Ancient History & Civilisation


The New Dynasty

This statue fears no rainy winters nor the triple fire of Jupiter’s lightning… it will stand while earth and sky endure, while there is still a Roman daylight. Here, in the silent night, when earthly affairs concern the gods on high, your kin will leave the heavens and glide down and mingle their kisses with you. Son and brother, father and sister will come down to your embrace: your neck alone will make space for all the stars

Statius, Silvae 1.1.91–8, on
Domitian’s bronze equestrian statue in Rome, c.AD 91

It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to strike them with the sword and savage them with the axe as if blood and agony could follow every blow. Nobody could refrain from joy, late though our rejoicing was, but everyone sought a form of revenge in seeing those statue-bodies torn in pieces, limbs hacked to bits and those dreadful portrait-images cast into the flames and roasted, so that from such terror and threats, they could be transformed for the use and pleasures of mankind.             Pliny, Panegyric 52.4–5, on the destruction

of Domitian’s statues in AD 93

When Vespasian finally reached Rome, nobody could dispute the need for a new style and a new grip on the realities. After Nero and a civil war, the finances were in a dreadful state. The grain-reserves had almost run out; the ranks of senators had been diminished by civil war; rivals had proclaimed ‘freedom’, but there had been looting by the troops, much as during Octavian’s own rise to power. The city itself was a sorry sight. The Great Fire of 64 had been followed by yet more burning in the recent conflicts. In the middle of it all, Nero’s Golden House was still standing, a gigantic affront.

Inevitably, taxes had to increase. Italy remained exempt from tribute, but existing taxes went up and new ones were soon added: there was even a new tax on the urine from public urinals (which was used for cleaning clothes, as it still was in the First World War). Vespasian, the down-to-earth Italian, had no particular fondness for Greek culture. The turbulent Alexandrians in Egypt found themselves forced to pay the poll tax for the first time and Nero’s grant of tax-free ‘freedom’ to Greece was revoked. It was, then, particularly ingenious of the Arcadian Greeks of Tegea, down in the Peloponnese, to claim that they had uncovered ancient vessels in a sacred place, as predicted by prophets, and that the vessels were found to be carved with a face resembling Vespasian’s own. So far from being ‘new’, they discovered, Vespasian was ‘old’: it was from Arcadia that the first kings of Rome were supposed to derive. No doubt these Greeks made the most of the discovery. More immediately, Vespasian could profit from the defeated Jews. As they no longer had a Temple to which they would pay regularly, they were obliged to pay a special tax in to Rome’s temple of Jupiter instead. Unlike the Temple tax, it was extended to women and children and applied more widely to everyone between the ages of three and sixty. The new revenues here were significant.

Vespasian himself liked money, but disliked personal extravagance. He was a free gift, therefore, for anecdotes and amusing rumours. At his funeral, it was a neat joke when the mime-actor who was representing him in the procession (by now, a usual practice) called out to ask how much the funeral was costing. A huge sum was called out in answer, whereupon ‘Vespasian’ replied that he would rather be given a little bit of it and have his body thrown cheaply into the river Tiber. Exceptions comically upheld the general picture. A woman was said to have had a passion for the old man and begged to go to bed with him (after Caenis’ death?). In return, she was said to have received a huge sum, enough to qualify a man as a Roman knight. The joke, surely, was that she was being paid for having ridden the emperor so ably. Vespasian was then said to have told his steward to enter the sum in his account-book, but to put it down as ‘To Making Passionate Love to Vespasian’.1 Everything had to be accounted for, including good sex after lunch.

In the provinces, particular loyalties were wooed with cheap privileges and titles (the ‘Latin right’ was given to Spain): financial rewards were another matter. In Rome, however, an emperor could not be entirely unremunerative. The Praetorian guards had to be rewarded, but this time they were changed, rather than bribed excessively. Those of them who were retired gradually were surely the lucky settlers in a rare phenomenon, the few colonies which Vespasian dared to found in Italy itself. In Rome, too, despite the economic squeeze, the emperor had to spend, because he could not simply hoard coins and starve society of cash in circulation. One outlet for spending was public building. Most of the city’s plebs were men of all trades, whatever their particular speciality or social group: they did not depend on public building works for their dailybread, but these works gave them a very helpful extra beside the slave workers who were also engaged on them. In Rome, even during the drive for economy, Vespasian’s new buildings were to be far larger than the schemes of Pericles’ Athens. The building which we now call the Colosseum was put up on land from Nero’s awful Golden House. Four storeys high, it was for the people, not just the emperor, as a real ‘people’s arena’. The expense, too, was manageable: Jews’ assets helped to pay for it, the spoils taken from the victory in Judaea. Jews’ assets also helped to pay for a programmatic new temple of Peace whose vast area was ten times bigger than the precinct around Augustus’ famous altar to the goddess. The contents of the precinct enhanced the emperor’s image.2 The river Nile was carved as a quartz statue with sixteen children. In Egypt, an Egyptian priestess had correctly prophesied a full flood of the Nile, sixteen cubits deep (whence the sixteen children) when Vespasian visited the country at the start of his coup in 69: Vespasian’s monument was alluding to his role in bringing the prophecy about. The rest of ‘Peace’s’ decorations were antique sculptures and works of art, some of which had been looted from the Jews, others from the Greek world byNero. There was a public message here for the people. What Nero had stolen for himself, Vespasian was now ‘opening to the public’ in a public temple.

Nevertheless, like Augustus, the new dynast did not go unopposed. Artfully, he sent two hated informers of the Neronian age abroad from Rome to take up governorships. However, he was then criticized by the leading philosophic voice in the city, the senator Helvidius. One likely reason for the trouble was the resort to legalized autocracy which was embodied in the new ‘law’ on the emperor’s powers. Another, connected to it, was Vespasian’s ambition for his own family. Vespasian had two sons of whom the older, Titus, had led the troops to victory in Judaea. Back in Rome, Titus was even made Prefect of the Praetorian Guard. It was a new post for a member of the imperial house to hold, but an artful one, as it limited the guards’ scope for electing an emperor of their own choosing. As the reign developed, Vespasian and his family then occupied the consulship to a degree which not even Augustus had attempted. Speaking against this dynasty, the philosophic Helvidius was first exiled, then killed: it was probablyin response to him that Vespasian was said to have remarked ‘either my sons succeed me, or nobody’, apparently on leaving the Senate. Although Vespasian founded distinguished professorships in Rome and Athens and favoured the teaching of oratory, grammar and medicine in major provincial cities, it is conspicuous that any such favour for philosophywas excluded. But versions of Helvidius’ brave sayings continued to be circulated by philosophy teachers outside Rome.

Arguably, Helvidius was proved right. Vespasian’s son Titus had charm, a gift for speaking and a military record, but he antagonized public opinion in the mid-70s by bringing his controversial mistress into Rome. She was a Jewish princess, Berenice, the daughter of Claudius’ friend King Agrippa. When she appeared in Rome she was mocked bycrowds in the theatre. It was not all a xenophobic protest: Berenice sat among the emperor’s advisers, an ill-judged move which half-deserved her reputation as the ‘new Cleopatra’.3 She was then judiciously sent abroad, after a supposed conspiracy in which two very senior senators were implicated: Titus, on one view, framed the pair of them in order to get them out of the way before his own accession. He could use the charge of their involvement with Berenice to get her out of Rome too.

On 24 June 79 Vespasian died, allegedly saying ‘Oh dear, I think I am becoming a god’, a plain man’s comment on his imminent cult. Titus took over and, most remarkably, Hadrian later stated that Titus had actually poisoned Vespasian. On the surface, Titus performed well enough for two years. He had the hated ‘informers’ paraded in the amphitheatre before exiling them: the next emperors repeated the spectcale. Admittedly, his brother Domitian claimed that Titus had forged his father’s will. Titus had remarked that he had the talent to have been a practised forger and he may have deployed it against the two senators, the ‘one crime’, perhaps, which he used to say that he regretted.4 Perhaps it was fortunate for Titus’ reputation that he died so quickly, before the usual honeymoon years were over. It was less fortunate for Rome: his younger brother Domitian took over.

The change of dynasty had not supplanted the old pattern. Domitian was no better than his weaknesses before becoming emperor. In 69/70 he had been the one family member inside Rome but he had been denied any genuine military distinction. He resented his brother and his father and his nature was anyway suspicious and insecure. Aptly, he was looked back on as the ‘bald Nero’, not just because he lacked his predecessor’s looks and showy hairstyle. In 83 a degree of military success in Germany gave Domitian more confidence, but what emerged was all too familiar. He began by patronizing Greek cultural pursuits and even promoted members of the philosophic clique at Rome; one reason why he favoured these things was because his father had disliked both of them. Like Nero, he promoted Greek drama, music and athletics and in 86 gave them their first full festival in the city: he founded a second festival, at his huge country villa, and included them in the programme too. There were still Roman traditionalists who disapproved of Greek athletics and gymnastics because of their links with nudity and ‘disgraceful’ sex between free men. Domitian’s patronage, in the heart of the city, was an important counter-statement in years when the young Hadrian’s tastes were forming, the great ‘philhellene’ of the future. But Domitian was not being idiosyncratic: Greek literature and Greek language were now the normal education, we are told, of young Romans, so much so that many ‘young boys speak and learn nothing but Greek for a long while’.5 The contrary voices were now a ‘moral minority’.

Domitian then fell out with his former protégés, the philosophers, and during an insecure phase, in late 93, permitted accusations that they were fostering opposition, not least because they were writing biographies of their ancestors, ‘opposition martyrs’ under Nero. It was a grim time, when senators had to compromise in order to survive. There were also attacks on Christian sympathizers in high society at Rome and on those accused of the ‘adoption of Jewish ways’. Modern attempts to rehabilitate Domitian are as one-sided as the wilder rumours from antiquity. On better evidence, we learn that Domitian would retire to his vast country palace (one of two) outside Rome in the Alban hills where he used to like relaxing on the lake. He was so irritable that he had to be towed in a separate boat behind an oared vessel so that he would not hear the noise of its oars in the water.6 We can understand whyhis wife, a descendant of Cassius the ‘Liberator’, was soon found to prefer the charms of an actor. Back in Rome, Domitian was remembered for the ultimate in black humour. Senators and knights were said to have been invited at night to a dinner in a black-painted room with a black stone shaped like a tombstone behind each couch. Black-painted boys served black-painted food and the silence was only broken by Domitian who ‘talked only about death and killing’.7

Like Nero, this bald successor kept a favourite eunuch for sex; the verses which celebrate the cutting of this eunuch’s golden hair and its dedication to the gods are not the most distinguished in Latin poetry. As under Nero, the gainer was Roman architecture. In Alexandria and the East, including the desert cityof Petra, there had already been a bold baroque splendour to architecture which was quite at odds with the repetitive classicism of Augustan good taste. It now had a renewed chance in Rome. The list of buildings which were restored or initiated in the city in Domitian’s reign is conspicuous, but the boldest was his own great palace on the Palatine hill. Ever accessible and ‘civil’, Vespasian had avoided living on the hill, but Domitian’s new palace was completed on it in 92 by the architectural genius, Rabirius. There were two separate parts and the rooms made a remarkable use of polygonal shapes, coloured marbles from distant quarries, light-effects, exceptional height and passages. Its nearby hippodrome was apparently more a feature of the gardens than a real racecourse. Appropriately, the vast palace-complex was sited on top of Nero’s earlier building and, when a thousand senators and knights sat down to dinner in the Banqueting Hall, the spectacle was not so much black, as amazing. Under a high gilded roof, ‘the tired eye scarcely reached the summit’, wrote the poet Statius, ‘and you would think it was the golden ceiling of the sky’.8 The approach to the area was through a temple of ancient Jupiter. Comparisons between Domitian and Jupiter and their two palaces were favoured, but the emperor himself claimed the closest kinship with the goddess Minerva, mistress of the arts and war. There were mirrors, however, in the palace so that Domitian could always watch his own back.

Domitian’s insecurity and love of ‘luxury’ were intolerable and like Nero he was murdered by his own palace-attendants. As he had no sons, there was scope for those in the plot to choose their own candidate. Revealingly, they chose the elderly Nerva, sixty years old, a noble patrician by birth, a respected senator and also without sons. The full Senate then approved their choice, someone who was, at last, a mature insider. It was not just that he had written admired Latin elegies in his youth. Rather, three times in the last thirty years, Nerva had been honoured highly after crises in the emperors’ management of affairs. His ancestors had been lawyers and he himself probably had a knowledge of law. In 71 he had been honoured most remarkably with a consulship: perhaps it was a reward for co-ordinating work on the ‘law’ for Vespasian’s powers in the previous year.

It is Nerva, not Titus or Vespasian, who reallyis the ‘good’ emperor. At last, senatorial contemporaries could proclaim the reconciliation of ‘freedom’ and the Principate. Nerva’s coins publicized ‘Public Freedom’ and an inscription set in the ‘Hall of Liberty’ at Rome read, ‘Liberty Restored’. Of course the system was not undone, but the popular assemblies at Rome did meet and exercise ‘liberty’ by passing laws. The hateful Domitian’s statues were melted down and his name ‘abolished’ on monuments. But Domitian’s appointments and rulings did have to be confirmed: too many people, including senators, had gained from them.

Besides promoting freedom, Nerva understood the importance of standing out against injustice and luxury. He corrected the harsh effects of the inheritance tax on new citizens and extreme applications of the Jewish tax on Jews and sympathizers. The accusers in tax cases in his provinces could no longer be the judges too; there were no longer to be prosecutions for slandering the emperor, and philosophy was granted public support. Spectacularly, Nerva sold off land, even clothing, in imperial ownership. He forswore ‘luxury’, and also directed ‘liberality’ towards poor people in Italy: money was set aside to buy them plots of land. It was all good policy, but the imperial system did not rest only on goodness. There were the all-important soldiers and the guards in Rome.

Optimistically, Nerva’s coins proclaimed ‘Concord of the Armies’. However, the troops still liked Domitian, who had raised their pay, and in autumn 97 the Praetorian guards forced Nerva to approve a brutal execution of Domitian’s murderers. Someone more robust and military was manifestly needed. There was talk later of an outright coup but it was probably with Nerva’s own agreement that he announced a soldier as his adopted heir. The choice was Trajan, a man from a colonial settlement in Spain with a distinguished military father and experience with the armies in Germany. Behind the adoption plan we can detect two senators, one of whom was Frontinus, a former governor of Britain, distinguished for his efforts in Wales, and the acknowledged authority on Rome’s aqueducts.

The new pair of Nerva and ‘son’ might have worked very well for some years, each complementing the other. However, after three months Nerva unexpectedly died. In the footsteps of Vespasian’s Flavian dynasty, he bequeathed to his successor a governing class at Rome which, inevitably, was much changed in tone and composition. Not only had prominent Greek-speakers from the East entered the Senate (Domitian’s patronage had been important here, in keeping with his cultural tastes). Vespasian, from ‘little Italy’, had helped to replenish the Senate with yet more members from ‘little Italy’ too. The legal statement of his powers had been acceptable to these new men, but then Domitian had elevated himself too far above them. By defying their moral values and standards, Domitian had shown up both the strengths and limitations of what such people stood for. After his death senators were quick to dare to condemn him, but they were equallyquick to justify themselves and their recent compromises. For there was so much which was best left unsaid. As a principled dinner-guest once aptly remarked to Nerva, if the worst of Domitian’s informers had still been alive, they would doubtless have been dining in their company with Nerva too.9

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