Imperial Roman fresco, ca. 59 - 79 AD, from House I, 3, 23 at Pompeii. Riot and brawl between Pompeians and Nucerians in and around the amphitheater.
Popular Protest, Political Wrangling, Tiberius and the Augustan Succession
By Gary Crethers
The right to vote, according to Fergus Millar, in the sovereign body of the Republican constitution was the populus Romanus, as represented by the various forms of the voting assembly. The three bodies of the ancient Roman Comitia: the centuriata, an assembly by centuriae established by Servius Tullius, the curiata, assembly of the curiae, (which rarely met in the later times of the Republic), and the tributa, assembly of the tribes of Rome. The right to participate in major decisions, such as going to war or to make other major changes was a right the Roman plebian populace had fought to attain over centuries. Yet by the time of the ascendency of Tiberius in 14 AD, Tacitus claims that elections transferred to the Senate, but as noted by B. M. Levick this did not necessarily need to lead to the demise of the electoral process. Levick interprets the statement in Tacitus as Tiberius limiting his own power, because of an understanding of the consequences of commendati, or written recommendation, by suggesting only four candidates to the tribunate. Tacitus writes:
Tum primum e campo comitia ad patres translata sunt: nam ad eam diem, etsi potissima arbitrio principis, quaedam tamen studiis tribuum fiebant. neque populus ademptum ius questus est nisi inani rumore, et senatus largitionibus ac precibus sordidis exsolutus libens tenuit, moderante Tiberio ne plures quam quattuor candidatos commendaret sine repulsa et ambitu designandos.
It was then for the first time that the elections were transferred from the Campus Martius to the Senate. For up to that day, though the most important rested with the emperor’s choice, some were settled by the partialities of the tribes. Nor did the people complain of having the right taken from them, except in mere idle talk, and the Senate, being now released from the necessity of bribery and of degrading solicitations, gladly upheld the change, Tiberius confining himself to the recommendation of only four candidates who were to be nominated without rejection or canvass.
The intent of this short paper is to examine aspects of democratic survival by electoral and non-electoral means in the early Imperium, with a focus on the transition from Augustus to Tiberius.
It seems that Tiberius had hopes of restoring the old Republican system if a reasonable chance of success was determined to exist and acted to expand the power of the Senate as Olive Kunz saw the removal of electoral power to the Senate. He did not want the office claiming the job to be too difficult for one man and wished to be just one among many. Augustus himself claimed in his summary of his deeds in the AD 14 Res Gestae Divi Augusti:
Ín consulátú sexto et septimo, b(ella ubi civil)ia exstinxeram | per consénsum úniversórum (potitus rerum omn)ium, rem publicam || ex meá potestáte (§) in senát(us populique Romani a)rbitrium transtulí.
In my sixth and seventh consulships, when I had extinguished the flames of civil war, after receiving by universal consent the absolute control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my own control to the will of the senate and the Roman people.
(Res Gestae VI 34)
The restoration could have been a dream on the part of Augustus, yet in a technically legal sense, it was true. Shipley indicates that Augustus did begin divesting himself of extraordinary powers in 28 and 27 BCE, but that he maintained the “ordinary offices in an extraordinary way, such as the tribunica potestas and the imperium.” Much has been made of this statement; Augustus himself quotes from the authorization to the imperium given to him by the senate, ordering him “to see that the republic suffered no harm.” Clifford Ando states that the entire binary division between imperium and auctoritas is a false one, that “the coexistence of the Republic and monarchy is everywhere attested, both explicitly and implicitly, both in documentary and in literary texts.”
Statue of Tiberius from Privernum. Marble. Ca. 20—30 A.D. Rome, Vatican Museums, Chiaramonti, XXI.3. Credits: © Photo, text: N. N. Britova, N. M. Loseva, N. A. Sidorova. RIMSKII SKUL’PTURNYI PORTRET. M., “Iskusstvo”, 1975, s. 34, ill. 49.
There are some issues to clarify regarding Tacitus, who has been a major source on the reign of Tiberius; he presents a notably one-sided view of Tiberius. As the venerable historian, Sir Ronald Styme, wrote “It is mainly for his treatment of Tiberius that Tacitus comes under censure.” Tacitus shows Tiberius a man whose truly evil nature came out in degrees as the mitigating factors of the presence of parties such as Germanicus, Drusus, his mother and even Sejanus were removed, after which his depravity knew no bounds. Styme believes that Tacitus went back to original sources, and cites the accounts of Suetonius and Cassius Dio who to a degree corroborate Tacitus. Kuntz considers Tacitus to be poisoning the well, exhibiting undue influence on Suetonius and Dio. Reading some of the supportive sources on the reign of Tiberius, Velleius comes to mind, presents a different picture, one of peace and prosperity, and a Princeps beset by undeserved personal misfortunes. Velleius wrote just before the fall of Sejanus, and, perhaps due to writing in the reign of Tiberius, was prejudiced in his favor.
Republican coin, issued by the moneyer P. Licinius Nerva, showing voting in an assembly. Two voters are casting their ballots: the voter on the left receives his tablet from an attendant below, while the other, after crossing the bridge, places his tablet in the voting urn. Below, a drawing of the image. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)
From : www.the-romans.co.uk
The contention that the voting rights of the populace disappeared at that time seems premature as to the actual state of affairs. Josiah Ober, in his research on the testament of Augustus that is supposed to have guided Tiberius, can find nothing that implies Augustus had anything more in mind than a list of suggested candidates for office. It seems that there was no conspiracy on the part of Tiberius, or the intent of Augustus to end the popular vote, only to secure the Senate as functioning body. Tiberius brought all manner of matters before the Senate, great and small, in what Suetonius called “a certain show of liberty, by preserving to the senate and magistrates their former majesty and power.” Suetonius, who may have read Tacitus, although Styme thinks it unlikely, implies the liberty was a sham. Turning that around it could simply be the failure of the Senate to act in a manner in accordance with its power, or as has been noted, the view of Tacitus, who had survived the trials at the end of Domitian’s reign, may have colored the perspective of subsequent historians.
Tiberius claimed only the Tribunican authority given to him by the Senate, to call the Senate to session upon the death of Augustus, as even his detractor Tacitus states. Evidence of a continued electoral process at least in the provinces, seen in Pliny the Younger’s references to a “marriageable gentleman,” who, happens to have stayed out of the hustle and bustle of the political life, was a sure indication that such a life still was important even during the empire. In his article on the survival of the demos in Greece during the imperial period Arjan Zuiderhoek wrote, “Greek cities in the Roman east continue to use the formula ‘the council (boule) and people (demos) decide/honour’ well into the third century.” The idea that Imperial dictates replaced elections seems not to hold up. It also would be absurdly cumbersome for the imperial apparatus to have to pick the members of every city council. Given the technology of the time, even the good Roman roads would leave cities waiting for years for executive decisions from the Roman imperial bureaucracy. As Clifford Ando notes, there was no clear distinction between imperial and republican structures, elections continued at least until the end of the third century AD. The populus Romanus remained an integral part of the imperial ideology.
Reading the commentary in Velleius, who was there, on the supposed suppression of the plebeians voting rights commanded by the letter of Augustus, all he says is:
Post redditum caelo patrem et corpus eius humanis honoribus, numen
divinis honoratum, primum principalium eius (Tiberii) operum fuit
ordinatio comitiorum, quam manu sua scriptam divus Augustus reliquerat.
The Loeb translation of ordinatio comitiorum is “the regulation of the comitia, instructions for which Augustus had left in his own handwriting.” Looking in Cassell’s Latin Dictionary the term ordinatio is translated as “a setting in order, arrangement” and comitiorum is “the assembly of the Roman people for the election of magistrates, etc.; hence the elections.” What was interesting upon looking further was the root of ordination, in ordo, ordinaries, cited from Livy as being in the ordinary manner, as in elections, as opposed to suffecti, or substitute. These words all have significance in the political realms. It would seem that the translation is that of a return to normalcy or even an ending of irregular substitutions of the elected authorities. Ober sees no claim to a secret memorandum to Tiberius as Cassius Dio contends, citing “Suetonius held the positions of a studiis, a bibliothecis, and ab epistulis under Trajan and Hadrian and presumably had access to the imperial archives.” This in making the point that Suetonius never mentions a book of recommendations for Tiberius as Cassius Dio claims in his history.
There are problems with this argument. Going back to Tacitus, he clearly states that in time after Augustus’s death, elections transferred from the Assembly to the senate and that up until that time the tribes had been able to elect officials, albeit in Tacitus’ words only unimportant elections. Moreover, according to Tacitus, “the public, except in trivial talk, made no objection to their deprival of this right.” Yet we find Velleius gushing over being the candidatis Caesaris of both Augustus and Tiberius, along with his brother for the praetorship, which would imply that there were non-Caesarian candidates, which the previous quote from Tacitus Tiberius’ recommendations, were limited to four. Where were the voting masses? Tacitus claims they simply did not care about the vote. Senators were relieved not to have to canvas the electorate.
Reed: Plebeians Checking vote lists.
Something is missing. Relief over the end of the civil wars would have been decades prior to 14 AD. The average life span according to Shelton was 27 years. Augustus ruled for more than two generations of Romans. Tiberius was born during the Triumvirate and was 55 when he became Princeps. The Republican traditions that most of the populace knew were those of the reformed Republic. Augustus had done his job integrating the imperium and his auctoritas into the new order, a masterful political strategist he carefully prepared the opportunity for his replacement. Tiberius, by contrast was a soldier, came from a gens the Claudii, proud and sticklers for their privileges. His tastes in literature were of traditions from the past and held no truck with the Augustan poets. Augustus reputedly called him a “slow devourer,” a dour fellow who was not one of Augustus’ favorite party guests. Tiberius seems old fashioned in his moderatio, a bit behind the times, resisting the power offered, as Suetonius records a member of the Senate saying “others are slack in performing what they promise, but you are slack in promising what you perform.” How would the people adapt to Tiberius?
W. Erder claims Augustus was building a link between old forms of the Republic and the Republic, sans the violent discord from bad old days. Augustus was attempting to build a consensus of support for the next princeps, who would have the concensus universorum that granted him sole possession of power. It was his auctoritas, according to Erder, that granted him the right invest a successor with the roles to take his place. Acquiesce of the public would be perceived as the res publica accepting this choice. Hence the statement by Tacitus that the consuls, senate, equites, and the people swore allegiance to Tiberius upon his accession, although as I read it, there was nothing but bile in Tacitus’ statement for he saw Tiberius as putting the final nails in the coffin of the Republic. An indication of things to come was the way Tiberius handled the funeral of Augustus. Troops guarded the site, justified by the disruptions at the time of the funeral of Julius Caesar. Tiberius anticipated popular disruption, as Tacitus writes there were jibes at the fearful new rulers afraid of a few citizens.
Map of the Capitoline Hill, indicating the probable location of the Gemonian Stairs at the time of the Roman Empire.
Yet the process of alienation of political rights, initially justified perhaps as an echoed response to the troubled times of the last years of the Republic, became problematic leaving the masses without certain aspects of legal political expression, the public areas of the city remained an arena in which the populace expressed political opinions. One of these locations was the Scalae Gemoniae, steps built by Augustus during his rebuilding of Rome, the place of choice for public strangling of opposition figures according to William Barry. The displays of power did not dissuade the populace from expressing its views, and the steps became contested where riots occurred in AD 20 during Cn. Calpurnius Piso’s trial, and again at the time of the downfall of Sejanus. Executing the more notable opposition, such as the children of Sejanus who were, as Tacitus writes in his rather gruesome chapters on the reign of Tiberius, “both were strangled, and their young bodies were thrown on the Gemonian Steps.” This became the place for both demonstration and execution of the more notable defendants in the time of Tiberius.
Roman elites were suspect of all associations among the plebs. They degraded the significance of their associations, calling the informal gatherings of small groups known as circuli, with the presence of a circulator, a person who facilitated these meetings as the equivalent of a type of low entertainment put on by hucksters. The example of the snake charmers drugging snakes by Celsus, indicates the type of entertainer that the upper classes considered the circulatores to be as Peter O’Neill pointed out in his study on class and popular speech.
UW-Green Bay’s Dinner Lecture: When in Rome… Experiencing a Roman Feast
Tacitus, as noted above claims that the people were indifferent to their loss of political power. Rather, popular assemblies became ciruli. The suffragatores, political party whips, becoming cirulatores, mere circus barkers, in an elite view. Yet the populace was not passively sitting around telling tales.
There were curious events, riots related to the pantomimes. The first occurred at the Sodales Augustalus, games honoring the deified Augustus in September 14 A.D. Tacitus says a conflict between rival ballet dancers caused a disturbance. The next year Tacitus relates that there were casualties, including a company captain as well as civilians. The Senate moved to have actors flogged. A tribune blocked the proposal, and Tiberius remained silent. Tacitus, noting that Augustus had said actors would be exempt from corporal punishment, claims loyalty to Augustan precedent rather than respect for the law that motivated Tiberius. He did lower the wages of actors according to Suetonius, but it is unclear if that was the cause of the rioting or a punishment after.
Pantomime- The dancers relied on gesture and odd movement to delineate a story, usually a Greek mythology. Performances were long, with grand costume and mask changes. Jumps, leaps, freezes, and gymnastics were exact, athletic, and formally choreographed. Performers’ hand movements were extremely important, and this “talking with the hands” was called “cheironomy”. Ancient Roman Dance: Pantomime-Reagan Noelle Kowert
Suetonius reports, it was a fight in the audience that broke out, leading to the parties involved and the actors’ exile. Public protest over the exiling of the popular actor Actius, resulting from the riots apparently irritated Tiberius, who had to release Actius, according to Suetonius. Tacitus, not naming the actor, mentions that charges against a certain Falanius due to “admitting among the worshipers of Augustus an actor in musical comedies who was a male prostitute.” Tiberius released the offenders stating his mother the Augusta, had not instituted the games to entrap Roman citizens, and that the actor had been a performer in the games. I find the passions aroused by these incidents in the early days of the regime to indicate that politics played on many levels and the public was not indifferent or immune. The issue, as seemingly trivial as whether a group of actors could stay in Rome, masked some deeper issues of the changes that had occurred in Rome.
Roman costumes would depend on the type of play they were doing but became more and more realistic as time progressed.
The populace transformed by the influx of foreigners, slaves, freedmen, merchants, and country people seeking better lives. The populace was up to ninety percent of foreign birth according to John Wesley Heaton in his study of mob violence in the Republic. The lustrum a sacrifice after the census, which Augustus uses synonymously, taken by Augustus reported in the Res Gestae indicated growth from 4,063,000 citizens in 28 B.C., a second in 8 B.C. with 4,233,000, to that in his third lustrum in 14 AD., showing a citizenship of military age of 4,937,000. This was a radical increase over the last previous census of 60 B.C. with a citizenry of 450,000. The difference probably attributed to a more accurate accounting of citizens across the empire, not just within the environs of Rome.
W.J. Slater calls the incidents, Pantomime riots, with the “first great riots of 14 and 15 A.D. in Rome.” It is amazing, how much detail exists about this incident, considering this was a dispute among the less than reputable actors. As Slater points out Greek professionals called themselves “actor of tragic rhythmic movement,” implying they were superior to the generic Latin histro. As Tacitus describes it, Augustus introduced pantomime in 22, B. C. to gratify his ally Maecenas, who was infatuated with the actor Bathyllus. Augustus also liked the theater, making him seem more a man of the people. However, Tiberius had no time for theater and rarely attended. This goes to the differences in style between the two. Tiberius portrayed as reserved, cunning, superstitious, and cruel. He was efficient, economical, fair, a good manager of the provinces, and did not like flattery or extravagance. Tiberius was a private man, who seemed to prefer his own company in Rhodes and Capri than the center in Rome. Augustus has more of a flair for the extravagant, rebuilding Rome, sponsoring poets and the arts. One could say Augustus presented himself as a main of the people and Tiberius a man who was not one to suffer fools. However, in two long reigns they managed to solidify the Imperium as the family affair it became for a century.
Family tree of Julio-Claudian Dynasty producing 5 emperors at the start of the Roman Empire (27 BCE - 68 CE). Remade from start using Image:JulioClaudian.png as a template.
Protests in the theater where the public gathered in one place offered opportunity for complaints. During a period high grain prices, the crowd protested loudly, nearly rioting. Tiberius blamed the authorities for not controlling the mob. Tacitus says nothing of the steps taken to ameliorate the condition. Velleius mentions rioting in the theaters suppressed, and low grain prices, as laudatory practices of Tiberius, evidently claiming the problem solved. This indicates further the balancing act the Roman authorities had to play, if they were to deny the plebeians the right to participate, because the authorities were taking care of them, when the authorities let the people down, there could be hell to pay. Later Emperor Claudius attacked by a crowd, during a famine when he was in the law courts, only escaped with the aid of soldiers. Massacring citizens was not the order of the day.
There remained a legacy of political action. After the murder of Gaius or Caligula as we know him, there was an attempt to restore the Republic, in 41 A. D. that failed because the Praetorian Guard remained loyal to Claudius. Sam Wilkinson records various attempts to restore the Republic, which was not simply personal attempts at gain, but part of an ideological desire, at least among the elite for a return to the Republic. The lack of popular support was a major factor in their failure. Suetonius notes that a mob surrounded the senate house demanding one-man rule and Claudius bribed the gathered troops to support him, the first time that had been done. Later during the rule of Vespasian, after the civil wars at the end of Nero’s rule, there was a movement by the philosophers to agitate among the masses. Helvidius Priscus “banded various men together, as if it were the function of philosophy to insult those in power, to stir up the multitudes, to overthrow the order of things, and to bring about a revolution.” This was in 70 AD and the Republic had been supposedly dead for over a century. Political activity did not end nor was it strictly an affair among the elite. As Plutarch wrote in his essay, Whether an old man should engage in public affairs, “we must remind them that being a politician consists not only of holding office, being ambassador, vociferating in the assembly, and ranting round the speakers’ platform proposing laws and motions.”
Ancient Greek Speech making.
In conclusion, Tiberius inherited an Imperium built upon limited legal authority and the great personal authority of his predecessor Augustus. He managed to maintain his position by a careful negotiation that although similar to what Augustus did in substance, was perceived very differently due to his less open and public persona. The people seemingly shut out of one aspect of the polity, maintained an ability to influence the policies of the government through direct action in the streets and public theaters.
The masses saw efforts to restore the Republic as elite attempts to remove their great sponsor, the emperor. The mostly wealthy members of the opposition failed to galvanize popular support and attempts to reach the plebes failed due to governmental reaction to the potential threat. There were probably few alive at the time of Tiberius’ ascent to the Imperium who could remember anything of the Triumvirate, and none who would remember the functioning Republic prior to the Caesarian revolution. There had remained enough institutional memory of those times, colored by Augustan propaganda to allow Tiberius to assume authority yet not without some resistance and commentary.
The modern American political scene seems to echo much of what was current in Roman politics. Conflict between Congress and the President is part of the classical legacy that makes Roman history relevant today. The founding fathers of the American Republic steeped in Latin literature and their caution in forming a government informed by their readings of the past. The average citizenry is just as alienated from the Congress as the Roman plebes were with their Senate. Many find that feeling unrepresented, they take to the streets in protest, sometimes rioting. In that respect perhaps, nothing much has changed over the millennia.
Ferguson, MO. ‘I will kill you’: Watch terrifying moment policeman at US protest threatens to shoot crowd August 2014.
The footnotes do not transfer over unfortunately. For full article with footnotes you can contact author at Garyrumor2@yahoo.com.
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