Friday, September 13, 2013

The Dark Side


The Roman Empire is too this day greatly admired, but a lot of that admiration is based on the fact that it occurred so long ago so that the bruises of everyday knowledge of Roman power are softened by the nostalgia of distance in time. It is also helped by the fact that Greco-Roman culture was and is so widely admired as the foundation of Western Civilization.

The result is a tendency to whitewash the regime of the Emperors and to represent it as a benign institution except of course when “bad” Emperor’s ruled. Of course it is a common shibboleth in classic scholarship that a “bad” Emperor was one disliked by the Senate. The bottom line is that if the institution of Emperorship was so open to be so easily being “misused” then of course the problem wasn’t just with the individual but the institution as well.

In fact this leads to the actual problem. During the reign of Augustus if someone had tried to define just what Augustus; position was they would have had a significant problem because frankly from an institutional point of view the Emperor was outside of the conventional political institutions of the Roman State and the bases of his power ran through private not public channels of authority.  This meant that from a constitutional point of view the Emperors were at once not recognized has legitimate and all powerful. In fact it the very lack of an official recognized, defined position of authority within the state probably increased the power of the Emperors simply because it was so ill defined.1

To give an example the very title Emperor now has monarchical overtones, yet in origin it was the Latin term “Imperator”, which simply means supreme commander of the armies. In fact Augustus was given a whole spat of titles several of which acquired over time monarchical overtones, such as “Princips”, which means first citizen becoming Prince. All these titles that Augustus was given referred to a whole smorgasbord of powers by which Augustus governed the state. The Senate was prevailed upon, (They had no choice.) to “give” Augustus these powers to provide a thread bare legal justification for his power over the state. All it did was to cloak, and cloak badly, unbridled autocratic power.2   

So why was it done? Well Octavian, who became Augustus, a title conferred on him by the Senate, had to accept the reality that the Roman Aristocracy abominated the idea of a “Rex” or King. Any attempt to create an obvious monarchy would have resulted in conspiracies galore and Octavian’s virtually certain death. So Augustus had to create a disguised monarchy. That required that he dress up his position in Republican forms, hence the grab-bag of titles and powers he had conferred on him by the Senate. Further he had to tinker with the system of Republican Imperial administration has little has possible. However the system of governing entirely indirectly through the Senate would have been cumbersome. So Augustus created, through his network of private power, an Imperial bureaucracy that reported directly to him and one that by passed the Senate and the usual forms of governance. This private system of authority had precedent over the public forms of administration, and control of the Legions, i.e., armed forces. The public façade was just that a façade.3

The result of this was a polycentric system; that and the very informal, private nature of much of the Emperor’s authority actually made Augustus’ power even more untrammelled then it would be for a King. For a King’s role is generally well defined whereas an Roman Emperor’s role at this time being undefined would be because it was so undefined even less constrained by institutional, customary limits.

In effect what we have is Dictatorship or Tyranny. We also have a tyranny which because it does not recognize an institutionalized system of succession, is one that is in crisis when the Dictator / Emperor dies. After all it is not a monarchy per say but a grab-bag of powers which are not officially institutionalized in an institution. For that institution is an informal private one to a large extent, based on private power. Thus Augustus had no monarchical position that his heir Tiberius could just step into. Tiberius was merely Augustus’ heir as a private man. Yet everyone knows what Augustus’ making Tiberius his heir meant. That Tiberius would inherit Augustus’ power has well. The Senate was supposed to take the hint and “give”, again the Senate had no choice, Tiberius the powers Augustus had while living.

In situations like this the dark features of a Dictatorial system like that are plainly obvious when there is automatically a crisis upon the death of one dictator and the accession of another. Thus in many ways the events and circumstances that accompany the death of Augustus and the accession of Tiberius are mirrored in the succession crises that happen in modern Dictatorships.

Thus we get the description with sinister overtones of Tacitus in his The Annals of Imperial Rome. For example the following passages that seem to pine for Republican government.

In the capital the situation was calm. The titles of officials remained the same. Actium had been won before the younger men were born. Even most of the older generation had come into a world of civil wars. Practically no one had ever seen truly Republican government. The country had been transformed, and there was nothing left of the fine old Roman character. Political equality was a thing of the past; all eyes watched for imperial commands.

And later:

But when old age incapacitated him, [Augustus] his approaching end brought hopes of change. A few people started idly talking of the blessings of freedom. Some, more numerous. Feared civil war; others wanted it. The great majority, however, exchanged critical gossip about candidates for the succession.4

Thus we see the outline of tyranny. We read about the dangerous time when tyrants are dying and the approaching crisis of what happens when the tyrant dies. Who succeeds the dying tyrant? A situation fraught with peril. For some want a restoration of the previous non-tyrannical government others fear that without a firm hand chaos will ensue. And many people want to know who will be the new dictator so they can accordingly kowtow.

In fact an indication of slavish subservience is the desire to heap honors on the dead dictator usually in the hope that this will curry favour with the new dictator. Thus we get the following silly spectacle:

The senators vied with one another in proposing posthumous honours for Augustus. Among the motions introduced were the following: that his funeral procession should pass through the Triumphal Gate preceded by the image of Victory from the senate house, and that boys and girls of the nobility should sing his dirge; that on the day of his cremation iron rings should be worn instead of gold ones; that his ashes should be gathered by priests of the leading Colleges; that the name of the month ‘August’ should be transferred to September, because Augustus had been born in September but had died in the month now called August; and the whole period between his birth and death should be officially entered in the Calendar as ‘the Augustan Age’.5

The above shows just how persistent and oh so common and long lasting is the effects of tyranny and dictatorial rule and how it leads to some truly mawkish displays of servility.

On the death of the dictator gossip spreads and people exchange sinister rumours many of which indicate how the state has become the personal plaything of the dictator and his family.

And then there was that feminine bully, his [Tiberius'] mother. Livia, [also Augustus’ wife] ‘So we have got to be slaves to a woman’, people were saying, ‘and to the half-grown boys Germanicus and Drusus. First they will be a burden to the State – then they will tear it in two!’

Amid this sort of conversation the health of Augustus deteriorated.6 

Still later while Augustus was dying in the city of Nola Tiberius was recalled from his military command in Illyricum. To insure that the proper steps were taken to assure a calm succession.

…Tiberius was recalled from his post in Illyricum (immediately after his arrival there) by an urgent letter from his mother. When he arrived at Nola, it is unknown whether he found Augustus alive or dead. For the house and neighbouring streets were carefully sealed by Livia’s guards. At intervals hopeful reports were published – until the steps demanded by the situation had been taken. Then two pieces of news became known simultaneously: Augustus was dead, and Tiberius was in control.7

Another account says:

His death, however, was not immediately made public; for Livia, fearing that as Tiberius was still in Dalmatia there might be some uprising, concealed the fact until he arrived. This, at any rate, is the statement made by most writers, and the more trustworthy ones; but there are some who have affirmed that Tiberius was present during the emperor's illness, and received some injunctions for him.8

It would not do for the dictator to be somewhere else when the previous dictator dies so of course he is summoned from afar to be by the dying dictator’s side. Also steps must be taken to ensure that the new dictator steps easily into power. Hence all information about the health and death of the dictator are kept under strict control. The death only to be announced when the new dictator is firmly in control. Steps having been taken to ensure that the army and the bureaucracy are firmly under the new tyrant’s control. Of course the story of Tiberius being there to be with Augustus when he died is the official version and not to be taken seriously.

Of course this bears more than a passing similarity with the situation last year in North Korea when Kim Jong-il died and steps were taken so ensure the easy coming to power of Kim Jong-un. This included the issuing of carefully crafted notices of illness and death all carefully timed to make the transition of power seamless.9

Of course there was unfinished business from the old regime. Agrippa Postumus, a grandchild of Augustus and a possible rival, who had in an obscure intrigue been exiled to a tiny island, was killed. And Julia, daughter of Augustus, who had been married to Tiberius and who had also been exiled was starved to death.10 In both of those cases it was considered sensible to clear up the left overs left from the previous dictatorship. And of course the new Dictator denies responsibility. And it is said that Augustus ordered that Agrippa Postumus be killed upon his death. Thus we get:

But when the staff-officer reported in the military fashion that he had carried out his orders, Tiberius answered that he had given no orders and that what had been done would have to accounted for in the senate.

This came to the notice of Tiberius’ confidant Gaius Sallustius Crispus. It was he who had sent instructions to the colonel, and he was afraid that responsibility might be shifted to himself – in which case either telling the truth or lying would be equally risky. So he warned Livia that palace secrets, and the advice of friends, and services performed by the army, were best left un-divulged; and Tiberius must not weaken the throne by referring everything to the senate. The whole point of autocracy, Crispus observed, is that the accounts will not come right unless the ruler is their only auditor.11

In other words tyranny flourishes on commands that are both secret and not subject to any sort of public scrutiny. Also indicated is the fear that in carrying out the commands of a tyrant someone can be made the scapegoat and punished as a way for the tyrant or avoid taking responsibility. Thus deeds like the murder of Agrippa Postumus are best carried out in secret and every effort made to conceal them.

At the same time much ado is made of the fact that the dictator has been made the heir in the deceased dictator’s will and thus is the legitimate heir of his power. As in North Korea.12 and like North Korea largess was spread by the new Dictator to disarm opposition and secure his shaky hold on power and they function as way of securing obedience to the new Dictator. Thus when discussing Augustus’ legacies we are in fact discussing the means by which Tiberius cemented his hold on power. Thus in Augustus’ will we find out that:

In the third degree came the most prominent men in the state; Augustus had detested a good many of them, but their inclusion bragged to posterity that he had been their friend. His legacies were in keeping with the standards of ordinary citizens, except that he left 43,500,000 sesterces to the nation and people of Rome, a thousand to every Guardsman, five hundred to the troops of the capital, three hundred to every citizen soldier, whether he belonged to a regular brigade or to an auxiliary battalion.13

Another historian says regarding Augustus’ will:

He also directed that many articles and sums of money should be given to many different persons, both relatives of his and others unrelated, not only to senators and knights but also to kings; to the people he left forty million sesterces; and as for the soldiers, one thousand sesterces apiece to the Pretorians, half that amount to the city troops, and to the rest of the citizen soldiery three hundred each.  Moreover, in the case of children of whose fathers he had been the heir while the children were still small, he enjoined that the whole amount together with interest should be paid back to them when they became men. This, in fact, had been his practice even while living; for whenever he inherited the estate of anyone who had offspring, he never failed to restore it all to the man's children, immediately if they were already grown up, and otherwise later.14

Both of those reveal in abundance the use of the legacies in a will to buy loyalty and to cement the hold on power of dictators and there can be little doubt that this is exactly how Augustus’ legacies were intended to work. Augustus’ will was used and intended to be used to cement Tiberius’ hold on power and to bluntly buy loyalty and to frankly show off the beneficence of the Dictatorship.

Also of interest is the care taken to pay the armed forces and thus secure their loyalty to the dictator.

What is further fascinating is how in the second quote the servile behaviour of individuals who in order to curry favour from the dictator make him their heir in their wills. Augustus showing his generosity, kindly allows the heirs to get it, eventually in some cases because they were at the time too young. Thus giving Augustus the use of the money in the meantime. Of course the slavish, suck-up behaviour of the people who would make Augustus their heir indicates quite clearly the autocratic nature of the state and peoples “willingness” to kow tow. And of course Augustus and yes Tiberius get acres of praise for graciously allowing the children to inherit, thus earning and expecting loyalty from what amounts to bribing people with their own money.

The autocratic nature of the regime is clear from this.

Meanwhile the acclamation of the new dictator begins and it is stomach turning:

Meanwhile at Rome consuls, senate, knights, precipitately became servile. The most distinguished men were, the greater their urgency and insincerity. They must show neither satisfaction at the death of one emperor, not gloom at the accession of another: so their features were carefully arranged in a blend of tears and smiles, mourning and flattery. The first to swear allegiance to Tiberius Caesar were the consuls Sextus Pompeius and Sextus Appuleius: and then in their presence the commander of the guard, Lucius Seius Strabo, and the controller of the corn-supply, Gaius Turranius; next the senate, army, and public. For Tiberius made a habit, of always allowing the consuls the initiative, as though the Republic still existed and he himself uncertain whether to take charge or not.15

Thus like in modern day dictatorships like North Korea certain appropriate behaviour is required when the previous dictator dies and new one takes power. Behaving wrongly could have serious, possibly fatal results. And of course much if not the great majority of this behaviour is a show and quite phony. Thus when the Kim Jong-il died swarms of people were out crying in public and reciting the rote phrases of the loss of their “father” etc. For not to be seen crying was something that could get you into serious trouble.16

As in all dictatorships one of the first orders of business was to get from the important people especially the armed forces declarations of loyalty to the new dictator. As in North Korea so too in Ancient Rome in the transfer from Augustus to Tiberius.17

And so too the sob, propagandistic stories about how the previous dictator transferred authority by means of a deathbed scene. Thus we get the following from a stomach turning apologist for Tiberius:

With the double purpose of escorting him on his way, and of being present at an athletic contest which the Neapolitans had established in his honour, he set out for Campania. Although he had already experienced symptoms of growing weakness and of a change in his health for the worse, his strong will resisted infirmity and he accompanied his son. Parting from him at Beneventum he went to Nola. As his health grew daily worse, and he knew full well for whom he must send if he wished to leave everything secure behind him, he sent in haste for his son to return. Tiberius hurried back and reached the side of the father of his country before he was even expected.  Then Augustus, asserting that his mind was now at ease, and, with the arms of his beloved Tiberius about him, commending to him the continuation of their joint work, expressed all his readiness to meet the end if the fates should call him. He revived a little at seeing Tiberius and at hearing the voice of one so dear to him, but, ere long, since no care could withstand the fates, in his seventy-sixth year, in the consulship of Pompeius and Apuleius he was resolved into the elements from which he sprang and yielded up to heaven his divine soul.

Of the misgivings of mankind at this time, the trepidation of the senate, the confusion of the people, the fears of the city, of the narrow margin between safety and ruin on which we then found ourselves, I have no time to tell as I hasten on my way, nor could he tell who had the time. Suffice it for me to voice the common utterance: "The world whose ruin we had feared we found not even disturbed, and such was the majesty of one man that there was no need of arms either to defend the good or to restrain the bad."  There was, however, in one respect what might be called a struggle in the state, as, namely, the senate and the Roman people wrestled with Caesar to induce him to succeed to the position of his father, while he on his side strove for permission to play the part of a citizen on a parity with the rest rather than that of an emperor over all. At last he was prevailed upon rather by reason than by the honour, since he saw that whatever he did not undertake to protect was likely to perish. He is the only man to whose lot it has fallen to refuse the principate for a longer time, almost, than others had fought to secure it.18

The trope of the dictator “reluctantly” taking power even including the ritualistic turning it down is a familiar one. For so often the dictator wants to appear reluctant to take power and only does so because the “people” demand it. Of course it is almost always an absurd stage managed farce designed for show. But then lap dogs like Paterculus who wrote the above servile flattery have to put their heads well up the ass of power to secure favour.

We also get the touching, and almost certainly made up death bed scene in which one autocrat gives sanction upon his deathbed to another. Thus we get the scene in which one dictator can finally die knowing all will be best with his successor. The terrible ruin that might have happened when the dictator died is removed because we now have rule by the new dictator and we are so grateful; for only he can keep off disaster. Thus does Paterculus show all the subservience required in a dictatorship. And of course it appears that the suck-up trope of the succession from dying to new dictators is one which is unchanging over time so when last year Kim Jong-il was replaced by Kim Jong-un we got the same level of stomach turning suck-up.19

Thus the undercurrent of the sinister in a dictatorship is very clear at the time of the death of a dictator and the accession of a new one. In the case of Ancient Rome some of the parallels with modern dictatorships are unsettling and the succession of one Emperor to another is one that bears a resemblance to a multi-generational dictatorship.

Such is an aspect of the dark side of the Roman Empire.


1. Well, Colin, The Roman Empire, Second Edition, Fontana, London, 1992, pp. 49-62.

2. IBID.

3. IBID, pp. 49-78, Grant, Michael, History of the Rome, faber and faber, London, 1978, pp. 202-204.

4. Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, Revised Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1971, Book 1, s. 3, p. 33.

5. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Books, London, 1957, Augustus, s. 100, pp. 110-111.

6. Tacitus, Book 1, s. 4, p. 34.

7. IBID.

8. Dio, Cassius, The Roman History, Book 56, s. 31, at Lacus Curtius Here.

9. Rosenblitt, Alison, Rome and North Korea: Totalitarian Questions, Greece & Rome, v. 59, n. 2, 2012, pp. 202-213, at 204-208.

10. Tacitus, Book 1, s. 5, pp. 34-35, Dio, Book 57, s. 18, at Lacus Curtius Here. See also Suetonius, Tiberius, s. 22, p. 126 who says:

Tiberius revealed Augustus’ death only after getting rid of young Agrippa Postumus, whom the colonel appointed to guard him in the prison island had received written orders to execute. So much is known, but some doubt remains whether this order was left by Augustus to be acted on when he died; or whether Livia wrote it in his name; or whether, if so, Tiberius knew anything of the matter. At all events, when the colonel arrived to report that he had done his duty, Tiberius disowned the order and threatened to make him answerable for this unauthorized execution. Tiberius was it seems, trying merely to avoid immediate unpopularity; for he shelved the inquiry and allowed the incident to be forgotten.

The above is a telling indication of the reality of power and displays rather blatantly an attempt to shift the blame with transparent denials along with an attempt at scapegoating.

11. Tacitus, Book 1, s. 5, p. 35.

12. Tacitus, Book 1, s. 7, and Dio, Book 56, s. 32, Lacus Curtius Here, Rosenblitt, p. 210.

13. Tacitus, Book 1, s. 7, p. 36. See also the version of Augustus’ will in Suetonius, Augustus, c. 01, pp. 111-112.

14. Dio, Book 56, s. 32, Here.

15. Tacitus, Book 1, s. 5, p. 35.

16. Rosenblitt, pp. 206-207.

17. IBID.

18. Paterculus, Velleius, The Roman History, Book 2, s. 123-124, Lacus Curtius Here.

19. Rosenblitt, pp. 210-211.

Pierre Cloutier 

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