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One of the most revealing single items of evidence on the political character of the Empire is an anecdote told by Dio about Hadrian; a woman approached the Emperor on a journey and demanded his attention; Hadrian said he had no time and moved on-"then stop being Emperor" shouted the woman after him. The point is clear; the ideology-and the practice-of the Empire was that the emperor was personally accessible to his subjects in a way which now seems incredible, and which most books on the Empire tend to ignore, or regard as trivial. One may recall, for instance, Maecenas struggling to get through the crowd surrounding Augustus as he gave judgement, the advocati trying to hold Claudius by physical force on the tribunal to hear their pleas, or the story of how a muleteer of Vespasian was bribed to stop and shoe a mule, giving time for a litigant to approach.
Such examples are intended merely as the setting for a discussion of two specific problems, raised in particular by A. N. Sherwin-White in analysing the correspondence of Pliny and Trajan. "Did emperors personally read letters sent to them?" "Did they write the replies?" "And if they did not, who did?" It is only by asking specific questions like these that we can get valid answers to questions about the nature of the Empire as a political institution-was it a bureaucracy in which executive decisions could be made anonymously at secretarial levels? What range of decisions did the emperor himself actually make?
Administrative history has peculiar dangers of its own. We all know that we do not understand Roman religion. Administration seems easier, more readily comprehensible in present-day terms. Hence the evidence can be confidently distorted to fit entirely anachronistic conceptions. Our sources say that Claudius was dominated by his freedmen; the first edition of CAH reproduced this as "Claudius ... took the decisive step of creating special departments of what may be termed a Civil Service, each department being controlled by a freedman." But talk about bureaux, offices of state, secretariats, and so forth is mere slogan writing. What we must do is to look again and try to see exactly what the sources say about how things worked at the centre of power. The hardest thing is precisely to drop anachronistic presuppositions and believe what one reads.
I began with the theme of the emperor's personal contact with his subjects. That contact took place in many contexts, as for instance when emperors appeared at the circus or theatre and answered the shouts of the people by gestures, by word of mouth, or through a herald, when they accepted gifts on 1 January, or distributed cash to the people (congiarium). But it was true also in the exercise of business-and this gives the link with imperial correspondence. The evidence shows indisputably that it was normal for emperors not only to confront litigants and defendants, petitioners and delegations personally, but to deal with their business personally and make the required decisions themselves. For the ideology one might note especially Augustus' written answer to Tiberius, who had asked the citizenship for a Greek client-"he would not grant it unless the man appeared in person and persuaded him that he had good grounds for his request." For many matters, Crook's Consilium Principis makes it unnecessary to cite much of the evidence. Two points, however, need emphasis. Firstly, it is sometimes stated that when a delegation arrived to see the emperor, they first gave in their decree to the bureau a legationibus (dealing with embassies), that is, that some preparations were made before the formal hearing. But, for instance, when Philo's delegation arrived, it was Gaius whom they first saw and greeted; nothing could be achieved further, however, until they could actually present the petition and speak before him. Then there is the case of the Bithynian embassy which came to accuse Junius Cilo before Claudius. Admitted to his presence, they gave vent to a confused roar of complaint, so that Claudius had to ask Narcissus, who was standing next to him, what they had said; being a friend of Cilo he said that they had been uttering his praises-"So he will be procurator for two more years," announced Claudius. It is clear that there were as yet no papers of the case-and never were, since the embassy was then dismissed. The implications of these stories are confirmed by instructions of Menander the rhetorician about the presbeutikos logos (ambassadors' oration): it accompanied the actual handing over of the psephisma (decree) to the emperor. This is the procedure in the Oxyrhynchus papyrus reporting an Alexandrian delegation before Augustus in A.D. 13: a delegate called Alexander hands over the decrees of the city and begins the first speech. It is also envisaged in the decree passed in A.D. 4 by the decuriones (city councillors) and coloni of Pisa on hearing of the death of Gaius: "[I]n the meantime T. Statulenus Iuncus ... should be asked along with envoys, when the libellus had been handed over, to excuse the present difficulty of the colony and to make known this devotion of ours and the goodwill of all to Imperator Caesar Augustus." So when an emperor writes, as Augustus to Cnidos, "Your ambassadors ... presented themselves to me in Rome and, handing over the decree, made their accusation," he means just that. In one of the Alexandrian reports of proceedings we find an emperor (Trajan or Hadrian) reading a letter presented by a delegation-and then summoning his "friends." Thus when Gaius says in a letter to the Panhellenes, "having read the decree given to me by your ambassadors ...," we may take it that he means what he says.
Secondly, the role of advisers: it was in the nature of the consilium that the emperor's advisers gave their sententiae (opinions), and then the decision was pronounced independently by the magistrate or emperor himself. Nero would have the sententiae written down and then retire to consider them. But even in the second and third centuries, when lawyers as such were brought into the consilium, emperors would follow this same procedure, even in legal business. Marcellus describes a cognitio (trial) conducted by Marcus Aurelius in which he took part; various opinions were put; then the Emperor dismissed the court, meditated, and called them back to hear his decision. Similarly, Paulus describes himself giving his opinion, on a case before Severus; the Emperor considers it but makes up his own mind. Yet if there were any cases of qualified officials making decisions for the emperor it should have been the lawyers.
With that we can come one stage nearer the question of official correspondence and look at the handling of libelli-for the moment just libelli brought to the emperor by their authors, not ones sent on by officials such as Pliny. Libelli in this context divide into two types-ones containing information against third parties and ones containing petitions or requests for legal decisions. Here again we find the informant or petitioner giving the libellus direct to the emperor himself-as witness the anecdote of Augustus saying to a man who proffered his libellus with excessive timidity. "You are like a man giving a coin to an elephant"; compare the case in Suetonius of a man giving Claudius a libellus during the salutatio (the morning reception), or Martial's line "while the multitude gives you plaintive libelli, Augustus," and his reference to the man who had come from his patria to ask the Emperor for the privileges granted to parents of three children-"But stop wearying our lord with supplicating libelli." Then there is the incident in Philostratus when the philosopher Euphrates hands Vespasian a letter with requests for gifts, expecting him to read it in private-but Vespasian puts him to shame by reading it out aloud there and then. Similarly, the plan for the murder of Domitian was that Stephanus should hand him a libellus and while he was reading it strike him down. The text called Sententiae et Epistulae of Hadrian also contains two instances of petitions per libellum with the spoken answers of the Emperor. But the classic instance of the emperor's reception of libelli is Constantine at the Council of Nicaea. Tired of the mutual accusations made by the bishops in libelli, he appointed a special time for this: "[W]hen he had taken his seat, he received libelli from each separately, all of which he held in his lap, not revealing what was in them."
Then there were letters sent to the emperor by officials. The best procedure is to start with a few clear examples of emperors reading such letters themselves, and then come finally to the most difficult question, the handling of imperial paperwork and the composition of letters and rescripts.
Firstly then, Suetonius and Dio record that Augustus removed a consular legate from his post on grounds of illiteracy-"because he noticed that he had written ixi instead of ipsi." We can hardly escape the inference that the legate had written the letter with his own hand and that Augustus read it himself. Then in Philo we find Petronius the legate of Syria sending a letter to Gaius: "When (the messengers) arrived they delivered the letter. Gaius got red in the face before he had finished reading and was filled with anger as he noted each point." Later we find him reading a letter from King Agrippa-"and getting angry at each of the points." Similarly, Philo describes Tiberius reading a letter of complaint from the Jews about Pilate and breaking into a violent expression of rage. The accounts of the events leading up to the murder of Caracalla give further evidence, somewhat in conflict. Herodian tells of messengers from Rome bringing a bundle of official letters to Caracalla in Syria; they arrive to find him just setting off for some chariot racing, so he tells Macrinus, the praetorian prefect, to look through the letters for him. Among them Macrinus finds information against himself. Dio's version is less dramatic and clearly preferable. As he had recorded earlier, Caracalla had entrusted the handling of routine libelli and letters to his mother, Iulia Domna; his statement is strikingly confirmed by the publication of a letter from Iulia to Ephesus, the only known example of a letter from an empress to a city. Macrinus, according to Dio, was warned privately, while the official letters, which were delayed, went to Iulia Domna at Antioch-for she was instructed "to sort out all [communications] that arrived." The two accounts, though different, have the same bearing on this subject. Then, to take an example of a semi-official letter, there is the one written by Aelius Aristides to Marcus Aurelius after the earthquake at Smyrna, which is extant among his orations (Or. 19 Keil). It contained a moving appeal for aid and, according to Philostratus, when the Emperor came to the words, "the winds blow through the deserted city," his tears fell on the page. One may presume that he was not looking over the shoulder of the the official in charge of imperial correspondence at the time.
Then there are some more general references to emperors reading official communications. Julius Caesar had incurred public displeasure "because during the performance he spent his time reading or answering letters and libelli"; Augustus was careful to avoid this mistake, but Marcus Aurelius was not-"It was Marcus' habit to read, listen to, and subscribe [documents] during the circus games." Suetonius describes Vespasian's ordo vitae (way of life): in the morning "after reading his letters and the reports of all the officials, he admitted his friends." So with the two letters in which Trajan tells Pliny that he has read ("legi") libelli-in one of which he goes on "having been moved by his prayers"-we may believe what he says; there is no need to imagine that a chief secretary might have read them and advised Trajan. One might note in passing some different types of cases in which emperors are directly or very closely involved with official documents: in the Sententiae Hadrian says to a petitioner, "sine videam commentarios," or "let me look up the commentarii (records)-and then come back." Similarly, Suetonius records an anecdote when Vespasian was asked by a dispensator (steward) how to make an entry in the accounts; and the Historia Augusta says that Severus Alexander kept full records of the troops' pay and service in his bedroom and would study them constantly.
With the more complicated question of the composition of imperial correspondence, the only thing is to take the matter schematically and start from the extreme possibility: did emperors write their letters with their own hands?
Firstly, it is worth noting that there are cases of official documents written by emperors: Augustus left the "the arrangements for the assemblies" (ordinatio comitiorum) "written in his own hand"; the accounts of the finances of the Empire, "all of which he had written in his own hand"; and his will, "written ... partly in his own hand, partly in that of his freedmen." Tiberius left two copies of his will, one written out by himself, the other by a freedman. Aurelian was betrayed by a slave who forged a list of names for execution by imitating his handwriting and then showed it to the supposed victims.
Actual official letters written by emperors are rare (though it was common for them to write personal letters in their own hand). But there are cases of semi-official autograph letters; Tiberius used to write such to Cossus, the urban prefect (praefectus urbi): "To him, however, Tiberius wrote much with his own hand; that which he thought should not be entrusted even to his assistants." Then we have Nerva writing "in his own hand" to Trajan on adopting him, and Trajan writing "in his own hand" to the Senate on his accession. Eusebius records that Constantine wrote a letter in his own hand to Sapor II (309-79) on the persecution of Christians in Persia.
These are, of course, specifically exceptional cases. But there were two types of missive which, probably in one case and certainly in the other, emperors often wrote with their own hand. These are codicilli (letters of appointment) and subscriptiones. We happen to have two texts of codicils, one from Domitian to L. Laberius Maximus, the prefect of Egypt, the other from Marcus Aurelius to a procurator named Domitius Marsianus; both are couched in warm and personal terms-as, evidently, were the codicilli of Tiberius to his drinking companions, L.
Excerpted from Rome, the Greek World, and the East Volume 2 by Fergus Millar Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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