Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Tacitus, Nero and the 'Pirate' Anicetus

Sometimes the smallest matters can give you a perspective on much bigger issues; in this case, an investigation into the pirate Anicetus throws a light on Tacitus’s methods … and his lies.

The dilemma of Anicetus
Anicetus keeps turning up in Tacitus, primarily as Nero’s Mr ‘Can Do’. We are told that he was a freedman who became Nero’s tutor. He first appears in Annals 14.3 as Prefect of the Misenum fleet, discussing the problem of how to get rid of Nero’s mother … and, when that plan goes wrong (and Seneca and Burrus just look at each other) it is Anicetus who steps up to accomplish his promise and who, with two henchmen, assassinates Agrippina. Still later, having received no punishment (and little reward), he is called on again and told to admit to adultery with Octavia, so that she can be banished to Pandateria. This time he is rewarded, albeit with a comfortable ‘exile’ in Sardinia, where he dies in an accident (Annals 14.62).

The existence of a willing hit-man who is prepared to get rid of the emperor’s female irritants might not prove an insuperable barrier to credibility. Likewise the move from teacher to admiral to confidante to assassin to sleazy-courtier to country-landowner might, also, not be beyond belief – in the early empire many government and military commands were held by court-nominated ‘freedmen-amateurs’, and after all (at least in Tacitus’s account) Anicetus was only pretending to have had sex with Octavia.

The credibility-shock, however, as Professor David Woods has pointed out (2006), is that at the same time, on the other side of the empire, there was another freedman, also called Anicetus, who was also a naval Prefect (for the King of Pontus), and who in ad69 ransacked the Roman garrison in Trapezus, burned the imperial fleet and vagabuntur about the coastline as a pirate.

Prof. Woods is a lovely man, and he kindly supplied me with a copy of his article. In it, he suggests that there were two Roman Aniceti – one a tutor and courtier who admitted to adultery with Octavia and died in Sardinia, the other the naval Prefect, who killed Agrippina … and who, finding himself in Pontus when Nero fell from power, threw in his lot with Vitellius and turned to piracy.

I feel bad saying this, because Prof. Woods had been so kind to me, but I do not, however, agree with his analysis. I’m not going to go into the details of why in this blog. But I think that the truth lies not in an alternative interpretation of the text, but in taking an alternative approach to it altogether – an approach which involves appreciating Tacitus as a literary construct, and posits a literary solution.

The literary context: Tacitus’s matricide text
Even a novice cannot fail to notice that the text on the murder of Agrippina is significantly different from the surrounding passages. Bessie Walker considered it to be Tacitus’s attempt at Epic. It certainly seems to put style ahead of accuracy. As you study it you will see that it is riddled through with internal contradictions, invented scenes, and stereotyped characterisation. Tacitus uses various literary devices to lead the reader through a series of moods, from conspiratorial intrigue, to eery night, to exciting shipwreck, to heroic defiance, to a grizzly murder. At the end, his postscript to the matricide betrays how he has manipulated the story to conclude with his recurring themes: the temerity of the Principate and the timidity of the Senate.

Analysis at ‘word level’ further reveals Tacitus’s intention to influence the reader. He changes word order, invents new words (or uses unusual ones), employs allusions, metaphor and dramatic irony, and coins powerful, memorable phrases; the text was clearly intended to be read out loud to an audience, to hold them on the edge of their seat … and to appeal to them at a subconscious level in order to draw them into the author’s way of thinking.

Above all, apart from the attempt to manipulate, what is most obvious to the reader of Annals 14.1-12 is the large amount of the content which seems to have been made up. The reader is treated to detailed accounts of things one can hardly believe that Tacitus had any way of knowing about – Nero and Poppaea’s bedroom talk, the secret meeting to plot the murder, the details of a chaotic shipwreck, Agrippina’s inner thoughts on her plight, the crisis meeting between Nero and his advisers etc. These scenes have all the appearance of literary constructs to drive the epic, not researched factual content for an objective history.

If we are, indeed, therefore, to regard Annals 14.1-12 primarily as a literary text, an English teacher is reminded very strongly of Dickens. And the reference to Dickens is especially apposite in this context, for – as part of his appeal to the listener’s subconscious – Dickens paid particular attention to his names. He spent considerable time browsing parish registers seeking evocative examples, and names such as Estella, Dolge Orlick and Mr Wopsle were not assigned randomly. The names had a literary purpose.

What if Tacitus was the same? AJ Woodman (1998) and Patrick Sinclair (1995) have both shown how Tacitus – who demonstrably enjoyed word-play – made plays on names also, and intentionally matched actions to names. What if that sense of word-play stretched also to inventing suitably appropriate names in certain circumstances?

The key difference between Dickens and Tacitus, of course, is that Dickens was writing fiction whilst Tacitus was writing factual history. For most of the time, therefore, Tacitus was constrained by the real names of the characters he was writing about. So where he knew the name, he had to use it. Leading characters – people like Nero, Otho, Seneca, Agrippina etc. – were so famous and so central that he could, and does, refer to them simply by a single name. Second-rank characters tend to be given a double-barreled name – Caius Vipstanus, Caius Fonteius, Crepereius Gallus, Thrasea Paetus etc. – to identify them securely.

But what about the third-rank characters – particularly those who were involved as accomplices to evil deeds? We are given a name – but only a single familiar name, so they are therefore obscurely only half-identified. Is it possible that for such people, if he did not know their name, Tacitus – rather than write ‘an unknown accomplice’ – was tempted instead to make up a name? And further that, like Dickens, wishing to affect his listeners subliminally, he gave them a meaningful name?

An obvious example from the reign of Nero would be ‘Atimetus’ (from the Greek word ἀτιμία, meaning 'dishonour') who does a dastardly deed in the conspiracy of Junia Silana (Annals 13.19); it is hard to imagine either parent or master purposely giving a person such a name. ‘Evodus’ (from Εὔοδος, ‘good intent’) who dispatches Messalina in 11.37 and ‘Eucaerus’ (‘opportune’) in who betrays Octavia in 14.60 also have Greek names with an arguably appropriate or ironic meaning.

The name ‘Anicetus’
‘Anicetus’ was not an uncommon name. Its origin is Greek (Ἀνικητός), and the word means ‘Invincible’ (so: Mr ‘Can Do’) – a suitably appropriate name for someone who pops up as required in the narrative to solve Nero’s women-problems!

Especially, it is quite possible that the name Anicetus was known to Tacitus’s listeners as the name of a famous pirate – he was certainly so known to Tacitus (who writes about him as such in History 3.47) so why not his listeners? What more wicked and exciting a name could one give to an otherwise anonymous marine who helped Nero murder his mother?

Neither is it surprising that Anicetus is portrayed as a Greek freedman. Greeks in Rome met all the prejudice faced by any numerous immigrant group. Freedmen, too, were despised as social pariahs, and (since most of them had arrived as slaves and made their own fortune by hard work and ability) were easily stigmatised as ruthless and ‘puffed up with conceit’. Such a person would be just the kind of person we would expect to participate in a matricide if he thought he could benefit.

Moreover, in Greek mythology, Anicetus was a twin son of Hercules – a connection which would be particularly appropriate for the location of Agrippina’s demise. Not merely close to Herculaneum, Bauli was explicitly linked with the myth of Hercules, who was supposed to have penned the cattle of Geryon there whilst he built the Via Herculeana – popularly identified as the bank between the Lucrine Lake and the sea. Even if such an allusion would have been beyond the learning of the majority of his listeners, it would not have been beyond Tacitus … and those educated Romans whose applause he would have valued.

At this point, also, it is worth noting that the name of Anicetus’s warship captain accomplice was Herculeius – also a name of Greek derivation, and also (in case we missed it with Anicetus) an explicit allusion to the Hercules myth. There is no immediately obvious Greek derivation for the name of the third accomplice, the fleet centurion Obaritus, but the Latin word 'obitus' means 'death' or 'downfall', so 'Obaritus' would be an appropriate homophone for an assassin.

All this, of course, does not prove that
 – because he did not know the Misenum assassin’s name  Tacitus invented the name ‘Anicetus’ . What it does prove, however, is that – if he so did – ‘Anicetus’ would have been a very appropriate and clever name to give him. And the inference is that the name is just too perfect for coincidence. 

The suggestion, therefore, is that Tacitus did not, as Prof. Woods suggests, make a mistake. The suggestion is rather that Tacitus purposely chose to give his chief assassin the name ‘Anicetus’.

If that is true, then the association with Anicetus the pirate, but also with Hercules, would be an intentional allusion, and the name (Mr ‘Can Do’) would be appropriate within the narrative context (and, indeed, also later, when Nero wanted to get rid of Octavia).

This suggestion would fit in with an interpretation which sees Tacitus’s matricide text, not as an attempt to write an objective, factual account, but as a text designed to demonstrate his writing skills, and to advance his personal didactic agenda, which portrayed the Principate as a pervasive evil, and those pesky, ambitious Greek freedmen as part of the problem.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

So – did Nero commit incest with his mother?

One of the few ‘facts’ that is common ‘knowledge’ about Nero (apart from the fact that he fiddled while Rome burned) is that he committed incest with his mother.
But did he?
In Britain, incest is a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.
So – if we were to put Agrippina before a British court – would she go to jail?
Let's see what happened at the trial.

Calling the witnesses
Unfortunately, the primary witnesses – historians called Cluvius and Fabius Rusticus – COULD NOT be called, because their evidence had been lost.

Other contemporaries had not been summoned because they did not mention the alleged incest.

  • The author of the tragic play Octavia (maybe Seneca himself, and possibly our earliest source of all), had the character Agrippina raging against Nero for killing her, and other characters assailing Nero’s reputation … but none of them even hinted at incest.
  • Similarly, Pliny in his Natural History made 93 references to Nero, whom he called ‘the enemy of the human race’. He made 14 references to Agrippina (whom he had seen personally) including details of her teeth, Nero’s breech birth, and her ‘notorious crime’ in killing Claudius … but not a word of incest. 
It is impossible, of course, to prove innocence from a lack of evidence, but it certainly seems to have been the case that there were no stories of incest flying round in the years immediately after Nero’s death.

Therefore, we are forced to rely on secondary witnesses – Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio
  for evidence.

Let’s see what they said:. 

Tacitus was the earliest of the three main witnesses – perhaps 40 years after the events. He claimed that – although not a witness at first hand – he obtained his information from two people who were: Cluvius (who regarded Agrippina as the initiator) and Fabius Rusticus (who blamed Nero).

As a witness for the prosecution he offered a persuasive picture of Agrippina – ‘all dressed up and ready for incest’ – offering herself to Nero when he was ‘warmed up’ with wine. Those close to both, he said, had seen ‘passionate kisses and sensual caresses’ and – he continued – things got so bad that Seneca introduced Nero to Acte to try and counter Agrippina’s ‘pussy appeal’ (muliebris inlectebras). Besides which, he asserted, it was just the kind of behaviour you would expect from a woman who had been corrupted by Lepidus and had committed adultery with Pallas.

Under cross-examination, however, his testimony began to crumble:

  • He said that Agrippina offered herself to Nero in ad59. But we know that Seneca introduced Nero to Acte in ad55 ... so when did the alleged incest happen? 
  • Why, if the incest was so well-known at court, did Poppaea not list it as one of the reasons she wanted Agrippina dead? 
  • When pressed about the kisses and caresses, all he was prepared to say was that they forewarned of wrongdoing about-to-happen. 
  • And when asked to come to a firm opinion either way, all he committed to was ‘possibly’ – a remarkably weak word for the chief prosecution witness. 

Suetonius’s evidence was compiled 60 years after the events. He too got his information second-hand, but – although he has a reputation as a gossip-monger and fantasist – on this occasion he was relatively sure of his sources: ‘No one doubted’ he assured us.

At first his evidence seemed compelling: ‘There is no doubt that Nero wanted sexual relations with his mother’, and ‘whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, the stains on his clothes afterwards proved that he had indulged in incest with her’.

Examined by the counsel for the defence, however, his evidence fell apart completely.

  • ‘Proved?’ he was asked. ‘Are you sure there ‘no doubt’ amongst your sources about that?’ Ah no – for that bit of evidence, all he could say was: ‘they say that’ … he could not categorically guarantee its validity.
  • Was there any chance that he was mistaken about the conduct in the litter? As his testimony went on, Suetonius revealed that Nero had also a mistress who looked like his mother. So there was a suspicion of mistaken identity.
  • Above all, when the defence pointed out that he only said Nero wanted sex, and asked whether Nero actually had sex, Suetonius categorically stated that Nero wanted sex ‘but was prevented by his mother’s enemies’. 

At this point, the judge suggested that Suetonius ought to be treated as a witness for the defence, and the prosecution agreed.

Cassius Dio’s evidence appeared about 150 years after the events and was based, to a certain degree upon Tacitus and Suetonius. However, Dio was independently-minded and quite capable of putting his own interpretation on events.
He appeared as a witness for the defence.

Dio placed events not in ad55, as Tacitus, but in ad59, when Nero was beginning to entertain a mad passion for Poppaea. The story, he recounted, was that Agrippina
 – fearing that Nero would marry Poppaea –  ‘ventured upon a most unholy course’ and ‘used her blandishments and immodest looks and kisses to enslave even Nero’.

Challenged to stop talking in winks and nods, and to say whether or not they had sex, however, Dio refused to commit: ‘Whether this actually occurred, now, or whether it was invented to fit their character, I am not sure’
However, he did offer as one explanation a story that was ‘admitted by all’ – that ‘Nero had a mistress resembling Agrippina of whom he was especially fond because of this very resemblance and, when he toyed with the girl, he would say that he was wont to have intercourse with his mother’. Dio also asserted.us that Nero had a male concubine, Sporus, who, similarly, looked like Agrippina – so generally the implication was that it was a case of people putting two and two together and getting five

Expert witnesses
Actually, the prosecution failed to produce ANY expert witnesses. It was impossible to find a modern historian who did not qualify the story of the incest with negative weasel words such as ‘suggestion of’, ‘alleged’, ‘reputed, ‘rumoured’ etc.

Those who were prepared to speak out, therefore, all appeared for the defence:

Agrippina’s biographer and expert Anthony Barratt (1996) was sceptical of the allegations, cross-referencing them to Tacitus’s report of Nero’s surprise and fascination on seeing his mother’s dead body. That suggests, Barratt said, ‘a lack of intimate familiarity with it’.

Richard Bauman (1994) admitted that he found the story of incest ‘hard to swallow’, and German historian Jurgen Malitz (1999) came right out and said openly that the stories ‘existed only in the imaginations of later reports’.

But it was Judith Ginsburg (2006) who provided the strongest argument for the defence. All the writers about Agrippina, she said, were men who were scandalised by the sight of a woman with power, and whose misogyny led them to castigate her as muliebris and quasi virile … a ‘sexual transgressor’ capable of the most foul sexual misconduct. ‘The consistency of the tradition’ of Agrippina’s incest, she said, ‘is no guarantee of its reliability’ … which the court took to mean that she did not believe it.

You the Jury
At this point in the criminal case, the judge intervened and dismissed it. In a criminal court there needs to be proof beyond doubt of guilt to convict, and that most obviously was not the case.

However, things are different in a civil court, where the court can decide ‘on the balance of probabilities’, which is a very different thing altogether.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, what do you think?

On the balance of probabilities, did Nero and Agrippina engage in incest?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Historiography of the Roman Emperors - Part III: Nero – The Singing Dilemma

As with all the other emperors, you know, of course, that there is no ‘real’ Nero, only constructs.
But is it possible that any of those constructs has chanced upon the truth of the ‘real’ Nero?

Ancient sources
Apart from the fact that the Senate declared him a public enemy, very little remains about Nero from the time … except for coins and inscriptions – and a recent archaeologists’ claim to have found his ‘Golden House’. The original written sources have been lost, and it is impossible even to guess what they said.

There are a few tantalising hints as to Nero’s popularity.  Otho took the cognomen 'Nero' and re-erected many statues to Nero.  Vitellius felt it necessary to give him a grand funeral. Three ‘false Neros’ led popular rebellions in the east of the Empire. And in Greece, the orator Dio Chrysotom (before ad120) could write: ‘even now everyone wishes he was still alive’.

But amongst the later ancient writers, however, the verdict was almost unanimously hostile: Nero was a monster. Pliny described Nero as ‘the poison of the world’. In Tacitus, Nero is a homicidal, matricidal tyrant, living in fear of the consequences of his own evil, and Tacitus eventually apologises for the endless story of ‘servile passivity and so much blood wasted’. In the account of Suetonius, Nero comes across as a deluded pervert whom, 'after the world had put up with such a ruler for nearly fourteen years, it at last cast him off'.

Most of all, by persecuting Christianity – the future religion of the Empire – Nero had secured his everlasting damnation (literary and theologically), and the Christian writer of Revelation, it is widely believed, used Nero for his description of the Beast.

Later historians
Until the 20th century, therefore, most historians simply read the ancient record, and repeated the ancient verdict.

  • ‘Let not ever the soul of Nero enter this firm bosom’ pleads Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 
  • The 19th century French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote of Nero in terms of a Frankenstein: ‘une créature mal faite, un produit incongru de la nature’. 
  • The English essayist Thomas de Quincey declared Nero: ‘in a true medical sense, insane’.
  • The mid-19th century historian Charles Merivale declared him: ‘a barbarous despot … this arch-tyrant, the last and most detestable of the Caesarean family’. 
It was not until 1900 that any historian cut Nero any slack at all ... that is until 1903, when the English historian Bernard Henderson – although he still labelled Nero ‘morally vicious’ – attempted to cut out the scandalous gossip and focus on matters of historical significance.

Henderson was offended that:

Six lines in our ancient records may suffice to outline Imperial edicts for good government; some six pages must be devoted to the tale of unabashed wickedness in Rome’.
In fact, he pointed out, whilst Nero’s government was allegedly descending into vice and slaughter: ‘we see that the Empire prospers peacefully, wrongs are redressed, frontiers are guarded and extended, the provinces and Italy rejoice in peace'.

Nero, Henderson concluded, had ‘done good service to the state’ and does not deserve our excoriation. ‘The ignorance’ which had led him to persecute the Christians ‘was that of his day … it is therefore excused. The cruelty was Roman cruelty’.

Modern historians
Since Henderson, all historians have rejected an unquestioning acceptance of the ancient authorities, and have tried to understand Nero in the context of the times. Miriam T Griffin (1984) analysed why Nero’s government collapsed, focussing, not on his personal character, but on his policies, and on impersonal factors such as financial problems and the loyalty of the army.

One school of historians even manages – in stripping away the sensational legend – to find good in Nero. Arthur Weigall, in The Singing Emperor (1930) portrayed him as a lover of culture who did not ‘fiddle while Rome burned’, but worked hard to relieve the suffering caused by the Great Fire. BH Warmington (1970) found a talented administrator and positive ruler. And Richard Holland (2000) reveals ‘a liberator, who tried to democratize the state’.

On the other hand, the tradition of a malign and unbalanced tyrant persists. Once you have seen Peter Ustinov’s lyre-playing portrayal of Nero in the film Quo Vadis (1951) it tends to infect everything else you read and learn! And Edward Champlin (2005) has tried to re-establish Nero as a truly barbaric ruler – ascribing anything positive written about him to the fact that the emperor was ‘a showman and PR man of considerable talent’ … i.e. the apologists have been fooled.

Recently, historians have tried to get away from a ‘hero or zero’ approach to Nero, and to investigate his reign in other ways – for example, trying to analyse the importance of the arts in his reign.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Succession and Scandal – the Imperial Court under Claudius and Nero

Here, you will discover how Junia Silana’s plot with Rubellius Plautus opens a window on the nature of the imperial court…
You will also see how correctly to use the word 'notwithstanding'!

What WAS the ‘imperial court’?
‘The nature of the imperial court under Claudius and Nero’ – which is a theme of your GCSE – is a very complicated issue, not least because it is very hard to say what ‘the imperial court’ was.
  • Sometimes when you read about it, it is clearly restricted to the Emperor’s family and courtiers – their relationships and interactions. This is the focus favoured by TV and film, which are thus able to focus in on its larger-than-life personalities, and on its intrigues and scandals. 
  • Another author will, however, be talking about the imperial household (i.e. the role of the emperor, and his freedmen and advisers, in the government and administration of the Empire). With Augustus, the focus of state politics moved from Senate into the ‘imperial court’, so these authors place the entire political history of the empire under the roof of the ‘imperial court’.
  • In yet another interpretation, however, the emphasis might be upon the Imperial dynasty – the struggle for the succession and the gradual development from princeps to a hereditary monarchy.

Tacitus and Suetonius
Tacitus believed that the principate was evil. Bessie Walker (1952) argued convincingly that he had been shocked and embittered by the savage despotism of the emperor Domitian (whom Tacitus had served), and that he anachronistically imposed on the early empire his prejudices about his own time. We can SEE how he used his literary techniques to present a dark, biased interpretation of the imperial court; we can only guess to what degree he was violating the factual record.

Meanwhile, Suetonius comes across as a writer primarily interested in scandal and spectacle. His accounts of Claudius and Nero present both of them as Jekyll-and-Hyde characters – in the first half of their biography they are rational, even successful rulers, in the second half they are monsters, guilty of (especially in Nero’s case) libido, luxuria, avaritia and saevitia.

In Tacitus and Suetonius the emperor rules as a monster of corruption and tyranny. The imperial court seethes with sex and plots. Delatores (accusers) denounce culprits and innocent alike, who are then poisoned, murdered or executed without trial or justice.

Murder, execution and the succession
Is it possible to draw ANYTHING valid from the primary record? 
We need to proceed with caution, for we cannot trust a word that Tacitus or Suetonius write - it is not just that they are manipulating the facts, they are probably guilty of suppressing facts, and of inventing others. 

So let’s start with a generality: there was clearly a big problem with the succession in the early principate.
Your set-texts are full of it in the reign of Claudius, vide the prominence given to:

  • The betrothal (ad48) and marriage (ad53) of Octavia to Nero
  • The adoption of Nero in ad49, and subsequent marginalisation of Britannicus (notably the ‘Ahenobarbus’ affair of ad51)
  • The murder of Claudius
And in the reign of Nero the following are all introduced in terms of the succession:
  • Britannicus’s murder
  • The murder of Antonia, Claudius’s daughter
  • The abuse and death of Aulus Plautius
  • The murder of Rufrius Crispinus

And as soon as you accept that there was a huge issue over the succession, moreover, it casts a light on some of the apparently indiscriminate murders of the reigns - in the reign of Claudius:

  • The defamation and suicide of Lucius Silanus was directly linked to the marriage of Claudius to Agrippina; but he was also from a very noble family (who clearly regarded themselves as a viable alternative to the Julio-Claudians).
  • The exile and forced suicide of Lollia Paulina is presented not only as a rival for marriage to Agrippina, but also as a danger to the state.
  • Domitia Lepida,who is said have been ruined ‘for purely feminine reasons’, was in fact also the grandniece of Augustus and ‘the equal of Agrippina in [dynastic] status’.
  • Appius Silanus, although he is presented as a sex-dupe of Messalina, also carried the nomen Silanus, and was a governor of Spain – so he had the armies as well as the status to be a challenger.
  • Julia, Drusus’s daughter, and Julia Livilla, Germanicus’s daughter both presented a clear dynastic alternative branch to the ruling family.
  • The reason for the execution of Gnaeus Pompeius is unknown, but his wife was Claudia Antonia (Claudius's daughter by his second wife) and executed at the same time was his mother Scribonia (and Scribonius was another elite nomen).
And in the reign of Nero:
  • Junius Silanus was also from the Silanus family, and was being touted as an alternative to Nero.

Not all the executions and murders can be interpreted as political/dynastic. Narcissus, Seneca and Burrus were ministers who had outlived their usefulness and perhaps knew where too many skeletons were buried. Cadius Rufus and Taurus seem to have been corrupt governors. Agrippina’s exiling of Calpurnia may well have been personal malice, and Nero’s murder of Domitia (if it was not simply old age or medical incompetence) does indeed look like unadulterated cruelty. And who knows what Gaius Silius and Messalina were thinking of – maybe it WAS infatuation!

But, these notwithstanding, even a ‘resisting reading’ of Tacitus and Suetonius makes it clear that the early emperors felt themselves insecure on the throne. It may well be that we are seeing an attempt to move from an emperor who is proclaimed on merit as princeps civitatis to a hereditary succession. Or it may just be that Claudius and Nero had no long-term strategy and merely were eliminating threats as they arose. But taking the evidence as a whole, even allowing for misrepresentation and inaccuracies, it is hard to deny that a good deal of the emperor’s attention seems to have been taken up with securing himself politically/dynastically.

Sex and conviction
The other thing which it is hard not to come away from Tacitus and Suetonius 
with is the impression that the imperial court was a hotbed of sexual excess. Suetonius in particular revels in the libido of Nero – Rubria, Sporus, Agrippina etc. 

But it was not just the emperors who seem to have been sexual perverts. If we are to believe your set-texts on Tacitus and Suetonius:

  • Messalina was a nymphomaniac who beat a professional prostitute in a sex competition and got caught with her lover Silius in the middle of a Bacchanalian orgy.
  • Agrippina was guilty a range of sexual crimes, including an adulterous affair with Pallas and incest with her uncle and son.
  • Domitia Lepida was as ‘immoral, notorious and vicious’ as Agrippina.
  • Gnaeus Pompeius was stabbed while in bed with his young male lover.
  • Julia, Drusus’s daughter was exiled for incest and immorality.
  • Julia Livilla was exiled for adultery with Seneca.
  • etc.

One thing that you cannot help noticing is how often
 alleged sexual immorality is connected to a political/dynastic killing.  Even in the cases where the primary sources agree that the accused was innocent, we see this linking of a political/dynastic threat to an accusation of immorality:

  • Appius Silanus was said to have refused to lie with Messalina.
  • Lucius Silanus was unjustly accused of incest with his sister Junia Calvina.
  • Nero exiled Octavia for adultery, though nobody believed it.

This is not true in every case – Junius Silanus and Britannicus are presented as purely political/dynastic murders, and Lollia Paulina was accused of consulting astrologers. Tacitus hated overweening women, and it is more-than-likely that he exaggerated the sexual immorality of Messalina and Agrippina to discredit them in the eyes of the reader.

These notwithstanding, the connection of adultery and incest to political and dynastic convictions is clearly too common to be chance or defamation.

One possible explanation is known as damnatio memoriae – the attempt to destroy (or at least permanently blacken) 
the memory of a fallen enemy. This might have been an attempt to get the public ‘on side’ for the execution/murder/exile – whereas the plebs might even have sympathised with someone plotting against the ruling family, they would all have supported an action to defend Rome’s strict traditional moral code.

The other possible explanation is legal. One way an emperor could condemn a political opponent was by invoking the law of maiestas (treason). But the maiestas law needed an act of treason, so it had to wait until upon an actual conspiracy or rebellion – i.e. until it was too late. Moreover, it had fallen into disrepute under Tiberius and Caligula; Claudius never used it at all, and Nero only after ad62.

However, what is often forgotten is that incest and adultery were not just immoral in ancient Rome, they were illegal – the ‘Julian Laws’ existed to prevent such things. It is clear that these laws were more significant than perhaps we would assume today. When he describes Nero’s plot to murder Britannicus, Suetonius has Nero say: ‘Obviously I am afraid of the Julian law’.   This has confused historians because, in killing Britannicus, Nero was not doing anything relevant to the Julian Laws. He was, however, doing many other things which DID break the Julian Laws – perhaps his point to Locusta was that he needed to kill Britannicus quickly before Britannicus accused him of sex crimes.

In a situation, therefore, where the maiestas law was not available, or inappropriate, how did an emperor get rid of a political/dynastic rival? One way, of course, was marriage – to bring them into the Family. But, when that did not bring them sufficiently on board, an accusation of adultery or incest gave ample grounds to exile or execute them. This does not tell us whether the accusations were true or not, but it does perhaps help us to understand why the Annals and Suetonius’s Lives are so full of adultery and incest.

Junia Silana’s plot with Rubellius Plautus
In ad55, as Agrippina’s power was waning, there occurs in Tacitus an event which might seem very confusing and obscure if we did not appreciate the centrality of these key factors – dynastic danger and sexual accusation – to the imperial court.

Junia, the story goes, had fallen out with Agrippina. In a description which by now must be becoming familiar, we are told that Junia was famous for 'her noble birth, her beauty and her immorality’, and that the quarrel was over money and a young aristocrat – one Sextius Africanus.

However, for once, it is not Junia who is the victim of the intrigue, but Agrippina. The plot is convoluted to say the least. Two delatores (otherwise anonymous clients called Iturius and Calvisius) accuse Agrippina. They claim that Agrippina had persuaded Rubellius Plautus to share her bed and join her in a revolution. One of Domitia’s freedmen is then recruited to use his contacts with an actor friend of Nero’s to inform the emperor of the ‘plot’.

In this complicated story, Tacitus implicates Agrippina in the key elements of a dynastic and moral intrigue.

  • Rubellius Plautus was the son of the executed Julia (above); the conspirators had thus linked Agrippina into a rival dynastic line calculated to alarm the emperor.
  • Plautus was (happily) married to the daughter of a prominent senator; an affair with Agrippina would have been both scandalous and adulterous.

In the event, Agrippina convinced Nero that he had nothing to fear, and Tacitus makes it clear that he thought in this case she was innocent. But that’s to miss the point.

The story of Junia Silana’s plot with Rubellius Plautus shows that, in the imperial court, not only courtiers, but even people as important as the emperor’s mother, were desperately vulnerable to delatores. It thus sheds a light on the atmosphere of fear and intrigue which must have pervaded the court. It also makes the court seem a very dangerous and savage place – where an accusation could result, without trial, in one’s exile, murder or execution.

It makes us wonder also, however, whether the impression of sexual immorality is not a modern misinterpretation of what was really going on. It may have been that the imperial court was a place of moral decadence. But it seems more likely that an accusation of immorality was merely the 'usual legal mechanism' to get rid of a rival.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tacitus’s Attitude To Women – His Use Of The Word ‘Muliebris’

Did Tacitus hate women? When you look at his use of the Latin word muliebris, you can see that he was certainly deeply prejudiced…

In your English GCSE, you have probably come across the terms ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ applied to a picture, or a word.  The word ‘stupid’, for instance, is defined as/has a denotation of ‘not intelligent’.  But we all know that it carries connotations of inferiority and scorn.  You do not call someone ‘stupid’ unless you want to insult them.

Femina v. Mulier
Tacitus uses two words for ‘female’ in the Annals.  Fransesco Santoro L’Hoir (1992) has written a book about them!  The two words, she explains, had specific and intentional connotations. Femina (‘woman’) was the opposite of the word vir (‘man’), but it referred primarily to the more refined, upper class women.  By contrast the alternative terms homo (‘man’) and mulier (‘woman’) referred to the common people = everyone else.   
(L’Hoir tells us that this isn’t the same as ‘lady’ v. ‘woman’, but you get the idea; you didn’t call a nice female a mulier.)

Since it was associated with the common people, the adjective derived from mulier (i.e. muliebris = ‘womanly’) consequently gained negative connotations (as, similarly, our adjective ‘common’ has in English).  The adjective from the Latin word vir was virtus = ‘virtuous’.  By contrast, muliebris had negative connotations, and was used in a context of unreason (lack of self-control and rage), vice (greed and pride) or where a woman was the victim.

You can get some idea of how negative a word muliebris was when you realise that muliebria (plural, used as a noun) is the word for a woman’s private parts.   Muliebris behaviour, therefore, was that behaviour which derived from a woman’s sexual organs (just as our word ‘hysterical’ derives from the Greek word for womb).   Muliebris was a reference to her basic, gender instincts.   The word itself was pejorative, and therefore betrayed prejudice by its very use.

Tacitus’s use of muliebris in the Annals
Tacitus uses the word muliebris 22 times in the Annals.   On two occasions the word is neutral (e.g. men and women were killed in an earthquake).  Twice the word is used of homosexual men.
On the other 18 occasions the word has negative connotations – these therefore constitute 18 occasions on which Tacitus (intentionally) disparaged women.

So what does he say?  And what insight can we get about what he thought of them?

There are five occasions where he uses the word of ‘women-in-general’.  On three of those occasions, the words are Tacitus’s:

  • in Book 1.33, the clash between Livia and Agrippina the Elder is defined in terms of muliebres offensiones (= ‘women’s rivalry’)
  • in 12.64, Agrippina ruins Domitia Lepida muliebribus causis (= ‘for women’s reasons’), which turn out to be rivalry and jealousy over Nero
  • and in 13.13, Agrippina was raging in modum muliebriter (= ‘like women do’)
On two further occasions, prejudice is put into the mouth of Tiberius:

  • in Book 1.14, Tiberius forbids any honours to Julia, regarding a woman’s elevation (muliebri fastigium) as a personal insult
  • and in 5.2, Tiberius sneers at woman’s friendship (amicitias muliebris). 

A feminist would have a field day with these statements!   In them, women are objectified, trivialised and stereotyped.   The context is negative, and the term is used as an abuse word.   In some ways, the last instance is worst, for even something positive (friendship) is derided as ‘womanly’ – so nothing that is muliebris (‘womanly’) is worth anything.   Indeed worse, it is inferior and negative purely because it is muliebris.

Together, the statements amount to a character-attack on women-in-general.  L’Hoir comments that the uses of muliebris in the Annals constitute ‘subtle expressions of the historian’s innuendo’.  Surely that is an understatement.   I see little ‘subtle’.  For me, it is obvious that, in these uses of the word, Tacitus was seeking to indoctrinate and prejudice his reader not only in specific contexts, but against women in general.

Assigned muliebris in Tacitus’s Annals
There are ten occasions in the Annals where Tacitus does not use muliebris of women-in-general, but applies the adjective to the behaviour of a specific woman:

  • in Book 1.4, Tiberius was dominated by a mother with muliebri impotentia (= ‘a woman’s lack of self-control’), and in 12.57, likewise, Agrippina is accused of impotentiam muliebrem by Narcissus
  • in 2.43, the murder of Germanicus at the behest of Livia is ascribed to aemulatione muliebri (= ‘a woman’s competitiveness’)
  • in 2.71, Germanicus in his death speech ascribes his death to muliebri fraude (= ‘a woman’s treachery’) … just as in 11.3 Asiaticus is betrayed fraude muliebri 
  • in 4.39, Sejanus is encouraged to act foolishly muliebri insuper cupidine (= ‘by a woman’s overweening desire’) 
  • in 13.14, Agrippina is accused of superbia muliebris (= ‘woman’s pride)
  • in 14.2, during the incest crisis, Agrippina is accused of using muliebris inlecebras (= ‘a woman’s enticements’)
  • in 15.54, the slave Milichus betrayed his master after taking advice from his wife which was muliebre ac deterius (= ‘womanly and baser’)
  • and in 16.10, Vetus’s daughter pleaded for an audience with Nero muliebri eiulatu (= ‘with womanly wailing’).

Although these statements all refer to the behaviour of an individual woman, they are still prejudiced statements against women, however … because, in each of these instances, muliebris is not used in the sense of the behaviour of ‘this woman’, but as typical behaviour ‘for a woman’.  Tacitus does not analyse the specific pressures which caused these women to act as they did.   Instead he dismisses their behaviour as typical.   So we are encouraged to understand the behaviour of individual women because we ‘know’ that women have no self-control, that they are treacherous, competitive, arrogant and motivated by personal desire, that they get their way by misusing their sexual allure, and that when refused they wail.
These are all behaviours which you can find in teenage girls (which, remember, most Roman wives were) but Tacitus explains this behaviour, not as something a specific woman did in a specific situation (and often under great stress) … but ascribes it purely to their gender.

Indeed, by Book 15.54, muliebris has become an abuse word in its own right – Milichus’s wife’s muliebre ac deterius advice is wicked advice because it is base ... but also because it is muliebris.  This is prejudice drunk neat – the advice is bad because it is womanly (inference: because it must be bad because ‘womanly’ is bad).

Finally, there are three occasions where women are not bad, but are weak:

  • in Book 2.40, Agrippina the Elder leaves camp during the soldiers’ mutiny muliebre et miserabile agmen (= ‘in a womanly and pitiable procession’)
  • in 14.30, Paulinus Suetonius (facing a Druid army which included wild women) urges his men not to fear muliebre et fanaticum agmen (= ‘the womanly and fanatical [enemy] line’)
  • and, finally, in 15.57, Nero tortures Epicharis because he thinks her muliebre corpus (= ‘womanly body’) would be unable to resist the anguish of torture.
Again, we find muliebris being used as a pejorative adjective in its own right.  Agrippina the Elder’s companions were not just pitiable women, and the Druid warriors were not just fanatical women – they were pitiable, and fanatical … and muliebres AS WELL.

Tacitus’s view of women
In 1949, the French historian Pierre Wuilleumier accused Tacitus of misogyny – a pathological hatred of women per se.

What do you reckon? Since then, historians have lined up to defend Tacitus.   The English historian Ronald Syme accepted that Tacitus’s interpretation was hostile … and agreed with him!
Even modern writers such as Barratt (1996) acquit Tacitus of misogyny.  Ronald Mellor (2010) is prepared to admit to ‘borderline misogyny’ (whatever that is) but excuses it because that was how people thought of women in those days (and, to be fair, did so until the suffragettes).  Meanwhile, LW Rutland (1978) did label Tacitus a misogynist, but she thought that his misogyny was betrayed in his treatment of women in his text, not in his language.

However you wrap it up, however, it is clear that Tacitus had a HUGE problem with the women he was writing about.  L’Hoir – although she too denies that Tacitus was a misogynist (she prefers ‘maliciously chauvinistic’) – sees: 

a genuine belief that the decline and fall of the Julio-Claudians and the subsequent evils that overwhelmed the empire could all be laid at the doors of that family’s overweening and imperious feminae (p.134).
This is a very extreme and radical statement: ‘What did Tacitus think caused the fall of the Roman Empire … its women!’   Personally, I would not agree.  Tacitus saw the empire as fatally flawed (‘evil’) … but I would reckon that he saw muliebres women as a symptom of the problem, rather than the cause. 

For me, the issue seems fairly cut and dried.  Tacitus, in his treatment of women, was pathologically prejudiced, to the point where he used muliebris intentionally as an abuse-word.

Whether we call this ‘misogyny’ or not is a detail.  As far as we historians are concerned, it is the implications of that prejudice which we have to address.

Like Bessie Walker (1952), L’Hoir believes that Tacitean characters were ‘well-developed’.  I think we have to disagree, at least as concerns his depictions of women.  Tactitus’s women are generalised, trivialised, denigrated and stereotyped. They are unconvincing, implausible pantomime characters.

Above all, whenever you read what Tacitus is saying about any woman – not just our Agrippina – you need to exercise what Ginsburg calls ‘resisting reading’.  You need to be aware that Tacitus is manipulating his language to prejudice you against them.  And if he is manipulating the language, you need to ask yourself, to what extent he is also manipulating the facts…

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Historiography of the Roman Emperors - Part II: The Elusive Claudius

It is important that you realise from the start that we will NEVER know ‘the truth’ about Claudius.  There is no ‘real’ Claudius, only constructs.

Contemporary sources
Very little remains of Claudius from the time, apart from coins and inscriptions.  All the original written sources have been lost, and it is impossible even to guess what they said. Claudius is supposed to have written a History, but if he did it was so obscure or ineffectual that no personal or positive aspects of his reign have passed from it into the record.  Also there is no reference to Cluvius or Fabius Rusticus as a source for Claudius’s reign, so either they didn't write about him, or what they wrote has been lost in transmission. 

We DO possess one account of Claudius from shortly after his reign – Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis (‘Pumpkinification’) – a savage satire on Claudius’s deification, which portrays Claudius as a cruel yet stupid tyrant.   Seneca personally hated Claudius, and in Nero’s reign it was wise to do so anyway; so this interpretation is as much use to historians as Spitting Image.

By contrast, Pliny’s Natural History (written after Vespasian, when it was OK to praise Claudius) contains a number of positive references – e.g. the growth of Rome’s empire and Claudius’s public works – but even Pliny deplores Claudius’s promotion of freedmen and his elevation of Messalina and Agrippina.  Roman history was written by Roman nobles, and they could never applaud Claudius for taking power away from them.

The main sources – Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio
Criticism reaches a crescendo in Tacitus.   In his recent analysis of Tacitus’s Claudius, SJV Malloch (2009) finds a Tacitus-Claudius who is so passive that he disappears 
altogether from the story … which is almost wholly, firstly about Messalina and Narcissus, and then about Agrippina.  Behind this lay a Tacitean theme of the ever-growing evil of tyranny, and Claudius comes out of Tacitus very badly - as ruler who is at the same time weak and unjust. 

According to Donna Hurley (2001), Suetonius’s account ‘judges Claudius more harshly than Tacitus’.  After a survey of Claudius’s reign which is generally positive, Suetonius uses anecdote and allegation to launch a withering attack on Claudius’s character, stigmatising him as foolish, timid, bloodthirsty … and totally dominated by his wives and freedmen.  Suetonius-Claudius turns out to be a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, with two sides it is impossible to reconcile.

Dio’s account of Claudius has been lost, and survives only in epitome (i.e. in a summary made by medieval writers). Hurley considers it ‘relatively kind to Claudius’, but basically 
it repeats the paradox established by Tacitus and Suetonius – of a ruler in whose reign good things happened … but who at the same time seems to have been a passive tool of others. 

The ‘problem of Claudius’
Since Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio are the only real sources we have for Claudius, historians ever since have got trapped by what one historian has called ‘the problem of Claudius’ - viz., given the apparent contradictions of character, what was Claudius really like?

I suppose it depends on how you interpret the sources.   In the 18th century, Edward Gibbon labelled him ‘the stupid Claudius’.  The English scholar William Smith (1849) tried to be kinder but failed, suggesting that a youthful illness had left Claudius ‘deficient in judgement, tact and presence of mind’.   In 1882, the German historian Theodor Mommsen was dismissive: ‘mildly deranged … insignificant … with no will of his own’.

In the 1930s, however, as Europe fell under the power of tyranny and Italy tried to rebuild her empire, attitudes to Claudius changed.   The works of Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano and Robert Graves’s novel I Claudius are very different in nature, but they share certain features.  Both presented Claudius as a ‘would-be Republican’, who took the principate unwillingly.  They also presented him as being a good deal cleverer than people thought at the time.  Archaeological discoveries – notably a letter of Claudius about Judea – supported their case. If you ditch the character-assassination of the original sources, it is possible to portray Claudius as a reformer, running an effective government.

Fergus Millar (1977) sought to solve the problem of Claudius by concentrating, not on Claudius’s reputation in the sources, but on his actions – he coined the memorable phrase: ‘the emperor was what the emperor did’.   He destroyed the idea of a centralised, departmentalised administration, and argued that Claudius's freedmen were less like modern civil servants, and more advisers and friends. Consequently, he returned to a Claudius who was passive and reactive.  By contrast Barbara Levick (1990) – in what you need to realise is generally accepted as the definitive modern study of Claudius – suggested that Claudius’s reign was ‘the turning point in the establishment of the permanent monarchy.’

The supremacy of Image
Just as Judith Ginsberg asserted that we cannot know what Agrippina was like, only how she has been portrayed, the latest study of Claudius – by Josiah Osgood (2011) – believes that the nature of the sources means that ‘true biography of almost any emperor is unfeasible’.  Osgood reminds us that an emperor had not only to be a ruler, but also to fulfill for his subjects a wide range of symbolic roles (not least that of a god) and he looks at Claudius’s IMAGE (on statues and coins) rather than trying to synthesise any construct of ‘a real Claudius’.

So will it always be impossible to say what Claudius was like?   It is irresistibly tempting to try!   You must surely have your own putative constructs.   I tend to read Claudius as a first-century Henry VIII, plagued by problems with his wives and the succession, but bringing in (despised) ‘new men’ to replace the old aristocratic model with a modernising, more efficient monarchical regime ... and using force if necessary.

But such parallels, I am afraid, might be useful to highlight certain aspects of Claudius’s reign, but they cannot define what that reign was like.

The sad truth is that we will only ever know how Claudius has been portrayed.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Agrippina And Her Sources - The Insoluble Mystery

Will we ever know what Agrippina was really like - probably not.

The lack of reliable source information
The Roman historian Cassius Dio, writing in the early 3rd century ad, wrote revealingly about the lack of reliable information about the period of the early emperors:
‘Events cannot be reported like earlier ones. Previously, issues were brought before the Senate. Everybody leaned about them and noted them down and – even allowing for bias – a truthful picture was to some degree available. But [after the Empire] things started to become secret and hidden, and though some things were published they are not to be trusted, because they cannot be confirmed. For there is a suspicion that everything was said and done in accordance with the wishes of the powerful and their henchmen. Consequently virtually everything is transmitted differently from the way it happened. (Dio 53.19.1-4)

Tactius said much the same, in a less long-winded way:

Thus everything is maximum-unreliable, for some believe everything they hear (wherever they heard it), while others turn the truth into lies … and posterity preserves both. (Tacitus, 3.19.2)

Politics under the Republic may have been quarrelsome, and the politicians may have been incompetent – but at least the issues and outcomes were transparent. With the Empire, government and the politics-that-mattered moved behind the walls of the Emperor’s palace.

This had three dire consequences for the quality of information future historians had available:
1. a far smaller number of people were involved – most of the action took place within the emperor’s (Julio-Claudian) family; politics became a family affair, and the reality of what was happening was hidden behind a smokescreen of official publicity, propaganda and pretence. (Today we would call it ‘spin’.)

2. since the Empire was – as far as we can ascertain – a repressive tyranny of the most violent kind (think Stalin and Hitler plus an indifference to suffering), there was a VERY strong pressure on those-who-could-be-traced to write exactly what the emperor wanted them to write. Whether they were criticising previous emperors, or lauding the current one, it was likely that not a word of what they wrote was ‘true’ in an impartial sense.

3. there will always be gossip, of course, and gossip does often put the 'unofficial' side of things but – since the events-that-mattered were taking place essentially in secret, most of even the gossip of the time will have been conjecture at best and, at worst, wholly fiction.

The lack of decent ancient historians
Added to this, modern historians find themselves very badly served by the Roman historians who recorded the events at close hand. Cassius Dio is not one of your set-text historians, but both he and Suetonius (who is) were writing long after the events, and neither made any real attempt to weigh the reliability of the source-materials on which they were constructing their narrative. Suetonius, in particular, never omits an unlikely piece of juicy gossip unless he can find an even-more-crazy allegation to top it.

Tacitus, of course, lived near enough to the times to have been able to talk to some of those who had lived through them, and some modern historians talk about Tacitus as a ‘better’ source. I do not agree – I think Tacitus is WORSE. Tacitus takes the truth and intentionally distorts it, manipulating it into his own personal weltanschauung; and as a result his account thus seems to ‘fit together’ better, and seem so much more plausible as a result. At least Dio and Suetonius simply pile up the stories for us to decide for ourselves whether we believe them or not. Tacitus is consciously trying-to-mislead.

The failings of modern historians
To be fair, most modern historians acknowledge this. Their reaction is to try to discern the ‘possible truth’ which underlies the source. Rarely is this based upon anything much more than what-they-suspect-may-be-true – I do not see much systematic source-deconstruction going on in what is often merely speculation. Disappointingly, Anthony Barratt’s 1996 biography of Agrippina is just about the worst example of this one might fear to find.
Moreover, worse than guesswork, these historians strike me as essentially dishonest since – whilst constructing their ‘alternative hypotheses’ – they do not hesitate to invoke other ‘facts’ from Tacitus, Suetonius or Dio … which they use WITHOUT question. So stories which are resisted as unreliable at one point keep turning up accepted at others in order to dismiss some other source-story they wish to reinvent. Thus there is a danger that modern histories are not histories at all, but speculation based on Tacitus’s perversions of contemporary propaganda and lies.

Realising this, the late Judith Ginsberg (2006) commented:

We need to acknowledge that Tacitus’s Agrippina is largely a literary construct that serves the larger ends of [Tacitus’s] narrative.

As a result, she recommended:

‘a resisting rather than an assenting reading of the texts’
and – instead of an attempt to write a ‘true’ biography from unreliable facts, she focussed on analysing:
'what cultural assumptions about the role of women, female sexuality, and political power underlie and make these [texts] such powerful constructs’.

Given that our course is about Agrippina, this is a very disappointing approach. Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach is as much and more about Tacitus and his times than it is about the ‘real’ Agrippina … who is seen as essentially out of reach.

Will the real Agrippina stand up
As young historians trained up on SHP GCSE, I guess you will find nothing remarkable about the idea that sources can be unreliable, and that – as we study Tacitus and Suetonius – you need to adopt a ‘resisting’ attitude to what they are saying … though I suspect even you may be startled at the extent to which they are prepared to pervert the truth.

What you may be less familiar with (although the idea has cropped up when we studied Alexander and Hannibal) is the idea that the Agrippina we are reading about is not the ‘real’ Agrippina, but a semi-fictional construct.

You are welcome, of course, to speculate about what the ‘real’ Agrippina was like (everybody else does!) but I think it is key for you to realise that
 – although there once was a real Agrippina – we shall never know what she was 'really' like. 

Instead, you need to appreciate that, when you read Tacitus, you are reading about Agrippina-as-Tacitus-presented-her (let’s call her ‘Tacitus-Agrippina’). In the same way, you will read about Tacitus-Claudius and Tacitus-Nero … just as, when you are reading Suetonius or Dio, you will be able to study Suetonius-Agrippina and Dio-Agrippina.

Since Suetonius and Dio made very little effort to filter their source-information, I suspect that (tentatively) you may be able to discern behind their writing a ‘what-ordinary-people-thought-at-the-time-Agrippina’. But beware – even the ‘what-ordinary-people-thought-at-the-time-Agrippina’ is not the ‘real’ Agrippina … who was hidden from ordinary people behind the walls of the palace and a very effective government propaganda machine.

Therefore, whatever you write about this unit,make sure you make it clear to the examiner:
1. that you know about 'resisting reading' - that you are are aware that every source you are citing is VERY unreliable (and that you explain why)

2. that you know that all we have are 'constructs-of-Agrippina' and that - whatever you say about Agrippina - you make it clear 'which' Agrippina you are talking about.

3. that, where you are speculating, you say so.

Monday, January 07, 2013

A Historiography of the Roman Emperors - Part I: Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula

So - how have historians portrayed the Roman Emperors?

An Impossible Task
Before we start, I am going to suggest that it is impossible to know anything about the reigns of the Roman emperors. Almost no records have survived from the time except formal propaganda such as coins and inscriptions.

Otherwise, we are reliant upon a very small number of totally unreliable written sources from long after the time. Of the three main sources Cassius Dio 
(who is not regarded as a reliable historian) was writing two centuries after the events, and Suetonius (who invariably preferred scandal to truth) a hundred years

Tacitus, the ‘best’ historian of the period, wrote histories which nowadays would disgrace a school pupil. Tacitus was writing at the time of the tyrant emperor Domitian (ad81-96), and he had a hatred of the emperors and their rule. The Books of Kings in the Bible divides the rulers of Israel into two categories – those who did good in the sight of the Lord, and those who did evil. Tacitus tends to divide his judgement in a similar way – those people who established/maintained the imperial system are portrayed as mad or bad, those who wanted the return of the Republic (e.g. Drusus and Germanicus) are portrayed as paragons of all the virtues! And because Tacitus provides the evidential base-rock for all succeeding histories, it has been very difficult for historians to develop alternative theories.

When the scholars of the Renaissance discovered Tacitus and Suetonius, therefore – although they believed that Roman civilisation was the apex of human development – they repeated the opinion that Rome’s rulers were mad or bad. Similarly, when Edward Gibbon wrote the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the 18th century, he portrayed Rome’s corrupt government as the cause of its decline.

19th century historians deconstructed and doubted Tacitus and Suetonius, and there were (especially during the dictatorships of the inter-war period) attempts to rehabilitate the emperors … but the experience of the Second World War, and the desire of the media for a juicy story, put an end to much of that.

It is therefore I Claudius (the 1934 novel by English Classical scholar and writer Robert Graves, which was made into a TV series in 1976) which has given us our strongest and most abiding interpretation of the Roman emperors.

In his own day Augustus was worshipped – literally – as a god and Pater Patriae (‘father of the fatherland’).
Tacitus, however, portrayed Augustus as a devious tyrant who destroyed the liberties of Rome, and this was fairly much the image of Augustus until the 19th century. Gibbon declared that Augustus was a deceiver who gave the Romans the illusion of freedom, but not its substance.
During the 1930s historians -- especially in Mussolini’s Italy – overturned this negative view, and stressed instead the glories of Rome, its empire and the Pax Romana.
However, in 1939 the English scholar Ronald Syme demonstrated that Augustus’s ‘Second Settlement’ of ad23 was essential propaganda, and in 1976 Brian Blessed portrayed Augustus in I Claudius as hail-fellow-well-met, but ruthless and wilfully blind to the cruelty and corruptions of his court.

Unlike Augustus, Tiberius was hated even in his own time – when he died, the people rejoiced, shouting: ‘Throw Tiberius into the Tiber’ – and Tacitus portrays him as a dark, cruel man whose hands were covered in the blood of those he persecuted and executed. This, indeed, was the view of Tiberius for centuries – Gibbon declared that Tiberius was ‘an old profligate’ who filled his life with debauchery.
By the 1930s, however, historians were rejecting Tacitus’s account as totally unreliable, and trying to piece together their own judgements of Tiberius from what he did, rather than from what Tacitus said of him. The American historian Frank B Marsh credited Tiberius with ‘far-sighted statesmanship’ and accorded him ‘a place among the best and greatest of emperors’ … arguing that he was neither implacable nor vindictive, but merely ‘a blunt soldier’ who lacked the ‘genial tact’ of Augustus. Another American, RS Rogers, identified three’ Imperial Virtues’ of Tiberius – liberalitas, clementia and moderatio (generosity, mercy and restraint) … a human being who would have been unrecognisable to Tacitus or Gibbon.
After the war, however, more negative interpretations of Tiberius reappeared. In 1956 the Spanish doctor and psychologist Gregorio Maranon published Tiberius: A Study in Resentment, in which he argued that Tiberius had a dual personality perverted by ‘the vindictive violence of resentful men when they attain power’.
In 1976, George Baker’s portrayal of Tiberius in I Claudius was even more hostile, representing him also as 
depressive, weak and dominated by his mother. 

Tacitus’s account of Caligula has been lost, so historians are dependent upon Suetonius and Cassius Dio … from which Caligula emerges as a character who is completely insane, devouring his own child, planning to make his horse a senator etc. It was an image which managed to survive into the 19th century (Gibbon described Caligula as ‘furious’), but which was ultimately unsustainable. Nobody so out-of-control could have governed an empire.
The way, therefore, was open for re-interpretations, and in 1903 H Willrich suggested that the sources had presented a biased and unreliable account of Caligula’s reign. Caligula, argued Willrich, was misrepresented because he had tried (and failed) to introduce a more ‘eastern’ form of monarchy into the empire.
By JPVD Balsdon’s account of 1934, Caligula was totally restored – Balsdon rejected the suggestion and Caligula was mad, and instead presented him as ‘intelligent and consistent’ and ‘a perfectly normal and attractive young man’ whose flaw perhaps was that he was over-exuberant and enjoyed shocking people with his ‘impudence’.
John Hurt’s brilliant portrayal of Caligula in the 1976 production of I Claudius was having none of this. Hurt’s Caligula was chillingly insane … and effeminate to boot.  Modern media is attracted by the gossip and scandal of Caligula's reign - a film of 1979 so literally portrayed Suetonius's allegations that it was co-financed by Penthouse magazine and banned in many countries.
Recently, Anthony Barratt (1989) – although he accepts that Caligula’s portrayal in the sources owes a lot to propaganda by Claudius and his ‘quislings’ to blacken the reputation of the man they murdered to gain power – nevertheless delivers a negative verdict:

‘Insufferably arrogant … he seems to have lacked any basic sense of moral responsibility. He was quite unsuited either by temperament or training to rule an empire… I see no consistency or coherence in his policies, and little administrative talent. To make an inexperienced and almost unknown young man, brought up under a series of aged and repressive guardians, master of the world, almost literally overnight, on the sole recommendation that his father had been a thoroughly decent fellow, was to court disaster in a quite irresponsible fashion.’