Tiberian Republicanism

Octavian had achieved his position by conquest. It had then be ratified by a collection of magisterial powers. But in January 27 BC, he claimed that he returned the Republic to the judgement of the Roman senate and people. He maintained that claim in his final message to the Roman people, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, published by Tiberius in AD 14.

In his address to the senate in AD 14 on his own position, Tiberius maintained a stance of being a magisterial servant of the senate. This was paradoxical given that he had just become emperor. People were evidently confused at the time, and later historians were uncomprehending. But Tiberius was an experience politician and far from stupid. What did he think he was doing?

One solution is to accept (at one level), Tiberius’ and Augustus’ argument: that the position of emperor was compatible with the maintenance of the Republic. We see the imperial period as one of monarchy, but we have the benefit of hindsight. One could argue that since the imperial position was an accumulation of Republican magisterial positions and the institutions of the Republic continued to meet and be powerful, the Republic remained.

  • If you have republican or democratic institutions, is the state a republic or a democracy?
  • Many states have had a tradition of elections, but are not conventionally classed as democratic.Why not?
  • What political practices make a democracy? 

The argument in the accession debate appears to have been that an emperor was necessary to preserve the Republic. That was an argument that worked for Tiberius.

  • The Republican institutions made his regime legitimate.
  • Tiberius could portray himself as a political conservative, restoring Roman values and protecting the Republic which would fail without him.
  • Any threat to Tiberius’ position could be depicted as a threat to the Republic and a threat of civil war (as in the Piso decree and the mutiny episodes).
  • If the emperor was the senior magistrate, the position needed to be held by the senior man in the state (Tiberius), not any of those immensely popular youths.
  • Any opposition elements who wanted to restore the Republic faced an emperor who claimed that he was himself Republican.
  • It also provided him with a mode of political operation: he could refer decisions to the senate; he could consult with the leading senators, who were his friends and colleagues; he could behave just as if he was ‘first among equals’.

He may even have believed it.

There is a consistency in Tiberius’ approach in the early years: he refers matters to the senate; he refuses titles and honours; he honours precedents. If we look at Germanicus, we see someone who consistently and repeatedly behaves in an imperial fashion: he is easy with honours; he references repeatedly loyalty to family. The contrast is made between the easy-going imperial manners of Germanicus and the reserved, disciplined, and fierce demeanour of the Republican Tiberius. Old-fashioned Republican morality was supposed to manifest itself in stern behaviour.

But Tiberius was also stuck in this paradox, which was made worse by his commitment to maintain the judgements and decisions of Augustus.

  • The logic of the regime sometimes made it do things which were very imperial, such as the elimination of Agrippa Postumus, or sending Drusus to negotiate with the mutineers rather than a more experienced and senior member of the senate.
  • Politics was often a dynastic rather than a Republican issue, as we see with Agrippina.
  • Tiberius’ Republicanism made it difficult for him to intervene to suppress laws. This is again a paradox, since it would seem that suppressing laws is what a tyrant does. But Tiberius was forced to allow laws such as the lex maiestatis to be applied in political trials which were damaging to his reputation and the health of the Republic.
  • Once he granted power to the senators, the senators used that power to pursue brutal political goals. Tiberius found it difficult to intervene, though he did impose a time delay on executions to give him an opportunity to intervene.
  • The senators also used their power to flatter the emperor, making him look more and more tyrannical.
  • The operation of power was anything but Republican. Power was concentrated in the hands of the emperor. The emergence of Sejanus showed that influencing imperial power could make a man mighty. Sejanus’ power was unthinkable in a Republican situation.
  • The stern Republicanism of his demeanour exposed Tiberius to ridicule when rumours of his sexual rapacity began to circulate. It added to his reputation for hypocrisy.
  • Since power was concentrated in the hands of one individual, but what that individual did and said could not be trusted, the only safe course was to flatter and to behave as if he was a monarch. If everyone treats you as a monarch, do you not become a monarch?

Tiberian Republicanism did not work. It could not work. The adoption of Republican behaviours and the continuation of Republican institutions contrasted too strongly with the realities of imperial power.

Worse, it allowed the senators to become instruments of their own destruction.

The Senate and the Aged Emperor                                          The Senate Against the Senate

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