Readings

The Classical Period
Archives
Books by John R. Turner
Click on the Cover
Agrippina (the Elder), Germanicus's widow, and by all accounts a fierce woman, was present at her husband's death and insisted on returning his ashes from Syria to Rome. After she landed at Brundisium, she and the urn containing the remains created fervid mourning all along the route to the capital city. Tiberius was criticized for not showing as much grief as the general population did and as the outcry became known to the emperor he felt forced to issue a proclamation. Grief was proper, he said, but too much grief was not. And then he noted "that what was becoming in humble homes and communities did not befit princely personages and an imperial people." The concept that persons of the upper ranks should not display overt sentimentality is ancient, and it persists with us still, even though there is now some comedic snipping at the stiff upper lip. Perhaps it arose from the demands of military leadership, where great losses can't be permitted to divert attention from the tasks at hand. At any rate, it continues to seem right, somehow, though our media culture strikes at it by reveling in public emotionalism. In the case of Tiberius, however, it probably didn't require aristocratic self-control to avoid open grief over the death of a young man who was clearly more idolized by the people than the emperor was himself. (Posted, 2/23/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

The death of Germanicus, Tiberius's nephew and adopted son, will forever be a mystery of ancient history. He was only 34 when he died in A.D. 19, and was seen by his admirers as comparable to Alexander in grace and ability. He was widely reputed to have been poisoned by his bitter rival Cneius Piso, the governor of Syria. The modern scholar Michael Grant thinks Germanicus probably died of natural causes, perhaps from a disease he contracted while traveling up the Nile in Egypt. Tacitus doesn't say that Piso poisoned Germanicus and doesn't offer any explanation about how it might have been done, though he does report the rumor that Piso sent spies to watch Germanicus and report on his condition. And he also puts into the mouth of Germanicus a speech in which the latter says he believes he has been poisoned. Piso was later accused by the Senate and committed suicide before his trial took place. He must have concluded that the evidence was stacked against him, whether or not it was valid. About all we can grasp from Germanicus's sad end is some understanding of the virulence of the jealousies the Roman leaders just below the emperor's rank felt for one another. Whether the vicious plots they deployed against one another, and that take up much of the attention of the ancient historians, had serious effects on the lives of ordinary people, particularly those outside the armies, is another question modern scholars don't answer with unanimity.  (Posted, 2/22/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

The first of "those practices which for so many years have eaten into the heart of the State," was carried out against Libo Drusus, who came from an illustrious family and whose aunt had been married to Augustus. He was probably guilty of nothing more than some loose talk and extravagance in living, but through a series of entangling accusations he finally became the object of a Senate inquiry  mainly because of the efforts of Fulcinius Trio, who, says Tacitus, was eager "for an evil notoriety." Poor Libo rushed to the Senate and begged to plead his case to Tiberius, but the emperor merely read out the charges against him. After going home, Libo sent another plea to Tiberius, but received the reply that he must make his defense to the Senate. Feeling that all was stacked against him, Libo stabbed himself to death. His accusers got his property, which tells us that loyalty to the state and emperor were probably not the main motives for the charges. After Trio's death, Tiberius said he would have forgiven him, even if he had been convicted. One can be excused for doubting that. The truth is that suspicion, fear, and jealousy ruled among the people near the emperor or prominent in the Senate. It doesn't appear to have been a game a rational person would want to play, and yet ambition to be in the upper ranks may have been more intense then than it is now -- if that were possible. (Posted, 2/19/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

In the first years of his reign Tiberius allowed prosecutions for "treason" to be re-introduced. The crime, then, was much broader than it is in modern nations, and could include anything considered an insult to the emperor or to the state. Immediately, all sorts of accusations began, and Tiberius by dismissing some of them appeared to suggest that the fears of the citizens  concerning the law were overdrawn. For example, a Roman knight named Falanius was accused of including in the sale of his gardens a statue of Augustus. The emperor pronounced that selling a statue of his predecessor was no more illegal than selling the statue of any other god, and, besides, if the gods were offended they could take care of the punishment themselves. But this leniency, argued Tacitus, was merely an example of the emperor's cunning because he did, eventually, begin to approve all sorts of accusations which finally "burst into a flame and consumed everything." Nobody could be safe from false or trivial accusations and anybody who experienced the emperor's disfavor was bound to be accused. McCarthy wasn't necessary for the birth of McCarthyism. A false accusation of inadequate devotion to one's country is the most difficult charge to defend oneself against because the accuser can say that the lack of hard evidence simply shows the criminal's skill of concealment. It is also a poison to the state because it makes everyone suspicious of everyone else. At least that was Tacitus's view and we would need more evidence than we have to prove him wrong.  (Posted, 2/18/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Despite Germanicus's bloody incursion, the Romans never took control of any land east of the Rhine. In A.D. 15, Germanicus launched another invasion against the great German commander Arminius, the leader of a tribe called Cherusci. The Romans marched supposedly at the request of Arminius's father-in-law who wanted only peace with the Empire. But certainly part of the motive was to avenge Arminius's slaughter of a Roman army under Varus six years earlier. Germanicus's soldiers found the battlefield, heaped with the bones of Varus's men. And after burying them, they won some local battles against Arminius and wounded him personally. But that was about all it came to. In later years Arminius came to be a great hero of German nationalism, and was one of the mythic figures of Saxon invincibility. Tacitus treats Arminius with considerable respect and puts into his mouth this speech: "Before me, three legions, three commanders have fallen. Not by treachery, not against pregnant women (the Romans had carried off his wife), but openly against armed men do I wage war. There are still to be seen in the groves of Germany, the Roman standards which I hung up to our country's gods." They were the kind of words legends are made of and which send men to their deaths, for exactly what it's sometimes hard to say. Fighting for a country's gods was once a big thing. Nowadays, we, mostly, make up different names for the gods in order to die for them.  (Posted, 2/17/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

About the same time that the younger Drusus was subduing the uprisings in Pannonia, Tiberius's nephew Germanicus was facing the same problems with the legions on the Rhine. He dealt with the soldiers in a way some came to consider wishy-washy or soft, granting the petition of the oldest veterans to be allowed to retire and receive the monies that had been promised to them. But this didn't completely do away with the rebellion. It continued, particularly among the legions stationed farther to the north, and eventually was put down with much bloodshed, perhaps more than had occurred in Pannonia. We can't know for sure. Nobody was keeping count. One of the problems of ancient history is that the writers don't give us much sense of the personalities of the main figures. One can scarcely discern from Tacitus, who was braver or more intelligent, Drusus or Germanicus. We can see that Tacitus admired Drusus more, but for what reason it's hard to tell. A sad feature of the rebellion in the north was that the soldiers, after they had been subdued, wished to testify to their renewed loyalty by engaging the Germans. So Germanicus led them across the Rhine and "ravaged a space of fifty miles with fire and sword. Neither sex nor age moved his compassion." In other words, he killed women and children just as readily as he killed men. If, somehow, one could turn a camera on those events, how would they strike us now? Would they be anything like our imagination conveys them to us? That, too, we cannot know.   (Posted, 2/16/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Shortly after Tiberius was proclaimed emperor, mutiny broke out among the legions of Pannonia, that is, modern Hungary and Yugoslavia. Tacitus describes these uprisings in some detail, even including the speeches of several of the leading mutineers. But his general portrayal is of an ignorant, superstitious mob for whom he has little sympathy. And yet, his account, to current sensibilities, appears to justify the troops' grievances. Certainly, life among the soldiers was astoundingly brutal, both in terms of what they did to others and what was done to them by their commanders. Hearing of the outbreaks, Tiberius sent his son Drusus, then about 27 years old, with a pair of cohorts to subdue them. When he arrived, the legions weren't in a mood to bow down to him. But over the course of a night, their daring began to fade and by the time he addressed them the next morning they were pretty well subdued. There was a debate among Drusus's advisors about whether to wait for envoys from Rome, who might bring the emperor's decision to grant some of the soldiers' demands, or to take harsh measures against them immediately because "as the rabble knows no mean, and inspires fear unless they are afraid, though when they have once been overawed they can be safely despised." Drusus went along with the harsh-measures crowd and had the leaders of the revolt chased down and killed. There was no fooling around with the niceties of trials in those days. How many people died in similar situations during the course of the Roman Empire, nobody knows. During most of human history, a separation of rank carried with it an inability to feel anything for people in the lower orders, or to imagine that they had any feelings except for pure animal passions.  (Posted, 2/15/05)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

Tacitus begins The Annals with an account of the last days of Augustus in the year 14. The reason why the aged emperor made Tiberius his heir must remain wreathed in mystery. Augustus seems not to have had a high opinion of his stepson, but neither did he have a high opinion of any of his direct descendants. The influence of his wife, Livia, may well have been paramount. She, evidently, was a ruthless woman and Tacitus reports suspicions that she did away with her failing husband in order to make sure her son would succeed him. In any case, one of the first acts of the new regime -- Tacitus calls it the first "crime" -- was the murder of Augustus's grandson Agrippa. Tiberius hinted that it had been required by a late request of the grandfather, but that was doubtless nonsense. And, besides, the new emperor claimed he hadn't ordered it in any case. All this is reported by Tactitus with a certain matter-of-factness, as if to say, this is the way of the world and I have no business judging it. He explains in his opening page that he's going to relate it all without either bitterness or partiality. But, of course, he does judge it, and harshly too. It seems almost beyond human power not to take a stand on acts like these. (Posted, 2/14/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][

In his introduction to the complete works of Tacitus (Modern Library, 1942) Moses Hadas warns that we mustn't expect to find in the great historian attitudes consistent with our own. It's good advice, but we should anticipate that Tacitus's general set of political values will still guide some contemporary figures. No potent political philosophy ever goes away completely. New rhetoric simply rises to promote it. Though Tacitus was hard on the emperors of the late First Century that did not mean he was against the empire. He supported it on the basis that it spread civilized values to benighted people. And he recognized that in order to have an empire Rome also had to have a emperor. He wanted only for the emperor be virtuous, not that his power be circumscribed.

Now a majority of people who think about such subjects have concluded that there can be no such thing as uncircumscribed virtuous power. Consequently, anyone who seeks unlimited power has to be seen as corrupt, regardless of his stated motives. Yet a minority remain as supportive of dictatorial power as Tacitus was. The political group known as neo-conservatives believe firmly that in the current state of world affairs American presidential power must be wielded without much respect for democratic limitations. Effectiveness, in their minds, is everything. The curious feature of their belief is that they they think they can use unified rule to promote democracy. And their reason for supporting virtual dictatorial presidential power is the same as Tacitus's was. They want to teach low grade and confused people how to behave.

The difference between the neo-cons and Tacitus is two thousand years of political debate. There are now powerful ideas at work in the world that would have seemed fantastic to Tacitus. We can forgive him for not taking them seriously into account. It's a question how much we can forgive current figures who think now as he did then.  (Posted, 2/13/06)

][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][          ][



©John R. Turner

All images and text on this page are the property of Word and Image of Vermont

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

Top of Page          Word and Image of Vermont Home