September 17, 2008

September 17, 14 AD

Augustus Caesar shared power several times from 44 BC to 14 AD, but no Emperor after him felt the need or desire to do the same. This made the situation of 13-14 AD unique in history – all later Emperors had a “day of accession” when the Senate awarded them the Empire, but Tiberius was already Emperor on the day Augustus died, which was August 19th, 14 AD.

However, a month later on September 17th, there was a complicated debate between Tiberius and the Senate over the expected usage of Tiberius’ powers. The ancient historians struggled to explain this unique event but 20th century Classical Scholars seem to have made sense out of the different accounts. So, after 9 months of studying their opinions on this complicated Senate meeting, here’s my own explanation in one sentence: Tiberius wanted to keep all the power but defer most of the responsibility, while the Senate was (ironically) arguing that he had to actively rule them, like Augustus had done.

This was not an “accession debate” as it used to be called. This was a practical debate. But the hardest part to grasp is probably the basic irony of the situation. Why was Tiberius trying to get out of actively ruling? And why was the Senate so eager to be ruled?

The Empire had grown so big that one man had to be in charge, and no one in that Senate meeting doubted which man was really in charge. Therefore, in every practical way, the September 17th debate was merely about division of labor. Tiberius had hoped it might be enough to hold the post along with full veto power, but the Senators wanted Tiberius to take full responsibility for that which he was already the absolute master of.

The Senators knew they were going to be ruled, so they wanted to feel secure about it. They were too smart to leave themselves open to an Emperor’s second guessing. On the other side of things, Tiberius was ready to retire and he wished the Senate could be run more like an Army.

In fact, one reason Tiberius gives more and more way to Sejanus over the next 16 years is because the old General naturally felt comfortable delegating authority through a chain of command. If his number two could organize things well enough, leaving the Emperor as a less involved ‘number one’, that suited Tiberius perfectly. This later chain of events shows in retrospect the heart of all that Tiberius wanted on September 17th: to hold all of the power with as little of the direct burdens of actual responsibility as possible.

That’s my personal conclusion, which I believe is basically a simplified synopsis of the views of Barbara Levick & Robin Seager (more on them in just a minute.) Now, as a summary of past scholarship, here’s a passage from Anthony Barrett’s Caligula. It’s especially worth quoting because Barrett didn’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak, and simply felt it necessary to sum up academic views on the matter succinctly while moving briskly onward. Here is Barrett’s summary:
“There was a key meeting of the Senate on September 17, shortly after the funeral. Augustus was declared a god, and exceptional honours voted for Livia. Then the senate entreated Tiberius, though whether to accept or continue the principate is not made clear (there is no specific report of the substance of their motion). Tiberius for his part expressed great reluctance, pointing out that the burden of rule was too great for a single person. The purpose of these proceedings has been much discussed. It has been argued [by E.Hohl] that Tiberius was seeking the moral authority of the senate, or [by D. Tiempe] that he relinquished his powers to have them re-confirmed by that body, or [by Seager] that the senate confirmed not Augustus’ powers (which Tiberius already had) but his provincia, or [by Levick] that he asked the senate to devalue the enormous provincia that had befallen him. [The footnote here supplies the scholars’ names.] Whatever the true sequence of events, Tiberius in the end yielded. As will be made clear, his successor Caligula would assume the principate under quite different circumstances.”
I’ll add my own note to this: Throughout each of their discussions on the subject, Levick and Seager seem solidly to agree on the pragmatics of the situation but state it in different terms. So I’m astonished that Levick failed to recognize the distinction made by Seager in his simple statement: “It was not powers that Tiberius lacked, but a province.” Three times in her footnote critiquing that statement (ch.V,n.13) Levick uses the term “powers” when she ought to be referring to the “province”. At any rate, despite their semantic differences (and despite their different proposals on the precise nature of that consular motion), Levick & Seager actually agreed in all practical sense that Tiberius never let down his full powers and that the debate was over what type of duties those powers obligated him to perform. Tiberius wanted all of the power and none of the burden, but the Senate expected him to be all that Augustus had been.

The new Emperor’s failure to be like Augustus – and his determination to rule his own way – help explain the next thirty-six years of Roman history.


Personal Notes: After nine months of studying these two on this topic, I feel confident in this assessment. Of course, if anyone has any comments to add, I’d love to see them. And don’t forget to look for a very short synopsis of the September 17th debate, with surrounding events, to post soon on Year-by-Year, under the title 14 AD, Part Two.

Last but not least, by the way, this all has absolutely nothing to do with Luke’s statement about “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius”. September 17th wasn’t the starting point of Tiberius’ reign and I’m not aware of any NT Chronologists who’ve suggested it should be considered as such, when discussing Luke 3:1. No, this is purely a Classical Studies issue I felt it was important to master and explain simply.

Understanding the relationship between Tiberius and the Senate is a basic foundation for understanding what happens later on during his rule.

'Nuff said.

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