It is quite difficult for those of us brought up in late 20th-century Western democracies to understand the machinations of an authoritarian regime such as that of imperial Rome. The disgruntled of today can either use or threaten to use the ballot box to bring change to the tone, direction or personnel of government. Dissent is fairly well channeled into constitutional process, and the complaints heard last year on talk-radio call-in programs become, through elections, this year’s government policies.
Yet we have had in our lifetimes some glimpse through others’ experiences on the operation of dissent in authoritarian regimes—for example, in the now not-so-recently departed Soviet Union and its one-time satellites in Eastern Europe. Vasily Rudich was brought up in the Soviet world and has first-hand experience with trying to effect change in that authoritarian system, experience he has called upon in trying to explain the behavior of leading aristocrats under Rome’s fifth emperor in the book Political dissidence under Nero.
R.’s use of his Soviet experience is rarely explicit and never heavy-handed. Rather, it operates as a subtle motif from which R. has developed a model of dissident behavior. Those drawn into dissidence are forced to balance their desire for change with the dangers inherent in trying to bring any change about. Hence they must always show caution and often compromise their own values in order to survive. Dissidents are forced to lie, hide their true feelings and take part in distasteful behavior to hold on to their positions; in other words, they must go along to get along.
Few are able to maintain this level of dissimulation. Some make mistakes, others give up the game entirely, bringing about their own destruction without changing the system at all.
R.’s purpose is to examine the mindset of those individuals whom scholars a generation ago might have called the “opposition” to Nero, and from this mindset try to explain these individuals’ various behavior. Some historians may not appreciate R.’s attempt at what he describes as “historical psychology” (pp.xi, 245), but understanding motivation is often crucial to understanding the resulting actions. R.’s model of dissident behavior is refreshing and enlightening, and it makes his book an important work for those examining the politics of the Neronian age.
The book is organized in a rough chronological order, from Nero’s accession to the fall of Galba. Because R. is concerned with individuals, the narrative introduces a figure through a particular event, then chronologically jumps backward for introductory material and then forward to describe the behavior at that event and its outcome. If the outcome is not death and the individual does not have a significant role later in the narrative, R. may well move forward to describe the rest of the individual’s career in the Flavian period and beyond. Once R. has completed his vignette of one individual, his narrative either returns to discuss other individuals involved in the same event or moves on to the next event.
An example of one of the most thought-provoking of these vignettes is that concerning Faenius Rufus, the praetorian prefect executed in the wake of the Pisonian conspiracy (pp.114-19). The story comes from Tacitus’ description of the plot in Annals 15.48-74, with special attention to 15.66. Faenius Rufus had been involved in the conspiracy, but once the plot had been discovered he turned around and became one of the fiercest inquisitors against his own co-conspirators—a pose that lasted only until those co-conspirators turned him in.
“This whole tale sounds very modern,” R. writes, “as if it were the fiction of a Dostoevsky or a Nabokov. What comes to mind are stories of double agents or agents provocateurs who have so adapted themselves to their role that they cease to understand which of the two causes they work for is real and lose all contact with reality, so that today’s prosecutor turns into tomorrow’s defendant” (p.119).
R. is a particularly sympathetic reader of Tacitus, and fundamentally R.’s study is a commentary on the Neronian books of the Annals and the early part of the Histories. R. appreciates Tacitean nuance and massages additional meaning from the historian’s descriptions. Significantly, the least satisfying section of the book deals with the downfall of Domitius Corbulo (pp.198-208), an event for which R. must rely primarily on epitomators of Dio because Tacitus’ description has not survived.
Some aspects of the book’s format may prove frustrating. The book was written without numbered notes; instead, for each chapter an additional discussion with bibliography is provided at the end of the book. This makes a chore out of hunting down references to secondary literature for R.’s interpretations of events. (References to primary sources are included in parentheses in the main text.) The lack of numbered notes also forces R. to make frequent use of parentheses in the main text to introduce supporting evidence that is not relevant to his main argument. Finally, R. is perhaps too fond of the use of quotation marks to indicate names or labels that are peculiarly defined (e.g., “sexual dissident,” a term appearing regularly and always in quotation marks to refer to Otho in order to indicate when Otho’s behavior vis-à-vis Nero may have sprung from their rivalry over the affections of Poppaea Sabina).
Moreover, those looking for insight on Nero’s character will be disappointed. Like a distant head-of-state in more recent authoritarian regimes, Nero remains a shadowy figure in R.’s book who is often labeled as cruel and sadistic but is always viewed from afar. This aspect, however, is part of R.’s plan, for he is interested not in how authority figures govern but rather in how other political figures accommodate themselves to that government.
R.’s book should also be distinguished from Shadi Bartsch’s recent examination of literature and imperial politics ( Actors in the audience [Harvard, 1994]). Bartsch explains descriptions of Nero’s behavior and the reactions of others in terms of theatricality, of life as performance, while R. uses a very different paradigm to give sharper focus to the political role of the Roman senate under Nero. R. may well examine more literary issues in his promised study of the “rhetoricized mentality” of Neronian literature (p.xxxi), which, if as stimulating as his current book, should be eagerly anticipated.
Political dissidence under Nero is a thoughtful and thought-provoking understanding of the behavior of Roman aristocrats under the last of the Julio-Claudians. Its author has produced an important study for those seeking insight into the Neronian age.