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.’