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Tacitus And Tiberius Notes

Classics Notes > Roman History; 46 BC to 54 AD Notes

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Is Tacitus unjust to Tiberius in criticizing his operation of the maiestas laws from the start of the reign?
Tacitus' portrayal of the reign of Tiberius is exaggerated and certainly unjust; he is not one to conceal the uncomfortable truths that do not fit his picture so from these it is possible to see where his interpretation goes too far and becomes unfair. However it is important not to react too much to the fiercely anti-Tiberian line that Tacitus takes on the matter of the maiestas laws and give the impression that the emperor was not at any fault, because he certainly was; the reality is more complicated that Tacitus is perhaps willing to admit. The most useful approach is to examine the Tacitean account of the maiestas trials and see where his interpretation falls down and where Tiberius can be absolved of some of the blame. The first main issue is how far the evils associated with the maiestas trials are specific to the reign of Tiberius and if they can be shown to have precedence and examples in later emperors then Tacitus' condemnation is certainly unjust. The historian makes it clear from the very beginning of his description of the maiestas trials that he feels that Tiberius reintroduced them with an evil intent and that through this a dark period of fear and terror was begun, but it is certainly not the case that these things were specific to Tiberius alone. He says at 1.72, "For they illustrate the beginnings of this disastrous institution- which Tiberius so cunningly insinuated, first under control, then bursting into an all-engulfing blaze." He goes on to call the trials villainous products of subsequent gloomy years and clear proof of Tiberius' anti-republicanism; this is a serious charge to lay at the feet of the new princeps, especially since it was his predecessor Augustus who revived the treason laws and not him. Tacitus even admits that Augustus was the first to use the maiestas laws in cases of libel so immediately precedent creates a problem for his interpretation which seems to insist that Tiberius purposefully brought back these trials with an evil intent. Tacitus uses Tiberius' reply to the question of Pompeius Macer as to whether the treason laws were to receive any attention as proof of this intent but all he says is, "the laws must take their course." If this is taken together to the comment Tiberius makes that Augustus was not divined in order to ruin Roman citizens then it seems much more innocent than Tacitus seems to want it to have. Furthermore such a statement implies only that he intended to uphold the laws in accordance with his reputation as "iustissimus princeps," and it is certainly the case that he attended a great many cases personally such was his concern for even-handed administration of the law and he is known to have give magistrates the benefits of his expert legal knowledge. It is interesting to note that Tacitus, when summarising his reign, says that all legal matters were dealt with admirably except in the case of the treason laws and this begs the question why his operation of these in particular were any different to the others he adopted from Augustus. It would have been very difficult from Tiberius to diverge from the precedents set down by Augustus because it was necessary for him to seem very much like his successor since so much of his power lay in the auctoritas of his adoptive father.

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