It is easy to think of Roman emperors as omnipotent rulers who could do (and did) whatever struck their fancy. The truth is more complex – and arguably more interesting (if less sensational). The duration and success of an emperor’s reign depended not least on the way he interacted with a range of individuals and groups, which needed ‘to accept’ him:
It would be misleading... to conceptualize the emperor as an omnipotent monarch capable of dominating his far-flung empire. The structural limitations to the practical power of Roman emperors were simply too great. Aristocratic competitors could be very dangerous, especially those in command of legions stationed in the periphery. From such potential pretenders to the throne the threat of usurpation could never be extinguished entirely. Less acute but more constant pressure came from those groups within Roman imperial society that were capable of meaningful collective action in the public sphere. Especially significant were the senate, the plebs urbana of Rome, and the legionary armies. With these influential collectivities the emperor was in constant dialogue, both real and symbolic, interacting with each in a highly prescribed manner calculated to elicit the public displays of consensus, or ‘acceptance’, upon which imperial legitimacy ultimately rested.
In addition to the social groups identified by Noreña, we should recognize the imperial family and the court, its personnel, and its social dynamics as major factors in how power worked during the principate. Relatives with ‘dynastic’ credentials joined ambitious aristocrats as potential pretenders to the throne.(Nero kills off in cold blood one such, Junius Torquatus Silanus, in our set text: see Annals 15.35 and Section 5 below.) The daily proximity to the emperor turned female figures of the court (mothers, wives, mistresses) into potential power brokers but also potential victims of imperial whim: Agrippina and Poppaea are prime examples of both in Tacitus’ Nero-narrative. The same is true of the emperor’s closest advisors and high-ranking members of his staff, frequently highly skilled (and highly loyal) freedmen. Senatorial sources tend to look askance at such – from a republican point of view – ‘interlopers’ in the Roman field of power. Neither women nor freedmen shared in political decision-making in republican times, but now could wield greater influence than many a distinguished senator, simply because they had easy access to, and the ear of, the emperor. The same goes for the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, the bodyguard of the emperor and the most significant military presence in the city of Rome.
What made being a Roman emperor so difficult was the fact that each constituency brought a different set of expectations to bear on their princeps:the ideal emperor of the army was never going to be the ideal emperor of the senate was never going to be the ideal emperor of the people. Moreover, the groups were in latent rivalry with one another for access to the emperor and for his attention, which caused potential problems in those settings – such as public games – when he interacted with several simultaneously: gestures of special proximity or favour towards the plebs, for instance, might miff the ruling élite (and vice versa). Finally, the groupings themselves were not necessarily homogeneous. At the opening of Annals 16, for instance, Tacitus reports in disgust that the urban plebs reacted to Nero’s public performance as cithara player with enthusiasm and delight, yet goes on to note with grim satisfaction that this (from his point of view) shameful disgrace of imperial dignity scandalized and saddened those common people who had travelled to the city from remote places in the countryside where the values of old Italy were still alive.
The relation between the emperor and the senatorial ordo, i.e. the politically active members of the élite, was especially fraught, and for various reasons. In comparison with republican times, the aristocracy was particularly affected by the ‘massive and unprecedented relocation of power and authority in the Roman world’ brought about by ‘the advent... of the imperial regime we call the principate.’Élite Romans experienced – and had to cope with and negotiate – ‘concrete social and cultural dislocations ... in the face of the emperor’s power – for example, a reduction of the opportunities and rewards for displaying military prowess, and a perceived aggravation of certain problems associated with flattery.’ They now occupied a paradoxical position in the field of power. On the one hand, they remained rulers of the world: emperor and senators governed the empire together (with the emperor having exclusive control over the army), in close interaction with local élites. (The interaction of centre and periphery is one of the main topics of the first few chapters of the set text.) On the other hand, they were subordinate to the princeps and had to accommodate his existence – not least because the emperor put a cap on senatorial rivalry, preventing the senate from dissolving into suicidal infighting and kicking off civil war. For the Roman aristocracy remained a highly competitive body: senators who pursued a public career vied for prestigious appointments, acted as patrons for others with like ambitions, and desired glory. In contrast to republican times, however, success and effectivness in these roles and undertakings depended in large part on being in favour (or at least not on bad terms) with the emperor – though, as we shall see in Section 6, defying the emperor could also yield a type of fame.
The mutual reliance of princeps and ruling élite in governing the empire and the fact that inner-aristocratic competition over posts and honors now inevitably revolved around the figure of the princeps promoted novel forms of behaviour among the senators. Rituals of consensus, in which senators demonstrated their proximity and loyalty to the princeps, became important; senators vied with each other for recognition by the emperor; some tried to get ahead by charging others with disloyalty: the figure of the informer (delator) who broke with group-solidarity and tried to get others charged with treason (maiestas) – an extreme form of aristocratic rivalry to acquire a position of influence close to the princeps – populates Tacitus’ historical narratives;others endeavoured to make a name for themselves by pursuing a collision course with the emperor – often much to the chagrin of their senatorial peers (see Section 6 below on Thrasea Paetus). Observers with a literary bent (such as Tacitus or Pliny) are often as scathing about their fellow-senators as they are about the behaviour of specific emperors, evaluating senatorial conduct on a moralizing scale that ranges from servility on the one hand to a defiant embrace of republican libertas on the other: ‘The instances of servile behaviour that Tacitus chronicles are legion, and all readers will have their favourites; any selection that is not copious is false to the tone of his writing.’ This is for sure an accurate description of what Tacitus does in his narrative, but we shouldn’t assume that his categorical grid of servitus vs. libertas yields an accurate interpretation of senatorial conduct in imperial Rome – however tempting this may be. As Egon Flaig asks, (as he means it) rhetorically: ‘Were the 600 highest ranking persons of an enormous empire of 60-80 million inhabitants really slaves at heart?’
For members of the senatorial aristocracy, the emperor would ideally conform to the image of the civilis princeps – a ruler in other words who aligned his forms of interaction with the senate according to proto-republican norms and values: freedom of speech; strict limits to adulatio; recognition of the value of republican office which emperor and other aristocrats could hold or aspire to, especially the consulship; investment in a private status – as if an ordinary citizen – in dress and appearance. From an emperor’s point of view, balancing ritual elevation with ritual humility – to be part of the society, not above society – was entirely functional: ‘An emperor whom ritual and ceremonial raised above the level of human society, whose power was represented symbolically as deriving from “outside”, from the gods, owed nothing to the internal structure of the society he ruled. To act, by contrast, as a member of that society, as the peer of its most elevated members, was (symbolically) to associate autocratic power with the social structure. Civility both reinforced the social hierarchy by demonstrating imperial respect for it, and strengthened the autocracy by linking it with the social structure.’Not all emperors felt necessarily obliged to try to confirm to this image (their reigns often came to an abrupt end...); and as we shall see in Section 5 below, different emperors had different notions of what ‘civility’ consisted in.
Consideration of the underlying ‘structure’ of the imperial system also helps to put our sources into perspective – enabling us to read them as highly rhetorical and personally and politically committed views on, rather than entirely accurate representations of, historical realities. Just taking our imperial sources at face value results in the kind of history one gets in the (highly engrossing and actively emetic) BBC-series Horrible Histories, where the ‘Rotten Romans’ feature prominently – and Nero gets the final riff in the ‘Roman Emperor’s Song – Who’s Bad?’, topping the pops against classic competition: the apparently certifiable sociopaths Caligula (emperor 37–41), Elagabalus (218–222), and Commodus (180–192).But the composition of literature by members of the ruling élite was never a neutral activity; rather, it was itself implicated in the imperial configuration of power, in the jostling for position, in exercises of self-promotion: Pliny, Tacitus, and Suetonius wrote (mainly) for fellow aristocrats about a shared world dominated by the emperor – and used their works to define their own status, position, and prestige within it.
Rhetorical myth-making is rampant in Roman historical writing. Most notoriously, our sources show an avowed interest in portraying emperors who for one reason or other fell out of favour as mentally deranged. In many a text, early imperial Rome comes across as a society ruled over by lunatics besotted with power and keen to act on every depraved instinct. Tacitus contributed his share to our image of Roman emperors as evil freaks. Over the last few decades, however, scholarship has increasingly started to question this picture, arguing that your favourite salacious anecdote about imperial Rome (such as Caligula appointing his horse to the consulship) may just be too good to be true – and is in fact a distorting rumour put into circulation posthumously by individuals and groups much invested in blackening the reputation of the deceased emperor.Could it be that our sources are so hostile to certain emperors not because they were deranged – but that they look deranged because our sources are so hostile?
This possibility may come as a let-down. But it shouldn’t: critical debunking of historiographical myth-making is in itself an exciting exercise that opens insights into a foreign culture. Fascination shifts from history to the ‘making’ of history, from the allure of alleged facts to the power of historical fabrications. The question as to why these sensationalizing stories have emerged and been able to colonize our imagination so effectively is arguably just as interesting as trying to put an emperor on the psychiatric couch on the basis of insufficient and distorted evidence. What went down in imperial Rome was not just the power of the sword but the power of the word, especially when it came to shaping (or disfiguring) posthumous reputations.
9 Noreña (2011) 7. His conception of imperial Rome owes much to Paul Veyne (1976) and, in particular, Egon Flaig (1992) (2010).
10 The distinction between ‘real’ and ‘symbolic’ Noreña draws here is perhaps unhelpful – since symbolic interactions were very real as well. Presumably, though, he means to distinguish between interactions that happened face-to-face or had a material dimension and those that happened via symbolic gestures or other media of communication (coins, religious worship etc.). Some forms of interaction, such as the donative to the soldiers on special occasions, had both a material and a symbolic value.
11 The Roman principate was not a hereditary monarchy: the potential for usurpation defined the political system, even though succession frequently followed dynastic principles. See further Bert Lott (2012).
12 We owe appreciation of this point to discussions with Ulrich Gotter.
13 Annals 16.4–5.
14 Roller (2001) 6.
15 Roller (2001) 11.
16 See e.g. Lintott (2001–2003) (including discussion of the republican background) and Rutledge (2001).
17 Oakley (2012a) 188.
18 Flaig (1992) 123 n. 98.
19 Wallace-Hadrill (1982) 47.
20 . For an equivalent in adult entertainment check out History Channel’s Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror.