Reverence to Ruin: Cultic Fallacy in the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (Nikolas Clark, 2019)

Reverence to Ruin: Cultic Fallacy in the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (Nikolas Clark, 2019)

Abstract: With condemnatory religious negligence and scant reverence for the traditional Roman
pantheon, the imperial rulers Claudius and Nero would seal their own notorious fate. The grim
nature of prodigies from the gods during both sovereignties would foreshadow the outcome of
years of political malpractice and inattention to the divine. Tacitus depicts the actions of these
nescient and self-serving individuals, as well as the actions of their wives, as detrimental to both
the empire and to their personal reputation. The orthodox notion of pietas would either be
transmuted or seemingly disavowed under both principates, creating a gradual decline in moral
constitution throughout the entirety of the Roman realm.

The very nature of pietas, of dutiful observance and deference to one’s gods and ancestry,
is that on which the cultic religion of the Romans is founded. Faithful devotion to religious
practice is as essential to the function of the Roman state as the legion is to its protection and
expansion. From the very beginning, with steadfast pagan practitioners like Numa Pompilius, the
Romans flourished under their careful fidelity to the gods. As Tacitus would show in his Annals,
this conservative dedication and reverence would warp as Romans began to forget the teachings
of their progenitors. With imperialism creeping into the machinations of the state’s political
sphere, changes came about that would test the boundaries of religious traditionalism and define
the principates of two prominent dynastic emperors: Claudius and Nero. While they would both
go about their devotion to the Roman cult in entirely different manners, the outcomes would
prove to be equally disastrous. Throughout the entirety of books 11-16, Tacitus stresses the
gravity of religious fallacy in the principate of both Claudius and Nero, ultimately placing the
determination of their cursed fate as a direct consequence of the gods’ anger and their personal
ineptitude in maintaining traditional pietas.

The first occurrence of theistic practice as a detrimental factor in the sovereignty of
Claudius is not as prominent as one would think. Throughout books 11-12, Tacitus never
explicitly mentions pietas , though the importance he places on religion in Claudius’ reign can be
notably witnessed in other instances. One such occasion is in his description of the reinstitution
of the Secular Games. As he [Tacitus] had attended the games under Domitian as a
quindecimviral priest, an air of bias can be seen despite his qualifying sentiment describing the
games as “the responsibility of the quindecimviral college” (Tacitus, Annals, 11.11.1). In his
panorama of the Secular Games, Tacitus depicts the auspicious nature of the crowd’s reaction to
“…Lucius Domitius, who would soon be taken by adoption into the ruling family, with the
cognomen Nero” (Tacitus, Annals, 11.11.2). This popular myth of foreshadowing is employed
by Tacitus to heighten the significance of the religious ceremony, as well as link the fate of
Claudius and Nero, despite their contrast in cultic manipulation through the eyes of the populace.
Claudius would prove to be a rather intriguing case when it came to religious semblances. He
was at least mildly devoted and certainly attempted to maintain traditional notions of practice,
especially those kept alive by men of Etrurian descent. Tacitus states: “Claudius next brought
before the Senate the matter of establishing a college of soothsayers, to prevent Italy’s oldest art
from falling into disuse through lack of practice” (Tacitus, Annals, 11.15). This is incredibly vital
in establishing an accurate portrayal of Claudius, as these deeds are often eclipsed by the sins of
his wives. With deference to archaic ritual and trust in the sacred rite of divination to accurately
predict the future, he prompted the imperial government to re-adopt that which had fallen into
apathy and disuse with the Roman people, especially within the foreign provinces, which had
long been plagued with superstition regarding the cultic practice.

Despite evidence such as this, his principate would not come to be defined by Tacitus as
the restoration of age-old tradition or personal pietas. Instead, his wives would cripple the very
foundation of Roman religion. Beginning with Messalina, Claudius’ third wife, one can see the
true corruption of the Roman cult. Despite her husband being well aware of the scandal,
Messalina furthered her passionate transgressions with Gaius Silius, a Roman Senator. As
Tacitus writes: “Waiting only for Claudius to leave for Ostia to hold a sacrifice, she went
through a marriage ceremony with all its formalities” (Tacitus, Annals, 11.26.2). He is utterly
shocked at this reckless display of criminality and religious malfeasance by Messalina. Having
utilized notions like the hearing of the auspices, taking vows, and even a sacrifice to the gods,
Tacitus portrays stark condemnation of traditionalism (Tacitus, Annals, 11.27). This speaks to
the true nature of pietas exhibited in the Claudian principate, as a man with no hegemony over
his household or his wife, especially in her sacrilegious dealings, can not hope to maintain a
righteous and irreproachable relationship with the gods. With these accounts, including the later
misdeeds of his fourth wife Agrippina, Tacitus begins to unmask the facade of stalwart religious
devotion and pietas that Claudius had been hoping to maintain in the eyes of his people, and
would lead to the “succession of prodigies” as the gods became enraged and warned that grave
consequences would follow the fallacies of his reign (Tacitus, Annals, 12.64). Despite feeble
attempts at maintaining fervorous state sanctity, the retribution of the Roman pantheon would
still be the destruction of Claudian sovereignty.

Following Tacitus’ depictions of religion in the Claudian principate throughout books
11-12, he furthers his condemnation of imperial rulers in writing an account of Nero’s reign and
the implications it would have on the Roman cult. The first point of contention that Tacitus has
with Nero’s pietas , or lack thereof, is the murder of Britannicus during the festival days of Saturn
(Tacitus, Annals, 13.15.1). The poisoning of his brother, adoptive or not, is seen as a heinous
crime in the eyes of Roman traditionalism. Fratricide, even between adoptive brothers of high
station, is seen as shattering the regard for pietas. Tacitus describes the gravity of the situation in
his account of Britannicus’ funeral procession: “He was, however, interred in the Campus
Martius, during a downpour so violent that the masses took it as a sign of the gods’ anger over a
crime that even many men could forgive…” (Tacitus, Annals, 13.17.1). It is here that one can see
the true vexation and wrath of the gods. Tacitus employs this sentiment in the aid of expressing
the exponentiating disregard for conventional morality in the empire by both the Roman
populace and the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Aside from murder and other seemingly obvious religious violations, Nero is represented
as blatantly disregarding many prodigies from the gods, such as those following the
Quinquennial Games. As Tacitus describes, the games encouraged the degradation and
corruption of most anything and everything, and it was extensively the fault of the emperor and
the Senate. The lust and depraved conduct that plagued the minds of the populus could now be
pursued, “…so that no time would be left to decency” (Tacitus, Annals, 14.20). While games
such as these were nothing new to either the Roman or Hellenic realms, the widespread disregard
for any sense of traditional moral conduct certainly was, and the gods would send a sign of their
displeasure in the form of another prodigy. As Tacitus writes: “It was during this period that a
blazing comet appeared which, in the view of the common people, presages a change of ruler”
(Tacitus, Annals, 14.22.1). Tacitus seems to engage readers with this prodigy in order to show
the fear that Nero feels upon realizing the auspicious nature of the sign may contain a semblance
of truth, especially as Rubellius Plautus became widely acclaimed as his successor. This fear
would even lead Nero to attempt to rid Rome of Plautus, sending him to Asia (Tacitus, Annals,
14.22.1). This series of signs from the gods would culminate in one of Nero’s greatest
transgressions to date, bathing in the Marcian water. Tacitus describes “by bathing his body there
he was thought to have befouled the holy waters and the sanctity of the location” (Tacitus,
Annals, 14.22.2). His illness following the sacrilegious act illustrates the gods’ resentment of
Nero’s recent pursuits and indignation. Tacitus wishes to indicate the magnitude of shameless
religious disregard and the nature of the gods power to intervene in displeasing moral affairs. By
depicting the degradation of an emperor’s health following a series of increasingly immoral and
impious misdeeds, Tacitus once again stresses the importance of maintaining one’s pietas. He
seems to also be foreshadowing the inevitable decline of the entirety of the empire as they both
laud and follow Nero in his problematic amusements. The gods will not continue to allow Nero’s
disposition to pass unscathed.

As Nero’s principate continued to spiral toward ruin, the empire mirrored the change.
The devastation found throughout its entirety was only proliferated by further sacrilege. As
Tacitus depicts, “Even the gods became part of those spoils, with temples gutted in the city and
their gold removed, gold that the Roman people in every generation had consecrated through
triumphs or as votive offerings, after successes, or in time of fear.” Nero held absolutely nothing
under hallowed esteem and proceeded to foster an era of temple plundering and statue
desecration, as well as devious plottings against stoic philosophers like Seneca who would not
share in his crimes (Tacitus, Annals, 15.45). Not only was Nero draining his own empire, he was
destroying the physical bond between gods and men through his blasphemous disrespect. While
Tacitus seems to slightly sensationalize his depictions, it was indeed a time of grave godlessness.
Pietas was not just being unobserved, it was being stripped from the very framework of what it
meant to be Roman. The Hellenic world was not extricated from Nero’s clutches either. As
Tacitus tells us, “throughout Asia and Achaea it was not simply the temple offerings, but the
statues of the gods, too, that were being plundered” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.45). Tacitus utilizes this
sentiment to describe an emperor who is now willing to burn the bridge that once bonded the
ancient Greek deities with the Roman world, a defacement of sacred history. In finalizing his
account of Nero’s reign in book 16, Tacitus exemplifies a point that has been pervasive
throughout the principates of both Claudius and Nero: natural disaster as a sign of godly
displeasure. In recounting the misfortune of humanity throughout the empire, Tacitus writes,
“This year, defiled by so many crimes, was further marked by the gods with storms and diseases.
Campania was devastated by a hurricane that tore apart farms, orchards, and crops everywhere,
and brought its destructive force to areas close to the city; and in the city mortals of every sort
were ravaged by a virulent pestilence, though there was no noxious atmosphere in evidence”
(Tacitus, Annals, 16.13.1). While this would not signify the ultimate demise of Nero, it certainly
6is auspicious in delving into the consequences of an entire era of apostasy. Tacitus highlights that
the lack of pietas in Nero’s principate has become a universal phenomenon, now afflicting the
entirety of Rome. It is an incredibly effective rendering of the importance of the traditional
Roman cult in determining fatalistic ramifications.

While the role of traditional cultic practice is not as pronounced in Tacitus’ Annals as in
other ancient texts, it still proves to be a vital part of effective historical description. Through the
elucidation of two illustrious Julio-Claudians, Tacitus substantiates the denouement of prolonged
irreverence. While religion and pietas under the principate of Claudius would come to be defined
by the mercurial and detrimental behavior of his wives, Nero would set a new standard for
personal disrespect and flagrant disregard of the ancient deities. Through frequent prodigies from
the gods, the inept nature of both dynastic rulers to maintain pietas, and a gradual moral decline
of the Roman state in the imperial period, the face of cultic traditionalism would be left forever
changed, and the legacies of two cursed emperors would be left forever damned.