Pro Caelio by Cicero (56 BC)

Background

Marcus Tullius Cicero gave the speech known as Pro Caelio on 4 April 56 BC in defence of his young protegé and one-time friend, Marcus Caelius Rufus, generally known as Caelius.

The full background to the trial is staggeringly complicated. It is explained in great detail and with admirable clarity by D.H. Berry, editor and translator of the excellent Oxford University Press edition of (five) Defence Speeches by Cicero (2000).

The Cataline conspiracy

In 63 BC Cicero was consul during the crisis of the Cataline Conspiracy i.e. the attempt of the disgruntled aristocrat to lead an armed overthrow of the Roman state. He was in north Italy raising an insurrectionary army when five leading conspirators, including some senators, were caught in Rome and implicated by letters and then confessed. Cicero led a debate in the senate about what to do with them which concluded by voting to execute them and Cicero led them straightaway to the state execution or carnifex who did the deed.

In the years that followed various of Cicero’s enemies developed the accusation that, because the five had never been granted a full (long and probably delayed) trial, they had been illegally killed – and that Cicero was therefore guilty of murder and treason (killing senators).

One of the lead proponents of this view was the nasty piece of work known as Publius Clodius Pulcher, an eccentric scion of the distinguished Claudius clan, who had arranged to be adopted by a plebeian family in order to stand for office as tribune of the plebs. He used this office to pass measures designed to appeal to the people and made rabble-rousing speeches. He developed a following of thugs who terrorised the streets of Rome and even beat up senators and other magistrates.

Cicero sent into exile

In 58 BC, while serving as tribune, Clodius got a law passed declaring it treason to have any Roman citizen put to death without a trial. Everyone knew this was directed at Cicero and his precipitate action in having the five high-ranking Catiline conspirators executed – so he swiftly packed up his things and went into exile, in Greece.

He was gone for a long, miserable 18 months during which Clodius had his house in Rome torn down and had a temple to Liberty build over the ruins, as well as having Cicero’s other properties around Italy looted and sacked.

But the mood in Rome changed. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known in English as Pompey, had acquiesced in Cicero’s exile but then Clodius got above himself and started attacking Pompey verbally and attacking some of his lieutenants in the street. Pompey and the other members of the triumvirate realised they’d let Clodius get out of control. Pompey signalled to his followers that he would support Cicero’s exile being ended and so a law was raised and passed declaring Cicero innocent of any wrongdoing.

So Cicero made a triumphant return to Brundisium and the a triumphant progress across south Italy feted in every town as the Father of the Nation. In his absence Clodius had not only destroyed his homes but sponsored mistreatment of his wife, Terentia. So the two men were at daggers drawn.

Marcus Caelius Rufus

Now to Marcus Caelius Rufus. Born in 82 BC, and so 24 years younger than Cicero, Caelius had been Cicero’s pupil and protégé, learning the arts of politics and oratory at first hand. In 63, however, he was intoxicated, like many others, by the revolutionary rhetoric of the half-mad Cataline and supported his bid to become consul (the same election which was won by Lucius Licinius Murena, who Cicero had defended in another famous speech).

He appears to have abandoned the Cataline cause when the latter when postal and decided to launch an all-out insurrection. Instead Caelius went off to serve as assistant to the governor of Africa from 62 to 60. Back in Rome he began to make a name for himself as a lawyer by launching a prosecution against Gaius Antonius Hybrida, the man who had been co-consul with Cicero in 63, and who had ‘led’ the army which finally defeated Catalina in the field.

Cicero didn’t much like Antonius but figured the state owed him a debt of gratitude and so defended him – but Caelius won the case, defeating his old master. Inspired by his success, Caelius moved to the smart set on the Palatine Hill and rented a room from Clodius, close to the residence of his sister, Clodia. Clodia’s husband had recently died (59 BC) and it was widely rumoured that Caelius became her lover.

As described above, in 58 Clodius held office as tribune and got Cicero exiled; 18 months later in 57 Cicero was triumphantly recalled. Then at the end of 57 or beginning of 56 Caelius broke with the Clodiuses. Did she dump him, did the men fallout? We don’t know, but Berry thinks the most likely reason is that Caelius had switched his political allegiance from the Clodii to Pompey, who was increasingly antagonistic to them. Whatever the exact reason, in their venomous way the brother and sister decided to take revenge.

Lucius Calpurnius Bestia

The proximate cause of the trouble was the trial of Lucius Calpurnius Bestia. Caelius was prosecuting Bestia for malpractice in the elections for the praetorship of 57, in which Bestia stood unsuccessfully. Now this Bestia had been on trial no fewer than four times previously, and Cicero had defended and got him acquitted on each occasion. So now he defended Bestia against his old protégé, Caelius, and won again. However, Caelius was not daunted. Bestia was planning to stand for the praetorship this year as well and so Caelius launched yet another prosecution against him.

But at this point Bestia’s son, Lucius Sempronius Atratinus, got involved. He realised the best form of defence is attack and so launched a pre-emptive prosecution against Caelius. If Caelius was convicted he would be unable to take forward his prosecution of Bestia. Atratinus needed to move fast to protect his dad and so launched the prosecution in the violence court (quaestio de vi) which, unlike other courts, sat during public holidays. (This fact would be central to Cicero’s speech.) And, crucially, Atratinus’s attack on Caelius attracted the support of Clodius and his sister. They agreed to be witnesses against Caelius and suggested some additional charges against him (see below for the charges).

Caelius was an experienced orator and so elected to defend himself – but he also managed to persuade the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus to join him. Improbably, he also persuaded Cicero to join his defence. You’d have thought there was no love lost between Cicero and his protégé who had betrayed him twice over, once joining the diabolical Catalina, and then allying with his nemesis, Clodius. But it seems that Cicero invoked that timeless equation, my enemy’s enemy is my friend: anyone who Clodius hated must be worth defending.

Ptolemy XII of Egypt

There’s more? Yes, involving – bizarrely enough – the king of Egypt. In 80 BC Alexander of Egypt died and bequesthed his nation to Rome. The throne was usurped, however, by Ptolemy XII ‘Auletes’ who proceeded to rule with the nervous knowledge that at any moment Rome might step in to claim its prize. Thus he sucked up to the Romans at every turn, much to the dislike of his people. When the triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey took power in 60 BC Ptolemy offered to pay them the huge sum of 6,000 talents in exchange for formal recognition of his title. But when he tried to collect it from h is people they rebelled and expelled him from the kingdom.

Ptolemy took refuge in Rome where he borrowed and got into debt lobbying and bribing Roman politicians to raise an army to restore him to power. But the Egyptians didn’t want him back and so in 57 sent a deputation of their best men, led by the Academic philosopher Dio, to put their case before the senate. Ptolemy’s response was to try and get the leading men assassinated, to organise an uprising against them when they stopped in Naples and to bribe slaves in the noble houses where they stayed in Rome to kill them.

At the end of 57 the senate finally found in Ptolemy’s favour but then someone found a reference in the Sibylline books which allegedly forbade it, so the senate rescinded its gesture. Pompey was lobbying to be appointed general in charge of restoring Ptolemy against his rebellious population when, early in 56, Dio was murdered.

Everybody suspected everybody else – the killing obviously suited Ptolemy who wanted the delegation to fail and Pompey who wanted the generalship of imposing Ptolemy on his reluctant people – and a number of prosecutions swiftly followed.

First an agent of Pompey’s, Asicius, was tried for the murder of Dio; Cicero defended him and he was acquitted.

Next we come to the case brought against Caelius by Atratinus. As we have seen this was predominantly motivated by Atratinus’s wish to have Caelius convicted so he wouldn’t be able to prosecute his (Atratinus’s) father, Bestia, for the sixth time. The Clodii were persuaded to join the prosecution against Caelius because a) they had a personal grudge against him, mixed up with the way he had ceased to be Clodia’s lover, nobody knows the details but it obviously left them both furious; and b) it was a way of getting at Pompey, who Clodius now hated.

The charges

The prosecution brought five charges against Caelius, all relating to the disturbances surrounding Dio’s embassy to Rome, namely:

  1. the civil disturbances which affected the Egyptian delegation in Naples
  2. assaults on the delegation at Puteoli
  3. damage to the property of Palla (nobody knows who Palla is but presumably something connected with the above)
  4. taking gold for the attempted murder of Dio and then the attempted poisoning of Clodia: in more detail the charge was that Caelius borrowed gold from Clodia under false pretences, with the intention of using it to bribe servants at the house where Dio was staying to murder him; then, when Clodia discovered what Caelius was planning, Caelius attempted to bribe some of her slaves to poison her in order to shut her up
  5. the murder of Dio – Caelius was accused of being in league with Asicius to have Dio murdered (despite the illogic of the fact that Asicius had, by the time of the trial, been qcuitted – and by Cicero, who therefore had intimate knowledge of all the circumstances surrounding the murder

The preceding speeches

Prosecution

Atratinus spoke first and made an extended attack on Caelius’s character, calling him a ‘pretty boy Jason’, a loose-living, immoral lover of luxury, corrupt and used to committing bribery and violence.

Clodius Confusingly, Berry thinks the ‘Clodius’ who spoke at the trial was not the Clodius but someone who shared the name or a freed slave. We don’t have a transcript but it is likely he deplored the treatment of the Egyptian delegation, criticised Pompey for his support for the corrupt and unpopular Ptolemy, and referred to the evidence Clodia would give at the end of the trial to the effect that a friend of Caelius’s was caught handing poison to some of her, Clodia’s, slaves, having bribed them to poison her with it.

Lucius Herrenius Balbus closing the case for the prosecution, Balbus repeated the accusations of immorality against Caelius, and therefore his unfitness to be continuing the prosecution of Bestia (i.e. fulfilling the core aim of Atratinus who brought the prosecution in the first place.)

Defence

Caelius spoke in his own defence, wittily referring to Clodia as a ‘one-penny Clytemnestra’ i.e. a loose women who murdered her husband (she was suspected of poisoning him). We don’t have his speech either, but it is logical to imagine that he defended himself against all five of the charges.

Crassus ditto, presumably addressed the charges.

Cicero’s speech pro Caelio

Cicero was (as he preferred to be) the third and final of the three defence speakers.

Cicero takes advantage of the fact that the trial was taking place on the first day of the Megalensian games. While everyone else was watching the games in the circus the jury of 75 was stuck all day in the forum listening to this legal case. Therefore Cicero sets out to entertain them, by adopting a jocular tone throughout, telling jokes, impersonating famous people.

Above all it is a relentlessly ad hominem attack on the plaintiffs. In this respect it is a classic example of misdirection. Instead of answering any of the prosecution’s arguments, Cicero turns his speech into a) a defence of Caelius’s character but above all b) a devastating attack on one of the chief movers of the case, Clodia.

In this trial, members of the jury, everything has to do with Clodia, a woman who is not only of aristocratic birth, but notorious. (31)

an impetuous, capricious and angry woman (55)

With a woman like that anything is possible (69)

He is witheringly insulting. The prosecution had painted Rufus as a pretty-boy Jason, but in the ancient story Jason was seduced by the monster of anger and revenge, Medea, and so Cicero is not slow to compare Clodia to Medea, calling her the ‘Medea of the Palatine’ (18). He compares her to a prostitute (1, 37, 48, 49, 50, 57) and a sex-starved matron. He accuses her of incest (32, 34). He says the entire case only exists because of her ‘insupportable passion and bitter hatred’ (2), ‘to gratify the whim of a licentious woman’ (70), that it originates from:

a malevolent, disreputable, vindictive, crime-ridden, lust-ridden house (55)

and:

a household like this in which the lady of the house behaves like a prostitute, in which nothing that goes on is fit to be made public, in which perverted lusts, extravagant living, and all kinds of outlandish vices and outrages are rife (57)

The prosecution had calculated that Caelius would not reveal that he was actually Clodia’s lover and he apparently didn’t – but Cicero did, and depicted Clodia as a nymphomaniac who, if she was spurned, lied, bribed and cheater her way to revenge. Cicero admits their liaison but in such a way as to make Clodia seem the main mover of it, an immoral seducer and then, once spurned, a vengeful harpy. By sleight of hand, or deft presentation, Cicero manages to reveal the affair but have Caelius emerge unblemished. Thus Cicero didn’t address any of the charges, but dismissed them all as the pretexts of a deranged nymphomaniac.

He associates Clodia with Baiae, the southern resort which had become associated with decadence and immorality:

Baiae talks all right, and not only that, it resounds with this report – that the lusts of a single woman have sunk to such depths that she does not merely decline to seek seclusion and darkness with which to veil her immoralities, but openly revels in the most disgusting practices amid crowds of onlookers and in the broadest light of day! (47)

Cicero does address the two specific charges that Caelius took gold from Clodia under false pretences to pay for the murder of Dio, and that, when she found out, he tried to poison her. But he very effectively destroys the plausibility of both charges. Why on earth did she give him such a large amount of gold, unless he was her lover? And as to the entire story about Caelius attempting to poison Clodia when she discovered what he was really using the gold for, Cicero subjects this to a long forensic deconstruction, which demolishes every step of the supposed narrative as wildly improbable until the whole story collapses (56 onwards).

But he goes one further. He pounces on the entire notion of poison and makes the prosecution realise they made a terrible mistake raising it: because Clodia herself was suspected of poisoning her husband, and Cicero describes the death bed scene of this husband, Quintus Metellus, in harrowing detail and in a subtle way so as to implicate Clodia in his death – all in such a way as to completely distract attention away from Caelius.

But far longer is the passage where he ridicules the entire notion of Clodia recruiting men friends to wait concealed in the public baths till they say Lucinius hand over the famous box of poison to one of her slaves. Where are these brave hiders, Cicero asks. What are their names, why have they not been produced by the prosecution, where did they hide, in an actual bath or was there a wooden horse nearby, like at Troy? You can imagine the jury rocking with laughter. Over 2,000 years later it’s still funny and funnier because Cicero keeps piling on the comic exaggeration and ridiculous variations on the prosecution’s narrative, reducing it to smoking wreckage.

This itself is a triumph of the barrister’s manipulating art. But the OUP editor Berry makes a further point. The entire case had a very fraught political significance. The Roman public had been outraged by the shameless murder of an emissary from a foreign country who had come to live, unprotected, among them. It breached very profound codes of hospitality and civilisation. Everyone knew that Pompey supported Dio’s enemy, Ptolemy, and so the case had the serious potential to badly unravel and make Pompey very unpopular.

By focusing on Clodia alone, Cicero managed to contain this: he eclipsed the genuine outrage felt by many over the murder with a pantomime act. Personalising it depoliticised it. It also meant Cicero didn’t have to take a view either way, doing which would have risked alienating either the people or Pompey. Instead he ignored the charges and produced a Carry On entertainment which gave everyone a good laugh.

Each of the Cicero speeches in this volume has a moment when the argument ends, and the conclusion begins. Having read two of them I can begin to see how each speech ends with a description of the distressed family of the accused, and a sentimental appeal to the jury not to condemn the wife, children, mother or father of the accused to misery and shame, in Caelius’s case, Cicero paints a heart-breaking portrait of Caelius’s father as an old man with no-one else to look after him.

The result

Caelius was acquitted which allowed him, against Atratinus’s plans, to proceed with his prosecution of Bestia. Once again Cicero defended Bestia but lost. Bestia went into exile.

The next year, 55, Ptolemy was restored to the Egyptian throne by bribing the governor of Syria, Aulus Gabinius with the eye-watering sum of 10,000 talents. On his return to Rome Gabinius was prosecuted for this, Cicero defended him but lost and Gabinius also was sent into exile.

Ptolemy ruled until his death in 51 when he divided the throne between his son, Ptolemy XIII and daughter Cleopatra VII. It was his deep involvement in the cause of their father, which led Pompey, after his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48, to decide to make his way to Egypt to seek sanctuary with Auletes son. This was a fateful decision because Ptolemy XIII’s advisers told him Julius Caesar would like it if he eliminated his rival – and so Pompey was brutally murdered as he set foot ashore in Egypt (Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, chapter 79).

Caelius was elected tribune in 52. This was the year when Clodius was finally murdered, by his longstanding rival Titus Annius Milo, and Caelius helped Cicero defend his killers (see another of Cicero’s best-known speeches, Pro Milone).

In 51 Cicero reluctantly acquiesced in being sent by the senate to be governor of Cilicia, now south-west Turkey. Caelius was elected aedile, in Rome, while he was away and any reader of Cicero’s letters is familiar with the way Cicero had him promise to send him all the news and gossip he could gather. Caelius memorably keeps needling Cicero to send him some panthers so he can make a splash at the public games which he, as aedile, was charged with organising.

When the civil war broke out Caelius made the right call and supported Caesar and was appointed one of the praetors. However, he put forward radical plans for debt relief against the wishes of his fellow praetors, which caused a riot and he was suspended from office. He fled Rome and, along with Milo, who he had helped defend 4 years earlier, tried to foment a revolt against Caesar, but they were both killed by Caesar’s troops. Few, if any, happy endings in ancient Rome.


Credit

Defence Speeches by Cicero, translated and edited by D.H. Berry, was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

Related links

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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 5. The emperors

The Roman Emperors

The last 200 pages of SPQR (pages 330 to 530) cover the first 250 years of the Roman Empire, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 AD to the reign of Caracalla (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) who reigned from 198 to 217. Beard chooses the reign of Caracalla to end her book because he took the revolutionary step of granting the entire free population of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship thus bringing to a kind of completion the process of assimilation and integration of foreign peoples which she has singled out as, from the start, one of the distinguishing features of the Roman state (p.334).

Beard starts by describing in some detail the machinations following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, which led to the creation of the second triumvirate of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus (p.341). These three commanded armies which went after the armies led by the main assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. These two had fled Italy to the East where they amassed armies and were assigned provinces to govern by the Senate. This led in quick succession to:

42: the Battle of Philippi in Greece where Octavian and Antony defeated the Republicans under Brutus and Cassius (p.342). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide i.e. the assassins of Caesar were defeated and killed.

Over the next few years Octavian and Mark Antony remained in uneasy alliance, falling out then patching things up. In one attempt to cement their alliance, Anthony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, in 40.

36: Octavian stripped Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial role of Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest), leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy (p.346).

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will (it was stashed in the temple of the Vestal Virgins) and read it out in the Forum. He claimed it showed that Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

31: Open war finally breaks out between Octavian and Antony. At the Battle of Actium Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who flee to Egypt and commit suicide, leaving Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the invented title of ‘Augustus’ by the Roman Senate (p.340). Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.

Beard makes the simple but powerful point that the Roman polity had been evolving towards power being wielded by one man for some time. Gaius Marius (157 to 86) who was given extraordinary powers to prosecute the Cimbrian and Jugurthine wars was maybe the first precursor. His subordinate and rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78), who twice marched his legions into Rome itself, causing civil disturbance and ordering the massacre of his political enemies (in 88 and 82), is an even more glaring precursor.

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’.

I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, by 31 BC.

The emperors

The emperors are often grouped into dynasties. Thus the first five emperors are referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty because they all belonged to one of two closely related families, the Julii Caesares and Claudii Nerones.

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

  • Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37)
  • Caligula (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)

Year of 4 emperors

  • Galba (June 68 to January 69)
  • Otho (January to April 69)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July to December 69)
  • Vespasian (December 69 to 79) founded the Flavian dynasty

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

  • Vespasian
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)
  • Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

  • Trajan (98 to 117)
  • Hadrian (117 to 138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)
  • Lucius Verus (161 to 169) ruled alongside Aurelius
  • Commodus (177 to 192)

Year of the Five Emperors 193

Commodus was assassinated leading to a period of confusion when the title of emperor was contested by no fewer than five claimants, Publius Helvius Pertinax , Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus, the latter emerging as winner.

  • Septimius Severus (193 to 211)
  • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus known as Caracalla (198 to 217)

Augustus

The pivotal figure is Augustus who arrived in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar, a fresh-faced youth of 18 who had been adopted as Caesar’s legal heir, went on to defeat all his adversaries, emerged as the most powerful men in Rome, and went on to rule for longer (30 BC to 14 AD) than any other Roman before or since, longer than any of the legendary kings, longer than any succeeding emperor.

Beard devotes a long chapter to Augustus (chapter 9, pages 337 to 385) listing his extraordinary achievements yet highlighting the paradox that, although we know more about his official deeds than almost any other figure, yet he remains an opaque and mysterious figure.

More statues of Augustus survive than any other emperor (250). He was very effective indeed at spreading his image and imperium right across the empire, using coins, statues, inscriptions, public games and extensive new architecture and town planning to spread a consistent ideology and image of imperial rule. To him is attributed the famous saying: ‘I found the city made of brick and left it built of marble’.

Augustus oversaw elections with such precision that the democratic process withered. He assigned the Senate new perks and privileges but stripped it of real political power. Rather than an independent source of power in the complex constitution of the republic, the Senate became more and more just one wing of the imperial administration. He was elected consul an unprecedented eleven times, but in one of many unprecedented moves held the power of consul at the same time as holding the full power of a tribune. He took over complete and lasting power of the army by personally appointing all legionary commanders and making himself governor of every single province which had a military presence (p.355). Under the republic ‘triumphs’ had been awarded to victorious generals. Augustus changed the rules so that in future they could only be assigned to emperors or male members of the imperial family.

Augustus added more territory to the Roman empire than any ruler before or after (p.364). He was rich by an order of magnitude more than any previous man in Rome and personally paid for unprecedentedly lavish gladiatorial games and shows. And he patronised three of the greatest Latin poets, Horace, Ovid and above all Vergil, who created everlasting works of literature which, implicitly or explicitly, sing the praises of his rule.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this one man created the template which all subsequent emperors copied for 400 years (p.384). And yet his character and his intentions remain a mystery, even though, towards the end of his life, he wrote a ten page, official autobiography, the Res Gestae (pages 360 to 368). This amounts to a long list of his achievements but manages to shed no light at all on his character. Not for nothing did the signet ring which he used to impress on the hot wax sealing official correspondence carry the image of the sphinx (p.358).

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

After dwelling on the pivotal figure of Augustus at length, Beard’s account then devotes just one chapter to the fourteen or so successors who take us through to the emperor Caracalla (pages 387 to 434).

And Beard has OIne Big Idea about the emperors which, like a lot of her idées fixes, she repeats half a dozen times (on pages 336, 397, 398, 404, 406, 412 and 426). This is that, despite their superficial differences and all the garish stories told about them, the emperors who followed Augustus were all basically the same. By this she means that they performed the same political function working within the same centralised administrative system.

Whatever their idiosyncracies, virtues, vices or backgrounds, whatever the different names we know them by, they were all better or worse reincarnations of Augustus, operating within the model of autocracy he established and dealing with the problems that he left unresolved. (p.385)

She gives us a vivid description of the assassination of the ‘mad’ emperor Caligula in January 41 AD as he walked through a corridor of his palace on the Palatine hill after watching a morning of games held in memory of Augustus. He was murdered by three members of his Praetorian guard, apparently motivated by a personal grudge rather than any grand political conspiracy. Chaos ensued. Other, loyal, members of his bodyguard ran through the palace killing anyone suspected of involvement in the ‘plot’; in the Senate politicians swapped fine speeches about the overthrow of a tyrant and the restoration of ancient liberties. But the reality was that other members of the Praetorian guard had found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace, dragged him out and acclaimed him emperor. All sorts of complicated negotiations followed, with Claudius paying the guards handsomely for their support and negotiating a deal with the Senate to recognise him. But, in the end, under all the gory details – one emperor was replaced by another and, in a sense, nothing had changed.

Beyond making it absolutely clear that the emperors had become a permanent fixture, the killing of Gaius had no significant impact on the long history of imperial rule at all. That was one thing the assassins of 41 AD had in common with the assassins of 44 BC, who killed one autocrat (Julius Caesar) only to end up with another (Augustus). For all the excitement generated by the murder of Gaius, the suspense, the uncertainty of the moment and the flirtation with Republicanism, as brief as it was unrealistic, the end result was another emperor on the throne who was not at all unlike the one he had replaced. (p.397)

And:

The emperors were more similar to one another than they were different, and it took only some superficial adjustments to turn one into another. Assassinations were minor interruptions to the grander narrative of imperial rule. (p.398)

Certainly, the system evolved – the imperial administration staff grew enormously between 14 and 212 AD (pages 408 to 411) – but the fundamental role the emperor played in the imperial system remained the same. The vast majority of the empire’s population wouldn’t have noticed the rule of one emperor from another, apart from the face on the coins and scraps of gossip, if they ever got to hear them.

Whatever the views of Suetonius and other ancient writers, the qualities and character of the individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments. (p.404)

And:

Outside the narrow circle [of the court] and certainly outside the city of Rome…it can hardly have made much difference who was on the throne, or what their personal habits or intrigues were. And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic or mad as they were painted, it made little difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes. Beneath the scandalous tales…there was a remarkably stable structure of rule and…a remarkably stable set of problems and tensions across the period. (p.406)

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject.

Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

If you are looking for a good chronological account of the emperors this is emphatically not the book for you. She has a little section considering the vices and scandalous stories, especially about the early emperors, peddled by later historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus (pages 398 to 403) – but only to dismiss them as tittle-tattle and tell us she aims to delve beneath the gossip to address the deeper structural questions about the way the empire was created and administered, how its evolution changed Romans’ identity and culture, and so on.

And you know what – her book is much the better for it. Once she’s stated she’s going to abandon chronology and proceed by examining themes and issues, she and the reader can both relax. Now she’s  explicitly said she’s not going to give a chronological account I’m not expecting one; instead I can enjoy her rambling, discursive discussions of various issues surrounding imperial rule, which are often genuinely interesting.

Problems with the imperial system

She focuses on three issues: arranging the succession, relations with the Senate, and problems defining the precise status of the emperor (p.414).

1. The succession

The main and obvious problem, which the Romans never really solved, was how to arrange the succession from one emperor to the next (p.420). In practice there was a range of mechanisms:

a) First born son

It’s a surprise to learn that, despite being such a patriarchal society, the Romans didn’t have a strong tradition of primogeniture i.e. that a father is always succeeded by his eldest son (p.415).

b) In the family

Certainly rulers liked to keep the succession within the family, hence the grouping of the emperors into a series of family dynasties. But lacking an insistence on the primacy of the eldest son, the exact relation of a succeeding heir was often fairly remote.

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

A Roman aristocrat could — either during his life or in his will — adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. The adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. The most famous example is Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius who thereafter referred to himself as Gaius Julius Caesar (p.339).

Augustus, Caligula and Nero failed to father biological and legitimate sons. Tiberius’ own son, Drusus predeceased him. Only Claudius was outlived by his son, Britannicus, although he opted to promote his adopted son Nero as his successor to the throne.

Thus adoption became the most common tool that Julio-Claudian emperors use to promote their chosen heir to the front of the succession:

  • Augustus — himself an adopted son of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar — adopted his stepson Tiberius as his son and heir.
  • Tiberius, in turn, adopted his nephew Germanicus, the father of Caligula and brother of Claudius (Germanicus himself dying before he could inherit).
  • Caligula adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus (grandson of the Tiberius) shortly before executing him.
  • Claudius adopted his great-nephew and stepson Nero.
  • It was Nero’s failure to have either a natural or an adopted son of his own which brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end.

d) Acclamation by army

Augustus had concentrated control of the army into his hands alone, but in the long term he failed to prevent the intervention of the army in politics. On a small scale, it was the Praetorian Guard who acclaimed Claudius emperor in 41 AD, but things got worse. After the death of Nero, in 68, four different military leaders laid claim to the throne in one confused 12 month period, each backed up by army units from different provinces (p.417).

e) Dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time

The classic example being Claudius happening to be in the imperial palace in the vital minutes after the murder of Caligula and so acclaimed by the Praetorian Guard, the most heavily armed group in the city, which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Senate, and so achieve the throne (p.416).

Interestingly, Beard reinterprets all the lurid stories about imperial wives poisoning their husbands, not as being motivated by a wish to get rid of them, as such; but to ensure the correct timing; to make sure they died when then chosen successor was on the spot and so best placed to claim the throne (p.416).

2. Relations with the Senate

Augustus gave the Senate more honours and extended its privileges, but sought to reduce its power. In a series of complicated constitutional adjustments he sought to convert the Senate from an independent body into an arm of the imperial administration.

A small number resisted imperial rule so vehemently that they managed to get executed or forced to commit suicide. Some left writings criticising various emperors, though the wise wrote as historians, safely criticising emperors from previous centuries or dynasties.

When they had opportunities to intervene at crisis points, after the assassination of Caligula in 41, after the death of Nero in 68, the Senate failed to act. Easier to moan and complain than to actually step up to the plate and assume power. Their failure in both instances proves how irrevocably the state had come under the rule of one man.

Over time the nature of the Senate (when generally numbered about 600 members) changed, with more and more members coming from provincial families. The values of the Republic receded into tales of the ‘good old days’ that no one alive could ever realistically think of reviving.

3. The emperor’s status

Was he a man or a god or something in between? Augustus was careful to pose as ‘the first among equals’, emphatically denying and censoring any reference to him as king or dictator, at most allowing the word princeps to describe his status.

As to divinity, Caesar was officially recognised as a god 2 years after his death, in 42 BC, so a precedent had been set. Augustus was recognised as a god after his death and so was Claudius after his (p.429).

Beard brings out several key points. Number one is that no-one venerated a living emperor as a god, that would have been considered a gross error. The emperors were only deified after their deaths, when their spirits were considered as having ascended into heaven.

But as the first century AD progressed the emperors were increasingly treated very like gods, especially in the superstitious east, with its confusing medley of divinities. Thus living emperors found themselves included in rituals to the gods and addressed in language which overlapped with divine language (p.431). In one town records survive which show that religious ceremonies were carried out to the gods and on behalf of the emperor. No matter how thin it became, a distinction was always made.

Summary

The two chapters, one about Augustus and one giving an overview of the emperors who followed him, are the best thing in the book, because they showcase Beard’s non-chronological, thematic approach to best advantage. There are dates and events, of course, but they are merely the springboards for Beard’s explorations of themes and issues, which include interesting references to a wide range of contemporary Roman writers’ opinions and gossip about the emperors, alongside thoughtful analysis of the structural problems and issues of imperial rule, listed above. These two chapters are interesting, informative and entertaining.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

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