Dominick Vandenberge

The Clemency and Cruelty of Tiberius in Tacitus’ Annals

1¶ Prior to Augustus’ reign, sovereignty and influence were largely distributed throughout the offices of the cursus honorum, Senate, and the Curiate, Centuriate, Plebeian, and Tribal Assemblies. This served as a system of checks and balances and kept power from accumulating under one man’s auspices. The Principate, however, was subjugated by one individual, or for our purposes, one personality. A keen awareness of the emperor’s character, and the latter’s implications, became increasingly more important as the balance of power shifted in the emperor’s favor. This was crucial because only those who were able to see through the deceit and adapt to the cruelty of the emperor survived and lived a prosperous life. In referring to Agricola’s success, for example, Tacitus shows that this is indeed possible:

2¶ sciant, quibus moris est inlicita mirari, posse etiam sub malis principibus magnos viros esse, obsequiumque ac modestiam, si industria ac vigor adsint, eo laudis excedere, quo plerique per abrupta enisi, sed in nullum rei publicae usum ambitiosa morte inclaruerunt.[1]

3¶ Let it be known to those whose habit it is to admire the disregard of authority, that there may be great men even under bad emperors, and that obedience and submission, when joined to activity and vigour, may attain a glory which most men reach only by a perilous career, utterly useless to the state, and closed by an ostentatious death.[2]

Agricola 42.5.1–6

4¶ Tacitus strives to assist and instruct future readers who too may be subject to the rule of one about the importance of the emperor’s character (Annals 4.33). One way in which Tacitus achieves this is by associating particular virtues and vices with individuals. Tacitus states, in fact, that this is his goal:

5¶ Exequi sententias haud institui nisi insignis per honestum aut notabili dedecore, quod praecipuum munus annalium reor ne virtutes sileantur utque pravis dictis factisque ex posteritate et infamia metus sit.[3]

6¶ My purpose is not to relate at length every motion, but only such as were conspicuous for excellence or notorious for infamy. This I regard as history’s highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.

Annals 3.65.1–4

7¶ That the subject of virtue and vice plays a significant role in the Annals comes as no surprise given Tacitus’ background.[4] Born sometime after AD 55, Tacitus endured most of Nero’s reign (54–68). He then witnessed the feud for control over the Principate between Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian, the eventual victor and ruler until 79, during which Tacitus obtained the vigintivirate, a minor magistracy for those on the rise. Under the reign of Titus (79–81), Tacitus held a career as a military officer, quaestor, and tribune; under the following reign of Domitian (81–96), a career as a praetor, member of a religious board of fifteen, and military officer or governor of a province. Tacitus’ first-hand experience of this cruel and unstable era would have acquainted him with the “cruel emperor.” Afterwards, Tacitus obtained the consulship during the reign of Nerva (96–98) and then by the end of Trajan’s reign (98–117) had begun to write his Annals.[5] This most prosperous and happy era would have acquainted him with the “moderate and clement emperor” (Agricola 3.1; Syme 1968:465). Furthermore, it is the goal of this paper to determine how these terms, namely, moderatio, clementia, and saevitia, and their concepts factor in the revelation of Tiberius’ ingenium within the debasing environment of the Principate as they manifest in the Annals. I will make particular use out of F. R. D. Goodyear’s interpretation of the final paragraph of Tiberius’ obituary, which breaks down his life into five phases, each of which are marked by some change and progressively reveal the true character of Tiberius. (6.51.11–19) (Woodman 1989:197).[6]

8¶ The great tour de force of the Annals is the account of Tiberius. “Tacitus’ great achievement,” Anthony A. Barrett asserts, “was to trace the degradation of Roman politics through the course of Tiberius’ reign, to show that his character and personality were unable to withstand this debasing force of the Imperial system” (Barrett 2008: xix). What emperor would have shown as powerful a lesson about the corrupting effects of absolute power other than Tiberius, its first guinea pig? The concept of changeability of character was not foreign to Tacitus either. It appears in Historiae 1.50.21–23: “Even about Vespasian there were doubtful rumours, and he, unlike any of his predecessors, was changed for the better by power.” It even appears at the very end of Tacitus’ account of Tiberius in Annals 6.48.9–11: “Tiberius with his long experience of affairs was, under the influence of absolute power, wholly perverted and changed.” It was not until Tiberius had become emperor that his character began to deteriorate, though, as we will see, he had vestiges of cruelty all along. Tacitus’ account of Tiberius is particularly insightful because of its extent. He is the only emperor whose account is missing less than any other in the Annals, and only in his case do we have both the beginning and end of his reign. The early Tiberian books (1–6) bestow the essence of Tacitus’ Annals and “show the historian,” Sir Ronald Syme asserts, “in full mastery of structure and coherence. The style there stands at its uniform perfection––most Tacitean, with demonstrable efforts and devices” (Syme 1958:362). Through the extensive account of Tiberius’ reign, furthermore, we will be able to conceptualize his transformation and make sense of his shift from a pseudo-merciful to outright cruel emperor.

9¶ Though this paper’s focus will be on Tiberius’ reign as emperor, it will serve us to consider his early career. F. R. D. Goodyear’s interpretation of the final paragraph of Tiberius’ obituary proposes that 6.51.12 represents the first phase of his life up until AD 14 (Woodman 1989:197).[7] “It was an eminent time in his life and renown as long as he was a private citizen [privatus] or in public offices under Augustus [in imperii sub Augusto].”[8] This comes off as a warning, for the following phases after Tiberius’ inauguration consist of secrecy, dissemblance, cruelty [saevitia], and debauchery. Privatus and in imperii sub Augusto both emphasize his not being in power as a requisite for eminence in life and renown, otherwise he would surely become abominable in cruelty [intestabilis saevitia] (6.51.16). Yet even early on he showed vestiges of cruelty [indicia saevitiae] (1.4.12). He was banished by a decree of the Senate because of Augustus’ complaints about his character (1.6.7). When it came time to pick a successor, Augustus adopted Tiberius not out of affection or care of the Republic, but to secure glory in comparison to Tiberius’ arrogance and cruelty [saevitia] (1.10.26). It appears that tyranny may not have created Tiberius’ saevitia, which existed before AD 14, and that saevitia alone did not hinder him from obtaining eminence in life and renown early on, but only when paired with tyranny.

10¶ The next line of Tiberius’ obituary pertains to the following phase of his life from AD 14 until AD 23: “a time of reserve and crafty assumption of virtue, as long as Germanicus and Drusus were alive” (6.51.13). During this period, though Tacitus refrains from using clementia in a Tiberian context – perhaps not to give him too much credit – he does allude to the quality through Tiberius’ behavior and words. In 1.46.7, Tacitus says that had Tiberius gone to quell the German mutiny himself, the rebels would have stood in awe of his supremacy of severity and liberality [severitatis et munificentiae]. The balancing of these two terms suggests moderation, and without such a word as munificentia, his severitas would imply saevitia (Cowan 2006:78). In the prosecution of Libo Drusus, who was convicted for attempting a revolution, Tiberius exercises moderation and clemency (2.27–2.32). In this case, Tacitus creates a typical scene between ruler and subject, in which he appears to employ one of Seneca’s definitions of clementia: “Clemency is a self-control of the mind in force of avenging or leniency of a superior toward an inferior in choosing a punishment” (De Clementia 2.3.4).[9] As the “inferior,” Libo had begged [postulat] the emperor’s company (2.28.2), pleaded [orare] his neighbors, entreated [poscere] for a voice to speak on his behalf (2.29.2), and raised his hands and suppliant words to Tiberius [manus et supplices voces ad Tiberium tendens] (2.29.6). As the “superior,” Tiberius had not avoided his emotions [non vultu alienatus] or been at all vexed in his words [non verbis commotior]; he read the charges so moderately as to appear neither to soften nor to exasperate the crimes [ita moderans ne lenire neve asperare crimina videtur] (2.28.8); after Tiberius had sought to gain evidence from the defendant’s slaves and Libo had committed suicide in his guilt, Tiberius even swore that he would have entreated for Libo’s life, however guilty, had Libo not rushed his suicide (2.31). Tacitus also employs the term moderatio to describe the good conduct of Tiberius’ rule. In the very beginning of his reign, that he “yields” [remisit] to the Senate’s wish to carry Augustus’ body to his funeral and does so with “proud moderation” [adroganti moderatione] shows the willingness and forbearance he employed early on, and initial pride in doing so (1.8.21). The significance of Tiberius’ openness toward being moderate, and thus allowing the Senate to bear the body, is accentuated by his immediate warning to the people not to repeat the former disturbance that occurred at Julius Caesar’s funeral by resolving to move Augustus’ cremation to the forum rather than its appointed location, the Campus Martius. Often he exercises moderation in declining honors (e.g. 1.14, 3.59, 6.2) and says how it would be troubling to his moderation to elect so many new officers and, in turn, to suspend so many (2.36). In this phase, Tiberius at times exercises leniency and moderation, and it is perhaps because of this that Suetonius and Dio consider the early part of his reign of good conduct (Harrer 1920:66).

11¶ During this period, however, the theme of dissemblance sticks out, especially as regards clementia, a virtue appropriated from Augustus who was bestowed with a gift from the Senate and the Roman people of a gold shield with an inscription that recognized clementia, virtus, iustitia, and pietas (Res Gestae 34). Tiberius’ goal was to create continuity between his reign and Augustus’ “res publica” in hopes that it would negate any notions of illegitimacy. The Senate even presented Tiberius with shields of Clementia and Moderatio in AD 22, and then followed-up by minting a collection of coins honoring and drawing public attention to those virtues (Sutherland 1938:139). Melissa Dowling asserts, “by demonstrating his clementia and the moderation of his justice, Tiberius sought to prove himself fit to rule in the eyes of those who objected to his authority” (Dowling 2006:170). Such good features of Tiberius’ reign as clementia were feigned with great skill during the first part of his career when he was still not sure of his power, but were eventually dropped when they no longer served their purpose. As long as such virtuous figures as Germanicus and Drusus remained, with whom he competed, and he felt the lasting affects of Augustus’ rejection, Tiberius sought to compensate for his insecurity. After obtaining the throne upon Augustus’ death, he grew paranoid that Germanicus would strive for possession of the empire through the influence of his legions, allies, and, most importantly, what Tiberius lacked: extraordinary acclamation among the people [mirus apud populum favor] (1.7).

12¶ In his Annals, Tacitus mostly uses the term clementia in civic and political contexts such as legal cases. Though clementia was valued and employed as propaganda by Tiberius, Tacitus uses the term few times in a Tiberian context. Any occurrences of the term, therefore, should not be overlooked. When it is used, it is as a pejorative innuendo or “as a bogus remission of severity” (Konstan 2005:344). In the second phase of his life, the term occurs only once, yet its occurrence is undermined and its insincerity accentuated by the very scene before the one in which it appears: Tiberius fails in seeking to secure credit from the people for genuine affection [sincerae caritatis fidem] by bribing the people with money, and resolves, in turn, to remove Germanicus from the spotlight, in order, it seems, to rid a contrast between their characters (2.41.1). This emphasizes Tiberius’ dissemblance of such virtues as caritas or, as we will see, clementia, which Tacitus confers upon Germanicus more often (e.g. 1.57.9, 58.21, 2.10.3, 57.7). While Tiberius was in Rhodes, Tacitus says, king Archelaus of Cappadocia honored him with no kindness, not because of arrogance, but because Tiberius’ friendship, the friends of Augustus warned, was dangerous. Tacitus says how Tiberius tricks the king with enticements of clementia through a letter:

13¶ ut versa Caesarum subole imperium adeptus est, elicit Archelaum matris litteris, quae non dissimulatis filii offensionibus clementiam offerebat, si ad precandum veniret.

14¶ When, after the extinction of the family of the Cæsars, Tiberius acquired the empire, he enticed Archelaus by a letter from his mother, who without concealing her son’s displeasure promised mercy [clementiam] if he would come to beg [precandum] for it.

Annals 2.42.10–13

15¶ When king Archelaus arrives, though he had come with the intention of pleading [precandum] for forgiveness [clementiam] – a humiliating recognition of inferiority, especially for a king – he is received not by a clement emperor, who would exercise restraint or “remit something of a deserved and owed punishment” (De Clementia 2.3.2), but the very opposite, a savage one [immiti a principe], who reproaches the king before the Senate (Annals 2.42.15). That Tiberius afterwards turned Cappadocia into a province, which had been ruled by king Archelaus for fifty years, and used its revenue to decrease the one percent tax to one half the amount perhaps suggests Tiberius’ true, unscrupulous intentions in deceiving the king. Even through means of something as virtuous as clemency he finds a way to act cruelly. Tacitus touches on this hypocrisy in 1.75: “[A]s from his love of strictness he was harsh even where he acted on right grounds.”

16¶ It is also significant when Tacitus omits the term clementia where we would expect it. While clementia does not appear in Tacitus’ account of the trial of Piso (Annals 2.73–3.18), it does appear in the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre. “The senatus consultum,” Dowling asserts, “gives evidence both for Tiberius’ clemency and for the way in which he and the senate depicted that clemency, revealing Tiberius’ interest in being perceived as a clement ruler” (Dowling 2006:170). Both Tacitus and the senatus consultum give an account of Piso’s trial, in which he is convicted of poisoning and killing Germanicus. They both report how even after Piso committed suicide, which would have ended a traditional case, Tiberius ordered a trial, in which Piso’s family would speak on his behalf. Yet only the senatus consultum captures the dialogue of clementia, which Tiberius employs in pardoning Piso’s family (Dowling 2006: 176). Tacitus instead portrays this “clemency” as grounded in cynical attempts to reward Piso’s family for removing Germanicus, suggesting Tiberius’ complicity in Germanicus’ death. The discrepancy between these two accounts reveals Tacitus’ efforts to manipulate and distort Tiberius’ role in the trial to characterize him as a tyrant who abuses his power, the antithesis of the clement ruler.

17¶ In employing moderatio, an integral part of Seneca’s clementia (De Clementia 2.3.1), Tacitus refers to Tiberius’ leniency, or lack of it, through Marcus Lepidus’ defense of Lutorius Priscus: “But though vice and wicked deeds have no limit, penalties and correctives are moderated by the clemency [moderatio] of the sovereign and by the precedents of your ancestors and yourselves” (3.50.5). While Tiberius was away abroad, the Senate, nevertheless, voted for Lutorius’ death. Tiberius had disagreed with the Senate’s hasty verdict to punish Lutorius with death on account of mere insults against the state. The Senate, as a result, resolved that decrees not be registered in the treasury until nine days had expired, so even an absent emperor could decide whether to exercise clementia and repeal sentences. That Tiberius still had not grown mild in time nor had made use of the nine days to exercise clementia alludes to his saevitia (3.51.10). This also discredits the moderatio Marcus Lepidus expects the emperor to use to moderate verdicts, and suggests perhaps even Tacitean sarcasm. In 3.68.5, Lucius Piso praises the clementia of Tiberius, who responds with a lecture on the nature of punishment. He says how legal actions must be prescribed against those who commit tangible crimes, not just words (3.69.12) and how one should not exercise imperium whenever it is possible for laws to be used (3.69.17). Tacitus adds a qualifier to this rare recognition of moderation and leniency that yet again alludes to Tiberius’ saevitia: “Knowing, as he did, how to be forbearing [moderandi], when he was not under the stimulus of personal resentment [ira] . . .” (3.69.19). The qualifiers here and at 3.51.10 suggest Tacitus’ resistance to credit Tiberius with genuine moderatio and clementia.

18¶ The next phase of Tiberius’ life is from AD 23 until AD 29: “Again while his mother lived, he was a compound of good [bona] and evil [mala]” (6.51.15). The influence of his mother kept him in check, resulting in bona. Yet Tiberius’ saevitia became more prominent, resulting in mala, because now he had less reason to dissemble and compete with the virtues of the deceased Germanicus and Drusus and had hitherto established a relationship with the saevitia of Sejanus, Tiberius’ adiutor or socius laborum (4.2.3, 7.1). Tacitus explains this at the very beginning of this phase:

19¶ C. Asinio C. Antistio consulibus nonus Tiberio annus erat compositae rei publicae, florentis domus (nam Germanici mortem inter prospera ducebat), cum repente turbare fortuna coepit, saevire ipse aut saevientibus viris praebere. initium et causa penes Aelium Seianum . . .

20¶ THE year when Caius Asinius and Caius Antistius were consuls was the ninth of Tiberius’s reign, a period of tranquillity for the State and prosperity for his own house, for he counted Germanicus’s death a happy incident. Suddenly fortune deranged everything; the emperor became a cruel tyrant [saevire], as well as an abettor of cruelty in others [saevientibus]. Of this the cause and origin was Ælius Sejanus . . .

Annals 4.1.1–5

21¶ Tacitus’ allusion in 4.3–4 (fortuna turbare coepit, saevire ipse aut saevientibus) to Sallust’s description of the uproar in Rome after the destruction of Carthage (saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit) heightens the anxiety and savagery of this cruel phase in Tiberius’ life (Conspiracy of Catiline 10.1).[10] In the before mentioned line of Tiberius’ obituary describing this phase of his life, Tacitus may also be alluding to Sallust’s description of the uproar of Rome (saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit) in also using the word miscere: “he was a compound of good [bona] and evil [mala].” This further suggests the mental turbulence – perhaps even the corrupting effects of tyranny – now experienced by Tiberius. At this point, however, Tiberius had still not reached his cruelest form, for he had only begun [coepit] to act cruelly. The cruelty exercised by Tiberius during this phase is mostly the result of those around him [saevientibus] such as Visellius Varro (4.19.1), Vibius Serenus (4.28.1), Satrius Secundus and Pinarius Natta (4.34.1), and the accusers of Titius Sabinus (4.68.2).

22¶ During this phase, the more Tiberius rages, the less just and forgiving he becomes, so we begin to see a wider disparity between saevitia and clementia. His exercise of saevitia mostly occurs in legal contexts. Tacitus says that Tiberius was cruel [saevitum] in confiscating the property of Gaius Silius, who had committed suicide to avoid conviction (4.20.1). Roman law dictated that if one was convicted of a crime, Tacitus asserts, one lost their property, but could avoid this by committing suicide, terminating their trial (6.29.6). It was cruel, therefore, for Tiberius to confiscate Silius’ property. Tacitus calls this the first of Tiberius’ acts against the wealth of another (4.20.4). In another instance, Tacitus says that Tiberius stubbornly embraced his harshness [inclementia] (4.42.13). It is significant that Tacitus decides to use the term inclementia, which he had hitherto avoided up until now. Rather than using his go-to word saevitia to explain the cruelty of the emperor, he uses inclementia. What inclementia, perhaps, emphasizes more than saevitia is the lack of clementia, hence the privative prefix. Not only is this the only occurrence of the word as an abstract noun in the Annals, but also in the entire Tacitean corpus. Even in the Latin corpus as a whole, the word appears few times, adding to the word’s significance. In Statius’ Thebaid, inclementia is attributed to “the cruel heavens” (1.650), “the raving sea” (5.173), and “kings” (11.684).[11] In Vergil’s Georgics, it is attributed to “stern death” (3.68); in the Aeneid, to the “gods” (2.602).[12] In Silius Italica’ Punica, it is also attributed to the “gods” (596).[13] The term is applied primarily in poetry and to personified entities, gods, and kings. By associating the word with Tiberius, Tacitus appears to be characterizing him as some godlike, perhaps all-powerful, figure. The rarity of the word, too, suggests that Tacitus sought to draw attention to the word. Yet, more simply, Tacitus attributes inclementia to Tiberius because he preferred to punish the adultery of Aquilia with exile and confiscation of property [exilio] rather than under the Julian Law by the request of Lentulus Gaetulicus (4.42.14).[14]

23¶ Next, we see Tiberius’ harsh relationship to writings that attack his character. The fact that Tiberius pursued the conviction of Gaius Cominius on account of his mere verses shows how relentless he has become (4.31). Had Cominius’ brother not intervened, Tiberius would have succeeded in prescribing such a harsh punishment on something so trivial as verses. Tacitus follows with some moralizing comments about the cruel emperor as if reverting back to his goal as a historian to instruct his readers. He says that Tiberius had reached such a point as to prefer more sinister things to the fame and better things that await mercy [clementia] (4.31.4). He steps back from his history and voices disgust at his subject matter: the emperor’s cruel [saeva] orders, never-ending prosecutions, deceitful friendships, and destruction of the innocent (4.33.14). Alluding to Tiberius’ cruel relationship with authors, he adds,

24¶ nam contra punitis ingeniis gliscit auctoritas, neque aliud externi reges aut qui eadem saevitia usi sunt nisi dedecus sibi atque illis gloriam peperere.

25¶ On the contrary, the persecution of genius fosters its influence; foreign tyrants, and all who have imitated their oppression [saevitia], have merely procured infamy for themselves and glory for their victims.

Annals 4.35.16–18

26¶ Tacitus’ introspective and generalizing statements about tyranny and his history seem to anticipate the ensuing climax of Tiberius’ cruelty. Tiberius, in fact, resolves to retire to Campania in order, Tacitus opines, to hide his cruelty [saevitia] and licentiousness, which he showed through his behavior (4.57.7). Tacitus then immediately proceeds to describe Tiberius’ horrid physical features, which were bound to match the characterization of Tiberius as a cruel individual. It comes to no surprise that the Senate decreed for Tiberius an altar to Clementia and Amicitia (4.74.6) in light of his relentless cruelty and recent retirement to Capri, which pushed his justice, and exercise of clementia, at a distance (4.67; Dowling 2006:179). The Senate was probably more in need of clemency now than ever before, so they sought to arouse and encourage Tiberius’ clemency through a votive altar to Clementia.

27¶ The second-to-last line of Tiberius’ obituary pertains to what survives of Tacitus’ account of the following phase of his life from AD 29 to AD 31: “he was infamous for his cruelty [saevitia], though he veiled his debaucheries, while he loved or feared Sejanus” (6.51.16). Livia was the last obstacle to Tiberius’ cruelty, and there arose, as a result of her death, a “steep and oppressing tyranny” (5.3.2). Sejanus could now hold complete control over Tiberius, whose saevitia he stimulated to such an extent that he was willing to go after even the enemies of Sejanus against whom he had previously refused to act (5.3.2; Woodman 1989:204). “Tiberius’ affection for Sejanus,” Woodman asserts, “fostered his saevitia, while his fear of him forced a cover-up of his libidines. Hence in the obituary Sejanus, while a restraining influence on Tiberius’ sexual habits during 29–31, is also a stimulating influence on his criminal cruelty during the same period” (Woodman 1989:204–205).

28¶ The last line of Tiberius’ obituary pertains to what survives of Tacitus’ account of the following phase of his life from late AD 31 to March AD 37: “Finally, he plunged into every wickedness and disgrace, when fear and shame being cast off, he simply indulged his own inclinations” (6.51.17). Book 6 represents Tiberius’ final eruption of saevitia, and now, with Sejanus dead, he was free even to reveal his debauchery [libido] that he had previously concealed under Sejanus. We see the complete extinction of genuine moderatio and clementia during this phase. He had reached a point, for example, where he would respond moderately [moderans] to and agree with pleas, but then disregard and oppose them after the fact (6.2.20). When Rubrius Fabatus was captured trying to flee the Parthians, Tacitus clarifies that he only avoided punishment because of Tiberius’ forgetfulness [oblivio] not his mercy [clementia] (6.14.10). Referring again to the demise of Tiberius’ clemency and its destructive effect on humankind, Tacitus says, “The force of terror had utterly extinguished the sense of human fellowship, and, with the growth of cruelty [saevitia], pity [miseratio] was thrust aside” (6.19). We also get a culminating description of the worst characteristics of Tiberius in Tacitus’ comments on his letter from Capri:

29¶ adeo facinora atque flagitia sua ipsi quoque in supplicium verterant. neque frustra praestantissimus sapientiae firmare solitus est, si recludantur tyrannorum mentes, posse aspici laniatus et ictus, quando ut corpora verberibus, ita saevitia, libidine, malis consultis animus dilaceretur. quippe Tiberium non fortuna, non solitudines protegebant quin tormenta pectoris suasque ipse poenas fateretur.

30¶ So completely had his crimes and infamies recoiled, as a penalty [in supplicium], on himself. With profound meaning was it often affirmed by the greatest teacher of philosophy that, could the minds of tyrants [tyrannorum] be laid bare, there would be seen gashes and wounds; for, as the body is lacerated by scourging, so is the spirit by brutality [saevitia], by lust and by evil thoughts. Assuredly Tiberius was not saved by his elevation or his solitude from having to confess the anguish [tormenta] of his heart and his self-inflicted punishment [poena].

Annals 6.6.5–12

31¶ That Tiberius’ crimes and outrages turned against himself perhaps suggests the corrupting effects of absolute power whose exercise can recoil back on the perpetrator. Tacitus stresses how the mind of Tiberius was corrupted, in turn, by acts of saevitia, alluding even to some wider belief in nemesis through the phrase in supplicium and the words tormenta and poena. This concept of retribution happens to resemble Pliny’s imagery of how the goddess Poena pursued Domitian through his home in retribution of his cruelty:

32¶ Ille tamen, quibus sibi parietibus et muris salutem suam tueri videbatur, dolum secum et insidias et ultorem scelerum deum inclusit. Dimovit perfregitque custodias Poena, angustosque per aditus et obstructos non secus ac per apertas fores et invitantia limina irrupit: longe tunc illi divinitas sua, longe arcana illa cubilia saevique secessus, in quos timore et superbia et odio hominum agebatur.[15]

33¶ Yet though he [Domitian] thought to protect his life behind walls and masonry, locked in with him were treachery, conspiracy, and the god of retribution for his crimes [ultorem scelerum deum]. Vengeance [Poena] pushed aside his guards, broke through and burst in by the narrow passages and their barriers, as if the doors stood open and thresholds called her in. Nothing availed him then—not his divinity, nor those secret chambers, those cruel [saevi] haunts whither he was driven by his fear and pride and hatred of mankind.

Panegyricus 49.1.1–2.1

34¶ Just as Fortuna and solitude (when he retired to Capri to hide his cruelty and debauchery) could not protect Tiberius (Annals 6.6.11), so Domitian’s divinity, secret chambers, and cruel haunts could not protect him from the god of retribution. That the Panegyricus was published in AD 100 suggests the possibility that Tacitus, Pliny’s friend, very well might have pulled material from it. Both Tacitus and Pliny capture the idea of how rulers who are cruel and abuse their power (tyranni), such as Tiberius and Domitian, decline in character and eventually meet their demise. The convergence between these authors perhaps suggests a wider disinterest in the Principate and a discourse about the corrupting effects of absolute power. Tacitus, moreover, employs sarcasm in one instance by reversing a clement sentiment at Res Gestae 3.4 (Conservare quam excidere malui): Tacitus says that Tiberius instead “chose to be merciless rather than to relent [saevitiam quam paenitentiam maluit]” (Ann. 6.23.13). Agrippina, though hopeful because of Sejanus’ death, committed suicide, “when she found no abatement of horrors [saevitia]” (6.25.3).

35¶ By the time the Annals had been published, Trajan had revived imperial clementia and moderatio through his policies and relationship with the elite (Dowling 2006:246). He carefully sought to differentiae himself from the cruel reign of Domitian in portraying himself as a clement ruler. Tacitus had experienced first-hand and survived the saevitia of Domitian, but his father-in-law Agricola had not. In his bitterness, Tacitus turned to such literature as the Annals where we can see an interplay between clementia, moderatio, and saevitia (Syme 1958:25). This interaction plays a big role in Tacitus’ account of the transformation of Tiberius’ character. Though he does not necessarily characterize Tiberius as good in the beginning of his reign, he is definitely not the cruel individual he later becomes. Yet, in time, the environment of the Principate – the fear of illegitimacy and competition, the influence of others, and excessive power over civic and political affairs – corrupted Tiberius. Even those few instances of moderatio and clementia that appear in the seemingly “good” part of his reign, however, seem suspect, for Tacitus often alludes to their insincerity. Tacitus’ skepticism may suggest the innate tendency of the Principate to produce and nourish unrelenting and cruel tyrants, his concern for which may insinuate his interest in contributing to an increasing dialogue about imperial punishment. Yet the fact that Tacitus found the need to address the dissemblance, cruelty, and debasing effects of the Principate might even imply his pessimism and suspicion toward the current “clement” and “moderate” reign of Trajan.

[1] For the Latin text, see Opera Minora. Cornelius Tacitus. Henry Furneaux, Ed. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1900.

[2] For all translations of Tacitus’ works, see Complete Works of Tacitus. Tacitus. Sara Bryant. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. 1876. reprinted 1942.

[3] For the Latin text, see Annales ab excessu divi Augusti. Cornelius Tacitus. Charles Dennis Fisher, Ed. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1906.

[4] For an in-depth breakdown of Tacitus’ life and career, see Barrett 2008: x.

[5] It is surmised that Tacitus might have begun writing his Annals as early as AD 115 and as late as 117 (see Syme 1968:473).

[6] For an extensive analysis and breakdown of the obituary, see Woodman 1989.

[7] For the dates corresponding to each phase of Tiberius’ life and obituary, see Woodman 1989:197n1

[8] The translation is my own.

[9] Seneca’s De Clementia was written in AD 55–56, so Tacitus, born around AD 55, was perhaps aware of and employed Seneca’s definition and understanding of clementia. Even if not, Seneca provides us with a framework through which to conceptualize Tacitus’ use of clementia. For the Latin text, see L. Annaeus Seneca. Moral Essays: volume 1. John W. Basore, Ed. London and New York. Heinemann. 1928. The translation is my own.

[10] Martin 1989:79, ad loc.

[11] For the Latin text, see Statius, P. Papinius. Statius, Vol I-II. John Henry Mozley, Ed. London: William Heinemann; New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1928. OCR.

[12] For the Latin texts, see Vergil. Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics Of Vergil. J. B. Greenough, Ed. Boston. Ginn & Co. 1900.

[13] For the Latin text, see Silius Italicus. Corpus Poetarum Latinorum, Vol 2. Walter Coventry Summers. John Percival Postgate, Ed. London. Sumptibus G. Bell et Filiorum. 1905. Keyboarding.

[14] exilio implies both exile and confiscation of one’s property (Henderson 1931, ad loc.). The Julian Law, however, prescribes as punishment for adultery confiscation of half of the accused’s dowry, a third of their goods, and relegation to an island (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005:104:123.14).

[15] For the Latin text and translation, see Letters, Volume II: Books 8–10. Panegyricus. Pliny the Younger. Betty Radice, Ed. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.


Barrett, Anthony A. 2008. Introduction. Annals. By Tacitus. Trans. J. C. Yardley. In The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford.

Bauman, Richard A. 1996. Crime and Punishment in Ancient Rome. London.

Dowling, Melissa Barden. 2006. Clemency & Cruelty in the Roman World. Ann Arbor.

Harrer, G. A. 1920. “Tacitus and Tiberius.” The American Journal of Philology 41: 57-68.

Henderson, Jeffrey, ed. 1931. Annals. By Tacitus. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge.

Konstan, David. 2005. “Clemency as a Virtue.” Classical Philology 100: 337-346.

Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Fant, Maureen B. 2005. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation. Baltimore.

Martin, R. H., and Woodman, A. J., eds. 1989. Tacitus Annals: Book IV. New York,

Sutherland, C. H. V. 1938. “Two ‘Virtues’ of Tiberius: A Numismatic Contribution to the History of His Reign.” The Journal of Roman Studies 28: 129-140.

Syme, Ronald. 1958. Tacitus. Oxford.

Woodman, A. J. 1989. “Tacitus’ Obituary of Tiberius.” The Classical Quarterly 39: 197-205.

2 thoughts on “Dominick Vandenberge”

  1. Paragraph 7 – I delay my thesis until the second body paragraph of my paper rather than putting it in the first, where I provide context and build-up instead. Does this cause confusion?

    Paragraph 7 – I have trouble locating where my thesis/paper fits within the grand scheme of Tacitean scholarship. Including this may illuminate the relevancy of my topic and what it can teach us about Tacitus more generally.

    I struggled how to organize my paper. I opted for organization not solely by topic but chronology. I made this decision in order to preserve the temporal decline of Tiberius’ character. My concern is whether this organization flows coherently.

    Paragraph 10 – The biggest problem I had with Tiberius’ second phase of life but first phase as emperor (AD 14–23) was the lack of occurrences of the actual term clementia. I turn instead to what appear to be allusions to clementia and occurrences of the term moderatio, an integral part of Seneca’s definition of clementia.

    Paragraph 16 – I would like to have said more about why Tacitus’ omission/manipulation of facts is significant and how it plays a role in his characterization of Tiberius.

    I would like to have touched on how Tacitus’ depiction of Tiberius perhaps serves as the epitome of the Roman emperor – a blueprint for all past and future emperors – as it relates to his typical and inevitable decline in character.

    I struggled and was not sure how to conclude my paper. Does it seem unfinished and not transition to a satisfying end?

  2. Dominick – Glad to see your commentary on your own paper. Since I have worked with you already, I will wait till DC to add any further comments. I will keep these questions in mind, though. I’ll leave to others commenting here.

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