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The Senate and the Aged Emperor

Some of the senators may have hoped that the fall of Sejanus would bring a halt to the conflict within the senate. But, predictably, violence among the senators increased.

  1. The information surrounding the death of Drusus associated those around Sejanus with a direct attack on the imperial family: the political stakes were thus raised.
  2. The fall of Sejanus allowed revenge attacks on his supporters.
  3. Tiberius himself was affected by the senatorial feuding. We should not expect from him behaviour different from that of his contemporaries.

The continuing levels of violence require a more general analysis.

  • Why were politics so brutal?
  • Why did senators co-operate with the factionalism?
  • Why did Tiberius not stop the political fighting?

Some may have expected the restoration of Agrippina. There would have been a logic to restoring the enemies of Sejanus. But Tiberius left them in exile. In itself, this shows that there was more in play during Sejanus’ domination than factional disputes between Sejanus and the rest. Sejanus was doing Tiberius’ will in removing Agrippina and her sons.

Drusus and Agrippina lived on until 33. Perhaps Tiberius wanted his options open. If the rumour was right that he had a plan to spring Drusus from jail if the suppression of Sejanus went wrong, he may have thought that even in exile, Drusus (who was probably popular), was a potential asset for the imperial family. In 33, however, Agrippina and Drusus both starved to death.

The death of Drusus was reported in graphic detail. His imprisonment, his beatings at the hands of a centurion and of freedmen, and his dying curse of Tiberius were all reported to the senators (Annales 6.23-25). We recoil at the brutality, and Tacitus may have expected his readers to recoil against the offence against status in having an imperial prince beaten by the servile.

Even it was a misjudgement, why was it reported? 

Roman senators were shocked but the report from the centurion was presumably in the expectation of reward for a job well done. The implication must be that irrespective of status, doing the emperor’s will and acting with brutality against an enemy of the emperor was deserving of praise. Were there any moral or political limits on the duty to follow the emperor? If there are no moral limits on the duty to serve the state, is that frightening?

The same year also saw the starvation of Agrippina’s and Germanicus’ friend Asinius Gallus, who had been under arrest since before the fall of Sejanus (Annales 6.23). This could hardly be a coincidence.

Tiberius had restructured the imperial family in 33. Daughters of Germanicus were in need of husbands: Lucius Cassius, from a long-established senatorial family, but not from the inner circle of the imperial aristocracy, married Drusilla; Julia married a Marcus Vinicius, a respectable member of the senate (Annales 6.15). Gaius Caesar was married to Claudia, daughter of Marcus Silanus, a very prominent senator (Annales 6.20). Julia, the serially unlucky former wife of Nero Caesar, daughter of Drusus and Livilla, who looks to have either married or been promised to Sejanus, was married off to a Rubellius Blandus, a notably undistinguished match (Annales 6.27).

Tiberius was bringing new blood into the imperial family and making alliances with some of the distinguished families of the senate. He was broadening the dynastic support base. This may have enabled him to get rid of the more troubling of his relatives.

Starvation could be an act of suicide but, importantly, it allowed Tiberius to deny responsibility. He did not kill his relatives (in this case); he just did not allow them to live.

The year also saw the death of the prominent jurist and friend of Tiberius, Cocceius Nerva. He also starved to death. His suicide was interpreted as a commentary on the state of the times and a condemnation of Tiberius (Annales 6.26).

What follows in the Tacitean account is a litany of numerous brief reports of trials and suicides. Men and women fell victim to a host of different accusations. Some avoided trial by suicide. Others were duly condemned, and a very few escaped. The death of Sejanus may have led to the purge of a particular faction, but the brutal, factional politics continued.

On March 15th, AD 37 Tiberius died. The death may have been celebrated prematurely. While all were congratulating Gaius on his accession, it was reported that Tiberius had revived and was asking for food. He was also looking for a ring that he had intended to give to his successor and which was now missing (on Gaius’ finger). A combination of Gaius and Macro, the prefect of the praetorian guard, it is alledged went to check, sent everyone away, and by the time they left the emperor’s bedside, were confident that the emperor had ceased to breathe. He was 77 years old, ancient by Roman standards. Few, if any, mourned his passing (Annales 6.50; Suetonius, Tiberius 73; Dio, 58.27).

Memory and Damnation                                                   Tiberian Republicanism



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