The Role of the Senate During the Reigns of Claudius and Nero: as Seen by Tacitus (Olivia Wyatt, 2020)

From its inception, the Roman Senate was perhaps the most notable governing body in the ancient world. As the Roman nation progressed, the Senate endured extreme internal division as well as corruption of its members; but through those times it also remained as the primary legislative organization in the ancient world. When the Roman Republic ended in 27 BC, however, the role of the Senate shifted. As the principate government grew into prominence, the Roman Senate had much less autonomy as the emperors became more powerful. In Tacitus’ account, The Annals, he addresses the changing nature of the Senate through recounting stories that took place during the reigns of Claudius and Nero, the last two emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Tacitus believes that the Senate is corrupt, yet he also seems to feel that the Senate remains necessary after the fall of the Republic. Although they have less power than they previously held, Tacitus so strongly dislikes the principate form of government that he supports the maintenance of the Senate as an attempt to prevent the emperors from becoming tyrants.

Although the Senate had lost much of its independence and law-making abilities after the fall of the Republic, Roman nobles still desired political careers in the Senate. The title of “senator” still held a certain level of dignitas, and Roman men had sought after dignitas since the founding of the city. In an attempt to increase the respect of the senators in the eyes of citizens, the emperor Claudius purified the Senate by removing men who did not fit a certain “moral code” (Tacitus, Annals 11.25). This action earned him the title of “father of the Senate,” and the number of senators was greatly reduced. Furthermore, Claudius bestowed upon all senators with long service to the state or with eminent parents the title of “patrician,” which traditionally would have been reserved for the elite founding families of the nation (Tacitus, Annals 11.25). The Senate maintained its role as the judicial court of the state, and also was able to confer honors and awards to Roman citizens. Senators often were restricted in their opinions and legislative proposals to please the emperor, but holding senatorial office would have provided Roman men with the opportunity to gain higher-ranking positions such as a legateship or consulship.

Tacitus recognizes that most of the Senate’s power disappeared with the crumbling of the Republic; however, his portrayal of the senators is laced with mentions of corruption and loss of traditional values. When discussing Nero’s public events and gatherings, Tacitus writes that “he [Nero]… thought that his disgrace would be lessened if he degraded a greater number, and he paraded on stage the descendants of noble families whom poverty made corruptible. They have passed away now, and… their ancestors should be accorded the respect of my not transmitting their names” (Tacitus, Annals 14.14). He further writes: “Their [performances’] traditional morality, which had gradually been eroding, was now being totally subverted by an imported degeneracy… the emperor and Senate were responsible: not only did they countenance such vices, but they put pressure on Roman noblemen to demean themselves on stage on the pretext of delivering speeches and poetry” (Tacitus, Annals 14.20).  He blames the degeneration of Roman values and morality on the Senate, and he recognizes the shame that should be felt by “respectable” men by purposefully not mentioning the names of the noblemen that participated in these spectacles. Tacitus discusses these situations from the point of view of “traditional Romans” that opposed Nero’s humiliating performances, but his personal embarrassment from these events can be inferred through the length at which he discusses them in this chapter as well as in Book 16, Chapter 4, when he mentions that the plebeians had “no concern for the public disgrace” of Nero performing once again in front of the masses.

Not only did Tacitus condemn the public displays of immorality among senators, but he also disliked the untrustworthiness of the men in their governmental duties. The corruption within the government stemmed primarily from the immense power of the emperors and their complete control over legislative actions. Senators were so intensely focused on trying to keep the emperors happy that they were willing to throw their integrity aside. The first example that Tacitus gives of this phenomenon occurs during the reign of Claudius—the Senate passed a decree that allowed Nero to become consul after his twentieth birthday rather than at the traditional age of thirty-two (Tacitus, Annals 12.41). Furthermore, around AD 53 Claudius began making statements that were contrary to the law set in place regarding judicial jurisdiction, so the Senate passed a law that supported the emperor’s comments to protect his reputation (Tacitus, Annals 12.60).

Although Tacitus seemed to dislike this level of corruption in the Senate, there had always been some level of dishonesty among senators. His true issue with the morality of the Senate, it seems, comes into play during the rule of Nero. Nero became paranoid for his safety, and in turn murdered two senators: Sulla and Plautus. He then asked the Senate for prayers of thanksgiving and for formal removal of Sulla and Plautus from the Senate—which Tacitus calls “a farce that was now more disgusting than the crimes” (Tacitus, Annals 14.59). The emperor’s crimes were declared as “good deeds” by the Senate, effectively giving him no punishment for his actions against the state (Tacitus, Annals 14.60). It is evident that Tacitus greatly disliked Nero, and because the Senate supported him rather than administering justice, Tacitus despised the Senate as well. To further display his disgust towards the Senate, Tacitus discusses the speed at which senators were inclined to betray one another. In Book 15, Chapter 57, Tacitus writes about the resilience of a freedwoman who was being interrogated about the plot to assassinate Nero: “Thus a freedwoman set all the more brilliant an example in such dire circumstances, protecting people unrelated… to her—and that when male free persons, who were Roman knights and senators, were all betraying their nearest and dearest, without being subjected to torture.” The fact that Tacitus praised a woman’s Roman-like qualities and condemned the actions of the “fathers of the state” would have been viewed as an enormous insult to the senators, and explicitly displays his repugnance towards the senators’ lack of morality.

While the majority of Tacitus’ discussions of happenings in the Senate reflect a poor attitude towards senators, in some cases Tacitus seemed to support actions of the Senate as a whole. For example, during the trial of Asiaticus (and others), Tacitus praises Scipio’s neutrality on the issue as “an elegant compromise between conjugal love and his senatorial obligation.” (Tacitus, Annals 11.4). Poppaea, the woman with whom Asiaticus had an affair with, was Scipio’s wife. Scipio displayed traditional Roman values by upholding the law rather than showing compassion towards his wife (or forgiving her actions), which earned him Tacitus’ respect. Additionally, in the trial of Tarquitius the Senate upheld justice despite the advocacy for the criminal by Agrippina (Tacitus, Annals 12.59). Finally, although Tacitus heavily values Roman tradition, he supported the decree allowing non-native Romans to join the Senate. This is evident through his depiction of both sides of the argument—when relaying Claudius’ position, he used historical examples of different peoples who had assimilated into Roman culture (i.e. the Gauls), as well as discussed that the empire had not experienced a more peaceful period than when all conquered territories were united under the Roman name (Tacitus, Annals 11.24). Most of the redeeming moments of the Senate in Tacitus’ eyes occurred under Claudius’ reign; however, the Senate’s plot to kill Nero and their dislike towards the armed soldiers in the trial of Thrasea were depicted as praiseworthy (Tacitus, Annals 16.29).

Tacitus’ discussions of the multiple occasions on which the Senate catered to the emperor’s wishes show that he felt that the Senate did not play a largely important role in Rome; however, his hatred towards the power of the principate justified the need for the Senate. If the Senate did not exist, there would be no check on the power of the emperor. If the emperor were to completely disregard the will and autonomy of the Senate altogether, he likely would have faced a situation similar to Julius Caesar. The Senate’s legislative authority seemed nonexistent due to the emperor’s power to veto decrees, but, for the most part the Senate’s judicial authority remained throughout Claudius’ and Nero’s reigns. Under Nero, the Senate’s judicial power increased over appeals from civil courts, they created numerous building projects, and they honored Romans for their successes, but ultimately they still had no true power of their own (Tacitus, Annals 14.28). This fact can be seen in Thrasea Paetus’ address to the Senate, in which he was condemned for claiming that the Senate was an autonomous body while they actually had no say in important matters such as war, taxation, and influential legislation (Tacitus, Annals 13.49).

After the fall of the Republic, the governing system of Rome looked much more similar to the Regal Period than to the republican form of government. Emperors held almost all political power, while the Senate was essentially powerless. It was no longer an independent governing body; its actions depended entirely on the emperor. Tacitus depicts this situation specifically during the reigns of Claudius and Nero through showing a decline in senatorial morality and integrity. By the middle of Nero’s reign, Tacitus believes that the Senate is mostly useless; however, he still sees value in maintaining it as a small method of balancing the emperor’s power. Tacitus’ hatred towards the principate government is much more frequently expressed than his support for the Senate, but overall Tacitus supports a more republican form of government.