Friday, May 15, 2015

Tacitus and the Corruption of Power (c. 100 AD)

“The story I now commence is rich in vicissitudes, grim with warfare, torn by civil strife, a tale of horror even during times of peace. … never has it been proved by such terrible disasters to Rome or by such clear evidence that Providence is concerned not with our peace of mind but rather with vengeance for our sin.”

Where Polybius sang the virtues of stoic Rome, Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 118 AD) denounced its vices. Officially Augustus had restored the Republic after generations of chaos, and both he and his heirs were merely its first servants. Unofficially, he had abolished it. After Actium (31 BC) Rome was, in fact, a military dictatorship, and knew no law higher than the will of the emperor. Under an Augustus or a Vespasian this was not necessarily a problem – but under a Nero, or a Caligula, it was a nightmare. Having lived through the particular nightmare of Domitian, and then finding himself, perhaps to his surprise, free to write as he pleased under the “five good emperors” (96 – 180 AD), Tacitus wrote his Histories and Annales as frank sermons on the evils of power. Unfortunately for the memory of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero (among others), he chose them for his text. (The Roman Revolution was the subject of an earlier article, here: (

After vanquishing Marc Antony, Augustus had reigned wisely for a generation. When his own children died young, he settled reluctantly on his stepson, Tiberius, (42 BC – 37 AD) as his successor. Tiberius was a good general and administrator, but he resented Augustus for forcing him to divorce a wife he loved for an imperial floozy, and he hated and feared his mother, Livia, as a natural conspirator. He could never be quite certain that Augustus would not have him executed or exiled on account of her whispering campaigns, as he had others. As a result he tended to see conspiracies everywhere. By the time he became emperor (14 AD) he was fifty-five years old, bitter, and habitually suspicious. He could not bear his domineering mother, the city, its spineless senators, or its vulgar crowds. The master of the world had everything he could want, except for peace of mind, or a friend. He withdrew increasingly into himself, and then to the island of Capri - a fortress of solitude from which he only rarely emerged.

There was at least one man in Rome who knew how to take advantage of the vulnerable, sullen emperor, and who had the guts to try it. This was the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, who presented himself as just the sort of friend Tiberius needed. After winning the Emperor’s confidence, he volunteered for more and more duties, which Tiberius gratefully handed him. As he accumulated duties, he accumulated power – and since Tiberius soon trusted no one else, as long as he retained that trust he could do whatever he wanted. In effect, he was setting himself up as a de facto Emperor in his own right. Anyone with ambition for advancement, or even with regard for their own safety, had to court him – but anyone who remained aloof was vulnerable, for spies and informers were everywhere, and they were well-paid for vicious gossip. “To be rich or well-born was a crime,” Tacitus said. “Men were prosecuted for holding or for refusing office: merit of any kind meant certain ruin.”

However, this situation was also dangerous for Sejanus, for he was as hated as he was powerful, and if he ever lost Tiberius' trust he would probably lose his life as well. Once the climb to power had begun, it could not be safely halted – eventually, Tiberius would have to go. The problem was that he had a large family, and in the event of his death they would be the natural heirs. Since only Tiberius could order the death or exile of members of his family, Sejanus had to persuade Tiberius to dispose of them before he could dispose of Tiberius. This was not after all an impossible task, for Tiberius was suspicious and isolated, and his children feared him for the same reasons he had feared Augustus. One by one they were exiled, imprisoned, executed, or otherwise got-rid of. Sejanus was closing in for the kill.

There was only one left – the future Caligula – when Tiberius realized his friend was a viper. Expecting to receive the office that would very nearly make him Tiberius’ heir, Sejanus was instead surprised to find himself stripped of his command, denounced before the Senate, and then strangled. His corpse, and that of his children, were thrown off the Gemonian stairs and left for dogs and vultures. A bloody purge of the Senate followed. All at once the thing that had once guaranteed safety guaranteed ruin, for to have been friendly with Sejanus in any way now attracted the vengeful gaze of a frightened, cruel, vengeful, and temporarily omnipotent old man.

Tiberius reigned for another six years, but by this time he had probably become unhinged. Tacitus says he begged the Senate to protect “an old and lonely man” – there was, indeed, no one else he could turn to, for he was himself the murderer of most of his family. When he fainted during a voyage everyone assumed he was dead, breathed a sigh of relief, and rushed to hail Caligula. For a moment he seemed to recover, but some quick-thinking courtier smothered him with a pillow. Caligula was now the Emperor. But that is an entirely different tale of madness…

Tacitus’ histories are famous as a dire warning against the corruption of power. We do not know how accurate his descriptions are, for we have few sources for this period, and they are all unsatisfactory. What we do know is that Tacitus hated Tiberius and the other Julio-Claudians, bitterly resented his own humiliation under Domitian, and feared the advent of another mad demigod. One would never guess that his histories were written under the best government the Empire ever had. Further, he wrote for senators who regarded all emperors as tyrants, and who liked to think of themselves as the heirs of the stoic heroes of old Rome. However, with few exceptions, they never dared oppose an emperor – they could only avenge themselves in the history books. Tacitus, knowing what his audience wanted to hear, obliged them. We have good reason, then, to suspect the character portrait Tacitus provides us with.

Tacitus was a moralist first and a historian second. Or, rather, he thought they were the same thing. “The chief duty of a historian,” he said, “is to judge the actions of men, so that the good may meet with the reward due to virtue, and pernicious citizens may be deterred by the condemnation that awaits evil deeds at the tribunal of posterity.” Tiberius and the other Emperors were not, then, being studied for their own sake – they were being studied as a warning to the present. Similarly, his sketch of the German tribes, and of his father in-law, Agricola, also serve a moral purpose, for they were meant to recall to the New Rome the virtues of the Old. The good man, he implied, is the one of simple and upright habits. He serves his country under good governments and bad, and braves the hazards of politics with the same fortitude as those of war. Just as he can fall in the one struggle, he can fall in the other. No matter, he must serve. Far from being a prophet of ruin, as he is sometimes read, Tacitus agrees with Polybius that the Roman Empire is eternal. Emperors, however rotten, come and go.

Tacitus' acid character portraits, the relentless carnage of his palace, and his utter refusal to offer us a shred of consolation, guarantee him a place in both literature and history. As a guide to the dark and blood-splattered corridors of power, Tacitus has few equals. Those who accompany him on the tour he offers likely to forget the experience.

More on the life of Tacitus:

Full text of the Histories:

Part of a Series on Philosophy of History (VII of XXXV)
(The picture is a statue of Tiberius)

Questions: Do you agree with Tacitus that a good person has an obligation to serve his country, even if the government is rotten? Were tryrants like Tiberius inevitable under the imperial system, or might Rome have found a different way? Or was Tiberius a tyrant at all? Do you think the Republic could have been restored?

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