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The Senate Against the Senate

Competitive Dynamics

Understanding Roman politics means thinking like a Roman.

  • Why did a Roman senator participate in politics?
    • What did he want?
    • How did it relate to his self-image?
    • What was the measure of political success?

Let us clear away some ground: senators were not political representatives. They did not represent a group, a party, or an ideological stance. Senators may have wanted to do good things when a senator, but there was no political manifesto. Although there was a hereditary element in a senatorial position, many senatorial fathers appear not to have had senatorial sons.

Senatorial status was much more of a social statue than a career choice. The aim of a senator was likely to advance his social status (become a great man).

Politics was intensely personal. It related closely to an individual’s understanding of his status and that of his family.

The measure of political success is not obvious. In traditional terms, political success could be measured in the reputation and friendships that a man enjoyed. These would necessarily relate to office (a man with powerful friends and a good reputation would expect to hold office), but did not depend on office. In an imperial context, could measure success by offices held: from the Augustan period, senators started to put up monuments in stone which recorded their lives. These listed the offices held in a cursus honorum (list of offices).

Emperors tended to control access to office. Consequently, to be successful, the most powerful tool any senator had was the friendship of the emperor.

What mattered was status and honours. An offence against status or a refusal of honours was likely to produce a vitriolic reaction. Whereas when a modern politician defeats his or her opponent, they can claim that ‘it was nothing personal’. In Rome it was nothing but personal.

The personal nature of the politics was enhanced by the benefits of victory and the high costs of defeat. Victory brought office. Office brought power. Power brought money and lasting influence. Defeat could bring disgrace, exile, or death.  It was not just men who were the target of political attacks, but their womenfolk as well. Significant loss of property could damage a family’s prospects for generations.

Senatorial competition could turn on securing the support of the emperor. Persuading the senators or the emperor that your enemy was the enemy of the emperor was the route to success. It demonstrated your loyalty and the dangerous nature of your enemy. If you felt that your enemy had the support of more powerful senators, you could use the emperor against him. If you saw an opportunity to attack someone who was not an enemy, but who could be portrayed as an enemy of the emperor, you could demonstrate your loyalty and thus won support and status. In certain circumstances, giving up an incautious friend might be good for your career.

What followed from this situation was a dynamic of hyper-competitiveness among the senators. This was worsened by the high risks inherent in such competition.

The Role of Tiberius

Undoubtedly, many of the trials of senators and their family members were not inspired by the emperor. He could not be held responsible for the cases that were brought. But does that make him guiltless?

The emperor was used in these factional conflicts. He could have and often did intervene early in his reign to suppress charges. By so doing, he kept the peace. But as the reign went on, that peace became more fragile.


There are various possibilities:

  • Tiberius felt himself constrained by the law.
  • Some were guilty (especially in cases of corruption, and perhaps also in cases of adultery).
  • Tiberius was reluctant to intervene in the free operation of the senate.
  • Those to whom he was personally hostile were under attack and he was reluctant to save them.
  • Tiberius found himself supportive of groups who engaged in the factional disputes and thus supportive of prosecutions.

We must also remember that Tiberius was not an outsider. His retreat to Capri did not put him above the political fray. Politics was for him as personal as it was for everyone else, and he behaved by the same rules. He used his power to bring down his enemies and reward his friends.

Not only did Tiberius preside over the brutal politics of his reign, he also participated. Historians are reluctant to take moral stances on the people they study, but perhaps we should make some exceptions?

A Political Culture

In professional life, there are sometimes differences of opinion. There are even sometimes rivalries that get out of hand. It is a rare experience in professional life to find someone who would use their power to get you exiled and killed. But this is how the Romans conducted their politics. It tells us something fundamental about their political culture and their values.

Tiberian Republicanism                                                                                      Administration



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