The Degeneration of Rome: The Decision-Making of Claudius and Nero (Anthony Irwin, 2019)

The Degeneration of Rome: The Decision-Making of Claudius and Nero

Anthony Irwin, 2019


Abstract: During the reigns of Claudius and Nero, Tacitus describes a Roman state on the decline. One of his main focuses is on the decision-making processes of both emperors. Throughout Books 11 and 12 of his Annals, Tacitus describes Claudius as feckless emperor who allowed both his wives and freedmen to govern his decision-making in their own favor. Tacitus then moves on to Nero who is capable of making decisions by himself and with the influence of others. He then describes a reign defined by cruelty and the degeneration of the Roman State. Tacitus uses the reigns of both Claudius and Nero to demonstrate how both making decisions alone and making decisions with the heavy influence of others can result in the degeneration of Rome and the Imperial House.


In The Annals, Tacitus paints a bleak picture of Imperial Rome under the reigns of Claudius and Nero. The final Roman rulers from the Julio-Claudian line marked their reigns with violence and tyranny that had lasting effects on the Roman state. Tacitus goes into detail about the decisions these emperors made throughout their reigns and how they made them. These decisions ranged from questions on whom to marry to whether or not a rival should be put to death for their perceived betrayal of the Roman state. When it comes to making these decisions, Tacitus conveys these emperors making incredibly important decisions, not just for their political survival but also the good of Rome, completely manipulated by those around them and at other times making hasty decisions to, in Tacitus’ eyes, the detriment of Rome. Tacitus casts both of these decision-making styles as having adverse effects on the Roman state as a whole.

Tacitus views Claudius as a weak emperor who is indecisive and constantly manipulated by both his wives and freedmen into making decisions to their benefit, not the Roman state. Tacitus also sees Claudius as being feckless which leads to his wife and freedmen’s ability to manipulate him. This is best illustrated when Tacitus describes the events just before the execution of Messalina. First, Tacitus says, “the emperor’s remarks were inconsistent, as at one moment he would berate his wife’s scandalous conduct, but then he would occasionally lapse into recollections of his marriage and the early years of their children” (Tacitus, Annals 11.34). As Messalina was now before the emperor, Tacitus describes the scene: “Claudius maintained a strange silence, while Vitellius seemed stunned; and everything was passing under the freedman’s control” (Tacitus, Annals 11.35). Claudius’ freedmen then go the Gardens of Lucullus where Messalina has gone and executed her without orders from the Emperor (Tacitus, Annals 11.38). Tacitus uses these chapters in Book 11 to illustrate Claudius’ fecklessness and show the negative effects such fecklessness can have on the state as the Senate was forced to aid Claudius in removing any trace of Messalina from the public eye so they could forget the dishonor she had brought upon the Imperial family and Rome. Claudius’ reliance on others for decision-making, in Tacitus’ view, brought that dishonor on Rome.

Tacitus’ disdain for Claudius can be seen at the very beginning of the Book 12 where he discusses Claudius’ process to choose his next wife. Tacitus says, “he at one moment inclined towards one, at the next towards another (depending on which of the advocates he had been listening to)” (Tacitus, Annals 12.1). Here, Tacitus sees an emperor who is so indecisive that he cannot weigh the merits of all the candidates to be his next wife at once and instead merely agrees with whoever spoke last. Throughout his Annals, Tacitus makes clear that this sort of decision-making style is ineffective and detrimental to the state. Tacitus is then proven correct because Claudius’ choice turns out to be an illegal one. Tacitus says, “They did not yet dare to hold a wedding ceremony, however, as there was no precedent for a brother’s daughter being escorted to the house of her uncle” (Tacitus, Annals 12.5). While Tacitus does say there seemed to be widespread support for Agrippina’s marriage to Claudius, Tacitus overall seems to have a negative view not just of the marriage, but the effect it had on Rome as well. This is due to the procedures the Curia and Senate were forced to go through in order to make their marriage legal as well as the general uneasiness that must have gone along with allowing an uncle to marry his niece. With this, Tacitus probably sums up the rule of any emperor he discusses in his Annals when he says:

With that the state was transformed, and everything passed under a woman’s control, one who, unlike Messalina, did not capriciously tamper with the Roman government. It was a strict despotism with a masculine character. In public, there was austerity and, more often, arrogance, and at home no sexual impropriety, unless it helped gain power. She had excessive greed for gold, her pretext for accumulating it being to assist the imperial power. (12.7)

This one passage shows Tacitus’ blatant disdain for not only Agrippina but also Claudius because he would allow a woman to be the de facto emperor. This disdain was also aggravated even more through Tacitus’ view that Agrippina did not have the best interest of the Empire at heart and that Claudius allowed the state to suffer while his wife pursued gold.

As can be seen from the examples above, Tacitus casts Claudius as an emperor who was incapable of making decisions himself and sometimes played a complacent role when his wives and freedmen took action without his approval. Towards the end of Book 12, gives one last example of what he views as Claudius’ inability to make decisions. Tacitus discusses how, a year before his untimely death, Claudius received a decree from the Senate allowing the judgments made by his procurators in the provinces to carry the same authority as if he had issued them himself. This extreme delegation of judicial power is viewed negatively by Tacitus who criticizes Claudius for raising freedmen to his level (Tacitus, Annals 12.60). While the quote above describes how Tacitus felt about Claudius’ rule, how Tacitus feels about Claudius himself can best be seen when he says earlier in Book 12: “But there seemed no difficulty in manipulating the mind of an emperor whose favour and animosity were always implanted and programmed by others” (Tacitus, Annals 12.2). Tacitus views Claudius as an emperor who had others make decisions for him and then act on those decisions either through him or separately from him which, in Tacitus’ view, had an overall negative effect on the Roman state during his reign because that style of decision-making allowed greed to come before the Empire.

Unlike Claudius, Nero made decisions on his own and relied on advisers to make some of the more critical decisions when it came to preserving his power. However, Nero did not differ from Claudius because Nero’s decisions were as if not more detrimental to the state in Tacitus’ view. One decision Nero made that went against the advice of his advisers was his choice to race horses and play the lyre, which was seen as beneath the upper class of which Nero was at the absolute top. Tacitus says, “the exposure of his humiliating activities did not induce weariness of them, as his advisers expected, but further stimulation” (Tacitus, Annals 14.14). Tacitus views these activities having very negative effects on the character of the Roman state and Rome’s upper class as evidenced by his repeated mentioning of them in Books 13-16 of his Annals.

Tacitus also paints a picture of Nero making decisions by himself but relying on advisors to help form his decisions when things do not go according to his plans with his description of Nero’s plans to kill Agrippina, his mother. Tacitus says early in Book 14 when discussing how Nero dealt with his mother, “Concluding finally that she was a real problem wherever she was kept, he decided to kill her off…” (Tacitus, Annals 14.3). Here, Tacitus describes Nero making a clear decision by himself to kill his mother and planning ways to express his devotion to her after her death. Nero’s individual decision-making ends, however, when his mother survives the assassination attempt. Tacitus says, “And what help was there for him? Unless Burrus and Seneca could come up with something…” (Tacitus, Annals 14.7). This passage serves to show how Nero’s plot to kill Agrippina would not have been successful if it had not been for assistance his advisers provided. Later, Tacitus describes how this decision to kill Agrippina resulted in extremely negative effects for the Roman state when he says, “….and then let himself loose on all the forms of depravity which, though repressed with difficulty, respect for his mother (such as it was) had managed to check” (Tacitus, Annals 14.13). With this one passage, Tacitus links all of the worst parts of Nero’s reign, except the killing of his brother Britannicus, to the decisions Nero made both by himself and with his advisers to kill Agrippina. If Nero had not decided to kill Agrippina and eventually succeeded, Tacitus creates the extreme possibility that cruelty and the degeneration of the Imperial house and Roman state in general, which became defining features of Nero’s reign, may have been more constrained if Agrippina had been alive longer.

Nero also decides to kill Seneca, his childhood tutor and longtime close adviser, seemingly without the influence of any of his other advisers. Tacitus describes Nero as being unsuccessful in doing this until he was able to make a farfetched connection between Seneca and the conspirators who planned to assassinate Nero and put Gaius Piso in power (Tacitus, Annals 15.45, 15.61). The execution of Seneca by suicide began a long series of executions handed down by Nero in response to the plot against his life. In response to this conspiracy, Tacitus also describes the decisions Nero made in order to preserve his power which, according to Tacitus, he seems to make without much influence from those other than himself. This included distributing two thousand sesterces to the soldiers along with complimentary grain rations (Tacitus, Annals 15.72). Despite these attempts to maintain support for himself, Nero still went on to prosecute and kill many of Rome’s most respected leaders. These included Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus. Tacitus describes Nero’s decision to have these senators killed as the result of Nero’s “deep desire to exterminate virtue itself…” (Tacitus, Annals 16.21). With the killing of these men, Tacitus says Nero has killed the goodness of the Roman state.

In his Annals, Tacitus goes into great detail about two of Rome’s most infamous emperors. The first emperor discussed, Claudius, is viewed by Tacitus as being extremely detrimental to the Roman state due to his inability to make decisions for himself without the influence of those around him weighing heavy on those decisions. Tacitus argues through his description of these decisions that this inability to decide for oneself led to the emperor becoming a means to an end for his wives and freedmen to achieve their personal goals of money and power. Tacitus then moves on to the reign of Nero whom Tacitus describes as at times making his own decisions but also relying on his advisers’ assistance when making some of the most important decisions of his reign, including his decision to kill Agrippina. Tacitus makes the point through his descriptions of Nero’s decision-making process and the results of those decisions that both styles of decision-making, individual and with the influence of others, leads to the degeneration of the Roman state under Nero. Tacitus uses examples of emperors making decisions alone and making decisions with heavy influence from those around them to demonstrate how both methods can be bad for and detrimental to the Roman state when the ones making the decisions are greedy, feckless, or cruel.



Works Cited

Tacitus. The Annals. Translated by J.C. Yardley, Oxford University Press, 2008, New York. Print.