Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome [NOOK Book]


Rome's transition from a republican system of government to an imperial regime comprised more than a century of civil upheaval and rapid institutional change. Yet the establishment of a ruling dynasty, centered around a single leader, came as a cultural and political shock to Rome’s aristocracy, who had shared power in the previous political order. How did the imperial regime manage to establish itself and how did the Roman elites from the time of Julius Caesar to Nero make sense of it? In this compelling book, ...
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Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome

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Rome's transition from a republican system of government to an imperial regime comprised more than a century of civil upheaval and rapid institutional change. Yet the establishment of a ruling dynasty, centered around a single leader, came as a cultural and political shock to Rome’s aristocracy, who had shared power in the previous political order. How did the imperial regime manage to establish itself and how did the Roman elites from the time of Julius Caesar to Nero make sense of it? In this compelling book, Matthew Roller reveals a "dialogical" process at work, in which writers and philosophers vigorously negotiated and contested the nature and scope of the emperor’s authority, despite the consensus that he was the ultimate authority figure in Roman society.

Roller seeks evidence for this "thinking out" of the new order in a wide range of republican and imperial authors, with an emphasis on Lucan and Seneca the Younger. He shows how elites assessed the impact of the imperial system on traditional aristocratic ethics and examines how several longstanding authority relationships in Roman society--those of master to slave, father to son, and gift-creditor to gift-debtor--became competing models for how the emperor did or should relate to his aristocratic subjects. By revealing this ideological activity to be not merely reactive but also constitutive of the new order, Roller contributes to ongoing debates about the character of the Roman imperial system and about the "politics" of literature.

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Editorial Reviews

Clearly written and augmented with a bibliography and two indexes, this book will appeal to informed general readers and scholars alike.
Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews
The book as a whole is excellent, and can be recommended both for the contribution of the overall argument and for the insight of the individual readings. . . . It should be read by everyone interested in the Principate, the literature of that period, ancient philosophy, ethics, social history, and political theory. I look forward to reading it again.
— Ellen O'Gorman
From the Publisher
"Clearly written and augmented with a bibliography and two indexes, this book will appeal to informed general readers and scholars alike."Choice

"The book as a whole is excellent, and can be recommended both for the contribution of the overall argument and for the insight of the individual readings. . . . It should be read by everyone interested in the Principate, the literature of that period, ancient philosophy, ethics, social history, and political theory. I look forward to reading it again."—Ellen O'Gorman, Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400824090
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 1/22/2001
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 296
  • File size: 3 MB

Read an Excerpt

Constructing Autocracy

Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome

By Matthew B. Roller


Copyright © 2001 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-2409-0



1. Overview

The idea that a society's moral values are linked in nonarbitrary ways with its sociopolitical arrangements, and that changes in sociopolitical arrangements are correlated to changes in values, is a familiar one to social scientists and political theorists. Yet this linkage, regarding the ancient world, has received only desultory scholarly attention. There exists a handful of relatively brief discussions of limited scope--journal articles or single chapters (or parts thereof) in book-length studies of other questions—along with a few larger-scale investigations. With a single exception, no sustained work has been done in the past three decades. Yet, studies of the relationship between a society's structuration and its ethics have much to offer both social and intellectual historians of the ancient world. For an understanding of social conditions may illuminate why certain values or ethical problems take on particular importance at particular times, while an awareness of shifts in values may in turn reveal how social change was perceived by those who lived it. Here in part 1, I aim to exploit some of these possibilities for the cross-illumination of social and intellectual history. Specifically, I examine how two authors of the Julio-Claudian period, Lucan and Seneca, portray the entanglement of social and ethical issues in this era of significant social change for the Roman aristocracy. In so doing, I indeed hope to show some ways in which these aristocrats constructed autocracy—how they comprehended, in ethical terms, the sociopolitical order of the principate, and how these conceptions in turn participated in the structuring and formation of that order.

The readings I will offer here also intervene in a related but somewhat broader debate that has developed over the past generation within the field of classics proper, as well as in other fields of the humanities. In response to certain midcentury modes of literary criticism that see literature as a highly autonomous realm following its own rules, analyzable on its own terms, and substantially insulated from (or at least transcending) the everyday preoccupations of its producer and the world in which he or she lived, some scholars have sought to bring the social engagement of literary texts into sharper focus; to look at these texts as products of the author's world that in various ways bring forth his or her concerns and anxieties as a member of a particular society at a particular time. Such scholars, in other words, are interested in the "politics" of literature. To see what such an approach to literature might be thought to involve, let us consider some important recent readings of Lucan's epic and of Seneca's ethical prose. As I discuss in chapter 2 in much greater detail, Seneca's letters and treatises address various ethical problems through the framework of a formal, philosophical ethical system. This system is largely Stoic, though it has eclectic elements as well. Seneca exhorts his (intended) audience of aristocratic readers to embrace this philosophical ethical framework in preference to the unphilosophical framework of traditional aristocratic ethics, and so to begin to move toward acquiring wisdom. In major studies of Seneca, two scholars—Miriam Griffin (1976) and J. P. Sullivan (1985)—have sought the "political" in these texts by asking the following questions: How does Seneca think an emperor ought to rule? How does he portray or respond to contemporary dynastic intrigues? What does the philosopher say about participation in public life? These questions seem to identify "politics" closely with governmental administration and its associated activities. Now, while Seneca does address such questions in various ways, they are not among his primary concerns in most of these texts (perhaps excepting De Clementia). These questions arise only occasionally, as relatively minor byproducts of the overarching ethical exhortation; they are not (in my opinion) the reason for that exhortation. While I believe that these scholars are correct in seeking to understand literary texts as products of authors living in particular social environments, nevertheless to focus on what these texts can be interpreted to say about government, and furthermore to take these inferred positions as the very raison d'être of these texts, seems to me to mistake subordinate concerns for primary ones, to make the tail wag the dog. Similar readings have been offered of Lucan, as well. In his landmark 1976 study entitled Lucan: An Introduction, Frederick Ahl tries to link certain movements in Lucan's epic with attested details about the author's life. He argues that the first six books of the poem were written prior to Lucan's falling-out with the emperor Nero; that book 7 marks the poet's distraught response to this falling-out; and that the later books, particularly 9 and 10, display "greater confidence ... [which] probably reflects his entry into the Pisonian conspiracy." Here Ahl assumes too direct a connection between the author's role in public life and the production and content of his texts (so Masters 1992: 87–88). Moreover, this approach presents literary production as reactive—a response to political events and social conditions—though there is also good reason, as I suggested in the introduction, to scrutinize literary texts for the ways in which they constitute and seek to alter the social world in which they are embedded.

More recently, a different and broader understanding of "politics" has gained currency in classics and other fields. On this understanding, "politics" is taken to encompass a variety of structures and strategies by which power is distributed in society; it includes, but is by no means limited to, governmental activites. To illustrate how literary texts might be read in light of this broader view of "politics," I offer here examples of the work of just two scholars, though there are others. In an article entitled "'Augustan' and 'Anti-Augustan': Reflections on Terms of Reference" (1992), Duncan Kennedy argues that Horace in his Satires integrates himself into the new power structure established by Octavian, and invites his readers to do so as well, through his consistent use of a rhetoric of reconciliation and accommodation. This rhetoric is produced in part through Horace's careful demarcation of the range of references he allows to words like amicitia and libertas. However, the political engagement of the Satires is not simply reflexive, a matter of the poet responding to or accomodating the pre-existing realities of the new power structure. For Horace actively constructs and submits to his audience for acceptance a social and ethical framework that legitimates this power structure. Along the same lines, Thomas Habinek, in a 1990 article entitled "The Politics of Candor in Cicero's De Amicitia," argues that Cicero presents an innovative ideal of aristocratic friendship in his treatise on this topic. Habinek contends that a candid friendship, in which one party may evaluate frankly the actions of the other or rebuke him outright if need be, was traditionally possible only between social unequals who therefore were not in direct social competition with one another. Cicero, however, presents candor as a desirable ideal for friendships between aristocrats who are social equals and do compete directly. This attempt to reconfigure established social practice, Habinek argues, is an effort to enhance elite solidarity in the face of the extraordinary challenges to traditional senatorial government during the 40s B.C. These two studies, then, and others in the same spirit, locate the political engagement of literary texts not so much in their covert or even overt references to specific contemporary events in the area of governmental administration, as in their attempts to reorient and redeploy crucial social ideals and concepts in ways that serve specific interests in the broader political and social environment from which these texts emerged. This is the kind of engagement I seek to recover from Lucan and Seneca in this chapter and the next. I contend that the conflict and competition between alternative ethical systems and discourses, as represented in these texts, emerges from and gives form to the conflict and competition between the enduring but besieged sociopolitical structures and interests of the longstanding republican oligarchic order, and the emergent structures and interests of the new regime, the principate. That is, by placing differing and in some respects opposed ethical systems in conflict, these two authors and their audiences construct moral understandings of the new order and its relationship to what went before. In so doing, they actively articulate and evaluate roles that both they and the emperor play or may potentially play in society.

2. Traditional Roman Ethical Discourse

As a basis for the discussions of Lucan and Seneca to follow, I begin by describing crucial features of an ethical system in which both authors were immersed: the traditional, received ethical system of the late republican and early imperial aristocracy. I call this system "traditional" because aristocrats regarded it as passed down from their ancestors, the maiores, unchanged from time immemorial. Its values consisted in particular conceptions of proper behavior, closely linked with an interest in status and position: praise was bestowed for behavior that enhanced the position of the aristocracy with respect to other groups, and of individual aristocrats with respect to other aristocrats. These behavior patterns and status concerns were encoded in the familiar moral vocabulary of the Latin language: virtus, pietas, fas, ius, fides, laus, honor, gloria, nobilitas, dignitas, and so on. All Roman aristocrats operated generally with regard to this mapping of ethical space: that is, all accepted that the terms nobilis, pius, fidus, etc., assign positive value in various moral categories, even though the content and boundaries of these categories were constantly subject to contestation. The aristocracy's collective acceptance of this mapping—their judging of others according to these categories, and their own desire to be judged positively according to them—was part of their acculturation, hence partially constituted their identity, as aristocrats within Roman society and as Romans with respect to non-Romans. Looked at another way, the ethical categories defined by the traditional Roman moral vocabulary collectively provide a template for the structure of a community of persons (i.e., the Roman aristocracy) who embrace these crucial assumptions about what constitutes moral value and disvalue and how it is judged. These ethical categories mark out the boundaries of this community, articulate its internal relations, and define degrees of distinction within it; in other words, they define positions for people to occupy. Thus the use of these moral terms not only reflects social forms and structures, but also formalizes, confirms, and helps to reproduce those structures.

One crucial feature of this ethical system is that moral value is heavily community oriented. Because the community as a whole, not its constituent individuals, is the basic unit of social organization, it is the community as a whole that is the ultimate source and reference point of moral value—the generator of incentives and sanctions for actions that reproduce its sociopolitical arrangements and ideologies. On the one hand, then, moral value is constructed externally, based on an agent's actions-in-the-public-eye that elicit evaluations of goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness from his peers and result in his having a reputation of a particular sort among them. On the other hand, when the agent himself endorses and subscribes to these values, when he judges himself as he foresees being judged by others and as he would judge them in turn, then this community-oriented value can also exist internally, as a disposition on his part to behave in socially valued ways and to evaluate himself, as well as others, according to these standards.

These general features of the traditional Roman ethical system are manifested in the semantics of individual value terms. Here I briefly describe aspects of the semantics of two important ethical terms, virtus and pietas, in order to illustrate the communal orientation of value in this ethical system, and the capacity of the system's categories to articulate the community's relations both within itself and with other groups. Etymologically, as was recognized in antiquity, virtus indicates the distinctive or characteristic quality of a man; the epitaph for Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus (CIL I2 7 = ILS 1), dating probably from the middle of the third century B.C., provides the earliest evidence for the sorts of actions that can be assigned to, and evaluated in, this category:

Cornelius Lucius Scipio Barbatus
Gnaivod patre prognatus, fortis vir sapiensque,
quoius forma virtutei parisuma fuit,
consol censor aidilis quei fuit apud vos
Taurasia Cisauna Samnio cepit,
subigit omne Loucanam opsidesque abdoucit.

Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus,
sprung from his father Gnaeus, a brave and wily man,
whose appearance was well matched to his valor,
who was consul, censor, and aedile among you,
took Taurasia and Cisauna in Samnium,
subdued all Lucania and took away hostages.

If the actions catalogued in the last three lines of this text expand and substantiate the positive judgment, given in the second and lines, that the deceased was fortis and displayed virtus (fortis is monly used as the adjectival counterpart of the noun virtus), then his virtus consists in the magistracies that he held and the military victories he won—in both cases, performance in the public eye for the benefit of the community. He is also commended for his military cunning, his sapientia. A judging audience is explicitly invoked in line 4 (apud vos) as witness to Barbatus's actions, and thereby invited to confirm these positive evaluations. Centuries later, these patterns of action-in-the-public-eye remain major constituents of virtus. In Livy, for example, most occurrences of the word refer to soldiers' bravery or steadfastness in military operations, or to the abilities of a magistrate, whether in domestic politics or as a military leader on campaign. In this early and persistent usage of the word, then, a person—usually a magistrate or soldier—is said to be fortis, i.e., to have displayed virtus, if his observed actions are judged to have rendered a beneficial service to the community, particularly in the military sphere.

Together with these "enacted" usages of virtus, where the word is assigned to an agent by a judging audience of community members on the basis of his observed actions, there coexists a "dispositional" usage that marks a person as disposed to act in the ways described above, without implying that such action has in fact been observed. The epitaph for L. Cornelius Cn. f. Scipio (CIL I2 11 = ILS 7), dated to ca. 180-70 B.C., points out that the deceased never held public office because he died young, aged twenty (annos gnatus XX ... / ne quairatis honore quei minus sit mandatus, vv. 6–7), yet still insists that he was never surpassed in virtus (... quei nunquam victus est virtutei, v. 5). Absent any other relevant information about the young man's actions, the virtus here ascribed to him can only be a claim about how he would have discharged his magistracies had he lived; as such, this usage indicates a disposition. Less ambiguously, when Cicero declares, fuit, fuit ista quondam in hac re publica virtus ut viri fortes acrioribus suppliciis civem perniciosum quam acerbissimum hostem coercerent ("there was, there was, this virtus once upon a time in our state, that brave men would summarily punish a destructive citizen with harsher penalties than the most bitter enemy," Cat. 1.1.3), the consecutive clause ut ... coercerent marks the sort of action on behalf of the community to which the virtus of the viri fortes was expected to lead. This virtus is evidently dispositional, for it signifies a quality latent in the community at large and particularly in the minds of the brave men, a quality which could be translated into action when necessary. Similarly, Sallust says of Caesar, sibi magnum imperium, exercitum, bellum novom exoptabat ubi virtus enitescere posset ("he eagerly desired for himself a great command, an army, and a new war where his virtus could shine out," Cat. 54.4). Since in the dramatic setting of Sallust's text Caesar has not yet performed any military exploits in the public eye, it is merely his inclination to do so that is labelled by the term virtus. So, although the dispositional usage differs from the enacted usage in that it refers to an agent's state of mind rather than to his observed behavior, it signifies the same ethical orientation by the agent toward furthering the interests of the community through action (especially actions in the military and governmental arenas), and the same interest in having the community observe and evaluate such actions positively.


Excerpted from Constructing Autocracy by Matthew B. Roller. Copyright © 2001 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE The Ethics of Civil War: Competing Communities in Lucan 17
1. Overview 17
2. Traditional Roman Ethical Discourse 20
3. The ''Assimilating'' Viewpoint 29
4. The ''Alienating'' Viewpoint 36
5. Ethics and Armies in Conflict 43
6. The Narrator 47
7. Lucan and Early Imperial Aristocratic Ideology 54
CHAPTER TWO Ethics for the Principate: Seneca, Stoicism, and Traditional Roman Morality 64
I. Overview 64
2. Stoicism's Two Regimes of Value 66
3. Where Does Moral Value Reside? Stoic and Traditional Ethics 70
4. Who Judges and How? Dilemmas of Internal and External Evaluation 77
5. The Problem of Exempla 88
6. Ethics in Julio-Claudian Society: Military Glory and Senecan virtus 97
7. Ethics in Julio-Claudian Society: Flattery and Stoicism 108
8. Conclusion 124
CHAPTER THREE The Emperor's Authority: Dining, Exchange, and Social Hierarchy 129
I. Overview 129
2. Giving a Dinner: The Convivium as Object of Exchange 135
3. Speech and Power: Amicable and Hostile Reciprocity in the Convivium 146
4. Dining with Rulers: The Construction o f Imperial Authority 154
5. Imperial Authority and Gift Giving 173
6. The Emperor as Gift-Debtor 193
7. Conclusion 210
CHAPTER FOUR Modeling the Emperor: The Master-Slave Relationship and Its Alternatives 213
1. Overview 213
2. Freedom and Slavery: A Social Metaphor in Political Discourse 214
3. Father or Master? Two Models for the Emperor in Julio-Claudian Literature 233
4. Competing Paradigms for the Early Principate 247
5. Social Inversion and Status Anxiety 264
6. Status Anxiety and Stoic Remedies 272
7. Conclusion 286
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"Matthew Roller analyzes with considerable skill and acuity the Roman elite's attempts to come to grips with the new empire. Throughout he shows himself to be a careful and original reader, who draws his insights from many fields, including contemporary sociology, anthropology, and political science. His discussions of Lucan and Seneca will be required reading for anyone interested in those authors."—Robert A. Kaster, Princeton University

"This book contributes significantly to the fields of classics and ancient history, but readers outside these disciplines will also find a great deal to enjoy and to learn from. Constructing Autocracy will speak effectively to those who study other (especially pre-modern) periods of history."—Brad Inwood, University of Toronto

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