As the senators digested the news of Agrippina’s murder and decided that praising the emperor for his prompt matricide, Thrasea Paetus walked out of the senate. In so doing, he advertised his moral disapproval of the emperor and, consequently, his opposition.
It is possible that this was new. If you fell out with an emperor, your choices were not very attractive. Perhaps the most obvious option was to withdraw from politics. To stay as part of the political fray was counter to Roman norms. The Roman aristocrat wanted honours and offices. These were in the gift of the emperor. Those who opposed the emperor were unlikely to be rewarded. They were unlikely to win cases and arguments. Opposition had to be covert, perhaps subtle and satirical. But Thrasea continued, openly, undaunted by the emperor’s power.
This was surely a problem. If someone failed to play the imperial game and behaved as if they were a Republican senator, as if the freedoms of speech and actions of the Republic still held, what was an emperor to do?
Rome was built on traditions and emperors such as Augustus and Tiberius portrayed themselves as defenders of those traditions. Thrasea simply adhered politically to those traditions. In this sense, he was subversive by the very act of being loyal to the ideologies of Rome. Could Nero kill someone for being a good old-fashioned Roman?
The Philosophical Opposition: Reality or Chimera
Thrasea’s career we see in any detail the workings of a coherent opposition group in Roman imperial politics. This group was structured around an ideological connection, an interest in philosophy, and familial ties. They are connected to a revolt in Dalmatia against Claudius..They continued to be a problem under Vespasian and especially Domitian. But what form was their opposition?
This group has been seen as an organised opposition with ideological underpinning. But that interpretation is questionable.
Philosophy: Philosophy in the Roman period had a strongly political element. It did not, however, focus on the ideal constitution or political system, but on behaviour within a society. Stoicism was the most influential philosophy. Stoicism was entirely compatible with support for monarchy, as the leading stoic philosopher of the time, Seneca, demonstrates.
What philosophy did offer was a view that the wise man should do what is right without consideration of the cost to oneself.Philosophers tended to eschew emotion and rely on rationality. In consequence, they tended to have resources to resist the threats and blandishments of power.
The severity of philosophical discipline contrasted notably with the luxury of the imperial court. Although the philosophers tended to see their behaviours as in keeping with the behavioural codes of Roman tradition, they tended to be seen as in opposition to current times.
Politics: There is no suggestion that Thrasea or any of his group actively sought a change in political system. Their opposition was highly personal. Notably. they were not involved in the Piso conspiracy, for example.
Family: Thrasea Paetus was married to Arria. She was the daughter of another Arria and a Caecina Paetus. The elder Arria had killed herself as an example to her wavering husband as his trial for treason moved towards an inevitable and fatal conclusion. The story is retold by Pliny the Younger (Ep. 3.16). The daughter of Thrasea and Arria, Fannia, married Helvidius Priscus, who opposed Vespasian, their child, also Helvidius Priscus, opposed Domitian. Opposition was carried over several generations and seemingly maintained by the women as well as the men. How do we understand the family relations?
Republican politics had often used family relations to cement political alliances. That seems to have happened here. Among the aristocracy of Rome, marriages were arranged with men often marrying much younger women. These men were ‘suitable’ friends of the family and most likely to be more closely connected to the father than to the daughter. Marriages were likely to bring together like-minded men. There is every reason to believe that their daughters would share their social and political attitudes. Indeed, with this family, it is the women who appear strongly committed to the disciplines of opposition.
But if the inner circle of the ‘family’ may have been quite tight, it seems likely that there was a much wider group of associates. The eventual fall of Thrasea (Tacitus, Annales 16.21-35) was associated with a much wider group. The group included Helvidius Priscus, L. Junius Arulenus Rusticus, Curtius Montanus (see also his speech at Tacitus, Histories 4.32), possibly Musonius Rufus and Barea Soranus, though the links between these men are sometimes obscure. Indeed, one of the charges made against him was that he had followers and was talked about as a Cato opposed to Nero’s Caesar (Annales 16.22).
Certainly, the group was an opposition and publicly so. But did it pose a threat?
The opposition was expressed in political exchanges, but Thrasea was not an emperor in waiting. There was no alternative political regime. There was no attempt to overthrow Nero nor an alternative candidate for the throne. The opposition was as much to the culture of Neronian politics as anything else. For a very long time, Nero might be irritated by Thrasea and his group, but he was not directly threatened. Killing Thrasea would an admission that there was no room in Neronian Rome for men of such conspicuous virtue as Thrasea. It would also shatter an illusion central to the working of Roman imperial politics of an essential consensus and co-operation under the benevolent guidance of the emperor. Nero could suffer Thrasea and his friends to survive.
After walking out of the senate in disgust when they took no action after the murder of Agrippina, Thrasea continued to participate in politics. In 62, he led the senate in proposing exile rather than death for Antistius Sosianus, which provoked Nero into writing a bad-tempered (Tacitus, Annales 14. 48–9). Yet, Thrasea managed to secure Nero’s support in a debate surrounding the trial of Claudius Timarchus (Annales 15.20-22).
Nevertheless, Thrasea was excluded from the celebrations that surrounded the birth of Nero’s daughter in 63 (Tacitus, Annales 15. 23). Supposedly a little later, Nero boasted to Seneca that he had been reconciled with Thrasea, a boast on which Seneca congratulated Nero. The nuances are difficult, but it would normally be that the lesser man would be congratulated on befriending the greater. Under Augustus, an admission that a prominent figure was no longer a friend of the emperor had opened individuals to political attack. But even after 63, friends of Thrasea continued in their political careers and held office. L. Junius Arulenus Rusticus was tribune as late as 66.