P. Brunt & J. Moore, London, OUP, 1967
CICERO De Officiis, trans. W. Miller, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1975
CICERO Re Publica & De Legibus, trans. C. Keyes, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1977
DIO CASSIUS Dio's Roman History, trans. E. Cary, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1968
DIO CHRYSOSTOM Discourses, trans. by J. Cohoon, London, Heineman, 1932
JOSEPHUS Jewish Antiquities, trans. L. Feldman, London, Heinemann, 1969
JOSEPHUS Jewish War ed. by G. Cornfeld, Grand Rapids Michegan, Zonderan Press, 1969
LEWIS, N. & REINHOLD, M. Roman Civilization: Sourcebook II, The Empire, N.Y., Harper, 1966
LUCAN The Civil War, trans. J. Duff, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1977
PLINY Letters and Panegyric, trans. B. Radice, London, Heinemann, 1975
PLUTARCH Plutarch's Lives, Vol XI, trans. B. Perrin, London, Heinemann, 1962
SENECA Moral Essays, trans. J. Basore, London, Heinemann, 1979
SUETONIUS, The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979
TACITUS Agricola, Germanica & Dialogus, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1970
TACITUS The Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. M. Grant, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971
TACITUS Annals and the Histories, trans. A. Church & W. Brodribb, Chicago, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952
VELLEIUS PATERCULUS Compendium of Roman History, trans. F. Shipley, London, Heinemann, 1967
ADCOCK, F.E. Roman Political Ideas and Practice, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1964
BALSDON, J.P.V. The Emperor Gaius (Caligula), Wesport, Greenwood Press, 1964
BAUMAN, Richard Impietas in Principem: A Study of Treason Against the Roman Empire with Special Reference to the First Century A.D., Munchen, Verlagbuchhandlung, 1974
BRUNT, P.A. "Princeps and Equites", JRS, 73, 1983, pp42-75
CROOK, John Consilivm Principis: Imperial Councils and Counsellors from Augustus to Diocletian, London, CUP, 1955
EARL, Donald The Moral and Political Tradition of Rome, London, Thames and Hudson, 1970
GELZER, M. The Roman Nobility, Blackwells, Oxford, 1969
GINSBURG, Judith Tradition and Theme in the Annals of Tacitus, Salem, Ayer, 1984
GRIFFIN, Miriam Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford, Clarendon, 1976
GRIFFIN, Miriam Nero: The End of a Dynasty, London, Batsford, 1984
JONES, A.H.M. "Imperial and Senatorial Jurisdiction in the Early Principate", Historia, 13, 1954, pp464-488
LEVICK, Barbara Tiberius the Politician, London, Thames and Hudson, 1976
LEVICK, Barbara "A Cry from the Heart of Tiberius Caesar?", Historia, 27, 1978, pp95-101
LOEWENSTEIN, Karl The Governance of Rome, Hague, Nijhoff, 1973
MACMULLEN, Ramsay "The Legion as a Society," Historia, 33, 1984, pp440-456
MARSH, Frank The Reign of Tiberius, London, OUP, 1931
MARTIN, Susan "Images of Power: The Imperial Senate", JRS, 75, 1985, pp222-228
MILLAR, Fergus "The Emperor, the Senate and the Provinces", JRS, 56, 1966, pp156-66
MILLAR, Fergus The Emperor in the Roman World (31 B.C. - A.D. 337), London, Duckworth, 1977
OBER, J. "Tiberius and the Political Testament of Augustus", Historia, 31, 1982, pp306-328
RAWSON, Elizabeth "Cassius and Brutus: the Memory of the Liberators", in MOXON, I.S. et. al. (ed.) Past Perspectives: Studies in Greek and Roman Writing, Cambridge, CUP, 1986, pp101-119
RICHARDSON, J.S. "Imperium Romanum: Empire and the Language of Power", Journal of Roman Studies, 81, 1991, pp1-9
ROGERS, Robert "Treason in the Early Empire", JRS, 49, 1959, pp90-4
SALLER, Richard Personal Patronage Under the Early Empire, London, CUP, 1982
SCOTT, Russell Religion and Philosophy in the Histories of Tacitus, Rome, American Academy of Rome, 1968
SUTHERLAND, C.H.V. "Claudius and the Senatorial Mint", The Journal of Roman Studies, 31, 1941, pp70-72
SYDENHAM, E.A. Historical Reference on the Coins of the Roman Empire, London, Spink, 1968
SYME, Ronald The Roman Revolution, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974
SYME, Ronald Ten Studies in Tacitus, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1970
TALBERT, J.A. The Senate of Imperial Rome, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1984
WELLESLEY, Kenneth "The Dies Imperii of Tiberius", JRS, 57, 1967, pp23-30
WELLESLEY, Kenneth The Long Year A.D. 69, London, Elek, 1975
WIRSZUBSKI, C. Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome During the Late Republic and Early Principate, London, CUP, 1968
YAVETZ, Z. Plebs and Princeps, Oxford, Clarendon, 1969
Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1995 R. James Ferguson