Ancient History & Civilisation


An Imperial World

The strength of the Empire was derived from the devotion of its inhabitants, and that devotion was the result of gratitude for the peace which it was Rome’s primary business to maintain, for the ordered government of which the monument endures in Roman Law and for that liberal attitude to the native population of which the steady extension of the Roman franchise is the most notable expression… The aristocracy which formed the basis of the administration at home looked for help to the aristocrats in the provinces and in a world where education among the many was as backward as the means of disseminating news and forming public opinion, the principles of democracy were neither honoured nor observed. But the age was not necessarily the worse because ability commanded esteem, nor were the ignorant necessarily the less contented for their measure of dependence on the cultured few.

Hugh Last, in The Cambridge Ancient History,
volume XI (1936), 477

As I see it, the Roman political system facilitated a most intense and ultimately destructive economic exploitation of the great mass of the people, whether slave or free, and it made radical reform impossible. The result was that the propertied class, the men of real wealth, who had deliberately created the system for their own benefit, drained the life-blood from their world and thus destroyed Greco-Roman civilization over a large part of the empire… If I were in search of a metaphor to describe the great and growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the upper classes, I would not incline to anything so innocent and so automatic as drainage: I should want to think in terms of something much more purposive and deliberate – perhaps the vampire bat.

G. E. M. de Sainte Croix, The Class Stuggle in the
Ancient Greek World
(1981), 502–3


The Julio-Claudians

The Senate… hopes that all those who were soldiers in the service of our First Citizen (Tiberius) will continue to manifest loyalty and devotion to the imperial house since they know that the safety of our Empire depends on the protection of that house. The Senate believes that it belongs to their concern and duty that among those who command them at any time the greatest authority with them should belong to those who have with the most devoted loyalty honoured the name of the Caesars which gives protection to this city and to the Empire of the Roman people.

Senate’s resolution on Gnaeus Piso, AD 20: lines 159–66

Tiberius was savaged in letters from the king of the Parthians, Artabanus, who accused him of parricide, murders, sloth and luxury and warned him to satisfy the intense and most deserved hatred of his fellow citizens by killing himself as soon as possible.                          Suetonius, Life of Tiberius 66.2

In the summer of AD 14 the ageing Augustus left Rome, never to see the cityagain. One of his purposes has remained highly controversial. Our main ancient sources either suggest or state that he went in the company of only one trusted senator, Paullus Fabius Maximus, to the little island of Planasia to which he had banished his last surviving grandson, the erratic Agrippa Postumus, in AD 7. On their return, first his companion Fabius Maximus, then Augustus himself died without revealing what theyhad been doing. The ‘rumour’, as it later seemed to the historian Tacitus, has sometimes been dismissed by modern scholars as a fable. But we happen to know from quite another source that both Augustus and Fabius Maximus were unavailable in Rome in mid-Mayof this year. At this date, Augustus’ adopted grandson, young Drusus, was being admitted to a highly prestigious Roman priesthood, the Arval Brethren. Its records show that both Augustus and Fabius Maximus voted in absence to admit him.1 Contemporaries, then, were quite correct to saythat the First Citizen, now seventy-five, and this trusted senator had been away on other business. It is immensely unlikely that both of them were suddenly ill at the time of this one priestly meeting: for that reason alone, Fabius would not have been allowed the very rare honour of voting as a senatorial member in absence. Gossip ran freelyon the journey’s outcome, even claiming that Augustus had changed his mind and decided to make Agrippa Postumus his successor. Fabius, it was said, had indiscreetly told his wife, thereby costing himself his life. Augustus’ wife, Livia, was even alleged to have poisoned old Augustus in order to forestall his change of mind. None of this scandal is at all likely, but the journey itself should be accepted as historical. It is the last dramatic act in Augustus’ long marathon of finding and keeping an heir to the new Empire.

In its wake, there was an immediate attempt to travel over to the island, rescue Agrippa Postumus and take him north to the troops. There was another attempt, two years later, to impersonate him (people did not remember what he really looked like): it was carried out by the very slave who had set out in AD 14 to ship him away and it met with considerable success among the plebs. In fact, Agrippa Postumus had been killed promptly on the first news of Augustus’ death, on 19 August. The murder was organized by the discreet Sallustius Crispus, the great-nephew and adopted son, no less, of the acerbic historian Sallust. Under Roman law, Agrippa Postumus had not been disinherited when he was banished, and so he could claim a share in Augustus’ inheritance. In the final months of his life Augustus went over to see him, perhaps to be sure of his unsuitability (the boy was exceptionally fond of fishing), and if so, to arrange cold-bloodedly for his removal.

Not unfittingly, the subsequent Julio-Claudian era began with a dynastic murder. There were to be so many more. The first heir was the elderly Tiberius, a tall, austere figure of a man, already in his mid-fifties. His ancestry was extremely aristocratic and he was already a proven general who was known as a severe disciplinarian. Yet he was very much a last resort, the man Augustus had had to choose. Public generosity, the popular touch and a wholehearted sense of style were not parts of his haughty nature; revealingly, he gave few public shows and exhibited no interest in those he attended. At public dinners, he was said never to have served a whole wild boar when half a one would do. He professed a wish to be the ‘servant of the Senate’ and to be an ‘equal citizen, not the eminent First Citizen’, but both wishes were unrealistic.2 The army and the provinces now looked up to an outright emperor, whatever the niceties of the constitutional position at Rome. The First Citizen was the main source of patronage for much of the Roman upper class, and his huge finances were the essential supplement to the Public Treasury. His public spending and his jurisdiction were indispensable and, as Augustus had demonstrated by standing back between 23 and 19 BC, he was the indispensable protector and provider for the vast mass of common people at Rome. Tiberius could not behave as if he was only one member in an old-style Senate: he had asserted his succession in a manner which was very different. He had received an ‘oath of allegiance’, first of all from the consuls. It was then sworn in their presence by the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard and the Prefect of the Corn-supply, jobs which were Augustan innovations: they would be crucial ever after to each emperor’s accession and the stability of the city crowds. Next swore the ‘Senate, the soldiers and the people’: the soldiery, intruding here, were a sign of the new realities.3 This oath is telling evidence of Augustus’ ‘best order’, as Augustus had called it. The strength of that ‘order’ was to be highlighted by the inadequacies of his first successors: it proved strong enough to survive them unscathed.

The recurrent lesson from Tiberius and subsequent emperors is not only that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’: it is that emperors were only as good or bad as they had been before becoming emperor. They ran true to form and never improved with the job. Each of them began his reign with a modest, judicious statement of intent, but matters soon deteriorated, partly through their own characters and weak spots, and then through complex manoeuvring for a potential successor. This process involved frequent deaths in their own families and the liquidation of yet more palace-factions and senators, as potential heirs became ever more widely scattered in branch-lines of the Julio-Claudian ‘household’. As emperors married repeatedly, the number of possible heirs correspondingly increased.

In Tiberius, the Romans had someone who was cunning and inscrutable but temperamentally unsuited to populist gestures or to giving senators a clear lead. After nine years he was talking vainly of ‘restoring the Republic’ and giving up his job: the death of his own son disenchanted him and was followed by other bereavements. Five years later he withdrew from Rome altogether, ending up on the island of Capri where he was credited with horrible sexual orgies. In his late sixties he looked repulsive, too, bald and gaunt with blotches on his face, only partly concealed by plasters. Nonetheless, he ruled for twenty-four years, the longest reign until Hadrian’s. In March 37 his death was joyfully received by the common people. The senators conspicuously refused to honour him posthumously as a god. They also annulled his will and accepted his grandson Gaius as sole heir. The decision was disastrous.

Unlike Tiberius, Gaius was only twenty-four, with no military competence whatsoever and only one minor magistracy behind him. His main appeal was that he was the son of the popular Germanicus, nephew of Tiberius. Despite fair promises, he turned out to be vicious, impossibly egocentric and mad. Some of the stories are almost too bizarre to be credible, that he promised to make his favourite horse a consul, that he ordered a big army for an invasion of Britain to pick up shells on a beach in northern France and then return home, or that he had sex with his sister and enforced an extravagant cult of her as a goddess after her death. He certainly promoted worship of himself as a god and tried to force it on the Jews and their Temple in Jerusalem: at the end of his brief reign, he was said to be dressing up as the gods and goddesses in his palace at Rome. He was even said to have split up the ancient temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum, so that an approach-road to his own ‘shrine’ up on the Palatine hill should push through it, with the twin gods as his ‘doorkeepers’: this story has some support from recent archaeology in the Forum. A soothsayer had once declared that Gaius had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding across the Bay of Naples. To refute him, Gaius had a wooden bridge built across two points of the Bay, about three and a half miles apart, and galloped flat out across the planks while wearing what was said to be the breastplate of Alexander the Great. Gaius then held a huge drinking-party, threw some of his companions off the bridge and attacked others in a warship, leaving them to drown.

In January 41, after four ghastly years of taunting and terrorizing the senators, Gaius ordered the torture of a pretty young mime-actress during an interrogation for treason. Even he was shocked at the effect on her body. The tribune of the guard who had supervised the torture was also disgusted. When Gaius left the theatre on the Palatine hill for a lunch-break, the tribune stabbed him in a palace corridor.

The murder, on 24 January, was a cardinal chance for freedom: Gaius had no children of an age to take over. However, the senators behind the murder were divided. Should they destroy the whole beastly Julio-Claudian family? Should they keep the system but insist on electing the next First Citizen? Should they go further and somehow restore the Republic? Like Julius Caesar’s murderers, they dithered, despite their talk of restoring ‘liberty’ and the rule of law. The power of the palace troops then asserted itself. One of the German bodyguards found an ignored Julio-Claudian who was hiding behind a curtain in the Palace. The guards then acclaimed him as emperor and forced the divided conspirators to give in. The new emperor, Claudius, was on the face of it preposterous. Fifty years old, he drooled and could not co-ordinate his movements; he laughed uncontrollably and his voice sounded like some hoarse sea-monster. He has been plausibly diagnosed as suffering from cerebral palsy. Augustus had found him a public embarrassment and even his mother used to describe him as ‘a monstrosity of a human being, one which Nature began and never finished’.4 Claudius mayhave been aware of the plan to murder Gaius, but it seems he was unaware, like the participants, that the result would ever be power for himself.

Claudius began with severe disadvantages. The senators promptly declared war on him when they heard that the guards had championed him. He himself had no military experience, but he did raise the guards’ wages, an effective substitute. An attempted revolt by the respected governor of Dalmatia in the following year collapsed within five days because the legions were still loyal to Claudius. In their eyes, he had a crucial quality: he was a proper household heir. He claimed a kinship with Augustus and he was grandson of Mark Antony.

Claudius went on to rule for thirteen years in a fascinating mixture of application and cruelty, over-compensation and attempted populism. To compensate for his lack of military prowess, he invaded Britain in 43: he even crossed the river Thames on an elephant. But he kept on citing his victory ‘beyond the Ocean’ and accepting military salutations for a campaign to the action of which he had personally contributed nothing. Perpetually at odds with the Senate, he relied excessively on the accessible freedmen in his own household. He was not creating a new ‘Civil Service’: he was simply turning to would-be wise advisers who were near to hand. He also had an antiquarian mind. He had written copiously during his years as a marginal figure, finishing eight books on the Carthaginians and twenty books on the Etruscans, while writing an ongoing history of Rome, unfortunately lost to us. He had even written a book on gambling with dice, one of his passions. However, he had the vanity and vengefulness of the academic manqué. In power, he fussed about such sillinesses as adding new letters to the alphabet; his speeches in the Senate were conceited and poorly constructed; he ordered that his long Etruscan history should be read aloud monthly in the Museum at Alexandria.

Lacking senatorial credibility, Claudius found an alternative in the responses of the Roman populace. He would sit, in popular style, on the tribunes’ bench; he played up to the crowds at public shows, especiallythe gladiatorial ones where his taste was definitelyfor blood. He encouraged overdue improvements to the grain-harbour for Rome; he improved the city’s aqueducts and he attended to popular shows. His displays, however, were excessive and fatuous. At Ostia, he showed off by personally fighting against a whale which had been trapped in the new harbour. On his return from Britain he boated in and out of the harbour at Ravenna in an extravagant mock floating palace.5 He even forced through a massive plan to drain the Fucine Lake near Rome, and at the grand opening in 52 he staged an enormous sea-battle to amuse the crowds. Some 19,000 combatants were encouraged to fight, shedding blood, but the waterworks went wrong and drenched the spectators, including Claudius and his wife, who was dressed in a golden robe, like a mythical queen.

These massive displays for the crowds did nothing to endear him to the senators. They saw him as a self-willed bungler. They said that 321 knights and 35 senators were killed off by him in secret trials, and his habit of judging these cases personally in private rooms in his household was detested. Lacking senatorial friends, Claudius was recognized as a soft touch for those who had access to him, whether they were his personal doctor, prominent Gauls from the region of his birthplace Lyons or corrupt palace freedmen (who sometimes took bribes for arranging gifts of citizenship). Most memorably, there were the strong, self-willed women, a distinctive presence at court in the Julio-Claudian years.

Tiberius had lived awkwardly at Rome among two elderly imperial widows, each of whom became honoured in due course as ‘Augusta’. One was Augustus’ wife Livia, the great survivor. The other, also a great survivor, was Mark Antony’s second daughter, Antonia: she had a beauty and an orderly style which preserved her even during long years of refusing to remarry. On Augustus’ death, some had suggested honouring Livia as ‘Mother of the Fatherland’: it was in AD 20 that the Senate decreed and circulated praises of her for ‘serving the commonwealth exceptionally, not only in giving birth to our First Citizen but also through her many great favours towards men of every rank’: they also affirmed that Antonia was the stated object of their ‘great admiration’, ‘excellent in her moral character’.6 Republican traditionalists would have been scandalized by the reference to Livia’s ‘many great favours’ and would have enjoyed the rumours that she had in fact poisoned Augustus and his adopted grandsons. Eleven years later Antonia was probably quick to bring down the Emperor Tiberius’ controversial favourite, Sejanus, by a well-judged letter in the interests of her terrible grandson, Gaius. However, when Gaius took power she quickly proved irritating to him and had to commit suicide.

Feminine influence on Claudius was more overt. It was not only that he lived among women at Rome who were ‘gaping for gardens’, in the historian Tacitus’ fine phrase,7 even to the point of pressing him for the death of a rich garden-owner so that they could take his property. Claudius’ own third marriage was to the well-born and passionate Messalina (twenty years old or more at the time); she bore him a son, and then encouraged him in condemning enemies and rivals (she cited the warning dreams which were granted to herself and a freedman). In 48 she herself went too far with a younger senator, consenting to a sham ‘marriage’ during the grape-vintage in the absence of her ignorant husband. Claudius then took the bad advice of a freedman and married the formidable Agrippina instead. She was the sister of Gaius and thirty-three years old; disastrously, she brought a son of her own with her (born by Caesarian section). During six memorable years of new-wife syndrome the old drama of the Hellenistic royal families was played out all over again. To assure her son’s succession, the new wife, Agrippina, arranged for Claudius’ murder on 13 October 54. Supposedlyit was done bya mushroom laced with poison, although a second dose on a feather was said to have been needed.

Agrippina’s young son Nero then succeeded and proved another political disaster. Like Tiberius, he had a proud and noble ancestry, but extreme cruelty ran in its past. Members of his family had staged exceptionally bloody gladiatorial shows and one had even driven a chariot contemptuously over a member of the lower classes. After the boy’s birth Nero’s own father was said to have told a well-wisher that ‘nothing born of me and Agrippina can be other than detestable and a public menace’.8 He was quite right. Like Gaius, Nero had no military experience and no experience of public service. He became emperor when he was far too young, before his seventeenth birthday. For five years the combination of his mother, his tutor Seneca and his able Praetorian Prefect Burrus kept him relatively steady. Thereafter it was ever more clear that he combined vanity with irresponsibility. He expressed both in the way such people still do, by a misplaced wish to perform as an artist in public. He competed as a charioteer and worse, he sang and played the lyre. He was serious about it all, exercising with lead weights to improve his lungs and drinking the diluted dung of wild boar to help his muscles.

The natural outlet for such aspirations was Greece, and Nero did at least make the most of it. On tour in 66/7, he competed at Delphi and Olympia, and the rumour was that he won more than 1,800 first prizes, even in a ten-horse chariot race where he fell off. In return, he gave Olympia a new club-house for athletes, the first Roman emperor to do anything for the site. Spectacularly, he even declared Greece free and ended its tribute. Athletics, being nude and queer, were bad enough for traditional Romans, but with his elaborate hairstyle, Nero was an embarrassment to right-thinking Roman opinion. He was also inexcusably savage: in 59 he had his own mother murdered. He did attract the most glamorous wife, ‘auburn-haired’ Poppaea, but when she died, he picked the freedman who looked most like her, had him castrated and used him as a sex-object in her absence. His extravagance was atrocious. He was not to blame for the Great Fire which destroyed much of the city of Rome in the year 64, but his plan to build a huge Golden House for himself afterwards in the centre of the city was megalomaniac. His continuing lack of restraint and moral standards encouraged two major conspiracies against him. The second was backed by important provincial governors and proved mercifully successful. On 9 June 68 Nero anticipated events by killing himself, saying ‘What an artist dies in me.’ It was his final vanity.

In this Julio-Claudian household, one ancestor was taking his genetic revenge: Mark Antony. Tiberius’ dangerously popular young rival, Germanicus, was Antony’s grandson; so was Claudius; Gaius was Antony’s great-grandson, as was Nero too. It was a dreadful time to be a senator at Rome, when the unopposable palace guards protected, and even promoted, such people as emperors. For some thirty years senators had to compromise under a mad wastrel, a cruel and susceptible spastic and a vain and self-obsessed profligate. The best place to be was in a province, away from spies and informers. At Rome, the same inadequacies kept recurring in bad rulers: impossible financial extravagance (Gaius and Nero), a touchiness about the lack of military prowess (Gaius, Claudius and Nero), excessive trust in non-senatorial favourites (Tiberius, Claudius and Nero), sexual perversion (Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius and Nero) and an inappropriate line between the palace, including wives and mothers, and the traditional rule of law (Claudius and Nero). Young Nero’s initial ‘honeymoon’ period owed something to the wise counsels of the philosopher Seneca, but he was then encouraged in his natural extravagance by the odious Tigellinus. ‘Obscure in parentage and debauched in early life’,9 Tigellinus was a Sicilian bybirth who capitalized on his good looks and his breeding of racehorses. They were passions to which Nero was highly susceptible.

Once again, luxury, justice and freedom played important roles in the Julio-Claudian family’s history. ‘Luxury’, as personal extravagance, continued to increase with the general progress of crafts and the rivalry of consumers. It was not just that the volume of wine consumed by all classes at Rome rose sharply: a ‘vigorous drinking-place culture’ among urban communities in Italy has also been detected.10 In the Julio-Claudian era we begin to have firm evidence for senatorial landowners’ involvement in vine-growing. Much more extravagantly, we have evidence for their spiralling pursuit of ‘luxuries’, especially those in limited supply. In the Roman upper class, a personal fortune might as well be spent now, as otherwise it would be left partlyto the emperor on death; legacies left bychildless donors would be penalized, anyway, under Augustus’ moral laws. In Tiberius’ reign the prices of special luxuries, whether bronzes in pseudo-Corinthian Greek style or big mullets in the fish market, were rising so sharply that there was legislation by the emperor to control them. In 22 there were fears that Tiberius would restrict spending on anything luxurious, ranging from silver plate to dinner-parties. In fact, Tiberius wrote to the Senate that he wished that such restrictions could be effective, but that the problems were insoluble. Indeed, there was so much more now to want. Romans had discovered a taste for much that was rare, including tables made from the beautiful wood of the citrus tree, native to north Africa: the trees were wiped out as they gratified it. Craftsmen had developed the complex technique of fluorspar and of cameos in which layers of precious metals were set in glass. Like modern house-prices or salaries on Wall Street, the unchecked cost of bronzes and villas, paintings and pearls were topics of conversation at the very Roman dinner-parties which flaunted them. According to the historian Tacitus, there was also discussion of the ‘effeminate’ dress of rich men.11 Female hairstyles at court were still relatively classical, but their accompaniments did become recherché. We can compare the rather simple recipe for toothpaste of the Empress Livia with the infinitely more exotic compound of Messalina, requiring mastic gum from Chios (still used in the fine local toothpaste), salt from north Africa and powdered stag’s horn, which was thought to be an aphrodisiac.

Since the fourth century BC historians had so often cited luxury as a cause of defeat or disaster: in the 60s AD it did at last claim its first major victim, the Julio-Claudian household itself. Nero’s hopeless extravagance was a direct cause of his overthrow and the ending of the family line. Justice, meanwhile, was more subtly corrupted by the emperors’ habits. In the Senate, Tiberius had sat in on cases which included alleged slights to his own ‘majesty’: how could senators then be impartial in his brooding presence? Claudius heard far too many cases in private; he often refused to hear more than one side of the argument and simply imposed his own personal view. The underlying trend throughout was for officials, both at Rome and abroad, to hear cases and pass judgements in their own right. Appeals to authority thus developed a new range.

As for freedom, it had had a real chance with Gaius’ murder in January 41, but the failure to secure it was revealing. It was a hundred years, on a long view, since freedom had really been rooted in the Republic, since the gentlemen’s agreement between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus in 59 BC. In the face of a vast Empire, an army loyal to a dynasty and a populace fearful of senatorial rule, how ever could freedom be restored by senators who had now never even known it? Nor would that sort of freedom have been workable. Rather, the survival of the underlying imperial structures during these four grotesque emperors is evidence of their increasing strength and necessity. When the provincial governor who led the western rising against Nero declared himself to be acting for the Senate and people, the declaration led to his recognition by the Praetorian guards at Rome and then to his being empowered by the Senate as the next emperor. What senators most hoped for was a defined area of business which the Senate, if possible, should decide, while the emperor retained a restrained, moral competence in all settings. Affability and accessibility without extravagance were the crucial attributes for a good emperor.

In protest under Nero, there were senators who took a principled stand against his tyranny, partly by drawing on a veneer of ethical ‘Stoic’ values. Upper-class Romans were not true philosophers, but these principled ethics did at least suit the moral aspirations of new men, rising into the ruling class: theylacked the world-wearycynicism of the older intake and they wished to be principled and rather too earnest when placed in apparent honour at the centre of affairs. For other, more quizzical characters, there was always the possibility of noble and eloquent suicides, acts which were not in any way condemned by Roman religion. Seneca the philosopher cut his veins; the engaging Petronius, ‘arbiter of taste’,12 compiled an exact list of Nero’s sexual debaucheries with men and women and sent it to him while opening his veins and joking meanwhile with his friends. Above all, there was the example of the immensely rich senator and ex-consul, Valerius Asiaticus. By origin a Gaul, he had inherited by marriage a fine park on the Esquiline hill in Rome. ‘Gaping for gardens’, Claudius’ wife Messalina then urged his destruction. Among all the various charges laid against him, Claudius hesitated before giving in. But he did allow Asiaticus to choose his own death. So Asiaticus exercised, dressed up and dined well. He then opened his veins, but not before he had inspected the siting of his funeral pyre. Small freedoms still remained: he ordered the pyre to be moved so that the fire would not burn his trees.13 Claudius then confiscated the park as soon as Asiaticus was dead.

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