Conceit, Manipulation, and the Rulers of Rome (Mary Katherine Bunn, 2019)

Conceit, Manipulation, and the Rulers of Rome

Mary Katherine Bunn, 2019

Abstract: Manipulation plays a key role in the lives and actions of the Roman emperors Claudius and Nero in Tacitus’s The Annals. There are several examples of the ways people who surround these emperors manipulate them either directly or indirectly to serve their own purposes. Tacitus focuses on figures such as Narcissus, Agrippina the Younger, and Epicharis to demonstrate the role that manipulation plays in the empire. The essay shows that Tacitus’s ultimate opinion on manipulation is that it almost always ends badly and the best way the emperors can run the empire is for their decisions to not be deeply influenced by others.

The emperors of Ancient Rome follow a unique path from their predecessors, the leaders of the Republic, in that theirs became a rule of one above the rest rather than the rule of a group. Augustus was the originator of imperial rule in Rome. His power and authority would eventually be inherited by each emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, as well as every imperial dynasty that would follow. Tacitus, in books 11 through 16 of his Annals, offers a look at the reigns of two emperors from the Julio-Claudian dynasty:  Claudius and Nero. In doing so, he provides information and context about the kinds of rulers they were as well as indirectly giving us information about how someone of Tacitus’s stature (the senatorial class) might have felt about their reigns. Tacitus shows how each emperor dealt with the issues they faced as rulers and how they went about making decisions regarding those issues. As he does so, Tacitus creates a narrative about the way he thinks decisions ought to be made by emperors of Rome. In many circumstances he seems to be attempting to show that a strong leader is crucial for the benefit of Rome and regards the manipulation of emperors with a generally negative view. He shows that there were times when personal intentions or ambitions had the potential to get in the way of keeping Rome at its best. In his representation of the reigns of Claudius and Nero, Tacitus displays that he regards manipulation in the empire as something that in some circumstances might have been a necessary evil but also something that always came with great consequences for the Roman state.

Tacitus’s representation of Claudius as an emperor is a mixture of detached and malleable, and while he documents his reign, he maintains an emphasis on the importance of strength of mind on the part of the Emperor as being key to Rome’s continued vitality. He shows that Claudius was not wholly aloof. However, he is very particular about noting how “oblivious to his matrimonial situation” (11.13) he was regarding Messalina’s unfaithfulness. However, when Claudius decides to place a greater emphasis on avoiding immorality within the senate and Roman state, he ends up placing this burden on himself as well (11.25). He would be forced to face the issue of his own wife’s immorality and betrayal. Regarding Claudius’s court’s reaction to this situation, Tacitus asserts that “there is no doubt that alarm swept over them as they thought about Claudius’s naivety and his subservience to his wife” (11.28). He cites this as the primary reasoning behind a member of Claudius’s court, Narcissus, attempting to manipulate Claudius into allowing him to get rid of her and anyone who actively participated in her immorality and betrayal. In this situation, Tacitus demonstrates a leaning toward manipulation of the emperor as being necessary because Messalina posed a threat to the image and power of the emperor and the Roman state. However, he is also quick to point out that Narcissus’s success would have “terrible consequences” (11.38) because “the emperor’s household was in convulsions as a result of the killing of Messalina” (12.1). Despite his presentation of Narcissus’s actions being necessary for the situation, Tacitus does not fully concede that manipulation of the emperor is ultimately good.

In Tacitus’s narrative, the consequence of Narcissus being allowed to get rid of Messalina in the short term was that the house of the emperor was disorganized, but the longer-term consequence would come with Claudius’s marriage to Agrippina the Younger. There would be consequences further still as Tacitus begins to show that Agrippina would begin manipulating Claudius in several ways, including taking down her rivals and trying to elevate Nero. In describing the situation in which Agrippina was able to get Lollia Paulina exiled, Tacitus shows how she was able to use her marriage to Claudius to reach this end. Agrippina “engineered charges against her” (12.22) and created an image of Paulina as a schemer. Tacitus then shows Claudius to have believed and conceded to these charges and Claudius even contends that “her machinations were injurious to the state and that she should be deprived of the wherewithal to commit crime” (12.22). The consequence that Tacitus implies in his greater narrative to this manipulation on Agrippina’s part is her steady growth in power after her marriage to Claudius. This growth would continue as Tacitus portrays her as having heavily influenced Claudius to favor Nero as the future prospective ruler of Rome over Britannicus, charging supporters of Britannicus with creating controversy among the ruling class. Tacitus notes that Claudius was “disturbed by these veiled charges” and subsequently acts to quell the supposed dissention (12.41). Tacitus makes it apparent that Agrippina was extremely effective in her manipulative capabilities, and he credits her with orchestrating the death of Claudius in order to continue growing her power and in order to set Nero on the throne. Tacitus’s representation of Claudius as one who was easily manipulated in combination with Agrippina’s constant efforts to sway him in her favor lays the groundwork for him to narratively show that this combination would be detrimental for Rome.

Tacitus’s representation of Nero’s reign, especially at its start, is marked by the waves of Agrippina’s continued manipulation. It is through this framework that Tacitus demonstrates a heavier negative narrative of how people were attempting to manipulate the emperors of Rome and the state itself. He notes that the very beginning of Nero’s rule saw the murder of the Junius Silanus, which he claims Agrippina to have had a hand in, because “Silanus was to be preferred” and Nero “had gained power by a crime” (13.1). Agrippina’s great influence in Rome would not last long under Nero, however, as Tacitus shows Nero’s growing irritation at her continued grasps for power. When Nero reaches a point of extreme anger at Agrippina, she attempts to manipulate him by changing her demeanor, but Tacitus notes that “the change did not fool Nero” and that “his closest friends were also afraid” (13.13) of what Nero might do in his anger. The picture Tacitus is painting shows that while Nero was not susceptible to Agrippina’s direct manipulation, he was still being greatly influenced by her but in the opposite direction from her original intent. He details how Nero eventually has Agrippina killed, but is careful to show how even then her influence over Nero did not end. He states that “it was only after the crime had been committed that its enormity came home to him” (14.10). Following her death, Tacitus shows how Nero became increasingly secluded in his style of rule, paranoid of any who posed a threat to his ambitions, and more and more ruthless in his actions. Thus, Nero himself becomes the consequence of Agrippina’s actions in Tacitus’s narrative.

Tacitus’s representation of the consequences of Agrippina’s actions during Nero’s reign is shown when he details the conspiracy to get rid of Nero. Tacitus describes the conspiracy as being widespread throughout the Roman state and stemming “from hatred of Nero” (15.48). Tacitus is showing how large the group of people was and how deep their feelings were that Nero was a bad emperor, as well as showing how isolated he had become within the state. However, as stated previously, Nero was still susceptible to the influence of Agrippina in that it made him all too wary of any women. This would become the undoing of the conspiracy against him. Epicharis, a conspirator, attempted to recruit a captain of a fleet in the Roman navy, Volusius Proculus, and gave him information about the conspiracy but gave him no means of providing evidence in case he decided to inform the emperor (15.51). Proculus did inform Nero and was unable to provide backup for his claims (15.51). However, this was irrelevant to Nero, and he had Epicharis arrested regardless because “Nero suspected that what was not demonstrably true was not necessarily false” (15.51). It is because of this that the conspiracy ultimately fails to get rid of Nero and his rule is prolonged. Tacitus has shown that Agrippina’s influence on Nero’s outlook of his rule and now Epicharis’s failed attempt at manipulation both result in still further consequences for Rome by way of Nero remaining emperor and not being deposed by the conspirators. The more immediate and specific consequence Tacitus presents is the deepening of Nero’s paranoia against anyone he perceived to be a threat, saying “the emperor lived in fear, and was even more terrified after the recent conspiracy” (16.15). Nero would continue in increasing measure to make decisions as emperor from this perspective. Tacitus is adding to his larger narrative of how bad manipulation of emperors and people in power by outside sources has been for the overall good of Rome. Nero’s rule becomes the culmination of all the attempts to influence the actions and decisions of Claudius and Nero.

In Tactius’s historical representation of the reigns of the emperors Claudius and Nero, he is able to lay a framework in which he is able to demonstrate his negative view of attempts at interference in the decision-making of emperors. Rarely in his work is there a circumstance where someone has manipulated the decisions of either emperor where there is not also some kind of consequence either for the emperor or for Rome. It also becomes clear in looking at his greater narrative that he is the most unfavorable toward women who attempt to manipulate the emperors or those surrounding the emperors and toward anyone he deemed to be of lower stature, such as freedmen. This reveals a bias on Tacitus’s part, as it is clear that he is against people not of a similar social position to himself, being a man and being of senatorial rank, trying to have influence in the Roman state. Thus, he always presents their influence as ultimately negative in order to fit with this ideology, such as in the cases of Narcissus (a freedman) and Agrippina (a woman). However, despite his biased approach, we can also glean an understanding of just how complicated the principate was and how so much power laid at the feet of the emperor at this time. While this worked in Rome’s favor in some circumstances, it would also become its greatest issue when rulers like Nero were in power and were just as susceptible to making poor decisions as anyone else but still held all the cards of power.